Tom Ricketts defends Cubs' financial situation: 'Money doesn't win championships'

Tom Ricketts defends Cubs' financial situation: 'Money doesn't win championships'

Cubs fans upset with the team's spending habits this winter won't get an opportunity to ask ownership directly at the organization's annual convention this weekend.

The Ricketts typically hold a panel each year at Cubs Convention where they field questions for more than a half hour — which promised to be must-see viewing this winter with the angst the fanbase is feeling after the way the 2018 season ended and the quiet offseason to date.

That's not happening anymore, though the Ricketts will instead make an appearance on Ryan Dempster's show Friday night after Opening Ceremonies (though it's not yet known if they will take fan questions during their appearance):

Tom Ricketts did a Chicago radio tour Thursday morning and told David Kaplan on ESPN 1000 his family canceled their panel at the fan convention months ago because it was the lowest-rated panel at last year's event and was "boring." But Ricketts insisted on 670 The Score he's "the most accessible owner in sports" and promised that wouldn't change this weekend or in 2019 at Wrigley Field, so fans will get their opportunity to ask him about the payroll them.

As for the pursuit of Bryce Harper or any other big free agents this winter, Ricketts defended the Cubs' lack of spending to Kaplan:

"We didn't have the flexibility this year to go sign a huge free agent and I'm not sure we would have anyway, to be honest. We like the team we have. We have strong, young guys at most positions. We have a pretty good lineup. We won 95 games. Obviously it ended the wrong way, but I think everyone feels like the team we're gonna put back out there will be good. Obviously last year's offseason moves, none of them really worked out like we hoped. Whether it was injury problems or other issues. We feel pretty good about the team we're bringing in. Other than that, it's not like we didn't do anything — we signed Cole Hamels and that was a $20 million contract, we brought in Descalso and there's still a little bit more money left.

"...The money got eaten up in a lot of ways by the guys that were just coming through the system and it wasn't like we had a big contract roll-off. We knew before last year we were likely to limit our flexibility in this offseason and we made that bet then and we're still in the top couple spenders in the league. We'll never catch the Yankees and the Dodgers for a couple reasons. But we're right up there with the top spenders and we have all the resources to win and we have a great team. It's nice to throw a great, new, sexy free agent on top of everything, but this wasn't the year for it.

"...I think people also need to realize that money doesn't win championships — players do. Five of the Top 10 spenders last year didn't even make the playoffs. It's not just about how many dollars you spend; it really comes down to — are you building the right team and are you putting the dollars in the right place?

After being handed an early exit from the postseason last fall, the Cubs have added only two guys to their 40-man roster this winter: utility man Daniel Descalso with $5 million guaranteed over two years (and an option for a third year) and pitcher Kendall Graveman, who is rehabbing from Tommy John and not expected to pitch at all in 2019.

However, like Ricketts pointed out, the Cubs began the offseason by picking up Hamels' $20 million option and they are on track for the highest payroll in franchise history by a wide margin.

[MORE: Revisiting the Hamels Decision in light of Cubs' budget issues]

After reaching agreements last week with all seven players eligible for abritration, the Cubs' estimated Luxury Tax Payroll is more than $225 million (the luxury tax threshold is $206 million for 2019).

For comparison, the highest payroll the Cubs have ever had came in 2018, when they spent more than $183 million on Opening Day. So regardless of any other deals that may come before spring training, the Cubs have devoted a huge increase to the payroll thanks in large part to the Hamels deal and increasing salaries for players like Kris Bryant and Javy Baez. On ESPN 1000, Ricketts promised the Cubs would be amongst the top spenders in the league going forward "forever."

The Cubs are also limited by the moves they made last offseason that did not pan out in 2018. Yu Darvish ($20 million), Tyler Chatwood ($12.5 million) and Brandon Morrow ($9 million) are owed more than $41 million in 2019 after spending most of last season either injured or ineffective. Darvish threw only 40 innings, Chatwood currently doesn't have a spot in the rotation and Morrow is slated to miss at least the first couple weeks of the year after offseason surgery to clean up his elbow after a forearm bone bruise that limited the reliever to just 30.2 innings.

Ricketts actually acknowledged Thursday morning those moves are hamstringing the Cubs right now and said Theo Epstein's front office knew they would be limited this offseason when they signed the trio last winter:

"Yes. I mean, that's true. We have pretty good visibility going out a few years in terms of revenues and available resources. When you sign a player to a 6-year contract or sign a free agent to a 7- or 8-year contract, you budget in that you're gonna use that incremental flexibility in the future years. You make those decisions. Honestly, you look back at last season — 95 wins and it ended in a horribly disappointing way and everybody feels down, but the three big offseason moves all had issues, whether it was injuries or otherwise. Had any of those guys been able to hang in there for a season, it would've been a different story. Those guys are all coming back and Darvish feels great, then you throw in Hamels for a full year, we got a good team.  ... But you can't spend the same dollar twice so you have to make resource allocation decisions. No team has infinite resources."

As for if the Cubs have enough money to help add to the bullpen (an area that has faded late in the season two years in a row), Ricketts said Epstein's front office has resources to work with there:

"Obviously that's a Theo decision and that will be up to them what they decide to do, if they want to round out the bullpen between now and Opening Day. I do think their intent is to do more."

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Pregame focus, according to Javy Baez, is where the Cubs need to get better

USA Today

Pregame focus, according to Javy Baez, is where the Cubs need to get better

While the Cubs’ decline has been talked about over, and over, and over, again, it’s always remained framed in relatively vague terms. Something wasn’t right over the last two seasons, and – perhaps in the interest of protecting a former manager that’s still clearly liked within the Cubs’ clubhouse – specifics were avoided. It was just that a change was needed, and Rossy knows what, etc. 

That is, until Javy Baez spoke on Sunday morning. In no unclear terms, Baez took a stab at explaining why he feels such a talented team has fallen far short of expectations in back-to-back seasons. 

“It wasn’t something bad, but we had a lot of options – not mandatory,” the Cubs’ star shortstop said from his locker at Sloan Park. “Everybody kind of sat back, including me, because I wasn’t really going out there and preparing for the game. I was getting ready during the game, which is not good. But this year, I think before the games we’ve all got to be out there, everybody out there, as a team. Stretch as a team, be together as a team so we can play together.”

Baez’s comments certainly track. Maddon’s widely considered one of the better managers in baseball, but discipline and structure have never been key pillars of his leadership style. He intrinsically trusts players to get their own work done – something that’s clearly an appreciated aspect of his personality, until, as you saw, it isn’t. World Series hangovers don’t exist four years after the fact, but given Maddon’s immediate success in Chicago, it’s easy to understand how players, maybe even incidentally, let off the gas pedal. 

“I mean I would just get to the field and instead of going outside and hit BP, I would do everything inside, which is not the same,” he added. “Once I’d go out to the game, I’d feel like l wasn’t ready. I felt like I was getting loose during the first 4 innings, and I should be ready and excited to get out before the first pitch.” 

“You can lose the game in the first inning. Sometimes when you’re not ready, and the other team scores by something simple, I feel like it was because of that. It was because we weren’t ready, we weren’t ready to throw the first pitch because nobody was loose.” 

Baez also explicitly promised that this year would feature far more organization and rigidity. They’ll stretch as a team, warm up outside as a team (presumably even during the cold months!), and hopefully rediscover that early-game focus that maybe slipped away during the extended victory lap. That may mean less giant hacks, too. 

“Sometimes we’re up by a lot or down by a lot and we wanted to hit homers,” he said. “That’s really not going to work for the team. It’s about getting on base and giving the at-bat to the next guy, and sometimes we forget about that because of the situation of the game. I think that’s the way you get back to the game – going pitch by pitch and at-bat by at-bat.” 

Baez was less specific when it came to his contractual discussions with the team, only going so far to say that negotiations were “up-and-down.” He’d like to play his whole career here, and would be grateful if an extension was reached before Opening Day – he’s just not counting on it. The focus right now is just on recapturing some of that 2016 drive, and the rest, according to him, will take care of itself. 

He may have lost the service-time battle, but Kris Bryant's got eyes on winning the war

He may have lost the service-time battle, but Kris Bryant's got eyes on winning the war

He always knew it was going to be an uphill battle. Kris Bryant just expected the climb to last a couple weeks, not a couple years. 

“Yeah, jeez. That took forever,” he said on Saturday, in regards to the grievance he filed against the Cubs back after the 2015 season. “It really did. At the beginning of it, I was told that it’d take maybe a couple weeks, so I was ready for it. And then the off-season kept going on and I was like, ‘All right, come out with it, let’s go.’”

Fast-forward 200 or so weeks, and the Cubs’ star third baseman got an answer – just not the one he, his agent Scott Boras, and the MLB Players Association was looking for. An independent arbitrator disagreed with the notion that the Cubs had manipulated Bryant’s service time in order to keep him under contract longer, and ruled that he would remain under team control until after the 2021 season. While many felt that what the Cubs did violated the spirit of the law, ultimately they didn’t infringe on the letter. 

“Obviously we had a disagreement. We handled it respectfully,” Bryant said. “I’m very thankful that Theo and the team saw it through. I saw it through to the end because it was something that I really believed in. My Mom and Dad told me to always stand up for what I believed in, and I was going to see the process through, and I saw it through. Respect on both ends, there’s definitely no hard feelings, so let’s definitely put that narrative to bed.” 

Despite one of the strongest cases in the history of these contractual disputes, there were ultimately too many ambiguities involved to reward Bryant with free agency one year earlier. Getting a substantial raise would have been nice, but much of Bryant’s motivation behind filing the grievance in the first place came from a sense of responsibility to bring to light what many feel are unfair labor laws within the current collectively-bargained agreement. It’s certainly not one extra year of market value salary, but as baseball barrels towards a contentious stretch of negotiations, bringing the issue to light – according to Bryant – is a win within itself. 

“I definitely felt that responsibility to take it on and be like, I want to be the guy that fights for this because I believe this is right,” he said. “And it’s going to help us in 2 years.

“I think it’s good for us to go through stuff like this. You identify the problems that you see, and you try to make it better. This last round, I think we, as players, really took a whoopin’. It’s up to us to fight for things that we think are right.” 

Don’t be surprised when Bryant continues to be a public figure throughout the next 24 months (or more) of discussions. He’s one of the game’s most recognizable faces, and from the very start, his five-year career has been tied to the hip of MLB’s service time manipulation controversy. He was vocal about squashing any idea that he held ill-will towards the Cubs front office, but did concede that the gray area which many front offices love to exploit has opened the door for uncomfortable, unnecessary friction. 

“The team doesn’t want to go through it,” he said. “I mean, Theo doesn’t want to have to make decisions like that, and cause … I wouldn’t say problems, but disagreements between players and the front office. I don’t want to be put in that situation either, so let’s just make it black and white. It’d make things a whole lot easier.” 

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