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Just what are the Cubs doing this offseason, and why?

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It’s a mystery. Or is it? Here are exactly 1,000 words about the current state of our favorite team.

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Recently, I wrote a series of articles headlined “Why haven’t the Cubs signed this guy yet.”

I wrote those articles because I believed the players named could help the Cubs and wouldn’t be too expensive.

And then Jon Lester signed earlier this week with the Nationals. It became clear to me then that the Cubs weren’t going to sign anyone of any significance this offseason, certainly no one for more than $1 million or so. Gordon Wittenmyer summed it up pretty well at NBC Sports Chicago:

Jon Lester is headed to Washington, because the Cubs couldn’t come up with $5 million to counter — and wouldn’t so much as engage the motivated-to-stay clubhouse giant in talks until the Nationals already were well down the road with the best free agent in Cubs history.

Lester, the five-time All-Star who symbolized the cultural and competitive turnaround when he signed as a big-ticket free agent six years ago, wanted to return to Chicago bad enough that he approached the team early in the winter and offered to talk about a deal that was said to be less than what the Nationals ultimately paid.

The mandate from ownership and the business side wouldn’t allow Hoyer to make an offer. And even when the Nationals offer came in, and Lester gave the Cubs a chance to counter, the Cubs were “not close” to the Nats — perhaps as low as $2 million.

So it’s possible the Cubs could have had Lester for less than $5 million earlier in the offseason, but once there was a (presumed) $5 million offer from Washington, that was no longer possible. Perhaps he’d have taken somewhat less than that to play in Chicago, a place he specifically said he wanted to play and for his close friend David Ross.

So exactly what are the Cubs doing here?

The answer might be in this paragraph from Wittenmyer’s article (and give Gordo a lot of credit, he’s been a lot more pointed in his Cubs analysis since leaving the Sun-Times):

NBC Sports Chicago’s David Kaplan reports the Cubs carry about $1 billion in debt between the franchise and the Ricketts family’s real-estate company, Hickory Street Capital.

Oh.

You know, I do not begrudge baseball teams making money. They are, after all, businesses.

I do begrudge them looking for every single possible way to separate us from every single dollar in our bank accounts if we want to continue to be fans.

I do begrudge them actively not trying to win at the expense of profit.

Because in the end, if you don’t win you make less money. Tom Ricketts famously told his dad back in 2006, before the family bought the team: “They sell out every day, win or lose.”

That statement might no longer be true. By 2006, the Cubs had continued to raise season-ticket prices even in the face of losing seasons. A bleacher season ticket cost $1,860 in 2002. By 2006 it was nearly $1,000 more than that ($2,800) and that cost peaked around 2011 at nearly $4,000. It drifted down through the rebuild seasons, but by 2017, after the World Series win, it was back to 2011 levels and has more or less stayed there since. Other parts of the ballpark have become even more expensive.

Add into this the pandemic — obviously, not the Cubs’ fault — and the loss of jobs, making tickets likely too expensive for many, and is Tom’s statement true in January 2021? I’d say it probably isn’t.

It seems clear that the Cubs aren’t going to spend any money this offseason, beyond the random scrap-heap pickup. It appears to me that management thinks they can compete for a division title in the NL Central even doing nothing. They could be right. The Pirates are going to be historically bad. The Reds aren’t any better than they were in 2020 and are apparently looking to trade off expensive parts. The Brewers have been as idle as the Cubs this offseason, and the Cardinals have subtracted three key players from their 2020 roster.

Could the strategy be this? Try to compete for a division title in 2021 to keep fan interest even with a weakened team, then if that doesn’t work, trade impending free agents at the deadline. That’s a cynical view, but I can see this sort of thinking. Presuming fans are allowed back in Wrigley Field later this summer, the so-called “biblical losses” could be stemmed. But if the Cubs are going to go back to the “tanking” philosophy of a decade or so ago, that “sell out every day” thing is simply not going to happen.

Then we’ve got the prospect of a labor stoppage for baseball in 2022, and I am still of the mind that this is not only likely to happen, but it could wipe out an entire season, as happened in the NHL in 2004-05. Baseball’s already teetering on the brink of irrelevancy with some sports fans due to several factors, including the pandemic and Commissioner Rob Manfred’s absolutely tone-deaf leadership.

Gordon Wittenmyer called for the Ricketts to sell the Cubs if they’re going to run the place this way. I won’t go that far, but it does seem as if ownership has squandered almost all the goodwill they had following the 2016 World Series win.

What’s going on now won’t change my love for this team, though I admit what they’re doing is challenging. The Cubs have been a major part of my life for more than half a century, through three ownership groups and countless managers, players and coaches. In the grand sweep of baseball history what’s happening with this franchise right now is summed up, I think, by this phrase: “This, too, shall pass.”

Don’t forget that in the end, the Cubs aren’t who owns them. The Cubs are us. Without fans, professional sports don’t exist at all. Those who are the temporary stewards of pro sports franchises would do well to remember that.