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Tom Ricketts on Wrigley renovations, Cubs TV network, free agency and more

The Cubs chairman is optimistic about 2018.

Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

MESA, Arizona — In a wide-ranging session with bloggers Monday afternoon, Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts revealed that the team is expecting the 2018-19 offseason to be the final year of Wrigley Field renovations.

He added that the park will look pretty much the same as it did last year, and things should be ready to go April 9, with the exception of some new added concession stands and restrooms — the latter, of course, always important.

Presuming this is true in terms of the major renovations being done by Opening Day 2019, that would keep the Cubs on the five-year plan they had originally set out, as the first shovels went in the ground in October 2014.

Also ready for a grand opening April 9 will be the Hotel Zachary and “several new restaurants,” said Ricketts, who added that he’s really excited to see the transformation of the neighborhood.

Regarding the Cubs’ “core” of players and whether the finances will be available to keep them together for the longterm, Ricketts said for the most part he would “defer to Theo” on salary matters, but said that the team has budgeted for arbitration raises that will be coming for the core over the next few years and as far as going over the luxury tax limit t do so, he said the team would take it “year by year.”

He echoed Theo Epstein’s take on Yu Darvish by saying that Darvish was clearly the best pitcher on the market this winter and was a “good fit” for the Cubs and that Darvish definitely “wanted to be a Cub.” He did note that he hasn’t had a chance to have a one-on-one talk with Darvish yet.

Ricketts always takes the opportunity of the first full-squad workout to address the entire Cubs squad. I asked him what he told them this year.

“What I say every year,” he said, “is relatively consistent. We talk, first of all, about how it’s a family business and so behave on and off the field consistent with the privilege of being a Cub. We want to make sure that we do everything we can for our fans, treating our fans like gold, because without them we’d all be doing something else, and anything they want to do to support any cause, we’ll support them through our charitable arm, and we want to be the most charitable team in sports.”

He finished his talk to the team by emphasizing “using these 40 days” (in other words, the time of spring training) to get off to a good start because there was a big difference in the way the team entered the 2017 playoffs compared to 2016, in other words, winning the division by such a huge margin in 2016 allowed them to get well prepared for the postseason.

Ricketts praised Anthony Rizzo for what he did for the students and families in his hometown in Florida after last week’s shooting, saying, “It’s something very, very close to home for him and he responded like the person of high character that he is. If he needs anything else from us we’ll certainly help him.”

I asked Ricketts whether Rizzo might be in line for a contract extension. Again he deferred to Theo, but he did say, “Everything about Anthony is great, his team leadership, his off-the-field charity efforts, whether it’s dollars or time, are great. He won the Roberto Clemente Award last year, he’s the complete package. What happens in the long run I don’t know, but we’re very, very fortunate he’s on our club.”

The Cubs will likely be going their own way on a TV network in 2020, as President of Business Operations Crane Kenney noted at the Cubs Convention. I asked Ricketts whether that meant going alone as in not partnering with another team, or not partnering with a media company. He said either could be true, and sports media is still extremely valuable, so even though things are being “complicated” by streaming and various other ways to watch TV, but by the “potential mergers that exist in the industry.”

Essentially, he said “everything’s on the table” as far as a TV network is concerned, and though there had been rumors the team might want to launch their TV channel sometime before it can carry live games in 2020, Ricketts said that’s not going to happen. He says he trusts Kenney to do the right thing, noting “he’s been doing this for 20 years, probably no team president knows more about media than he does.” He’s expecting the path here to become clearer perhaps by this summer.

The Ricketts family now runs 11 of the 16 rooftop clubs surrounding the ballpark, and he said they’re going to continue to operate the buildings as rooftops. “It’s a great way to watch games,” he said, “and a great way to get groups to gather, and we don’t have a lot of space inside the park.” They’ll also continue to operate the apartments that currently occupy the lower floors of many of the buildings as rental apartments.

Ricketts wrapped things by addressing the slow free-agent market this offseason: “It is a market. Teams are doing what they think is best for them. Next year’s free agent class is pretty special, so I think that put a damper on this year’s free agent activity, but apart from that I’d also say that teams more than ever are focused on player development, maybe more so than any time in the history of baseball, as GMs are focused on building teams as opposed to buying teams. The other thing I think a lot of people have missed is there aren’t a lot of fresh TV deals coming. For years there was one or two teams that would have a new RSN deal and that would increase their revenues and those dollars would typically go into player expenses. The last couple of years there haven’t been any, so there hasn’t been a lot of fresh money for a lot of teams.”

This is what’s been considered by many: that the presence of Bryce Harper and perhaps Clayton Kershaw on the free-agent market next winter might be what teams are “saving up” for. Right now that’s just theory. We’ll see if it turns into reality next November.

Ricketts said the team might consider having a FanFest in Mesa, for Cubs fans who can’t make it to the convention but might go to one at spring training, or for the many fans who already live in Arizona.

He briefly addressed the pace of play rule changes that were announced Monday, saying he would “defer to the league” on which changes should be made, but did say that “one of the things that’s happened with increased strikeouts, walks and home runs, there’s fewer balls in play and fewer plays with ‘action’ in them. We do want to keep the games moving, if we can.”

“It’s going to be a pretty incredible year,” Ricketts concluded. “The core is intact, the rotation is probably the best rotation since I’ve been here, and the bullpen depth is something everyone’s excited about.”

Many thanks to Julian Green and Nicole Bersani of the Cubs for helping arrange this interview opportunity.