“We Plan to Be Very Active Again This Offseason Competing in the Free Agent Market”

You know well enough by now that you have to parse the words from a team’s ownership group – any ownership group – very carefully. They tend to be exceedingly cautious in what they’ll get into, and sufficiently rosy on any outlook. The scrutiny on the comments is high, and they know this. So you won’t always get a lot of candor.

Generally, that’s been true of the Cubs’ ownership group, particularly in the years since the ownership panel was canceled at the Cubs Convention. Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts rarely speaks to the media about the organization, instead deferring to those he’s put in charge of baseball and business operations. That’s usually fine, since there is rarely anything that he could speak to that Jed Hoyer and Crane Kenney could not.

Exceeeeppppppt the direction of team finances and spending. Yes, Hoyer and Kenney will and do speak to financial issues, at least in broad terms, but when it comes to the true state of available dollars for team spending, hearing it straight from the horse’s mouth always tells a slightly different, more accountable story.

The last two times we heard from Ricketts on Cubs finances, the comments were about “biblical” losses for the league in the wake of the pandemic, and about having and using the resources to compete in 2022. Your mileage may vary on just how much those losses impacted teams, including the Cubs, and on just how much the Cubs deployed resources last offseason to compete in 2022.

Me? I do believe there were substantial losses due to the pandemic, but they seem to have stabilized rapidly (and have more than been offset by runaway team valuations). And I do believe the Cubs spent last offseason with an eye toward giving themselves a VERY SMALL chance of competing in 2022, but I also suspect they always knew this was going to be a rebuild. Hoping for something more rapid is not the same thing as expecting it.

With the Chicago Cubs in the national spotlight thanks to the ‘Field of Dreams Game,’ ESPN’s Jesse Rogers got some more comments from Cubs owner Tom Ricketts on the state of the organization, and what fans can expect going forward. The article is a deep take on the rebuild, with comments not only from Ricketts, but also Jed Hoyer, Nico Hoerner, and Ian Happ, and it’s worth a read.

Among Ricketts’ comments, there is some hinting at an offseason uptick in spending, though you will again have to parse the words carefully:

“I’ll be the first to acknowledge this is not the type of baseball Cubs fans deserve,” Ricketts said. “Our decision last year to move away from Cubs players who brought us a World Series title was tough, but we have a plan to return to championship contention by building the next great Cubs team around a young core of players augmented by free agent signings — and we’re making progress….

“Our moves over the past year and at the trade deadline have put us in a position of strength in both player and financial currency. We plan to be very active again this offseason competing in the free agent market.”

I have a lot of thoughts on these comments, though I’ll tell you right now that you kind of have to read them in concert with things we already know and/or believe about the state of the organization.

Where you’ll want to hang your hat, if you’re the hopeful type, is on the multiple mentions of free agency.

To be sure, Ricketts did not say “we will spend a crapload in free agency.” Instead, it’s all hedging language – words like plan, active, competing – and it will be “true” no matter how the offseason actually plays out.

However, the mere mention of free agency by the owner – multiple mentions, actually – is notable, and sets us up for an accountability opportunity.

The last rebuild, even as the Cubs DID spend aggressively in free agency, that was never part of the central messaging from the highest level. Instead, it was all about how building through free agency was no longer feasible, and developing a core internally was key. That was, of course, correct. Where the Cubs fell short was in situating themselves internally to sustain that success through player development, and, at times failing to make that one more necessary free agent addition in 2017-2020.

This time around, we know that the Cubs are trying to establish a better development pipeline so that it’s not just one big cresting wave of a core that crashes on the beach and there’s nothing left behind it. But now we also know that free agency is becoming an explicit part of the messaging.

That may not matter, because, again, the Cubs did spend in free agency last time around. But when you have the chairman saying publicly that the “next great Cubs team” will include free agent signings, then there is at least some added weight behind fans’ expectations that the Cubs *WILL* make some longer-term, impact-level free signing agent. Those types of players will be part of the core.

In other words, it is reasonable to expect that signings like Marcus Stroman and Seiya Suzuki are not necessarily one-offs designed to place the fans in 2022. Instead, they are expected to be part of a multi-year process of layering those kinds of free agent signings (together with, every year, short-term additions as needed or as opportunities arise). You can’t – or shouldn’t, I guess – make all of your priciest medium and longer-term free agent signings in a single offseason. The baseball budget, loathed though it may be, is real. So staggering your most expensive additions can help smooth out the process of staying competitive longer term.

The Cubs hold a theoretical financial advantage over their NL Central counterparts, and being able to layer significant free agent additions every year should be part of that advantage. Those teams all get extra draft picks and favorable CBA treatment? OK. The Cubs should have more dollars to spend in free agency. That’s how this system is designed.

So, at the end of this, where do I land on Ricketts’ comments?

Honestly, nowhere different from where I already had landed: I think the Cubs are going to be aggressive in free agency. I think they will target some of the top available free agents, and while you can’t ever count on landing your targets – other teams exist – I believe there will be an aggressive effort to add players who make sense for multiple seasons.

I think they were more aggressive last year than many give them credit (the contractual commitments to Stroman and Suzuki, alone, topped $170 million), and I expect that to ratchet up further this offseason. Part of that is my evaluation of the roster and the farm system – if they had only a 10% chance of competing this year, I see the bones there for it to be much closer to 40 or 50% in 2023 – but part of it is a push for accountability.

As in, I think fans are justified in taking these words from ownership at face value SO THAT IT DOES become reality: they say they have a financial position of strength and will compete in free agency? OK. Yes. Must. I expect it. You said it. Let’s see it.

Following the launch of Marquee, the nadir of the pandemic, season ticket holder losses, and the coming sportsbook and likely streaming service, ownership knows that the best way to succeed financially is to succeed on the field as soon as possible. That doesn’t mean spending blindly in free agency, but it does mean adding wins in free agency. So even if you are viewing this whole thing solely through a cynical lens, in the post-World-Series-win world of the Cubs, the best way to make lots of money is to win lots of games. Doing so in 2023 will require significant additions in free agency.

The Cubs have said they will be “very active” in free agency this offseason. Hold them to it, if for no other reason than it is SMART for them to be very active this year!

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