MLB free agency has begun. Players who are free agents can now sign with any team. Incidentally, here is a complete list of this offseason’s free agents, and as I have in the past, I’ll be posting individual articles about some of them and how they might meet the Cubs’ needs:
In the meantime, we are still processing the idea that Craig Counsell is now the Cubs manager and will be for the next five years. I asked Harrison Freuck, manager of our SB Nation Brewers site Brew Crew Ball, to send me his thoughts on this managerial change, and how he views Counsell as a manager:
While from the outside it may seem like Counsell is just a great manager, he’s also known as a great leader and person as well. He’s had plenty of criticisms from the outlying Brewers fans, but there’s a reason he was able to guide the Brewers to the postseason in five of the last six seasons.
Despite a bit of a culture shift in 2022 after the trade of Josh Hader that arguably was the cause of the Brewers missing out on the playoffs after leading the division, Counsell still guided the Brewers to the playoffs and another division title in 2023.
When it comes to his managing tendencies, Counsell isn’t afraid to switch things up in the lineup or out of the bullpen. He’s gone with a six-man rotation at times to give his regular starters rest, and he shifted the lineup regularly beyond Christian Yelich batting leadoff. Willy Adames moved between the 2 and 3-hole for most of the season, and William Contreras was placed anywhere from first to fifth in the lineup. In fact, per Baseball Reference, Counsell utilized 135 different batting orders in 2023, with his most common lineup used only four times.
On the mound, Counsell used 10 different starters, including an opener on two occasions. While his most common bullpen arms came in the form of Hoby Milner, Joel Payamps, and Devin Williams in games where the Brewers led, he also used Bryse Wilson as a long-relief option throughout the season, allowing the former top prospect to turn in his best season of the year (2.58 ERA across 53 relief appearances).
In his nine years with the Crew, Counsell finished with a stealing second base Rate+ of 119 (19 percent above average), stealing third base Rate+ of 158 (although this was below 100 in each of the last four seasons), and a sac bunt Rate+ of 77 (he actually had zero sac bunts in the shortened 2020 season and just 34 total in the last six seasons.
We’ll sure miss him up north, and there’s also plenty of fans (including myself at this moment) who are stunned and frankly pained to see him go to our rivals in Chicago.
Now let’s move on to looking at this year’s Cubs payroll. Here’s a list of all the players currently likely to be on the 2024 Opening Day roster — obviously subject to change! — and their salaries and luxury tax hits:
Cubs salaries and luxury tax hits for 2024
|Trey Mancini (released)||$7,000,000||$7,000,000|
|Tucker Barnhart (released)||$3,250,000||$3,250,000|
|David Bote (minors)||$5,510,000||$3,000,000|
|Mark Leiter Jr.||$2,000,000||$2,000,000|
|Codi Heuer (IL)||$800,000||$800,000|
|40-man minor leaguers (estimate)||$2,250,000|
|Pension payments, benefits, etc.||$17,000,000|
|Cubs share of pre-arb bonus pool||$1,666,667|
|Reserve for trades, etc.||$10,000,000|
|FIRST LUXURY TAX THRESHOLD||$237,000,000|
As you can see, by this estimate the Cubs have quite a bit of room under the first luxury tax level. So what will they do? As always, I asked BCBer The Deputy Mayor of Rush Street to put together his usual analysis of the Cubs payroll situation. The rest of this post is his.
The 2024 Cubs Roster: Trying to Find the Sweet Spot .. or A Whole New Ballgame?
TOP LINE: Well, I was all set to be “The Grinch” (as usual) once the actual numbers shake out, but the shocking news of a change in managers, and that the team is willing to make a statement by allowing Craig Counsell to get PAID... I must admit that I’m at least curious to see what this might mean for building next season’s team. While the Cubs have mentioned that they are willing to spend into the luxury tax on occasion, if last year wasn’t the time for it — wouldn’t it be odd to make this big splash, and then watch Hoyer try and finish constructing a team as he did last season, bringing in Dansby Swanson for sure, but then also picking through the MLB bargain basement to fill out the bullpen and bench. So consider my mind open to what is normally unthinkable in Chicago baseball.
The Cubs finished 2023 with a player payroll of approximately $231 million, which included about $20 million for contributions to the player’s pension fund, the cost of 40-man roster players in the minors, and the Cubs’ equal share of the new bonus pool for pre-arb players. In all, that was just about $2 million under the tax threshold. (In 2022, the Cubs spent around $55 million under the tax threshold. In 2021, the Cubs spent around $37 millon under the tax on players.)
So while Jed Hoyer didn’t break through with a spending spree as certain, higher-placed team officials assured us fans was available around the time of the Cubs Convention last winter, at least the team met what I would call the minimal standard of spending up to the edge of the luxury tax, limiting the excess profits for the family trust compared to the two previous, don’t-call-it-a-rebuild seasons. I suppose we’re supposed to feel grateful for that, YMMV.
Notable changes since the end of this past season include NL Comeback Player of the Year Cody Bellinger turning down his end of the mutual option and becoming a free agent along with trade acquisition Jeimer Candelario and reliever Michael Fulmer among others. As the five-day period after the end of the World Series for option decisions has played out, here’s a review of the decisions Hoyer and certain players made:
- Marcus Stroman opted-out of the player option for the final year of his contract for a $21 million salary. (The “cap hit” on the deal was somewhat higher.)
- Kyle Hendricks saw the Cubs exercise their team option for the final year of his current contract at $16.5 million. There had been some talk of a contract extension deal worked on, but as that’s still just talk, we’ll go with the facts as they exist now.
- Drew Smyly qualified for the right to opt-out of his contract for 2024, but Jesse Rogers reported Monday evening that Smyly will choose to remain for what will likely be a swingman role this coming season. Including the contract escalator incentives achieved last season, his contract will be for $10.5 million in 2024.
- In a no-brainer, the Cubs exercised their $6 million option for the final year of Yan Gomes’ current contract.
- Brad Boxberger received an $800,000 buyout when the Cubs turned down their end of a $5 million mutual option for 2024. The money for that buyout counted as 2023 luxury tax spending, so this payment will not impact the 2024 player payroll budget.
One other issue of note: Jason Heyward’s $23 million cap hit comes off the Cub books as his eight-year deal was completed at the end of last season. However, GM Hoyer has another $13.25 million in “dead money” to deal with in 2024 — between the second year of last year’s free agent deals with the released Trey Mancini and Tucker Barnhart, as well as the final guaranteed year of David Bote’s contract. Note that Bote remains in the organization with the I-Cubs, and he should be a more viable “break glass” option next season in case an infielder is needed to fill in at some point.
As for transactions, on Thursday the Cubs outrighted Jared Young, Jeremiah Estrada and Nick Burdi off the 40-man roster. Young was claimed by the Cardinals and Estrada by the Padres. Monday afternoon, the Cubs added infielder Luis Vázquez to the 40-man roster, which stands at 37.
Current Player Payroll
(Note, these figures are for each player’s “cap hit,” the charge against the Cubs’ luxury tax spending level. The base luxury tax threshold is $237,000,000 for the 2024 season.)
Players with Guaranteed Contracts (8+3):
Mancini (released) $7,000,000
Barnhart (released) $3,250,000
Bote (minors) $3,000,000
Arbitration Players (based on MLBTR Estimates) (8):
Leiter Jr. $2,000,000
Heuer (60-day IL) $800,000
(Note: The MLB minimum salary for 2024 is $740,000.)
Pre-Arb Players more likely to make the 26-man roster as things stand (10 +1):
Pre-Arb Players on the 40-man more likely to start 2024 in the minors (10):
40-man roster players in minors $2,250,000
Pension payments & sundry expenses $17,000,000
Cubs’ share of pre-arb bonus pool $1,666,667
(Reserve withheld for trades/buffer)¹ $10,000,000
GRAND TOTAL FOR CAP PURPOSES $195,651,281
LUXURY TAX THRESHOLD $237,000,000
CUBS START UNDER THE TAX BY $41,348,619
¹- Optional Expense, but some amount figures to be held back from whatever Tom Ricketts sets the baseball budget at.
ADJUSTED FOR ACTUAL PAYROLL EXPENDITURES IN 2024, GRAND TOTAL IN CASH OUTLAY $193,375,567
(This figure includes adding $7,724,286 in adjustments between contract payouts and cap valuations, and less the optional $10,000,000 trade buffer.)
Current Projected Roster
There are currently 37 players on the 40-man roster.
OF (5) Happ - Tauchman - Suzuki - Canario - Crow-Armstrong
IF (6) Madrigal - Swanson - Hoerner - Wisdom - Morel - Mastrobuoni
C (2) Gomes - Amaya
SP (5) Steele - Taillon - Hendricks - Assad - Wicks
RP (8) Alzolay - Merryweather - Leiter Jr. - Smyly - Thompson - Cuas - Wesneski - Hughes
40 man position players in minors (4) - Kevin Alcántara, Brennen Davis, Matt Mervis, Luis Vázquez
40 man pitchers in minors (7) - Ben Brown, Codi Heuer (IL), Caleb Kilian, Luke Little, Daniel Palencia, Ethan Roberts, Michael Rucker
Notable non-roster players in minors - Cade Horton, David Bote, James Triantos
The good news vs. this time last year, is that the Cubs have a reasonably plausible 26-man roster, clear progress from the farm system is evident in what’s become a top-six system by most measures. The not so great news is even with Stroman opting out and the end of the Heyward contract, most of us likely figured on Hoyer having more than $41 million to spend. And now with Hoyer needing to find a playoff-caliber (“Big 3”) starting pitcher to replace Stroman, and a big bat somewhere to replace (or add back) Bellinger. Then even with the system starting to produce interesting arms, you’d think Hoyer would want at least one veteran bullpen arm for
David Ross to lean on.
BOTTOM LINE: But then when I say David Ross, suddenly I mean Craig Counsell. For Jed Hoyer, substantially adding to this team via free agency may involve breaking past the luxury tax for one of those “rare exception years’”that has been mentioned over the last number of seasons. Note that the Cubs have only paid the tax in 2016 and 2019 to date. Again, the team has just made a major investment in a top-line field manager - which suggests they are serious about winning, and now.
I still don’t believe the Cubs are going to become a team that spends into the luxury tax penalties more than “every now and then,” but consider that the current team only has Dansby Swanson signed for 2027. Two years in a row, possible... but three years in a row? Harder for me to see, but the key to sustaining whatever comes in the near-term depends on the farm system to continue to produce productive, pre-arb talent for the MLB team, and extra talent who can be used as trade chips.
So this year, perhaps we will see the Cubs go into the tax. Or... will Jed Hoyer find a way to add less-expensive MLB talent by using some of his farm system depth?
We’ll provide updates on the construction of the ‘24 Cubs periodically through the off-season. It promises to be a much warmer stove at Clark and Addison this winter.