Cubs

Around the NL Central: Cincinnati Reds offseason in review

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Around the NL Central: Cincinnati Reds offseason in review

The Cubs have a target on their back.

They enter 2016 as the odds-on favorite to win the World Series and manager Joe Maddon will have them embracing the expectations.

The Cubs committed more than $275 million to free agents this winter, taking the baseball world by storm with the Jason Heyward signing while also bolstering the pitching staff by bringing Trevor Cahill back and acquiring John Lackey and Adam Warren.

[RELATED - Cubs believe Jason Heyward still has room to grow as a power hitter]

The Cubs also said goodbye to former franchise icon Starlin Castro to make room for free agent Ben Zobrist, shipping the 25-year-old shortstop to the New York Yankees.

With another month-and-a-half until pitchers and catchers report to spring training, there is still plenty of time for the Cubs to make more moves, with trade rumors swirling around Jorge Soler and the possibility of the Cubs adding another top-of-the-rotation arm.

But as it stands right now, the Cubs already look like an improved team entering 2016.

As the new year approaches, let's take a look how the rest of the National League Central is shaping up:

Manager: Bryan Price (Record w/Reds: 140-184)
2015 record: 64-98
New additions: OF Scott Schebler, OF Jake Cave, RP Blake Wood, RP Caleb Cotham, RP Chris O'Grady
Key losses: 3B Todd Frazier, RP Aroldis Chapman, C Brayan Pena, SP Mike Leake, OF Jason Bourgeois, 2B/OF Skip Schumaker, RP Burke Badenhop
X-Factor: Jay Bruce
Biggest question: Will they lose 100 games?
Projected lineup:

1. Billy Hamilton - CF
2. Joey Votto - 1B
3. Brandon Phillips - 2B
4. Jay Bruce - RF
5. Devin Mesoraco - C
6. Zack Cozart - SS
7. Eugenio Suarez - 3B
8. Scott Schebler - LF
9. Pitcher

Projected rotation:

1. Anthony Desclafani
2. Raisel Iglesias
3. Brandon Finnegan
4. Michael Lorenzen
5. John Lamb
DL - Homer Bailey

Outlook:

The Reds are in full blown rebuild mode. If this were the NFL or NBA, it'd be clear they're tanking for the No. 1 overall pick. But the problem is, it's simply not that easy to turn around a Major League Baseball franchise (even if Theo Epstein makes it look like a cakewalk).

The Reds have no hope for 2015 and any questions of that flew out the window when they traded away Frazier and Chapman in a two-week span earlier this month. The Cubs have to feel fortunate that they won't have to face Frazier or Chapman 19 times a year anymore and the rest of the NL Central should easily have their way with this Cincinnati team. The Reds also didn't acquire any major pieces in either trade that will help them in 2016, with the exception of reliever Caleb Cotham, who already has some big-league experience and can be a nice option in the bullpen.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

By the time August comes along, the Reds may very well have parted ways with Phillips and Bruce, too. Anybody that doesn't have a long-term future in Cincinnati will be up for grabs. The only reason Votto will stick around is because - despite how productive he is - not many teams will want to take on a deal with almost $200 million remaining on it in a trade.

Apart from more trades, the only drama left for the Reds in 2016 is whether or not they lose 100 games. 

On the positive side, the Reds are assembling a nice, young stable of potential rotation arms. DeSclafani (25), Iglesias (26), Finnegan (22) and Lorenzen (24) and Lamb (25) have all had varying levels of big-league success and don't forget about Bailey, who is rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and could be ready by May.

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

Spring training baseball games are up around the bend, but before the boys of summer get into organized action, two of the team’s new coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey sit down with Kelly Crull.

Plus, Vinnie Duber joins Kelly to discuss these baseball conversations including the memorable first words of Kyle Schwarber to Chili Davis, “I don’t suck!"

Listen to the full episode at this link (iOS users can go here) or in the embedded player below. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts.

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

MESA, Ariz. — We know Willson Contreras doesn’t like baseball’s new pace-of-play rules.

He isn’t the only one.

“I think it’s a terrible idea. I think it’s all terrible,” Jon Lester said last week at spring training, before the specifics of the new rules were even announced. “The beautiful thing about our sport is there’s no time.”

Big surprise coming from the Cubs’ resident old-schooler.

The new rules limit teams to six mound visits per every nine-inning game, with exceptions for pitching changes, between batters, injuries and after the announcement of a pinch hitter. Teams get an extra mound visit for every extra inning in extra-inning games. Also, commercial breaks between innings have been cut by 20 seconds.

That’s it. But it’s caused a bit of an uproar.

Contreras made headlines Tuesday when he told reporters that he’ll willingly break those rules if he needs to in order to put his team in a better position to win.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If I have to pay the price for my team, I will,” Contreras said. “There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? … You have to go out there. They cannot say anything about that. It’s my team, and we just care about winning. And if they’re going to fine me about the No. 7 mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”

Talking about pace-of-play rule changes last week, Cubs manager Joe Maddon said his team would adapt to any new rules. In Chicago baseball’s other Arizona camp, a similar tune of adaptation was being sung.

“Obviously as players we’ve got to make adjustments to whatever rules they want to implement,” White Sox pitcher James Shields said. “This is a game of adjustments, we’re going to have to make adjustments as we go. We’re going to have to figure out logistics of the thing, and I would imagine in spring training we’re going to be talking about it more and more as we go so we don’t mess it up.”

There was general consensus that mound visits are a valuable thing. So what happens if a pitcher and catcher need to communicate but are forced to do it from 60 feet, six inches away?

“Sign language,” White Sox catching prospect Zack Collins joked. “I guess you have to just get on the same page in the dugout and hope that nothing goes wrong if you’re out of visits.”

In the end, here’s the question that needs answering: Are baseball games really too long?

On one hand, as Lester argued, you know what you’re signing up for when you watch a baseball game, be it in the stands at a ballpark or on TV. No one should be shocked when a game rolls on for more than three hours.

But shock and fans' levels of commitment or just pure apathy are two different things. And sometimes it’s a tough ask for fans to dedicate four hours of their day 162 times a year. So there’s a very good reason baseball is trying to make the game go faster, to keep people from leaving the stands or flipping the TV to another channel.

Unsurprisingly, Lester would rather keep things the way they are.

“To be honest with you, the fans know what they’re getting themselves into when they go to a game,” Lester said. “It’s going to be a three-hour game. You may have a game that’s two hours, two hours and 15 minutes. Great, awesome. You may have a game that’s four hours. That’s the beautiful part of it.

“I get the mound visit thing. But what people that aren’t in the game don’t understand is that there’s so much technology in the game, there’s so many cameras on the field, that every stadium now has a camera on the catcher’s crotch. So they know signs before you even get there. Now we’ve got Apple Watches, now we’ve got people being accused of sitting in a tunnel (stealing signs). So there’s reasons behind the mound visit. He’s not just coming out there asking what time I’m going to dinner or, ‘Hey, how you feeling?’ There’s reasons behind everything, and I think if you take those away, it takes away the beauty of the baseball game.

“Every game has a flow, and I feel like that’s what makes it special. If you want to go to a timed event, go to a timed event. I’m sorry I’m old-school about it, but baseball’s been played the same way for a long time. And now we’re trying to add time to it. We’re missing something somewhere.”

Whether limiting the number of mound visits creates a significant dent in this problem remains to be seen. But excuse the players if they’re skeptical.

“We’ve got instant replay, we’ve got all kinds of different stuff going on. I don’t think (limiting) the mound visits are going to be the key factor to speeding this game up,” Shields said. “Some pitchers take too long, and some hitters take too long. It’s combination of a bunch of stuff.

“I know they’re trying to speed the game up a little bit. I think overall, the game’s going as fast as it possibly could. You’ve got commercials and things like that. TV has a lot to do with it. There’s a bunch of different combinations of things. But as a player, we’ve got to make an adjustment.”