BOCA RATON, Fla. – As the free-agent rumors and predictions began surfacing at last year’s general manager meetings, Theo Epstein ruled out the idea of the Cubs signing two pitchers to nine-figure contracts that offseason.
“You can pretty much apply that one going forward, at least until we get a TV deal, and probably beyond,” Epstein said Monday at the Boca Raton Resort and Club. “That’d be a big winter.”
Even after winning 97 games and advancing to the National League Championship Series, that same-as-it-ever-was feeling still followed the Cubs to the GM meetings in South Florida.
It’s not that Epstein sounded frustrated or ready to wave a white flag as he spoke with a group of Chicago reporters in the hotel lobby. It’s just the financial reality for the president of baseball operations as he heads into the fifth and final year of his contract (which should be extended at some point).
The Cubs are still sorting through their media options – Comcast SportsNet Chicago holds exclusive cable rights through the 2019 season – and waiting out the leveraged partnership between the Ricketts family and Sam Zell’s Tribune Co. (which limits the baseball department’s spending power).
So forget about signing David Price for the top of the rotation and getting Jason Heyward to play center at Wrigley Field. The 2015 payroll had been set around $120 million, artificially inflated with the $20 million rolled over from last year’s losing bid for Masahiro Tanaka. The next TV contract is supposed to launch the Cubs into another economic stratosphere.
“If we want to do two things, we have to get pretty creative,” Epstein said. “Even if we want to do one really big thing, I think we have to get creative. Just because you guys know the situation – we’re going to have more money down the line than we have right now. So we just have to keep that in mind and be a little bit creative.
“We have the ability to add a little bit from where we are right now, but the arbitration raises cut into things quite a bit. I don’t necessarily think we have room to go do everything that’s been speculated in some areas, but we can get creative.”
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Infielder Starlin Castro, catcher Miguel Montero and pitcher Jason Hammel represent almost $80 million in future salary commitments and areas where the Cubs have options or would like to upgrade. Moving any of those assets could help free up funds for a Price or Zack Greinke megadeal and/or allow Epstein’s front office to invest in other areas of the roster.
Because right now, it sounds like signing two frontline starters would be a stretch. When asked specifically about Montero, Epstein said there haven’t been any discussions about trading the veteran catcher, but the Cubs will have to think outside the box to build another World Series contender.
“Two sizable things – we have to definitely get creative,” Epstein said. “But that doesn’t make it impossible. There’s a lot of moving parts. (And) there’s always ways to get things done if they make sense for the club.”