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Chicago Cubs: Inactivity at Winter Meetings Underscores New Philosophy

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COMMENTARY | I'm not here to say whether the concept of behaving like a small-market team is genius or a scam. Anyone who's followed the Chicago Cubs for any length of time has seen them swing from spendthrift to big spender and back again.

But while other clubs make gratuitous splashes, acquiring new players via trade or free agency, the Cubs have been content to make under-the-radar moves. Their acquisitions of Wesley Wright and Justin Ruggiano were met with shrugged shoulders instead of raised eyebrows, and rightly so.

And while few, if any, Cubs fans were advocating for the addition of Jacoby Ellsbury, Robinson Cano, or Carlos Beltran (not at those prices, baby), the resulting haul from the Winter Meetings was far from exciting. GM Jed Hoyer has likened MLB's annual gathering to a hunting expedition. If that's the case, he came home with a couple of rabbits instead of a prize buck.

Patience is a virtue that's running thin in Chicago, where the Cubs have cut payroll as they pile up record numbers of losses. I could go on and on about the team's crippling debt-to-asset ratio, brought on by the highly leveraged purchase from previous owner Sam Zell. But as Steve Stone famously said near the end of his Cubs broadcasting career: "At the end of the day, boys, you don't tell me how rough the water is, you bring in the ship."

Like Billy Madison before him, Chicago Cubs owner Tom Ricketts was able to climb the corporate ladder pretty quickly due to his father's status. Ricketts doesn't need to redo his entire early education or win an academic decathlon in order to prove his worth to Cubs fans, but he is going to need to start showing more progress at Wrigley than just cosmetic upgrades.

Improving the Cubs comes down to more than just a choice between hiring a bunch of mercenaries or continually flipping major leaguers for prospects. I've maintained that the solution lies somewhere in between, but I wanted to take a look at how payroll related to on-field success.

The Haves

Among the 10 teams with the highest payrolls in baseball, only the Los Angeles Dodgers ($220MM), Detroit Tigers ($148MM), and the Boston Red Sox ($154MM) made the playoffs. The Red Sox had long been intrinsically linked to the Cubs, due to the shared misery of a title drought. But Boston has ended the drought, proving that grass is indeed greener on the other side.

The Red Sox also proved that it's possible to make a quick turnaround, as they went from 93 losses to a World Series title in one year. I wrote an earlier piece about how that rebirth should be an example to the Cubs and their fans of what can be.

However, Boston isn't the archetype of the big-market team that's just buying a title. While the Red Sox did have the 5th-highest payroll in baseball in 2013, it was actually more than $20 million less than their 2012 payroll. Of all the teams to make the playoffs this season, Boston was one of only three (Atlanta Braves, Tampa Bay Rays) sporting a decreased salary obligation.

The Have-Nots

Interestingly enough, we find three playoff teams (Tampa Bay Rays, Oakland Athletics, and Cleveland Indians) among the bottom 10 payrolls as well. While the Rays and A's have long been lauded for their bargain-basement tactics, Cleveland is better known for exporting Super Bowl winners and NBA MVPs than for playing winning baseball.

But in Terry Francona, the Indians have their first great manager since Lou Brown. Regardless of the manager, dealing with a small payroll though means the margin for error is much smaller and there is a near-total reliance on homegrown talent. Just look how long it took the Pittsburgh Pirates to return to relevance. And the Kansas City Royals' winning record in 2013 was their first in 10 seasons and only their second in the last 20.

The Middle

Truth be told, teams like the Royals and Pirates actually fall into this middle category more than they do the bottom. Each team increased payroll over 2012's total by at least $15 million, pushing them into the low end of the middle 10 teams in MLB.

But from this group came four playoff teams: the Cincinnati Reds, St. Louis Cardinals, Atlanta Braves, and the Pirates (in decreasing order of payroll). The teams in this middle tier have the money (average payroll of $95MM) and the flexibility to build both the big league team and the farm. They have greater margin for error than those teams on the low end, and aren't strapped to as many bad contracts as those above.

The Cubs

So what does this say about the Cubs, a team that sat between the Reds and Cardinals in the payroll standings, but fell well below them in the standings that really matter? Well, it certainly seems to say that they're not getting a return on their investment, at least not where the on-field product is concerned.

A look back in Cubs payroll history shows us that they were rarely near the top of the chart until after the 2003 season. That brief taste of success led to more spending that eventually got them up to $146 million in 2010, where they trailed only the Yankees and Red Sox. However, that year was also the first of four consecutive 5th-place finishes in the NL Central.

Of the Cubs' three NL Central titles in the past decade, none came from a payroll that ranked higher than 8th. Their best finish with a top-7 payroll was 2nd in 2009, but they've bounced from 3rd to 6th otherwise. Mo' money, mo' problems, indeed.


Billy Madison aside, what I'm saying is this: The Cubs don't need to break the bank, but they can't just slash payroll and invest solely in the minor leagues. They need some major league talent to offset the inherent risk of prospects.

They've been wise to avoid the megadeals, as everyone saw how that worked with Alfonso Soriano. But flipping short-term players like suburban houses does little for either the performance or the continuity of the team.

Call me crazy, but I fully expect this whole rebuilding to reach critical mass, perhaps as soon as 2015. But I understand full well the resentment and criticism that come from such an approach, particularly when other teams are turning things around so quickly.

The concept of a rebuild is sound, and I agree with it, but it's certainly not beyond reason to wonder whether the contractor will complete the project on time, if at all.

Evan Altman is a freelance sportswriter with a wealth of trivial pop culture knowledge. He is a self-loathing Chicago Cubs apologist whose love for the team was cultivated by watching or listening to games on WGN every summer afternoon as a child.

Nothing better to do? You can follow Evan on Twitter: @DEvanAltman.

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