When the Cubs traded Yu Darvish and Victor Caratini for what were pretty obviously financial reasons, it appeared as though the white flag was being raised. Except it wasn’t the one with the blue W and the only song you could hear was the faint wail of taps echoing through the empty streets of Wrigleyville. Even the cadence of spring training suffered as the staccato clap of cleats was halved while players and fans alike waited for the other shoe to drop.
But it never did, whether because the Cubs couldn’t get anything close to their asking price for star players on expiring deals or because optimism about vaccines and the return of fans changed the outlook. The reality is that it was both, with the former probably factoring more heavily. Jed Hoyer admitted that letting Jon Lester leave was more a matter of timing, with deals for Joc Pederson and Jake Arrieta coming after the front office had received a budget increase.
That increase coincided quite nicely with initial reports of the efficacy of multiple COVID-19 vaccines, the widespread distribution of which has since pushed seating capacity as high as 100% for many teams. The Cubs are at 60% as of Friday’s opener with the Reds and should have Wrigley Field fully open by the end of June, thus stemming the tide of the “biblical losses” Tom Ricketts worked so valiantly to overcome.
I don’t know if anyone else has seen Frank Darabont’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Mist, but the ending strikes me as how Hoyer must be feeling now about the Darvish trade. The Cubs are 27-22 with the best run differential in the division on the strength of a 16-7 May (through 5/27) that has seen them playing the kind of baseball not witnessed on the North Side since before Theo Epstein said the offense “broke somewhere along the lines.”
So as the white flag with the blue W keeps flying and a happier tune can be heard at Wrigley with far greater frequency, the idea of selling continues to fall further to the wayside. The combination of winning and generating increasingly larger revenue streams from fans means ownership can no longer don the guise of having to shed payroll.
“As far as flexibility, we’ve had these projections for a little bit and feel like we’re a bit ahead of schedule,” Hoyer told Russell Dorsey and other members of the media. “There’s definitely flexibility to make moves in-season if the right thing presents itself.”
Imagine if those projections had allowed them to extend something more than a laughable offer to Anthony Rizzo prior to the season. Or maybe that changes along with the ability to add depth at the deadline. What about Kris Bryant and Javier Baez, neither of whom seem to have been engaged meaningfully this spring? I know the opinions are split on this because a lot of people foolishly believe a rebuild is in order, but don’t believe for even a fraction of a second that the Cubs need to take drastic measures.
Not only would punting on a season in which the Cubs are competitive be a tremendously dumb idea purely from a PR perspective, but the front office wouldn’t be netting future foundational stars in return. It’s not about saving money, either, since we know the Cubs are nowhere near the competitive balance tax threshold and are only committed to about $46 million in actual payroll for 2022. In no universe should the Chicago By God Cubs be within $100 million of that figure, and they really shouldn’t be at less than $200 million.
The only prize for spending less money ends up in ownership’s bank accounts, so don’t fall for the story that everything’s being reinvested into the club. A rebuild had to happen a decade ago because the organization had been run so poorly from top to bottom that the whole thing needed to be razed. Now, however, the bones are still in place and the team has its own television network — albeit with oft-noted issues — along with an overall $3.36 billion valuation that ranks 22nd among all professional sports teams.
Not Major League Baseball or all of American pro sports, but the whole effing world. If you really believe a team with those resources needs to slash payroll in a re[insert your preferred term here] effort, we can’t be best friends any longer.
The only problem is that the Cubs will probably need to add pitching, which could very well mean paying a higher price in prospect capital than the return they got for Darvish and Caratini. Again, Hoyer would be left feeling like David Drayton if that’s the case. Or hey, maybe they go out and get Max Scherzer or something wild.
Look, I sincerely hope the Cubs are big-time buyers because a) they damn well should be, and b) it means they’re still playing well. That could even mean they do more to retain some of the players who’ve gotten them to this point, though that’s a bigger topic for another time.