Sports

If ‘small-market’ teams like the Cubs can’t make it, what hope is there?

Billionaire owners like the Ricketts family just can’t compete with teams like San Diego.
Image: Getty Images

If this is the reality of baseball, then something about the system needs to change. Trades of top talent for prospects are nothing new in the game, of course, but you don’t expect to see the teams giving up on frontline starting pitchers to be making those trades when they’re in the middle of a window of contention.

You can’t fault the Padres for going out and getting the kind of pitchers they need to try to battle the world champion Dodgers in the National League West. San Diego chairman Peter Seidler founded a multi-billion dollar investment group, and he’s putting that money into the club. Good for him, and good for the millions of fans in the massive and international San Diego market. Accuse them of trying to buy championships all you want, but they’re trying to win, and that’s the point.

But the Padres’ gain comes at the expense of a team that should be one of baseball’s biggest success stories, that instead is becoming a tale of woe.

In the past four seasons, the Chicago Cubs, a family-owned team in the Midwest, has won two National League Central titles and a wild-card spot. They’ve done it around a core of young, mostly home-grown players like Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, David Bote, and Ian Happ. First baseman Anthony Rizzo was acquired as a young player in another long-ago trade with the Padres, when the Cubs sent Andrew Cashner to San Diego.

That’s always the thought for a team like the Cubs, that they can keep the cycle of contention going by trading their top players for top prospects. It can work for a while, but it’s always a house of cards that crumbles when you eventually trade for some prospects who don’t pan out. It fell apart most famously in Montreal, where after years of getting by and contending on the cheap, when it all finally fell apart, the team wound up moving.

So, maybe you can understand why the Cubs would trade Yu Darvish, who was second in the Cy Young vote this year, to the Padres. But this is also a team that let its second-leading home run hitter, Kyle Schwarber, simply walk because he was going to make too much money in arbitration. If the Cubs can’t figure out how to pay even the players who haven’t yet hit free agency, what are they even doing here?

Financially, it’s hard to see how it gets much better for the Cubs, either. Their family ownership has had a very rough year, after all, and they just started playing on a new TV channel, having gone off of nationally carried powerhouse WGN to take up a spot on a regional upstart called Marquee. Even if that works out, it’s not like the Cubs will be able to get a new boost of media dollars anytime soon.

Then there’s the ballpark issue. The Cubs play in a facility that predates World War I, which has fallen into such disrepair that ivy grows on the outfield walls in the summertime. It’s just as well, because ownership can’t afford simple upgrades like padding to protect outfielders, but still, for the first month or so each season, they’ve just got bare brick out there. There are no luxury boxes, only a single tier of seating above the lower bowl, and the ancient architecture of the place means that fans can go to rooftops across the street and circumvent paying the Cubs at all for the privilege of watching the games. Even given all of that, there has been no movement whatsoever on getting the Cubs a new, state-of-the-art facility. As much as the Cubs have squeezed revenue out of every square inch of their park, and as persuasive as they can be to free agents, there’s a point where they’re just not on the same financial playing field as teams like the Padres.

It’s clear that Chicago is a White Sox town, and that Midwestern National League fans have the Brewers and the Cardinals, competitive teams who can afford to compete year in and year out, as superior options to the Cubs. The question now is how long Major League Baseball allows this to go on.

Contraction isn’t a realistic option, not when baseball is pointed more toward an expansion to 32 teams. But before that expansion happens, MLB needs to get its ducks in a row and make sure that the existing teams are in good situations. In that case, it’s time for the Cubs to move, and let’s face it, after winning only one World Series in the past 112 years, who would really miss them? It’s time to face facts, realize that it’s just not going to work in Chicago, and get the Cubs somewhere they’ll have a better chance to compete, like Tampa Bay.

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