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A few thoughts about Cubs finances for 2020

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The front office has sent out mixed messages over the last few months.

Photo by Mary Turner/Getty Images

Cubs management has made a number of statements about player payroll spending over the last few months. Many of those concern potential new revenue from the launch of the team’s new Marquee Sports Network.

Some of those statements now appear to conflict with each other, so let me present them in chronological order.

Last May, Patrick Mooney spoke to Cubs President of Baseball Operations Crane Kenney, and Kenney didn’t hesitate, saying there would be more money for the player payroll from Marquee Network money:

“Those additional resources are available immediately next year,” Kenney said. “The team has a rights fee significantly higher than what they’re receiving today, so that’s from the start. Then there’s the question on the network side of what profits are enjoyed, if any, (so) they could also be used for investment in the team or other assets around the ballpark or other interests of the (Ricketts) family. That’s probably a little further down the road. But from the team’s perspective, the rights agreement that they’ve got in place with (Marquee) will give them more resources next year than they had today.”

It should be noted that what this rights agreement between the team and Marquee provides in terms of years or dollars has never been made public. The Dodgers created a similar TV channel in Los Angeles in 2014, partnering with Charter Communications, and this Los Angeles Times article notes that the team and network signed a 25-year agreement that gave the Dodgers $8.35 billion.

Kenney’s comment seemed to indicate a rights agreement was in place last May, but no dollar figure for any such agreement has ever been published, to my knowledge.

In mid-September, Kenney again was quoted as basically saying “full steam ahead” with player payroll:

But just 10 days later, Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein was quoted in The Athletic as saying he didn’t anticipate any additional money because of the Marquee Network:

“The new TV deal, at least for the first few years, basically means the exact same thing for us as the old deal,” Epstein said this week in Pittsburgh. “The first few years will basically replicate the old deal, and then with potential for real growth down the line.”

So, to recap: In May Kenney stated there would be “additional resources,” but in late September, Epstein stated the new deal would “basically replicate the old deal.”

I don’t have any inside scoop here, but those statements would seem to be somewhat contradictory, no?

Then in October, in a radio interview quoted in another article in The Athletic, team chairman Tom Ricketts tried to tamp down any anticipation fans might have had that the Cubs would be big spenders in free agency:

“It’s not about how much you spend,” Ricketts said on The Score’s Mully & Haugh Show. “It’s about how much you win. And the correlation between spending and winning is not nearly as strong as we’d like it to be, in a sense. Obviously, the top couple teams in the league (this year in terms of payroll didn’t) make the playoffs.

“We spent more than every team that made the playoffs, and probably a couple of them combined. But even if you really thought that spending was the answer, the free-agent market is always fraught. I don’t think anyone is any better than anyone else in the free-agent market. It’s always a high-risk thing.”

There are a number of things apparently at work here. Note the date on Kenney’s September statement — the 16th. On September 16, it looked like the Cubs would be headed for at least a wild-card spot in the postseason. Nine days later, when Theo was quoted, they had been eliminated. Did that change the way the team looked at spending?

Maybe, but the statements made by Kenney in May (“But from the team’s perspective, the rights agreement that they’ve got in place with (Marquee) will give them more resources next year than they had today.”) and Epstein in late September (“The first few years will basically replicate the old deal, and then with potential for real growth down the line.”) don’t seem to match up.

Was there a difference in the rights fee the Cubs hoped to get in May and what they actually knew by September what they’d be getting? To me, that seems possible. It is also possible, based on the statement from Ricketts in October, that ownership simply decided to spend less in 2020 for a number of reasons, one of which is the luxury tax. You can make a legitimate argument that the Cubs should be spending more, since they presumably have the money available. They have apparently chosen not to, and they’re not the only team making that choice (the Red Sox have a stated goal of getting under the $208 million first level of tax).

I’m going to give management the benefit of the doubt here and assume that they meant what they said at the time those statements were made earlier this year. In hindsight, though, those statements do seem somewhat in conflict.

Beyond all that, the Cubs appear to be in a holding pattern for any moves until the Kris Bryant grievance is settled, and now that likely won’t be until sometime in January. That doesn’t give much time to make significant changes for 2020.

I want to conclude on a hopeful note, so I’ll simply say this: If the team that takes the field March 26 in Milwaukee is essentially the same as it stands today, December 28, that’s still a very good team that could contend for the N.L. Central title, presuming everyone is healthy (they weren’t in 2019) and produces at the level they’re capable of.

Hang in there. Perhaps the best is yet to come.