Hey Cubs, where's all that money going?

Mike Stobe

Yeah, yeah ... You saw that headline and immediately wanted to crack wise about the Cubs' new mascot. Save your breath, smart guy; Brisbee already plowed that field and he plowed it real deep.

Over at Yahoo(!), Jeff Passan recently began his annual -- at least I think it's annual -- ranking of all 30 teams, one team at a time. Passan's No. 29 team? The Cubs, who despite huge revenues will sport one of MLB's lowest payrolls this year. Which does seem a tad off, doesn't it? Passan:

Today the Cubs are the 97-pound weakling. They are enfeebled by owners whose purchase of the team more than five years ago brought far more chaos than some sort of a renaissance. Not even president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer, two of the game's great architects, could have fathomed the budgetary restrictions. This is not handcuffs. It's a straitjacket.

--snip--

The Rays, actually, are one of only four teams with lower projected opening-day payrolls than the Cubs' $78 million. It would represent the Cubs' most skinflint ballclub since 2002, when the sport's revenues were half of what they are today. Should they win the Tanaka bidding at $15 million a year, they'd still be spending less than Cincinnati and Kansas City, neither of which anyone would consider a peer, much less a distant relative, to Chicago.

Oh, and it's worth noting the Cubs are believed to be the most profitable team in the game, too. So there is that.

Isn't this just the Houston Astros model, though? Pile up prospects until you're actually ready to contend, and then start writing checks? While it's true that the Cubs will pile up cash regardless of their record, this might actually be a good thing. If they'd lost the fans through these losing years, they might have felt compelled to do something silly like ... oh, I don't know, sign a player for 10 years and $240 million. Because that always works out so brilliantly.

As Passan points out, the Cubs are well-stocked with hitting prospects and they're going to renovate Wrigley Field and they'll soon be negotiating a new local-television deal that promises more cash. Passan also points out that the current owners purchased the franchise with a great deal of borrowed money, the implication being that now the owners just can't afford to invest in the club. That might be true. But as long as the money's there when it's needed -- say, in 2015 or (more likely) '16 -- then why does it matter?

What's really interesting is the collision course between four exceptionally well-run teams -- the Cubs, the Pirates, the Cardinals, and the Reds -- in the same division. Except I suppose it's too early to say the Cubs are exceptionally well-run. We typically think of the general managers when we have these discussions, and Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer certainly rank among the sharpest minds in the sport. But "well-run" has to include not only the GM's, but also their bosses. And it's still too early to know if the Ricketts family will stay the course for long enough.

I don't believe the Cubs are quite as hopeless in the short term as Passan seems to think. I don't believe they'll be the second-worst team in the majors this year. But considering their replacement-level outfield, they're nowhere near contending, even if Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro develop this season (or in Castro's case, re-develop). So fifth-worst in the majors might be considered a moral victory. Especially with that paltry payroll.

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