Cubs: Will Theo Epstein have flexibility to add at trade deadline?


Cubs: Will Theo Epstein have flexibility to add at trade deadline?

Money is no object for the Los Angeles Dodgers and their $270 million payroll underwritten by Guggenheim Partners and a multibillion-dollar TV megadeal.

Will the Cubs have the ability to take on salary at the July 31 trade deadline? What sort of resources will be available to Theo Epstein’s baseball operations department?

“I don’t ever talk about payroll,” Epstein said, “because it just gives other teams a feel for maybe things we can and can’t do. I just try to plan accordingly, and execute on that plan, if you can.”

Money isn’t everything. The Cubs beat Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers on a Monday night where tornado warnings hit the Chicago area, the sky turned ominous shades of yellowish orange and a power surge knocked out parts of the Wrigley Field light towers.

[MORE CUBS: Kris Bryant powers Cubs past Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers]

But this 4-2 victory brought out another good crowd (35,147) to Wrigleyville and left the Cubs with a 38-30 record that should make them buyers. Centerfielder Dexter Fowler getting X-rays on a sprained left ankle and left-hander Tsuyoshi Wada leaving the game with cramping in his deltoid muscle only reinforced the idea the Cubs need more help.

Epstein doesn’t have a blank check here, rolling over the $20 million saved from losing the Masahiro Tanaka bidding war and inflating the payroll to around $120 million this season. That creative accounting nudged the big-market Cubs past teams like the Cincinnati Reds and Kansas City Royals and into the middle of the pack.

Do you have the financial flexibility to do what you think you want to do leading up to the trade deadline?

“Every situation’s unique,” Epstein said. “So I think like most teams, we have some financial flexibility, and not unlimited financial flexibility.”

[MORE CUBS: Maddon: Rizzo needs to represent Cubs in All-Star Game]

The Cubs don’t have a whatever-it-takes attitude. The restrictions imposed by Sam Zell’s Tribune Co. — a condition the Ricketts family accepted when purchasing the team (and a piece of Comcast Sportsnet Chicago) and entering into an $845 million leveraged partnership — run through the 2019 season.

But the Ricketts family and Crane Kenney’s business operations department have pushed forward with the Wrigley Field renovations, selling minority ownership shares to six investors and raising capital — believed to be more than $150 million — to help cover some of the construction costs.

“I don’t think that’s related,” Epstein said. “I think that went to the project.”

Now you can see what the future might look like at Clark and Addison, with two big video boards, new advertising signage and the remodeled bleachers, though those business-side breakthroughs won’t necessarily free up more money this summer.

[MORE CUBS: The education of Kyle Schwarber behind the plate]

“There’s a budget at the start of the year,” Epstein said, “anticipating some of the new revenue streams, and new revenues, and expenses as well. When the organization as a whole sits down to budget at the start of the year, you try to anticipate those things.

“So it would only be things that weren’t forecast in the budget that would be either new liabilities or new windfalls.”

Whether or not the Cubs are willing to pay the price in terms of dollars and prospects to land someone like Philadelphia Phillies ace Cole Hamels, Epstein will be looking to upgrade the rotation.

Epstein made that clear even before Wada left the game in the third inning, giving him one quality start in seven chances. Wada hoped to make his next start — and the Cubs seemed to think it was just cramping — but this shoulder problem again highlighted the organization’s depth issues.

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

“I’m really happy with the starting-pitching staff,” Epstein said. “We’ve performed really well as a group, but it usually takes nine or 10 to get through a season. We’ve had some injuries at (Triple-A) Iowa. We’ve had some guys who haven’t quite taken that leap yet to get them into positions where they can be guys who — right now — deserve an opportunity to step into a pennant race.

“We’re working on that next tier that might represent someone who has to step right into a pennant race. You don’t get warning when that need arises. You have to think in advance and plan in advance. Every team does that.

“Over the course of the season, sometimes you’re left short. We’re not hiding the ball — that’s one area right now where we kind of have a little bit of a short stack. And if there are ways to address it — before it becomes a real problem — we’d like to do that.”

The Cubs should be getting some answers from within. Reliever Neil Ramirez (shoulder) and third baseman Mike Olt (wrist) are supposed to continue their rehab assignments on Tuesday with Iowa. Epstein wouldn’t rule out the idea of Ramirez returning before the All-Star break.

Manager Joe Maddon hoped outfielder Jorge Soler (ankle) would be able to start playing in minor-league games about a week from now. Rafael Soriano, the one-time All-Star closer, is said to be still working out in the Dominican Republic.

“We do have some nice parts coming along the way,” Maddon said. “These guys are going to be able to come back and augment what we got going on right now. And they fit perfectly, so I’m not worried about who we may acquire. I think we have a lot of the parts right here.”

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.