Jeff Passan Has Things To Say About The Cubs


Yahoo’s Jeff Passan is currently rolling out a series examining the offseasons that every team in baseball has had, and on Friday it was the Cubs turn. Now, I’ll ignore the fact that it’s incredibly hard to judge a team’s offseason when there is still a month left before teams even report to spring training, and the regular season doesn’t start for nearly three months. Instead I’ll just focus on what Passan wrote about the Cubs offseason.

In short, he is not impressed with the Cubs.

And I tend to agree with what I think Passan is trying to say, which is essentially that the Cubs aren’t spending money like a team in Chicago should be spending money, but I don’t really agree with the way Passan goes about explaining it. So it’s time to get my Fire Joe Morgan on and go through this thing bit by bit.

Seven years ago, when the Chicago Cubs were the Chicago Cubs, which is to say a team that acted like it played in the country’s third-biggest city and its most historic ballpark instead of slumming it like some small-market charity case burdened by the vagaries of its own miserably leveraged purchase, they did something that seems so novel today: acted like they wanted to get better.

In one offseason, the Cubs committed nearly $300 million to 10 free agents. Alfonso Soriano was a $136 million bust. Aramis Ramirez played about to his $75 million deal. Ted Lilly proved well worth a $40 million investment. Inefficient though it may be, free agency allowed the Cubs to flex financially, and next to the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, they might’ve had the biggest guns in the gym.

It’s true, seven years ago the Cubs spent nearly $300 million on free agents. They were coming off a 66-96 season — hey, that’s the same record they had in 2013! — and that spending spree led to division titles the next two seasons, though the Cubs would never get out of the first round of the playoffs, getting swept by the Diamondbacks and Dodgers. After that, the Cubs would finish second in 2009 and then go 146-188 to finish in fifth place the following two seasons.

That stretch would lead to the Cubs bringing in Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer to help save the franchise that had become buried by the nearly $300 million in contracts it signed, and had abandoned a farm system in an effort for quick fixes to finally end a century-long championship drought.

The money the Cubs spent seven years ago is exactly the reason why the Cubs find themselves in the position Jeff Passan has decided offends him.

Today the Cubs are the 97-pound weakling. They are enfeebled by owners whose purchase of the team more than five years ago brought far more chaos than some sort of a renaissance. Not even president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer, two of the game’s great architects, could have fathomed the budgetary restrictions. This is not handcuffs. It’s a straitjacket.

No, it’s a plan. When somebody scorches the Earth you can’t just plant new trees and expect to see mighty oaks shading you when you wake up the next morning. It takes years for those trees to grow.

Part of the issue, certainly, is the point at which the rebuilding process stands, with many of the Cubs’ top prospects a year or so from debuting. Accordingly, overspending this season, one in which the Cubs’ starting lineup resembles either a really good Triple-A team or a really bad major league team, may not be the most prudent move.

So let me get this straight. Your lede is about how the Cubs used to be a team that spent money and tried to win, and then, only three paragraphs later, you’re saying the Cubs spending money right now “may not be the most prudent move.” So you’re writing an entire column here about how the Cubs and the Ricketts shouldn’t be so cheap when you believe being cheap was probably the smart move this offseason. This isn’t confusing at all.

Still, the Cubs’ offseason maneuvers thus far look like this:

Nov. 26, 2013: Acquire backup catcher George Kottaras for cash

Dec. 12, 2013: Acquire center fielder Justin Ruggiano for outfielder Brian Bogusevic

Dec. 16, 2013: Sign left-handed reliever Wesley Wright to one-year, $1.425 million deal

Dec. 27, 2013: Sign closer Jose Veras to one-year, $4 million deal

And a bunch of minor league deals. Like, 14 of them. Because they’re saving up an extra $5,000 for St. Helen of the Blessed Shroud? Perhaps they want the foie gras sausage at Hot Doug’s. Or maybe there’s no good answer at all and just an outbreak of dyspepsia from fans swallowing all of the garbage excuses being fed their way.

Always important to work in local references. Let’s the locals know you’re familiar with the surroundings. You can relate to them.

Should the Cubs win the Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes, they will buy at least some good will in the short-term, even if he would be lipstick on a pig oinking ever louder by the day.

All right, now this is where Passan really starts to lose me. He just criticized the Cubs for not making a big move this winter, and then suggests that actually making that big move would be “lipstick on a pig.” Keep in mind that a few graphs ago he said the Cubs resembled “a really good Triple-A team or a really bad major league team.” So now he’s saying that trying to fix this shitty team would be just putting lipstick on a pig, when, again, the entire premise of this preview is that the Cubs are being too cheap.

So put lipstick on the pig or else you’re just putting lipstick on the pig. Got it?

Apparently all it takes to own one of the most storied franchises in sports history is the rich person’s equivalent to a down payment on a house. When the Ricketts family bought the Cubs, Wrigley Field and an interest in the local sports network for $845 million, it put down $171 million – a hair over 20 percent – and financed the rest through a number of means. And in the half-decade since, that $674 million-plus in debt has left the Cubs in perpetual duress, acting as if they’re Kansas City or Tampa Bay.

The Rays, actually, are one of only four teams with lower projected opening-day payrolls than the Cubs’ $78 million. It would represent the Cubs’ most skinflint ballclub since 2002, when the sport’s revenues were half of what they are today. Should they win the Tanaka bidding at $15 million a year, they’d still be spending less than Cincinnati and Kansas City, neither of which anyone would consider a peer, much less a distant relative, to Chicago.

Now, I don’t really have anything to counter this with. Passan is right, the Cubs do have a low payroll, especially in comparison to their market and their spending history. However, what I don’t agree with is this whole overarching message behind Passan’s column suggesting that spending money is going to fix anything. I already went over how spending all that money in 2007 put the Cubs in this position, but let’s look at the results around baseball.

He mentions teams like Cincinnati and Tampa, who are two franchises that directly oppose what Passan is saying. They’ve been winning without spending money. Don’t get me wrong, spending money surely can help you get through a regular season, but it doesn’t equal championships. The Yankees spend more money than anybody and have won only one World Series this century. The Angels spend a ton of money, yet the last time they won a title in 2002 they did so as a smaller-payrolled team of “grinders.” The Red Sox spent money, but the core of their World Series teams has always been guys produced from their farm system — which Epstein put together — and smart signings like David Ortiz, not big-ticket free agents.

Big-ticket free agent signings are basically what drove Epstein out of Boston in the first place.

All of this dovetails rather nicely with the inherited woes of Cubs fandom. It’s one thing to be bad. It’s another to not spend money. The marriage of the two has led to poor attendance and angry fans, and it’s entirely warranted, even though Epstein and Hoyer continue to deserve the trust of the skeptics.

Because soon, the Cubs could again be very good. No team in baseball can match its collection of hitting prospects, with Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Albert Almora, Jorge Soler and Arismendy Alcantara. If even two or three of their current everyday players – preferably Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro and Welington Castillo – improve, suddenly come the kids’ arrival, they’re a wildly interesting team, especially should new manager Rick Renteria prove the sort of clubhouse presence the Cubs expect.

By then, the Cubs can opt out of their TV deal with WGN and start cashing in on their broadcast rights, and the renovations on Wrigley should have started, so long as they can find some sort of amicable settlement with the famous rooftops whose views the new park will restrict.

In the meantime, the Cubs have a chance to be really, really bad, especially if they can’t come to terms on an extension with Jeff Samardzija and trade him, and even more especially if Edwin Jackson’s $52 million deal goes as poorly in its second year as it did its first. Absent those, they’re still a mess. That’s what happens when a Chicago team tries to act like it’s from Tampa.

I don’t have a problem with any of this, as it’s sensible and I completely understand what Passan is trying to say. But then there’s the finish.

[The savior] spot seemed perpetually reserved for Theo Epstein, who was expected to ride in on a white horse and do his magic and win the Cubs a World Series for the first time in 4,826 years, or whatever it’s at these days. Instead, Epstein’s boss, Tom Ricketts, stole away the mantel because only he knows the answer to the imperative question in Lakeview: When the kids come, will he start spending? That’s all anyone wants to know. This sub-$80 million payroll is tolerable for another year as long as it’s not the new norm. If Ricketts welches on his word to spend, what’s ugly already could get worse in a hurry.

Actually, I’m more interested in how the kids perform than in how much money the Cubs will spend. I’d much prefer the money the Cubs spend in the future to be going toward young players who are paying off and deserve to be paid in order to keep them in Cubs uniforms.

Yes, free agency should be used to fill spots here and there, but this overriding notion that Ricketts and the Cubs will need to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to win has already been proven wrong, and like I said at the very beginning, it’s those exact kind of spending sprees Passan is waiting for that put the Cubs in their current position.

Odds are if the Cubs do what Passan feels they should do, we’ll see Passan writing the same damn column about the Cubs in six years, just with new names plugged in.

The talent will trump the money. Find the talent and winning and all that other shit will take care of itself.

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