Epstein, Cubs looking for action at winter meetings

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Epstein, Cubs looking for action at winter meetings

DALLAS -- The Cubs have given Theo Epstein the keys to the kingdom.

The president of baseball operations has total control but wont necessarily rule with an iron fist. His management style has been described as inclusive. He listens and challenges his staff. He views his front office as a think tank or a boiler room.

The Cubs will run through every scenario at the winter meetings, which officially begin on Monday at the Hilton Anatole in Dallas. This is where Epstein will earn his money.

Jason McLeod, the new Cubs scouting executive, started out with the San Diego Padres around the same time Epstein did. They were in their early 20s and would grab beers after the game and talk baseball. They would make side trips to see prospects at USC and Cal State Fullerton, even Adrian Gonzalez in high school.

It became quickly apparent that his intelligence level was at a way different level than everyone else, McLeod said. But he was always the guy (who) could sit in any crowd and have a conversation (and) make anyone feel important. He just has that special way (about him).

A new collective bargaining agreement will force the Cubs to work smarter. Spending in the draft and internationally will be capped and taxed. Testing for human growth hormone is another variable teams will have to consider.

Epstein has the authority to eat money in order to move Carlos Zambrano andor Alfonso Soriano. Buyer beware: The megadeals for Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder will be the biggest stories of the winter meetings.

This much is clear: The Cubs dont want to see them back in the division (or if they are, its at a price that makes the St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers uncomfortable). Their agents would certainly benefit from the perception that the Cubs are in.

Epstein doesnt think you should pay too much attention to rumors. The Cubs are a major-market team that will explore every possibility.

Weve been consistent from Day 1 that (our) priorities (are building) this thing the right way, Epstein said, for the long haul, mainly through scouting and player development and through the acquisition of young players.

The second priority is (to) take advantage of every opportunity to win that you have. (But) were not going to do anything to serve the second priority that disrupts the first.

So any rumor that you hear, (its) probably worth your while to assess it through that lens. Not saying that were not going to make a move that might be unanticipated or catch people by surprise or might not on its face fit perfectly into that box. But generally thats our philosophy. Thats how were evaluating moves as we try to build this thing.

Even new manager Dale Sveum whos tight with Fielder after their time together in Milwaukee acknowledged that it might not be the time or the place to go all in.

Youd like to have all the great free agents that are out there, Sveum said. Were trying to do something here in Chicago to build now and win right now but be smart about it.

Its more realistic to think that the Cubs will land at least one mid-level starter for a rotation that was shredded by injuries and finished among the worst in the game last season.

Were having a ton of conversations with agents and with teams, general manager Jed Hoyer said. Hopefully, we can move the ball forward in Dallas this week. (We) know we have to add pitching depth, and thats something were focused on.

The Cubs also have openings at first and third base. Matt Garzas agent told him this will be an active winter meetings. Carlos Marmol is an intriguing closer, and several teams are looking for one. This front office wont be as attached to these players as the previous administration.

Its time to see what all the hype is about.

So far, theres been a lot of talk, Epstein said. There hasnt been a ton of action. Hopefully, this talk is over. We lead the league in press conferences. (Its) easy to have a vision for how you want the organization to be, an ideal in your mind. Its hard to put it into action.

Preview: Cubs-Marlins Sunday on CSN

Preview: Cubs-Marlins Sunday on CSN

The Cubs take on the Miami Marlins on Sunday, and you can catch all the action on CSN and streaming live on CSNChicago.com and the NBC Sports App.

Coverage begins with Cubs Pregame Live at 11:30 a.m., followed by first pitch with Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies on the call. Be sure to stick around after the final out to get analysis and player reaction on Cubs Postgame Live.

Starting pitching matchup: Mike Montgomery (1-3, 2.26 ERA) vs. Edinson Volquez (3-8, 4.19 ERA)

Click here for more stats to make sure you’re ready for the action.

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— Latest on the Cubs: All of the most recent news and notes.

Jon Lester: It’s go time for Cubs

Jon Lester: It’s go time for Cubs

MIAMI – Jon Lester dropped his head and wiped the sweat from his face. The Cubs ace didn’t jerk his neck and twist his body, hoping the swing and the sound somehow fooled him. The slow turnaround revealed the obvious – the 75-mph curveball out of his left hand flew over the left-field wall and nearly into the Clevelander bar billed as an adult playground. 

Lester gripped the next ball, stared out into the visual noise at Marlins Park and went to work late Saturday afternoon after J.T. Realmuto’s two-out, three-run homer in the first inning. This is the bulldog determination and tunnel vision that’s been the antidote to the big-market pressures at Fenway Park and Wrigley Field and made Lester such a big-game pitcher.

“You really just have to lock it down,” Lester said after doing just that in a 5-3 win. “You have to try to figure out a way to pitch innings. That was one thing I learned at an early age in Boston with ‘Schill’ (Curt Schilling) and Josh (Beckett). It doesn’t matter. Now we start over. You have to take that mindset of ‘It’s back to zero’ and not keep looking at the scoreboard.”

From that Realmuto moment, Lester retired the next 13 hitters he faced, 15 of the next 16 and 18 of his last 20 at a time when the Cubs needed that performance to buy time for their young hitters, weather a series of injuries and survive a brutal schedule.

Lester believed enough in the coming waves of talent to sign with a last-place team after the 2014 season, and got rewarded with his third World Series ring, continually impressed with this group’s poise and maturity.

The day after getting shut out for the sixth time this season, Addison Russell, Ian Happ, Javier Baez and Albert Almora Jr. – four 24-and-under players – combined to go 7-for-15 with five RBI and four runs scored.

“It’s a test for everybody,” Lester said. “These guys are kind of getting broken in early. They’re going to figure it out and we’re going to go. Now it seems like our guys are really feeling comfortable at the plate. We’re having good at-bats, normal at-bats.

“The results will come. This is, obviously, a results-driven industry. But the plans – as far as on the mound and in the batter’s box – just look a lot smoother right now, a lot cleaner and hopefully we can just keep playing good baseball.”

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The Cubs are 38-36, a half-game behind the first-place Milwaukee Brewers and in position to win three consecutive series for the first time since April. Whether or not Lester (5-4, 3.83 ERA) returns to Little Havana for the All-Star Game, he is the bellwether for this rotation.  

“Jonny’s just got this thing going on right now,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He knows where the ball is going and he gets the high-number velocity when he wants to. He’s not just pitching at 92, 93, 94 (mph). It’s in his back pocket when he needs it. And he gets it with command when he wants it.

“As well as I’ve seen him pitch – I know he had a great run last year also – from a stuff perspective, command perspective, it’s as good as he can pitch.”

This $155 million investment will at some point become a sunk cost. The Cubs understand the history of nine-figure contracts for pitchers and how desperately they need reinforcements. But almost 100 innings into this title defense, Lester feels like he’s just getting started. 

“I feel better now than I did in April and May, for sure,” Lester said. “I think bigger bodies just take a while sometimes. Some years are different than others. Some years you come out like gangbusters and you’re ready to go and the body feels fine. And other years it takes a while to get into that rhythm of pitching every five days again. This was one of those years.”