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Payroll Notes: Astros, Indians, Cubs

The Astros began last season with a team-record $182MM payroll, the fifth-highest mark in the league, but after falling short of their bid to repeat as World Series champs, there’s a possibility that payroll could rise even higher by the start of 2019, according to MLB.com’s Brian McTaggart. They won’t extend beyond the luxury tax mark, but Owner Jim Crane is giving the green light to inch closer to the $206MM tax line should the right deals come along via trades or free agency. The Astros long-term financial ledger is fairly clear with only Jose Altuve signed beyond 2020, and yet, by this time next winter, Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Collin McHugh and Brad Peacock will be free agents, George Springer and Lance McCullers Jr. will be in their final year of arbitration, and young studs Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman should earn significant pay hikes in their second and first seasons of arb eligibility, respectively. Still, Houston appears staunch in their unwillingness to deal top prospect Forrest Whitley, and the offseason additions made thus far have been measured – infielder Aledmys Diaz is pre-arb and catcher Robinson Chirinos signed for one-year, $5.75MM. Expect GM Jeff Luhnow to continue to spend judiciously, as there does not appear to be a knee-jerk spending spree on the horizon, though the possibility for increased spending is there. Now, some other payroll notes from the 2016 pennant winners…

  • Rumors have not stopped swirling around the Cleveland Indians since the offseason began, but as evidenced by Carlos Carrasco’s journey from the trade block to signing a below-market extension, anything remains possible in Cleveland. In fact, there’s no set number for the team’s 2019 payroll, per Ryan Lewis of the Akron Beacon Journal, as the team’s focus remains fixed on finding a balance between staying competitive with the American League’s upper echelon and maintaining a sustainable talent base beyond 2020. Cleveland’s payroll has risen to historic (for them) levels during this current competitive stretch, and there remains the mandate to shed payroll for 2019, but the priority, by far, is to add controllable assets for the future. While getting younger is an obvious side effect of increased controllability, youth is in-and-of-itself not the goal for ownership. Where the payroll for 2019 ends up is a flexible line, so long as the goal of adding controllable assets is achieved. This falls in line with current thinking that the Indians are less likely to attach one of their bulkier short-term contracts to Corey Kluber or Trevor Bauer, as either pitcher on their own will net a far more controllable collection of assets. With movement on the free agent and trade markets relatively slow league-wide, the Indians have the prerogative of patience at the moment, but as major signings start to trickle in, it will be interested to track the level of urgency in Cleveland regarding these trade talks. That said, pitchers like Kluber and Bauer will never cease to attract interested trade partners, but the window for moving a package like the rumored Edwin Encarnacion/Yandy Diaz deal may have a smaller, or at least, shifting window of availability.
  • The Cubs continue to target late-inning bullpen additions, a backup catcher and potentially a middle infielder, writes Mark Gonzales of the Chicago Tribune. Any trades involving current players, such as Ben Zobrist, who is in the last year of his deal, or noted trade target Kyle Schwarber would have to improve the Cubs from an on-field standpoint, as despite their fiscal restraints, they do not appear motivated to move someone like Zobrist simply for the salary relief.
  • That said, the Cubs have a fairly specific wish list this winter after the departures of David Ross (after 2016) and Jon Jay (after 2017) led to a perceived leadership void in the Cubs clubhouse, per ESPN’s Jesse Rogers. One solution may be to have Ross himself, still employed as a special assistant, spend more time around the team this season, but the Cubs front office remains on the lookout for a vocal veteran who can bring some accountability to the Chicago locker room. GM Jed Hoyer dubbed their lack of leadership in 2018 as a “miscalculation,” as they assumed certain issues would resolve themselves because so much of the Chicago core had been together for so long. It’s an interesting area of need for the Cubs considering they have no shortage of veterans who, to the outside eye, might step into that leadership void. Presumably, veterans like Jon Lester, Anthony Rizzo, Cole Hamels, Jason HeywardPedro Strop and Zobrist provide varying degrees of leadership, and the more youthful Javier Baez and Willson Contreras also seem capable of galvanizing the team at times, but the ability to take someone to task is indeed a rare trait, it seems, and one that Hoyer suggests is more likely to come from a reserve than a marquee player. 

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