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A great side conversation popped up in the comments yesterday, and I want to share-and-comment-upon it, myself.
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In the context of talking about which starting pitchers the Cubs could realistically pursue this offseason – we tend to think it’s going to be the low-or-no-cost, high-risk, upside types – very much like the Shelby Miller signing – HeelTurn85 dropped this thought:
If they Cubs spent $1.5M on a backup catcher [Austin Romine] rather than just rolling with Higgins, that means one of three things to me.
1. They really don’t like something about Higgins working with pitchers.
2. They are planning on trading Contreras or very open to the possibility.
3. There’s some money for pitchers, because no sane team would spend their extremely limited money on a backup catcher.
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The deep cold today is really annoying, having just arrived for the weekend, when I especially like to get outside and play with the kids. I still will, but it’ll be a lot more brief and poofy than I would have preferred.
• The Red Sox landed Enrique Hernandez, lefty-killer and good-defense-all-over guy, for two years and $14 million (with some money deferred). I don’t really see signs that the bottom has fallen out of the market too much, which will leave the Cubs scrambling close to Spring Training to pick up the few guys who have to settle for minor league deals, or uber-cheap guarantees. Until they demonstrate otherwise, that’s my anticipation. Sorry. It sucks. But the Cubs just aren’t going to spend $7+ million right now on complementary roster guys like Hernandez, because I think they just don’t have it.
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• Speaking of which, the Austin Romine signing is now officially official:
• At $1.5 million, the Cubs just DOUBLED the previous biggest signing for the entire NL Central this offseason (reliever Jonathan Holder, also signed by the Cubs, got $750,000). The Cubs are, by far, the big spenders of the NL Central this offseason. Talk about the moneybags of the division, right?! Yes, I’m laughing.
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• Big sports media news, as NBC’s national sports channel is shutting down at the end of the year. Some content will shift over to USA (like hockey), while other content will undoubtedly wind up on NBC’s streaming app, Peacock. I mention it here because the decision is in line with our thinking about what’s coming long-term for baseball teams’ broadcast rights: standalone streaming products that carry a team’s games, controlled by the team rather than MLB. In five years, I think the whole MLB-watching ecosystem is going to look vastly different. Or at least it should.
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It’s a point/question that I’d be treating as tacitly understood, but we should actually address this thing and fill it out a bit. After all, that’s a large contract relative to the Cubs’ spending this offseason ($750,000 for Jonathan Holder is the only other big league deal), and, heck, it’s the biggest free agent signing in the whole NL Central so far.
In the abstract, even in a depressed market, spending $1.5 million on a quality back-up like Austin Romine is totally reasonable. In fact, given that his entire set of numbers from 2020 tanked because of 15 bad games after returning from an injury, it’s possible it’s actually a bargain signing. The guy was one of the best back-ups in baseball with the Yankees in 2018-19, after all.
But HeelTurn85’s point is a really good one: we’re flowing through this offseason as observers, increasingly believing that the Cubs have just flat-out no available dollars to spend. If that were actually true, though, why would they commit $1.5 million to a quality back-up catcher? After all, they could have turned that job over internally to a rising prospect like P.J. Higgins or Taylor Gushue, each of whom has the plausible look and feel of a big league back-up (especially on a team with debatable playoff aspirations in 2021). Alternatively, there are always fringe back-up catcher types available on minor league deals late in the offseason. The Cubs could’ve gone that route and saved themselves some cash.
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The three offered theories look like the right ones to discuss to me, though I’d add the fourth I mentioned above: maybe the Cubs just really like Romine at this price point and believe he has a sufficiently good chance of offering value (to the team, or as a modest midseason trade piece) that they were willing to extend themselves a bit. Remember, that roster spot is still going to have to be taken by someone, and the minimum salary is nearly $600,000. So you’re talking about $900,000 in additional money, not $1.5 million. Maybe that’s just a good deal, even with the belt tightened.