Cubs

Cubs loaded for another World Series run with Justin Wilson and Alex Avila

Cubs loaded for another World Series run with Justin Wilson and Alex Avila

The Cubs want another parade down Michigan Avenue, loading up for another World Series run by adding lefty reliever Justin Wilson and veteran catcher Alex Avila on top of frontline starter Jose Quintana.    

At a time when other organizations are overprotective of prospects and planning for the future by following a Cubs Way blueprint, team president Theo Epstein knows what he wants and what he is willing to give up to keep Wrigleyville rocking this October.

The Cubs closed that deal with the Detroit Tigers late Sunday night and announced it early Monday morning, filling their two biggest immediate needs with almost six hours to go before Monday’s 3 p.m. non-waiver trade deadline in Chicago.

Pouncing on that proposal from the White Sox in the middle of July allowed Quintana to make three extra starts (2-1, 2.37 ERA) in a Cubs uniform, changing the energy in the clubhouse as the defending champs sprinted out of the All-Star break, going 13-3 and flipping a 5.5-game deficit in the National League Central into a 2.5-game lead over the Milwaukee Brewers.       

The Cubs are no longer the franchise of here-we-go-again pessimism, in part, because Epstein sacrificed elite prospect Gleyber Torres in a blockbuster deal with the New York Yankees last summer. Epstein made the calculated decision that he would rather be with Aroldis Chapman than against that 100-mph fastball in October, adding the superstar closer – a week before the trade deadline – to a team with close to a 99-percent chance of making the playoffs.

“A preemptive strike – he’s not afraid to make that before it gets too late,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Our guys do a great job of recognizing our need – and then not being afraid to go out and get it.”

The reality is the Cubs didn’t feel all that much pain while making these deals. (It would obviously be a much different story if the Cubs hadn’t recovered to win that World Series Game 7.) But this was The Plan all along, to collect as much young talent as possible, invest heavily in hitters and flip those assets when the Cubs needed pitching.      

So Torres might become a star in The Bronx, Eloy Jimenez should someday launch eye-popping homers on the South Side and the White Sox will help Dylan Cease refine his 100-mph fastball and big curveball.  

Jeimer Candelario should get a good opportunity in Detroit’s rebuilding situation as a 23-year-old switch-hitter who works out with Robinson Cano during the offseason, plays both corner-infield spots and has 21 homers, 106 RBI and a .912 OPS in 157 career games on the Triple-A level.

But Candelario didn’t have a clear path to the North Side. Neither did Class-A infielder Isaac Paredes, the other prospect packaged in the Wilson/Avila trade along with cash or a player to be named later.

The Cubs already have a battle-tested, championship-proven lineup of everyday players under club control through 2021: Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Addison Russell, Javier Baez, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr., plus Jason Heyward (assuming he doesn’t opt out of a $184 million contract) and rookie Ian Happ and a scouting-and-player-development machine that will be all over the draft and the international market.

The Cubs can now slot Quintana into their rotation through 2020 alongside Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks. The Cubs can also position Wilson – who has 92 holds, 14 saves and a 3.20 ERA in his career – as an elite setup guy for this pennant race and a potential ninth-inning option for next season if All-Star closer Wade Davis exits as a free agent.  

But enough about the future, the Cubs understand this is World Series or bust, all over again.

“We always knew there was talent in the room,” pitcher John Lackey said. “It was just a matter of guys getting back to feeling good and playing good baseball together. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that since the break. But then again, we got a long way to go, too.”

14 amusing observations from the 2017 MLB Winter Meetings

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USA TODAY

14 amusing observations from the 2017 MLB Winter Meetings

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The MLB Winter Meetings are exactly as advertised.

It was my first trip to what is essentially baseball's biggest trade show and the four days in Orlando went by like a blur even though there were very few moves actually made.

The two Chicago teams combined for just three moves — and all of them from the Cubs' perspective (one of which — Drew Smyly — may not even pitch in 2018).

Throughout the week at Walt Disney World Dolphin Resort, I rounded up some of the most amusing behind-the-scenes observations with help from the NBC Sports Chicago crew (Chuck Garfien, Kelly Crull, Scott Changnon, Vinnie Duber):

—A Red Sox fan intercepting David Ross in the hotel lobby and telling him over and over again, "I'm a SAWX fan, I'm a SAWX fan; I love you, bro," in one of the thickest Boston accents I've ever heard.

—A kid wearing a bright pink suit (like something out of "Dumb and Dumber") trying to get a job.

A White Sox person saw the young man and noted: "If I wore that suit, I would look like a bottle of Pepto Bismol."

—A svelte Kyle Schwarber showed up at the Winter Meetings, driving some 90 miles from the Tampa Bay area to visit with Cubs personnel. He didn't talk to the media, but he certainly looked to be in the "best shape of his life."

When asked about Schwarber representing the Cubs in the ESPN Body Issue, Theo Epstein laughed and said, "I'll let you write about that." (Joke's on Theo because that's exactly what I just did.)

—Seattle Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto nearly sent Chuck Garfien to the disabled list with an agressive revolving-door maneuver.

—Scott Boras walked through the hotel flanked by his muscle and his own camera crew. Kelly Crull accidentally got on the escalator right behind Boras and in an effort to escape the TV shot, started running up the down escalator...in heels.

—Scott Changnon and I clearly have no idea what we're doing:

—During our Facebook Live Tuesday, Jed Hoyer walked by in the background on the phone, maybe closing out the final details of the Drew Smyly or Brandon Morrow deal?

Live from Day 2 of the MLB Winter Meetings

It's Day 2 of the Winter Meetings! Chuck Garfien, Kelly Crull and Tony Andracki will answer your questions about the latest Cubs and White Sox rumors!

Posted by NBC Sports Chicago on Tuesday, December 12, 2017

—10 minutes after Hoyer walked through the background of our Facebook Live, Theo Epstein ran past the camera as Chuck and Vinnie discussed potential free agent targets for the White Sox.

—A man in a Hawaiian shirt photobombed Wednesday's Facebook Live behind Chuck, Kelly and Vinnie. (Side note: I totally messed up by not packing a Hawaiian shirt for the Winter Meetings.)

MLB Winter Meetings Day 3

Kelly Crull, Chuck Garfien and Vinnie Duber are live from the MLB Winter Meetings. What's new with the Cubs and White Sox?

Posted by NBC Sports Chicago on Wednesday, December 13, 2017

—Joe Maddon wore the same olive green blaze he wore to the White House earlier this year and knew full well what he was doing, as he joked about it with reporters.

—Boras stood on a literal pedestal for his hour-long media session Wednesday, stepping up on a sturdy plastic camera case to help all three dozen media cameras catch his entire press conference.

—A woman in a Christmas-themed top hat walking her little pug around the lobby on a leash, but it was slow going as baseball men and women kept stopping them to pet the very good dog.

—Some dude's sneezing in the media workroom was the real star of the show. Never heard anything like it in my life before. Sounded literally like the devil was coming out of his nose.

—The work ethic of people in baseball is mind-bottling to me. 

Not only the front office members, like the Cubs' staff who went from playing deep into October for the third straight fall to preparing for free agency, weighing trade options, scouting and — this winter — pulling all-nighters to put together a proposal for Shohei Ohtani.

But baseball media members are ridiculously hard-working. These people spent all year covering 162-game seasons plus 6+ weeks of spring training and then another month of postseason and now, two weeks before Christmas, they're pulling 15-hour days during the Winter Meetings. 

Yes, it's a really cool job and we get paid to cover a game and hang around professional athletes, but it's also a lot of work and the people who have done this for a lifetime are so impressive.

Cubs 2018-19 pitching staff coming into focus

Cubs 2018-19 pitching staff coming into focus

Wade Davis still hasn't signed anywhere, but the Cubs have added more bullpen reinforcements while their former closer decides his future.

The Cubs are still looking for another starting pitcher and very well may be open to another reliever — whether that be Davis or not is still to be determined.

But with more than 10 days left until Christmas — a checkpoint for most free agents as they want to kick back during the holiday with family knowing where they're going to play in 2018 — the Cubs' pitching staff is taking shape with Steve Cishek now in the fold.

If the season started today, here's how the staff may look:

2018 rotation

Jon Lester
Kyle Hendricks
Jose Quintana
Tyler Chatwood
Mike Montgomery

2018 bullpen

Brandon Morrow (closer)
Carl Edwards Jr.
Pedro Strop
Steve Cishek
Justin Wilson
Justin Grimm
Dario Alvarez

Montgomery will serve as a starter at some point in 2018 even if the Cubs sign another guy. The team will either go with a six-man rotation at some point or somebody will end up on the disabled list. Injuries happen and the Cubs are hoping to play into the final week of October this year, so rest assured, they will absolutely be conservative with their starters' innings once again.

Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer admitted if the season started today, Morrow would be the closer. Beyond that, they acknowledged there are very few moves they could make to bump Morrow out of ninth-inning duties (though re-signing Davis would be one such move).

The Cubs will also likely go with eight relievers for much of the 2018 season with a position player group packed with versatile guys that can play multiple positions and switch-hitters. Dillon Maples may be a guy that finds his name in the bullpen mix if he can harness his control.

Cishek is another quality signing, adding even more depth in the late innings and high-leverage situation. The 31-year-old veteran has 121 career saves and can slot in as a closer if need be, though Joe Maddon also thinks Edwards and Strop can do the job and Wilson was one of the game's best closers before he hit a rough patch the final two months of 2017 in Chicago.

The Cubs' moves this winter have helped stablize the pitching staff beyond 2018. Chatwood, Morrow and Cishek are all signed under multiyear deals while Drew Smyly was also inked to a deal through 2019 as he rehabs from Tommy John surgery.

Here's how the 2019 pitching staff looks right now:

2019 rotation

Jon Lester
Kyle Hendricks
Jose Quintana
Tyler Chatwood
Drew Smyly

2019 bullpen

Brandon Morrow (closer)
Carl Edwards Jr.
Steve Cishek
Mike Montgomery
Justin Grimm

(Pedro Strop has a team option for the 2019 season.)

Thanks to Quintana's affordable contract, the Cubs only have around $77 million committed to the pitching staff in 2019 (plus arbitraion for Hendricks and Montgomery), so they have the flexibility to add even more depth and talent in the run prevention department.