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.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Manny Machado’s value and other Cubs offseason wish list items

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Manny Machado’s value and other Cubs offseason wish list items

Did Manny Machado’s value take a hit at all after he openly admitted hustling isn’t his “cup of tea”? Our Cubs team (David Kaplan, Kelly Crull, Tony Andracki, Jeff Nelson) debate that, plus the potential fit of Machado or Bryce Harper for the 2019 Cubs and beyond.

The crew also runs down the top items on the Cubs’ offseason wish list – ranging from bullpen help to infield depth to a set leadoff hitter – in what may be the most impactful winter in Theo Epstein’s tenure in Chicago.

Listen to the podcast here or via the embedded player below:

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.