Ben Zobrist's extended absence could give Cubs enough money to sign marquee free agent

Ben WeinribYahoo Sports Contributor

Talking about a player’s personal life should largely be out of bounds, unless they are committing a crime or it affects the team.

The Chicago Cubs have been without utility man Ben Zobrist since May 8, when they placed him on the restricted list while he works out a divorce with his wife of 14 years. That would certainly qualify.

Zobrist can’t shoulder all the blame, but the team has struggled to a 11-11 mark during his absence, but there may be a silver lining. Sources tell The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal that the money the Cubs save while Zobrist is out could help them afford All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel.

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And for a team that entered Saturday with just a half-game lead in a competitive NL Central, any midseason upgrade will go a long way.

Why can’t the Cubs sign Kimbrel now?

Technically, nothing is stopping the Cubs from signing Kimbrel now. There’s reportedly going to be a bidding war for his and fellow free agent Dallas Keuchel starting Sunday, but any team could have skipped that line by signing them earlier.

But there are costs beyond money for the Cubs and any other team. Because the MLB draft doesn’t start until money and the Boston Red Sox extended Kimbrel a qualifying offer, the Cubs would have to cough up a draft pick and international bonus pool money. FanGraphs’ Craig Edwards estimated that the Cubs would have shouldered the 11th-highest cost at $6.8 million.

The Cubs are also one of three teams who are already over the competitive balance tax, which many teams have used as a hard cap. Chicago hasn’t worried about blowing past that $205 million mark — or paying luxury tax overage costs — but Rosenthal notes that staying under the highest penalty line of $246 million remains important.

How does Zobrist’s absence save the Cubs money?

Clubs do not have to pay players on the restricted list, but even if they do, the club can deduct that money from their luxury tax calculations. It’s boring accounting information, but bear with me here.

Zobrist is due $12 million in the final year of his four-year, $56 million deal with a $14 million luxury tax salary, so every day he misses saves the Cubs nearly $75,000. Every month he misses would save the team approximately $2.25 million.

Having missed 25 days, Chicago has already pocketed $1.9 million, and if he misses the rest of the season, as the Cubs have said is possible, it would save another $9 million.

The Cubs are currently $24 million under the final luxury tax threshold, but any extra savings will give them more flexibility to add Kimbrel and make any other midseason trades, as has become tradition the last several years.

The Cubs are not sure if utility man Ben Zobrist will return this season. (Photo by Rob Leiter/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
The Cubs are not sure if utility man Ben Zobrist will return this season. (Photo by Rob Leiter/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

How much would Kimbrel move the needle for Chicago?

Much of the reason the Cubs have been so closely tied to Kimbrel as opposed to Keuchel is because they could seriously use some bullpen help. Granted that two months is still a fairly small sample sizes, but Chicago ranks 18th with just 0.7 bullpen WAR, and its 12.7 percent walk rate is baseball’s worst.

The Cubs have been without oft-injured closer Brandon Morrow, who is still a ways from returning, and while he’s been outstanding when healthy, he can’t be depended upon to avoid the injured list again. In his absence, top set-up men Carl Edwards Jr. (7.59 ERA) and Pedro Strop (5.06) haven’t impressed either.

In a competitive NL, every marginal upgrade is crucial. Even though FanGraphs give the Cubs an 80.2 percent chance of making the playoffs and a 58.8 percent chance of winning the division, those figures can change quickly. All five teams are within five games of the lead with four teams 3.5 games back or less.

Signing Kimbrel could be even more meaningful in the postseason when extra off-days allow relievers to pitch nearly every game. Even despite his struggles holding him back, Kimbrel pitched in six of Boston’s final seven postseason games, en route to a World Series win.

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