Cubs owner Tom Ricketts went on the Mully & Haugh Show on 670 The Score this morning, making an attempt to defend the Cubs’ quiet offseason. (Hat tip to Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times, who wrote an article here).
Ricketts began, “First of all, we have spent money this offseason. We signed Cole Hamels, and we picked up Descalso, and I’m sure Theo’s got a few moves left in him.” We’ll hit pause there to note that to allow for Hamels’ $20MM option to be picked up, the Cubs had to ship Drew Smyly and his $7MM salary to the Rangers. That series of moves suggested that the Cubs felt they had to make a tradeoff to retain Hamels, compromising their rotation depth but saving money. Beyond that, Descalso was inked to a two-year, $5MM deal, after Tommy La Stella and his (eventual) $1.35MM salary was dealt to the Angels. So, the Hamels and Descalso moves added $13.15MM to the Cubs’ payroll.
Ricketts continued, “But frankly, we have one of the largest budgets in all of baseball. We put that to work, we’ve definitely signed a lot of players over the years. We have a team that we like. We have a team that we think is going to go a long way. We have a team that won 95 games last year without a lot of help from some of the guys we picked up last offseason. And all the different things that we fought through last year – the injuries, everyone’s having kind of down years, some of the off-field distractions…we like our club. And we’re among the very top spenders. So, I just think all that stuff’s kind of misguided.”
Ricketts had two refrains in this interview: we are already spending a lot of money on players, and we have a great team already.
Ricketts said that despite having unique stadium and tax expenses that other teams do not have, the Cubs are one of the “top few spenders” in baseball. He suggested the club could never spend at the level of the Yankees or Dodgers, implying the Cubs sit third behind them in payroll. Looking at 2018 end of season luxury tax payrolls from the Associated Press, the Cubs ranked fifth behind the Red Sox, Nationals, Giants, and Dodgers. Why the Cubs cannot spend like the Red Sox is unclear. Perhaps the problem is that the Cubs had for the most part set expectations of heavy offseason spending:
- 2017-18: $216.295MM spent in free agency (Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood, Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek, Smyly, Brian Duensing)
- 2016-17: $19.5MM spent in free agency (Jon Jay, Koji Uehara, Brett Anderson, Duensing) plus the acquisition of Wade Davis ($10MM salary). Fresh off a World Series win, the Cubs were mindful of the competitive balance tax threshold, and of course were able to stay under it without fan backlash. The market was light on premium free agents, and the club traded for Davis rather than engage with Aroldis Chapman or Kenley Jansen.
- 2015-16: $289.95MM spent in free agency (Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist, John Lackey, Dexter Fowler)
- 2014-15: $192.1MM spent in free agency (Jon Lester, Jason Hammel)
So the Cubs signed a $126MM+ player in three of the last four winters. It’s not that they haven’t spent money, it’s just that at this point in their competitive window, they’ve chosen an odd winter to stop spending. The Cubs’ brief playoff appearance this year, Theo Epstein’s “our offense broke” comment the following day, and the once-a-decade availability of free agents Bryce Harper and Manny Machado led most fans to think the team would be firmly in the mix for a major offensive upgrade, particularly Harper. Instead, Ricketts suggested the team had little room for improvement, saying, “The fact is we look at our lineup, and you look around the horn and who would you switch out?”
Though this was intended as a rhetorical question, it’s one that has many good answers. FanGraphs projects the 2019 Cubs at 87 wins, with the Cardinals coming in at 86 after the addition of Paul Goldschmidt. There’s also the Brewers, who have handily beaten projections over the last few years and won 96 games in 2018. I’ll take the over on FanGraphs’ 79 win projection for Milwaukee, while the Reds and Pirates also land in that 79-80 projection range. All five NL Central teams should be competitive. The Cubs hardly have the division locked down, so who would you switch out?
The Cubs were expected to move on from Addison Russell after his domestic violence suspension came down and further details emerged, but he remains penciled in at shortstop after tallying 2.9 WAR over the last two seasons combined. Their outfield consists of Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ, Albert Almora, Jason Heyward, and Ben Zobrist – hardly a crew that should block Harper or even Andrew McCutchen. The bullpen has glaring holes, with closer Brandon Morrow starting the season on the DL and the Cubs choosing not to bring Jesse Chavez back. The Cubs are looking at Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Steve Cishek, Mike Montgomery, Brandon Kintzler, and Brian Duensing in the pen, with the expectation being that Epstein will continue to sit out the bidding for top free agents. Craig Kimbrel remains on the market, while Zach Britton, Jeurys Familia, Adam Ottavino, Andrew Miller, Joe Kelly, David Robertson, Kelvin Herrera, and Joakim Soria are off the board.
Though Ricketts has typically participated in a fan Q&A at the annual Cubs Convention, he won’t be doing so at the event this weekend. He laughingly cited having the “lowest-rated panel” as the justification, but the cancellation of the panel coinciding with the club’s quiet offseason is a bad look for the team. Fan frustration has reached a boiling point this winter, and that’s why the owner should be accountable. While Ricketts noted that the panel could be brought back next year if people want it, why not just reverse course this year and field fan questions?
With the Cubs’ core of Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, and Javier Baez in place for only three more years, Ricketts has decided to sit out the 2018-19 offseason. Ricketts asked fans to withhold judgment on the choice, saying this morning, “We’re going to be great, and I think people people should judge us by what happens during the season, not what happens in December.”