Cubs say there’s vision and money, but last year has put organization on the defensive

ST. LOUIS — A year ago, the Cubs lost a 6-2 game at Dodger Stadium that knocked them out of a first-place tie with the Brewers atop National League Central. Still, Jake Arrieta pitched well that night, and the first six names on the roster gave the team a swagger: Joc Pederson, Kris Bryant, Javier Báez, Anthony Rizzo, Willson Contreras and Ian Happ. The night before, against the defending World Series champions, Zach Davies and three relievers threw the first combined hit in franchise history. Jed Hoyer’s front office planned to add major league talent at the trade deadline for another playoff run with this group.

That bold era of Cubs baseball — which marketed Bryzzo, El Mago and a potential dynasty — finally came crashing down with the 11-game losing streak that began June 25, 2021. If you hadn’t watched the lengthy rebuild slowly unfolding through the 2012, 2013 and 2014 seasons — or futility for most of the previous century — these Cubs would be unrecognizable right now.

From the first loss in the losing streak that became Hoyer’s tipping point, to Saturday afternoon’s 5-3 loss to the Cardinals in the 94-degree heat at Busch Stadium, the Cubs have a record from 56-103 in the past calendar year. That streak includes three double-digit losing streaks, 35 decisive losses, the 99-day Major League Baseball lockout, and no winning months (except winning a three-game series at St. Louis on the first weekend in October last year to end the 2021 season amid a COVID-19 outbreak).

“I have a vision to build,” Hoyer said. “I know what we built last time. I have every confidence in the world that we will get there. But I’m also aware that sometimes things speed up and sometimes things slow down. I’m not smart enough to know which of these events is going to happen. But I know — and I have the ultimate confidence — that we will succeed. Just like I knew the same last time. This does not make everyday life easier. »

The 2022 Cubs started the season with an opening day payroll of $143.4 million that ranked 14th out of 30 major league clubs, according to Baseball Prospectus/Cot’s Baseball Contracts. That same database estimated the cost of the 40-man roster at $174.9 million, which moved the Cubs to 12th in Competitive Balance Tax (CBT) accounting. Wrigley Field remains one of baseball’s most expensive baseball experiences.

This close to free agency, Contreras has a clear-headed view of a situation that at times seemed to distract Rizzo, Bryant and Báez last year. Happ is approaching that red zone as a homegrown player with just a season and a half of club control remaining. Chris Martin, Mychal Givens and David Robertson are this year’s versions of Ryan Tepera, Andrew Chafin and Craig Kimbrel, the three relievers who finished hitless at Dodger Stadium and were traded before last year’s deadline.

Reliever David Robertson could be on the move before the trading deadline. (Gregory Fisher/USA Today)

Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney called the organization’s cost-cutting measures a ‘talking point’ and a ‘false narrative’, defending the Ricketts family ownership group during the appearance Saturday on 670 The Score, the team’s flagship radio station.

Kenney also referenced the concept of the baseball operations savings account that Theo Epstein and Hoyer implemented years ago. It’s not standard operating procedure in the baseball industry, but the famous example became the Yankees who outbid the Cubs for Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka after the 2013 season. Epstein and Hoyer reallocated that money and sued big-game pitcher Jon Lester, who signed a six-year, $155 million deal with a last-place team after the 2014 season and helped end the 108-year World Series drought.

“If you look between 2016 and 2021, we rank fourth in all of baseball, only behind the Yankees, Dodgers and just a little behind the Red Sox,” Kenney said. “When we were in that championship window, we were one of the biggest spenders in baseball. And in those six years, we triggered the CBT penalty three times, including until 2020, (which) was a shortened season, obviously, but we were also over the limit in 2019. I go back now by Sam Zell and all the way back by Tribune (Co.). We are so lucky to have an owner who lets us through when the time is right.

“Clearly, this year, we have taken a step back. And as I said, any unused resources that would have moved us up the salary table this year will go into next year’s budget. So I feel really lucky that Tom (Ricketts) never said, “No, I don’t want to spend.

“Yeah, in this year alone, we’re back in the middle of the table. But if you look at any sort of reasonable length, we’re still in the top four or five.

That’s where the Cubs ranked in opening day payroll between 2012 and 2015, according to the Baseball Prospectus/Cot’s Baseball Contracts Database: ninth, 14th, 19th and 13th.

The Cubs responded to financial losses related to COVID-19 during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season by laying off more than 100 employees on the business side and baseball side of the organization. This austerity program led to the decision to remove Kyle Schwarber, who delivered a legendary performance in the 2016 World Series, rather than offer him a contract through the arbitration system. The economy also factored into Yu Darvish’s trade with the Padres after the Cubs won a division title in 2020.

The post-World Series period is a reasonable amount of time to assess franchise priorities. Cubs fans were led to believe that Marquee Sports Network would generate revenue to help land big-name free agents. Wrigley Field is fully modernized with video panels, VIP clubs and a surrounding corporate campus that includes the Zachary Hotel, Budweiser Brickhouse Tavern, retail stores, team-controlled rooftop buildings and an opening of sports betting next season.

Last season’s slump left no doubt the Cubs needed major changes. A recent surge helped Báez push his batting average above .200 and his OPS to over .600 in the first season of a six-year, $140 million contract with the Tigers. Colorado’s seven-year, $182 million investment in Bryant has yielded 73 plate appearances so far as he recovers from a back injury. Rizzo is a perfect fit at Yankee Stadium, although at this point he hasn’t surpassed the $70 million guarantee offered by the Cubs in spring training last year.

In the meantime, the Cubs have 60% of their projected rotation — Marcus Stroman, Wade Miley and Drew Smyly — sidelined with injuries. The Cubs have invested about $100 million in Seiya Suzuki, including assignment fees for his Japanese club, and he will eventually need a minor league rehab assignment after spraining his left ring finger last month. last. Baseball operations are paying for the lack of depth and dynamic talent accumulated over the past few years and are feeling the pinch of all those winning trades now.

“You saw where we were at the end of last year,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “We had to fill the holes in the rotation. We went out and picked up three guys (who are now on the disabled list). We had to fill in the gaps in the middle of the formation, and we went to get Seiya. Well, those guys aren’t here. We have become a little skinny again.

(Top photo by Jed Hoyer: Charles LeClaire/USA Today)

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