Cubs

Cubs make Dexter Fowler qualifying offer and look at center-field options

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Cubs make Dexter Fowler qualifying offer and look at center-field options

As expected, the Cubs made Dexter Fowler a qualifying offer by Friday’s deadline, though there’s a strong sense the leadoff guy will get paid somewhere else, with Theo Epstein’s front office taking the draft pick as compensation and exploring other center-field options.

Both sides got exactly what they wanted out of this arranged marriage, which the Cubs set up when they acquired Fowler from the Houston Astros last January. An outstanding platform season for a playoff team means Fowler will do exponentially better than the one-year, $15.8 million qualifying offer.

The Cubs took off when Fowler found another gear in the second half, getting on base almost 39 percent of the time and finishing with 17 homers and 102 runs scored. The Cubs wouldn’t win 97 games and two playoff rounds without Fowler as an offensive spark.

But signing Fowler would mean buying high on an outfielder who played around 118 games on average during the 2013 and 2014 seasons (though he will only be 30 next year). And the Cubs could probably find a defensive upgrade in center field, where Fowler didn’t grade out exceptionally well in terms of the metrics or the eye test.

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Still, the Cubs plan to speak with Fowler’s high-powered agent, Casey Close of Excel Sports Management. The Cubs will also be in listening mode and open to other ideas when the general manager meetings begin next week in Boca Raton, Florida.

“We had a great year with Dexter,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “We really enjoyed getting to know him. He was the catalyst for our offense and played good defense. (He) was good in the clubhouse.

“We’ll definitely sit down with Casey in the near future.”

The Washington Nationals did not give the qualifying offer to Denard Span – a player the Cubs discussed last offseason before making the Fowler deal – and that development should make him an even more attractive buy-low candidate without the attached draft pick.

Span would have to answer questions about his health after a series of injuries limited him to only 61 games with an underachieving Washington team. But he still managed to hit .301 with a .796 OPS this year. He’s a left-handed hitter with a .352 career on-base percentage who stole 31 bases for a 96-win team in 2014 and checks a lot of boxes for the Cubs.

The Cubs viewed Austin Jackson as only a rental player when they acquired him from the Seattle Mariners at the Aug. 31 deadline, which would appear to cross him off the list. 

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Whether it’s following the Fowler blueprint and putting together another trade, or signing a free agent with on-base/contact skills and defensive upside, the Cubs will likely try to buy some time until 2017 or 2018 with a short-term solution.

Maybe everything clicks for someone like Albert Almora or Billy McKinney at Triple-A Iowa next year, or the Cubs get a better feel for where their versatile young players fit defensively.

Kris Bryant has some outfield experience and an unselfish attitude, but the All-Star third baseman would prefer to stay in the infield. The Cubs have kicked around the idea of Bryant in center, but they don’t see that as a realistic option for a 162-game season.

If anything, Javier Baez profiles better than Bryant in center field, but manager Joe Maddon isn’t in a rush to move such a talented middle infielder at this point.

In the end, if the Cubs have to choose between investing in their rotation or center field this winter, that’s really not a difficult decision at all for a franchise loaded with young hitters and lacking in frontline pitchers. 

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.”