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OPINION: Cubs, White Sox both disappoint in MLB offseason

March 5, 2019

Although the below-freezing temperatures blowing in this week give the illusion baseball still is months away, all 30 MLB clubs are well into Spring Training and Opening Day will be here in just more than three weeks.

As the offseason fades and the regular season approaches, fans of both of Chicago’s ballclubs are asking the same question.

What in the world happened this winter?

The White Sox, fully immersed in their first rebuild under general manager Rick Hahn, decided they wanted to accelerate the process and tied themselves to the negotiations of 26-year-old free agents Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, particularly the latter.

The Southsiders began their aggressive push for Machado when they traded for his brother-in-law, first baseman/designated hitter Yonder Alonzo, and solidified their seriousness when they signed Machados’s friend, outfielder Jon Jay, to a one-year deal. Common sense told Hahn, executive vice President Kenny Williams and owner Jerry Reinsdorf that Machado would be more enticed to join the White Sox with the presence of friends and family.

Machado couldn’t deposit Alonzo and Jay into his bank account, so he opted to sign with the San Diego Padres, who offered Machado the third-largest contract in baseball history at 10 years, $300 million.

The White Sox did offer a slightly higher contract per year at eight years and $250 million and could have reached 10 years and as much as $350 million with potential options and bonuses, but Machado, as he and agent Dan Lozano seemed to have made clear before negotiations began, opted for the deal with the most guaranteed money.

So, why wouldn’t the White Sox guarantee the ninth and 10th years of the offer, rather than make them vesting options? Look no further than the owner’s box.

Jerry Reinsdorf, who has owned the White Sox since 1981 and Chicago Bulls NBA franchise since 1985, always has been considered one of the most frugal owners in each sport, so much so his lack of willingness to open his wallet after the 1997-98 season caused the end of the Bulls’ dynasty during the Jordan-Pippen era in some eyes.

With the White Sox, that has been no different. Jose Abreu’s six-year, $68 million contract signed in 2013 is the largest in franchise history. They are one of six clubs to never have given a single contract for more than $100 million. Meanwhile, 12 teams have inked at least one contract for greater than $200 million.

For a team in America’s third-largest market, that is inexcusable — almost as inexcusable as Williams’ shock when Machado, who sat on the team’s offer all winter before taking what he wanted in San Diego, took the deal with the most promised money.

While the Cubs’ reasoning behind not seriously joining the Harper and Machado sweepstakes — saving money to re-up on contracts with several young stars — makes sense (although I would blame the abominable Yu Darvish deal last winter), there’s no reason their biggest offseason acquisition was middle reliever Brad Brach, especially with fireballer Craig Kimbrell, one of the game’s most effective closers, still on the market.

But for the Cubs, it’s not the player acquisitions, or lack thereof, that have made it a failure of a winter; it’s what has gone on upstairs.

Early last month, leaked emails from Joe Ricketts, the father of Cubs owner Tom Ricketts, revealed deeply racist thoughts and beliefs on Muslims. The emails span several years and were gathered by Splinter News, released Feb. 4.

Five years ago, Los Angeles Clippers NBA owner Donald Sterling was forced to sell the franchise after audio was leaked to TMZ of his racist language toward African Americans. I doubt MLB will force the hand of the Ricketts family in that regard, and Joe is the father of the owner, not the owner, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the league penalized the Cubs in some light fashion for public relations reasons.

That’s not the biggest cause for concern.

About a week later, the Cubs announced their partnership with Sinclair to form a regional sports network that will broadcast Cubs games exclusively, beginning in 2020.

Yes, the same Sinclair that was discovered to have been using the local news affiliate stations they owned to air political propaganda, sometimes literal “fake news.” And yes, the same Sinclair that was responsible for the largest TV blackout ever, when more than 100 million DISH Network subscribers lost access to 129 local stations while the media mogul company used them as leverage to increase value in one of their cable networks, which is exactly what the Cubs’ regional sports network will be.

As streaming platforms such as Hulu and Netflix continue to decimate the cable TV landscape as we know it, live sports always will hold value. It’s the one type of programming viewers can’t wait to hit Netlix in a year, or wait to watch on Hulu the next day.

That means the Cubs’ network has value not only on its own but also in negotiations with cable and satellite companies, exactly like the issue that caused the blackout with DISH in 2014.

For the Cubs, the move makes sense. With one of the most passionate and loyal fanbases in professional sports, plenty of people will be willing to pay a premium to cheer on their beloved Cubbies.

But the history and reputation of their partners gives cause for pause. I wouldn’t be shocked in the slightest if a majority of fans are blacked out from Cubs games in the same way Dodgers fans largely are blacked out from viewing Dodgers games.

Sports Network LA is the regional sports network that has an exclusive partnership with the Dodgers, similar to the soon-to-be relationship between the Cubs and Sinclair. The only viewers who have access to Dodgers games are those who subscribe to Charter, the company that owns the network, after inheriting it in a 2016 merger with Time Warner Cable.

So, while the White Sox sit on their money, the Cubs are unsatisfied with theirs and are hoping their new network nets them a larger slice of the pie, even if it means local fans could be blacked out.

Either way, greed has consumed major league baseball in Chicago this winter.