The Cubs endured a brutal April — on the field, off the field and at The Field Museum.
Hours before the Cubs gathered off Lake Shore Drive at their annual charity gala — and a birthday cake wound up in a dumpster and all over the Internet — Bud Selig walked into Wrigley Field’s media dining room.
The public posturing had Major League Baseball’s commissioner on edge, already sounding agitated before he listened to a question about an iconic big-market team spending like the Kansas City Royals and Pittsburgh Pirates.
“I’m a Branch Rickey disciple,” Selig said during last week’s centennial. “Branch Rickey used to say (that) the way you go about building a franchise (is) you never make a judgment three to five years in. I think what they’ve done is absolutely the right thing. They’re rebuilding their club in the right way. I have no quarrel with it.”
This is Year 5 for the Ricketts family and the leveraged partnership with Sam Zell’s Tribune Co. This is Year 3 for Theo Epstein’s front office. This is Crane Kenney’s 21st season in the organization as a lead executive in business operations.
The Cubs are on pace for 100-plus losses and headed toward a fifth-place finish for the fifth year in a row. Matt Garza is an easy shoot-the-messenger target — Garza Being Garza — but the ex-Cub echoed some of the frustrations inside the organization with his running-out-of-hope comments.
No one is saying this season should be World Series or bust. But by now, it’s not unreasonable to think the Cubs could have made a truce with the rooftop owners, signed a few free agents who would have made long-term sense (Masahiro Tanaka, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Yoenis Cespedes) and built enough infrastructure that Javier Baez and Kris Bryant wouldn’t be viewed as saviors and Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel wouldn’t be getting trade-deadline questions in spring training.
A Ricketts family profile for a recent episode of “60 Minutes Sports” covered a lot of familiar territory, from the rooftops to the facilities build-up in Arizona and the Dominican Republic to the Cubs Convention inquisition.
In what essentially became a refresher course for the national audience, investigative journalist Armen Keteyian got the most revealing moment during a sit-down with chairman Tom Ricketts.
Keteyian: “It’s a roll of the dice in a lot of ways. Is there a Plan B if this doesn’t work?”
Ricketts: “I’m not sure there is a Plan B. The fact is, when you go to the free-agent market, it is basically like saying: ‘We were unable to develop that player internally.’ But there’s no one big check. There’s no one big guy. There’s no magic button to hit in the free-agent market.”
When top pitching prospect C.J. Edwards went for an MRI last week, it highlighted how fragile this rebuilding process will be. Team officials will hold their breath while Cubs fans go crazy on Twitter, immediately jumping to conclusions after getting burned by Mark Prior and Kerry Wood.
“Good young players are golden,” Seattle Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik said. “But eventually with players in your minor-league system, you’re going to have disappointments. You’re going to have guys get hurt. You’re going to have guys that do not reach the expectations that you hoped for. That’s why you never have enough.
“As you continue to build, you hope you can have a foundation of your own and then eventually add to it.”
Zduriencik — who once drafted Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun and helped the Milwaukee Brewers build their homegrown core — went all-in with Jay Z this winter and signed Robinson Cano to a 10-year, $240 million megadeal.
Whether or not you believe Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and their cronies are the smartest guys in baseball — the Dale Sveum firing, Edwin Jackson’s $52 million contract and Ian Stewart’s Twitter account created questions about management style and reading people — you at least have to admit this front office should be able to make bigger bets.
When the Cubs signed Alfonso Soriano to that megadeal after a last-place finish in 2006, internal projections had the payroll pushing to $160 million and beyond by 2010, maybe not quite keeping up with the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, but certainly dwarfing the rest of the National League Central.
No one is saying the Cubs should have signed Cano and Albert Pujols and traded all their prospects for David Price and Giancarlo Stanton.
“They’ve done a really nice job of building a talent base of young players,” Zduriencik said. “What you always hope for is all of these young players become what you hope they become. When they do that, then it’s time to add a pitcher. It’s time to add a hitter. Whatever your need is. It really depends on what’s available out there, if it’s a free agent, if it’s a trade, what you have to give up. But nobody has truly been able to do it one way.”
No matter what Selig says about “economic viability,” if you don’t understand the Ricketts debt structure and the Zell restrictions, you’re not going to understand The Cubs Way.
By 2020, the Cubs should be free from the Zell limitations, cashing in with a new TV contract — which depends on the cable bubble — and (hopefully) playing in a renovated stadium.
The even-tempered Ricketts also understands the Cubs would be getting ripped for wasting money if they signed a few more free agents and still started 9-17.
No one knows what Branch Rickey would think of the business/baseball plans at Clark and Addison. The Hall of Fame executive invented the modern farm system, pioneered the use of statistical analysis and broke baseball’s color line by signing Jackie Robinson.
The Cubs will have to get creative. New money has diluted free-agent classes, pushing older players, injured guys and Scott Boras clients onto the open market.
As Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said: “There are reasons why teams win. ‘Well, they have good talent.’ How did they get it? It’s not all bought anymore, that’s for sure.”
Selig gave the same Branch Rickey talking point in November 2012, invoking his name during an ownership meetings news conference at the Hyatt Regency O’Hare. That day in Rosemont, the commissioner also said how much he wanted to get involved in the Wrigley Field negotiations and help the Cubs close the deal.
Signing Samardzija sounded like a Branch Rickey move, but Selig was said to be furious when the Cubs bought the Notre Dame wide receiver out of his NFL career for $10 million, blasting upper management for spending like drunken sailors and disrupting the draft’s old slotting system.
This labor deal prevents the Cubs from going all-out in the draft and the international market, another X-factor for an organization that spends so much time talking about the future.
“There’s no question about it, the Cubs are a very important franchise,” Selig said. “I have a lot of faith in Theo, and I’m sure that they’re on the right track. I know what the Ricketts are trying to do. I monitor every franchise very, very closely and I’m satisfied they’re on the right track.”