Friday, July 9, 2021

Joe Sheehan Newsletter, December 30, 2020 -- "One Embarrassing Trade"

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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. 12, No. 111
December 30, 2020

From April 4, 2017:

“The hardest thing to do in sports is not get excited about greatness, but you can’t look at these Cubs and not see a potential dynasty.” 


It’s not like the Cubs fell apart after their 2016 championship, of course. They won two division titles in the ensuing four seasons. In another, they had the best record in the NL after 162 games before losing a division tiebreaker. They won the NL Central just three months ago, as a matter of fact. When we all woke up Monday morning, the Cubs were almost certainly the favorite to win the division in 2021. Three of the teams behind them intentionally made themselves worse this winter, and the fourth hasn’t done anything at all.

This is how it endsThe Cubs performed a salary dump before getting back to the World Series.

The Ricketts family, led by chairman Tom, refused to invest in the team in the last two offseasons, with Tyler Chatwood the only investment of any consequence. Tom Ricketts was one of the most vocal owners on the impact of the pandemic on his business, claiming “biblical” losses without backing up his claims. His Hall of Fame executive, Theo Epstein, saw the writing on the wall and left. 

Now comes this trade, sending away one of the best starters in the game for four baseball zygotes. If you want to defend the return, fine; many prospect-heads have. I’m not going to tell you I know anything about four players with a combined age of 73, just one of whom has played even an inning professionally. On paper, it looks like a downgrade of four wins in 2021, from Darvish to Zack Davies, with a quality backup catcher in Victor Caratini also removed.

Were a rebuilding team making this deal, it might make sense. This is the package the Orioles never got for Manny Machado as they declined. The 2021 Cubs, though, aren’t the 2017 Orioles. Chicago won the division last year, and they were at worst the co-favorites to win it next year. A team in the Cubs’ position has no business making itself four wins worse in exchange for what amounts to four lottery tickets in 2025. A team in the Cubs’ position has no business trading its #1 starter for a fistful of dreams.

Yu Darvish, finally healthy again, was the best pitcher in the NL last season and has been pitching at an incredible level since midsummer 2019. He had established himself as a true #1 by ratcheting his walk rate down under 5%, by finally getting the widest repertoire in baseball under full command. Having a healthy and dominant Darvish was a big reason the Cubs won the division last year. He was a significant separator heading into 2021, when the Cubs were well-positioned to win again.

Ricketts, though, doesn’t need the Cubs to win anymore. Ricketts got his basemall, and he got his own regional sports network. He used the incredible amount of money generated by that first Cubs title in 108 years to fund ventures that have nothing to do with wins and losses, ventures that will produce millions upon millions that don’t have to be shared with the other owners, that don’t have to be spent on baseball players. By his actions, Ricketts has proven to be the worst type of sports owner: He wants the next dollar more than he wants the next win.

Baseball has more problems than can be covered in a single piece, but way up there on the list is that there simply aren’t enough owners who want to win. During his 30 years in power, Bud Selig cultivated a very specific type of owner, one that wouldn’t push too hard, one that would sign on to his small-market mindset. Selig had grown up in baseball fighting with George Steinbrenner and Ted Turner and Gene Autry, and there would be no more of those on his watch. The Ricketts family is a product of that approach. Bob Nutting is a product of that approach. Stu Sternberg is a product of that approach. Under Selig, you didn’t get into the club if you were a threat to try too hard, to care too much, to want the locals’ approval more than you wanted his. 

Ricketts also represents a more recent problem, where the baseball team generates cash that is siphoned off to other projects. Ricketts’s losses may be real, but they have little to do with Yu Darvish. They’re the product of investments that may fall under the Cubs’ umbrella for accounting purposes, to provide a veneer of credibility to complaints about red ink and deep debt. The Cubs took on debt last year, but the benefits of taking on that debt will accrue to the Ricketts, not Cubs fans. The Cubs aren’t the only guilty parties here, as team ownership groups have turned into real-estate and media companies, and getting at the truth of baseball financials becomes more and more difficult. 

We can talk about raising the minimum salary, tying the luxury-tax threshold to revenue growth, getting players to the open market at a younger age, but none of this will matter if there’s no relationship between how a team plays and how much money the owner makes. This trade underlines just how far removed -- just how opposed -- the interests of owners and the interests of fans have become. 

Baseball isn’t just another business. It’s not the local car dealership or grocery store. Success isn’t measured in black ink and quarterly reports, but in agate type and on dirt and grass. It’s measured in cheers in April, sunburns in July, dogpiles in October. It’s measured in flags. So long as the game’s 30 teams are mostly owned by men like Tom Ricketts, though, men who want the money more than they want the flag, the game will be driven down.