CINCINNATI – In baseball’s new bizarro world, the Cubs want to become the Cincinnati Reds.
The executives inside their Clark Street headquarters have talked about their business and baseball plans lining up sometime this decade, while other teams are actually doing it.
Through years of ownership instability, the Cubs have watched their big-market advantages vanish. Outside forces have leveled the playing field, from revenue sharing to a restrictive labor deal. New television money, a stadium construction boom and digital investments have fueled the industry.
Cubs fans have been sold the idea of building for the future, as if the other 29 franchises don’t have long-range plans. Chairman Tom Ricketts has guaranteed winning the World Series when the Wrigley Field renovation is complete, which is nice. But those revenues can’t buy the best free agents if they’re already locked up, or pay for a monster draft class under this collective bargaining agreement.
General manager Jed Hoyer thought about the Reds during his flight into Cincinnati on Tuesday, how they’ve stacked a lineup with Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, Jay Bruce, Shin-Soo Choo and Todd Frazier and assembled a rotation around Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey and Mike Leake.
“This is a really full-formed, mature team that’s been built through draft and through trade,” Hoyer said before a 4-2 win at Great American Ball Park. “We’re looking to get to that point. You don’t get there overnight. We know there are steps along the way. But we have to feel like we’re making those steps and we have to feel like we’re getting better every year – hopefully every month – and we can see the improvement.”
President of baseball operations Theo Epstein has pointed out that the Cubs ($104.3 million) now have the third-highest payroll in the National League Central, trailing the St. Louis Cardinals ($115.2 million) and Reds ($107.5 million) in the USA TODAY salary rankings.
The Ricketts family has run the Cubs like a mid-market team since their highly leveraged $845 million deal with Tribune Co. in October 2009 (which also included a stake in Comcast SportsNet Chicago).
Dusty Baker missed out on the Tribune Tower spending spree, but the old Cubs manager has landed with an aggressive, go-for-it team. The Reds are trying to add a World Series title to the two division championships they’ve won within the past three years.
The Reds made the biggest investment in Votto, guaranteeing their MVP first baseman more than $250 million across 12 years. They got creative and signed Aroldis Chapman, the Cuban defector with the 100 mph velocity.
“That’s probably one of the main reasons why we’re winning right now – they started spending money,” Phillips said. “We started spending a little more money to keep guys here and everybody’s still surprised about Joey getting all that damn money.
“You got to spend a little bit to win a little bit. I think (owner Bob) Castellini and Dusty and (general manager) Walt Jocketty understood that and tried to keep everybody together and it’s fun. Of course, people’s pockets are happy, but it’s also you wanting to give it back to the city.”
Phillips – who growing up watched the Cubs on TV and wanted to play on the North Side when Baker managed there – pointed to Epstein’s resume and the two World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox.
“I believe in (Epstein),” Phillips said. “Once he puts it all together, then the Cubs will be a winning organization again.
“They always had big-name guys over there. (But) it’s a new era, man, you got to start somehow. Right now, people don’t want to waste their money on anything. So when they want to go all-in, that’s when they find the right guys, (see who’s) available (and) then maybe they’ll start spending more money.”
There aren’t many avenues left for the Cubs to acquire talent, so they absolutely need to hit on the No. 2 overall pick in the June draft. They have to develop prospects like Javier Baez, Jorge Soler and Albert Almora and hope Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo really are foundation pieces.
The Cubs had their budget slashed leading up to the 2007 draft, and they wound up taking Josh Vitters at No. 3 overall, while the Reds found Frazier with the 34th pick. One team now has an everyday third baseman.
Last season Frazier stepped up while Votto was injured and finished third in the National League’s Rookie of the Year voting.
“You can’t rely on just one guy,” Frazier said. “You got to have a full nine. You got to have a team effort. When you’re learning from the veteran guys and they show you the way, it makes it a little easier for us. It’s pretty exciting.”
So as the Cubs evaluate manager Dale Sveum in Year 2 of this rebuilding process, they will be thinking small, or at least comparing themselves to the smaller markets like Cincinnati and St. Louis that have become big players.
“That’s really how I think we evaluate everyone internally: Are we getting better?” Hoyer said. “Are we getting closer to being a team like (the Reds or) a team like the Cardinals? That’s the way you have to look at it.”