Cubs

How the Cubs are going to make their free agency pitch

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How the Cubs are going to make their free agency pitch

Going after Dan Haren shows that the Cubs will look into everything. They have money to burn, but dont want to commit long-term, and arent opposed to rental players.
With Haren now a free agent, the Cubs are going to have to reboot their search for the (at least) two pitchers they need to plug into their rotation. That will be the focus when general managers begin gathering on Tuesday for their meetings at an Indian Wells, Calif., resort.
Cubs executives declined to comment on why talks with the Los Angeles Angels broke down late Friday night and the Haren-for-Carlos Marmol trade collapsed. But it did make you wonder: Why would a free agent want to sign with the Cubs?
"Ive heard this over and over again -- players want to be part of the solution here, team president Theo Epstein said the day after a 101-loss season ended. They want to be part of the club that ultimately wins the World Series here."
OK, but every indication is that the Cubs dont want to pay retail and will wind up with more placeholders than future core players.
And the clubhouse is going to feel a real sense of urgency in April and May next season, because the players know that if they dont get off to a good start, the front office is going to start selling off pieces in July and bracing for a last-place finish.
As a blueprint, Epstein uses Paul Maholm, a former first-round pick with health questions looking for a change of scenery. Last winter, Maholm agreed to a 4.25 million salary, with a 6.5 million club option for 2013. By the time Maholm was flipped to the Atlanta Braves at the trade deadline, the left-hander was one of the hottest pitchers in baseball, going 5-0 with a 1.00 ERA in his final seven starts for the Cubs.
We can sell opportunity, Epstein said. I think Paul Maholm would tell people hes really glad he signed here, that he got a little bit of help. He got an opportunity and his career took the next step here. Even though he was traded, I think he feels good about his Cubs experience and would come back here in a second if he had the opportunity.
Across the industry, demand will outpace supply, but several pitchers fit that profile: Brandon McCarthy; Scott Baker; Shaun Marcum; Francisco Liriano; Jeremy Guthrie.
Epstein also believes the word gets out quick among players. They text each other all the time. Theyre part of the same union. They share the same agents. They give each other man hugs during batting practice. They want to play for certain managers.
So even after 101 losses, Epstein thinks free agents will know that Dale Sveum is a players manager, someone whos been there before and runs a good, professional clubhouse.
Ryan Dempster got stuck going to the Texas Rangers at the deadline and left on bad terms (even though general manager Jed Hoyer wouldnt automatically dismiss the possibility of a return if several things broke right this winter).
But it was telling -- when asked on July 31 if Epstein and Sveum have what it takes to build a winner here -- that Dempster praised the manager: Hes going to eventually lead this team to a World Series.
Dempster embraced the game plans and worked well with pitching coach Chris Bosio, putting together a scoreless streak that lasted 33 innings and posting a 2.25 ERA in 16 starts with the Cubs.
So did Maholm, who grew up a Braves fan in the South, went to Mississippi State University and wound up in an ideal spot.
But when the Cubs are negotiating against players with more leverage, how do they recruit someone who could have more attractive options, or at least a better sense that another team wont become sellers at the deadline?
Its really expressing interest early, Hoyer said, and being sincere and telling the players why you have interest and what you hope to be like as an organization while theyre here.
Paul was at a point in his career where he was looking for the best situation for him to have success -- and he found that. We have to be able to convince them that this is a place they can come in and have success and -- in Pauls case -- sort of re-establish himself as a really good major-league pitcher. Hopefully, there will be other guys we go after that already are established.
But its nice to be in a place like Chicago, with an organization like the Cubs. Playing at Wrigley Field, living here -- theres a lot of huge positives. We need to do a really good job convincing them of our direction as a baseball team, but a lot of the other things certainly sell themselves.
No doubt, its good being a Cub: Just look at the hometown discount Kerry Wood once gave the team, or how closely players (Dempster, Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano) guarded no-trade clauses during lost seasons.
Theres shopping on Michigan Avenue, getting wined and dined in River North and hanging out in Wrigleyville. Plus, all the day games free up your nights.
Money talks, but a free agent is going to have to trust Epsteins vision (and those two World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox). Hoyer mentioned McCarthy in this context: The Oakland As have done a good job landing this type of free agent.
McCarthy didnt reach an agreement with the As (1 million plus incentives) until the middle of December 2010, after spending time on the disabled list in each of the previous four seasons.
When McCarthy signed there, he probably felt like: OK, this is a good organization. They like me as a pitcher. I can pitch well here, Hoyer said. But Im sure part of why he went there, too, was: Hey, listen, this is a good front office. This is a good organization and I think theyre doing the right things.
McCarthy went 17-15 with a 3.29 ERA in 43 starts for Oakland before getting hit in the head with a line drive during a scary moment in September.
Hoyer wouldnt confirm that the Cubs have interest, only saying that McCarthy (age 29) has done a remarkable job the past two seasons, helping the As win the American League West at a time when the Angels and Rangers act like economic superpowers.
Hoyers takeaway on McCarthys decision: Very quickly hes pitching in a pennant race.
If the Cubs are going to experience that kind of turnaround, they will have to be right on two pitchers who will be taking a leap of faith.

Would trading Kyle Schwarber begin to solve pitching issues that run much deeper than Chris Bosio?

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USA TODAY

Would trading Kyle Schwarber begin to solve pitching issues that run much deeper than Chris Bosio?

The Cubs now apparently believe they are a stronger organization without Chris Bosio, firing a pitching coach known for his strong convictions, brutal honesty and bottom-line results in a move that doesn’t seem like an actual solution.

Hiring Jim Hickey – who has a good reputation from his years with the Tampa Bay Rays, a close friendship with Joe Maddon and what looks like a slam-dunk interview lined up for Monday – might make the manager feel more comfortable and less isolated.

But the new-voice/different-direction spin doesn’t fundamentally address the pitching issues facing a team that needs to replace 40 percent of the rotation and find an established closer and has zero expectations those answers will come from within the farm system.

This is an operation that won a seven-game World Series last year without a homegrown player throwing a single pitch.     

If the Cubs can say thanks for the memories and dump “Boz,” what about “Schwarbs?”

Advancing to the National League Championship Series in three straight seasons doesn’t happen without Bosio or Kyle Schwarber. But the fastest way for the Cubs to dramatically improve their pitching staff isn’t finding someone else who thinks it’s important to throw strikes. It could mean breaking up The Core and severing another emotional attachment.   

Theo Epstein saw Schwarber play for Indiana University and used the Fenway Park frame of reference, envisioning him as a combination of David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia with his left-handed power and energizer personality.

Epstein wasn’t the only Cubs official to develop a man-crush on Schwarber, but he’s the only one with ultimate control over baseball operations. Epstein’s style isn’t pounding the table as much as the ability to frame questions in the draft room, gather as many opinions as possible before the trade deadline and at the winter meetings, trying to form a consensus.

“I will say that it’s really an organization-wide evaluation of this player, but I’m not skirting responsibility,” Epstein said. “I’ll happily endorse him as the type of player that we want to win with here at the Cubs, and have won with. I don’t know, the fact that he hit 30 bombs in a bad year is a good start.

“But power is not everything. I think he fell into this year becoming more of a slugger and less of a hitter than he really is. It’s important for him to get his identity back as a dangerous hitter. Honestly, I think we feel he has the potential to be an all-around hitter on the level of an Anthony Rizzo. When he reaches his prime, that’s what he could be.”

Where will that be? As a designated hitter in the American League? That’s obvious speculation, but Schwarber has improved as an outfield defender – his strong throw at Dodger Stadium led to another NLCS Maddon Moment where the manager compared the Buster Posey Rule to the Chicago soda tax.      

A 43-45 record at the All-Star break also exposed some of the weaknesses in the clubhouse and downsides to Maddon’s methods. The Cubs flipped a switch in the second half, got hot in September and had the guts to beat the Washington Nationals in the playoffs. But that doesn’t completely wipe away the concerns about a group that at times seemed too casual and unfocused and didn’t play with enough edge. For better or worse, Schwarber approaches the game like a blitzing linebacker.

“He’s got a certain toughness and certain leadership qualities that are hard to find,” Epstein said, “and that we don’t necessarily have in surplus, in abundance, running around in this clubhouse, in this organization.

“A certain energy and grit and ability to bring people together – that’s important and we rely on it. But the biggest thing is his bat. We think he’s the type of offensive player that you build around, along with a couple other guys like him.”

Maddon would never admit it, but was the Schwarber leadoff experiment a mistake?

“I’ll judge that one based on the results and say yeah,” Epstein said. “I think we can talk about the process that went into it. Or in an alternate universe: Does it pan out? But those are just words. It didn’t work.

“Everything that went into Kyle’s really surprising and difficult first half of the season, we should look to correct, because that shouldn’t happen. He’s a way better hitter than that. What he did after coming back from Iowa proves it.”

In the same way that Maddon should own what happens with the next pitching coach, Epstein will ultimately have to decide Schwarber’s future.

Schwarber didn’t complain or pout when he got sent down to Triple-A Iowa this summer, finishing with 30 homers, a .782 OPS, a .211 batting average and a 30.9 strikeout percentage.    

Trading Schwarber would mean selling lower and take another team having the same gut instincts the Cubs did in the 2014 draft – and offering the talented, controllable starting pitcher that sometimes seems like a unicorn.

Is Schwarber still the legend from last year’s World Series? An all-or-nothing platoon guy? An intriguing trade chip? A franchise player? Eventually, the Cubs are going to find out.

“We have to look to do everything we can,” Epstein said, “and more importantly he has to look to do everything he can to get him to a point where he’s consistently the quality hitter and tough out and dangerous bat in the middle of the lineup that we know he can be.

“He wasn’t for the first half of this year – and he knows it and he feels awful about it. He worked his tail off to get back to having a pretty darn good second half and getting some big hits for us down the stretch.”

And then the offseason was only hours old by the time the Cubs showed they will be keeping an open mind about everything this winter, not afraid to make big changes.

Jake Arrieta shaved his beard again and he keeps looking younger

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USA TODAY

Jake Arrieta shaved his beard again and he keeps looking younger

It's become a tradition that Jake Arrieta shaves his beard after the season ends.

The 31-year-old did it again days after the Cubs were eliminated from the 2017 postseason, and it's still a sight we'll never be used to seeing.

Check it out:

Weird, right?

Here's how he looked following the Cubs' World Series win in 2016:

And again in 2015:

It's crazy how much younger he looks.