Some thoughts about Ben Zobrist’s possible comeback and what it would mean financially to the Cubs

Ben Zobrist of the Cubs has been on the restricted list since May 8, out on a leave of absence due to family matters.

Recently, there’s been more chatter about when and whether he might return. Here’s a quote from Theo Epstein, posted Friday:

And here is a possible reason a decision might have to be made in that time frame:

Ah, ha.

Presuming this is true — and AZ Phil is generally a good source on matters like this, and more from him below — Zobrist would have to make a decision on a comeback no later than nine days from now. I’d think there would be no issue with getting the commissioner’s approval after July 31, but you never know. Zobrist does have options remaining, so what’s noted in that tweet is true: He could be optioned and placed on Iowa’s inactive list until he’s ready.

You’ll note that tweet says “fourth.” As you can see, there’s a series of five tweets in that thread, and I’m going to examine three of the others shortly (the fifth is simply an introduction). First, though, I want to turn part of this post over to BCBer The Deputy Mayor of Rush Street. Dep’s good at putting together numbers regarding the luxury tax, and here are his thoughts regarding what Zobrist’s return would mean to the Cubs and the various tax levels.

For me, this started a short while back when Arizona Phil of The Cub Reporter site came up with the information that Ben Zobrist would need to come off the restricted list by August 31 to be eligible for postseason play.

Working under the assumption of Zobrist coming back, his $14 million cap number means that being taken off the restricted list would “cost” the Cubs a bit over $75,000 per day he’s back on the roster. Or put another way, about $2.25 million per every 30 days.

Which matters insofar as the Cubs are looking to add in the next nine days — before the single trade deadline passes.

Cot’s Contracts has been updating their salary cap information as the season goes along, even calculating the cap charges for a week or so of Jim Adduci, and the charge for a waiver claim of a guy named Chandler Shepherd, who was lost to waivers a few days after the Cubs claimed him.

Currently, Cot’s shows the Cubs at just under $14 million in available cap spending before the team would reach the $246 million spending level, the level at which the Cubs would lose their 2020 first round draft pick.

But first you need to factor in bonuses and incentives that will likely be achieved, because those will count as 2019 cap spending:

Yu Darvish does not figure to come in the top five for the Cy Young Award. Steve Cishek can earn $1 million in a performance bonus for appearances. That one’s likely. Pedro Strop is not on pace to earn any of his games finished bonuses. Same for Brandon Kintzler. Unlikely, but both are still possible. Addison Russell is on pace to earn $400,000 in roster bonuses. Martin Maldonado has a bonus clause for games caught (unknown terms, but up to $1.4 million). The Cubs may be responsible for their share of that bonus. Brad Brach has earned $350,000 in roster bonus, with another potential $500,000. Daniel Descalso will not achieve any of his plate appearance bonuses. Xavier Cedeno will presumably not achieve any of his performance bonuses. Tony Barnette will not achieve any of his roster bonuses. Kendall Graveman will not achieve his 2019 roster or performance bonuses. Kyle Ryan’s roster bonus appears to have been accounted for by Cot’s.

So that’s $1.75 million of likely bonuses, with maybe leave room for another million in potential bonuses which comes off the trade budget.

Second, you have to figure the Cubs will leave some wiggle room for counting errors, just to be safe. They might also want to set aside another $1 million to be sure of avoiding passing the $246 million limit. Also remember there will be some costs for September call-ups from the minors.

So $14 million in cap spending becomes more like $9.5 million to $10.5 million in available spending.

Presuming Ben Zobrist needs at least two weeks to get back to speed, and is reinstated August 15, that would be 46 days left on the baseball schedule, and the Cubs would take a charge of around $3.5 million for having Zobrist come back to try and finish the season.

Which leaves $6-7M for other moves Theo might want to make.

1. Nicholas Castellanos, lefty masher? That’s about $3.2 million if acquired on July 31.

2. Will Smith or Tony Watson, LOOGY-type? That would be $1.36 million for Smith, or about $1 million for Watson if you wait for July 31.

3. A leadoff hitter? I don’t even have a candidate to suggest, but by now the budget is getting real tight. Maybe there’s an extra million or two that can be used, if the team is really confident of their accounting.

All of this is a lot of non-Zobrist talk around the Ben Zobrist decision.

Besides AZ Phil’s reporting that Zobrist need to be off the restricted list on August 31 to be playoff eligible, Sunday he added the tidbit (noted above) that if Zobrist isn’t restored from the restricted list by July 31, the Cubs will need special permission from the commissioner to re-activate him at all. I’m not of a mind to think that MLB would stand in the way of a player like Zobrist, regardless of if the Cubs might be playing around with the timeline for salary cap reasons.

The ramification here is that if Zobrist has to be back from the restricted list on July 31, that’s a little more than another million off Theo’s trade budget than the August 15 scenario I’ve laid out above.

That’s a lot to go through to get Ben Zobrist back playing baseball this year, even if he’s not added to the active major-league roster until September. He’d still be getting paid the moment he’s restored to the 40-man. If I had to guess right now I’d say Zobrist is probably not going to be back. But we will find out, and likely soon.

Now let’s have a look at the other tweets in Bryan Smith’s thread from Sunday, in which he cites “four important dates” upcoming. We’ve already covered the first above. Here are the other three:

I suppose this depends on the health of Willson Contreras (who could return as soon as Wednesday) and whether the Cubs think they can get along with two catchers for two and a half weeks from August 13 until rosters expand September 1.

And now you know one of the possible reasons Ian Happ has remained in Iowa all season. If he’s kept down there until August 30, the Cubs get an extra year of team control. This likely means a September callup for Happ.

This doesn’t mean that Kyle Ryan should be optioned on August 24 — it just means he can be after that date and the Cubs would still have an option year for him in 2020. That could be useful, as Bryan Smith noted.

That’s a lot of roster, and other, decisions to be made over the next few weeks. It’s possible the Chicago Cubs could look quite different by August 31 — or perhaps remain the same as they are right now. As always, we await developments.

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