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Here’s why the Cubs need to do a ‘retool’ rather than a ‘rebuild’

The simple answer: The team can’t afford another 2012-style rebuild.

The Cubs did a massive teardown of the MLB roster in July, trading 11 players who were on the MLB 26-man roster last month.

That leaves, in the view of some, a depleted roster comparable to the one we saw lose 101 games in 2012.

Does that mean a complete rebuild? I’d argue it’s already begun with the massive haul of prospects and MLB-ready players Jed Hoyer & Co. received for those 11 players. If you missed Josh’s review of those players yesterday, go read it now. The Cubs likely now have a Top-10 farm system (after being in the bottom third at the start of 2021) and while system rankings don’t win anything, this suggests to me that there are plenty of Cubs minor leaguers who could be ready to play in the big leagues as soon as 2023, if not next year.

But the primary reason I think the Cubs will be doing a “retool” is the very thing so many people criticize Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts for — and that’s the massive investment the Ricketts family made in renovating Wrigley Field and in building a hotel and other properties in Wrigleyville.

Those Wrigleyville properties aren’t going to be worth very much if the team isn’t any good and people don’t buy tickets to come to Wrigley Field. Could we see a mass cancellation of season tickets before next year? Sure, that’s a possibility, but if the Cubs invest in players next offseason, maybe that doesn’t happen.

The Cubs also have a TV network on which to sell time, a channel that we were initially promised would bring “wheelbarrows” of cash to the baseball operations department to spend on players. For various reasons that hasn’t happened; it’s partly the pandemic and partly the play of the team this year. They’ve got to do something to boost ratings on Marquee Sports Network or revenue there is going to drop.

This isn’t like 1974, when the Cubs’ massive sell-off after 1973 produced a few MLB-ready players (and some who weren’t), but still left gaping holes in a farm system that had really never produced depth. That team lost 98 games even with some decent players remaining (Billy Williams, Rick Monday and Rick Reuschel, for example) and free agency still a year in the future (not that the Wrigley regime would have ever spent money on free agents).

And this isn’t like 2012. Theo Epstein entered his tenure as Cubs President of Baseball Operations on a team where the farm system was barren. That isn’t the case now. He signed guys like Paul Maholm and Scott Feldman in order to hope they’d have good half seasons and he could trade them at the deadline for talent, and that worked. The tanking seasons of 2012 and 2013 produced Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber in the draft. That’s much less possible now, and again — this fanbase won’t stand for a couple of 100-loss seasons. If Tom Ricketts thought losses were “biblical” in the pandemic season, try selling tickets to a 100-loss team when fans are still unhappy their heroes were all traded away, even if doing so was likely the right thing to do.

Hoyer made some interesting comments on a radio show Monday, and while most are looking backward to what he said about negotiations with Bryant, Javier Báez and Anthony Rizzo, I thought this was more interesting:

Ah, ha. Well, I get that. The new CBA is on everyone’s mind, the fact that we might not have a season at all in 2022 has to have all 30 teams’ baseball ops leaders wondering what this fall’s free agent season will look like.

While Hoyer, per that tweet, “wouldn’t declare if this is or isn’t a full rebuild or reset,” I just laid out the reasons above why the Cubs can’t do a full rebuild. They will hemorrhage money if they do. Tom Ricketts is simply going to have to accept that he is going to have to spend money to make more money.

With that, I have a few suggestions on free agents the Cubs could sign this offseason that wouldn’t cost them a fortune — they have, as I have noted previously, just a bit over $40 million committed to players for next year — and would get them right back to the point where they could contend, in my view.

Sign Freddie Freeman to a four-year, $80 million deal

Freeman and Rizzo are very similar players. They’re a month apart in age, both hit lefthanded, both play first base. Rizzo has been worth 37 bWAR over his career, Freeman 41. Freeman’s got an MVP award and I think he’s the better player, not by much.

What makes the difference here is that Freeman already got his generational money when he signed an eight-year, $135 million deal going into the 2014 season, the contract that ends after this year. Rizzo was signed to a way-under-market seven-year, $41 million deal that went from 2013-19, then two options at $16.5 million each, making it essentially a nine-year, $74 million contract, around half of what Freeman made in a similar time frame.

Rizzo’s looking for his generational money now, and might not get it. Freeman could probably be signed for my suggestion, and he just might age better than Rizzo.

Sign Kyle Schwarber to a two-year, $28 million deal with a third-year team option

This would be popular, to be sure, bringing Schwarber back to the Cubs. He doesn’t seem likely to stay in Boston, in my view. His performance this year — despite the hamstring injury — warrants this sort of money, and assuming we have the universal DH in 2022, Schwarber could spend part of his time there. The third-year option could be for $15 million with a $6 million buyout. If the Cubs are going great by the 2023-24 offseason, the option would be well worth it.

Sign Alex Wood to a two-year, $20 million deal with a third-year team option

I have long liked Wood and the 2022 Cubs will need starting pitching. Kyle Hendricks and Alec Mills are the only likely returnees, and bringing Wood into that rotation along with Justin Steele and Keegan Thompson would be a significant improvement over 2021. The third-year option would be for $12.5 million, with a $4 million buyout.

Sign Andrew Chafin to a two-year, $10 million contract

Chafin loved it in Chicago. The A’s aren’t going to pay him that much, but the Cubs should be able to afford it.

Sign Ryan Tepera to a two-year, $8 million contract

Same for Tepera, he seemed to love being a Cub and bringing back two of the trifecta of relievers who did so well before being shipped away would help make things easier for whoever the new closer is, likely Rowan Wick. Or, heck, by midseason maybe it could be Manuel Rodriguez.

That’s $52 million of salary for 2022, with a luxury tax hit (because of the buyouts) of $47 million next year. That doesn’t even come to $100 million, with the $40.5 million already committed, plus contracts at near minimum salary for the younger players who would make up a new “core,” such as Nico Hoerner and Nick Madrigal.

Yes, the Cubs would have to pay Willson Contreras in arbitration, and he’s likely in the $10 million range. Even with that, a lot of the rest of the team is pre-arb, including current sensations Patrick Wisdom and Rafael Ortega.

That might make the entire player payroll in the $120 million range, with room left for mid-season additions.

Or, there’s this:

Would you want them back? (I’d guess the answer from almost every Cubs fan would be “Yes!”)

Could the Cubs afford them? Heck yeah, based on what I wrote above, even replacing Freeman with a somewhat bigger deal for Rizzo should still be affordable. So maybe one or more of them will return. That would certainly be popular.

Thus in my view, the Chicago Cubs can’t afford a full rebuild. It would lessen the value of the Ricketts family’s real estate and TV network investments. And you’d think they would understand that.

Stay tuned, this is going to be a fascinating ride.

Lastly, Cubs season-ticket holders received an email from Tom Ricketts Monday afternoon. I reproduce it here in its entirety.

The past week has been extremely hard for everyone, especially our team and our fans. It’s impossible to properly prepare for parting with players who personify what it means to be a Cub. While we believe the decisions we took were right for our organization, they were nonetheless difficult to make.

For nearly a decade, we’ve had the joy of watching Anthony Rizzo, Javy Báez and Kris Bryant set franchise records, win countless awards and become World Series champions and amazing ambassadors for our franchise and city. Their individual and collective contributions to our organization cannot be overstated. They are forever etched in Cubs history and the hearts of our fans.

Keeping our core together as long as we did helped create one of the most successful eras of Cubs baseball. It wasn’t without a price, as we traded several promising prospects from 2016-20 in our quest to win another World Series. Over the past few weeks, it became clear it was time to make decisions focused on our future not our past; however, we do not regret pouring everything we had into keeping this championship window open as long as possible.

As David Ross said, the greatest legacy of Anthony, Javy and Kris is they were part of a team that raised expectations. Cubs fans are no longer content with merely making the playoffs. As we reset our team, please know we share your higher expectations. With five postseason appearances in the last six years, including reaching the NLCS three times and our historic World Series championship, sustainable on-field success is the new standard.

We’re focused on replenishing our farm system and reloading our roster to build our next great Cubs team. The recent addition of several young, high-ceiling players, a highly effective player development system and additional financial resources underpin our position of strength.

Your support is critical to our success, and I want to thank you for your incredible loyalty now and through the years. During a season without fans due to COVID-19, you remained committed to our team, and you helped bring life and magic back to the Friendly Confines this year. You were extremely patient as we worked to build a championship roster and restore Wrigley Field. You believed in our plan to win and trusted us to deliver on our commitment to play championship baseball in the greatest ballpark in America. We did, and I assure you, we will do it again soon.

We understand it might take a little time to process these changes as we integrate new players into our already talented roster. If the past tells us anything, watching a remarkable team come together is extremely exciting and rewarding, especially when everyone is aligned on the goal of winning the World Series. Highly anticipated call-ups. Wrigley Field debuts. Immediate big-league impact. It’s all part of what makes our game so special. We’re grateful for the chance to share in that joy and journey together again.


Tom Ricketts


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