Where Tom Ricketts sees Cubs payroll going from here


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.”

A peek behind the curtain at what makes Joe Espada such an intriguing managerial candidate for Cubs

A peek behind the curtain at what makes Joe Espada such an intriguing managerial candidate for Cubs

As the Cubs managerial search continues, the Astros are vying for their second World Series championship in a three-year span.

Coincidentally, the man leading Houston once envisioned himself doing the same thing on the North Side of Chicago. It’s strange how baseball works sometimes. 

A.J. Hinch — who interviewed for the Cubs managerial job in 2013 — was disappointed when Theo Epstein and Co. chose Rick Renteria to take the reins of the club instead, especially given his managerial experience. But then again, Hinch recognizes he still could have been pushed out a year later for Joe Maddon the same way Renteria was. So, maybe things did work out best for everyone.

Between that history and Hinch's time with Jed Hoyer in San Diego, it explains why Hinch knows a thing or two about what the Cubs brass is looking for in their next manager and the process they are taking to find the right guy to steer the ship.

That guy might end up being Hinch’s current bench coach Joe Espada, who had a second interview with Epstein's front office this week.

“Joe and I were Triple-A roommates back in Oakland,” Hinch said. “I tried to hire him in Arizona as a first- or third-base coach when I became manager in Arizona and he immediately got promoted to the Marlins coaching staff. So when he was with the Yankees and we eliminated them in the ALCS in 2017, Cora was just about to be named the manager of Red Sox. I immediately asked for permission to speak to Joe and he was my choice; he was my hand-picked guy [to take over as Astros bench coach] immediately.”

And it appears, Espada will soon become someone else’s “hand-picked guy” to manage.

Will that be with the Cubs?

“He’s a well-rounded baseball man,” Hinch said. “He’s been in a few places and so he’s seen and done virtually everything to prepare himself to manage. From coaching in Miami to being with the Yankees on successful teams, to being a bench coach here. He’s been around decision-making, he’s been around high end winning and he’s intellectually curious.” 

Besides his coaching resume, Espada is thought to bring other innate characteristics to the table that would appeal to any organization. The Cubs liked what they saw and heard enough to bring him in for a second interview, which was no surprise to Hinch.

“He’s organized, diligent, he’s very fair to people, he’s a good family man.” Hinch said. “All attributes that help you build something in the clubhouse that ultimately leads to winning. The only thing untested in him is managing. And any time you talk about someone without managerial experience, I think you’re just going to have to learn on the job, period. There’s been plenty of examples of guys that have done it and Joe is really good. The potential could be very quick for him. A lot of teams have asked about him.” 

Naturally, the same could be said for David Ross, a candidate Hinch also spoke highly about.

“I think he’d be really good," the Astros manager said of Ross. "If he’s all in, I’ll love it because I think he could learn quickly. He’s got immediate credibility. I think the player buy-in is there and it would be interesting to build a staff around him.”

The intrigue will continue to grow in what now seems to be a two-horse race, but with the World Series getting underway the Cubs will likely wait for an off day or the conclusion of the Fall Classic to make an announcement. And even though their team isn’t playing, Cubs fans can still keep an eye on Espada as well as former Cubs bench coach Dave Martinez as the Astros and Nationals take center stage in the baseball world. 

As Pedro Strop enters free agency for the first time, all he wants to do is return home

As Pedro Strop enters free agency for the first time, all he wants to do is return home

The stats don't lie: Pedro Strop is one of the best relief pitchers in Cubs franchise history.

No pitcher has come close to the 120 holds Strop has notched in a Cubs uniform (Carlos Marmol is second with 83) and he also ranks sixth all time in appearances, ahead of Fergie Jenkins and Ryan Dempster.

Strop even has a better ERA (2.90) and WHIP (1.05) with the Cubs than Lee Smith (2.92, 1.25), who was just inducted into the Hall of Fame this summer. 

But at the moment, Strop won't have an opportunity to build upon those numbers as he enters free agency for the first time in his career following the final year of his $17.6 million extension he signed prior to 2017.

He hopes he'll get another chance in Chicago, repeatedly calling the Cubs clubhouse "home."

"I gotta say the Cubs are a priority [in free agency] and I'll work with them first and see if we can work something out," Strop said after the Cubs' final game of the season. "If not, then Plan B — whatever is best for the rest of my career. Right now, I just want to come back and stay home."

Anthony Rizzo is the only player who currently boasts a longer tenure with the Cubs and the team got together after the season finale in St. Louis to toast to Strop, Ben Zobrist and Joe Maddon.

Maddon's departure was already official and while it's still possible Strop and Zobrist return, the Cubs wanted to pay tribute just in case this was the end for them, too. Strop called it an emotional and "sad" moment that he may have to leave the family he built in Chicago, but maintained hope that a reunion was in the future. 

The Cubs think so highly of Strop and his impact behind the scenes (especially on younger players like Javy Baez), Theo Epstein said last fall he hopes the veteran "can be a part of this organization when he's done playing."

Don't start lining Strop up for a coaching gig or a job as a special assistant in Epstein's front office. Not yet, anyway.

Still only 34, he believes he has something left in the tank and the final month or so of 2019 backs him up. Continued issues with his hamstring dragged down his overall season numbers (4.97 ERA, 1.27 WHIP), but Strop seemed to find his rhythm again in September with a 2.00 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 14 strikeouts in 9 innings (though much of that work came in low-leverage situations).

In summing up his season, he wished he had been able to contribute in that way earlier in the year, but felt like he proved a lot in the final month. That could be a nice sales pitch to teams in free agency.

"If I'm starting a negotiation with the Cubs, it doesn't have to be that difficult," Strop said. "They already know what I'm capable of doing when I'm right and they know this is my house here. But I still don't know what's gonna happen."

The Cubs are undergoing a complete renovation of their bullpen this winter, with veterans Strop, Steve Cishek, Brandon Kintzler and Brandon Morrow ticketed for free agency and Derek Holland and David Phelps likely to follow. 

Right now, it appears only Craig Kimbrel, Rowan Wick, Kyle Ryan and Brad Wieck are locked into relief spots for 2020, opening up a plethora of options. Kimbrel is a giant question mark after his debut season on the North Side and the other three just enjoyed breakout 2019 campaigns, so there isn't much of a track record there to trust.

There's plenty of room for Strop to come back, but will the Cubs come calling? Is it prudent to chalk up his struggles to the leg injuries and not just overall wear and tear that also saw Strop's fastball velocity drop nearly 2 full mph?

If the price is right, Strop could be a good low-risk/high-reward option for the Cubs to add some veteran depth to the bullpen. Relievers don't often become huge factors in the clubhouse chemistry of a team, but the Cubs have always fed off Strop's relentlessly upbeat attitude and brutal honesty.

Plus, he feels like he has some unfinished business with the Cubs next year.

"We had a contending team [in 2019]," he said. "Teams are getting better in our division. We gotta realize that and we gotta be honest that they're getting better. We just need to come back hungry and try to win. Just go out there, not thinking about whatever happened this year and just compete. We got the guys, we got the group. It's gonna be a really good 2020 Chicago Cubs team."