Believe the hype? Cubs will be major players this offseason


Believe the hype? Cubs will be major players this offseason

Remember this general rule the next time you scroll through Twitter and see the Cubs mentioned next to a big-name free agent: Theo Epstein’s front office likes to kick the tires on everything and never rule out anything.

So don’t believe all the hype when the general manager meetings start rolling this week in Boca Raton, Florida. But the Cubs will be major players this offseason, zeroing in on a deep free-agent class of pitchers headlined by David Price, Zack Greinke, Johnny Cueto, Jordan Zimmermann and Jeff Samardzija.

“We’re likely to focus a lot of our resources on pitching and pitching depth,” general manager Jed Hoyer said.

That’s the bottom line for a team that just won 97 games and advanced to the National League Championship Series. And a franchise locked into the Ricketts family’s leveraged partnership with Sam Zell’s Tribune Co. and an exclusive cable deal with Comcast SportsNet Chicago, which for now are financial boundaries in place through the 2019 season.

[MORE: Cubs jump into free agency looking for big-time pitchers]

But after drawing almost 3 million fans to Wrigley Field, then hosting four home playoff games, plus putting up those new video boards and seeing a spike in TV ratings, the Cubs should be in position to at least fill the $20 million hole in their budget.

Remember, the rough calculation for the 2015 payroll had been $100 million plus the $20 million leftover from last year’s Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes, which still isn’t in the neighborhood of a big-market team. But the Cubs aren’t going to turn into the New York Yankees or Los Angeles Dodgers overnight.

“We have a very good sense of where our payroll is going to be,” Hoyer said. “We feel like we have the means to fill the holes that we want to fill. We don’t have the big cable deal yet, so I think that probably tempers things a little bit, as far as how much flexibility we have.

“But obviously the fact that our attendance looks to be up next year, the new ballpark is starting to churn off some more revenue, I certainly think that we have the ability — within reason — to go after the things we need.”

Cubs executives wouldn’t be doing their jobs if they didn’t at least ask what it might take to sign Jason Heyward or Alex Gordon.

Heyward is only 26 years old and a well-rounded player (who has hit 20-plus homers only once in his career). Signing the Gold Glove outfielder would also mean weakening the St. Louis Cardinals. Gordon is another Gold Glove outfielder/professional hitter who just won a World Series with the Kansas City Royals.

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But since the Cubs already have a surplus of young hitters — and such a huge organizational pitching deficit — it’s harder to see them setting the market for Heyward’s unique skills and untapped potential or rewarding Gordon with a five-year deal when he will be 32 next season.

“We’ve been linked to everyone already,” Hoyer said. “First of all, as a staff, we try to be as diligent as we can and try to talk to as many people as we can. I (also) think that people are sort of talking about the Cubs because of the postseason.

“But even last year, people linked us to all these different free agents. I do think that there’s a level of common sense that has to be used when thinking about what we’re going to do.

“We have areas of improvement. We have some financial flexibility. But certainly we’re not going to head into the winter and look to sort of win the offseason.

“We’re going to look to improve the team — within reason — and fill the holes that we need to fill. But I think that some of the rumors about us are a little bit extreme.”

You’ve probably heard this line before, but it applies to the Cubs now more than ever, because they could wake up tomorrow and roll out an Opening Day lineup that might win them a World Series: It’s the pitching, stupid.

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Who was Theo Epstein’s first draft pick with the Cubs?

The answer to that trivia question will always and forever be Albert Almora Jr. picked sixth overall in the 2012 amateur draft.

In some ways, the young outfielder from Florida became the forgotten man in the stable of can’t-miss prospects that Epstein and top lieutenants Jed Hoyer and Jason MacLeod amassed since their arrival over six years ago. While players such as Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ zoomed through the minor leagues on their way to the majors, Almora took a different path – one that included seven different stops over parts of five developmental seasons before he broke into the big leagues during the 2016 season.

But Almora’s road to the majors began years before he was selected by the Cubs, when he began playing for Team USA as a 13-year-old. Over the next several years, Almora played for the Red, White & Blue seven times, his final appearance coming in 2015. The seven appearances are the most in the history of USA Baseball, and Almora recognizes the impact his time with the national squad had on his playing career.

“[It was] one of the best experiences of my life," he said. "Every year I had something special to play with, unbelievable guys, went to crazy places, and out of those six years, five of them came with a gold medal so that was pretty special as well. Also, that helped me in my baseball life, how to experience things and learn from those type of experiences.

“I’m a Cubbie and that’s what’s on my chest right now, but Team USA will always have a special place in my heart.”

While Almora carries those national team experiences with him every day, his main focus coming into the 2018 season is becoming a consistent difference-maker. Almora made only 65 starts during the 2017 campaign, and 63 percent of his at-bats last year came against left-handed pitching, against which he hit a robust .342. That led to a platoon role in a crowded outfield, with Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber, Jon Jay, Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist all taking turns on the merry-go-round. But with the departure of Jay, Almora believes his time is near.

“I have the most confidence in myself that I can play every day, but I try not to think about that kind of stuff because it’s out of my control," Almora said. "All I control is like last year what I did; whenever I was given an opportunity, I tried to do my best and help the team win.”

Almora’s ultimate role on the 2018 Cubs remains to be seen, but there’s no question that Theo’s first Cubs pick will earn whatever role he ends up with, and the foundation of Almora’s journey to Clark and Addison was laid many summers ago during his time with Team USA.

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

News broke to Willson Contreras that the league will be limiting mound visits this upcoming season, and the Cubs catcher —notorious for his frequent visits to the rubber — is not having it.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If you have to go again and pay the price for my team, I will," he said.

The new rules rolled out Tuesday will limit six visits —any time a manager, coach or player visits the mound — per nine innings. But, communication between a player and a pitcher that does not require them moving from their position does not count as a visit.When a team is out of visits, it's the umpire's discretion to allow an extra trip to the mound.

But despite the new rules, Contreras is willing to do what's best for the team.

“There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? They cannot say anything about that. If you’re going to fine me about the [seventh] mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”