6 Signs Cubs Are Serious About Spending, Competing in ‘23

Everyone running the Cubs’ baseball and business operations department has said repeatedly that the organization has both the ability and desire to spend the necessary resources to compete next season, yet skeptics still abound. A lot of people aren’t willing to take Tom Ricketts, Crane Kenney, and Jed Hoyer at their word, which is a very reasonable stance. But what if we look past their words to see what actions and circumstances dictate?

Even if it’s not enough to convince the believe-it-when-I-see-it crowd, there’s quite a bit of evidence to suggest the Cubs don’t just want to spend, they have to. Part of that is the simple need to back up their big talk, as another year of failing to follow through is a bad look for an organization that has already pissed away most of what once appeared to be an endless supply of goodwill.

They can earn a lot of that back by boosting payroll and fielding a team capable of making noise in the postseason, something the Braves and Phillies have shown doesn’t require a dominant regular season. Free agent rankings from various national outlets have the Cubs connected to several top names, with their interest in shortstops going back to last year. Some of that may come from agents trying to prime the market and some is writers going through the motions, but there’s more than just smoke with many of these connections.

If you want to know why I believe the Cubs are committed to being competitive immediately, here are six signs:

Marquee Ratings

The Cubs are bringing in about 50% more revenue from their Marquee Sports Network than what they were getting in their deal with NBC Sports Chicago, WGN, and others, but that’s a pittance compared to what other big markets pull down. And for those who will inevitably ask, no, there is not a snowball’s chance in hell that the Cubs will end up back on WGN.

The Superstation stopped carrying sports outside Chicago years ago, so the Cubs were only available to those who got channel 9. That nationwide reach is what made the team so popular and it’s been gone for a long time, so there’s no value in WGN beyond nostalgia.

Those who keep asking about DISH and Hulu can likewise stop, as the former dropped regional sports networks a few years ago and the latter didn’t maintain Marquee and other specialized sports offerings due to cost. With more and more people ditching cable and satellite providers, the best way for Marquee to increase its reach is to launch its nascent direct-to-consumer streaming service.

That alone won’t be enough to make up for a 56% drop in ratings, though, and they’re going to have a difficult time convincing fans to fork over $10 a month or whatever for a crappy team. Kenney publicly admitted that poor performance has hurt the network, so the Cubs are clearly aware of this. It would also be a good idea to improve the functionality of the current streaming app, which is one of the worst of its kind on the market.

Fans will put up with some barriers to entry if they feel the event is worth attending, so Ricketts had better book some big acts. Spiking the punch might help too.

Season Ticket Sales/Attendance

Wrigley Field saw fewer fans in 2022 than in any non-pandemic season since 1997, and that’s just counting paid attendance. When it comes to actual butts in seats, that 2.6 million figure was grossly inflated. The season ticket waiting list is being burned through at an alarming rate and the team dropped prices by 5.1% in order to draw new buyers and placate their existing base following two disappointing years.

The idea that Wrigley sells out and ownership pockets huge profits no matter what is long dead, or at least it should be. A good team could improve attendance by at least half a million, which leads to enormous growth in revenue from concessions and ancillary spending in and around the ballpark. The Ricketts family is far too heavily invested in Wrigleyville to allow attendance to remain sluggish, especially after saying 70% of the team’s revenue comes from gameday spending.

That goes double for the shiny new sportsbook they’ve stapled to the side of the ballpark. Gambling has become ubiquitous in sports and I can see the draw of having a few barley sodas while watching all the action from different leagues on massive screens, but I can bet from my phone and I’d personally rather be in Wrigley if I’m at Wrigley. Having a better team brings back more of the casual fans and makes the ballpark a more coveted destination.

Aborted Willson Contreras Trade

This might actually be the most telling of all because it’s proof of what Jed Hoyer was/is planning to do. Though his inability to trade Contreras at the deadline initially came off as a failure, hindsight has revealed a much different version of events. Hoyer insisted that his star catcher remained with the team because no one was willing to meet the Cubs’ asking price, yet a deal had been made.

Before Dusty Baker ended up scuttling the trade, the Cubs and Astros were in agreement on a swap of Contreras straight-up for righty starter José Urquidy. Unlike previous trades that brought back prospects, many of whom were at the lowest levels of the minors, this would have netted the Cubs a bona fide MLB starter with three more years of control remaining. You don’t add big league players unless you intend to compete.

Urquidy would have bolstered the rotation at a very low cost — his salary is projected at $3.2 million for next season — giving Hoyer the ability to go big in search of an ace. I don’t think having the rug pulled out from under them will change the Cubs’ general strategy, it just makes the path a little more difficult to follow.

NL Central’s Continued Mediocrity

The Cardinals figure to be very good yet again, but the Brewers are falling off rapidly and could very well be planning a reset as some of their top pitchers start commanding bigger money. The Pirates don’t have enough talent to be much more than scrappy yet and the Reds are a disaster, so the door is wide open for the Cubs to gain ground.

With more room in the expanded playoff format, they just need to get in and then see what happens. As we saw with the Phillies, it helps to have stars who can show out on the big stage.

Prospect Development Timeline

Hoyer said he’d spend when the time was right, and it’s starting to look as though the system is doing its job. Rather than waiting on all the prospects to come up, it’s best to build a foundation of veteran talent and allow homegrown players to fill in around it.

Matt Mervis at first base can be helped by adding a first baseman/DH; Hayden Wesneski, Caleb Kilian, Jordan Wicks, and DJ Herz can work as starters, piggyback guys, or swingmen in a newfangled rotation. A glove-first centerfielder can hold down a spot while Pete Crow-Armstrong proves himself further at the upper levels of the minors.

This isn’t just about prospects coming up and having an impact in Chicago, either. With so many young players working up through the system, there simply won’t be room for all of them between Tennessee, Iowa, and the bigs. That means trading some away for proven players who fit specific needs. That becomes a little tougher with Alexander Canario‘s injury, but the Cubs have reached the point when they will start buying rather than selling in deals.

Payroll Situation

With an estimated 2023 payroll of just $130 million, the Cubs are roughly $92 million below their high-water mark set three years ago. Their luxury tax estimate for next season is $147 million, giving them $86 million to spend before hitting the first competitive balance tax threshold. That’ll buy a lot of talented free agents, folks.

Their commitments for 2024 fall off dramatically as Jason Heyward and Kyle Hendricks fall off the books, and possibly Ian Happ as well. With just $50 million in estimated payroll and $65 million toward the CBT, the Cubs have more than enough room to spend in a very big way both this winter and next.

I’m not asking you to believe what the Cubs are telling you, I’m asking you to take a look at what all the supporting evidence is screaming.

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