Cubs

Epstein can build his own Evil Empire

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Epstein can build his own Evil Empire

Larry Lucchino had to say something when reached by the worlds most influential newspaper. When asked about Jose Contreras, Bostons chief executive officer lit a match and threw it onto the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry.

The Evil Empire extends its tentacles even into Latin America, Lucchino told The New York Times.

This was around Christmas 2002, not long after Theo Epstein had become the youngest general manager in baseball history. The Red Sox had just lost out on Contreras, the Cuban defector who instead signed a four-year, 32 million contract with the Yankees.

To become a free agent, Contreras established residency in Nicaragua, where the negotiations took place at Hotel Campo Real. Dan Shaughnessy, the longtime columnist for The Boston Globe, detailed the back-and-forth in Reversing the Curse, his book on the 2004 Red Sox championship team.

Epstein told Shaughnessy that he never trashed his hotel room after Contreras spurned the Red Sox, and suggested that Yankee officials fed that nonstory to the New York newspapers.

The definitive account of this negotiation is still to be written. The moments of frustration inside the executive offices can be leaked later to the media. Lucchino and Cubs team president Crane Kenney will no doubt have something interesting to say.

But everyone already agrees on the ending: Epstein coming to Clark and Addison as the next head of baseball operations.

By late Tuesday, a source indicated that the Cubs and Red Sox still hadnt found the midpoint as they try to settle on the compensation that will allow Epstein to escape from the final year of his contract. Theyre still in standby mode.

The Cubs may have to ask commissioner Bud Selig to lift Major League Baseballs news blackout and receive permission to hold an Epstein press conference during the next several days. Meanwhile their biggest rival will be playing for their 11th World Series title.

Cubs-Cardinals is not Yankees-Red Sox. But once this is official, Epstein can go about building his own Evil Empire.

The Cubs dont have the winning tradition and they care about public perception. Tom Ricketts is a rational man who doesnt like to make impulsive decisions. The chairman doesnt have George Steinbrenners DNA, the need to create headlines.

But Epstein will be empowered to build an organization in his image. The front office will be expanded, in part because the Cubs have historically had one of the smallest staffs in baseball. Ricketts has identified bringing in more manpower as a priority.

Its unclear exactly how the staff will take shape, though it could have a distinct Boston influence.

SI.com reported Tuesday that the Cubs could make a run at Padres general manager Jed Hoyer, who is signed through 2013 with a club option for 2014. Cubs people are hearing the same rumors about Josh Byrnes, another Padres executive who also used to work for the Red Sox.

The Cubs will be pooling their intellectual capital at a time when theyll be building new facilities in Arizona and the Dominican Republic, which will only help the scouting and player development machine Epstein once built for the Red Sox.

You wont believe it until you see it, but Cubs executives insist that Wrigley Field will be renovated within the next few years.

That project should improve what one player called the worst facilities in the game, and generate more revenue to pour into baseball operations. Maybe all this will sharpen their negotiating skills against Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Team officials also hold out hopes for their own television network sometime in the future, which would only widen the resource gap between the Cubs and the rest of the National League Central.

Epstein wont exactly be on the side of the American League East divide that left the Red Sox so frustrated with the Yankees years ago. But he should be able to leverage a significant financial advantage over his rivals.

According to the USA Today salary database, the Yankees allocated almost 203 million to major-league payroll this year, while the Red Sox were around 161 million. In the National League, only the Phillies spent more than the Cubs.

The Cubs had a payroll that was roughly 20 million more than the Cardinals, 40 million more than the Brewers and 50 million more than the Reds.

Money doesnt guarantee happiness. The Cardinals will host the Rangers another team just outside a top-10 payroll for Game 1 of the World Series on Wednesday night in St. Louis.

But if the Cubs ever develop their own Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder, their fans will never have to worry about their favorite players leaving because they want to get rich in St. Louis or Milwaukee. It would more likely be Epsteins computers saying its not a good bet on their future performance.

During the Contreras stakeout, Epstein worked alongside Red Sox international scouting director Louis Eljaua, whos now a Cubs special assistant in charge of overseeing the construction of the new academy in the Dominican Republic. The kids there want to be the next Starlin Castro.

The opportunity here is to build an international brand, if not an Evil Empire. If the Cubs have to give up two prospects to secure their next president of baseball operations, remember that they can always find dozens and dozens more around the globe.

Soon enough, Epstein will stand at the podium and tell everyone how he plans to conquer the world.

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

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USA TODAY

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

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USA TODAY

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: