Dansby Swanson or bust.
That’s where the Cubs’ offseason has landed after 179 losses the past two years and just as many promises to spend and compete again next season.
In fact, bust started to look a lot more plausible after top-of-the-market shortstop Carlos Correa agreed this week to a 13-year, $350 million contract with the Giants, without the Cubs so much as making an actual offer for the shortstop they considered their top target at last week's Winter Meetings, sources said.
The Cubs got no further in discussions with Correa than outlining ranges and parameters, said one industry source.
The Twins, on the other hand, offered 10 years and $285 million to retain their All-Star shortstop, according to multiple reports, and even the mega-spending Mets reportedly got involved late in the process.
The Twins are said to be turning their attention to Atlanta’s Swanson, the first-time All-Star and Gold Glove winner in 2022, who has a roughly league-average career OPS — with the big-bucks Dodgers also linked to Swanson.
How’s that “aggressive” offseason working for you, Cubs fans?
How’s that promise team president Jed Hoyer made to “absolutely” try to compete next year looking?
Maybe the Cubs, who appear to have pivoted away from Correa even before this week, will salvage their offseason by landing Swanson, who was their backup plan, according to a source with knowledge of how they aligned their targets in the four-man pool of elite free agent shortstops.
Maybe they’ll even extend their comfort zone to go big enough to beat out the obviously aggressive, big-thinking, smaller market Twins.
Maybe even beat out the Dodgers?
What’s certain so far is that the cost of doing business in Major League Baseball’s $12 billion-a-year industry has only gone up again with a new collective bargaining agreement, expanded playoff field, renewed revenue growth following pandemic-related losses and a $30 million-per-team windfall by year’s end from Disney’s purchase of MLB’s remaining stake in its BAMTech streaming company.
And the Cubs’ behavior in the face of those factors has been tepid at best — a failure of downright biblical proportions if second-tier starting pitcher Jameson Taillon and upside-gamble Cody Bellinger wind up being the centerpieces of their winter.
Ownership and the business side of the operations already have begun the throw-Hoyer-under-the-bus spin — with business president Crane Kenney putting the unsolicited onus on Hoyer again Friday by saying he “has a lot of money to spend this year” in part because of unused 2022 resources. And then: “There’s no reason to think we wouldn’t be a playoff team this year.”
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But whether Hoyer wants to spend as big as the prevailing markets and the Cubs needs dictate, any failure to spend enough to restore this team to a competitive level is a team effort that starts at the top with Ricketts ownership. And no amount of business-ops misdirection from the least reliable voice in the organization can change that.
It was ownership, after all, that started the payroll-slashing snowball rolling into the two-year avalanche that wiped out everything standing from the All-Star championship core.
Chairman Tom Ricketts reiterated again this summer what he has said for years about payroll spending having little correlation to winning, despite increasing evidence to the contrary. Hoyer has, in turn, talked repeatedly about “intelligent spending,” whatever that means.
And Kenney keeps popping up on the flagship radio station for what’s increasingly looking like comic relief.
Meanwhile, other teams spend to win in a competitive landscape fueled by $300-million star power. And get better in the process. Putting the Cubs further behind the pack.
Hoyer and the Cubs are focused on Swanson, the clear No. 4 of the four All-Star shortstops, after Trea Turner, Xander Bogaerts and Correa were swept off the board by the Phillies, Padres and Giants for a combined 35 years and $930 million worth of contracts.
The NL-champion Phillies already had $330 million superstar Bryce Harper on the roster before adding the $300 million Turner. The Giants went huge for Correa after finishing second for Aaron Judge (nine and $360 million to return to the Yankees). The Padres of all teams already had two $300 million players (Manny Machado, Fernando Tatis Jr.) before giving Bogaerts a $280 million deal.
That Mets team that poked around on Correa at the end? Owner Steve Cohen has the highest payroll in the game, including $341 million shortstop Francisco Lindor and is still looking to add after winning 101 games this year.
And that Dodgers team that now seems interested in Swanson and that hasn’t missed the playoffs since Hoyer and Theo Epstein started the Cubs’ first full-blown tank job in 2012? They have a $365 million, superstar outfielder in Mookie Betts they acquired and extended on their own record deal — before adding an MVP in Freddie Freeman on another big deal and bringing back future Hall of Famer Clayton Kershaw on a $20 million for another run in 2023.
That’s six teams with at least one $300 million star and/or at least one player from outside the organization acquired with at least a 10-year commitment (including the Yankees acquiring Giancarlo Stanton with 10 years left on his contract).
Which doesn't even count the Texas Rangers who spent $500 million on shortstops Corey Seager and Marcus Semien last year, before adding superstar pitcher Jacob deGrom for five and $185 million this year.
The conspicuous exception among the top-revenue teams in the game is the Cubs.
Maybe that makes them smarter?
It definitely contributes to them being crappier. And harder to watch.
And if they don’t start actually exercising their resource advantage to acquire and/or keep star players, there might not be enough people still watching to notice Kenney driving the bus back and forth over Hoyer the next few times he offers up his pearls of nonsense to the fan base.
For now their collective inability to accept the cost of doing business in their chosen competitive industry has left them with their lowest attendance in 25 years, sagging viewership for their clunky new TV network — and left them in the dust compared to their rivals.
It amounts to malpractice for a high-revenue professional sports team with one of the most loyal fan bases in American sports, if not a breach of contract with fans who pay for more — and have a right to expect at least a lot more effort than they’re getting.
It also has left the Cubs with a credibility gap after squandering all that so-called winning culture they created in recent years.
Catcher Christian Vazquez, for example, accepted the Twins' three-year, $30 million offer despite the Cubs' reportedly having the same offer on the table.
Again, maybe they’ll get Swanson and make their winter look more respectable.
On the other hand, if the Twins offer as much as the Cubs, does he make the same call as the last free agent with the same choice?
And if the Dodgers are showing interest as reported, where would such a coveted player go after winning a ring in 2021 and 101 more games in 2022? Especially if Freeman, a former teammate who’s represented by the same agent, is in his ear telling him how great the palm trees, beaches and juggernaut Dodgers are?
For anyone believing that Swanson’s marriage over the weekend to Red Stars standout Mallory Pugh gives the Cubs a local advantage, consider that neither of them are from the area; she’s playing for her third National Women’s Soccer League team, with one year left on her contract; and Los Angeles just got an NWSL franchise — owned in part by Mia Hamm, the wife of Dodgers broadcaster Nomar Garciaparra.
“If you’re always rational about every free agent, you will finish third on every free agent,” Dodgers president Andrew Friedman once said.
That was long before this winter when the Cubs apparently set out to prove it.