Epstein doesn't have to make a splash right now

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Epstein doesn't have to make a splash right now

DALLAS This is the perfect nugget for the 247 news cycle: Theo Epstein met with the agent for Albert Pujols.

The age of Twitter doesnt leave much room for context. The Cubs president of baseball operations pointed out that Dan Lozano also represents Rodrigo Lopez.

Epstein indicated that the Cubs have interest in bringing back Lopez, who will turn 36 next week and went 6-6 with a 4.42 ERA last season. The journeyman right-hander wouldnt generate any buzz.

But as the winter meetings began on Monday at the Hilton Anatole in Dallas, Lopez is exactly what the Cubs are looking for now. They absolutely need to stock up on pitching inventory.

The Miami Marlins are rumored to be in the Pujols sweepstakes and want to sell tickets and make a dent in their market. They need the wow factor LeBron James brought to South Beach.

The Cubs are looking to give a megadeal to the right player at the right time. They already made their biggest move of the offseason.

Epstein has payroll flexibility, ownerships full support and the credibility to preach patience after winning two World Series titles with the Boston Red Sox. He said he has zero interest in making a splash just for show.

Five (or) 10 years from now, Epstein said, if we look back on this and say we made any move for any reason other than its in the best short-, medium- and long-term interests of the Cubs, wed have a hard time sleeping at night.

This is hard enough. If you try to serve perception, as well as reality, you end up hurting yourself.

Twelve months ago at the winter meetings, Jim Hendry had to structure Carlos Penas one-year pillow contract across three fiscal years. Pena will receive a 5 million payment next month. The Cubs are supposed to act like a major-market team again and dont have to do those financial gymnastics anymore.

Pena is expected to decline an arbitration offer this week. Epstein believes there are multiple multi-year deals out there for Pena. Epstein said the Cubs havent closed the door on Pena, though theyre looking at all options at first base, some of which wont make big headlines.

Bryan LaHair came to the winter meetings to pick up an award for leading all minor-league hitters with 38 home runs last season. He met with Cubs executives and wasnt promised anything. But he will be given a chance.

LaHair is 29 years old and was a 39th-round pick. He has less than 200 at-bats on his big-league resume. But the Pacific Coast League MVP generated 109 RBI and a 1.070 OPS last season at Triple-A Iowa.

I tend not to buy into the concept of a 4-A hitter, Epstein said. If you can dominate the Triple-A level, get on base and hit for power (and) demonstrate that you can handle different kinds of pitching and cover the entire strike zone, I think given enough time, hell contribute at the major-league level.

Were not giving him the job. And Im not saying were not looking to upgrade at first base. But if it ends up with him playing a significant role or getting a significant opportunity, I think wed all be comfortable with that.

Epstein is uneasy with the state of the Cubs rotation, and thats where hes encouraging his scouts to again think outside the box. Soon all this talk Epstein estimated that you might make one move for every 100 conversations will have to lead to some action.

If you just get on line with everybody else and say: Were not going to overpay. Were just going to wait for the reasonable pitcher to be out there, Epstein said, youre going to be waiting until the end of spring training, hoping to claim someone off waivers. Because theres way more demand than there is supply for starting pitching.

Were going to have to take some chances and be creative. You need to know who your eight or nine starters are. You have 1,400 innings out there to fill. You want to get 1,000 of them out of your starting pitching. It takes a lot of bodies to do that. We dont have enough (quality arms).

Stay tuned even if the next move doesnt lead to a press conference.

We just have to work really hard to figure out whats in (our) best interest (and) be disciplined about that, even if its unpopular, Epstein said. Sometimes it will be popular, sometimes it wont. You work towards pleasing the fans every October because I think in the end thats what they really want.

Impressions of Aroldis Chapman as Cubs head to Dodger Stadium

Impressions of Aroldis Chapman as Cubs head to Dodger Stadium

SAN DIEGO – The Los Angeles Dodgers made an honorable no-tolerance statement on domestic violence, or their high-powered front office didn’t do enough homework on Aroldis Chapman, or a Hollywood franchise couldn’t deal with the bad optics.

Maybe all those factors swirled together as a deal with the Cincinnati Reds collapsed during the winter meetings, the police report surfacing weeks after an ugly incident at Chapman’s South Florida home. 

The New York Yankees scavenged and acquired the superstar closer at a steep discount in late December, before the Broward County State Attorney’s Office decided to not file criminal charges, and before Major League Baseball imposed a 30-game suspension to start this season. 

The Cubs handled Chapman’s transition in a clumsy, awkward manner after that blockbuster trade with the Yankees one month ago, looking unprepared for his welcome-to-Chicago press conference with coach Henry Blanco sitting there as the translator, and sounding insensitive when the Wrigley Field sound system played a 1997 Prodigy song called: “Smack My B---- Up.”

The Cubs hired a new translator – and fired a DJ – and now have Chapman’s 100-mph velocity waiting for a potential playoff preview that begins Friday night at Dodger Stadium.

“The talent is even more impressive when you’re actually there watching it on your side,” manager Joe Maddon said. “That life at home plate is purely different. It’s just different what the baseball does.

“It’s obvious to me that you have to get in there and talk to him and develop that relationship. He’s smiling more easily already and the conversation’s actually coming back to me in English a little bit, which is fun to hear, so I’ve been really happy about that.”

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Whether or not Dodger fans stay until the end to watch a first-place team that has weathered Clayton Kershaw’s back injury – and the 26 other players who have spent time on the disabled list this season, tying a major-league record – watching Chapman is a unique experience even for an MVP candidate or a Cy Young Award winner. 

“It’s fun hearing the crowd do their oohs and aahs on every pitch,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said, “how engaged they are, and how excited they are when he comes in to pitch.”

“A lot of the players are almost in the same amount of awe that the fans are,” pitcher Jake Arrieta said. “When you see a guy like Chapman go out there and compete and perform, there’s a lot of appreciation and respect for what he’s capable of, because, frankly, the game’s never really seen anything like it, especially from the left side. 

“We’ve seen a lot of hard throwers. But when you see a scouting report that’s 100-to-105 (mph), he’s a one-of-one type of guy. You definitely stop and watch when he’s out there.”

Chapman – who can cash in as a free agent after this season – has so far answered the legitimate questions about how he would fit into a laid-back clubhouse and effect best-team-in-baseball chemistry.

“He’s an absolute professional,” Arrieta said. “I’m very attentive to details. (I’m) watching the way he goes about his routine and (how) it starts for a 7 o’clock game. He’s starting right around 2:30, 3 o’clock, getting ready for that ninth inning.

“He’s getting his body ready. He’s getting his mind ready. You can see his focus. A guy like that, he obviously has his routine down extremely well, so it’s really nice to kind of watch him throughout the day. What’s he doing at 3:30? What’s he doing at 4:30? What’s he doing at 6 o’clock? He’s constantly doing things to prepare himself for those three outs.

“That’s why he’s so successful. Obviously, he’s very gifted. His velocity, his presence and his size alone are extremely tough to defeat. But when you see the amount of hours that he puts into those three outs, it makes you realize why he’s able to go out there and be as successful as he is.”

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Chapman hasn’t quite been the add-on to a dominant bullpen the Cubs envisioned, because top setup guy Pedro Strop (knee) and former closer Hector Rondon (triceps) are on the disabled list. Maddon also had to curb his enthusiasm for four-out saves and realize Chapman – who’s allowed four of eight inherited runners to score – prefers to work one inning at a time.  

But Chapman has been as good as advertised, going 9-for-11 in save chances, allowing two earned runs in 15 appearances and striking out 21 of the 48 batters he’s faced while giving up only three walks.   

“It’s probably a demoralizing feeling for the other team to see him warming up,” pitcher Jason Hammel said. “Big-league hitters will hit a fastball after a while if they see it enough. But he makes guys take some pretty silly hacks.”

“You can literally hear the ball out of his hand,” pitching coach Chris Bosio said. “He can make the seams sing a little bit with the power he’s getting.”

Dodger Stadium draws celebrities to an iconic site, creates a sense of energy and gets louder and louder. But after a series of decisions that could echo into October, Wrigley Field is where Rage Against the Machine’s “Wake Up” blasts from the speakers as Chapman warms up and the fans look up at the video board after each pitch.   

“The guys on the bench are like mimicking what the crowd is doing,” Maddon said. “It’s wonderful. How many pitchers elicit that kind of reaction? There’s a couple, but you’re anticipating that big number and we’ve never seen that here. 

“But most any place you’ve not seen it. (It’s) the reputation, where he’s come from – and his presence and how big he is – he’s so formidable and imposing. And now he’s our toy.”

Cubs catcher Willson Contreras looks ready for prime time

Cubs catcher Willson Contreras looks ready for prime time

SAN DIEGO – Within 24 hours at Petco Park, Cubs catcher Willson Contreras handled the wild movement of Jake Arrieta’s pitches and framed the edges of the strike zone for Kyle Hendricks, showing the dexterity to handle a playoff rotation.

Contreras looked ready for prime time on Tuesday night and Wednesday afternoon, helping shut down the San Diego Padres and complete a three-game sweep where two National League Cy Young Award candidates found a rhythm while throwing to a rookie catcher.

“Everything’s a lot easier,” Contreras said after a 6-3 victory. “I’m way more comfortable right now, because my first week everything was speeding up on me. But now I’m able to slow down the game and do my job.” 

The day after Arrieta fell one inning short of a two-hit, complete-game shutout, Hendricks credited Contreras for calling more curveballs and getting him through a stretch where the Padres put the leadoff man on base in each of the first four innings. 

“From the get-go, I wasn’t shaking him off,” Hendricks said. “We’ve been rolling for the last five, six starts, at least. It’s been easy.” 

Contreras has now caught Arrieta twice, and got one-start exposure to Jon Lester, while developing chemistry with Hendricks, John Lackey and Jason Hammel, which means veteran catcher Miguel Montero might not have a spot on the postseason roster if this continues.

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Contreras is a dynamic presence, launching his eighth home run on Wednesday afternoon and keeping the Padres stationary after Tuesday night’s laser throw to pick off a runner at third base. 

“I was waiting for somebody to run,” Contreras said. “But they didn’t run, so I’ll have to save it for another game.”

The Cubs are nearing the point where a 24-year-old player who didn’t make his big-league debut until June 17 could be behind the plate for the biggest games in franchise history.

“In this clubhouse, we are like a family,” Contreras said. “Once you get here, you start feeling comfortable the first day. You don’t even know that you are a rookie who just came up.”

Kyle Hendricks keeps rolling as Cubs sweep away Padres

Kyle Hendricks keeps rolling as Cubs sweep away Padres

SAN DIEGO – Kyle Hendricks reported to spring training as a fifth starter, leads the majors in ERA in late August and could pitch Game 1 in a playoff series. That gradual evolution from possible question mark at the back of the rotation into a National League Cy Young Award candidate highlights how the Cubs have transformed from a team that won the offseason to one that owns the summer and maybe this fall. 

In his own understated way, Hendricks smashed any perceptions of that ceiling, performing at a level and with a consistency that matches the franchise’s young hitting stars, mirroring their baseball IQ and grounded nature, without the billboards and flair for social media. 

Hendricks kept rolling on a beautiful Wednesday afternoon at Petco Park, knocking the San Diego Padres off-balance and finishing the three-game sweep with a 6-3 victory. That pushed the Cubs to 36 games over .500 for the first time since finishing their 1945 pennant-winning season at 98-56. The best team in baseball could play a little over .500 (19-17) down the stretch and still reach 100 wins.

A Dartmouth College graduate with an Ivy League degree in economics helped create all this momentum – and certainly knows what he wants to do on the mound – but Hendricks as an ace still seems beyond the wildest internal preseason projection.

“I thought he ended really well last year and that there was a lot to look forward to,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He’s just taken it to another level right now. He’s in that 26-27-year-old range where a young pitcher who’s had some major-league experience can really find his next level. And I think that’s what’s going on. He’s such a wonderful student. The difference between last year and this year is the confidence thing: ‘I belong here. I can do this. I’m one of the best.’ 

“A lot of our guys are going through that moment right now. And I think that’s what you’re seeing out of Kyle. I’ve talked about the couple tweaks he’s made regarding the four-seam fastball and curveball usage. That makes him a little bit different. But more than anything, I think he believes he’s among the best right now.”

The Padres (53-74) looked a little checked out and didn’t really put much pressure on a Cubs team that should get an adrenaline boost this weekend at Dodger Stadium. Dexter Fowler and Kris Bryant opened the game with back-to-back doubles before Ben Zobrist lined a two-run triple into the right-center field gap. Within six minutes of Paul Clemens’ first pitch, Jorge Soler’s sacrifice fly made it 3-0.

Hendricks hasn’t allowed more than three earned runs in a start since May 17, a run of 17 straight outings that has sliced his ERA from 3.51 to 2.19 while pushing his record to 12-7.

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Hendricks hides his emotions and didn’t get flustered when the Padres put the leadoff man on base in each of the first four innings, working around the traffic to limit San Diego to two runs and finish with eight strikeouts. 

Hendricks made it through six innings – he’s now gone at least five in each of his 24 starts this year – after beginning the day with a FanGraphs soft-hit rate (26 percent of batted balls) that led the majors and would be the highest mark in the last five seasons.

Hendricks has to pitch a different game than Jake Arrieta, but with an 8-1 record and a 1.38 ERA in his last 13 starts, he might be this year’s breakthrough performer who helps carry the Cubs into October.

“I’m just trying to stay where I’m at and keep the consistency,” Hendricks said. “Keep my pitches feeling good, keep my command. It’s just staying in my routine and really not doing too much – not doing less – just kind of riding it out until I feel something change.”