The Chicago Cubs could not afford to sit on the sideline in free agency.
The roster had too many holes entering the offseason and, frankly, lacked enough good players to field a competitive team in 2023. One month before pitchers and catchers report to Mesa, Ariz., for spring training, the Cubs have added talent up the middle in an effort to prioritize defense.
During a conversation with the Tribune before the Cubs Convention kicked off Friday, Chairman Tom Ricketts lauded president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer for executing the team’s offseason plan — namely landing one of the top free-agent shortstops.
Dansby Swanson’s seven-year, $177 million contract is the second-largest deal in franchise history and was part of a booming free-agent market that has seen major-league teams commit more than $3.5 billion to 100-plus free agents. The frenzy was in stark contrast to last offseason, when the lockout slowed the process.
“It hit fast and the bigger deals got signed right away,” Ricketts said. “I don’t know what will happen next year. I’m not sure if it’s a trend. A lot depends on who the players are, and there were some pretty high-profile players that came out this year and they’re able to demand those 10-, 11-, 12-year contracts now.
“I’m not sure if that’s a long-term trend, but I’m certainly aware that players are going to be expecting longer contracts going forward.”
Three players — Aaron Judge, Trea Turner and Xander Bogaerts — signed contracts for at least nine years this offseason, while Carlos Correa initially signed a 13-year deal with the San Francisco Giants and then a 12-year deal with the New York Mets before issues with his physical ended both agreements and he re-signed with the Minnesota Twins for six years.
Whether the Cubs have an appetite to wade into that level of long-term contracts will be left up to Hoyer and baseball operations if they want to take that path, Ricketts said.
“It’s just really important that you go into that with eyes wide-open,” he said. “Just by definition in free agency, you’re kind of paying largely for past performance. If they can maintain that performance for the first half of their contract, then it’s of value, but you can’t expect them to maintain that performance for 11 years. You’ve got to always keep that in mind.”
The Cubs’ opening-day payroll will be more in line with their top spending years (2016-19) after committing nearly $292 million to seven players this offseason.
With outfielder Ian Happ and second baseman Nico Hoerner in line for raises through arbitration, the current payroll estimate is $172 million. The threshold for Major League Baseball’s competitive balance tax (CBT) is $233 million this year. The Cubs exceeded the CBT threshold, then $206 million, in 2019, and they were over the $208 million mark in 2020, though MLB suspended the tax for the pandemic-shortened season.
They still have room to make minors moves to the roster.
“We will be very close to the CBT with our payroll and all the expenses that you roll in to calculate that this year,” Ricketts said. “Going over, you always want to be a bit strategic. There’s a financial cost, the longer you go losing draft position, and it starts to affect your ability to source amateur talent. When you do go over the CBT, you want to be deliberate about it and have a strategy around it.
“So there will be times I’m sure in the near future where we’ll go over. But we’ll always keep in mind that there’s a balance there you have to always look to manage. Just like we did a few years ago, we’ll go over, but we have to be careful of how long and by how much.”
One avenue that adds some revenue: the sportsbook at Wrigley Field, which opens this year. The Cubs’ sponsorship money with DraftKings goes to baseball operations.
‘A new strategy’ for expanding TV reach?
The heartfelt story Swanson shared at his introductory news conference in December — in which he recalled his grandfather watching Cubs games daily on WGN when Swanson was growing up in Atlanta — is a connection to the organization that other players have echoed when signing with the Cubs.
WGN long represented a subliminal recruiting tool for future generations of Cubs fans through the team’s nationwide cable TV broadcasts. Blackout restrictions and the limited reach of Marquee Sports Network has altered how the Cubs need to expand their scope nationally.
Ricketts acknowledged the difficulty they face in recapturing that level of reach.
“It definitely allowed the Cubs to be a national team,” Ricketts said. “We still have those fans. They have to get those games on MLB package or elsewhere. So I don’t know that there’s going to be a way to get back to that kind of special setup.
“(WGN owner Tribune Media) decided not to carry the Cubs games anymore. It wasn’t like we wanted to get off WGN. I’m not sure we’ll ever get it completely back, but hopefully at some point there’ll be a new strategy at the league level that will allow us to be more places.”
A direct-to-consumer streaming option through Marquee remains up in the air for 2023, said Ricketts, adding “we don’t have any final answers on that.”
MLB on Thursday announced the hiring of Billy Chambers to a newly created position of executive vice president for local media. Chambers — who had been chief financial officer and chief operations officer of Sinclair Broadcast Group, Marquee’s parent company — is expected to work with the 30 teams on the most effective ways to distribute games to fans in local markets throughout the country.
“The regional sports network ecosystem is under some pressure as people cut cords with cable,” Ricketts said. “I know the league is watching it very, very closely. I think the league also understands that some of these blackout policies don’t really serve the purpose they started with a long time ago.
“Ultimately, I hope the league comes up with a system where any fan can watch any game anywhere. But there’s legacy systems we’re going to have to work out.”
Ricketts did not have any updates on the possibility of the Cubs receiving an upcoming All-Star Game beyond stating they “definitely” would like Wrigley Field to host one.
At the winter meetings in December, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred noted the “embarrassment of riches” with the number of teams wanting an All-Star Game, but made no indication whether the Cubs are in line for the next Midsummer Classics to be awarded in either 2025 or 2027. Only two teams, the Oakland Athletics and Tampa Bay Rays, have not hosted an All-Star Game since it was last played at Wrigley in 1990.
Friday night’s opening ceremonies of the Cubs Convention at one point highlighted the enduring desire of some fans to see slugger Sammy Sosa come back to the organization in an alumni capacity. As Ricketts began his introduction to reveal 2023 Cubs Hall of Fame inductees Shawon Dunston and Mark Grace, a group of fans near the stage began chanting, “Sammy! Sammy!” Ricketts cut in to say Sosa is not yet eligible for it before moving forward with the announcement.
Earlier Friday, when asked by the Tribune about what it will take for Sosa to be welcomed back, Ricketts said, “I don’t have any updates on Sammy at the moment. We’ll just leave it at that for now.”