CHICAGO -- The message continually preached by the Cubs' decision-makers throughout this winter has been that the team plans on harnessing a heightened sense of urgency from the first pitch of the season on. And it will be incumbent on the players already in the fold to right the wrongs of last fall's collapse.
That theme has been accompanied by a great deal of talk about budgetary limitations, which has rattled a portion of the fan base. While Chicago is still searching for ways to make additions -- addressing the bullpen is one uncompleted task that remains -- the sense has been that payroll-freeing trades would be required to make even a mid-level signing.
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During a town hall-style discussion with president of baseball operations Theo Epstein at Cubs Convention over the weekend, one fan took to the microphone and cited that development as an area of unrest for the team's followers:
"The frustration, I think, isn't that you're not signing a big-name free-agent. It's when I read articles that the Cubs need to clear money to sign a middle reliever. I think that's where people are getting frustrated."
Benjamin Zobrist does not pay much attention to such articles, but he has been around long enough to know how things work. At 37 and with a salary of $12.5 million for 2019 -- the final year under a four-year contract -- Zobrist understands that his name might be one floated in trade rumors.
In a tunnel behind the main banquet hall at Cubs Convention, Zobrist said his only concern right now is to prepare for the season ahead with Chicago. He is looking forward to getting to know the new coaching staff, especially hitting coach Anthony Iapoce, and has already been searching for solutions to the lineup's second-half woes. Anything else is wasted mental energy.
"I'm one of the pawns," Zobrist said. "You kind of recognize where you're at as a player, and then you own it. So yeah, I don't have a no-trade clause at this point, so I could be traded. But that being said, I'm not going to give it too much thought."
It is worth repeating that, even with the purse strings pulled a little tighter this winter, the Cubs will head into 2019 with the largest payroll in franchise history. It projects to exceed the $206 million Competitive Balance Tax threshold, so the team's approach has not been guided by that specific monetary line. But as Epstein explained to the fan who broached this subject, the budget (while undisclosed) is the budget.
"Every team tries to enter every offseason as nimble as possible," Epstein said. "That's not our situation this winter. When we do our jobs really artfully, you never notice the budget, right? Because we've created a lot of flexibility, we have a lot of moveable pieces, we can get everything done that we want to get done. But when we haven't done our jobs and I haven't done my job as artfully or I haven't gotten the outcome that we expect enough, we're going to be in a situation that's not as flexible.
"So we can't always be as aggressive. We can't always get everything that we want. ... But it doesn't mean it's going to be that way forever. It doesn't mean we don't have a darn good team. It doesn't mean you can't find solutions in unexpected places that are going to be extremely impactful and help us get where we need to go for next year."
The first major clue came early in the offseason, when the team picked up Cole Hamels' $20 million team option and traded Drew Smyly (set to earn $7 million this year) to the Rangers shortly thereafter. Another tell came when reliever Jesse Chavez, who could have helped the bullpen much like he did last year, went to Texas on a two-year, $8 million deal.
To date, Chicago's biggest external addition has been signing veteran utility man Daniel Descalso to a two-year, $5 million contract.
"I understand people have to work within a certain system that they set," Hamels said. "But I think when the time comes, if something needs to be added down the line, I think they'll be able to make that sort of decision. I'm pretty confident that they'll be able to do it. But we have a great team, and with the guys that we have that are going to come off the disabled list, that's like getting free agents right there. So there's tremendous talent. "
Hamels was referring to Yu Darvish, who signed a six-year, $126 million with the Cubs last winter only to have injuries limit him to eight starts in 2018. Darvish attended Cubs Convention and looked as strong as he claims to be in his offseason rehab program. Come Spring Training, the right-hander said he expects to have no restrictions.
That rotation includes Hamels, Darvish, Jonathan Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana -- a group on the books for $85.4 million combined. Behind that quintet are Mike Montgomery ($2.44 million) and Tyler Chatwood ($12.5 million), bringing the cost of the starting staff and its top two reserves to just over $100 million. Combine that with the other guaranteed deals, and the other rising costs via arbitration, and the Cubs' financial restrictions come into focus.
Even with the knowledge that he could be a trade candidate, Zobrist was quick to defend the Cubs' front office.
"They have a tough job," Zobrist said. "I trust them. I know that they're wise, kind of shrewd businessmen, and they're going to make the right decisions based on the amount of money that they have. I think they've proven that over the last few years in the way that they've taken care of the team and put the best possible team on the field."