Updated 1:00 p.m.
Jeff Passan jumped into the “Cubs ownership is cheap” nonsense. I have respect for Passan as a writer and enjoy his work, but this is not a particularly perceptive piece. When you read an article like this, the first question you should ask yourself is, “Who benefits from this information being put out there?” I think the answer is obvious. It’s the agents. We saw Boras take this tactic with some local writers here, so it’s possible he’s involved again. There is increasing frustration from Boras and other agents because a big market team like the Cubs aren’t spending.
Of course they’d love to see the Cubs flex their financial muscle. It benefits them to have another wealthy team raise the price of price of their client. It helps to give them another opportunity for a lucrative contract. It’s their business. We should expect nothing less from them. They’re trying to serve their clients’ best interest. I do agree with those agents on one thing, however. I do believe the Cubs have more money to spend than they’re letting on.
But that is not the question. The Cubs have their own long term interests to serve.
The real question is “Should the Cubs spend this money?” or more specifically, “Should the Cubs build through free agency?”
I think you know my thoughts on this as I have made my opinion known on multiple occasions.
There is no reason for the Cubs to spend money on players 30 and over when history suggests that their greatest contributions will come in the next two seasons, seasons in which the Cubs aren’t expected to contend. Then when the Cubs are ready to win, they’ll have saddled themselves with contracts of players who will likely be trending downward as far as performance. That money would better spent on extending contracts or trading for in-prime veterans who could be getting expensive for other teams. In a year or two, the Cubs will be in better position to buy high on free agents who will increase their chances to win over a 2-3 year window. But buying them now means spending a lot of money for what will very likely be a meaningless extra couple of wins. Those wins will mean a lot more when the Cubs are in that 82-92 win range. That is about the time when those wins could mean the difference between winning the NL Central and staying home. All those wins might buy you now is maybe 75 wins or even 77 wins instead of 73; maybe it lands you in 4th place instead of 5th.
Once the Cubs start to look like a team above .500, then it becomes time to purchase short term wins.
Passan implies that the Cubs front office is upset at the lack of spending. But is that really true?
In 2001, two years before Theo, the Red Sox were a team that was 2nd in all of baseball in payroll. He didn’t create that kind of payroll. It was already there. They were in a virtual tie with the Yankees as far as having the most expensive roster in baseball, but the Red Sox were just 82-79, after winning 85 the year before.
The next year the Red Sox stayed in 2nd, but their payroll went down slightly and the gap between them and the Yankees grew from a mere $233K to over $17.5M. But the Red Sox wins total increased to 93.
In his first year, Theo decreased the payroll to under $100M, nearly an 8% decrease while the rest of the league was spending more. The Red Sox fell to 6th overall in baseball when it came to payroll, but the Red Sox improved their win total to 95 games. So, Theo didn’t come in with his checkbook firing, instead he restructured the team’s roster to include players that fit his type of philosophy.
But at 95 wins in the tough AL East, the Red Sox were in a different situation than the Cubs. They had a window to win now, so in his second year, Theo increased the payroll to $125M — but proportionally it’s not as significant as it looks at first glance. The spending gap actually increased. It was now nearly $60M behind the Yankees. Not that it mattered, the Red Sox would end their own drought and win the World Series that year.
The next year, 2005, Theo decreased the payroll again after that season and the gap grew to over $80M. In 2006, the payroll went down yet again.
In fact, by the time 2009 rolled around, Theo’s payroll was still less than it had been in 2004 and he’d had another WS ring (2007) to show for it. It was at $122M, still about $80M behind the Yankees and just the 4th highest payroll in baseball. One of the teams with a higher payroll was the 83 win, non-playoff Cubs. Granted the payroll went up to around $143M in 2007, but their only major FA signing prior to that season was Daisuke Matsuzaka.
So, for those who believe Theo spent his way to the top, think again. Yes, it was consistently among the top 5 in baseball, but it was like that before he got there. The payroll increased by only $17M from the time Theo took over after the 2002 season to 2009. That’s $17M over 7 years, an average increase of less than $2.5M per year — and two WS rings to show for it.
The real big increases came after that 2009 season but the Red Sox would not win in those years. It was never the extra spending that got them to that sustainable championship level. If anything, that late era spending eventually threatened to undermine that long term success. The Red Sox had to shed salary again to get back on top last year.
The Cubs obviously had much more to build than the Red Sox when Theo came. Time was needed to clear the decks and undo the damage that had been done in the late Hendry years. Time was needed to restock the organization with young, controllable talent.
That is where the Cubs are now.
It has taken just over 2 years to accomplish that. It makes little sense to undo all of that work by spending now on short term players. Unlike the Red Sox, the Cubs aren’t ready to win and spend for those extra parts.
Ricketts has said the money will be there when the Cubs need it. We saw that last year when the front office really wanted Anibal Sanchez. Not only did Ricketts give him the go-ahead, he traveled to meet Sanchez and his agent personally to make sure the Cubs put in the highest bid to obtain him — and that is exactly what they did. But ultimately Sanchez chose to stay in Detroit with a winning team rather than pack and leave to a rebuilding team for a few extra million. It’s hard to blame Sanchez — but you cannot blame Ricketts for not doing everything within reason (and some people I spoke with even thought the Cubs bid was way too high). When that deal fell through, the Cubs spent to obtain their next best options: Edwin Jackson and Carlos Villaneuva. Ricketts lived up to his promise that when the front office needed the money.
I expect that to continue, starting with Masahiro Tanaka. Patrick Mooney follows up David Kaplan’s report that “the Cubs won’t be outbid” by reporting that the Cubs are prepared to give Tanaka a 9 figure contract.
Why now and why this pitcher?
Because Tanaka is 25 and two years before his prime seasons. It makes sense for the Cubs to spend on that sort of player given where they are now. When the Cubs are ready to contend, Tanaka will still be in his most productive seasons.
Mooney also states that the Cubs will not spend on Ubaldo Jimenez or Ervin Santana because they don’t want to buy high on pitchers. This is what we have been saying all along here. Nothing has changed — except for increased frustration among agents and some fans. The Cubs are sticking to the plan.
I have no doubts that the Cubs will eventually spend, but when they do, it will be on their terms. It will happen when it benefits their organization. We shouldn’t ever expect them to spend because player agents think they should.
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