Kris Bryant Confirms Cubs Were Bryce Harper’s Preferred Destination, So Why Didn’t It Happen?

A Look at What Changed with Budget During 2018 Season

There’s no use crying over spilled milk that’s already under the bridge, so I’ll spare you any crocodile tears over this topic. I do, however, want to spend a little time rehashing the Bryce Harper deal that never was and sharing some of the Twitter discourse that took place Thursday morning in light of a minor revelation from Kris Bryant. Then we’ll look at the paradigm shift that took place in the organization over the course of the 2018 season.

“He came to Chicago, he played us, we went to dinner one night at Steak 48 there in Chicago,” Bryant recently told the Red Line Radio podcast. “We were just talking and I was like, ‘Man, it’d be super cool if you came to Chicago.’ And he was like, ‘Honestly, it’s the top of my list.’

“And I thought we really had a chance to get him. I kinda forget the situation, exactly who we signed or whatever, but he really loves Chicago. He loves coming to the city, eating there. I mean, who doesn’t like coming to Chicago? I’m kinda bummed out that we missed out on that opportunity.”

Before going further, I want to go ahead and acknowledge the potential pitfalls of signing a player to a massive long-term deal. Some of you will no doubt point to Jason Heyward or the fact that the Nationals won after Harper left while the Phillies have done nothing with him. With all due respect, none of that is really germane to the subject at hand.

The Cubs didn’t simply choose not to pursue Harper, they didn’t have the money in the budget for him. Bryant’s probably just being demure when he says he doesn’t remember who the Cubs signed because that year’s only big position-player deal was with Daniel Descalso. Much has been made about the current budget crunch, but that winter heading into the 2019 season was the first in which the Cubs notably pulled back on the financial reins.

Descalso’s $5 million guarantee is the largest they’ve given to any position player since Jon Jay in 2017 ($8 million) and it’s the only multi-year deal for a position player since Jason Heyward signed prior to the ’16 season. In the time since that Jay contract, Descalso’s deal is one of only two guarantees the Cubs have given to a position player and it’s five times more valuable than the $1 million Steven Souza Jr. got last year.

Again, that’s hardly a matter of choice. While a big spending spree on a bunch of pitchers prior to 2018 — that’s when the Cubs signed Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood, and Brandon Morrow — certainly ate up a lot of flexibilty, Theo Epstein indicated at the time that money would always be there for the right player.

“We have some work to do to make sure we’re in a position to pounce if a certain great fit or just the right special player happens to become available,” Epstein explained to 670 The Score in February of 2018. “Or somebody wants to be in Chicago and something becomes too good to turn down, it’s just too impactful, or too good a deal (and) would mean too much to the team, we just need to be in a position to do that.”

Following that disappointing 2018 season, one that saw them draw nearly 3.2 million fans in the third of four consecutive seasons of at least 3 million, something changed. You might say revenue streams broke somewhere along the lines, resulting in the “season of reckoning” that saw the Cubs choosing to run it back with nearly the same roster while spending very little to patch up any holes.

If we go back to that earlier interview, we get to some really interesting statements that point to what Tommy is discussing in the tweets above. Epstein’s expectations for baseball budgets in 2019 and beyond were clearly very different at the start of 2018 from the reality he was presented with after the Cubs stumbled down the stretch and lost both Game 163 and the Wild Card.

“Tom (Ricketts) was very supportive,” Epstein said of the Darvish acquisition. “It’s wonderful to have an owner like that that sees the big picture and then once he’s gotten a real taste of winning isn’t necessarily content just to be a contender or in the mix each year, but really wants to capitalize on this window that we have and deliver championship baseball to our loyal fans who certainly deserve it.

“We’re starting to capitalize on some new revenue streams and that allows us to fish in these waters as long as we do it in a responsible way for the short and long term.”

The revenue streams Epstein is talking about were mainly from new legacy sponsorships, the Ricketts’ real estate investments through Hickory Street Capital, and the addition of more luxury seating options as part of Wrigley Field’s ongoing renovation. The same renovation that resulted in a budget overrun of “about 100%” and for which the Ricketts family is now receiving tax credits that won’t be used to pay players.

Then there’s the move that was long lauded as the crown jewel, a massive TV deal that was supposed to provide the front office with more than enough money to keep spending as they saw fit. But as the Cubs remained stuck in a fractured arrangement necessitated by the covenants of the team’s sale, the sports-broadcasting bubble burst.

The business operations side had talked openly since at least 2015 about avoiding the pitfalls the Dodgers faced in their rollout of SportsNet LA, which was unavailable to nearly half of in-market households for several years after it launched in 2014. Thing is, the Dodgers still got to sit back and enjoy the spoils of an $8.35 billion deal for the network that pays them $334 million annually over a 25-year period.

The Cubs, on the other hand, entered into a partnership with Sinclair Broadcasting that saw the team taking on a great deal of the startup costs. Claims from Crane Kenney that the new entity would immediately produce much larger revenues were dubious enough from the outset, but bad decisions and worse timing saw fit to squash the notion of Marquee as a boon to the baseball budget.

To be sure, Marquee’s choppy maiden voyage is not to blame for the Cubs’ inability to pursue Harper. Knowing that the market had shifted, however, may have drastically altered future budget projections well in advance of the network’s creation.

We also know it couldn’t have been a matter of the gameday revenues Ricketts claims account for 70% of the Cubs’ overall income, a figure that is much higher than the MLB average. While it’s plausible that the Cubs indeed depend on fans for a higher percentage of revenue than most clubs, the main reason that number is so high now is precisely that the TV deal isn’t on par with other major markets.

Had the Cubs inked a Dodgers-style deal, which is impossible because such windfalls are now a thing of the past, their TV money would far outstrip what they get from gate, concessions, and the like. Since such a deal was never an option, and because it’ll take more time still for Marquee to get off the ground financially in light of persistent carriage issues, the Cubs are slashing player payroll and resorted to firing 100 employees from the lower levels all the way on up to the very VP who oversaw the entire renovation project.

This doesn’t absolve Epstein and Jed Hoyer of some poor decisions along the way, but it is the height of foolishness to put this solely on their shoulders. Remember, many of those decisions were made under the assumption that the budget would be there to help paper over some of those mistakes. It’s hard to course-correct when your map changes halfway through the trip.

My point here isn’t to blame any one person or group of people, though you could very easily find justification for pointing your finger in any number of directions. Rather, I wanted to go back and look at what was very clearly an inflection point for the Cubs as an organization, the point at which it became clear they weren’t going to be able to compete financially with the other big-market teams.

Many will cite the money Ricketts had been devoting to payroll for several years as a sign that he’s not the cheapskate many make him out to be. Again, not the point. The increased spending presupposed a future that never came to pass, hence all the scrambling to cut costs now. Remember, this all started well before COVID resulted in a shortened season with no fans. Because those big contracts continue to play out over several years, we’re only just now seeing the Cubs’ payroll drop off dramatically as deals expire and players are traded.

With that all out there, let’s close on a potentially positive note: The Cubs currently have just $40.5 million committed to their 2022 payroll. That could mean they’re going to get even more serious about saving as much money as possible next year, especially if Marquee continues to flounder and fans aren’t back at Wrigley this summer, but it could also mean we see them start to spend again. The question is whether they’ll spend enough to make a difference.

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