[In lieu of traditional Bullets today, I’ll be giving you four bulleted pieces on the primary four topics from this weekend’s Cubs Convention – the resource issue, the renovation issue, the TV issue, and the player/prospect issue(s) – since that’s really the meat of what’s going on right now. And, since I was there, I’ve got a fair bit to share on each.]
If you could sum up the mood of this weekend’s Cubs Convention in a single word, it would probably be “subdued.” Sure, folks were still happy to be there, and sure, it was still a fun atmosphere for crazy Cubs fans. But it didn’t seem to have quite the same … pop as years past. I suppose that’s understandable, given the team’s performance the last five years, and the lack of a headline-grabbing offseason.
To the latter point, if you could sum up the one question that seemed to be on a huge number of fans’ lips this weekend, it would probably be something like, “Yeah, I get that developing the farm system and acquiring waves of young impact talent are the best way to sustained success in the long-term, but why isn’t the big league team getting any infusions of help?” At almost every panel, however tenuous the connection, you saw a variation of this question asked by someone. And, since answering that the new CBA encourages tanking is not a realistic response to a group of your customers, Cubs owners and executives did their best to explain why payroll has been falling at the big league level, and why nothing of note has been done in that regard this offseason.
The issue has played itself out in the media in recent weeks – the Jeff Passan article was actually referenced directly by a fan in one of the aforementioned questions – with a relatively clear divide forming: some believe Cubs ownership is simply not giving the front office the resources it needs to rebuild the big league roster at the same time it invests heavily in the minor leagues. Others (spoiler alert: me, based on a long financial piece on which I’m working) believe a unique and thoroughly Cub-like confluence of circumstances make spending lavishly on big league payroll significantly difficult right now (and, frankly, outside of Masahiro Tanaka, there haven’t been a huge number of great investments out there to make on this team right now anyway).
So … what’s up? What was the product of those many questions at the Convention? Is the front office getting the resources it needs to rebuild the best way it sees fit?
- When asked directly about the perceived weakness of Cubs ownership and their failure to spend commensurately with the market to put a more attractive team on the field, Theo Epstein was pretty firm in his response. “The best thing about the Ricketts and their commitment to the Cubs is that they know they’re going to own this club for generations and generations. They’re willing to take the hit now and take some of the heat now [and the] criticism because they know they’re doing the right thing …. I am more proud of them for their willingness to take that heat and stick to their plan than I would be if they panicked the first time their name was dragged through the mud publicly and said, ‘We can’t do this, put lipstick on this, and we need to find quick fixes to keep the fans and the media at bay.’ They are in this for the long haul. They’re giving us the ability to lay the foundation.” That’s one way to remind folks that, as frustrating as 2012, 2013, and (probably) 2014 have and will be, there is a very long view being put in place here.
- Epstein, in response to a question about Tanaka, but without referencing Tanaka explicitly, explained that the lack of moves to this point in the offseason could be in part because the Cubs were waiting for a chance to spend the money where they really wanted (“left some of our powder dry”, I believe is how he put it). The implication was pretty clearly that the front office wasn’t interested in any of the major free agents this offseason at their expected prices except Tanaka … but also that the money may not have been there if they had wanted more than one impact free agent.
- When Scouting and Player Development Chief Jason McLeod was discussing organizational resources as it relates to scouting, he was fairly dismissive of the idea that they aren’t getting what they need. Indeed, he emphasized that, as part of the Cubs’ organizational philosophy, they give scouts every resource they need to “dominate” their area. That could always be fluff, but it was a plain denial that scouts are being short-changed by ownership. It wouldn’t make much sense to pin your hopes on a ground up rebuild and then cut the knees out from the guys at the bottom of the pyramid.
- Team owner and chairman Tom Ricketts confirmed that the team’s significant debt does impact the bottom line on spending, but claimed it was not as significant as some have made it out to be. Instead, Ricketts implied that the reduced payroll spending was partly tied to many other expenses. “The fact is there are other things we’ve had to spend money on. We’ve had decades of under-investment in the park that we’ve had to address. We had one of the smaller front offices in baseball and the smallest baseball organization in baseball. We’ve added 102 new associates to build out what is now an average-sized organization. So there are a lot of expenses that come in over the last few years.”
- At the business panel, business president Crane Kenney made sure to re-emphasize the Ricketts’ long-standing public position that every dollar that comes in the door is put back in the organization. To me, it seemed as though Kenney wanted to make very clear that the Ricketts Family is not pocketing profits produced by any increases in revenue, decreases in payroll, or a combination of the two.
- In the end, this was pretty clearly an anticipated talking point for all parties, and they were on the same page: revenues aren’t where the Cubs want them to be, and when they are, there will probably be a lot more spending. But, per all sides, the front office is being given the resources it needs to build the organization in the way it wants to, so the fact that there isn’t as much money coming into the organization yet as there is going to be (TV/renovation) isn’t an impediment right now. Is that a convenient explanation for a consistently crappy big league team that costs a whole lot less money? It is. But it is certainly plausible that the organization’s temporary inability to generate as much revenue as is needed to support a $140/$150 million payroll coincided with the front office’s vision of a tear-it-down-to-the-studs rebuild, which necessarily includes reduced big league payroll. Whether you buy that coincidence probably depends on the predisposition with which you entered the conversation. (As always, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.)
- So, to the chicken or the egg question of spending to win or winning to spend, we didn’t get a clear answer. But, as Sahadev wrote on Friday, if the Cubs spend huge money on Tanaka, it’s a pretty reasonable signal that there’s an expectation the “spending” is going to come in the next couple of years, probably in advance of the “winning.”