While others hit reset button, Cubs waiting for game-changers

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While others hit reset button, Cubs waiting for game-changers

The Miami Marlins and Boston Red Sox have slammed the reset button while the Cubs patiently wait for game-changers like a renovated Wrigley Field, a new television deal and their homegrown core to get to the big leagues.

As Jeffrey Loria stepped onto a down escalator at the Hyatt Regency OHare, one pack of reporters followed him down the stairs. Another media group came at the Marlins owner from the left flank once he got to the ground floor.

Loria went to open the wrong door on Wednesday and got turned around trying to find the right conference room for Major League Baseballs ownership meetings. He was wearing loud, thick sunglasses indoors, with lenses that literally looked rose-colored.

Not today boys, Loria said dismissively. If you havent figured it out yet, Im not going to figure it out for you.

Loria has left South Florida taxpayers in the dark, using public money to help build the Marlins Park spaceship in Little Havana, triggering an SEC investigation. Not to mention the big-ticket free agents he signed to back-loaded contracts without no-trade clauses, like Gold Glove left-hander Mark Buehrle (four years, 58 million) and All-Star shortstop Jose Reyes (six years, 106 million).

Commissioner Bud Selig said the deal hadnt yet been submitted for his final approval, but the powerbrokers on layover inside this airport hotel in Rosemont were buzzing about the potential blockbuster 12-player trade between the Marlins and Toronto Blue Jays.

Well played, said Red Sox president Larry Lucchino, tipping his cap to an American League East rival set to acquire Reyes, Buehrle, pitcher Josh Johnson, catcher John Buck and utility guy Emilio Bonifacio.

Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts refused to stop and speak with beat writers and disappeared into meeting rooms throughout the day. Selig didnt want to take questions either, but will be asked about the Wrigley Field renovations and the role of the commissioners office in those negotiations during Thursdays news conference wrapping up the meetings.

From here, a new stadium plan and the television money that will pour in once the WGN contract expires after the 2014 season look like the biggest, boldest moves the Cubs could make in the near future.

By late August, the Red Sox had lost their way and didnt hesitate to trade away some of Theo Epsteins big-money guys Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett to a Los Angeles Dodgers team pumped up by a new ownership group and a huge upcoming television deal.

It takes two to tango, Lucchino said. You got to have a special situation on each side (to) have any sort of epic trade.

Toronto, which might be a top-five market, was looking to make a splash, send a message to the fan base and compete in a brutal division. The Marlins are in full retreat, and Selig will almost certainly be asked if Loria is fit to be a big-league owner.

New York Yankees president Randy Levine who in the past has criticized the idea of simply pocketing money from revenue sharing didnt complain about this mega-trade.

Theres a collective bargaining agreement, Levine said. As far as I understand, everybodys following the rules and teams are allowed to do what they want to do. (Just) from what I read I havent talked to anybody both sides think they improved. Thats what its all about.

Its interesting to note that after signing Scott Baker on Tuesday, Epstein was asked what the next rotation piece might look like, given that the right-hander recovering from Tommy John surgery received only a modest one-year, 5.5 million deal.

The Cubs president mentioned trades as one option a week after saying at the general manager meetings that the team wont have many trade options this winter.

This fire sale in Miami could change the entire landscape across baseball. Marlins right-hander Ricky Nolasco who is owed 11.5 million next season declined to comment when reached by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and sent this text message: Im next anyways. Its also worth monitoring Logan Morrisons Twitter feed for reactions.

Wherever the Cubs go the rest of this winter remember its still a week away from Thanksgiving they arent going to hit delete-all keys like the Marlins or the fast-forward button like the Red Sox.

Most every teams situation is different, Lucchino said. I wouldnt compare us to other clubs. I dont think many other clubs would compare themselves to us. Every team has its own distinctive market and its own special needs.

The Red Sox were reportedly discussing trade scenarios with the Marlins involving Reyes and Johnson. They now have a huge amount of financial flexibility to reshape their roster, as well as their image, and try to get back to the World Series.

We refuse to put a timetable on it, Lucchino said, but we sure dont have any five-year plans or anything like that.

The Cubs are looking at those types of windows. This was a little over a year after Epstein left Fenway Park, ending his power struggle with Lucchino and starting a compensation fight that dragged out into spring training. The Red Sox president sounded distant out of sight, out of mind? when asked about his relationship with Epstein and the Cubs now.

I think were on good terms with that organization, Lucchino said. Theyre in the other league, so we dont have a lot of direct dealings with them. Our view of the National League teams is quite different than our view of teams in the American League East. We think about them much more often.

Cubs: Could Ian Happ or Eloy Jimenez be this year's Gleyber Torres at trade deadline?

Cubs: Could Ian Happ or Eloy Jimenez be this year's Gleyber Torres at trade deadline?

MESA, Ariz. — An agent sort of joked that this is where every big-leaguer wants to play — and no minor-league prospect wants to be. Of course, that is an oversimplification, but it sums up life around the Cubs, where the World Series champs are treated like kings and it can be difficult for the kids to see the path to Wrigley Field.

With no obvious blue-chip pitching prospects in the upper levels of the farm system yet — and Jake Arrieta and John Lackey positioned to become free agents after this season and the fifth-starter job up for grabs this spring — the Cubs are hoping for someone to take a big step forward.

Theo Epstein's front office and Joe Maddon's coaching staff certainly have a long track record of committing to young talent and developing players at the major-league level. That open-minded philosophy will not change.

But if a frontline starting pitcher who makes sense in a pennant race and for the future suddenly becomes available — or the Cubs have to rebuild their bullpen on the fly again or respond to a different roster emergency — then Ian Happ or Eloy Jimenez could be this year's Gleyber Torres.

"You know that's the reality of our business," general manager Jed Hoyer said this week. "But you also try to develop each guy and focus on each guy as if they're definitely going to come up and impact us.

"We didn't want to trade (Gleyber). We felt like we needed to do it. But certainly the way we have to think about these guys is that they're going to have a big impact on the Cubs someday. And both guys have the right makeup to do that."

While shipping their elite shortstop prospect to the New York Yankees in a blockbuster 4-for-1 deal for rental closer Aroldis Chapman last summer, the Cubs asked themselves: If not now, when?

Chapman joined a team that had a 98.8-percent chance to make the playoffs on the Baseball Prospectus odds report and a 56-1 record when leading entering the ninth inning. It would be almost impossible to do another deal on that kind of all-or-nothing scale — the 1908 stuff is over — but the Cubs have a reputation for being bold, creative and aggressive.

"It's out of your control," Happ said. "You have to go out and try to be better every day and work hard. The team is so good. We have so many good players to learn from here. It just really motivates you to continue to improve and try to get better every day."

Happ fits a Cubs Way demographic as a polished, fast-track switch-hitter who performed at the University of Cincinnati, in the Cape Cod League and in the classroom (first-team academic All-American). The potential to play second base and shift to the outfield would also fit on a Maddon team.

Happ — the ninth overall pick in the 2015 draft — has already played a half-season at Double-A Tennessee, homered from both sides of the plate in an Arizona Fall League title game and appeared on top-prospects lists for MLB.com (No. 28), Baseball Prospectus (No. 54), ESPN (No. 63) and Baseball America (No. 63).

While the 2016 Cubs experienced that unforgettable playoff run, Happ and his Mesa Solar Sox teammates would hover around an iPad in the dugout in between innings. This is the next phase for a player-development system that used to revolve around the idea of "When It Happens."

"I think this team is going to be good for a long time," Happ said. "It's nice to be part of an organization that doesn't feel like it's a one-and-done situation. It feels like they're building something here and you're going to have a chance to play for the pennant, for the World Series, for years to come. But just being able to be a part of the organization when that happened was special."

Braves Way: How Cubs are still focused on next wave of young talent

Braves Way: How Cubs are still focused on next wave of young talent

MESA, Ariz. – Chairman Tom Ricketts wants the Cubs to be known someday as one of the greatest sports franchises in the world, right up there with global brands like the New England Patriots, Manchester United and Real Madrid.

But the most relevant blueprint for baseball operations right now might be the Atlanta Braves model that won 14 consecutive division titles between 1991 and 2005, an unbelievable run that still only resulted in one World Series title.

In a "Chicks Dig The Long Ball" era, the Braves had 60 percent of a Hall of Fame rotation (Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz) and a manager (Bobby Cox) who would get his own Cooperstown plaque.

The Braves Way still didn't only revolve around baseball immortals. The churn of young talent and under-the-radar contributors makes big-time prospects Eloy Jimenez and Ian Happ — and somehow finding a next wave of pitching — so important to The Plan.

"The Braves did such a great job during their run of always breaking in a guy or two," general manager Jed Hoyer said this week. "There's a lot of benefits to always trying to break in a guy every year, trying to add new blood every single year. Young guys are great even for a veteran team, because they provide the spark. They provide new energy.

"I thought Willson (Contreras) was a big part of that last year. Coming up in the middle of the season, it was like a great spark for our guys. Maybe one of these guys can provide that spark."

During that 15-year window, the Braves had 14 different players show up in the National League Rookie of the Year voting:  

1991: Brian Hunter, Mike Stanton
1992: Mark Wohlers
1993: Greg McMichael 
1994: Ryan Klesko, Javy Lopez
1995: Chipper Jones
1996: Jermaine Dye 
1997: Andruw Jones 
1998: Kerry Ligtenberg 
1999: Kevin McGlinchy
2000: Rafael Furcal 
2001: –
2002: Damian Moss
2003: –
2004: –
2005: Jeff Francoeur

The Braves produced Rookie of the Year winners in 1990 (David Justice), 2000 (Furcal) and 2011 (Craig Kimbrel). That gap in the early 2000s foreshadowed a relative down cycle where the Braves averaged almost 82 losses between 2006 and 2009 and made zero playoff appearances.

Jason Heyward's big-league debut in 2010 coincided with a run of four straight seasons where the Braves averaged 90-plus wins and made the playoffs three times.

[MORE: Why Joe Maddon sees Kyle Schwarber as the leadoff guy in Cubs lineup]

Baseball America put Jimenez (No. 14) and Happ (No. 63) on its preseason top-100 list of prospects. Whether it's making an impression on Joe Maddon's coaching staff, being showcased for a future trade or getting more comfortable in the spotlight, Jimenez and Happ will be two players to watch when the Cubs begin their Cactus League schedule on Saturday.

"Everyone thinks our future is here," Hoyer said. "It's really important to never get caught in that. You always want to have guys in the minor leagues ready to come up. Having organizational depth is really important. Those guys are good players and they're going to help us at some point."

Jimenez is a dynamic 6-foot-4 corner outfielder from the Dominican Republic who figures to begin his age-20 season at advanced Class-A Myrtle Beach. Happ, a 2015 first-round pick, finished last season at Double-A Tennessee and can switch-hit and move between the infield and the outfield.

Contreras is trying to make the leap from energizer to everyday frontline catcher. Albert Almora Jr. — who also contributed to a championship team as a rookie — is trying to earn the center-field job. The Cubs already trusted Carl Edwards Jr. in the 10th inning of a World Series Game 7 and now hope he can keep evolving into an Andrew Miller-type reliever.

The Cubs need the assembly line that's rolled out Anthony Rizzo (June 2012), Kyle Hendricks (July 2014), Javier Baez (August 2014), Kris Bryant and Addison Russell (April 2015) and Kyle Schwarber (June 2015) to keep delivering talent.

"It's something that we have to be really mindful of," Hoyer said, "to make sure that we continue to put a lot of focus on player development, the same kind of focus that we put on it when we were rebuilding, because those guys are going to have a huge impact on us."