Editor's note: Yahoo Sports will rank every team in Major League Baseball from 30th to 1st before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series continues with the Chicago Cubs.
2013 record: 66-96
Finish: Fifth place, NL Central
2013 final payroll: $100.8 million(15th of 30)
Estimated 2014 opening day payroll: $78 million (26th of 30)
Yahoo! Sports offseason rank: 29th
Cubs in six words: Spare change? Ownership real bleacher bums.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
Oh, and it's worth noting the Cubs are believed to be the most profitable team in the game, too. So there is that.
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.
This 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.
Wrigley Field truly
Is a hallowed cathedral
Except for the troughs
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