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Rolling money forward could put Cubs in position for a splash

MESA, Ariz. — Four consecutive losing seasons. Free-falling attendance. Dramatic declines in payroll budgets.

No game-changing help in the offseason. No Jeff Samardzija by August. No end in sight for the Cubs’ rebuilding process?

The Cubs’ competitive timeline is murky at best heading into the fifth season of Ricketts family ownership and third for Theo Epstein’s baseball department. Not even Mike Olt is going to change that for a 2014 season that opens Monday in Pittsburgh.

But the baseball operation’s new piggybank might be a difference maker in the next year or two.

An evolving understanding of the team’s resources in relation to capital projects, rooftop politics and other factors delaying and squeezing the money flow to baseball led to a new tack for the baseball department: carrying some of one year’s payroll budget into the next, or two years of savings into a third.

It’s the first time the Cubs have allowed their front office to do that.

It won’t do much to bolster the chances for this season, but if the $15 million to $20 million saved this year leads to, say, Max Scherzer (not likely) or another big name next year — or two big guys the year after — then the rebuild has a chance to take tangible shape.

Just this past winter, Epstein said, “We didn’t fully understand the scope of our situation,” when the team signed Edwin Jackson to a $52 million contract that was based on projections that were too optimistic for the business timeline.


“I think we understand the realities of where we are and where we could be because admittedly we didn’t spend every last dollar this winter, for the first time,” Epstein said. “And then, more importantly, where we’re going.”

He added that there are some important variables.

“First and foremost, the timing of the TV deal will impact that,” he said of an ongoing effort to leverage a skyrocketing market for rights fees that could add increases to the coffers even before the anticipated huge fees would kick in five years or more from now. “And attendance and the Wrigley renovation and other factors. I think we have a pretty good understanding of the road ahead.”

Epstein is careful not to speculate how long the road is. But for all the good-looking talent the Cubs have infused into the farm system, the resources at the big-league level are every bit as critical. The team needs a strong, competitive support system to ease the pressure on the kids when they get to the big leagues. Epstein mentioned that this spring.

The baseball department found its windfall to bank from the reduced payroll budget this year when its six-year, $120 million bid for Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka was swamped by the Yankees.

Epstein won’t get into details about how much was saved or when he foresees using that extra muscle. But there are at least a few players the front office already has begun loosely targeting.

“We’ve spent a lot of time talking about next year’s free-agent class and classes beyond that,” he said. “We hope we’re in a position to be nice and aggressive with some guys that make sense for us.”

“Or save it again.”

And create a war chest of perhaps $50 million extra to be tapped for a signing bonus that could put a negotiation over the top, or an extra year or extra millions per year that look a lot less like overspending when you have a big bank account.

“A lot depends on where we think we are as a team,” Epstein said. “How did we play? How did our guys develop? Who’s up here?”

They might not be playing for much in the way of October this year. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot at stake this year for at least a handful of Cubs taking the field Monday in Pittsburgh.


Twitter: @GDubCub

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