Cubs

Cubs make business decision to look beyond Aroldis Chapman’s domestic violence suspension

Cubs make business decision to look beyond Aroldis Chapman’s domestic violence suspension

Within three minutes of the press release officially announcing the Aroldis Chapman trade with the New York Yankees on Monday afternoon, the Cubs sent another e-mail to their media distribution list, issuing statements from the superstar closer and chairman Tom Ricketts that didn’t really say much about the business decision to look beyond a domestic violence suspension.

But the Chapman rollout had to address an ugly incident from his personal history, how the Yankees acquired him over the winter from the Cincinnati Reds at such a discount, but didn’t deploy him in a real game until May 9.

That’s why president of baseball operations Theo Epstein answered questions for more than 33 minutes, sitting in U.S. Cellular Field’s visiting dugout before a 5-4 walk-off loss to the White Sox, trying to explain the due diligence, moral calculus and win-now mentality.

“I don’t feel like we compromised integrity in making this move,” Epstein said. “We approached it as thoroughly as we did – and gave it as much careful consideration as we did and had a genuine debate about it for weeks – because we wanted to make sure we preserve our integrity as an organization.”

Chapman released statements in English and Spanish, thanking the Yankees for “trusting and supporting me” and acknowledging the 30-game punishment he served this season after a domestic dispute inside his South Florida home on Oct. 30, 2015, becoming a test case for Major League Baseball’s new policy.

Chapman was accused of choking his girlfriend and reportedly fired eight gunshots inside his garage, though the Broward County State Attorney’s Office ultimately decided to not file criminal charges.

“I regret that I did not exercise better judgment,” Chapman said, “and for that I am truly sorry. Looking back, I feel I have learned from this matter and have grown as a person. My girlfriend and I have worked hard to strengthen our relationship, to raise our daughter together and would appreciate the opportunity to move forward without revisiting an event we consider part of our past.

“Out of respect for my family, I will not comment any further on this matter.”

[MORE: Cubs send win-now message with blockbuster trade for Aroldis Chapman]

Chapman is expected to join the team on Tuesday and face the media on the South Side. MLB allowed Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and Ricketts – who had already consulted with commissioner Rob Manfred – to speak with Chapman over the phone on Monday before the Cubs and Yankees formalized the trade.

“I shared with him the high expectations we set for our players and staff both on and off the field,” Ricketts said. “Aroldis indicated he is comfortable with meeting those expectations.”

Of course, Chapman would be on his best behavior in a contract year – and will be highly motivated in his final months before cashing in as a free agent – but he impressed people around the Yankees with his demeanor, dominant performances and ability to handle New York.

“We’re going to welcome him in here with open arms,” said catcher David Ross, who got a glowing scouting report on Chapman from Yankee leader/good friend Brian McCann. “I don’t like to prejudge guys on their past.

“We’re excited to get him and give him a clean slate. Hopefully, he has a phenomenal time here in Chicago.”

[RELATED: How Joe Maddon plans to unleash Chapman on Cubs bullpen]

If the Cubs didn’t acquire Chapman, they feared he might have landed with a contender like the Washington Nationals or San Francisco Giants and blown their hitters away in October with 105-mph fastballs. This became the point in the Wrigleyville rebuild to take the risk – and maybe tone down some of the rhetoric about how the Cubs do things “The Right Way” and are such great neighbors and so family friendly.

“Those of you who have been around us for five years know that character is a major consideration in every transaction we make,” Epstein said. “That’s why we spent so much time investigating and talking to him. In fact, I have never believed more strongly in the character that we have in this clubhouse and at our core as an organization.

“I think that allows us to maybe be that forum for players who’ve been through some things and are looking to grow. He was granted a second chance by Major League Baseball and by the Yankees.

“With our culture – and the guys we have in there – maybe we’re good for him to continue that process. We are not sacrificing our integrity in any way or compromising or completely turning our back on (what we believe). I understand that people are going to see it different ways (and) I respect that.”

This is business, and this transaction will be judged on whether or not the Cubs win the World Series this year.

“I cannot wait to take the mound at Wrigley Field,” Chapman said, “and look forward to helping my teammates deliver a championship to Chicago.”

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.”

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.