Time for Cubs ownership to keep promise if team plans to contend this year

SHARE Time for Cubs ownership to keep promise if team plans to contend this year

Does Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts have any answers to help the Cubs’ major pitching questions this season?

ST. LOUIS – Before the 2013 season opener, Cubs’ ownership was asked how the spending restrictions tied to its highly leveraged purchase of the team would affect baseball operations spending going forward.

The response from a family spokesman:

“All I can tell you is when Theo [Epstein] and Jed [Hoyer] get to the point where they need more resources to execute their plan, the Ricketts family will be there for them. It’s as simple as that.”

Time to get out the checkbook.

When Donn Roach – the Cubs’ third attempt at a fifth starter this year – got knocked around second time through the Cardinals order Saturday in St. Louis, the storm warnings began sounding off loud and clear.

The Cubs have no depth left for a rotation that had questionable depth entering the season. They’ve lost four consecutive games, the starters lasting 5, 4 and 3 1/3 innings in three of them.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon said even before Roach’s spot start after being called up from the minors that he didn’t know what the club would do the next time through the rotation in that spot – especially with Tsuyoshi Wada’s cramped-up pitching shoulder still in doubt.

And yet the Cubs still were in playoff position in the National League entering Saturday.

“We know we have to address it here at the [trade] deadline,” general manager Hoyer said.

But Hoyer and team president Epstein may not be able to adequately – much less aggressively — address the team’s greatest need at the deadline without ownership getting involved with an additional influx of payroll cash.

Without it, two major factors limit the executives’ ability to operate as aggressively to help a potential contender as their track record in Boston suggests they might choose to:

— Based on a payroll budget that hasn’t changed since it was set over the winter, and calculating roster moves since (including more than $1 million recouped by trading Welington Castillo last month), the Cubs have roughly $3 million to $5 million flexibility to add payroll in a trade, a source confirmed.

— And some of the parity in the game relative to the second wild-card berths this year means “there’s a chance this is one of the tightest [trade] markets we’ve ever seen,” said Hoyer, whose front office is a buyer for the first time in four years with the Cubs.

No buyer in this market, a full month from the deadline, is in position to dictate the pace of trades. But the Cubs have the player-capital like few others to make moves – and lack only the larger cash flow to push the envelope.

Already the injury to AAA infielder Javy Baez scuttled talks with the Mets over starting pitching, said one source, with lefty Jonathan Niese believed to be in those conversations.

A pitcher such as the Phillies’ Cole Hamels is available now for a team with the resources to take on what’s left of his $23.5-million-per-year deal – though an impending front office shakeup in Philadelphia will influence any deals there.

Whatever the Cubs front office might want to do, whatever it ultimately will be able to do, the major question remains: What will, or can, ownership do?

Sources say the bank covenants tied to the 2009 purchase of the club continue to govern much of what it can do in its baseball spending. If additional revenue is produced through unforeseen increases in attendance, for instance, more money might be available.

Baseball operations execs aren’t even sure what’s available in that context, though Epstein said a few days ago that his understanding was that recent minority-ownership investments in the team and new video board revenues don’t come into play.

Hoyer said conversations between the front office and ownership over projected attendance and revenues are common. But will the needed “resources to execute their plan” be there as promised to land that player they feel they need?

“We haven’t brought that player to them yet,” Hoyer said. “We haven’t brought that idea to them. Maybe this deadline will be that moment. It may not be. We certainly haven’t crossed that bridge yet.”

Until then, Hoyer talked about the Cubs – and other potential buyers – trying to “get creative” to fill needs as the market takes shape toward July 31.

Reacting over-aggressively or “hastily” could be something they eventually regret, he said.

That’s especially true, of course, if the big-market Cubs continue to operate with payroll budgets around $100 million, which rank below the midpoint in MLB payrolls — and which have been the approximate budgets in both 2014 and ’15. (This year’s actual player spending only exceeds that figure because of the $20 million taken from last year’s budget and applied to ’15).

“I do think we have another four weeks to evaluate where we are,” Hoyer said. “Right now Wada’s injury and Roach coming up to pitch and the fact we’ve had several other short starts – certainly our rotation right now over the last stretch it would make sense to talk about adding starting pitching.

We know we have to add starting depth. But we’ll see. We’ll see where we are as we get closer to the deadline. And you can’t make someone available. You can’t make deals that aren’t there.

“We know that’s going to be a focus and we just have to make sure that we really leave no stone unturned.”

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