Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Oh $hit.....

When Sam Zell announced that he would be selling the Cubs off after purchasing the Tribune Company ten thousand years ago, it was hailed within the Cubs world as the approaching of a new era. Finally! We could have an owner that has a little personal pride and ego tied to the team instead of simply watching the revenue streams grow ever larger with little regard to the on-field product.

The sky got a little bluer. The ivy got a little greener. The beer tasted a little better. The girls in the bleachers got a little hotter. Life was good. We could see the end of the hundred-year long tunnel. We saw the days of letting Cy Young winning, Hall of Fame pitchers leaving via free-agency coming to an end.

We dreamed of the day that Mark Cuban would raise the payroll to a billion dollars so that we could afford Johan Santana, Jake Peavy and the robotic technology to keep his arm from falling off. We could have Mark Teixiera and Derrek Lee platoon at first base, with Adam Dunn coming off the bench. We could develop a spacecraft that would bring back alien technology that would return Ernie Banks to his prime and play shortstop. There would be no stopping the Cubs!

Then time passed and the economy started to fall apart. Banks stopped lending money to anyone. People got laid off left and right. Super-premium revenue streams started drying up. The market value of the Cubs started to fall.

At one point, Mark Cuban figured he would have to agree to pay well over a billion dollars to get the Cubs to even consider him as a potential owner. As the health of the economy declined (and Mark Cuban removed himself as a bidder), the Cubs finally came to a selling price of $900 million for the Ricketts family, because they would be putting up half of it in cash and having to finance "only" the remaining $450 million through the banks.

Unfortunately, the banks don't seem to think that the Ricketts, with only TD Ameritrade as collateral, are a good enough credit risk, so it has been much more difficult to line up the financing than orginally thought. This is why you may have seen Tom Ricketts standing at one of the offramps of the Kennedy Expressway with a cardboard "Please Help Me Buy Cubs" sign.

He has been looking to sell $25 million non-voting investments in the team in exchange for a yearly dividend and some nice seats to the home games in order to raise the money he is having trouble prying away from the banks.

In recent days, he has actually gotten more proactive about finding folks who may be able to pony up that kind of dough. He's been in conversations with Bill Murray, Jim Belushi, and John Cusack to discuss the possibility of them handing over some cash. I'm guessing the next step will involve charging celebrities to sing the Seventh Inning Stretch.

Ricketts is also working to try to reduce the final sale price by about $50 million due to the WGN broadcasting contract that he feels was originally overvalued.

It seems like there is some new hang-up every day, to the point where one has to start wondering if the deal is even going to happen at all. If it does, will the Ricketts have screwed themselves by taking on so much debt for a team whose revenue generation may have plateaued or even begun to decline?

So where does this leave the Cub fans? Here we are with a team that is fighting through major injuries to contend for a THIRD STRAIGHT DIVISION TITLE. I know folks in Atlanta and New York and Boston think of three division titles as nice and cute, but in Chicago, it is unheard of.

This level of success on an annual basis is almost incomprehensible to Cubs fans. We're not quite sure what to do with ourselves as the baseball gods heap on obstacles that Bobby Scales proceeds to leap in a single bound. We don't know what to make of a rookie fill-in pitcher that pitches as well, if not better, than anyone in the rotation. We can't process having a guy in AAA batting .429/.513/1.482, with 17 HRs and 50 RBIs in 34 games and not have an obvious spot for him on the major league roster.

What can possibly stop the Cubs? Well, a bullpen that could charitably be described as "crappy" would be one obvious area to look.

It is hard to fix a bullpen in midseason. Remember 1998? The commenter known as Seat 106 was sitting around getting ready for bed on the eve of the 1998 trade deadline when the news broke on ESPN that the Cubs were about to announce a major deadline-beating deal.

Seat 106 promptly picked up his phone, called his buddy, and screamed (I'm paraphrasing), "Holy s---! We got Randy Johnson!" Five minutes later, the deals actually announced were that the Cubs had traded one first round draft choice pitcher for Matt Karchner, and another first-rounder for Felix Heredia. The Astros then sent what was (at the time) roughly the same amount of talent to Seattle for Mr. Johson and proceeded to blow the doors off the Cubs in the division race.

The fact that Seat 106 did not kill himself that night, is either a testament to his mental toughness, or proof that his wife managed to shoot him with a tranquilizer gun before he could do anything drastic.

My point is that the Cubs received two unbelievably crappy bullpen pitchers in return for about the same amount of minor league talent that was used to land one of the most dominant left-handed starting pitchers in the history of baseball. That is a pretty good indication of the market for relievers, because there simply aren't that many good ones that are expendable.

Think about it - what would a team have to offer the Cubs for them to part with Carlos Marmol? We'll start the bidding with David Price and go from there.

About the only way someone can build a bullpen in mid-season is to trade some talent and take payroll in return from a team that is dragging in the standings. But if the Cubs remain in this ownership limbo (or if the Ricketts do miraculously manage to take control before the trade deadline), how much money will they have to make adjustments? Will they have to live with guys like Neal Cotts and David Patton trotting out to the mound every couple of days to put on their own version of a pyrotechnics show?

What if the Ricketts can't afford to keep the payroll at its current levels? What if this team has to be stripped and sold for parts to get the payroll down? How many more years would it take to build anything back up into a legitimate contender again?

How appropriate would it be for the team to reach the edge of history for a third straight year, only to have the rug pulled out from under them by the invisible hand of market forces?

I think the ivy just faded a bit.


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