Cubs

Where Tom Ricketts sees Cubs payroll going from here

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Where Tom Ricketts sees Cubs payroll going from here

It doesn’t sound like Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts will be handing a blank check to Theo Epstein and his baseball-operations department this winter.

Philosophically, Ricketts believes in homegrown talent, long-range vision and Branch Rickey’s farm-system principles. There are also those restrictions from the family’s leveraged partnership with Sam Zell’s Tribune Co. (which included a piece of Comcast SportsNet Chicago). This youth movement has already yielded 91 wins and guaranteed a playoff spot.

But the Cubs will need ownership’s financial muscle to become a monster in the National League Central for years to come. Wrigley Field is under construction and bursting with new revenue streams, drawing 2,959,812 in attendance during this breakthrough season.

Given all these variables – and the potential for a long playoff run – Ricketts hasn’t finalized the parameters of next year’s payroll yet.

“I don’t know what the number is,” Ricketts said before Monday’s 1-0 win over the Kansas City Royals at Wrigley Field. “Obviously, winning on the field helps with that equation. And Theo will have some resources this offseason. But I don’t know how (much). And I’m not sure he’ll find something he wants to do with ‘em. It’s up to him.”

[MORE: Forget Cy Young, Joe Maddon thinks Jake Arrieta could be NL MVP]

Ricketts spoke to reporters in the home dugout, one of several stops with the local media on this post-clinch victory lap. But the chairman has never been a Mark Cuban (Dallas Mavericks) or a Jerry Jones (Dallas Cowboys) seeking the spotlight or trying to play general manager.

Whatever happens in that wild-card game on Oct. 7 – probably against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park – this season has been an enormous success.

But the Cubs can’t spend on the level of a small-market team like the Royals if they want to keep feeding the beast and not be remembered as a one-and-done team. The David Price Watch began months – if not years – ago.

“Obviously, winning helps the payroll analysis, (but) it’s not about payroll anymore,” Ricketts said. “The fact is, the correlation between the dollars you spend and the wins you get on the field is going down every single year.

“So in order to have sustainable success, you can’t count on money. You have to count on young talent. You’ve seen what we’ve done. We’ve gone out and built the best facilities in baseball. We’ve scouted well. We’ve drafted well. I think we’re developing well.

“That’s what’s really going to decide whether or not this team has got two good years or 10 or 12 good years. It’s going to be about how strong our foundation is over time.

“With that said, obviously, winning will help on the financial side, too.”

Ricketts is correct on the macro level, but the Cubs are also at a point in their rebuilding curve where each win becomes even more valuable and getting aggressive makes sense.

[RELATED: Jake Arrieta ready for do-or-die format of one-game playoff]

The Cubs might not be so lucky in one-run games next year – Chris Denorfia’s pinch-hit homer in the 11th inning gave them their 13th walk-off win – or fortunate enough to have Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester make 60-plus starts combined.

The Cubs will need insurance policies, especially since that farm system hasn’t produced any significant pitchers yet, with zero frontline starters on the horizon.

Young players can quickly get expensive through the arbitration system. This collective bargaining agreement has also severely limited how teams can spend in the draft and on the international market, making free agency a main road for acquiring premium talent and exploiting big-market advantages.

Epstein still appreciates Ricketts’ overall hands-off style, especially after all the interference that compelled him to leave the Boston Red Sox after the 2011 season.

Epstein is signed through the 2016 season and has called his contract a nonissue, believing he can work out an extension with Ricketts. Andrew Friedman’s reported five-year, $35 million deal to run baseball operations for the Los Angeles Dodgers figures to be a reference point.

“We’ll sit down at some point,” Ricketts said. “Right now, really, we’re just focusing on the postseason. We have a great relationship. Obviously, the results are great.

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs postseason gear right here]

“(It’s) not just Theo. Everyone in the baseball organization – we’re on a mission. And we want to keep that mission going forward.”

Epstein keeps pointing to the next TV contract as the real game-changer in terms of payroll, which this year roughly worked out to $100 million plus the $20 million left over from the Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes.

President of business operations Crane Kenney is responsible for delivering that megadeal, with CSN holding exclusive cable rights through the 2019 season.

“That’s going to be a very significant part of our finances going forward,” Ricketts said. “We have to make sure we do it right. We got to be very thoughtful about how that comes together. We have good people, good advisors looking at all the different options. And we’ll just see how it all flows.”

It’s unclear whether that means a more traditional broadcasting deal or a new cable network or a perhaps something more innovative involving emerging multimedia platforms. But it’s always easier to sell a winning team.

“Things are changing on the media landscape, certainly,” Ricketts said. “What we do know is content still has value – and we have a lot of great content. And obviously with a team that’s playing better, it’s even more valuable content.”

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

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USA TODAY

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

Could 2018 be the year that the Cubs finally see a top pitching prospect debut with the team? 

Thursday, MLB.com released its list of the Cubs' 2018 Top 30 Prospects, a group that includes six pitchers in the Top 10. The list ranks right-hander Adbert Alzolay as the Cubs' No 1. prospect, projecting him to debut with the team this season. 

Alzolay, 22, went 7-4 with a 2.99 ERA in 22 starts between Single-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Tennessee last season. He also struck out 108 batters in 114 1/3 innings, using a repertoire that includes a fastball that tops out around 98 MPH (according to MLB.com).

Following Alzolay as the Cubs' No. 2 overall prospect is 19-year-old shortstop Aramis Ademan. Ademan hit .267 in just 68 games between Single-A Eugene and Single-A South Bend, though it should be noted that he has soared from No. 11 in MLB.com's 2017 ranks to his current No. 2 ranking. He is not projected to make his MLB debut until 2020, however.

Following Alzolay and Ademan on the list are five consecutive pitchers ranked 3-7, respectively. Oscar De La Cruz, No. 3 on the list, slides down from his 2017 ranking in which MLB.com listed him as the Cubs' top overall prospect. De La Cruz, 22, finished 2017 with a 3.34 ERA in 13 games (12 starts) between the Arizona League and Single-A Myrtle Beach.

De La Cruz is projected to make his MLB debut in 2019, while Jose Albertos (No. 4), Alex Lange (No. 5), Brendon Little (No. 6) and Thomas Hatch (No. 7) are projected to make their big league debuts in 2019 or 2020. All are right-handed (with the exception of Little) and starting pitchers.

Hatch (third round, 2016) and Lange (30th overall, 2017) and Little (27th overall, 2017) were all top draft picks by the Cubs in recent seasons.

Having numerous starting pitchers on the cusp of the big leagues represents a significant change of pace for the Cubs. 

Since Theo Epstein took over as team president in Oct. 2011, a plethora of top prospects have debuted and enjoyed success with the Cubs. Majority have been position players, though.

The likes of Albert Almora, Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell all contributed to the Cubs winning the World Series in 2016. Similarly, Ian Happ enjoyed a fair amount of success after making his MLB debut last season, hitting 24 home runs in just 115 games.

Ultimately, Alzolay would be the Cubs' first true top pitching prospect to make it to the big leagues in the Theo Epstein era. While him making it to the big leagues in 2018 is no guarantee, one would think a need for pitching will arise for the Cubs at some point, whether it be due to injury or simply for September roster expansion.

The Cubs have enjoyed tremendous success in recent years in terms of their top prospects succeeding in the MLB. If the trend continues, Alzolay should be a force to reckon with on the North Side for years to come.

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

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USA TODAY

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

MESA, Ariz. — The frequent mission of spring training is to iron out a 25-man roster.

But at Cubs camp, that mission seems to already be completed.

With an entire Cactus League schedule still to play, the Cubs’ 25-man group that will leave Arizona for the season-opener in Miami seems pretty well set.

The starting rotation: Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood.

The position-player group: Willson Contreras, Victor Caratini, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, Tommy La Stella, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist.

The bullpen: Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery, Brian Duensing, Justin Wilson and Justin Grimm.

Boom. There’s your 25.

Joe Maddon, do you agree?

“You guys and ladies could probably write down what you’re seeing and be pretty accurate,” Maddon said Thursday. “I can’t deny that, it’s true. Oftentimes, when you’re a pretty good ball club, that is the case. When you’re not so good, you always get auditions during spring training.

“I think what the boys have done is they’ve built up a nice cache in case things were to happen. The depth is outstanding. So you could probably narrow it down, who you think’s going to be the 25, and I won’t argue that.”

It’s the latest example in a camp that to this point has been full of them that the Cubs are one of baseball’s best teams and that only a World Series championship will fulfill expectations. Had the front office stuck with a starting rotation of Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, Chatwood and Montgomery, then there would’ve been a spot open in the bullpen. But the statement-making signing of Darvish jolted the Cubs into “best rotation in the game” status, sent Montgomery back to the bullpen and further locked the roster into place.

Guys like Grimm and La Stella have been forced off the 25-man roster at points in recent seasons, though even their spots seem safe. Maddon even said that a huge spring from someone else wouldn’t mean as much at what guys have done at the major league level in recent memory.

“Spring training performance, for me, it’s not very defining,” Maddon said. “You’re going to be playing against a lot of guys that aren’t going to be here, more Triple-A guys, even some Double-A guys. Some guys come in better shape, they normally look better early. The vibe’s different. You play a couple innings, you don’t get many at-bats, the pitcher doesn’t see hitters three times and vice versa. So I don’t worry about that as much.

“It’s more about, guys that might be fighting for a moment, what do they look like, does it look right, does it look good, how do they fit in? Is there somebody there that you scouted? Because what matters a lot is last year and what you did last year and the last couple months of last year.

“So of course guys that have been here probably have a bit of an upper hand, but we’re very open-minded about stuff. And I think when you look at the guys, you’re right, it’s probably pretty close to being set. But stuff happens.”

Could the recently signed Shae Simmons give Grimm an unexpected challenge for the final relief spot? Maddon said guys who have been with the Cubs in the recent past have a leg up. Could Chris Gimenez turn his experience with Darvish into a win over Caratini for the backup catcher spot? Maddon threw cold water on the "personal catcher" narrative last week.

Of course, Maddon left the door open the possibility of an injury that could open up a roster spot and even shake up the depth chart. But barring the unforeseen, this 25-man group looks locked into place.

That gives the Cubs an edge, perhaps, in that they can specifically find ways to tune up those guys rather than focus on getting enough at-bats for players who are fighting for roster spots. But most of that edge came during the winter, and in winters and summers past, when the front office built this team into a championship contender.

There have been plenty of years when the fans coming to Mesa to watch the Cubs play in spring training saw the blossoming of a big league player thanks to a monster spring or a surprise tear during March. That’s going to be unlikely this spring, a reflection of just how far this team has come.

“It’s easy for me to reflect on this because when I started out with the Rays, wow,” Maddon said. “That was a casting call trying to figure it out. You had very few settled positions when you walked in the door. And then as we got better, it became what we’re talking about. As we moved further along, you were pretty much set by the time (you got to spring training) except for one or two spots.

“So I think the better teams are like that.”

The Cubs are most definitely one of those better teams.