Here we go again.
No Robbie Ray. No Marcus Stroman. No big plays in free agency this winter for the big-market boys from the North Side — no matter what they said at the trade deadline about all that payroll flexibility they created by jettisoning the core and all that “not-a-rebuild” rhetoric.
Whether that’s more budget crunching from Ricketts-family ownership or smart-guy hubris from a front office trying to outsmart the rest of a multi-billion-dollar industry, Cubs president Jed Hoyer made it clear Wednesday the Cubs are staying out of the deep end of free agency this winter.
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Smart? Cheap? Good move? Bad?
Call it whatever you want.
But given their lack of impact prospects anywhere near ready to win in the big leagues and given the tattered look of their 91-loss big-league roster, that leaves the Cubs — and their GoFundMe fan base — looking uphill at another daunting, multi-year rebuild that figures to have a short-term feel closer to tank than bank.
The Cubs might bristle at the suggestion they’re in the process of giving away seasons again to win at some undetermined future date (“It’s hard to put timelines on things,” Hoyer said).
But Hoyer’s repeated refrain of “not looking to win the offseason” and comparisons to the surprising Giants and low-budget Rays told as much of the story of the Cubs’ plans this winter as if Hoyer had conducted his inner-circle executive meetings on a public Zoom session.
Asked if the extremely pitching-thin Cubs expect to be in play for any of the top two or three free agent starters on the market — Ray, Stroman, et al — Hoyer said:
“I’m not going to tip our hand as far as what we do in free agency. I’ve said repeatedly that we do have financially flexibility. We have money to spend this winter. But I think it’s really important that we do that in an intelligent way.”
In other words, the mega-revenue team with less than $40 million committed to only three contracts on the books so far for next season will stay away from the deep end of free agency and take more of a volume approach, looking for lesser-cost upside guys or players who might not be on everybody’s radar screen?
“I wouldn’t say that,” Hoyer said. “I think it’s just being opportunistic and striking when you feel like the value’s right.
“We’re going to be active,” he added. “We have a lot of holes to fill on this roster. We have a lot of areas we need to improve, so I think we’ll certainly be active. But I think we need to be active in a way that we feel we’re getting the right value for the dollars we’re spending and we’re also making sure that we’re not hindering ourselves going forward with expenditures for right now.”
Doesn’t exactly sound like a big-market team.
But maybe that’s OK if there’s a rationale and wisdom to the process that goes beyond “intelligent” spending and “value” and “being opportunistic” in some kind of think-tank vacuum.
Because nothing the Cubs do is in a vacuum. Especially when it comes to building rosters and treating fans like ATMs.
The Cubs already are the first major-revenue team in major-league history to intentionally tank full seasons to rebuild. And as they give the appearance of being willing to undergo at least a softer version of that again, they’re charging some of the highest prices in the majors for everything from tickets to merchandise to a tone-deaf in-house network.
Maybe Hoyer and his top staff actually do have the rest of the sport outsmarted.
How else to explain Frank Schwindel, right?
But when Hoyer falls back on the old standby of not wanting to win the offseason and of drawing comparisons to teams that won this year despite not spending big last winter, that sounds more like misdirection or obfuscation.
Maybe that pandemic-panicked ownership is still keeping the screws tighter on the budget than we thought. Maybe the ongoing labor talks — which Hoyer openly admits will be a factor for his team’s plans and everybody else’s this winter — have compelled Hoyer’s team to assume lower prices on the back end of the winter, assuming a lockout in December doesn’t derail the whole thing.
But this isn’t the time to sell fans on patience, trust-me timelines, second-tier free agent efforts and comparisons to Tampa Bay’s princes of the game’s pauper class.
Not two months after selling off actual championship players, in some cases fan favorites — players like Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Craig Kimbrel, all of whom wound up in the playoffs. Not to mention Kyle Schwarber and Jon Lester, who are both in the playoffs after being jettisoned last winter.
And not after the kind of a fourth-place finish this year that quickly brings to mind the tanking the front office employed the last time this team was this bad.
That one came with a 2016 payoff — ahead of schedule even.
The problem is the next rebuild is coming only five years later.
That’s ahead of the kind of schedule nobody saw coming.
And if another lengthy, “stack one good decision on another” process toward the next championship contender is the plan, then that’s also a problem.
For one thing, that calls into question in a very big way the decisions that were stacked upon one another the last two or three years to get to this point.
For another, bigger thing, that's not the deal fans signed up for when they signed up for higher prices on season-ticket renewals and when they held their noses to sign up to pay the fees for that subpar Cubs network.
And if you think that’s just some kind of media narrative, go back and count the increased numbers of empty seats at Wrigley Field after the trade deadline.
Hoyer — who was forced by ownership to slash payroll last year in his first winter running the operation — was conspicuously short on details and long on platitudes and maybes in his first end-of-year media session.
With the exception of the one hard fact nobody looking at this team can escape: “We need to dramatically improve our pitching.”
Maybe they’ll outsmart everybody and find enough of it in January and February among the second-tier free agents to reverse their 71-91 record next year. Maybe they’ve got a trade up their sleeve nobody sees coming.
But nothing Hoyer said about their “aggressive” and “active” plans for the winter sounded very aggressive at all.
It may not make a lot of sense to go out and throw wheelbarrows full of money at every Kevin, Marcus and Robbie at the top of the free agent pitching market in one offseason — even if you’re the Yankees or Dodgers.
But blowing up the entire core of a roster that reached the playoffs five out of the previous six years and then embarking on a drips-and-drabs, low-profile approach to rebuilding it after promising a short timeline is hard to tolerate from any professional sports team.
It’s galling and borderline laughable for one of the highest-revenue teams in the sport and a team that expects as much from its fans as this one.