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The Cubs can still spend, they just don’t want to

The Cubs do not need to trim payroll before they can add.

St Louis Cardinals v Chicago Cubs Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

When Kris Bryant slung a ball over to Anthony Rizzo to record the final out of the 2016 World Series, it looked like the Cubs would be dominant for a while. Their core of Bryant, Rizzo, Willson Contreras, and Javier Báez provided the foundation for a dynasty, and Chicago certainly plays in a large enough market to compete with the richest of teams. After all, they had outbid the Giants to land Jon Lester, and without that signing, ending the 108-year championship would have been much, much harder. This idea that the Cubs would be perennial favorites was predicated on the idea that they would do something to keep it going.

For a couple years, they tried. It’s not uncommon for World Series winning teams to stand pat and simply bring back the players who just won it all. To their credit, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer didn’t do nothing. That offseason, the Cubs traded Jorge Soler for Wade Davis and they inked Jon Jay and Brett Anderson as free agents. When it came time to play the games, the Cubs struggled to outpace the Brewers for much of the year. A midseason swap of Eloy Jiménez and Dylan Cease for José Quintana helped them come out on top in the NL Central before they ultimately fell to the Dodgers in the NLCS.

It’s disappointing not to repeat, but getting that deep in the playoffs should still be considered a success. The dynasty still could have happened. That winter, the Cubs made their biggest move since winning the World Series: signing Yu Darvish. No one else on the market could have replaced Jake Arrieta’s innings any better, not even Arrieta himself. The Cubs replaced Wade Davis with Brandon Morrow who had just been so dominant in the World Series.

Unfortunately, both Darvish and Morrow got hurt. The Cubs floundered again, and despite midseason trades for Daniel Murphy and Cole Hamels, they weren’t able to hold onto the division as they lost Game 163 to the Brewers. Two days later, they shriveled up against the Rockies.

After that Wild Card bouncing, the Cubs continued to get worse. Since then, the Cubs haven’t committed to winning. The biggest move that winter was to sign Daniel Descalso. The Cubs waited until after the draft to sign Craig Kimbrel, and Kimbrel never looked right. Kimbrel had struggled in the postseason they year before but sitting out for half the season probably didn’t help either. In the end, the Cubs missed the playoffs by a Tommy La Stella-sized margin.

Now, with the division still completely within their grasp, the Cubs look like they’ll either stand pat or actively try to get worse. So far, the Cubs have made two major-league signings: Ryan Tepera and Dan Winkler. Both are perfectly fine buy-low moves, but if a team’s only moves of the offseason are to get two relievers who combined for 43 1/3 sub-replacement innings, they simply aren’t trying.

Chicago let themselves be outbid for Eric Sogard, and it appears they’ll lose out on Shogo Akiyama, too. Neither would’ve broken the bank. Sogard signed for $5 million, a paltry sum for a team valued at $3.1 billion and whose league once again brought in record revenue. It’s hard to predict exactly what Akiyama will sign for but after Yoshi Tsutsugo signed for two years and $12 million, Akiyama will likely sign for something similar, at least in terms of AAV.

Yes, the Cubs exceeded the competitive balance tax threshold in 2019 and are close to doing so again, but it’s important to remember that the penalties for going over aren’t as back-breaking as owners would have you believe. MLB Trade Rumors estimated that the Cubs incurred $8.5 million in overage fees for exceeding the threshold by over $30 million. The Ricketts will live if they’re paying a Kevin Gausman in fees for bringing back Nicholas Castellanos and signing Akiyama. Don’t let them convince you they need to trade Willson Contreras, let alone Kris Bryant. Not even in the unlikely event that Bryant wins his grievance should the Cubs throw away their window like that.

The 2017 and 2018 Cubs fell short for reasons mostly outside of their control. Since then, their failure has been self-inflicted. The NL Central is tight but only because no team is truly great. If the Cubs miss the playoffs for a second year in a row, they’ll have no one to blame but themselves.

Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.