If you’ve been thinking the Cubs haven’t done anything this offseason, by one measure you are absolutely correct:
Free agent spending* stragglers this winter:— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) January 6, 2020
Red Sox: $9M
* Counts major league contracts, not split deals
Sure, the Cubs have a few minor-league deals in place and one big-league signing, Dan Winkler, who is on a split contract.
That list is instructive. Sure, it includes bottom-feeders like the Pirates, Royals and Orioles, but five 2019 playoff teams are also on the list. Some of them (Red Sox in particular) have stated goals of getting under the first level of luxury tax.
All of this is an introduction to an event that will help determine the Cubs’ payroll level for 2020: This Friday’s deadline for arbitration-eligible players to sign, and if the players and teams can’t come to agreement on a contract, they will exchange dollar figures to eventually either negotiate a deal or have an arbitrator decide. This is important to note about Friday’s deadline:
As ESPN’s Jeff Passan noted last January, all 30 teams now employ the “file-and-trial” approach to arbitration, meaning that if they don’t reach an agreement by the January 10th filing date, they’ll automatically go to a hearing no matter the difference.
The Cubs have six arbitration-eligible players for 2020. In alphabetical order, they are: Albert Almora Jr., Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Kyle Ryan and Kyle Schwarber. Jharel Cotton was a seventh Cubs arb-eligible player, but he signed for $640,000 last month, avoiding arbitration.
Here are the MLB Trade Rumors salary estimates for the six eligible players:
Kris Bryant: $18.5 million
Javier Baez: $9.3 million
Kyle Schwarber: $8 million
Willson Contreras: $4.5 million
Albert Almora Jr.: $1.8 million
Kyle Ryan: $1.1 million
Those estimates seem to be in the right, uh, ballpark. If we get past Friday and none of those players is signed, however, I would expect some if not all of them to submit salary requests above those figures. The team, obviously, might go somewhat lower. It’s clearly in the interest of both parties to sign before an arbitrator decides. Arbitrators, if it gets to a hearing, must choose either the player request or the club offer. They cannot “split the difference.”
Since Theo Epstein took over as the Cubs’ top baseball executive, the Cubs have had only one player go to a hearing: Justin Grimm in 2018. The Cubs “won” that when the arbitrator awarded Grimm the Cubs’ offer of $2.2 million instead of Grimm’s request of $2.475 million. Then the Cubs saved more money on Grimm by releasing him just before the date when they’d have had to pay him a larger portion of his contract. (FWIW, Grimm, who did not pitch in the major leagues at all in 2019, will be in Brewers camp on a NRI this spring.)
So, I would anticipate news of a Cubs signing this week, or two or three, of players to avoid arbitration before Friday’s deadline, which happens at 12 noon CT. Even with a noon deadline, though, public information about signings might drag on for a few hours after that. Arbitration hearings will be held between February 3 and 21.