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.”