Cubs might have to get creative without budget for a winter meetings splash

Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein says he has plenty of payroll to work with even if ownership doesn't break the bank. AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

CHICAGO -- What happens when you don't have the money to fix something that's broken? That's seemingly what the Chicago Cubs' front office is facing this winter as it attempts to improve its club without spending gobs of money on free agents. Sometimes the answer is to find a creative solution.

As is, its payroll commitments for 2019 buck right up against the luxury-tax threshold, so the notion of spending on Bryce Harper -- a name Cubs fans have been salivating over since the day they realized he and third baseman Kris Bryant were friendly -- seems farfetched. It wouldn't be if the team was willing to blow past the tax thresholds and commit to having one of the top two or three payrolls in baseball, but that doesn't sound like a possibility right now.

"We're not ruling anybody out, but it's important to have some perspective too," president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said last month. "Like every other team, we're going to have our budgets, not set artificially at all, but set as a result of looking at revenues and looking at expenses and doing everything we can to put a winning team on the field for the fans."

Epstein sounds like he's trying to balance his household budget and might have to cut back on the gourmet coffee. Agents who have spoken with the Cubs confirm the team's reluctance to spend big, which means the Cubs' offseason moves might be more creative than impactful. To Epstein's credit, he puts the blame squarely on his own shoulders because he's right about one thing: A $200 million-plus payroll should be more than enough to win.

"We've had a top-six payroll each of the last three seasons," he said. "We certainly expect to have another top-six payroll this season. And going forward. That investment by the club, by ownership, has been everything we could ask for. It's been enough to win more games than any other team the last four years. It's more than enough money to win.

"Some offseasons are more challenging than others. If that means anything, it means I need to do my job better. And that we need to do our job better as a baseball operation to continue to put a top-level team on the field and feel secure in that for years to come."

There's little to argue with there, but the fact is the Cubs are in their window for winning now. Frankly, the team won the World Series in 2016 with a less-than-bulky payroll considering almost the entire position-player base was made up of pre-arbitration-eligible players. Now it's the opposite. It's called the cost of winning.

"And on top of that [increased payroll] this is an ownership group that's poured in $750 million of private investment to fix Wrigley Field," Epstein continued. "I appreciate and understand the desire for more every winter. That's part of the fun of the hot stove, and we should do everything we can to make this team better and there are some great names out there."

Of course, he means everything they can do short of outspending everyone else in the game. Cubs ownership didn't respond to an email about the team's payroll, but the question still stands: Why can't a team worth nearly $3 billion have the highest payroll in the game, if not for just a season or two?

"When you look at the Ricketts [family] track record with their investment in the club, the top-six payrolls, their investment in Wrigley Field, I think we should all feel great with the ownership group that we have," Epstein said.

Of course, Chicago should feel good about ownership. It brought the city a World Series winner after a 108-year drought. Time has moved on and the Cubs have the talent to compete for another one, but they are also in an ultra-competitive NL Central that just got even tougher with the Cardinals pulling off a blockbuster deal to land Paul Goldschmidt. Now Cubs fans are hungry for a move or two that could put their own team over the top.

Could lack of funds be a blessing?

The theme of the Cubs' offseason heading into next week's winter meetings is fixing an offense that seemingly "broke" in the second half of the season.

"If you look back at the first half of the season, we led the league in runs scored, we led the league in OPS, we led the league in virtually every significant offensive category," Epstein said. "We were cruising. We felt really good offensively. And then in the second half, things were dramatically different, culminating in what happened down the stretch. ... We stopped walking, we stopped hitting home runs, we stopped hitting the ball in the air and we stopped being productive."

Former hitting coach Chili Davis was the scapegoat for those second-half woes, losing his job one year after the Cubs hired him to replace John Mallee. Those coaching decisions underline the confusion the team is facing with its young core of hitters who already have won a World Series.

In fact, what happened in the latter months of 2018 doesn't make much sense. Davis didn't mesh well with Cubs hitters from the start, yet the team performed well in April, May and June. Perhaps the more his message sunk in, the less the Cubs produced, but imagine if the results were reversed. What if the Cubs stunk at the plate in the first half and were great in the second half? How different would their game plan look right now?

Baseball can be fluky, and crazier things happen than an entire team slumping at the plate for one half of one season. Turning over an entire roster isn't realistic, and perhaps in this case, it's not necessary. The team admits it was trying to make a few tweaks it hoped would be finishing touches on some hitters, but now it may get back to emphasizing its core beliefs. It's hard to find a perfect offense in the National League -- the Cubs will take a competent one right now. Maybe they can have one with their current players, combined with a renewed focus after an embarrassing end to last season.

Where do they go from here?

Industry sources say the Cubs haven't exactly given up on free agency, but their moves so far have been more of the cost-cutting nature. They saved a few dollars in trading pinch hitter Tommy La Stella to the Angels and perhaps saved a few more when they couldn't come to terms with recently acquired infielder Ronald Torreyes. The Cubs also didn't re-sign valuable reliever Jesse Chavez, saving money there as well. They did spend some on keeping their own, most notably pitcher Cole Hamels. And they have checked in on some free-agent relievers, such as lefty Zach Britton.

But what was once thought could be an offseason with big moves is now likely to be marked by creativity more than anything else. The creativity would come via the trade market, as the team is ready to break up its major league core -- if the right deal comes along.

"We have a lot of moving parts, we have an open mind and we have a desire to get better, so I'm not ruling anything in or anything out," Epstein said.

But so far, the Cubs have been on the outside looking in as other teams have made significant deals. The 2016 world champs didn't take advantage of the Seattle Mariners' fire sale, though infielder Jean Segura could have fit in nicely while allowing them to move on from suspended shortstop Addison Russell. If the cost of picking up Segura's contract wasn't what prevented the Cubs from being in the mix, then it was the state of their farm system.

In any case, the Cubs would be more likely to strike a deal with a club willing to take on major league contracts, such as those of Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ, Albert Almora Jr., Willson Contreras, Victor Caratini and, yes, perhaps even Bryant, whose name has come up with other teams. The catching market is flooded right now, so a deal there seems remote, and one involving Bryant would make much more sense when he gets closer to free agency in a couple of seasons. But not exploring every avenue to get better on offense would be negligent on the Cubs' part. It's all in an effort to find that rhythm again, the one that took the team to three straight NL Championship Series.

And if some of the cost-cutting moves lead to signing a second-tier free agent, then former Cub DJ LeMahieu would make sense despite some down numbers in 2018. He routinely makes contact, which would help the Cubs more than attempting to change the fundamentals of their sluggers.

One thing is for sure, Epstein & Co. won't stand for another finish like the one they just experienced. That's something everyone can agree on.

"I've never been part of this offensively and I never want to be again," Epstein said after the season. "We have to be an offensive force. We should be with the talent on our roster."