Chicago Cubs

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.

Once again, Javier Baez will be a huge X-factor for Cubs down the stretch

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USA TODAY

Once again, Javier Baez will be a huge X-factor for Cubs down the stretch

Javier Baez flicked his bat and watched the ball rocket in the direction of Waveland Avenue, the last of the back-to-back-to-back homers against Cincinnati Reds starter/Cubs trivia answer Scott Feldman.

That quick strike came during a four-homer fourth inning on Thursday afternoon at Wrigley Field, where the offense looked explosive and the pitching looked combustible in a 13-10 loss that left the Milwaukee Brewers one game out of first place, the St. Louis Cardinals right behind them and the Cubs awaiting a diagnosis on Jon Lester’s lat injury.

“I know the talent we got,” Baez said. “When they come to play a team like us, we know they’re going to come play hard and obviously play good baseball. They’re going to come to compete, and that’s what we got to do.”

Whatever happens from here – the Cubs are 2-2 so far during a 13-game stretch against last-place teams – you know Baez will be in the middle of the action as the No. 8 hitter with 19 homers this season and a power source with Willson Contreras (strained right hamstring) injured.

This is the starting shortstop until Addison Russell (strained right foot/plantar fasciitis) comes off the disabled list and the unique talent you couldn’t take your eyes off during last year’s playoffs.

“He’s not afraid of anything,” manager Joe Maddon said. “So I don’t care how big or small the game is, he’s going to play the same way. He’s going to do everything pretty much full gorilla all the time.

“Sometimes, he’s going to make a mistake. And that’s OK, because with certain people – with all of us – you got to take the bad with the good. Everybody wants perfection. He’s going to make some mistakes. But most of the time, he’s going to pull off events.”

The night before against the Reds, Baez led off the ninth inning with a line-drive double and scored the game-winning run on a wild pitch. Last week, Statcast clocked him at 16.11 seconds for his inside-the-park homer off the San Francisco Giants at AT&T Park. Over the weekend, he launched another home-run ball 463 feet against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field.

There are so many different ways Baez can help the Cubs win a game at a time when they don’t have anywhere close to the same margin for error that they did during last season’s joyride into the playoffs.

“I know we often talk about the strikeouts or the big swings,” Maddon said. “But look at his two-strike numbers. Look at his OPS (.808). Look at the run production in general (his 55 RBI match Kris Bryant). It’s been outstanding. And you combine that with first-rate defense.

“Now he’s going to make some mistakes. I’ve talked about that. That’s going to go away with just experience. As he gets older, plays more often, he’s going to make less of those routine mistakes. And the game’s going to get really clean and sharp.”

Until then, Baez will keep taking huge swings, making spectacular plays and trying to cut down on the errors (10 in 334 innings at shortstop, or one less than Russell through 729 innings), because he knows what he means to this team.  

“Javy’s very important,” pitcher Jake Arrieta said. “He’s one of our best defensive players, one of our most athletic players on the team.

“Javy’s got a really big swing, but he’s got a great eye and he handles the bat really well. For as big as his swing is, he still manages to make really good contact. I don’t want him to approach the game any other way than he does right now.”

Should the Cubs pursue Justin Verlander after Jon Lester's injury, and what would they have to give up?

Should the Cubs pursue Justin Verlander after Jon Lester's injury, and what would they have to give up?

The Cubs may be in some trouble, with the injury bug hitting them at an inopportune time.

First it was Addison Russell (strained right foot), then it was Willson Contreras, arguably the best catcher in baseball and one of the hottest hitters on the planet before going down with a hamstring injury, and now it's Jon Lester who may be on his way to the disabled list after suffering a strained left lat muscle in Thursday's 13-10 loss to Cincinnati.

All of this occurring during a time Joe Maddon's club is looking to pull away from the pack in the National League Central and capture their second straight division crown, which appears to be the only way the North Siders can control their own destiny.

So what should the Cubs do if Lester is sidelined for an extended period of time?

One option could be re-opening trade discussions surrounding Justin Verlander, who cleared revocable waivers in early August. But what would it take to get him, and how much salary would they have to take on for it to happen?

The SportsTalk Live panel weighed in on that possibility in the video above.