Cubs

Can Cubs land a big-name outfielder at winter meetings?

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Can Cubs land a big-name outfielder at winter meetings?

Can the Cubs accomplish what they need to do on the pitching side and still have enough money leftover to make a significant multiyear commitment to a position player?

“I wouldn’t rule anything out or anything in,” team president Theo Epstein said.

That’s how the Cubs roll into the winter meetings that begin Monday in Nashville, Tennessee, looking to add to their rotation, strengthen the bullpen and find someone to play center field. But after assembling a young core that advanced to the National League Championship Series, the Cubs won’t feel any pressure to walk out of the Opryland with deer antlers (as general manager Jed Hoyer would say).

The Cubs already crossed a major item off their list, agreeing to a two-year, $32 million contract with veteran right-hander John Lackey, a short-term deal that looks reasonable at a time when the Boston Red Sox and Arizona Diamondbacks just guaranteed $423 million combined to David Price and Zack Greinke.

[MORE: Jeff Samardzija’s bets pay off with $90 million deal from Giants]

Epstein’s front office always likes to keep an open mind and kick the tires on everything, but the Lackey deal and a surplus of hitters does create a degree of flexibility.

All the buzz leading up to the winter meetings revolved around big-ticket pitchers, and maybe now the Cubs will get a better idea of whether or not they can really compete for an established outfielder from a group that includes Jason Heyward, Alex Gordon and Dexter Fowler.

“It depends on some other things that take place,” Epstein said. “Sometimes, when you make a trade, it opens up the ability to then sign a free agent. Not all really good players are expensive, especially if you get them through trade and you can get creative with how you structure certain deals.

“We’ve been working with our business side on some ways to create a little bit more room for 2016 within the parameters that we have.”

[MORE: Cubs see center-field possibilities for Javier Baez]

The Cubs have been linked to the Atlanta Braves, Cleveland Indians and San Diego Padres since the July 31 trade deadline, and maybe that’s where they find another starter like Julio Teheran, Danny Salazar or Tyson Ross.

The Cubs also have nearly $80 million still tied up in infielder Starlin Castro, catcher Miguel Montero and pitcher Jason Hammel. You know Castro’s name will somehow wind up on MLB Trade Rumors this week, but the Cubs believe a healthy Hammel will bounce back next season, and catching isn’t an area where a contending team can cut corners.

The Cubs will probably have to think along those lines – trades to add pitching and free up more funds – if they want something more than a stopgap solution in center field (which actually might make the most sense at this point in The Plan).   

“I don’t feel like if we do something on the pitching end, we won’t be able to do anything with position players,” Epstein said. “It just depends on exactly the type of commitments you’re looking at, and how they’re structured.”    

With the St. Louis Cardinals positioned to spend aggressively and already having a comfort level with Heyward, it’s hard to see the Cubs actually setting the market for a defensive game-changer and a good-enough hitter who’s still only 26 years old.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

If years were an issue in the Jeff Samardzija talks – The Shark got $90 million over five from the San Francisco Giants – then it will probably be problematic with Gordon as he enters his age-32 season after a World Series run with the Kansas City Royals.  

During the season, the Cubs and Fowler gave off vibes that it would only be a one-year rental, though Epstein has kept the lines of communication open with agent Casey Close (who represents Fowler and Gordon and is involved with Heyward’s camp).

If the money is right – and that is usually a question mark in the economic climate surrounding this franchise – the Cubs have so many other selling points to free agents.  

“We’ve become a really attractive destination,” Epstein said. “It’s not just getting to be one of the Final Four this year. It’s the atmosphere at Wrigley Field. It’s our fan base. It’s that we’re still on this tremendous journey to try to win a World Series for the first time in what will now be 108 years.

“It’s (manager) Joe Maddon and the culture that he creates. It’s our ownership and how they treat players like family. It’s our young players and veterans wanting to come here and be part of this surge that we’re having right now.”

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

MESA, Ariz. — “That’s last year, don’t want to talk about that.”

In other words, Addison Russell is so over 2017.

The Cubs shortstop went through a lot last year. He dealt with injuries that affected his foot and shoulder. He had a well-documented off-the-field issue involving an accusation of domestic abuse, which sparked an investigation by Major League Baseball. And then came the trade speculation.

The hot stove season rarely leaves any player completely out of online trade discussion. But after Theo Epstein admitted there was a possibility the Cubs could trade away one or more young position players to bolster the starting rotation, well, Russell’s name came up.

And he saw it.

“There was a lot of trade talk,” Russell said Saturday. “My initial thoughts were, I hope it doesn’t happen, but wherever I go, I’m going to try to bring what I bring to the table here. It’s a good thing that it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m happy being in a Cubs uniform, I want to be in a Cubs uniform, for sure. But there was some talk out there. If I got traded, then I got traded, but that’s not the case.”

No, it’s not, as the Cubs solved those pitching questions with free-agent spending, bringing in Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood to replace the departed Jake Arrieta and John Lackey. It means Russell, along with oft-discussed names like Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Javy Baez, are all still Cubs.

While the outside world might have expected one of those guys to be moved in some sort of blockbuster trade for Chris Archer or some other All-Star arm, the Cubs’ young core remains intact, another reason why they’re as much a favorite to win the World Series as any team out there.

“I’m really not surprised. The core is still here. Who would want to break that up? It’s a beautiful thing,” Russell said. “Javy and I in the middle. Schwarber, sometimes playing catcher but mainly outfield. And then (Kris Bryant) over there in the hot corner, and of course (Anthony) Rizzo at first. You’ve got a Gold Glover in right field (Jason Heyward). It’s really hard to break that up.

“When you do break that down on paper, we’ve got a lineup that could stack up with the best.”

This winter has been about moving on for Russell, who said he’s spent months working to strengthen his foot and shoulder after they limited him to 110 games last season, the fewest he played in his first three big league campaigns.

And so for Russell, the formula for returning to his 2016 levels of offensive aptitude isn’t a difficult one: stay on the field.

“Especially with the injuries, I definitely wanted to showcase some more of my talent last year than I displayed,” Russell said. “So going into this year, it’s mainly just keeping a good mental — just staying level headed. And also staying healthy and producing and being out there on the field.

“Next step for me, really just staying out there on the field. I really want to see what I can do as far as helping the team if I can stay healthy for a full season. I think if I just stay out there on the field, I’m going to produce.”

While the decrease in being on the field meant lower numbers from a “counting” standpoint — the drop from 21 homers in 2016 to 12 last year, the drop from 95 RBIs to 43 can in part be attributed to the lower number of games — certain rate stats looked different, too. His on-base percentage dropped from .321 in 2016 to .304 last year.

Russell also struggled during the postseason, picking up just six hits in 36 plate appearances in series against the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers. He struck out 13 times in 10 postseason games.

Of course, he wasn’t alone. That World Series hangover was team-wide throughout the first half of the season. And even though the Cubs scored 824 runs during the regular season, the second most in the National League and the fourth most in baseball, plenty of guys had their offensive struggles: Schwarber, Heyward and Ben Zobrist, to name a few.

“You can’t take anything for granted. So whenever you win a World Series or you do something good, you just have to live in the moment,” Russell said. “It was a tough season last year because we were coming off winning the World Series and the World Series hangover and all that. This year, we had a couple months off, a couple extra weeks off, and I think a lot of guys took advantage of that. I know I did. And now that we’re here in spring training, we’re going to get back at it.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

Jon Lester has arrived at Cubs camp, and he’s pleased with the new-look rotation full of potential aces. Kelly Crull and Vinnie Duber discuss the 5-man unit, and where Mike Montgomery fits into the Cubs’ plans.

Plus, Kelly and Vinnie talk Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber, along with the continuing free agent stalemate surrounding Jake Arrieta.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here: