One thing that’s important to put up front any time we talk about the Cubs talking about spending: under the Tom Rickets/Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer regime, the *ONLY* affirmative public comments the Cubs make about spending are about how they aren’t going to do it.
In the near decade-long existence of this group atop the Cubs organization, the only spending comments we see are either a fancy no comment (“we may have some flexibility, but we may not, so we’ll see”, “we don’t talk about spending because it doesn’t help us in a competitive market,” etc.) or a variation on a theme about not going crazy (“we have had a very high payroll,” “there is a luxury tax that does things,” “we don’t have as much flexibility as years past,” etc.).
The Cubs will never, ever, ever say: “Yo, we gonna be out here to SPEND, my dude!” Literally (heh) or figuratively.
Yet, quite obviously, the Cubs have frequently spent quite aggressively in free agency, even at times when they had suggested they were not going to be in the market to do so.
Folks are more on edge for such comments now because the Cubs hinted they wouldn’t spend last year, and then in fact did not spend much at all. I have no beef with fans who want to beef about that! It was a mistake! A clear mistake that many of us saw coming before it happened, and I’m not asking anyone to let the Cubs off the hook for it. Instead, I’m only saying: when it comes to parsing the Cubs’ comments about spending, there isn’t always a signal there. Sometimes they suggest they won’t spend, and then they do. Sometimes they suggest they won’t spend, and then they don’t.
If you really want to get meaning from the comments, you’ve gotta take the whole context into account. Not just the context of the comments, themselves, but the whole organizational background, financial situation, competitive landscape, and so on and so on. Even then, most of the time, you just have to be honest that you really don’t know for sure what their financial plans are. Because most of the time, we aren’t. Still, sometimes, you can glean just a morsel of useful meaning from the way these guys talk about certain things.
So, then, when Cubs owner Tom Ricketts was on The Score this morning, I was listening very carefully NOT for the soundbytes he dropped, but instead I was listening overall for a sense of where the Cubs feel they are financially vis a vis competitiveness next year.
My personal sense – and that’s all I can offer having listened – is that the Cubs are thinking about whether they can get back under the $208 million luxury tax (which would mean NO significant free agent commitments this offseason absent lots of payroll movement before that), but that is not yet any kind of firm and fast declaration. I think the Cubs’ spending plans are going to depend on some things that aren’t yet nailed down – the Kris Bryant grievance and negotiations, the carriage deals for Marquee, the multi-year impact of short playoffs/no playoffs, how quickly sales ramp up for the new luxury spaces – and it wouldn’t surprise me if the baseball ops budget is not totally finalized yet.
In other words, my gut read on everything is that the Cubs could very plausibly carry a payroll next year similar to this year ($230 million range), but they are unlikely to be active on the biggest names on the free agent market unless other coordinating trades came together surprisingly. Don’t expect big payroll bumps. But don’t necessarily expect big slashing, either.
All of that generally squares with my takeaways from Theo Epstein’s season-ending press conference, too. He played the part of talking about how much the Cubs have spent lately, but explicitly avoided any kind of commentary on spending expectations for the offseason, citing competitive disadvantages. But he also talked extensively about the need for change, which inherently leaves open a lot of ambiguity about spending, but without dropping any kind of suggestion that big slashing was on the way. I certainly didn’t get that sense, anyway.
Both Epstein and Ricketts have said multiple times – and Ricketts said it again today on a separate interview on ESPN1000 – that they generally expect the Cubs to continue to be among the top spending teams in the league for the foreseeable future. That, too, indicates we should not see big slashing.
OK, now you can do your own reading/listening if you’d like:
On @mullyhaugh, Tom Ricketts indicates a big splash in free agency isn't the answer for the #Cubs: "The real key is you have to develop players. You can't really buy teams. You have to build them."https://t.co/dVHA7PyCiI pic.twitter.com/K6sB8W3HtN
— 670 The Score (@670TheScore) October 30, 2019
I tend to think this is the most important thing Ricketts said, and/or the most important discussion point that comes out of an interview like that:
Tom Ricketts: "It's not how much you spend. It's how much you win. The correlation isn't as strong between those two as much as we'd like it."
— 670 The Score (@670TheScore) October 30, 2019
Out of context, that reads like an extremely clear statement that the Cubs won’t be adding to payroll, and indeed might be looking to pare back after a couple big years. And maybe it is. But the whole of the context around which Ricketts was speaking – to my ear, at least – is really not any different from what the front office has been saying, and what we’ve been critical of: the Cubs’ failure to develop and maximize their own young talent internally (especially on the pitching side) has caused them to rely so much on outside spending that now, with payroll in the top few in the league, it becomes harder and harder to justify another couple monster contracts when you NEED those internal contributions to really be a successful team.
In other words, both sides of this thing are true: (1) the correlation between spending and winning is not a perfect line, because so much of the best TALENT is pre-free agency, and you’ve gotta have a whole lot of it to win; and (2) the best teams spend wisely – and aggressively – in free agent to augment the strong internal base they already have. That’s why there is SOME correlation between spending and winning. We shouldn’t act like “the correlation isn’t as strong between those two as much as we’d like it” is the same thing as saying there’s flat-out no correlation at all, so why spend anything in free agency?
Where does that leave this Cubs club at this point in time? Well, from a talent and roster construction standpoint, there has to be a pretty significant moving of parts, however you want to do it. I can envision trade paths where that results in a really interesting “cheaper” roster, and I can also envision free agency paths where that results in a really interesting “expensive” roster.
But where the Cubs absolutely cannot fail again this offseason is in declining to add perfect fit guys like Michael Brantley or DJ LeMahieu or multiple relievers on completely justifiable contracts because they say that payroll is maxed out. None of those guys got the kind of monster long-term deals that create significant problems down the road, and they could have made a significant difference in augmenting the Cubs last year. That’s not “buying” a team. It’s a critical part of “building” one.