Tom Ricketts Says Cubs Didn’t Spend Big Money on Free Agents Because ‘We Don’t Have Any More’

You may as well call me the Hoarse Whisperer at this point because I’ve almost lost my virtual voice beating this topic to death here and on social media. But even after sending the old nag off to the glue factory, I couldn’t resist taking my whoopin’ stick out again to give everything one last stir.

Tom Ricketts addressed the media in Mesa Monday morning in what was certainly a less alliterative address than this sentence. Among the topics were his father’s unsavory emails and the outlook for the Cubs in 2019, the latter of which of course included talk of their lack of additional spending this winter. And despite already having covered this a month or so ago, I want to go in on this one more time.

We’ve known since the end of October that the Cubs were not going to spend in a big way this offseason, at least not without clearing a lot of salary from the books. That came as a surprise to many, especially in light of Theo Epstein’s proclamations at his season-ending press conference about the team’s lack of joie de vivre.

Epstein vowed to spend all of his energy fixing the problems that befell the Cubs late in 2018, but it quickly became apparent that mo’ problems did not mean mo’ money. And as Ricketts shared, they might actually mean no money.

“That’s a pretty easy question to answer,” he said when asked why the Cubs didn’t drop more coin this winter (Twitter links here and here). “We don’t have any more. Unfortunately, you can’t just have a high profile free agent every single year.”

First of all, and with a little allowance for hyperbole on Ricketts’ part, being out of money at the start of free agency is not a good thing. And it’s not like people are actually asking to sign every free agent. *checks notes, sees Jon Lester, Jason Heyward, Yu Darvish* Okay, maybe that is what people are asking for, but is that really such a bad thing?

Regardless of where you fall on that answer, the bigger issue I keep running into with all of this is how the whole thing has been presented. Because if you compare what Epstein said in the immediate aftermath of the Darvish signing with what Ricketts said Monday, a lot of things just don’t line up.

“That’s really a Theo question,” Ricketts responded when asked about why the Cubs waited to sign relievers (Twitter thread). “It’s his budget, his responsibility, he decides the timing of those things.”

Ouch, I hope that bus is a lot lighter than it looks, because Epstein just got run over. Then the driver backed up and knocked the baseball operations president down again when asked about how much awareness and foresight the front office has into future budgets.

“Well, in every single team, every single GM asks for more money every single year,” Ricketts explained. “So in the grand scheme, of course [Epstein asked for more]. But Theo sees every single penny that goes in and out of the organization

“They’re able to project what their payroll’s gonna be going forward. We know where the dollars are. It’s not like we make up a number every year. He knows what his budget is supposed to be and then he adjusts for it.”

And that’s where we turn back to what Epstein himself said last season after the club had landed Darvish. He openly admitted that any big contract reduces flexibility, but, unless he was lying through his teeth, he gave no indication of the frugality to come.

“[The plan for next year] remains to be seen, but look, I think anytime you sign a multi-year contract, you’re taking away a little bit of flexibility in the future in exchange for talent now and in the future,” Epstein explained. “That’s not just the case with Darvish, but with the other investments we made.

“We would never put ourselves in a position to be completely inflexible going forward, but yes, when you commit $126 million to someone it does take a way a little bit from future flexibility.”

Nothing wildly contradictory to this point, right? Epstein even acknowledged that they had “some work to do to make sure we’re in a position to pounce” in the event that a special player came along. He indicated that it’d have to be a truly transformational talent, a guy who really wanted to be in Chicago. Which seems to describe at least one big free agent this season.

But we also know that Epstein has “never worked harder” than he did this winter, even if his efforts to make salary-clearing trades were for naught. So it’s entirely possible that when Epstein said they’d never be in a completely inflexible position, it was because he was banking on the ability to move a few players as needed. Without naming names, I think we can all assume a few of the whos and whys there.

And we might be able to chalk it up to that and end the conversation if not for a little additional context.

“It’s wonderful to have an owner like that that sees the big picture and then once he’s gotten a real taste of winning isn’t necessarily content just to be a contender or in the mix each year,” Epstein gushed, “but really wants to capitalize on this window that we have and deliver championship baseball to our loyal fans who certainly deserve it.

“We’re starting to capitalize on some new revenue streams and that allows us to fish in these waters as long as we do it in a responsible way for the short and long term.”

I obviously do not know what has been said between Epstein and Ricketts — outside of the whole Oliver Twist begging mentioned above — so what follows is purely speculation on my part. It’s possible Epstein knew he’d have way less money than necessary to land Harper and was merely laying the groundwork for the year to come by buttering up his boss and baiting the hook.

What seems more likely, however, is that an understanding of either the im- or explicit variety existed between ownership and the front office that the money would be there if needed. That jibes with the idea of “rumbings” that Ricketts would okay an expenditure for Harper, which could well have stemmed from past conversations and eventually filtered to members of the media.

That’s why I’ve been adamant about ownership moving the goalposts, a concept that Ricketts hasn’t done a good job of dispelling. This isn’t to remove any measure of culpability from Epstein, who certainly wasn’t flying blind when it came to the budget he’d have to work with. But something fundamental shifted — a less lucrative TV deal, stunted revenue from abbreviate postseason run, Tribune buyout, etc — with the budget calculations between signing Darvish and not signing anyone major this year.

The Cubs are never going to share their raw financials with the public, nor should they, so the finer points of all this are going remain within the realm of the theoretical for most of us. And that’s fine, but the failure to admit that the budgetary calculus — the organization doesn’t have to specify exactly which equation — did indeed change at some point is frustrating for fans.

So is the explanation of the arbitration process and other relatively mundane factors, which reeks of condescension and only promotes the notion that ownership is being disingenuous. And maybe Ricketts is being totally forthright, inasmuch as he can be, but it certainly doesn’t feel that way for those who’ve followed the team closely over the past few years.

And with that last whack at the Cubs’ incongruous budget comments, we conclude this episode of “Worst POS I’ve Ever Read Theater.” I’d ask you to join us next time, but I’m not sure I’ve got the effort to rehash this again.

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  1. Last winters moves blowing up on them ate up all the money to sign a stud.

    20M for Hamels with Chatwood sucking and Yu coming off an elbow cleanup, 5M for Kintzlez with Morrow hurting and a overworked pen. Then with Kintzler sucking they had to go add Brach and Barnette while the Duensing deal is looking like dead money.

  2. With the launch of Marquee on the horizon, I’m ready for the Ricketts to take their $500 million+ golden parachute and fuck off back to Omaha before they kick fans in the junk again.

  3. Yeah, you must be getting tired or riding this turtle. I would rather Ricketts just said; “we simply don’t believe that any of these top free agents are worth the extended years and $ to extend the budget for”. Mic drop. Exit stage left.

  4. It’s really just time for Bryce Harper to realize he’s 26 and signing a 1 year deal with the Cubs is very unlikely to hurt his chances of cashing in on a huge contract. Perhaps next year the Cubs will be able to put a big contract together? Regardless, to live out a dream and have a really fun year chasing a championship here would be the best for everyone. I’m sure Ricketts could come up with 25 mil for this to happen.

  5. Evan,

    You make very good points in your article. Nobody disputes the fact that the Cubs are in a worse place as an organization than they were two years ago.

    But what baffles me is that people largely blame ownership solely. Why doesn’t anybody blame Theo for any of the following:

    1. Spent $43M+ in 2018 on Darvish/Chatwood/Morrow (all high rush guys) and got a collective zero.

    2. Has allowed the farm system to completely implode, evidenced by their #29 farm ranking.

    3. Continues to employ Jason McLeod, who has not signed an amateur pitcher worth a darn since he started in 2012.

    The Cubs will have a top 3 payroll in MLB this year, but most of the Cubs blogs believe it is Theo’s birthright to have the #1 payroll in baseball.

    Is it possible that Tom Ricketts looked at Theo’s career track record with long-term FA deals and got gunshy? And if so, would that be unreasonable?

    1. It’s not entirely unreasonable to bemoan throwing good money after bad, though I think it’s also very premature to talk about Darvish, Chatwood, and Morrow being lost causes. And I did make mention of Epstein perhaps getting out over his skis and assuming he would be able to move some players/payroll. The farm system rankings are a little overblown and, while the Cubs don’t have a lot of immediate impact talent, they do actually have some really exciting pitchers coming up before long.

      The whole point here is not about fingering the blame, though, it’s about what we’ve been told all along about finances and flexibility. And about the opportunity to pursue generational talents within the team’s competitive window. It’s also about being being honest with fans, which is something that can only be done to a certain extent. But when Ricketts talks about being “the most accessible owner in pro sports,” there isn’t much quid pro quo. He either isn’t listening to fans or he’s listening to the wrong ones.

      What I mean there is that he continues to talk as though the arbitration process is some esoteric enigma that fans can’t possibly hope to understand. Or just obscuring some of the other financial stuff, which isn’t unique to Ricketts since almost every team is going to do at some level. And maybe he doesn’t understand arbitration, since his off-record comments pretty much mirror what he’s said publicly.

      So while I think the Cubs should absolutely spent giant stacks of money on players, my grip in this case is more about the incongruous statements we’ve gotten over the past few years.

  6. I have a cure for what ails the Ricketts: GO AWAY. For while. All off season whenever they’ve tried to address things, or more cringe inducing, “grab the bull by the horns” on an issue, they just come off looking way worse. We liked them best when they’d come out and wave now and then. They need to sit down.

  7. I definitely think the TV contract was the pin in the balloon. Theo had even said in the past that that was the key to the Cubs having the financial flexibility they needed even beyond the generous budget they already have.

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