Cubs make Theo Epstein the star attraction

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Cubs make Theo Epstein the star attraction

They had to turn away people at the doors because everyone wanted to listen to Theo Epstein.

The fans had jammed into a Hilton Chicago ballroom on Saturday morning to see the rock star executive who once followed Pearl Jam on tour and planned to leave for his charity event that night at a Boston night club.

Sure, fans ripped Alfonso Soriano for not hustling, and told team executives how annoying they found some of the D-listers singing the seventh-inning stretch. But, for the moment, the anger and frustration was gone.

The narrative at the Cubs Convention wasnt about who should be fired. It became hyping the new president of baseball operations.

It will die down, Epstein said. The players are the show. Thats why were all in this profession. (As) a kid, when I got involved in baseball, it wasnt to see Lou Gorman, the general manager of the Red Sox. It was to watch Jim Rice and Dwight Evans.

So times have changed a little bit with the information age now. People pay more attention to what GMs do. (Thats) great, but if that ever becomes the show, you probably dont have a very good product to begin with.

We are going to be a player-centric, player-driven organization. Theyre the ones with the real skill (and) world-class ability. Theyre the ones that are going to get us where we want to go.

Epstein became the star attraction on a team hes filled with buy-low players coming off down years (David DeJesus, Ian Stewart, Travis Wood, Chris Volstad) and a manager who told the crowd what they wanted to hear.

When the guys arent hustling, you make them accountable for it, Sveum said. Its simple. I dont really care how much money theyre making or how many years they have in the big leagues. Theyre still embarrassing the team.

Prince Fielder plays with an edge and gives maximum effort, but Sveum once again confirmed that his friend from Milwaukee wont be getting a megadeal here.

Thats just not going to happen, Sveum said. We have our first baseman in Bryan LaHair and (Anthony) Rizzo waiting in the wings as well, so were doing OK with big, power left-handed hitters right now.

Forget what it would take to sign Fielder. Epsteins front office held out and a franchise icon waited until the middle of January to agree to a one-year, 3 million deal with a club option.

About 24 hours after Kerry Wood signed, even chairman Tom Ricketts acknowledged: We probably could have had that conversation a month ago(and) done it a little sooner.

Ricketts again indicated that Epstein would have the authority to eat money on a bad contract for a player who didnt fit anymore. (The implication in a reporters question was Soriano.)

Starlin Castro could still be absolutely essential to the teams plans people close to the 21-year-old All-Star shortstop think his legal situation will sort itself out but an alleged sexual assault has been the bad publicity hanging over the convention.

From our standpoint, Starlin and his advisors put out a statement, Ricketts said. Its really not appropriate for us really to talk much beyond that. We just all hope it gets resolved as quickly as possible and everybody moves forward.

Epstein was not talking specifically about Castro. But he acknowledged that the Cubs will have to be able to find and develop players who can deal with all the temptations in this city.

Its been a factor in ruining some careers, Epstein said. Im sure its been (an) impediment to the Cubs of winning. Especially (given) what were trying to do develop a young core of players (the) approach that were going to have (is) the opposite of laissez-faire.

Were not just going to say, Oh, thats the way it is in Chicago, boys will be boys, Im sure theyll get enough sleep and be able to show up the next day ready to play. Thats failure on the organizations part.

That opportunity to build something and think more broadly about an organization matched Epstein up with Ricketts.

Last October, Ricketts told Cubs executive Crane Kenney to ask Red Sox president Larry Lucchino for permission to speak with Epstein. Ricketts got a call back from John W. Henry, the principal owner of the Red Sox, and a few days later Epstein was spotted at a Starbucks in Lincoln Park.

We were so secretive, Ricketts said, and then he hops out of the car to get an iced coffee and someone spots him. Why not just fly you in on United and put up a billboard for Gods sake?

That wouldnt be shocking anymore, because at the moment Epstein is the face of the franchise.

How Cubs are setting the expectations for winter meetings

How Cubs are setting the expectations for winter meetings

The billionaire owners and millionaire athletes wisely decided to not stop all that momentum after a World Series that beat the NFL’s “Sunday Night Football” in head-to-head TV ratings, attracted more than 40 million viewers for Game 7 and turned the 2016 Cubs into legends.

The owners and the players’ union avoided a foolish labor war, crafting a new five-year collective bargaining agreement that should unleash teams that had been waiting to see the rules of engagement, spur the free-agent market, accelerate trade talks and ignite Major League Baseball’s signature offseason event.

The Cubs can go viral seemingly anywhere now – “Saturday Night Live,” Disney World, “The Tonight Show,” the Latin Grammys, an Indiana-North Carolina basketball game, “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” – but don’t expect them to own the winter meetings this time.

As a $10 billion industry begins to descend upon National Harbor in Maryland on Sunday, Cubs officials won’t feel any of the urgency that fueled the spending spree that nearly totaled $290 million and helped end the 108-year drought.

“We said at the time that we did two offseasons worth of shopping in one offseason last year,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “We really liked the talent available to us last offseason. It was a very good free-agent market. We felt like building upon a 97-win team that got to the NLCS but was swept. We wanted to improve some of the deficiencies on that club and really push forward.

“We were really aggressive with what we did last offseason. We told everyone at the time that we felt like we were kind of shopping for two offseasons.

“So with that in mind, I don’t expect nearly the activity we had a year ago.”

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Sensing the pitching market might erupt at that point, the Cubs pushed to close John Lackey’s two-year, $32 million deal in early December, before the winter meetings in Nashville, Tennessee, and Zack Greinke’s anticipated decision between the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants. Hours after the Lackey news broke, the Arizona Diamondbacks shocked the baseball world when word leaked out that Greinke had agreed to a six-year, $206 million megadeal.

The perfect storm brought Ben Zobrist to Chicago, once the Cubs finally engineered a Starlin Castro trade at the winter meetings, with the New York Yankees being the only team willing to absorb $38 million, give up a useful pitcher (Adam Warren) and take a chance on the former All-Star shortstop. Zobrist turned down $60 million guaranteed from the Giants and New York Mets, taking a four-year, $56 million deal and delivering a World Series MVP performance.

The opt-out clauses within Jason Heyward’s eight-year, $184 million contract don’t seem so inviting anymore – and he said those weren’t important to him anyway – but he provided Gold Glove defense in right field, called that pivotal team meeting during the Game 7 rain delay in Cleveland and should rebound after the worst offensive season of his career.

The Cubs have no expectations that Dexter Fowler’s market will again crater to the point that he will accept a $13 million guarantee in spring training, moving on with a center-field timeshare between Jon Jay and Albert Almora Jr.

“The bulk of our heavy lifting is done,” Hoyer said. “But I think that was done 12 months ago. It will be a quieter winter than last offseason.

“We’re always listening. If good ideas come to us – or we come up with good ideas – we’ll share them with other teams. But fans shouldn’t expect a flurry of things, because they got that 12 months ago.” 

Fans also won’t be getting crash courses on labor relations and lockout implications. A game that can be slow, boring and stuck in its ways can’t waste the energy and excitement that created crossover moments like LeBron James showing up at the United Center in a Cubs uniform.

“There’s no doubt that it was an amazing postseason all around,” Hoyer said. “Baseball really showed itself in the best possible light, ending with a Game 7 that we happened to win. But win or lose, that was one of the greatest games ever played. Baseball is certainly going to be on a high going into spring training.

“Baseball is definitely in a great place right now.”  

For Cubs, winter meetings will be all about the hunt for pitching 

For Cubs, winter meetings will be all about the hunt for pitching 

As the Cubs prepare for the winter meetings outside Washington, D.C., their messaging might as well be: It’s the pitching, stupid.

This is an arms race that will never end, the Cubs trying to defend their first World Series title in 108 years, build out a bullpen that looked pretty thin by November and target the kind of young starter who could help anchor their rotation for years to come, ensuring Wrigleyville remains baseball’s biggest party.

The Cubs signed Brian Duensing to a one-year, $2 million contract on Friday, placing a small bet on a lefty specialist who spent parts of last season on the Triple-A level but made a good enough impression during his 13-plus innings with the Baltimore Orioles.

As executives, scouts, agents and reporters begin to flood into National Harbor on Sunday, the Cubs will intensify their search for pitching, everything from headliners to insurance policies to prospects.

“That’s been the significant bulk of our efforts,” general manager Jed Hoyer said, “It’s definitely not going to be through lack of trying on our part to make that kind of deal. That’s now. That’s at the deadline.”  

The Cubs are preparing for Opening Day 2018, when Jake Arrieta will probably be in a different uniform after signing his megadeal, John Lackey might be kicking back in Texas and enjoying retirement and Jon Lester will be 34 years old with maybe 2,300 innings on his odometer. 

The Cubs have unwavering faith in their pitching infrastructure at the major-league level, from the scouting and analytic perspectives that identified the right sign-and-flip deals during the rebuilding years to the coaching staff that helped mold Kyle Hendricks into a Cy Young Award finalist and a World Series Game 7 starter.

Mike Montgomery notched the final out against the Cleveland Indians and the Cubs see him as their next big project. The lefty checks so many of their boxes, from age (27) to size (6-foot-5) to pedigree (former first-round pick/top prospect) to the change-of-scenery confidence boost/mental reset.

Forget about the White Sox trading Chris Sale to the North Side and don’t just think about obvious names or trade partners. Maybe it’s making a deal for a guy you never heard of before and sifting through the non-tender bin. (As expected, the Cubs offered contracts to arbitration-eligible pitchers Arrieta, Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop and Justin Grimm before Friday’s deadline. Their 40-man roster stands at 35 after non-tendering lefties Gerardo Concepcion and Zac Rosscup, right-hander Conor Mullee and infielder Christian Villanueva.)

Remember how team president Theo Epstein framed the Montgomery trade with the Seattle Mariners this summer – comparing him to All-Star reliever Andrew Miller – and that gives you an idea of how they can address their pitching deficit this winter. 

“If your scouts do a good job of identifying the guys who are trending in the right direction – and you’re willing to take a shot – sometimes there’s a big payoff at the end,” Epstein said.   

While the Cubs did Jason Hammel a favor by cutting him loose and allowing him to explore the market as one of the best pitchers in an extremely weak class of free agents, Montgomery has only 23 big-league starts on his resume. 

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The Cubs had five starters make at least 29 starts this year, while four starters accounted for 30-plus starts in 2015, a remarkable run that led to 200 wins.

“As we’ve talked about so many times,” Hoyer said, “we do have an imbalance in our organization – hitting vs. pitching – and we’re trying to make sure we can accumulate as much pitching depth as possible. 

“We were very healthy this year, which was wonderful and a big part of why we won the World Series. I don’t think you can always count on that kind of health every single year. Building up a reservoir of depth – preferably guys you can option (to the minors) – is something (we’re trying) to accomplish.”  

The Cubs have Jorge Soler stuck in a crowded outfield plus the types of interesting prospects who appear to be blocked – catcher Victor Caratini, third baseman Jeimer Candelario, infielder/outfielder Ian Happ – to make relatively painless trades for pitching (if not the kind of blockbuster deal that dominates coverage of the winter meetings).

Lefty reliever Brett Cecil getting a four-year, $30.5 million deal and no-trade protection from the St. Louis Cardinals became another sign of how shallow this free-agent pool is for starting pitchers and a reflection of a postseason where the bullpen became a major storyline.

The idea of Kenley Jansen intrigues the Cubs – and Aroldis Chapman made a favorable impression during his three-plus months with the team – but Epstein’s front office already made the major upgrades for 2017 by spending nearly $290 million on free agents after the 2015 playoff run. Philosophically, the Cubs also see smarter long-term investments than trying to win a bidding war for a guy who might throw 70 innings a year. 

With that in mind, the Cubs could get creative and have looked at free agent Greg Holland, a two-time All-Star closer with the Kansas City Royals who didn’t pitch this year after having Tommy John surgery on his right elbow.  

Remember that Chapman left the New York Yankees and joined a team that had a 56-1 record when leading entering the ninth inning. If Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop and Carl Edwards Jr. can’t handle the late shifts, then the Cubs could always go out and trade for another closer in the middle of a pennant race.    

The Cubs have the luxuries of time, zero pressure from ownership, their fan base or the Chicago media and a stacked, American League-style lineup. 

“Right now, we could go play from an offensive standpoint and feel very good about our group,” Hoyer said. “We’re going to still continue to look to improve the depth in our bullpen, improve the depth in our starting rotation. Those are things that probably never go away. You probably never stop trying to build that depth.”