'Zero fear:' Cubs will stick to Theos plan

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'Zero fear:' Cubs will stick to Theos plan

NASHVILLE, Tenn. Ten years ago, Theo Epstein showed up here for his first winter meetings as a general manager, the wonder boy who grew up near Fenway Park now running the Boston Red Sox.

Five years ago, Epstein returned here in the afterglow of his second World Series title, a curse-busting legacy that appeared to make him a legend throughout New England forever.

On Sunday night, Epstein landed in Nashville, Tenn., and headed toward the Gaylord Opryland, knowing that he probably wont leave the hotel or feel any sunlight again until Thursday. The Cubs president of baseball operations makes ballplayer money now and hangs out with Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder, but he wont be the star of these winter meetings.

Before the lobby even started buzzing, the Cubs had already reached an agreement with Kyuji Fujikawa. An industry source confirmed that a deal was made late Saturday night all thats left is the Japanese closer taking a physical. The reported terms two years at 9.5 million, plus an option show the type of commitments the front office is willing to make this offseason.

Insiders were left shaking their heads at the idea the Cubs are going after Michael Bourn. Yes, theres a need for an outfielder, but there arent any megadeals in the works. Epstein isnt going to waver from his plan just because the Cubs lost 101 games.

Hes got conviction, Arizona Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers said. Hes got zero fear. Hes a great friend, but he would step on my neck, slice my throat to win. Thats just who he is.

Towers warned his friend Brian Cashman, the New York Yankees general manager, when Epstein went to Boston: Look out, this kids good.

Epstein had just graduated from Yale University in 1995 when he went to work for the San Diego Padres, first in the communications department and then baseball operations. Towers was the general manager there when he had Epstein handling the radar guns and learning how to evaluate players up close. Epstein also graduated from University of San Diegos law school during that time, though he didnt spend much time in the actual classroom.

Id give Theo a project, it would take some interns two to three weeks, Towers said, snapping his fingers. It would be on my desk the next day.

Incredible listener, incredible recall. Hed listen to the veteran scouts and show respect. He wouldnt talk out of turn. He would listen and take things in and really learned that side of the game.

Towers is convinced that Epstein has broken down all the teams in the National League Central, analyzing their contract situations and windows for contention, preparing for his chance to attack. And then the Cubs will be in total go-for-it mode.

But in the meantime, the Cubs will be looking for value and making under-the-radar moves. Like when Epstein noticed the Red Sox put David Eckstein on waivers in 2000.

He came running in, saying we got to claim this guy, Towers recalled. I got the STATS Inc. book out at the timeI say: No way. He says: Im telling you, man, theres some indicators. This guys going to hit. Hes an on-base machine.

Could have just claimed him for 20 grand. Hes MVP of the World Series (a couple years later). I said: I may want to start listening to this guy. Hes got some pretty good ideas.

The Cubs have already added two starters to their rotation on one-year deals. It only took a few minutes before Scott Baker and Scott Feldman were asked about the possibility of being flipped at the trade deadline. The clubhouse knows they need a strong start next April and May, or else risk Epstein pulling the plug on next season.

As soon as you get to spring training and Opening Day starts, youre in it to win it, until youre not, Epstein said. Nothing would make me happier than being solidly in contention in June and July and adding pieces for next year. Well build the team and leave a little bit of a cushion, so that if things break our way and we get off to a good start, we can add pieces. With the second wild card, thats never total fantasy.

If we find ourselves in that position, well be thrilled and well go for it. If were not in that position, well make the hard call that we made this year and do it in the best interests of the Cubs and look to move shorter-term assets for longer-term assets.

Well look to move veteran players for younger players and use that as a way to improve our long-term prospects and build our foundation. But its not like we build the team hoping we go down that path. I hope were in a position to add, but well be prepared for either scenario.

Of course the Cubs are going to look at trade possibilities for Alfonso Soriano. And Fujikawa could make Carlos Marmol a trade chip again. But theres probably not enough inventory to pull off a blockbuster deal.

Profiles of Towers have mentioned how the general manager used gunslinger as part of his personal e-mail address.

So Towers admired how Epstein pulled the trigger on a four-team trade on July 31, 2004, sending franchise icon Nomar Garciaparra to the Cubs and getting key pieces in return that helped the Red Sox win their first World Series title in 86 years.

In Epsteins world, no one is untouchable. Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo and Jeff Samardzija will be core players until theyre not anymore. Theyre all assets in the rebuilding project on the North Side.

Moving Garciaparra couldnt have been easy, Towers said. He dont care. He doesnt fall in love with people. Hell slice your throat and step on you.

Cubs: The next steps for Kyle Schwarber

Cubs: The next steps for Kyle Schwarber

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – Kyle Schwarber might have been the most dangerous hitter in a World Series lineup that featured the National League MVP plus four more All-Stars. After spending more than six months recovering from major knee surgery. Against Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber and a dominant Cleveland Indians bullpen.

“He’s not going to play winter ball,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said with a perfect deadpan delivery. “We felt like he proved he can hit major-league pitching.”

The Cubs spent Monday at the winter meetings inside the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center, continuing their search for pitching on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. The Cubs are so stacked with hitters that manager Joe Maddon could write out a 2017 Opening Day lineup tomorrow and Theo Epstein’s front office would still have Jorge Soler left over as trade bait.

Schwarber could hit second for the defending World Series champs, and his presence would mean more than any player the Cubs could sign as a free agent. The Cubs expect him to be at full strength by spring training, though it’s unclear how much work, if any, he’ll get as a catcher.

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“That’s the hurdle we haven’t really gone over yet,” Hoyer said. “Can he do it? There’s no question he’s going to want to do it. I think he can do it. I think that we have to have discussions about how heavy a workload we put on him in that regard.

“One of the things we talked about even last year before he got hurt was (how) he’s doing full catching drills, running around the outfield, doing stuff hitting. That’s a lot to put on a guy, sort of like playing two ways in football.”

Schwarber, an all-Ohio linebacker in high school, has a run-through-a-brick-wall mentality and doesn’t like to hear about what he can’t do. He wrecked his left knee in an outfield collision in early April and needed a procedure that reconstructed his ACL and repaired his LCL.

It took only two warm-up games in the Arizona Fall League before Schwarber made his dramatic return as the designated hitter at Progressive Field, batting .412 (7-for-17) with a .971 OPS during the World Series. 

The Cubs appear to be set with Willson Contreras and Miguel Montero behind the plate, but Schwarber is the type of baseball gym rat who enjoys breaking down video, giving input for scouting reports and being involved in every pitch.  

“We have to talk through all that stuff,” Hoyer said. “We know what his position’s going to be, so we have to figure out what our position’s going to be. I know he’s going to want to catch.

“But he knows he’s coming in as a left fielder next year. And we have to decide how much of the catching drills (he does).”

Kenley Jansen? Wade Davis? Cubs keeping an open mind for the ninth inning

Kenley Jansen? Wade Davis? Cubs keeping an open mind for the ninth inning

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – The San Francisco Giants had been three outs away from forcing an elimination game that Johnny Cueto would have started at Wrigley Field – and five different relievers couldn’t protect a three-run lead against a Cubs team that made a stunning comeback.

That October crash reverberated throughout the winter meetings as a $10 billion industry gathered outside Washington, D.C. The Giants bought peace of mind for the ninth inning on Monday and finalized a four-year, $62 million deal with Mark Melancon. For the moment, that will be the biggest contract ever for a closer, at least until Kenley Jansen and Aroldis Chapman shatter that record.

The Cubs have been in contact with Jansen’s camp, sources said, monitoring his market to see if there might be a match as the World Series champs try to upgrade the bullpen this week at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center.

Theo Epstein’s front office doesn’t necessarily have a singular focus – believe the reports linking the Cubs to Kansas City Royals closer Wade Davis – or the appetite to win a Jansen bidding war that will include the Los Angeles Dodgers and Miami Marlins and perhaps the New York Yankees and Washington Nationals.

But after telling everyone that they did two offseasons in one last winter – and spending almost $290 million on free agents – this is where the Cubs could make a splash.

“It’s safe to say we’re kicking the tires on any pitching that’s available,” general manager Jed Hoyer said during his briefing with the Chicago media. “We’re not spending a lot of time on bats. We’re spending a lot of times on arms. Anyone that’s available, we’re going to sort of be in on and talking about.”

Cubs manager Joe Maddon watched Jansen’s cutter up close and gave this endorsement during the National League Championship Series: “He’s like a 100-pound heavier version of Mariano Rivera.”

Jansen, a homegrown Dodger, converted from catcher and developed into an elite closer, saving 189 games while putting up a 2.20 career ERA and 13.9 strikeouts per nine innings.

Jansen just turned 29 and already showed a willingness to pitch outside the ninth inning and go for more than three outs, something that didn’t come easily for Chapman in an October where former Yankee teammate Andrew Miller became an American League Championship Series MVP for the Cleveland Indians.

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“The postseason was reliever-centric,” Hoyer said. “Bullpens have always been really valuable, but I think the way they were used and talked about – really, not even this postseason, but the last two or three postseasons – people are definitely putting a lot of financial importance on having a good bullpen.”

Kansas City’s blueprint for winning back-to-back pennants and the 2015 World Series featured Davis, who posted a 0.94 ERA during that championship season. But Davis dealt with a strained right forearm this year and will make $10 million in his final season before free agency, at a time when the Royals can begin to see their window to contend closing.

The Cubs haven’t made Chapman a priority – and Epstein’s group has been philosophically opposed to the idea of investing big money in a closer – but they also know they probably don’t get that parade down Lake Shore Drive and Michigan Avenue without that blockbuster deal with the Yankees.

“We see the value of it,” Hoyer said. “Look, we traded a great young prospect in Gleyber Torres to get Chapman, because we felt like that was an area that we were a little bit short. We felt like in order to win the World Series, we had to have that kind of guy at the end of the game. It proved to be right.

“In order to get those really difficult final outs in the postseason, having an elite guy is certainly a huge advantage.”

So if the White Sox become the Chicago team that makes most of the headlines here – and in-house options like Hector Rondon, Carl Edwards Jr. and Pedro Strop disappoint – the Cubs can always reassess at the trade deadline.

“We’ll bolster our bullpen,” Hoyer said. “Whether you do that by adding just a number of good relievers – or whether we do it by adding a guy that’s sort of a known closer – I’m not sure. But we’ll definitely add to our bullpen.”