Cubs, Royals and the myth/reality of a World Series blueprint


Cubs, Royals and the myth/reality of a World Series blueprint

The Cubs were one of the four teams still standing in October when a New York writer asked Theo Epstein about the best blueprint for winning in the playoffs.

The president of baseball operations had helped build two championship teams in Boston and oversaw the massive rebuilding job at Wrigley Field, where at that point the Cubs were down 0-2 in the National League Championship Series.

“The only thing I know for sure,” Epstein said, “is that whatever team wins the World Series, their particular style of play will be completely in vogue and trumpeted from the rooftops by the media all offseason — and in front offices — as the way to win.

“So if we win the World Series, it’s going to be a necessity for every team to develop their own core of young homegrown position players. If the Mets win, it will be required that you have four ridiculous young starting pitchers on the same staff.

“If the Royals win, you need to have speed and athleticism and contact up and down your lineup. If the Blue Jays win, you need to fill your lineup full of right-handed epic mashers and make a huge trade at the deadline.

“I think that’s the only thing I can say with certainty. This game is too nuanced and too complicated for there to be any one way.”

The Cubs will need all of the above to live up to Bovada’s Monday morning projection as the World Series favorite (11-to-1 odds), hours after Kansas City won its first championship in 30 years.

[MORE: Cubs enter MLB offseason as 2016 World Series favorites]

The Cubs have a lineup that should wear teams out for years to come, assuming Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber stay healthy, hungry and productive. Stay tuned to see if Starlin Castro, Javier Baez and/or Jorge Soler will be traded for pitching this winter, or if an uber-talented group of young hitters stays intact.

The pitching-rich Mets looked unbeatable during that NLCS sweep — and then unraveled across five games in the World Series — which again shows you shouldn’t overreact to small sample sizes in the postseason.

But the Cubs should try to find a way to add two big-time starters — David Price is very much interested in coming to Chicago — at a time when they don’t appear to have big-market spending power.

Kyle Hendricks would be a great No. 5 starter on a contending team, but he shouldn’t be starting Game 3 in a playoff rotation. Jason Hammel’s up-and-down season and salary commitment ($11 million guaranteed) could again make him a flip-able asset that clears the way for a bigger deal.

The Cubs aren’t going to bring back ex-manager Dale Sveum, whose offensive philosophy factored into his firing after the 2013 season — and helped him shape a relentless lineup as Kansas City’s hitting coach.

But the Cubs will need to get better at situational hitting and making contact after batting .236 with runners in scoring position (or 18 points below the league average) and leading the majors with 1,518 strikeouts.

Leading up to the July 31 trade deadline next summer, Epstein will insist those deals almost always favor the sellers, downplaying the potential impact for buyers. (After all, that arbitrage system helped the Cubs restock their farm system and grow into a World Series contender within four years.)

Epstein doesn’t have to be as dramatic as Alex Anthopoulos, who acquired Price and Troy Tulowitzki in late July as finishing pieces to Toronto’s first playoff team since the back-to-back champions in 1992 and 1993 — and then walked away from a dream job rather than work for incoming Blue Jays CEO Mark Shapiro.

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Still, Epstein’s front office will need to do more at the deadline than delivering a fifth starter on the verge of retirement (Dan Haren) and an extra reliever who didn’t make any of the three playoff rosters (Tommy Hunter).

The Royals needed Johnny Cueto to win an elimination game against the Astros in the divisional round and then watched him throw nine innings in a Game 2 World Series victory over the Mets. Ben Zobrist — a Joe Maddon favorite and the super-utility guy the Cubs tried to acquire from Tampa Bay and Oakland within the last year — finished with an .880 postseason OPS. Both rental players are now free agents.

The Cubs can try to copy Kansas City’s late-game blueprint with all those power arms, but they already planned on rebuilding their bullpen with Hunter, Trevor Cahill, Jason Motte and Fernando Rodney among the 139 players eligible to negotiate and sign with any team starting at midnight on Saturday, the beginning of the free-agent frenzy.

Of course, it’s also easier to get Schwarber to work on his outfield defense — and hope Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta can control the running game — than find a potential 40-homer left-handed hitter and two frontline starters within one offseason.

“We need to get better,” Epstein said, “but I love the foundation that we’re working with.”

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


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: