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."Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Cubs easily on your device.