Tom Ricketts Warns Against Believing in Magic Free Agents, Wants You to Believe in Cubs’ Process Instead

Had I been presented with a series of Tom Ricketts’ most recent quotes sans context, I would have believed they’d simply been culled from previous interviews over the last few months. That’s what happens when you work from a carefully crafted series of talking points, which is how the Cubs chairman’s recent sit-down ($) with Patrick Mooney of The Athletic came off.

Ed. note: The quotes that follow represent only a very small portion of Mooney’s conversation and you should check the piece out in its entirety to ensure you’ve got the full scope of what Ricketts shared.

And lest you think I’m dragging Ricketts for running with rote responses, that’s not the case. He’s far from the first public figure to use repeatable mantras as a means by which to navigate choppy PR waters, and making the media rounds is a good way to make up for not addressing Cubs Convention fans with a dedicated panel. My issue isn’t with using talking points, it’s with the content therein.

Some of what Ricketts has said comes across as disingenuous, if not outright intellectually dishonest. Maybe that’s just the nature of the beast, a reality I’ve created as the result of my own bias and inherent distrust in people positions of power. But when the lack of spending is being attributed to the lack of unicorns and the potential to lose draft position, you can understand why I’m skeptical.

“CBT [competitive balance tax] is a real factor,” Ricketts told Mooney as a means of explaining the team’s payroll situation. “It’s not the defining factor of this offseason. What we’re going to do with CBT is not something we discuss publicly.

“But fans should know there is a cost if you keep your payroll high enough long enough. You’re paying money into the league, which ultimately goes to other teams, and you can lose draft position. It’s a factor. It’s not the defining factor of the offseason.”

This is almost word-for-word what Ricketts shared with Mully and Haugh on 670 The Score back in November, so at least he’s being consistent. But to cite the potential loss of draft position is erroneous because it’s not a function of repeatedly going over the CBT threshold. Rather, it comes as a result of going more than $40 million over, which no one ever expected the Cubs to do.

What Ricketts isn’t saying explicitly is that the revenue-sharing ramifications are almost certainly the real determinate here. It’s not the luxury tax, which would be relatively paltry in comparison to payroll as a whole. Going over the CBT in consecutive seasons could cost the Cubs tens of millions in rebates and payouts, a topic MLB owners are not going to discuss publicly.

Though he vowed that the Cubs’ payroll spending would be at or near the top of the league “every year going forward,” Ricketts drove home the idea that you can’t simply buy a title. As true as that may be in a vacuum, it’s easy to see how at least spending some money — any money — in free agency gives a team the ability to improve weaknesses and reduce its margin for error.

“There’s no magic free agent out there, anyway,” Ricketts explained. “You look at what happened last year with the Padres or the Phillies and it doesn’t always solve your problems.”

Dude, stop. Cherry picking examples like that might work for the people who don’t care for Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, but no one’s out there contending that the Cubs would be World Series champs as the result of signing one single player. Although Gerrit Cole sure as hell would’ve been a nice start. Talk of magic free agents is just a red herring, an act of misdirection to draw focus away from the reality that the Cubs have signed zero guaranteed MLB deals period, not even with muggles.

There has been some concern that this austerity was fueled by budget overages in their ballpark renovations, though Ricketts dismissed that outright. In what was perhaps the most transparent portion of the interview, he explained that ownership financed the construction costs and sold off minority equity shares in the team to foot the bill. Regarding the to-do about his earlier comments that they’d missed their budget target by “around 100%,” Ricketts clarified that it went from “$300 million or something in that range to “$740 million in the end.”

I’m not great at math, but I think that’s actually more than double the original. It’s actually closer to 150% if I just punched the right numbers into the calculator.

Another big project that hasn’t impacted the baseball budget is Marquee Sports Network, which was supposed to have subsidized player payroll immediately. Of course, the network doesn’t even launch until February and doesn’t have it’s biggest carriage deal worked out yet. Until Comcast’s Xfinity comes aboard, which Ricketts indicated could be the case very soon, there’s simply no way to guarantee the big revenue boost the team has been counting on.

To be clear, Ricketts said “we’ll see how it plays out” with Comcast right after mentioning that they have “more (carriage deals) that we’re going to announce over the next few days.” Industry sources indicated to Cubs Insider last month that a partnership with Xfinity was a foregone conclusion and I’ve written that it makes sense for an announcement to come during the business operations panel this weekend, something these latest comments seem to support.

Beyond the most pressing matters of where you’ll be able to watch Marquee is the question of who you’ll be able to watch on the new network. Though it wasn’t a part of Mooney’s conversation with Ricketts, I’m predicting that the introduction of Marquee’s on-air talent will be one of the highlights of the convention weekend. A report from late December claimed that former NFL Network anchor and Chicago-area native Cole Wright has been hired as the main studio host, which Cubs Insider has confirmed with a source close to the situation is the case.

Several former Cubs are in the mix for roles as well, with names like Doug Glanville, Mark DeRosa, and Dan Plesac being mentioned. Though it’s a far cry from announcing a big trade or having Nicholas Castellanos stroll out onto the stage during Friday’s opening ceremonies, finalizing some things with Marquee will create a little buzz and generate some much-needed goodwill for the organization. And yes, I know how hollow that sounds.

In the end, Ricketts said exactly what you’d expect him to say and didn’t really offer much of note. He did, however, leave open the possibility of making midseason acquisitions like they’ve done so frequently in the past. Then there’s the part about spending in the future, particularly with the presumed bump from Marquee, though such things are still amorphous.

Panel or no, Ricketts will be circulating through the crowds at the Sheraton Grand and taking selfies with those who want them. Maybe he’ll even stop to have a late-night chat with lesser-known writers to explain the nuances of arbitration raises or to call a recent column the biggest piece of shit he’s ever read. The possibilities are endless, really. As for the Cubs’ ability to add talent to the roster, however, the possibilities are anything but.

By all accounts, this will be a reset year that could lead to the Cubs jumping back into the market in a big way for 2021 and beyond. They want to “crawl out of the lobster pot,” as Ricketts put it, though exactly what the means will only be revealed in time. Resignation to reality brings with it a sense of freedom, even if that independence comes at the expense of hope. But I tell you what, it’s easier to move forward with the anchor of expectation removed from around your waist.

Ricketts is warning you not to believe in magic, to put your trust instead in the people and processes responsible for the Cubs’ business and baseball operations. So while I’d much rather go on dreaming of unicorns and (lobster?) pots of gold at the end of the rainbow, I’m afraid I have no other choice at this point.

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