The topic du jour in the Cubs Blogosphere is the Passan "hit" piece on the Cubs. To whit:
Let’s be clear on some things: no one could, or should, argue that it isn’t deeply disappointing that the Cubs are where they are right now, in terms of big league competitiveness. We’re five years removed from the last relevant Cubs team, and a sub-$100 million payroll is, yes, a little ridiculous.
The real question is "Should the Cubs spend this money?" or more specifically, "Should the Cubs build through free agency?"
Sahadev's tweet (seriously #PaySahadev):
— Sahadev Sharma (@sahadevsharma) January 10, 2014
I think there's a whole lot of truth in Passan's article, which I'll now take piece by piece.
The first choice bit is the Estimated 2014 Opening Day Payroll; it's $78 million, or 22 MM shy of last year. The $78 million mark would put the Cubs at 26th of 30 teams in baseball for next year. It's a necessary caveat at this point to say that the offseason isn't close to over; the Cubs could add Tanaka, or Garza, or Jimenez, or Santana (please don't). However, even if they added Tanaka to a $15 million AAV contract, they'd still be under Cincinnati or Kansas City, as Passan notes. Here's a handy list:
This is how many dollars each team spent per paid attendant. As you can see, the Cubs are piss-poor by this metric, almost the worst in the league. Look at the luminaries the Cubs find themselves among; a collection of more-or-less the most disfunctional teams in baseball.
Other bloggers will tell you that the primary goal of the Cubs is to win a World Series; any perceived move that carries you further from that goal is a poor one. Furthermore, "true Cubs fans" should have the same goal; we should suffer through the same trials and tribulations that the team does. That is quite simply horseshit. This is a losing proposition for anyone who considers themselves a fan of the team. If the Cubs win the World Series, we don't get a share. It will be an awesome feeling for any Cubs fan, of course, but that moment is fleeting. On the other hand, who hasn't felt these lean times over the past 5 years? I assure you that ticket prices have NOT reflected our diminished expectations (though ask anyone who has attended the games if the butts in the seats have spoken). The grim reality of baseball (and any sport, really), is that only one team wins every year. It's usually not your team. To assign all of your hopes and dreams to one relatively unlikely event is a sure recipe for sadness.
Instead, I want a team that actually spends money in an effort to be competitive nearly every year. The truth of the matter is that I'll trade away a chunk of the already low chance that we win the World Series eventually for a watchable team now. It isn't like the Cubs current stance has guaranteed us anything in the future; it hasn't. It's given us a bunch of shiny prospects who have the same WAR in the major leagues as I do. I'm not trying to say that "progress" towards the ultimate goal of winning a World Series hasn't been made. I AM saying it's not nearly as much progress as most people think.
Let's move on to the next part of Jeff's article.
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.
Oh, and it's worth noting the Cubs are believed to be the most profitable team in the game, too. So there is that.
It's worth mentioning that I'm not sure where Passan gets the last sentence. It's definitely possible that the Cubs are the most profitable team in the MLB by some measures, but the word itself is kinda sticky. You could be profitable by one measure (gate – payroll) and not profitable by a different one (total revenues – total expenses including debt payments or whatever the Ricketts are taking to pay down debts). If it's true that the Cubs are actually making the most money in baseball with a terrible TV agreement and a perceived lack of revenue streams (via the renovation holdups, etc.), that would be a strong indicator that our ownership is the worst in baseball as far as giving a shit about the fans. I'd strongly look into making this a Rays blog if that were the case.
All of this leads into the money shot of Passan's article, and the bolding will be mine:
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.
Absolutely true. What drives this point home is the fact that fans are expected to pay all of the costs of the previous (and this) regime's mistakes. Ticket prices are the 3rd highest in the league. Here's that list again, with a few more columns:
The Cubs are the WORST value in all of baseball. You pay $44.55 for a ticket, and they've spent $23.33 of that money on players in 2013. They are one of 4 teams in baseball that spend less per player than they take in ticket sales. How could one, in good conscience, recommend anyone getting into baseball to be a Cubs fan? This is the conversation right now.
"Hey, I'm really getting into baseball."
"Awesome! What's your favorite team?"
"Oh, don't have one yet."
"You should be a Cubs fan! They have a really great team in Tennessee."
"Uh… don't the Cubs play in Chicago?"
"Well, I was looking at tickets for the Cubs/Cardinals game and they are like $55 bucks for the shittiest seats in the house. Why is it so expensive?"
"Well, for starters they have ivy on the walls, but you can't touch it or interact with it any way. Also, you get to pee in a troth, so that's cool. As you walk up to your seat, you might even catch a glimpse of the majestic nets that catch falling concrete!"
"So why do you like this team again?"
"Have you seen Darwin Barney's defense? That dude is awesome."
"So you pay $45 a ticket to watch a dude play defense? Can he at least hit?"
"He got on base almost 30 percent of the time last year!"
(a short aside: I'm not convinced that Barney's sudden historic fielding outburst isn't mostly due to Dale Sveum's positioning. I would almost expect a regression to more sane numbers during the Renteria era.)
I really do get the argument that it doesn't make sense to throw good money after bad, like that's the only way the Cubs could spend money. Again, that's just changing the narrative here. You can spend money in a smart way – for instance, signing a reliever from Japan, and a few swing guys who can benefit from a change to the NL. Maybe you sign a guy with a harsh platoon and play him in right field, take a chance on a TJS recovery dude. You could be fringe-competitive, and tear it down and spin those guys for actual prospects if it doesn't work out. Mostly though, people watch baseball to be entertained. They don't watch it to see "rebuiliding" unless they are masochistic or under the teams' employ. Take special meaning to that sentence, because I mean it in two ways. People aren't interested in seeing a team that not only hasn't been competitive in 5 years, but also hasn't tried to be competitive for this year. If they aren't interested, they don't attend (and pay the exorbitant, "perennial contender" prices that the Cubs charge for their product). It's also an insane argument to contend that the Cubs have to charge that price because they are in a big city; the Sox charged $18 less a ticket (and still managed to spend twice as much per person in the stands), the Mets spent $19 less, and the Dodgers (the DODGERS!) charged a little more than half of what the Cubs did.
Here is my "we can be hopeful for the future while critical of the present" paragraph. And it really is true. Epstein and Hoyer have been given a bad hand and they've played it admirably. We knew going into this regime that they would be mum on their financial resources; it makes sense both as a tactic and cover. I take our GM at his word when he says there are some financial constraints unique to this team (though I wonder where those constraints were in previous regimes, and I also question the ability of our ownership to extricate themselves from those constraints). The front office has produced a great farm system; however, even that is the eventual outcome of having back-to-back-to-back (soon to be back-to-back-to-back-to-back) top 10 picks, and our Sickels top 20 list looks like the following:
1. Javier Baez – high 1st round pick/inherited prospect from previous regime
2. Kris Bryant – high 1st round pick
3. Albert Almora – high 1st round pick
4. Jorge Soler – high $ IFA signing
5. C.J. Edwards – top trade piece in Garza trade (good job!)
6. Arismendy Alcantara – inherited prospect from previous regime
7. Pierce Johnson – 1st round pick
8. Jeimer Candelario – inherited prospect from previous regime
9. Dan Vogelbach – inherited prospect from previous regime (EDIT: fixed this).
10. Christian Villaneuva – top trade piece in Dempster trade (good job!)
11. Arodys Vizcaino – top trade piece in Maholm trade (good job!)
12. Mike Olt – middle trade piece in Garza trade (good job!)
13. Neil Ramirez – middle trade piece in Garza trade (good job!)
14. Matt Szczur – inherited prospect from previous regime
15. Josh Vitters – inherited prospect from previous regime
16. Kyle Hendricks – bottom trade piece in Dempster trade (good job!)
17. Corey Black – top trade piece in Soriano trade (good job!)
18. Rob Zastryzny – mid (I consider anything not in Top 50 picks middle) level pick (good job!)
19. Ivan Pineyro – top trade piece in Hairston trade (god job!)
20. Paul Blackburn – mid level pick (good job!)
As you can see, the top of the list hasn't exactly been made by wheeling and dealing. I do give credit for "hitting" on Bryant and Almora, though it's harder and harder to miss with the 6th overall and 2nd overall picks (it's prudent to note that the next player of same position taken in each draft is Courtney Hawkins (bust) and Colin Moran (who knows yet)).
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.
One day, I'm hopeful that the narrative will shift away from this incredible, dangerous notion that Championships Uber Alles. I don't watch the Cubs because I want them to win a World Series (at least not primarily). If I wanted to see a team win the World Series, I'd be a Yankees fan. Instead, I'm a a Cubs fan for a bunch of reasons; geographical proximity, familial loyalty, sadomasochism chief among them. Being a Cubs fan is more fun when the Cubs are good, or at least trying be to be good. Everything else is secondary.
Are the Cubs fun to you right now? 29th sounds about right.