How Cubs wound up spending big on Jason Heyward


How Cubs wound up spending big on Jason Heyward

“No,” Theo Epstein said, he didn’t see the Cubs being able to do two deals in the $100-million range this offseason. “You can pretty much apply that one going forward, at least until we get a TV deal, and probably beyond…that’d be a big winter.”

This was Nov. 9, the beginning of the general managers meetings, when the idea of signing Jason Heyward to an eight-year, $184 million megadeal – without cutting corners everywhere else on the roster and handcuffing future Cubs teams – sounded like a fantasy.

Dressed in a T-shirt, gym shorts and sneakers, Epstein had just finished a workout when a few Chicago writers stopped him near the registration desk of the Boca Raton Resort & Club. The president of baseball operations had brought his wife to South Florida and looked and sounded like he would rather be anywhere else on the waterfront property than a hotel lobby crawling with reporters and agents.

Epstein has a law degree and always chooses his words carefully, but this wasn’t a misdirection play, because other teams always think the Cubs are playing with Monopoly money anyway. Epstein also has a wicked sense of humor, but he wasn’t trying to punk the media, because it’s always been in his best interests to explain The Plan.

The calculus changed within the last few weeks, leading up Friday’s reports that Heyward had turned down $200 million offers elsewhere. A payroll picture that looked murky on Sept. 1 or Oct. 1 or even the middle of November came into sharper focus before the winter meetings at Nashville’s Opryland complex.

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Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer pried open the franchise’s financial black box, working with chairman Tom Ricketts and Crane Kenney’s business operations department to grab money generated during a surprising run to the National League Championship Series.

The Cubs would reinvest in a team that has: two more seasons before Jake Arrieta hits the free-agent market; a ticking time bomb in Jon Lester’s $155 million contract; and no stud pitching prospects anywhere close to making The Show.

Next winter’s class of free agents also didn’t look very appealing, so the Cubs wanted to binge this offseason instead of throwing money at the wrong players.

For years, the Cubs have been a rigid, conservative operation, limited by the leveraged partnership between the Ricketts family and Sam Zell’s Tribune Co. (in a deal that included a piece of Comcast Sportsnet Chicago). The big-market spending power would only be back in full force with the anticipated launch of a new Cubs channel in 2020 (assuming the cable bubble doesn’t burst before then).

A front office that sometimes tends to overthink things absolutely pounced on big-game pitcher John Lackey, super-utility guy Ben Zobrist and Heyward, bankrolled by a business side that got good reviews for Wrigley Field’s Video Board Era after initially handling the rollout of the restoration plan in such a clumsy manner. 

Whatever business vs. baseball tensions exist, the Cubs just dropped $272 million on Heyward, Lackey and Zobrist, taking two valuable players away from a 100-win St. Louis Cardinals team, trading former All-Star shortstop Starlin Castro to the New York Yankees and getting creative with the structure of those contracts.

[MORE: Heyward signing reinforces World Series expectations for Cubs]

Even if you get The Plan, this is still a stunning transformation for a franchise that hasn’t won the World Series since 1908 and finished in fifth place every season between 2010 and 2014.

Cubs fans burned by overhyped prospects before can now watch Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant play here through the 2021 season, because a calculating front office drafted the right guy with the No. 2 overall pick in 2013 and manipulated the service-time system. (The Houston Astros packaged underwhelming pitcher Mark Appel – the first pick that year – in Saturday’s 5-for-2 trade with the Philadelphia Phillies for closer Ken Giles.)  

A team that seemed to have a new manager every year – Lou Piniella, Mike Quade, Dale Sveum and Rick Renteria since 2010 – now has three-time Manager of the Year Joe Maddon. All those sign-and-flip deals for the future ultimately yielded a Cy Young Award winner and multiple key contributors to a 97-win team. 

Now add Heyward, who clearly fits Epstein’s vision of a well-rounded athlete, someone who can grind out at-bats, run the bases, play Gold Glove defense in the outfield and look good on the actuarial tables at the age of 26.   

“The season that we had as a team was something that not many people expected,” Arrieta said after the Cy Young announcement. “Most of those people were outside of our organization, people that didn’t necessarily know everything that we were about, and the types of guys we had, and the character we had overall.  

“To have the pieces that we have aligned for next season – and (a) number of years to come – it looks like we’re going to have a pretty bright future.”     

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.