Jon Lester is headed to Washington, because the Cubs couldn’t come up with $5 million to counter — and wouldn’t so much as engage the motivated-to-stay clubhouse giant in talks until the Nationals already were well down the road with the best free agent in Cubs history.
They might as well gift-wrap Lester’s All-Star catcher, Willson Contreras, and send him to the Nationals, while they’re at it, and save another $6.65 million in salary. Contreras can join slugger Kyle Schwarber, who signed with the Nats for $10 million after the Cubs non-tendered him to save a projected $8 million or so.
But if the Cubs want to do this embarrassing, poverty-pleading overhaul of the team the right way this winter, they need to ship out the Ricketts family and business president Crane Kenney, too.
Because Schwarber, Lester and the rest the other key players aren’t the problems. Neither is newly installed baseball president Jed Hoyer.
When the richest franchise not located in New York or Los Angeles starts behaving like the Pirates and the Royals for the second time in less than a decade, find the guys in charge of the “wheelbarrows full of money” to find the problem.
Polarizing politics aside, ownership’s business decisions to hyper-extend the Cubs reach — and debt — through neighborhood acquisitions and construction projects during the post-title boom years has left them cash-tapped and red-faced during the pandemic downturn.
NBC Sports Chicago’s David Kaplan reports the Cubs carry about $1 billion in debt between the franchise and the Ricketts family’s real-estate company, Hickory Street Capital.
That reality transcends any issues surrounding player development or free agent decisions, leaving a $3.2 billion franchise ill-equipped to better endure what chairman Tom Ricketts called “biblical” industry losses, and leaving its billionaire owners unwilling to take the short-term hit.
Every team in baseball suffered losses in 2020 and might again in 2021.
Nobody has mandated payroll cuts as deep as the Cubs — no big-market team even close. They’re still in cost-cutting mode even after dumping Schwarber, $59 million in salaries the next three years with the Yu Darvish trade (to San Diego), another $1.3 million in Victor Caratini (sent in the same trade) and cutting ties with more than $45 million worth salaries in outgoing free agents — including Lester.
Lester, the five-time All-Star who symbolized the cultural and competitive turnaround when he signed as a big-ticket free agent six years ago, wanted to return to Chicago bad enough that he approached the team early in the winter and offered to talk about a deal that was said to be less than what the Nationals ultimately paid.
The mandate from ownership and the business side wouldn’t allow Hoyer to make an offer. And even when the Nationals offer came in, and Lester gave the Cubs a chance to counter, the Cubs were “not close” to the Nats — perhaps as low as $2 million.
Which is embarrassing enough before considering that this is a team coming off a National League Central championship, its fifth playoff season in six years and six consecutive winning seasons — all of that with Lester in the clubhouse and on the mound.
More embarrassing yet is the fact that this payroll slashing — which isn’t done, and might exceed 35-percent from the 2020 base by the time the season opens — marks the second time for such a dramatic tear-down and overhaul in just nine years.
How about some more embarrassment: This is the team that charges the most for its average ticket and that just stuck fans with a new broadcast surcharge to watch its Marquee Network.
And you don't have to leave Chicago to find the most embarrassing part of this whole hat-in-hand act by the big-shot, big-money club on the North Side.
Not only have the White Sox spent during a pandemic to build a pennant favorite in stark contrast to the Cubs, but all this high-rolling, player-acquisition stuff is playing out after the Cubs laid off more than 100 front office employees, many making ordinary salaries well under $100,000 -- again, in contrast to the Sox.
Is there any doubt their top trade chip, Contreras, could be gone next? Or that $19.5-million former MVP Kris Bryant will be gone to the Dodgers or anybody else who steps up willing to take the salary he'll make in that 2021 season the Cubs manipulated his service time to assure?
The Cubs spent 108 years becoming a punchline until finally winning that 2016 championship. It's taken them four years to become a joke again.
Maybe it's time the Ricketts family looks at the record sale price the Mets attracted a few months ago when Steve Cohen closed on New York's No. 2 team.
And then stick the For Sale sign in the grass at Gallagher Way.
For the sake of every fan being asked to pay for this bill of goods.
Maybe even for their own good.