By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) A World Series championship is coming to Wrigley Field.
At least so says Tom Ricketts, now that the Cubs owner has been given the preliminary go-ahead by the city to invest $500 million into the franchise’s iconic 99-year-old ballpark and its surrounding neighborhood.
“If this is approved, we will win the World Series,” Rickets vowed on Monday, referring to the agreement to overhaul and modernize the Wrigley Field, although the tentative plan still needs to pass through a number of Chicago landmark and planning commission hoops before it’s approved.
Considering that the Cubs are footing the bill without taxpayer money, it’s likely that it will be. And with the deal, Ricketts says that the updates made to Wrigley Field will generate new revenue streams and elevate the Cubs into the Major League’s upper crust of payroll spending year after year.
If it happens, that’s great. But it doesn’t also mean that winning will be simple. Not with the Cubs’ dearth of top-line pitching coupled with the changing face of free agency, which will make it all the more difficult for the Cubs to acquire top-line pitching.
No matter how much cash they might have.
This week, Chicago Tribune baseball writer Phil Rogers wrote that “Ricketts is dead on when he says the business side of baseball and what happens on the field are ‘two sides of the same coin.’ Spending money doesn’t guarantee success, but it is impossible to sustain it without revenues that rank at the top of the game.”
And that is true. But money can’t solve a team’s problems if the solutions never even become available.
Over the past week, the Cubs’ lack of organizational pitching depth has been woefully exposed. First, it was through the signing of long-banished Chicago flop Kevin Gregg. And then it was when the team was actually forced to deny interest in Carlos Zambrano when he showed up at Wrigley Field. His return, incredibly enough, actually seemed plausible.
While the Cubs’ starting rotation has been respectable thus far this season, it’s unlikely that many members of the staff – save Jeff Samardzija – will be key cogs whenever it is that the team theoretically is ready to compete. And with the sorry state of the bullpen, with no reinforcements available in the farm system, the team desperately lacks championship arms. Those of course would seem to be just the kinds of arms that a big infusion of money could buy through free agency.
But what if those arms never get to free agency?
Earlier this month, Jonah Keri at Grantland.com delved into what he called the “death of free agency,” an issue that could seriously hamstring the Cubs’ rebuilding efforts.
“Justin Verlander and Buster Posey both signed gigantic contract extensions, underscoring a growing trend in baseball: the death of free agency,” Keri wrote. “Already signed through 2014, Verlander’s extension with the Tigers will last five years and pay him $140 million. At $28 million a year, Verlander becomes the third pitcher to break the record for highest average annual contract value in the past four months.”
However, Keri goes on to add: “Verlander wouldn’t have hit the open market until after the 2014 season, Posey until after 2016. But you can now scratch two more names off future shopping lists, as free agency continues its march toward irrelevance.”
Keri notes how over just the past year we’ve seen an All-Star team worth of talent sign multi-year extensions, including star pitchers Verlander, Felix Hernandez, Cole Hamels, Matt Cain, Adam Wainwright, Madison Baumgarner and Chris Sale, any or all of whom might have looked good in Cubs pinstripes.
“This leaves us with a free-agent wasteland,” Keri continues, pointing out that next winter the best pitcher on the free agent list “figures to be Josh Johnson, a fine arm when healthy but also one of the most injury-prone starters in the game.”
With Wood and Mark Prior, the Cubs have been there and done that. Relying on rickety pitchers didn’t win the team a World Series, and if Ricketts is really going to live up to his promise, he’s going to need sturdy ones.
Judging by today’s fading free agency market, the Cubs are likely going to have to get creative with trades. Or Cubs fans are going to have continue to be incredibly patient, as young arms hopefully develop into star ones. Either way, nothing is simple.
Because in baseball, even money can’t solve every problem.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.