Buzz building around Cubs as Forbes values franchise at $2.2 billion


Buzz building around Cubs as Forbes values franchise at $2.2 billion

SURPRISE, Ariz. — You don’t need a degree from Trump University to know that the Cubs are a booming business.

Forbes valued the franchise at $2.2 billion for the magazine’s annual Major League Baseball survey released Wednesday, ranking the Cubs fifth behind the New York Yankees ($3.4 billion), Los Angeles Dodgers ($2.5 billion), Boston Red Sox ($2.3 billion) and San Francisco Giants ($2.25 billion).

That represents a 160-percent increase from October 2009, when the Ricketts family finalized the details of a leveraged partnership with Sam Zell’s Tribune Co. and acquired a piece of Comcast SportsNet Chicago.

Not bad for an ownership group that’s done such a “rotten job,” as Donald Trump told The Washington Post editorial board this week, whining about how the Ricketts family is spending millions of dollars trying to stop the Republican presidential frontrunner.

The Forbes valuations — which represent a 22-percent increase for the Cubs from last year — can be viewed as an overall outline and not taken as gospel.

But last spring the Cubs were said to be valued at north of $2 billion — including future real-estate development in Wrigleyville and the potential for a new cable network — while accounting for the sale of non-controlling shares to a group of minority investors.

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Coming off five straight fifth-place finishes, the Cubs went out and won 97 games, advancing to the National League Championship Series and making Wrigley Field a destination again. That playoff surge fueled a spending spree that pushed the major-league payroll into the neighborhood of $150 million, a franchise record (or slightly higher than what it had been on Opening Day 2010).

The spending restrictions imposed by Zell as a condition of sale — and accepted by the Ricketts family — run through the 2019 season. With CSN Chicago holding exclusive cable rights through that same year — at a time of cord-cutting and uncertainty after the Dodgers’ boondoggle with SportsNet LA — president of business operations Crane Kenney is on deck and expected to deliver the next TV deal.

While Trump barks about the Super PAC stuff, chairman Tom Ricketts tries to avoid controversy and focus on the organization’s long-range plans. The Wrigley Field renovations are in full swing (after anti-Obama attack ads proposed to the family during the last presidential election cycle were leaked to the media, sidetracking the project).

This team is loaded with star power — Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant, Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta, All-Star first-baseman Anthony Rizzo and Manager of the Year Joe Maddon. Plus championship-tested veterans like Jon Lester, John Lackey and Ben Zobrist. A sturdy farm system built by Theo Epstein’s front office hasn’t been mortgaged yet, either.

Sports Illustrated just put the Cubs on a regional cover of the baseball-preview issue. The team reported a 98-percent renewal rate for season tickets and is averaging 14,924 fans per Cactus League game this spring at Sloan Park, the publicly financed complex in Mesa.

All this speaks for itself. So the Cubs will let Trump do all the talking and focus on trying to win their first World Series since the Theodore Roosevelt administration.

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

There are plenty of intriguing Cubs storylines to monitor this offseason from their potential pursuit of the big free agents to any other changes that may come to the coaching staff or roster after a disappointing finish to the 2018 campaign.

But there's one question simmering under the radar in Cubs circles when it comes to this winter: How will the team solve the shortstop conundrum?

Just a few years ago, the Cubs had "too many" shortstops. Now, there are several different factors at play here that makes it a convoluted mess.

First: What will the Cubs do with Addison Russell? The embattled shortstop is in the midst of a suspension for domestic violence that will keep him off an MLB diamond for at least the first month of 2019.

Has Russell already played his last game with the Cubs? Will they trade him or send him packing in any other fashion this winter?

Theo Epstein mentioned several times he felt the organization needs to show support to the victim in the matter (Russell's ex-wife, Melisa) but also support for Russell. Does that mean they would keep him a part of the team at least through the early part of 2019?

Either way, Russell's days in Chicago are numbered and his play on the field took another big step back in 2018 as he fought through a hand injury and experienced a major dip in power. With his performance on the field and the off-field issues, it will be hard to justify a contract worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 million in his second year of arbitration (prorated, with a month's worth of pay taken out for the suspension).

Even if Russell is on the roster in 2019, Javy Baez is unquestionably the shortstop for at least the first month while Russell is on suspension. 

But what about beyond Baez if the Cubs want to give him a breather or disaster strikes and he's forced to miss time with an injury?

At the moment, there's nothing but question marks on the current Cubs shortstop depth chart throughout the entire organization and they're certainly going to need other options at the most important defensive position (outside of pitcher/catcher). 

There's David Bote, who subbed in for Baez at short once in September when Baez needed a break and Russell was on the disabled list. But while Bote's defense at third base and second base has opened eyes around the Cubs, he has only played 45 games at short across seven minor-league seasons, including 15 games in 2018. There's also the offensive question marks with the rookie, who hit just .176 with a .559 OPS and 40 strikeouts in 108 at-bats after that epic ultimate grand slam on Aug. 12.

The Cubs' other current shortstop options include Mike Freeman (a 31-year-old career minor-leaguer), Ben Zobrist (who will be 38 in 2019 and has played all of 13 innings at shortstop since 2014), Ryan Court (a 30-year-old career minor leaguer) and Chesny Young (a 26-year-old minor-leaguer who has posted a .616 OPS in 201 Triple-A games).

Maybe Joe Maddon would actually deploy Kris Bryant at shortstop in case of emergency like a Baez injury ("necessity is the mother of invention," as Maddon loves to say), but that seems a lot more like a fun talking point than a legit option at this current juncture.

So even if Russell sticks around, there's no way the Cubs can go into the first month of the season with just Baez and Bote as the only shortstop options on a team that with World Series or bust expectations.

The Cubs will need to acquire some shortstop depth this winter in some capacity, whether it's adding to the Triple-A Iowa roster or getting a veteran who can also back up other positions. Right now, the free agent pool of potential shortstops is pretty slim beyond Manny Machado.

Epstein always says he and his front office look to try to mitigate risk and analyze where things could go wrong to sink the Cubs' season and through that lense, shortstop is suddenly right up there behind adding more bullpen help this winter.

Podcast: In light of recent hitting coach turmoil, who’s to blame for Cubs offensive struggles?


Podcast: In light of recent hitting coach turmoil, who’s to blame for Cubs offensive struggles?

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, David Kaplan, Kelly Crull, Luke Stuckmeyer and Tony Andracki discuss the comments Chili Davis made after being fired as Cubs hitting coach, ask if the Cubs struggles on offense were Davis' fault or the players and what Anthony Iapoce will be walking into as he tries to gets the team back on track a the plate.


Listen to the entire podcast here, or in the embedded player below: