Tom Ricketts Says Criticism of Budget ‘Kind of Misguided,’ Cubs Will ‘Never Catch the Yankees’

Social media lit up yesterday when word leaked that the Ricketts family would not be holding their traditional Saturday morning panel at Cubs Convention this weekend. A spokesman said it was a result of low interest and that the choice to move ownership to Ryan Dempster’s Friday spectacle was made months ago, so take that for what it’s worth.

Perhaps because he won’t be addressing fans directly, Tom Ricketts made the rounds on Chicago sports radio Thursday morning. His first stop was the Mully & Haugh show on 670 The Score, presumably because the Cubs’ flagship station has dibs on such appearances (Ricketts would join David Kaplan on ESPN 1000 later in the morning), where he discussed everything from payroll to the futures of Joe Maddon and Addison Russell.

As worthy as those latter topics are, we’re sticking to the budget for the time being. Keep checking back, and there’ll probably be something on Russell Thursday afternoon or evening.

When it comes to spending, the narrative surrounding the Cubs can get a little skewed. No one’s complaining that the team isn’t spending any money, it’s that the Cubs aren’t spending more money. They project to have their highest baseball payroll ever, but there’s a lot of uncertainty on the roster and two elite free agents out there who are still only 26 years old.

“First of all, we have spent money this offseason,” Ricketts clarified. “Obviously, we signed Cole Hamels and we picked up (Daniel) Descalso, and I’m sure Theo’s got a few moves left in him. But frankly, we have one of the largest budgets in all of baseball.

“You know, 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 just all the different things we fought through last year: the injuries and everyone’s having kind of down years and 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.”

If you could have seen my face when I first heard that, or even now as I’m reviewing it, I look like that emoji that’s showing all it’s teeth in sort of a shocked expression. While I can agree that being upset with the Cubs for being cheap would indeed be misguided, that’s not where informed fans are coming from. Like, at all. But I want us to put a pin in that idea because it’s central to the overall context here.

Ricketts deflected a question about whether past signings were impacting the appetite for Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, saying it would be better answered by Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer. Thing is, the execs have answered it, and they’ve said their ability to pursue free agents is controlled by the budget, which goes back to Ricketts. So the owner was passing the buck, which is a poetically ironic idiom given the situation.

When you get down to it, the real questions revolve around why the Cubs aren’t spending more. When we read about baseball’s record profits of $10.3 billion and see the Ricketts family pumping hundreds of millions into infrastructure, it seems silly to think they don’t want to put another, say $50 million into the baseball ops budget.

“The fact is, I don’t think people fully understand…we work very hard to drive revenue to the team,” Ricketts explained. “And when we drive revenue to the team, it ends up in the baseball budget. But we also have all of our own stadium expenses, we’re one of the few teams in baseball that have to cover all of their own costs. We have about $20-30 million a year, depending on the year, of local taxes no one else has.

“We have to pay a huge amount of money. People don’t realize when you raise revenue as a club, you pay about 40 percent of that to the house, to the league, to share with other teams. So we’ve worked really hard to get to the point where we can be one of the top spenders in baseball.

“We’ll never catch the Yankees because they’re the Yankees. And we probably won’t catch the Dodgers because of their television contract. But now we’re at the point where we can be in those top few spenders on a consistent basis, and then it comes down to you put the money to work and you get the right guys you want, build the team you want.”

This feels like one of those situations in which he got talking just a little too long and kept walking off the pier until he made a splash. The talk about local taxes and stadium expenses is nothing new, that’s something ownership has harped on from the beginning. It’s the reason they considered threatening to move the Cubs out of Wrigley and into the burbs, which is also nothing new (Dallas Green talked about it in the 80’s).

First, the Yankees slashed payroll to get down under the luxury tax threshold for the first time in its existence, and they did so without sacrificing competitiveness. And it’s maybe not a great argument to say you can’t compete with the Dodgers’ broadcast deal when you’re working on your own. Unless, wait, is he admitting the Cubs aren’t getting nearly as big a windfall as anticipated?

It has been assumed that the Cubs’ new regional sports network could be the big announcement at CubsCon, though Ricketts admitted they weren’t ready to reveal specifics yet. Even so, his talk about not being on par with the Dodgers sounds like a tacit admission that the changing media landscape has resulted in less lucrative projections. That’s all conjecture, though, and we’ll probably know more in a few weeks.

As for improving the team, Ricketts fell back on the ubiquitous “improvement from within” mantra. Everyone’s focused on coming in prepared to start strong, team has averaged 97 wins, yadda-yadda. When it comes to adding new players, though, you have to understand how the money works.

“When you make any free agent signing — not to pick on Darvish or any of them — you know that you can’t spend that dollar twice and you have to budget that into the future,” Ricketts said. “So that’s gonna limit what you can do the following year. And one of the things this year that we knew going into this offseason was that we weren’t gonna have as much flexibility as years past.

“We didn’t have big contracts coming off, we didn’t have a lot more cash coming in. And as players get into their arbitration years, I think people forget that…they all have these built-in raises. So you have to manage your player budget to account for the fact that in arbitration, players are getting more money every year.

“We have the highest baseball budget we’ve ever had this year. But maybe it doesn’t feel like that to people because we didn’t go out and sign a giant free agent.”

I’m pointing to my nose right now because that last statement was right on it. The Cubs don’t feel like big spenders, whether that’s a matter of recency bias or some other measure. But gosh, it’d be nice if this stuff was being shared with the fans who have the right to have their questions answered. As we know, that won’t be the case this weekend.

“We had the lowest panel last year, so the guys cut us,” Ricketts joked. “It’s true, people would rather watch the mascot play BINGO than listen to the owners speak. The fact is that we had a low-rated panel, it got kinda dull over the years because a lot of the questions were the same, and…the fact is we were the lowest-rated panel.

“So if people want us to come back next year, fill out the forms and we’ll be happy to do it again. But we just thought we were boring people. Honestly. We’re happy to do it again, I like talking to people. I think I’m the most accessible owner in sports, I feel like I talk to people all the time, I answer my emails.

“I just think it’s funny. The timing of it, people ascribe some like agenda to it. The fact is, we were just boring people and they want more time with players and coaches.”

Putting this back on the fans feels disingenuous, just like how several of Ricketts’ responses addressed those with only the most rudimentary grasp of the team’s finances. It’s true that a lot of people don’t understand arbitration or the competitive balance tax or [insert economic concept here]. It’s also true that a good majority of the ownership panel is boring af.

But to borrow a pet phrase from Mr. Ricketts, the fact is that many fans do understand arbitration and the CBT and they aren’t just attending the annual gathering just to get an autograph from Kendall Graveman. So while peddling a watered-down narrative like this to the masses might serve to replace Saturday morning’s session, it does little to address the bigger concerns raised by this stagnant offseason.

Not that anyone should have expected that would happen even if the Ricketts did host a panel. I guess maybe I’m just asking for too much despite knowing I’ll never get it, which was evident early on in the interview. As I sat there listening in my car, the signal wavered at times and strains of music from an adjacent AM station bled through.

Serving as the soundtrack (starting at about 8:22 mark of audio below) was the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

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Evan Altman

Evan Altman is the EIC and co-founder of Cubs Insider and has proclaimed himself Central Indiana's foremost Cubs authority. He is a husband, father, homebrewer, and award-winning blogger with entirely too much pop culture knowledge. Evan's greatest accomplishments include scoring 400 points in Magic Johnson's Fast Break, naming all 10 members of the Wu-Tang Clan in under 3.5 seconds, and winning the Meese Literary Award at Hanover College.

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27 Comments

  1. “When you make any free agent signing — not to pick on Darvish or any of them — you know that you can’t spend that dollar twice and you have to budget that into the future,” Ricketts said. “So that’s gonna limit what you can do the following year. And one of the things this year that we knew going into this off-season was that we weren’t gonna have as much flexibility as years past.”

    This sounds like the answer to one of the questions that has most Cubs fans upset: Are you not pursuing Bryce Harper because of the Darvish, Chatwood, & Morrow signings last year?

    Right or wrong, I think a lot of fans were led to believe that none of the moves they made last off-season were going to prevent them from making a big move (or any moves) in this off-season’s loaded free agent class.

    1. We were led to believe that because we were told that. The rules of the game have clearly changed from what they were from 2015 to last offseason.

  2. It sounds like he put the onus on Theo Epstein as far as making more (read:any) moves this winter. So let’s see what Theo says.

      1. Unless the goalposts were moved, which it sounds like they have been if you look back to Epstein’s comments last year. He did admit that a big deal would impact flexibility in the future, but also said there’d be money left for the right move if that player wanted to be with the Cubs. Paraphrasing of course.

        1. The statement “you can’t spend that dollar twice” doesn’t really seem to support the moving goalposts theory. At any rate, even if the goalposts moved, that still doesn’t leave Theo with options for any more big moves, which I took to be what Michael was saying.

      2. Agreed. It sounds like he put player decisions on Theo, AND pointed out that Theo’s player decisions of the past has handcuffed current spending capability.

        In totality, I’m not really disappointed that they aren’t going after Harper. I did expect them however to make a couple of moves to improve the team from last year, and Hamels doesn’t really count – as that was really just keeping what you already had. Giving up Smyly to save some $, and signing Descalso, was not improving the team.

      1. It’s meant to be a compliment. The “Nothing at all” is what was coming out of Rickett’s mouth. I admit that I’m a dick–and an asshole–but I didn’t mean it as attacking you!! My apologies!

        1. Haha, no worries. I was also joking. A little. Unless you had really been dickish, in which case I was planning to unleash the hounds.

          1. Hmm..releasing the hounds on my dick? Sounds like you know something about my past love life…. ;-P

  3. These last 4 months from choking to end the year, to blowing the winter with bad publicity at every turn has been almost comical. And yet some people wonder why myself and others are negative towards the team right now.

    To their credit they’ve managed to get expectation to the point a guy like Adam Ottavino would feel like getting Trout.

    1. The Negativity Police do it to make themselves feel morally superior. They will always find something to enable their shtick.

  4. Interesting how he points to the Dodgers tv revenue as why they wont probably catch them. So, how do we interpret that?
    A) @ face value & no response
    B) assume when the Sinclair deal is announced we’ll have more to spend
    C) figure its a BS comment and hes giving up.
    Ive given thought to all three and ???

  5. I’m not a hater. I appreciate what the Cubs have done and how the team was built. Could better decisions be made? Of course. I knew salary had to be shipped to get Harper (who I have thought was a slum dunk Cub), but apparently, it isn’t as easy as I thought it would be. I thought for sure ATL or someone would take Heyward and cash, but obviously, it hasn’t happened. I thought moving Lester’s last two seasons would and should be possible, but that hasn’t happened either. Russell has torpedoed his value so badly, the possibility of moving him for a bag of baseballs has evaporated.

    I suppose the Cubs have to just overcome the awful regression from the second half, last season, and perform. That will alleviate the whining from the fans and put the faith back into this front office that deserves the benefit of the doubt…for 2019. If the team plays poorly or completely falters in the second half again, then it deserves to be blown up and rebooted.

  6. Sell the team to Mark Cuban. Ricketts views the cubs as a cash machine and doesn’t care about winning. He is turning into another Pinocchio like his manager.

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