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Tom Ricketts talks about the payroll, free agency, the Cubs TV network and more

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The Cubs chairman made some radio talk show appearances Thursday morning.

Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

After the minor kerfuffle regarding the Ricketts family session being eliminated from this year’s Cubs Convention (more on that later), Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts made the rounds on sports talk radio Thursday morning.

New cubs.com beat writer Jordan Bastian helpfully summed up important points made by Ricketts on the radio, and here they are, with my comments below.

COMMENT: To a certain extent, I agree with this. The Cubs will indeed wind up as one of the top spenders in baseball this year; I suspect when all is said and done they will be in the top five, if not the top three. A lot of that is being driven by increases for players newly eligible for arbitration, though almost all Cubs arb-eligible players wound up signing for less than what had been estimated.

Having said that, stating that signing Daniel Descalso is “spending” is a bit disingenuous. Descalso is making only a small amount more than Tommy La Stella would have made had the Cubs not traded him. That’s not really “spending.”

Exercising Cole Hamels’ option IS spending, but it only became necessary because of the failures of last year’s spending on Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood. And it’s likely that the Hamels contract put a crunch on other spending.

I do agree with Tom Ricketts that the Cubs have a good team already and they don’t necessarily need to be free spenders to be contenders.

COMMENT: Again, this comes down to where the Cubs rank in baseball spending. Do the Cubs always have to “keep up with the Yankees”? I’d say not, as they have been quite successful the last four years while not necessarily doing so.

This comment by Ricketts is obviously aimed at those who think the Cubs should break the bank for Bryce Harper; there are clearly factors involved beyond the luxury tax that would be incurred by signing Harper. Ricketts mentions the Dodgers TV network money that’s allowed L.A. to post huge payrolls over the last few years. The Cubs might have that TV money soon, but they don’t now. The question remains: When they do have it, will they spend it?

COMMENT: The key here is the final sentence, with which I agree completely. A healthy Cubs team with the roster they have now could easily go out to a 2016-style start, in which case I’m pretty sure the critics would remain quiet.

COMMENT: The key here is “We have the highest baseball budget we’ve ever had this year, but maybe it doesn’t feel like it to people because we didn’t go out and sign a giant free-agent.”

This is 100 percent correct, in my view. The Cubs player payroll in 2018 was $181 million (per USA Today). That figure doesn’t include miscellaneous figures that count against the luxury tax, such as minor-league salaries and benefits. Last year’s luxury tax figure was approximately $194 million, just below the $197 million threshold that would have triggered tax.

For 2019, my latest estimate has the Cubs at approximately $202.5 million in salary and $223.6 million for the luxury tax. These numbers are both likely to go up before Opening Day. $223.6 million keeps the Cubs just below Level 2 of the luxury tax ($226 million), so they will pay some amount of tax.

Now, can the Cubs afford to spend more? Of course they can; we’ve been over this many times. They (and other teams) have apparently chosen to stay below certain luxury tax levels. Whether this is good for the game or not will probably come out when the next CBA is negotiated.

Tom is spinning this a bit by saying this is the “highest baseball budget we’ve ever had.” That is a true statement, but it lacks context.

COMMENT: The only real news here is that it was widely expected that the Cubs would announce details of their new TV network this weekend at the convention. Based on Tom Ricketts’ statement that “I’m not sure when details can be announced,” this is likely not happening this weekend. Based on statements made last month, it seemed as if a deal for such a network was close. That might, or might not, still be the case.

COMMENT: I’ve made my position on Addison Russell clear here and there’s no need for me to re-hash it now. Obviously the Cubs have chosen their path on this issue and it remains to be seen how fans bring up Russell to management at the convention — you can be sure they will — and how Russell is accepted, or not, by the fanbase when he returns from his suspension.

COMMENT: Here’s one place I agree completely with Tom Ricketts. The postseason is a crapshoot, and essentially that’s what Tom said here regarding the playoffs and getting breaks or timely hits or whatever, those are things that can make or break a postseason. What if the Cubs win that game? Then they’re in a division series and anything can happen.

While the Cubs farm system now is not in great shape, as pointed out here by Josh earlier this week, there’s no question that Tom is correct about the amount of talent graduated from the system over the last few years. Unfortunately, none of it has been pitching, which is one reason the team’s currently in a bind, having to spend on free agent pitchers and having several of the deals not work out well.

COMMENT: I’m not sure what “lowest-rated” means, though it apparently refers to fan surveys done after last year’s convention. I wrote about this Wednesday, and that contains most of the detail I want to go into on this topic. I’ll simply add this: Whether or not the Ricketts family session was “low-rated” last year, there have been many key and/or controversial topics that have arisen regarding the Cubs over the past 12 months, some of which were discussed by Tom Ricketts on the radio and are detailed above.

The fact that there’s no Ricketts family session at the convention gives the impression that the family wants to avoid potentially tough questions from fans. I doubt that this was their intention, but those are the optics, and it doesn’t look good, especially after Tom and his siblings did have sessions with fans at every previous convention since they bought the team, every year from 2010-18, nine straight years. Stopping now wasn’t a good idea, even if the session was “low-rated.”

Lastly, I’ll simply paraphrase one of Tom’s comments and say that April and watching real baseball can’t come soon enough.