Chicago Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts arrived at the ballpark in good time.
It was a beautiful Saturday morning at Wrigley Field, the gates were about to open on Nico Horner Bobblehead Day, and Ricketts had inducted former coach Buck O’Neil, broadcaster Pat Hughes and legendary outfielder José Cardenal into the Cubs Hall of Fame.
Ricketts was in a fine mood as he approached a half-dozen reporters loitering in the concourse.
“Sitting here today, I really feel great, honestly,” he said in an impromptu interview before a 5-2 loss to the San Francisco Giants.
Not surprisingly, Ricketts has a more optimistic outlook than some of the fans who’ve tuned out the rebuild that can’t be called a rebuild. He’s happy with the development of young pitching and the job manager David Ross has done. He said there is money to be spent in the offseason, and that team President Jed Hoyer and his minions are the right guys to do it. And the fans who talk to him are “happy” about the process and firmly believe in the team’s future.
In case you haven’t noticed, it’s always sunny in Rickettsville.
“Obviously, following a similar process or strategy as we did 10 years ago” he said, comparing this season with the 2012 rebuild. “Having done it once, and largely with the same people, it gives me a lot of confidence that we’ll do it the right way again.”
The Cubs began Saturday with a 58-80 record, on pace for 94 losses. Average attendance at Wrigley was down about 15% (38,208 to 32,490) from 2019, the last full season with full capacity at home games. The actual crowds inside the park were around 15,000 for three weekday games against the Cincinnati Reds, and season-ticket holders can’t unload their tickets for free.
But Ricketts said the Cubs did what they set out to do — and deemed the 2022 season a “success.”
“The fact is you can’t buy a championship team in baseball,” he said. “You have to build it. And that’s what we’re doing. And in order to build it, you’ve got to take years where you let young guys get at-bats, give them a chance to prove themselves and find out who you actually have to build around. And that’s what this year has been all about. And it has been a success.”
The original rebuild turned the corner in 2015 when the Cubs signed free agent Jon Lester, hired Joe Maddon to manage and promoted prospects Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber. There are no players currently in the system as highly touted as Bryant was, but there may be more depth after Hoyer stockpiled lower-level prospects during last season’s sell-off. Several of those players are expected to be ready in 2023 and ‘24.
Ricketts, who has not done a group interview with Cubs beat writers since mid-2021, declined to say whether he feels Hoyer has been “vindicated” by the sell-off, even as Bryant, Javier Báez, Craig Kimbrel and others moved last year have struggled this season. He simply noted it was “time to make changes, and I give Jed credit” for making the necessary moves.
“It is about building the next winning team,” he said. “Not about what happened in the past.”
That oft-heard talking point also could apply to the decision to cut Jason Heyward loose after the season with one year and $22 million remaining on his eight-year, $184 million deal.
Ricketts said that was Hoyer’s call: “That’s all Jed.”
So it doesn’t go through Ricketts?
“Yeah, we talk about everything, but that’s Jed’s decision,” he continued. “Jason has been a great player for us. Obviously he didn’t have the kind of stats people expected. But a great team player, a great guy, a big part of our championship. Wish him all the best.
“But once again, as you’re looking forward, you’ve got to find at-bats for new guys. That’s how you find out what you’ve got.”
Ricketts deferred questions about free-agent decisions to Hoyer, saying the “ball is in Jed’s court when it comes to how and where” he spends the Cubs’ money. Hoyer has conceded the Cubs need power, and there will be a few pricey free agents available that would fit the bill, including Aaron Judge.
“He’s got a lot of flexibility, and we’ll let him do it,” Ricketts said of Hoyer, adding: “I have confidence Jed knows what he’s doing.”
Ricketts said the smaller crowds at Wrigley are a byproduct of the losing record, and “all we can do about that is create a great game-day experience, and even if we’re having a bad season (ensure) everybody has a great day at Wrigley Field.”
He believes most Cubs fans are on board with the development plan because some young players have stepped up and top prospects are close to being major leaguers.
Referring to skepticism from local reporters, Ricketts said even media members “have to admit” the pitching infrastructure “has really delivered.” He called himself “super-optimistic” about what’s in store down the road.
Ricketts often walks around the ballpark talking to Cubs fans, whom he said were “happy” about having a team that “cares about winning” and “plays hard.” Ricketts said fans like the young players and believe Ross is a “great manager.”
“People understand we have a good future,” he said.
When asked if he saw what fans were saying on Twitter, Ricketts grinned.
“People don’t put nice things on social media,” he said. “C’mon.”
Ricketts would’ve spoken longer, but a team employee broke off the conversation.
“We’ve got to do this more often,” Ricketts was told.
Wait until next year.