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Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts can often be seen roaming the ballpark during home games at Wrigley Field, chatting with fans who approach him.
Now, what exactly do those fans say to him during those interactions?
“The fans are great,” Ricketts said Saturday during an interview with about a half-dozen reporters on the Wrigley Field concourse. “I mean, I walk around every single game, as you know, and fans are great, they’re happy. They’re happy about a team that cares about winning, and they’re happy about a team that plays hard. They’re happy with a lot of our younger talent and seeing the future, and I think they all think that we have a great manager as well. I think people understand that we have a good future.”
He’s clearly not on Twitter, where a vocal portion of the fan base displays constant frustration with Cubs ownership.
“People don’t put nice things on social media,” Ricketts quipped.
It’s not always about what fans are saying, though. It’s about their actions, too.
On Thursday afternoon against the Reds, the announced crowd was 23,910. Excluding the 2020 and 2021 seasons which were impacted by COVID-19 pandemic-related crowd restrictions, that was the lowest home attendance figure for the Cubs since Sept. 4, 2013, when they drew a crowd of 20,696 versus the Marlins. Saturday afternoon’s crowd was back up to 40,086, but even then, a large chunk of that was made up of San Francisco fans — if you couldn’t tell by the audible “Let’s Go Giants!” chants throughout the game.
The Cubs are 58-81 on the season after Saturday’s 5-2 loss, which puts them on pace for 94 losses in 2022. The last time they lost that many games was that same 2013 season, when they finished 66-96 and were still in the thick of the rebuild that ultimately led to the 2016 World Series title. Whether or not the front office continues to treat “rebuild” as some sort of taboo term, is there a clearer indication that this is in fact their second multi-year rebuild in a decade?
Labor Day was Monday, the universal signal for the end of summer. Kids are back in school. Many fans are choosing not to spend their time and money to go to Wrigley Field and watch a losing team anymore. The Cubs have a tremendous fan base, but it’s looking for a reason to pay up to go watch the team at the Friendly Confines.
“Obviously, we’re gonna have higher attendance when we’re winning in September and when we’re contending,” Ricketts said. “We don’t want to go into September every year this far out. That’s certainly not the plan for the future.”
So, what is the plan for the future? And more importantly, what’s the plan for putting a team on the field next season that’ll draw fans back to Wrigley?
That starts with the players on the roster already.
At this time last year, Nico Hoerner was on the 10-day injured list for the third time and would only play five more games in 2021, and he certainly hadn’t proven himself as the shortstop of the future. Justin Steele and Keegan Thompson were still taking their lumps as first-time starters. Players like Seiya Suzuki (then playing in Japan), Christopher Morel and Brandon Hughes (both then with Double-A Tennessee) weren’t even on the roster.
But all of them have shown they can contribute in some fashion to a more competitive team in 2023.
As Ricketts pointed out, “you can’t buy a championship team in baseball. You have to build it, and that’s what we’re doing. In order to build it, you gotta take years where you let young guys get at-bats, give them a chance to prove themselves and find out who you actually have to build around. That’s been what this year’s all about, and it’s been a success.”
The Cubs appear to have a strong foundation, and they’re still looking to see what they have in some of their young players who are either in the majors already or who should come up in the near future. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t go into the offseason looking to add some of the top-tier players on the market.
During the last rebuild, the Cubs went out and signed two-time World Series champion Jon Lester after 2014. At that point, few pieces of the future were in the big leagues. Anthony Rizzo had just made his first All-Star team that year, but Javier Báez had a disappointing 52 games in his rookie year. Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber wouldn’t debut until the next season, and Willson Contreras didn’t get the call until the year after.
The Cubs didn’t wait to bring a big-money free agent into the fold. When Lester became available, they went out and got their guy. That should be how the front office approaches this offseason, too.
“You guys know how we do it,” Ricketts said. “We figure out our projections, we figure out what it costs to put on games and to pay people to run the organization and everything else. And then everything left goes into baseball ops. [President of baseball operations] Jed [Hoyer] has the resources to add people. If he feels like it’s the right person and the right time, he has 100 percent support from me, and we’ll leave it to him.”
Ricketts maintained that having gone through the process before gives him confidence that they’ll build a great team again. But during the last rebuild, it was Theo Epstein calling the shots.
Hoyer is the one in charge now. He’ll have to prove he can be the guy to build a playoff-caliber roster with both the players in the system and with the free agents who come to Chicago. He’s shown he’s willing to pull the trigger on players on the market, namely by signing Suzuki and Marcus Stroman to five-year, $85 million (plus the $14.625 posting fee) and three-year, $71 million deals, respectively. But again, that’s not where he should stop.
There are still holes on the roster, and though the Cubs would love to fill those with cheap, in-house options, that’s not always feasible. Bringing in outside talent would certainly help.
According to FanGraphs’ RosterResource, the Cubs’ estimated payroll in 2023 is $92.51 million. That would leave them about $140 million below next season’s competitive balance tax threshold. Not all of those dollars can go to only a few incoming players, but that does provide room to pay higher values for an upper-tier free agent or two.
So then, what positions could they target?
The injury bug that’s bitten the Cubs’ rotation has shown there’s never enough starting pitching a team can have. The market won’t necessarily be full of aces, but there are front-line starters who would increase the overall depth of starting pitching in the organization. That’s one area the team could address through free agency.
The other is the middle infield, where defensive ability and athleticism will be at even more of a premium after rules to restrict defensive shifts starting next year were adopted on Friday. There are expected to be four All-Star shortstops on the market this offseason (Carlos Correa, Xander Bogaerts, Trea Turner and Dansby Swanson) who each could form one of the best defensive middle infields in the majors if paired with Hoerner.
It all goes back to the point of this whole thing; this offseason is very important if the Cubs want this rebuild to go any better than it’s looking at the moment. Sign some of those free agents, and they’ll help the Cubs compete while their young players continue to establish themselves in the big leagues.
“The fact is we have to follow through on how you build a consistent winner, and the way you build a consistent winner is to find a good, young core and supplement them with the right guys at the right time,” Ricketts said. “I have confidence that Jed knows what he’s doing.”
The Cubs don’t need to win the World Series in 2023. All they need to do is show they can field a team with playoff-potential, and then, the stands should return to being full on a daily basis.
“I think it’d be incredible,” Stroman said of what Wrigley Field could be like with a winning ballclub on the field. “I mean, it’s been incredible this year, and we haven’t been rolling, so I can only imagine being in a playoff run, playing well deep into the season and having the opportunity to play in the playoffs. I think this place will be rocking, and I think this fan base deserves it.”
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