The Cubs’ next regional TV package – the deal ownership dreams about and team president Theo Epstein calls the “game changer” – hasn’t been defined, much less measured for payroll impact.
The current TV deal doesn’t expire for four years.
But the baseball has landed at Wrigley, in a 91-win, ahead-of-schedule playoff season – which on Monday inspired off-hand remarks around the ballpark about World Series previews when the American League Central-champion Kansas City Royals returned for a makeup game to finish the Cubs’ regular-season home schedule — won by the Cubs 1-0 on on Chris Denorfia’s 11th-inning home run.
The National League’s manager of the Year, Rookie of the Year and Cy Young Award winner all were likely residing in the Cubs’ dugout.
And more than one scout in recent weeks said they consider the National League’s sudden contender a top threat for the pennant if it gets past the Pirates in the wild-card game.
Wherever this run ends, Epstein repeatedly has called it just the “beginning,” reiterating the “sustainability” mantra he has preached from the day he took over almost four years ago.
So what does that mean for what comes next?
“Obviously, winning helps the payroll analysis,” chairman Tom Ricketts said Monday when asked about additional resources into the off-season for a baseball operations budget that has remained essentially flat for two seasons. “But it’s not about payroll anymore. It’s about what you get. The fact is the correlation between the dollars you spend and the wins you get on the field is going down every single year.
“So in order to have sustainable success you can’t count on money. You have to count on young talent.”
Never mind the fact that trend line is skewed by the Yankees’ and especially the Dodgers’ willingness to continue to chase bad money with more money to keep competitive windows propped open while waiting for prospects to develop.
This season’s Cubs – who often start four rookies – would certainly seem to back up Ricketts’ point.
But regardless of money and youth, the factor in baseball with perhaps the strongest direct correlation to winning is pitching.
And the Cubs have little of that coming through their system anytime soon. And the front office has repeatedly talked about the need to acquire more to help sustain what this breakthrough group has achieved this season.
Certainly, Jake Arrieta has been the pitching key to the Cubs’ success this season. But where would the depth-challenged rotation be without 200-inning veteran Jon Lester – the $155 million free agent from last winter?
And with little certainty for next year’s rotation beyond maybe three starters, the Cubs have more pitching in their sights for the upcoming winter.
Whether they have the means to pursue Joe Maddon favorite David Price (insiders expect his negotiating position to start at $30 million per year), pursue a power starter from the next tier (Jeff Samardzija?), or look at surrendering young hitting in trades will have a lot to do with how much their $100 million payroll budget gets bumped up.
“I don’t know what the number is,” Ricketts said. “Winning on the field helps that equation.”
One of the biggest ways is through attendance, which increased by 307,699 this season over last. Internal estimates count the average ticket sold as worth more than $75 in revenue – which would put the revenue value of that increase at more than $23 million.
Does all that go into the baseball coffers? Is there even more through video board revenue? How would a deep playoff run impact next year’s budgets?
Ricketts would not get specific about the numbers.
For now, more than $60 million is committed to players under contract for next year, depending on what they do with Starlin Castro, who’s scheduled to make $7 million (and not counting the $11 million owed Edwin Jackson for 2016).
Another $20 million or more could go to arbitration eligible players such as Arrieta.
They operated on a de facto $120 million budget this year after adding carried-over money saved from last year.
How big can they go this winter to build on one of the biggest success stories in the majors this year?
“Theo will have some resources this off-season,” Ricketts said. “But I don’t know how many those are and I’m not sure he’ll find something he wants to do with them. It’s up to him.”