What it will take to close the Epstein deal

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What it will take to close the Epstein deal

Sometime within the next 48 hours, Theo Epstein is expected to smile for the cameras.

With flashbulbs popping all around the stadium club, Epstein will pose for the before picture at the news conference where the Cubs will introduce him as their next head of baseball operations.

The after picture whether Epsteins hair turns gray or the stress of the job starts to show on his youthful face could be telling. This city demands nothing less than another World Series title from the 37-year-old executive.

What it will take for the Cubs and Red Sox to close this deal is gradually coming into focus. High-ranking officials from both sides remained underground over the weekend. On both days there were SUVs parked in the reserved spots for employees near the entrance to Wrigley Fields administrative offices.

As much as Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts and team president Crane Kenney would no doubt like to take a victory lap, there remains the matter of compensation, what it will take to pry Epstein from the final year of his contract.

Its also unclear if Epstein will be able to bring any Red Sox staffers along with him to Chicago. Sources continue to insist that Brett Jackson is untouchable and not part of the discussions.

Jackson generated 20 homers, 58 RBI, 21 stolen bases and a .379 on-base percentage in 115 games split between Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa last season. The Cubs believe that their 2009 first-round pick out of Cal-Berkeley could make the big-league club out of spring training.

The Red Sox are believed to be focused on Trey McNutt, a 22-year-old right-hander who is arguably the organizations best pitching prospect. The 32nd-round pick seemingly came out of nowhere (Haleyville, Ala.) in 2010 and went 10-1 with a 2.48 ERA and 132 strikeouts in 116.1 innings.

McNutt dealt with injuries in 2011 and didnt really build off that breakout season, finishing at 5-6 with a 4.55 ERA at Tennessee. But theres still enough upside where the Cubs could think hed eventually be part of their 2012 staff and refuse to give in to Bostons demands.

Either way, it will likely take two prospects. The Marlins set that baseline when they lured Ozzie Guillen from the South Side to South Beach.

A source familiar with the negotiations said that the Cubs are reluctant to give up anyone wholl be on their 40-man roster this winter. In that sense, Josh Vitters and Matt Szczur are viewed as unlikely to be included in the deal.

Vitters, the third overall pick in the 2007 draft, has been slower to develop. But hes still only 22 and team officials believe hes maturing.

Vitters is currently playing in the Arizona Fall League after hitting .283 with 14 homers and 81 RBI at Tennessee. He could probably use a full season on the Triple-A level in 2012. The Cubs will risk losing him if they dont sign him to the 40-man roster.

Szczur, a two-sport star at Villanova, has a unique contract that requires him to be moved to the 40-man roster this offseason. That was part of the recruiting pitch to give up his NFL ambitions and focus only on baseball. The 22-year-old outfielder finished last season at Class-A Daytona.

While the Red Sox examine the system, they will find intriguing players from the 2011 draft. Ricketts told his scouting department to take chances last summer and find more impact players. The chairman authorized close to 12 million in bonuses.

Those players cannot be traded until a year after the day they signed their contracts. In theory, a player could be labeled to be announced in the final Epstein settlement. But the Red Sox wouldnt want to take on the injury risk or stash him at a Cubs affiliate for almost the entire 2012 season.

A source predicted that the Red Sox will play this exactly like the agents at the signing deadline, waiting until the last minute to get the best possible deal for their clients.

There was no rush to hold a press conference on Sunday, with the Bears playing in primetime and the New England Patriots and Dallas Cowboys featured in another marquee game. Why compete with the NFL for attention?

A harder deadline will come before Wednesday, when the World Series begins and Major League Baseball forbids teams from making formal announcements. There are no games scheduled for Tuesday, and then commissioner Bud Selig imposes his news blackout.

While the tone of these negotiations made headlines, the big picture is that the Cubs and Red Sox have already found so much common ground. There is a motivated buyer and a determined seller. Everyone agrees that Epstein now belongs in Chicago.

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Kris Bryant ignites World Series nostalgia with Cubs' epic eighth-inning comeback

Kris Bryant ignites World Series nostalgia with Cubs' epic eighth-inning comeback

“Reminded me a lot of a play in the World Series.”

Kris Bryant wasn’t the only one with World Series nostalgia Saturday afternoon at the Friendly Confines. The tens of thousands of Cubs fans losing their minds over the North Siders’ eighth-inning comeback made that very clear.

Bryant, though, was the one who provided it, first driving in the game-tying run mere moments after the visiting St. Louis Cardinals smashed open a pitchers duel with back-to-back homers off Jon Lester in the top of the eighth. Bryant then got a head starts and came around all the way from first, scoring the game-winning run on a ball Anthony Rizzo dumped into the left-center field gap so perfectly he couldn’t have thrown it there any better.

Bryant slid in — feet first — beating the throw home from ex-teammate Dexter Fowler. Cue the hysteria at Clark and Addison.

“Me, honestly, I was just trying to go up the middle. I think that’s kind of where I’ve been struggling this year is with guys on base I want to do too much. Just seeing through the middle. Bat broke and flew, I don’t know where it went, but it flew somewhere. That was huge,” Bryant explained after the game.

“And then obviously with Rizz having a good at-bat off a tough lefty. I don't know if Dexter or Tommy Pham got a good read or if they were way back at the track, but right when he hit it I didn’t see them anywhere close to it so I thought there was a pretty good chance that I could score.”

Bryant’s very presence in the Cubs’ starting lineup was the headline before the game, the “freak of nature” returning from a jammed finger after missing only one game. So of course it was the reigning National League MVP who played the biggest role, flipping the script from his sick day by being right in the middle of the Cubs’ eighth-inning explosion. It was the eighth inning where the Cardinals staged their game-defining rally Friday.

[CUBS TICKETS: Get your seats right here]

Manager Joe Maddon went as far as saying that perhaps only Bryant could have made the play he did, scoring from first base on what went down as a Rizzo double.

“KB being able to play was the difference in today’s game,” Maddon said. “A combination of the hit and his speed. I don’t think anybody else scores on that. Maybe Jason (Heyward), possibly. (Ian) Happ, possibly. But KB is such a good base runner. He had it in his head the moment the ball was hit, and all (third base coach Gary) Jones had to do was wave his arm. You can’t underestimate the importance of one person in the lineup.

“He’s a very bright base runner. He’s shown that from the beginning. … He demonstrated that early on, and for me when a young player demonstrates awareness on the bases, man, that’s a good baseball player.”

All that talent made Bryant last season’s Most Valuable Player and one of the most important figures in the curse-breaking World Series championship.

Bryant mentioned he thought Saturday’s game-winning trip from first to home conjured memories of a similar play in Game 7 of last fall’s World Series, when Bryant went first to home on Rizzo’s base hit off Andrew Miller in the fifth inning.

“Reminded me a lot of a play in the World Series off of Andrew Miller. It was a full count there, started early,” Bryant said. “Rizz hit it, you’ve got to give him a ton of credit, worked a great at-bat. But the head start really does help. It's something that I take pride in is my base running, surprising people. Hopefully I did that today.”

With Bryant back in the lineup Saturday, Kyle Hendricks’ return to the rotation coming Monday, a now 7-1 record since the All-Star break and a bunched-up NL Central that had four teams within three and a half games of each other entering Saturday’s action, it’s no wonder the World Series feeling is making its way back to the North Side.

All season long, fans and observers have been waiting for that switch to flip, and maybe it finally has.

The bats were thunderous on that six-game road trip out of the All-Star break, with 16 home runs helping the Cubs to back-to-back sweeps of the Baltimore Orioles and Atlanta Braves. Friday’s loss to the Cardinals provided plenty of evidence that the rest of the season might feature a knock-down, drag-out slugfest between the four NL Central contenders. All that was missing was a game that got Wrigleyville rocking.

“Probably one of our better wins of the year,” Bryant said.

That’s all without even mentioning the efforts of Lester, who was perfect until Adam Wainwright’s single in the top of the sixth. It was another stellar effort from a Cubs starting pitcher, and what was the team’s biggest problem during that sub-.500 first half — inconsistent starting pitching — certainly seems to be ironed out.

While the standings say it’s still going to be a brawl to the end with the Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers and Pittsburgh Pirates, the Cubs could be in a first-place tie by the end of Saturday night.

In other words, the race is on. And Bryant and the Cubs are clicking at the right time.

“It’s already Jaugust,” Maddon joked, inventing a new month out of thin air. “There’s no waiting around right now. Everybody feels the same way. We took advantage of the break, I believe. We came back with renewed energy. You don’t want to give up anything right now.”