I think most St. Louis Cardinals fans would agree that watching the Los Angeles Dodgers bounce the Chicago Cubs from the playoffs is a good thing.
But I wonder if the Cubs falling short has a dark side when it comes to the Redbirds offseason plans.
The Cubs have deep-pocketed owners with a history of spending to turn around a culture of losing. According to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, the North Siders had a 25-man roster payroll of a little over $172 million this season, whic is probably well below the team’s financial break-even point, even though it spent about $50 million more on its opening day roster the last two seasons than in did in 2015. And that doesn’t include all the money the Cubs laid out for in-season additions like Aroldis Chapman last season and Jose Quintana in 2017.
Still, thanks in large part to the pending free agency of Jake Arrieta and John Lackey, Chicago is only committed to spend $94 million in 2018 and a little less than $73 million in 2019. What does this mean? It means the Cubs have a chip on their shoulder about being denied a second World Series crown and they have a pile of cash to throw at the problem.
If the Cubs would have repeated this year, they probably would have been content to keep things the way they are and dictate the terms of an extension to Arrieta for the privilege of getting to hang out for a few more years. But as it stands, they’re now likely motivated to try to add to their young core with at least two good starting pitchers and maybe even another bat.
That’s bad news for the Cardinals, who need to bolster themselves on the free-agent market, where they’re now likely to find themselves tripping over the Cubs and the Boston Red Sox, teams that are agitated to have lost in the first round of the playoffs.
The good news is that the Cubs seem to be set at first base where Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant will be fixtures for years. So that’s one place the Cardinals could add to their roster without much interference from Chicago. But just a few weeks ago I was fairly certain that the albatross of a contract the Cubs handed to former Redbirds right fielder Jason Heyward would keep them out of the outfield market. Now I am not so certain.
Sure, Kyle Schwarber is cheap. But in addition to being a horrible defender, he turned in a .211 batting average with a mediocre .315 on-base percentage this season. Sure, he hit 30 home runs. But he struck out 159 times in 127 games. This is easily a spot where the Cubs could try to add some offense. The other spot is second base where Ben Zobrist started to show his age with a .232 average and a .318 OBP.
Would the Cubs jump into the Miami Marlins fire sale, agreeing to take the salaries of both Giancarlo Stanton and second baseman Dee Gordon off the books to fill their holes in dramatic fashion? Chicago traded away much of its young talent trying to bolster itself for the postseason the last two years. But if they were willing to just write a check to let Derek Jeter and Miami’s new ownership group off the hook for a bunch of bad debt (while the Cardinals hem and haw about how much of Stanton’s contract the Marlins would have to eat to facilitate a trade) the Cubs could pull off a deal that would hugely upgrade their club.
I still believe Stanton would be the most doable move for the Cardinals to make. Because what’s more likely than the Cubs making that trade is them jumping into the bidding for J.D. Martinez, Yu Darvish, and any other free agent of note to drive them beyond what the Birds would be willing to pay. But to make a deal, St. Louis will have to be swift and decisive. It can’t afford to come in second — again — in the bid for talent.
If the Cubs were smart, they’d take some of that financial wiggle room and lock up guys like Bryant, Rizzo and Willson Contreras to long-term deals well before they hit the open market. But making those moves would only make a small dent in the war chest.
The only other factor that could keep them from going nuts on the free-agent market is the idea that they need to save their money to make a huge bid on Washington Nationals star Bryce Harper before he hits the open market next year. Watch Washington to see if the Nats can make an offer this winter that Harper can’t refuse. If they do, the Cubs are going to spend, spend, spend everywhere else.