While the Cubs wait for Masahiro Tanaka to make The Decision, everyone is wondering where the money is going and if they have what it takes to close the megadeal.
Fans, reporters, agents — even people inside the organization — they’ve all expressed skepticism. When Theo Epstein left the Boston Red Sox, the new president of baseball operations couldn’t have thought he’d have the third-highest payroll in the National League Central.
But Epstein stuck up for ownership on Saturday at the Cubs Convention, answering a direct question about his level of faith in the Ricketts family.
“This is the best thing about the Ricketts and their commitment to the Cubs: They know that they’re going to own this club for generations and generations,” Epstein said. “So they are willing to take the hit now and take some of the heat now and be on the back page of the Sun-Times. Because they know they’re doing the right things to lay the foundation, to get things right, to turn this into a franchise they can be proud of for generations and generations.
“I am more proud of them for their willingness to take that heat and stick to their plan than if they panicked the first time their name was dragged through the mud publicly and said: ‘We can’t do this. We need to put lipstick on this. We need to find some quick fixes just to keep the fans and media at bay. They’re dragging the Ricketts name through the mud.’
“They’re in this for the long haul. And because of that, they’re allowing us to lay the foundation.”
The Cubs have made significant investments in the draft and internationally (at a time when the collective bargaining agreement restricts spending on amateur talent). They’ve upgraded the infrastructure with a new facility in the Dominican Republic and a new spring-training complex in Arizona (which was funded by public money). They’ve built out what chairman Tom Ricketts called “the smallest front office in baseball.”
The Ricketts family is trying to push through the $500 million Wrigleyville project, a private investment that’s supposed to be a game-changer. Ricketts pointed out “we have decades of under-investment in the park that we have to address” as well as “fairly old television contracts.”
That’s part of the inheritance from the highly leveraged $845 million deal between Sam Zell’s Tribune Co. and the Ricketts family that was finalized in October 2009 (and included a stake in Comcast SportsNet Chicago).
“When the Tribune sold the team, there was a requirement that the team take on a certain amount of debt,” Ricketts said. “I think anyone that bought the team would have had to take those sale conditions, for the most part.
“It’s a factor. Almost every single team has some debt. It’s something that is a piece of the puzzle. But it’s not as big a piece of the puzzle as people think.”
Forbes has since valued the franchise at $1 billion and identified the Cubs as the most profitable team in baseball. A payroll that had climbed to almost $145 million by 2010 is projected to be south of $100 million this season (at a time when Major League Baseball’s revenues have topped $8 billion).
This winter, the Cubs earmarked money to make a run at Tanaka. Perceptions will change if a 25-year-old Japanese pitcher decides to come to the North Side.
“The last couple years we’ve spent every single dollar available to us by this point in the offseason,” Epstein said. “We’ve kept a little bit of our powder dry. We’re always looking for opportunities to add impact players who are the right age. So you want to put yourself in a position to have a chance to do that.
“Our strategy this offseason has been, in part, to allow us to deliver an impact young player if he happens to be out there. And if not, maybe this is the year where we don’t spend all the money that we have and we look forward to spending it on the baseball team — on major league players — down the line when it makes sense.
“We’re not going to spend just to spend. But we want to put ourselves in a position to make the right decisions to help build this young core we have developed.”