Cubs Still Low-Balling Free Agents…Because They Can

Remember a couple years ago, when more than a few Cubs fans were ready to burn Tom Ricketts in effigy because they felt he was simply milking a cash cow, refusing to stretch his short arms into the deep pockets afforded him by his big-market ballclub? Ah, those were the days. A lot of the anger was driven by a misunderstanding of the organization’s finances, though even more was fueled by having to watch a team that closely resembled hot garbage.

If you’re going to have a dumpster fire, many reasoned, you might as well throw some money on it. But rather than inflate the payroll, the Cubs chose to blow up the team. They went with a bare-bones roster and dumped cash into revenue-generating assets like signage and the neighboring rooftops. A massive construction project that will change the face of Wrigleyville is in full swing as well. Hundreds of millions being spent, but Ricketts is cheap. Makes sense.

Even signing Jon Lester to what was, at the time, the team’s largest free-agent deal ever didn’t completely silence the chorus of naysayers, though it did serve to turn the volume down a little. 97 wins later, most everyone had come around to the idea that building a young, homegrown — read: cheap — team might not have been such a bad deal after all. But then came the disappointing sweep in the NLCS and the admission from the front office that the Cubs needed to improve in several areas.

So would they finally be able to loosen the purse strings and make a real splash? It certainly didn’t look that way when we saw pitching targets David Price, Zack Greinke, and Jeff Samardzija all sign elsewhere for far less than what the Cubs were willing to offer. Fans started to get the feeling that their team was going to stay budget-conscious again after all, that they’d be expected to keep nibbling away at cookies while the long-awaited feast was little more than taunting pipe dream.

And the fans were right. The Cubs were out-bid for the services of John Lackey, Trevor Cahill, Ben Zobrist, and Jason Heyward. All four were offered more money, as much as $16 million by at least two teams in the latter’s case, elsewhere. And all four turned those offers down. The Cubs have been able to remain frugal because the value props they’ve established over the last several years have given them an appeal money alone cannot.

It really started when Joe Maddon fell into their lap, a move that no one had really anticipated before it happened. His presence in Chicago has really shaped the future for them, both in terms of personality and potential. He instantly became the face of the franchise, a role that had been previously been held by Theo Epstein. Listen, Epstein is awesome as far as execs go, but when a guy who’s not wearing a uniform is the name most closely associated with your team, you have a problem.

From the moment he was introduced at The Cubby Bear following the 2014 season, Maddon set the tone to which the Cubs have been harmonizing ever since. By preventing the pressure from exceeding the pleasure, he allowed a free spirit like Jake Arrieta to be himself and kept several inexperienced players from falling prey to the rigors of performing under high expectations in a big market. The wins, not to mention Manager of the Year, Rookie of the Year, and the Cy Young award are all indicators of the changes at the corner of Clark and Addison.

And it wasn’t just the fans who saw it. Players around the league took note of what was happening at Wrigley, saw how the Cubs were genuinely having a good time at the ballpark every day. More than that though, they saw how hard the Cubs competed and how their youth meant they’d be willing and able to do so for a long time to come. And so when it came time for Lackey and Zobrist and Cahill and Heyward to choose where they’d like to ply their trade, they came to the same conclusion: Chicago.

For them to leave money, and even a guarantee of a rotation spot in Cahill’s case, on the table speaks volumes for what Epstein and Jed Hoyer have been able to build. It’s been so obvious that the Cubs really didn’t even have to do much of a song and dance routine to pitch free agents on what they could offer.

“As far as recruiting goes, they didn’t have to do too much,” Heyard explained at his press conference. “They let the product on the field speak for itself.”

The Cubs were confident in the fact that players would want to be a part of what they saw in the young team.

“We updated the [promotional] video again this year,” Epstein explained Tuesday. “We had a lot better material to put in the video this year to explain what we were trying to accomplish as an organization and what we see our future and how we treat players and how we treat families.

“That was probably the best recruiting we could have done,” the Cubs exec continued. “Having Jason there for the NLDS with Wrigley just going absolutely bananas and our young players putting on a pretty good show and our pitchers stepping up.”

Zobrist mentioned in his own intro presser that the eyes of the baseball world were on the Cubs and that he and his teammates had enjoyed watching them when not busy with their own relatively successful playoff run. It says a little something when a coveted player who just won a World Series chooses to take less money to play for you. And in Lackey, the Cubs landed a guy who’s cliched titles with two other teams. Heyward has seen the Cubs from afar and then got the aforementioned up-close-and-personal experience of what they’re doing. And Cahill experienced a bit of a rebirth down the stretch in Chicago.

Joe Maddon is the tie that binds three of those four players and he’s been instrumental in what the Cubs have built. Likewise, Epstein and Hoyer have meticulously build the roster piece by piece over the last several years, creating a roster that is now considered baseball’s best. But overseeing it all has been Tom Ricketts, the owner some thought was too cheap to ever preside over a real winner. It takes a lot to build a model for sustainable success though, and that goes for the product off the field as well as on.

Wrigley Field has long been a destination for baseball fans from around the country, but now the Cubs have become much of the same for players. Tom Ricketts had to be cheap when he took ownership of the Cubs because that’s what The Plan called for. Now he gets to be (relatively) cheap because it worked. That’s a really exciting prospect for fans, even those who are only just now realizing the true purpose of what’s been underway, but I have to think it’s a little scary for the other teams out there.

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