Tom Ricketts on Cubs payroll situation: 'We don't have any more' money

Tom Ricketts on Cubs payroll situation: 'We don't have any more' money

MESA, Ariz. — The Cubs payroll has been a hot-button issue all winter. 

The team spent big last winter on a free agent class led by Yu Darvish, then went out and won 95 games. But the Cubs were caught from behind by the Milwaukee Brewers and wound up at home on their couches — or barbecuing, as Anthony Rizzo said Monday — in the first week of October.

As a follow up to the way 2018 ended, the Cubs have had a very quiet offseason. They picked up Cole Hamels' $20 million option (but also had to trade away Drew Smyly's $7 million deal to Texas to create room) and then have added only utility guy Daniel Descalso, reliever Brad Brach and a few other bullpen arms on minor deals as the market depressed closer to spring training.

Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts gave his state of address to the team Monday ahead of the first full-squad workout and later met with the media, where he was asked about the organization's finances and why they didn't spend more money this winter.

"That's a pretty easy question to answer — we don't have any more," Ricketts said. "We've been in the Top 5 in spending in baseball the last 5 or 6 years. We were in the top couple last year. We've put our money back on the field. Unfortunately, you just can't have a high-profile free agent every single year. 

"Part of that is how much it costs — the $25-$30 million it's gonna cost. Plus, it's a 10-year committment. You gotta pay all those dollars. We like the team we have, we made the best we have over the last few years. I think that we're well-positioned to win the division again.

"As much as I would love to have a great, new, exciting player every single season, it just can't happen every year."

Ricketts did not have his usual panel at Cubs Convention last month, but spoke to radio stations leading up to that event about the blowback from fans for the lack of spending this winter. 

He echoed similar sentiments Monday, pointing to Hamels' option, the escalating salaries of arbitration-eligible players like Kris Bryant and the need to earmark money for down the line to retain their own players (like Bryant or Javy Baez).

"We have to have the financial flexibility to keep the players we want to keep for the long run," Ricketts said. "We could try to sign a couple new players this year, but you can't spend that same dollar twice."

Ricketts continually pointed out the importance of looking long-term with regards to the budget and payroll and said Theo Epstein's front office is able to project the budget for the next couple years.

With Bryce Harper and Manny Machado still unsigned with March right around the corner, there's been a buzz that either player might sign a short-term, high-value deal and re-enter the free agent market in a year or two.

When asked if the Cubs have limitations preventing the club from entering into one of those short-term, big-money contracts with a superstar player, Ricketts said:

"I don't think there's any limitation in baseball in how much money you want to lose. I think there's some guys that have tested that. The most important thing you can do is think about not just this year, but the future. I think one of the biggest mistakes the previous ownership made is they considered every year a discrete of that. 

"As if: What do we have to do this year to sell our season tickets? What do we have to do to sell the suites? What do we have to do to get our sponsors back? You have to think of every year as part of a continuum and you have to think of it in terms of where you're gonna be 2, 3, 4, 5 years down the line. In those kinda go-for-it scenarios, a lot of times they don't work. 

"The correlation between your payroll and your wins is positive, but it's not dispositive. It doesn't decide how you're gonna do. The fact is that the correlation's been going down over time. More younger players are becoming more impactful earlier in their career and so you can't buy victories like you could maybe 20 years ago. You have to be thoughtful about where you put your resources and think long term."

The Cubs are currently projected for an Opening Day payroll north of $212 million (according to Roster Resource), which would represent a $30 million increase from last year's $182 million mark (which was the highest Opening Day payroll in franchise history).

But it's understandable fans are feeling impatient, especially given the minor additions to the Cubs roster while the rest of the division has been active and aggressive in improving their team on paper this offseason.

The Cubs were aggressive last winter, spending money to augment the pitching staff by bringing in Darvish, Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek and Tyler Chatwood. That obviously didn't work out in their favor, as only Cishek was able to make an impact throughout the entire season. 

That certainly has a carry-over effect and even with the new Cubs TV deal beginning a year from now, Ricketts balked at the notion a big-time free agent could help the club in its marketing endeavors for a new network.

"Yeah, possibly. The fact is that we don't think of it that way," Ricketts said. "We think we have a very, very good team. We think we'll win our division. We don't think that will be our issue.

"I think the issue is if we're to add even more dollars, I think we'd end up with some more problems down the line. The fact is we have one of the top baseball budgets, we have top baseball guys who allocate those dollars and that should get us great results."

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Cubs looking to unearth core relievers with low-cost, high-upside acquisitions

Cubs looking to unearth core relievers with low-cost, high-upside acquisitions

The Cubs bullpen is going to look a whole lot different this season.

Gone are the reliable Steve Cishek (signed with White Sox) and Brandon Kintzler (reportedly signed with Marlins). Pedro Strop remains a free agent, though a recent report said the race to sign him is down to the Marlins and Rangers.

Assuming Strop doesn’t return, the Cubs will have lost three of their four most frequently used relievers from 2019. Replacing the trio will be no small task, considering a bulk of their appearances came in late-inning, high-leverage spots.

Cishek and Kintzler didn’t sign back-breaking deals (one-year, $6 million; reported one-year, $3.25 million), but the luxury tax has been a factor in the Cubs offseason. They aren’t in a position to commit big money to top-of-the-market arms and have instead been stockpiling low-cost relievers with upside.

“It’s become such an unbelievably important and difficult part of our job,” general manager Jed Hoyer said at Cubs Convention of assembling a bullpen. “It wasn’t that long ago that we’d go into a season and our goal would be ‘Hey, can we get a thousand innings out of our starting pitching staff?’ You think about your five starters, if you could get some combination of close to a thousand innings, that was always a goal, out of roughly 1,400 innings.

“And now, that’s gone away. You realize to get through a season, it's not a matter of going up on a whiteboard and writing up your eight relievers. It's a matter of [needing] 15, 20, 25 good relievers over the course of the summer to really get through it.

"You've got to take a lot of chances. There's no more volatile aspect of the game than the bullpen, and that's league wide. You’ve got to constantly take chances on guys and realize that sometimes, what appears to be a guy that’s struggling may just be simply a bad seven innings or bad 10 innings.”

Volatility was a main theme of the Cubs bullpen in 2019. Strop is one of the best relievers in team history, but early season hamstring injuries impacted his performance — a 4.97 ERA and 1.27 WHIP were the worst figures of his Cubs career. Strop finished the season strong (2.00 ERA in September), though he was largely a low-leverage option by season’s end.

Meanwhile, the additions of Kyle Ryan and Rowan Wick last offseason didn’t make waves among the fanbase. The former signed a major league deal after a solid 2018 season with Triple-A Iowa, and the Cubs acquired the latter in a low-key November trade. Both emerged as key contributors in 2019.

“Rowan Wick was a good example,” Hoyer said. “When we traded for him and we got him into the pitch lab and we improved his curveball, I think that had an enormous impact on his year last year. Brad Wieck, we traded for and immediately made some adjustments. Our pro scouting staff does a good job with that.”

Ryan and Wick are two of only three locks for the Opening Day bullpen, along with closer Craig Kimbrel. Wieck, acquired at the trade deadline for Carl Edwards Jr., is potentially another. That leaves five, maybe four spots up for grabs in what will be an open competition in spring training. Incumbent options include:

-Adbert Alzolay
-Tyler Chatwood
-Alec Mills
-Colin Rea
-Dillon Maples
-Duane Underwood Jr.
-James Norwood
-Brandon Morrow (reportedly re-signed on a minor-league deal)

Morrow and Chatwood are the most tenured options of the group, though the former has battled injuries throughout his career and hasn’t pitched since July 2018. If he’s healthy (and pitches well in spring training) Morrow will likely claim a bullpen job.

Chatwood is a candidate for the final rotation spot, along with Alzolay, Mills and (potentially) Rea. Mills and Underwood are out of minor-league options. New reliever candidates include:

-Dan Winkler — signed to one-year, split deal
-CD Pelham — claimed off waivers from Rangers
-Trevor Megill — Rule 5 pick (Padres)
-Ryan Tepera — signed to one-year, split deal
-Casey Sadler — acquired from Dodgers
-Travis Lakins — acquired from Red Sox
-Jeremy Jeffress — reportedly signed to a one-year, big-league deal

Winkler, 29, spent the previous five seasons bouncing between the major and minor leagues with the Braves. Last season, he posted a 4.98 ERA in 27 MLB appearances and a 2.93 ERA in the minors (30 appearances). He made 69 big-league appearances in 2018, sporting a 3.43 ERA in 60 1/3 innings while tallying 69 strikeouts.

Winkler isn’t a flamethrower — his four-seam fastball averaged 92.1 mph last season — but it ranked in MLB’s 93rd percentile, meaning he generates swings and misses. Sadler ranked in the 90th percentile and posted a 2.14 ERA and 1.17 WHIP in 33 games. The 29-year-old struck out 31 batters in 46 1/3 innings between the Dodgers and Rays, though he sported a whopping 12.3 K/9 in Triple-A (38 2/3 innings).

Pelham, 24, was recently outrighted off the 40-man roster and sent to Iowa. He didn’t pitch in the big leagues in 2019 and struggled with command in Triple-A (18.3 walk rate) but throws hard. Megill, 26, throws a mid-to-upper 90s fastball and sported a 12.7 K/9 in Triple-A last season.

Worth noting: Pelham (6-foot-6, 235 pounds) and Megill (6-foot-8, 235 pounds) are big dudes.

Tepera holds a career 3.64 ERA and 1.16 WHIP and made 73 and 68 appearances in 2017 and 2018, respectively. The 32-year-old missed a chunk of 2019 with a right elbow impingement, finishing with a 4.98 ERA in 23 games.

Lakins, 25, is a former sixth-round pick who posted a 3.86 ERA in 23 1/3 last season and holds a 4.45 ERA in parts of five minor-league seasons. His curveball ranked 66th in spin rate league-wide among pitchers who threw at least 50 last season.

Jeffress reportedly agreed to a one-year deal Tuesday worth close to $1 million. He’s coming off a rough 2019 with the Brewers in which he sported a 5.02 ERA, dealing with a shoulder injury out of the gate. The 32-year-old also hurt his hip in August and was released on Sept. 1.

Jeffress is a season removed from posting a 1.29 ERA and 15 saves in 73 appearances. He’s another example of the budget-driven moves the Cubs have made this winter, and while he struggled in 2019, his career 3.16 ERA makes him a prime bounce back candidate.

There’s a lot of positives in the group, and the Cubs will use their pitch lab to make any necessary adjustments. They also realize not every guy will be as successful as Ryan or Wick, and some options won’t pan out. Their goal is to unearth as many contributors as they can.

"That's the kind of shot we have to take, and that's the kind of shot every team has to take on capturing that lightning in a bottle,” Hoyer said. “Buying really high on relievers and signing them after they have a breakout year is really expensive and really difficult and doesn't have a great success rate. We try to find those guys that we can catch lightning in a bottle, and that's been a big part of our strategy." 

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Cubs reportedly agree to deal with reliever Jeremy Jeffress

Cubs reportedly agree to deal with reliever Jeremy Jeffress

The Cubs bullpen is undergoing an overhaul with Steve Cishek and Brandon Kintzler already heading to other teams and perhaps more changes coming.

One incoming change is apparently Jeremy Jeffress. According to reports, the Cubs have agreed to a one-year deal with the 32-year-old reliever.

Jeffress was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in the first round back in 2006 and has had three stints with the team since. He made his MLB debut with the Brewers in 2010, but left the team the following offseason as part of the Zack Greinke trade with the Kansas City Royals.

Years later, he re-signed with the Brewers in 2014. The Brewers then dealt him to the Texas Rangers in the middle of the 2016 season, only to re-acquire him from Texas the following trade deadline.

In his most recent stint with the Brewers, Jeffress was streaky. He was an all-star in 2018 (1.29 ERA, 89 strikeouts, 27 walks in 76 2/3 innings), but had an ERA north of five in 2019. That 2018 season was the best of his career in many ways so the Cubs will be hoping to recreate some of that magic as opposed to his lackluster 2019.

Either way, the right-hander gives the Cubs a much-needed veteran presence in the bullpen after the losses of Cishek, Kintzler and possibly Pedro Strop, who is still a free agent.

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