Cubs want to ‘clear salary’ before exercising option on Cole Hamels

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Last night Ken Rosenthal tweeted about the Chicago Cubs’ decision making process regarding whether to pick up, or not pick up, Cole Hamels‘ $20 million option for 2019.

That’s an interesting and potentially difficult decision for the Cubs — it’s a lot of money and it’s not at all clear that Cole Hamels is worth it in baseball terms — but I’m struck by the way in which Rosenthal characterized the decision. Specifically, he said the Cubs “might make a trade to clear salary before picking up Hamels’ $20M option.”

That’s an interesting phrase, “clear salary.” It’s the language of salary caps. Which, you likely know, Major League Baseball doesn’t have. it does have a Competitive Balance Tax — colloquially known as the luxury tax — threshold, though, and seeing this phrasing makes me wonder if the Cubs’ guiding principle for the offseason is to avoid the luxury tax line for 2019, which seems to all but require shedding Hamels or salary elsewhere to make it work. Or, at the very least, to diminish the consequences of going over it, as here are stepped increases in the penalty the farther above that threshold a team goes.

Which is their choice, of course. Exceeding the luxury tax threshold can be expensive, both in terms of dollars and, potentially, in terms of draft position if a team truly skies past the limit. But it’s also something that, theoretically anyway, is supposed to be a cost of doing business for a massive revenue team like the Cubs. And, as the Red Sox just demonstrated, something that can help a club win the World Series. You’d think this Cubs team would want to pull out all the stops to get back to that position.

I dunno. It’s early in the offseason, a lot can happen and it’s not necessarily a great idea to base one’s understanding of a team’s offseason strategy on a single Ken Rosenthal tweet. But if the Cubs are proceeding in a way that is dictated by luxury tax avoidance or mitigation, it’s just the latest evidence that for all but one or two singularly aggressive teams (e.g. Red Sox) or poor-planning teams (i.e. Nationals) the luxury tax is really a salary cap.

It’s also evidence that, contrary to what a lot of folks are saying, it’s not realistic to think that the Cubs are going to make a strong play for Bryce Harper.