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The Cubs’ Next 5 Years

What do the Cubs need in order to continue to stay on top?

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David Sameshima

SCOTTSDALE, Arizona — The Chicago Cubs could be on the cusp of a very long run of success. At the very least, they seem primed to win the N.L. Central title and make the postseason for the third straight year. That hasn’t been done by the Cubs franchise in over a century, not since the team won three straight league pennants from 1906-08.

That alone shows you how hard this sort of thing is to do, even with 10 postseason teams out of 30. Over the last 25 years or so, only four teams have had sustained postseason success:

  • The Yankees, who made the postseason 18 times between 1995-2015, played in seven World Series and won five of them
  • The Red Sox, who made the postseason 11 times between 1996-2016, played in three World Series and won all three
  • The Braves, who made the postseason 17 times between 1991-2013, played in five World Series and won one of them
  • The Cardinals, who made the postseason 13 times between 1996-2015, played in four World Series and lost two of them

That’s it. I think we’d take sustained runs like any of those. Among those teams, only the Yankees were able to win consecutive World Series, doing it three straight times from 1998-2000. That’s the last time any team has won consecutive World Series. Since 2000, the Phillies (won in 2008, lost in 2009), Rangers (lost in 2010 and 2011) and Royals (lost in 2014, won in 2015) have played in consecutive World Series.

Most recently, the Giants won three World Series in five seasons. We’d take that, I’m pretty sure.

What are some of the factors that are going to affect the Cubs’ ability to win over the next five seasons?

Wrigley Field restoration

The ballpark renovations are supposed to be complete for the 2019 season, though it would not surprise me (especially if the team has long postseason runs in 2017 and 2018), if the final completion date is Opening Day 2020.

The new clubs and other additions to the park should provide additional revenue as the Cubs will, once the renovations are complete, have a ballpark with amenities that match (or exceed) some of the newer parks that have been built over the last 20 years.

The Cubs have a chance to set an all-time franchise attendance record this year, and with ticket prices raised considerably from 2016, that should also provide needed revenue.

The proposed Cubs TV network

The Cubs’ TV deals with CSN Chicago, WGN-TV and ABC-7 all expire at the end of the 2019 season. The team has made no secret that they want to launch their own channel to carry all games beginning in 2020. They’ve even hinted that this channel could begin earlier than that, even if it can’t carry live games:

So does this mean the Cubs will be waiting until 2020 for their infusion of TV money?

“I think that’s just one option,” [Theo] Epstein said at the Boca Raton Resort and Club. “My understanding is that we’d be open to a deal earlier than that as well, as long as a good one presents itself.”

This Fangraphs article from last April goes into great detail on each of the 30 teams’ local TV deals. While the Cubs ranked sixth overall in local TV revenue for the 2016 season, you can see in the chart that many teams in markets smaller than Chicago have signed long-term deals in recent years that are paying them nine figures. The Dodgers’ deal dwarfs everyone, and though the carriage issues in the L.A. market are well-known, the Dodgers are still getting their money. It’s Time Warner that’s losing cash on this deal.

The Cubs probably don’t want to get themselves involved in something like that, where cable and satellite operators won’t carry their new channel. One way to get around that issue would be to partner with Comcast in creating the Cubs network. CSN Chicago already has two full-time channels. Perhaps one could be converted into the Cubs channel, with the other local teams sharing the other one. That would eliminate the carriage problem.

MLB’s labor deal with players

According to this article, the new luxury tax thresholds can cause high penalties on teams that exceed the limits:

2017 threshold: $195 million

2018: $197 million

2019: $206 million

The Cubs’ estimated 2017 payroll is approximately $169 million. That number includes the recent renewals of the pre-arb eligible players. You’d think that would exclude the Cubs from the luxury tax, though they wound up paying a small amount in 2016, the first time the Cubs ever had to pay the tax.

This will become important going forward as players like Jake Arrieta head to free agency (it would be pricey to keep him) and players like Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Addison Russell hit arbitration and eventual free agency. Keeping the core together will cost the Cubs a lot of money, both in contract and possible luxury tax. The new CBA’s tax almost functions as a de facto salary cap.

It would not surprise me if we have a real tough labor negotiation through the 2021 season, with the possibility of a labor stoppage in 2022. That’s also just about the time where the Cubs’ core will hit free agency.

The farm system

The system is in excellent shape even with the “graduations” of players like Schwarber and Bryant. The Cubs have several players (Eloy Jimenez and Ian Happ are the foremost examples) in Top-100 rankings, and if they do lose players to free agency they can re-stock either with these players, or by trading from strength in the system to fill needs (starting pitching will be one of them by 2018). SB Nation’s John Sickels ranks the Cubs system only 18th, but:

Like the Twins, the Cubs should stabilize here and start moving back up the rankings as next wave moves up.

It’s hard to win. We already know that from last season, where the Cubs could easily have been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs if they hadn’t had that miraculous four-run rally against the Giants in NLDS Game 4. Having to face Johnny Cueto in an elimination game would have been very difficult. Then the World Series comes down to Game 7... and extra innings... and even with a two-run lead, that last out wasn’t easy to get.

This Cubs team seems primed to be a strong contender over the next five years with the organization that Tom Ricketts, Crane Kenney and Theo Epstein have built. The above are some of the factors that will help determine whether they have the revenue to continue to compete with baseball’s other top franchises and have a run like the Yankees, Red Sox, Braves and Cardinals did for two decades or more.