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.”
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.
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.
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“(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.”