MESA, Ariz. — Maybe the Cubs aren’t very good after cutting payroll over the winter.
But what if they’re good enough?
Just good enough to compete near the top of a bad division?
Just healthy enough and good enough to suggest a big piece at the trade deadline might make the difference between NL Central good and playoff good?
The money might be there to take on salary, team president Jed Hoyer said.
And the way the Cubs slashed payroll during the winter, along with the way local leaders in Chicago are talking about possible attendance at the ballparks this season, the Cubs might even be in position to take a significant salary at the deadline for the right player.
The caveat, if not the irony, in this scenario is that the very cost-cutting that provides room to spend if revenue projections improve is the very reason the point could be moot by the time it would matter.
For now it dovetails nicely with the natural optimism of spring training for a team that at least has the worst division in the majors in its favor, even if it no longer has Cy Young runner-up Yu Darvish, Jon Lester or Kyle Schwarber on its side.
And if newcomers Zach Davies, Jake Arrieta and Trevor Williams can pitch well enough in the rotation to effectively backfill for an overachieving 2020 rotation that led the league in innings, then it’s possible COVID-19 vaccines and safe practices can do the rest for the Cubs’ revenues by the midseason trading period.
“If we play well and do the things we need to do as a team, then I’m confident we’ll be able to do that,” Hoyer said of adding at the deadline this year. “But I think in general we’ll also learn more about the budget over the next few months as far as fans coming into the stands and things like that. That makes a huge difference, obviously, to the finances.”
Cubs ownership repeatedly pointed out last year that the Cubs make 70 percent of their revenues from the so-called “game day experience.” That includes things such as concessions and parking as well as income from the most expensive tickets in the game.
Whether the ballpark-revenue portion of the Cubs’ enormous overall money-making machine represents 70 percent or 60 or 50 — it’s obviously huge for a team that typically draws more than 3 million fans a season.
And that could make Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Gov J.B. Pritzker almost as important to the Cubs’ efforts to win this season as catcher Willson Contreras or shortstop Javy Báez.
Even manager David Ross said he was optimistic about city and state officials signing off on fans being allowed at Wrigley Field this season. “Very. Very optimistic about that,” he said.
“I’ve been on a couple calls [in-house] that are encouraging to say the least,” he said. “But that’s way above my head.”
If fans are allowed in the ballpark early in the season, Ross’ Cubs could be laughing all the way to the bank again by midsummer.
In fact, the revenue projections already ticked upward once during the offseason, prompting ownership to loosen its competitive death grip on the payroll budget just enough late in the winter to allow Hoyer to sign Arrieta, Williams and Joc Pederson.
Hoyer, who said in November he was dealing with a budget “range” that could change, called the outlook at the start of the offseason “more on the pessimistic side of things,” before the business side adjusted its projections for 2021 just ahead of the $7 million Pederson signing.
“Whether it was more optimistic or less pessimistic, however you want to phrase it, I think that was something that we felt good about,” he said, “and hopefully we’ll get news here in the next little bit that we can have a percentage of fans. That would be fantastic.
“From there, it’ll probably be determined based on the state Chicago’s in and just nationally as far as people getting vaccines. Hopefully, we can start with a certain percentage and it can go up at some point.”
Along with the Cubs’ ability to add a big arm or bat at the deadline? Along with the Cubs’ chances to reach the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years — maybe even win a series for the first time since 2017?
That’s their hope.
Now a lineup looking for bounce-back performances in walk years from some of its most decorated core players and a new-look pitching staff just have to be good enough — just good enough — until then to make it matter.