Theo Epstein is waiting for when the Cubs will be able to flex their financial muscles again.
As much as the president of baseball operations enjoys scouting for the draft and feels energized restocking the system, he didn’t come here to collect prospects and build a winner at Class-A Kane County.
It’s difficult to take Tom Ricketts seriously at this stage of the game when he says the Cubs could move out of Wrigley Field if they don’t get the Jumbotron and outfield signs they want. That shouldn’t be a deal-breaker when the chairman and his family are willing to invest $500 million in the neighborhood.
“Tom’s answer to that question really just underscored the importance of the project,” Epstein said Wednesday, “and the importance of the revenue to our vision of building a sustainable winner in a big market – and in the way a big market should.
“Tom loves Wrigley Field and he doesn’t wake up in the morning thinking about moving. He wakes up thinking about winning here. But winning does come first. We’re all committed to finding a way to make it work so that we can win and act like a big market here.”
Forget the Boston Red Sox or New York Yankees. The Cubs are getting outspent by the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds in their own division.
Friends say Epstein is insanely competitive, so it has to get old listening to questions about the trade deadline during spring training, or hearing a player get asked about being flipped the day the free-agent deal’s announced.
So while the Cubs have been good at finding value with mid-range free agents – Scott Feldman threw the first complete game of his career in a 6-2 victory over the San Diego Padres – it’s also time to stop acting like a mid-market team.
A unique, complicated sale negotiated by the Tribune Co. and the Ricketts family has – according to Forbes – left the franchise with nearly $600 million of debt from the $845 million purchase (which also included a stake in Comcast SportsNet Chicago). After another rollout of the Wrigley Field renovation plans, the chairman insisted that structure doesn’t add urgency to the process.
“Every team in every sport is trying to grow revenue,” Ricketts said. “We’re going to have enough resources to be a competitive team on the field going forward. This will help us.”
But how fast will the baseball operations department be able to get their hands on that money and start spending on the big-league team?
“It depends on the timetable,” Epstein said, “when things get done and how quickly the different aspects get built and then that we’re able to sell them and start getting the revenues. So it’s not instantaneous by any means.
“But it’s important that we start soon. Because the sooner we get started with the project, the sooner we can build our revenue base up.”
Already it looks like the timeline to build a new clubhouse and training facilities will be pushed back another year if the public-approval process stretches deep into the summer. At that point, Epstein admitted it would be “unrealistic” to have those upgrades ready by Opening Day 2014, which would be a disappointment for the baseball side.
Internally, the Cubs have viewed 2015 as a possible breakthrough year, when a new television contract would kick in and a wave of maturing prospects could join core players like Jeff Samardzija, Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo. The stadium renovation is another piece of the puzzle.
“We obviously anticipate an increase in baseball spending through the revenues generated by our proposal,” Ricketts said. “It’s going to come down to when we know what we can do and when we can do it. And then we can start making those plans more specific.”
Remember that amusement taxes were supposed to be the game-changer when the Cubs rolled out a renovation plan in November 2010. And then Mayor Rahm Emanuel was going to deliver last year – until the “Super PAC” went viral with anti-Obama attacks during the presidential campaign.
Team executives unveiled renderings at Cubs Convention in January, and Ricketts announced the “framework” of a deal on April 15 at a news conference on the darkened Wrigley Field concourse.
The Cubs are 11-16, but the games are pretty much background noise now, less entertaining than the battles with City Hall, the neighborhood and the rooftops, even when no one really thinks they’ll leave Clark and Addison.
“You have to keep alternatives alive,” Epstein said, “just because this has been such a crazy process.”