Next big Cubs free agent? Theo Epstein calls contract status a nonissue


Next big Cubs free agent? Theo Epstein calls contract status a nonissue

Two years ago, Theo Epstein promised the social-media outrage over Clark the Cub would go away, that the new mascot introduced during the middle of a do-nothing offseason would eventually become “a blip instead of a cacophony, or Clark-ophony.”

This franchise needed Epstein’s image as a rock-star executive during all those Cubs Convention rollouts, slick presentations to season-ticket holders and fuzzy features on national TV.

The squirm factor, awkward silences and venting at the microphone just won’t be the same now during all those Q-and-A sessions this weekend at the Sheraton Grand Chicago.

Epstein has already built the Cubs into a World Series contender, assembling arguably the game’s best collection of young blue-chip talent, hiring star manager Joe Maddon and upgrading a 97-win team with a $272 million investment in Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward, super-utility guy Ben Zobrist and veteran pitcher John Lackey.

All that makes a new contract for Epstein – who’s now in the fifth and final season of his $18.5 million deal – feel inevitable. Except the Cubs haven’t gotten around to it yet.

Chairman Tom Ricketts – who takes a long-range view and allows Epstein to run his department – has described an extension for the president of baseball operations as just a matter of time. Just not as the surprise announcement on stage this weekend at Cubs Convention.

“Status quo in that we are completely on the same page,” Epstein said before Friday’s opening ceremony. “We just haven’t gotten around to like hammering out an actual contract. But, again, I only really think about it when you guys (in the media) ask. I see myself as staying in the exact same role for a long time – and I think Tom sees it the same way.”

[RELATED: Cubs, Jake Arrieta still need to make a deal]

By leaving the Tampa Bay Rays, Andrew Friedman not only triggered Maddon’s opt-out clause after the 2014 season, he also reset the market for the industry’s top executives with that five-year, $35 million deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers. The meter for Epstein could keep running from there.

“At some point, we’ll get around to doing a contract extension,” Epstein said. “But I actually think players deserve contracts first before front-office guys. And we’re not done with our players yet. Jake (Arrieta) probably deserves a contract before I do. In fact, I know he deserves a contract before I do, so we’ll take care of that first. And at the right time, I’m sure we’ll address my situation.”

Do you anticipate signing a new deal before spring training?

“I haven’t thought about that,” Epstein said. “Honestly, I want to get the players taken care of first, and then we’ll see where it goes from there.”

[SHOP: Gear up for another big year, Cubs fans!]

Epstein creatively worked with ownership and business operations to make this spending spree happen, and pretty much does his job without interference from above within those financial limits.

That’s a dramatic change from the gorilla-suit exit from Fenway Park and the power struggles in Boston that led to Epstein’s resignation after the 2011 season.

And Epstein clearly wants to be the executive in charge who helps finally end the century-and-counting drought and raises the World Series trophy at Wrigley Field.

“We’re ready to roll,” Epstein said. “We’re ready to go into spring training and compete. It didn’t used to be a story when the GM was under contract for a year – I guess it is now – and I haven’t been very good at it in the past with some of the stuff in Boston. But it’s seriously not a concern at all. It’s going to take care of itself. Tom and I could not have a better relationship.”

The Cubs might not need Epstein’s brand name for the same PR purposes anymore, and he doesn’t like being the center of attention anyway. But Theo’s still their biggest upcoming free agent. Imagine the cacophony – or Clark-ophony – if this doesn’t get done.'s Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

USA TODAY's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

Could 2018 be the year that the Cubs finally see a top pitching prospect debut with the team? 

Thursday, released its list of the Cubs' 2018 Top 30 Prospects, a group that includes six pitchers in the Top 10. The list ranks right-hander Adbert Alzolay as the Cubs' No 1. prospect, projecting him to debut with the team this season. 

Alzolay, 22, went 7-4 with a 2.99 ERA in 22 starts between Single-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Tennessee last season. He also struck out 108 batters in 114 1/3 innings, using a repertoire that includes a fastball that tops out around 98 MPH (according to

Following Alzolay as the Cubs' No. 2 overall prospect is 19-year-old shortstop Aramis Ademan. Ademan hit .267 in just 68 games between Single-A Eugene and Single-A South Bend, though it should be noted that he has soared from No. 11 in's 2017 ranks to his current No. 2 ranking. He is not projected to make his MLB debut until 2020, however.

Following Alzolay and Ademan on the list are five consecutive pitchers ranked 3-7, respectively. Oscar De La Cruz, No. 3 on the list, slides down from his 2017 ranking in which listed him as the Cubs' top overall prospect. De La Cruz, 22, finished 2017 with a 3.34 ERA in 13 games (12 starts) between the Arizona League and Single-A Myrtle Beach.

De La Cruz is projected to make his MLB debut in 2019, while Jose Albertos (No. 4), Alex Lange (No. 5), Brendon Little (No. 6) and Thomas Hatch (No. 7) are projected to make their big league debuts in 2019 or 2020. All are right-handed (with the exception of Little) and starting pitchers.

Hatch (third round, 2016) and Lange (30th overall, 2017) and Little (27th overall, 2017) were all top draft picks by the Cubs in recent seasons.

Having numerous starting pitchers on the cusp of the big leagues represents a significant change of pace for the Cubs. 

Since Theo Epstein took over as team president in Oct. 2011, a plethora of top prospects have debuted and enjoyed success with the Cubs. Majority have been position players, though.

The likes of Albert Almora, Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell all contributed to the Cubs winning the World Series in 2016. Similarly, Ian Happ enjoyed a fair amount of success after making his MLB debut last season, hitting 24 home runs in just 115 games.

Ultimately, Alzolay would be the Cubs' first true top pitching prospect to make it to the big leagues in the Theo Epstein era. While him making it to the big leagues in 2018 is no guarantee, one would think a need for pitching will arise for the Cubs at some point, whether it be due to injury or simply for September roster expansion.

The Cubs have enjoyed tremendous success in recent years in terms of their top prospects succeeding in the MLB. If the trend continues, Alzolay should be a force to reckon with on the North Side for years to come.

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy


Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

MESA, Ariz. — The frequent mission of spring training is to iron out a 25-man roster.

But at Cubs camp, that mission seems to already be completed.

With an entire Cactus League schedule still to play, the Cubs’ 25-man group that will leave Arizona for the season-opener in Miami seems pretty well set.

The starting rotation: Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood.

The position-player group: Willson Contreras, Victor Caratini, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, Tommy La Stella, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist.

The bullpen: Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery, Brian Duensing, Justin Wilson and Justin Grimm.

Boom. There’s your 25.

Joe Maddon, do you agree?

“You guys and ladies could probably write down what you’re seeing and be pretty accurate,” Maddon said Thursday. “I can’t deny that, it’s true. Oftentimes, when you’re a pretty good ball club, that is the case. When you’re not so good, you always get auditions during spring training.

“I think what the boys have done is they’ve built up a nice cache in case things were to happen. The depth is outstanding. So you could probably narrow it down, who you think’s going to be the 25, and I won’t argue that.”

It’s the latest example in a camp that to this point has been full of them that the Cubs are one of baseball’s best teams and that only a World Series championship will fulfill expectations. Had the front office stuck with a starting rotation of Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, Chatwood and Montgomery, then there would’ve been a spot open in the bullpen. But the statement-making signing of Darvish jolted the Cubs into “best rotation in the game” status, sent Montgomery back to the bullpen and further locked the roster into place.

Guys like Grimm and La Stella have been forced off the 25-man roster at points in recent seasons, though even their spots seem safe. Maddon even said that a huge spring from someone else wouldn’t mean as much at what guys have done at the major league level in recent memory.

“Spring training performance, for me, it’s not very defining,” Maddon said. “You’re going to be playing against a lot of guys that aren’t going to be here, more Triple-A guys, even some Double-A guys. Some guys come in better shape, they normally look better early. The vibe’s different. You play a couple innings, you don’t get many at-bats, the pitcher doesn’t see hitters three times and vice versa. So I don’t worry about that as much.

“It’s more about, guys that might be fighting for a moment, what do they look like, does it look right, does it look good, how do they fit in? Is there somebody there that you scouted? Because what matters a lot is last year and what you did last year and the last couple months of last year.

“So of course guys that have been here probably have a bit of an upper hand, but we’re very open-minded about stuff. And I think when you look at the guys, you’re right, it’s probably pretty close to being set. But stuff happens.”

Could the recently signed Shae Simmons give Grimm an unexpected challenge for the final relief spot? Maddon said guys who have been with the Cubs in the recent past have a leg up. Could Chris Gimenez turn his experience with Darvish into a win over Caratini for the backup catcher spot? Maddon threw cold water on the "personal catcher" narrative last week.

Of course, Maddon left the door open the possibility of an injury that could open up a roster spot and even shake up the depth chart. But barring the unforeseen, this 25-man group looks locked into place.

That gives the Cubs an edge, perhaps, in that they can specifically find ways to tune up those guys rather than focus on getting enough at-bats for players who are fighting for roster spots. But most of that edge came during the winter, and in winters and summers past, when the front office built this team into a championship contender.

There have been plenty of years when the fans coming to Mesa to watch the Cubs play in spring training saw the blossoming of a big league player thanks to a monster spring or a surprise tear during March. That’s going to be unlikely this spring, a reflection of just how far this team has come.

“It’s easy for me to reflect on this because when I started out with the Rays, wow,” Maddon said. “That was a casting call trying to figure it out. You had very few settled positions when you walked in the door. And then as we got better, it became what we’re talking about. As we moved further along, you were pretty much set by the time (you got to spring training) except for one or two spots.

“So I think the better teams are like that.”

The Cubs are most definitely one of those better teams.