By Sean "Pharaoh" Terry (@Craftbeersochi)
What’s up Chicago Cubs fans? It’s your boy checking in from my latest host city, Cleveland Ohio, aka The Land, where I’ve found current sentiments here for the Indians seemingly running in parallel with the frustrations of Cubs fans in my home town.
Much has changed in the courses for the two teams who competed in the historic 2016 World Series.
In some ways, being a Cleveland resident now provides the perfect Cubs palate cleanser for me – one that gives me a unique perspective to viewing the state of the club today and for the near future. Ironically, both clubs have sent respective edicts to their fan bases stating the financial resources are not in place to retain all of their current stars.
Perhaps the current state of the Cubs isn’t quite the anomaly as many would suggest.
A Baseball Generation Only Lasts Four Seasons
Four years ago, Cubs fans were sold the promise that a championship window would remain open for at least five years. Yet here we are now, shut out of visionary riches for the past three seasons, trending down and staring in the face of a cultural reshape.
In all fairness, I’ve been objectively honest about where I stand as a Cubs fan these days.
I jumped off the ship a long time ago – partly due to my disdain for how the rudder swayed during the latter Maddon years, and partly because I’m buying what the White Sox are selling this year.
Those who know me best know I don’t subscribe to the traditional definition of Cubs/White Sox loyalty — I’m an equal opportunity fan of both teams. Being a transplant fan faced with financial considerations each year has added a heightened level of scrutiny to my fan decisions, especially if I am going to dig deep in my products to simply view the product each team offers.
History Repeats Itself
Despite my conscious skew, I am still very much interested in which direction the Cubs’ narrative goes this year. Preemptive statements since David Ross replaced Joe Maddon as the skipper have been markedly calculated.
The late-October announcement of David Ross as the 55th manager of the Chicago Cubs cast a monotone and unceremonious-like glimpse into the Cubs future. It truly is all about business as usual on the North Side.
This stoic view for the Cubs’ 2020 and beyond is comprehensibly bleak, especially when you consider the long-range optics for baseball.
In general, the immediate future of MLB looms ominous.
Inside baseball circles, two words that will always be tethered to the game in multiple contexts — “the strike” — sit in the shadows as a constant aide memoir to what can happen when the MLB’s franchises and its player’s union don’t play nice with each other.
Baseball has had multiple work stoppages throughout history and history often repeats itself.
If MLB baseball’s latest winter meetings showed us one thing, it’s that there is a lot of friction in baseball — you can see it from the tenuous relationship between MLB and MiLB to the considerations for robo-umpires to digi-tech cheating scandals to the continued shift towards independent local broadcast networks — the game is rapidly undergoing changes to its nuclear code while also suffering from over-exposure to blue light.
Change is a-coming.
And before it’s all said and done and that change completely takes hold, best believe there will be serious discussion of a work-stoppage, if not an official strike.
Simple Terms: 1 year – $18.6M
Mid-January to late-February represents the time of the year when mid-career MLB players with stop gap service time (between 3 or more years, but less than six years) enter the salary arbitration process. This process is a messy necessary evil that plays a critical part in player salary slotting for the game.
Collectively bargained, yet very much a pain in the ass, the arbitration process is the MLB equivalent to the doing your taxes and only to find out you owe the IRS. It’s a tough pill to swallow and the only true sense of relief is avoiding payment altogether.
“What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”
For better or for worse, Kris Bryant and the Chicago Cubs are married to one another — for now.
To take it a step further, in being married to Bryant the Cubs are also very much tied to Scott Boras and The Boras Corporation as they are the star player’s agent representation.
The triangular dynamic between player-agent-organization can be like hosting a gnawing in-law for an extended stay. But when that said agent is the apex predator of representatives that Boras is, that gnawing sensation must feel like being bared down on by a great white in the middle of the ocean.
As such, and at this point in his Cubs tenure, any negotiation between Bryant/Boras and the Cubs can potentially be a fatal one, particularly when there’s still the unresolved dilemma of service time from Bryant’s October grievance hearing.
Eventually, MLB will release an arbitrator’s report from that hearing indicating the status of Kris Bryant’s service time to date, at which time we’ll know if MLB considers the upcoming season to be Bryant’s fifth or his sixth year of MLB service.
From the very moment in 2015 when the Cubs ventured down the service time road, there’s been an undercurrent to Bryant’s entire tenure with the team that reeks of something straight out of the handbook of Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish.
Bryant was clearly ready to hit the ground running for day one of the 2015 season, but the Cubs decided to take full advantage of the CBA loophole.
It was the ultimate “smartest guy in the room” move, but it now seems those funky ass 40 at-bats Bryant was forced to endure in AAA in 2015 came with the type of cost that comes with the proverbial can of worms that should have never been opened.
Baselining a Long-Term Extension
With Friday’s announcement, the Cubs and Bryant avoided a separate arbitration hearing that would have been used to determine Bryant’s 2020 salary. A small victory that is, one that only temporarily delays the likely ocean encounter with the great white.
Given the circumstances and the path taken to this point, the Cubs and Boras have stayed at odds for some time with either side teetering on the brink of making an edict that Bryant will not be return to the Cubs after the 2020 season.
The door remains open for now and Bryant still resides warm squarely inside the Cubs house. However, the view to the outside is very much in plain sight, leaving fans staring at what lays on the other side — a slew of messy what-if trade scenarios sensationalized by the Twitter-fueled news machine.
It also means that at a worst case scenario, the Cubs dodged further sullying their reputation with its fanbase as it enters its first pivotal weekend of the Ross era, the 2020 Cubs Convention, which begins this Friday.
From a local market perspective, the timing for such matters could not be worse for the North Siders. You’re on a high-grade cookie strain if you think I’m the only Cubs fan tempted to jump ship to the dark side. I can assure you sometime this year CTA will need to increase its service capacity for those southbound red line trains stopping at 35th Street.
Best case scenario: Friday’s Bryant announcement represents a step in the right direction between the Cubs and Boras – a preemptive dialogue that potentially proves to be the groundwork for a long-term Bryant extension.
In determining Bryant’s present-day value absent a messy arbitration process, the Cubs and Boras seemingly agreed on a baseline for determining the overall AAV for a player who has been a pillar of the organization during this current championship window.
Since his rookie of the year season of 2015, Bryant has exemplified everything you desire in an organizational cornerstone and some would argue his best years are still ahead. You don’t let those types of assets leave the organization and if you’re the front office you certainly don’t let the urge to go Strat-o-matic hoodwink you into making an unreconcilable offense.
Simply stated, there’s still time to lock Bryant up for an extension.
The shifting glaciers in MLB tell me Bryant very easily could be in the bucket of players who fall on the sword for the sake of compromise. Somewhere in the litany of “my sides” there lays a BATNA that both sides could happily agree upon.
Should the Cubs elect to use the $18.6M as a baseline and factor in reasonable escalators for performance, a sensible agreement could be struck. Something to the tune of a three-year extension falling between $76.5M to $85.5M would suffice.
“But what about Arenado?” says brodie in the tank top chugging a PBR.
Dude, put on a hoody, it’s not time for suns out, guns out. By now, the Cubs have already run the regressions and examined the margins on what infusing a bloated $35M AAV salary into the lineup would look like.
That reality ain’t pretty and is better served for the next iteration of MLB The Show than a real deal plan for the near future
The Other “Getting to YES“
With convention upon us there’s also the matter of the Marquee Sports Network, the erstwhile 300-lb gorilla catching Zs on the other side of the room.
Next to Ross’ opening statement and the status of Kris Bryant, the loudest buzzing this convention weekend will involve figuring out the nuances of how fans will view the Cubs in 2020 and beyond. Some may scoff at the idea of the Cubs not being available on most Chicagoland TVs this coming season, but this really should be a leading topic at the Cubs convention.
In launching its own network, the Cubs have taken a bold step of re-defining the direction the organization is taking. In many ways, this is the culminating point for the Ricketts families’ ambitions since first taking over the franchise.
The current ownership trust has hit on every promise made when the Ricketts family purchased the team in 2009. Baseball on the North Side has experienced better days and the ghosts of generations past can rest easy thanks to the legacy of 2016.
But as team president Theo Epstein boldly stated in October, and I reminded you earlier in this piece, four years is a generation’s time in baseball, and for the Cubs, packaging its product to a new generation of fans will require navigating untested waters before it can count those legacy fans to follow it into a strange new decade.
Part of the dilemma with the Marquee Network is timing, and while the narrative around this new broadcast launch has been conveniently compared to the Yankee Entertainment and Sports (YES) Network – that correlation should be grounded in reality.
The YES Network is the gold standard for local sports broadcast networks, and with over a decade in the game, the network is light years ahead of Marquee thanks to real institutional knowledge around refining a financial formula rooted in Disney dollars.
But much has changed since YES revamped the formula in 2009 and gone is the steadfast reliable 80/20 revenue ratio in subscriber to advertising dollars.
Carving out a new niche in network modeling is the primary task for Marquee Network. To address this challenge, the network will have to maximize all consumer options while simultaneously riding the hot iron to cover the margins. To feed the customer obsession of tomorrow’s Cubs fans, an unforeseen third party will need to come to the forefront as a stabilizing force to make sure the network achieves solvency (think Amazon, maybe).
The organization has gone all in on the Marquee Network as the present here and now, and the key to tomorrow’s profit. But before all that comes to reality, the Cubs and baseball operations will have to do their part to make the product bullet proof.
Content valued is the bottom line and the fastest way to guarantee a successful season is on the back of an MVP – that’s why the Bryant announcement is such a big deal.
The 2020 season represents a defining year for both Kris Bryant and the Chicago Cubs. If Kris catches fire and comes anywhere close to another MVP campaign, the Cubs could well exceed current expectations to make a run at another World Series. If they find such success, an extension for the erstwhile franchise player easily follows.
Anything less and Kris is as good as gone and the Cubs are back to auditions for another “Marquee” talent to trot on the field and market off it.
With the weight of this and other dilemmas on its back, the current cross-roads for the Cubs bears comparison with the unpredictable weather in the Midwest this year: wet, grey and eerily calm. As if the longest summer ever fights fiercely against its end.
Sean Terry is a co-founder of WARR, he writes about the Chicago Cubs and Major League Baseball