Theo Epstein believes Cubs are selling themselves now


Theo Epstein believes Cubs are selling themselves now

Jason Heyward didn't choose to come to the Cubs based on a pitch by Theo Epstein's front office.

In an industry where money is the bottom line, Heyward left millions on the table to make Chicago his home and become a big piece of "The Plan."

The upstart Cubs look like a contender for years to come with a young core in place riding on the heels of a 97-win regular season and a visit to the National League Championship Series.

[RELATED - Why Jason Heyward chose Cubs over Cardinals]

And Heyward got to see it firsthand, watching the Cubs clinch the NLDS at a raucous Wrigley Field while sitting in the other dugout as a member the St. Louis Cardinals.

"As far as recruiting goes, they didn't have to do too much," Heyward said. "They let the product on the field speak for itself."

These days, the Cubs are selling themselves.

"That was probably the best recruiting we could have done was having Jason there for the NLDS with Wrigley just going absolutely bananas and our young players putting on a pretty good show and our pitchers stepping up," Epstein said after the Cubs introduced Heyward in a press conference Tuesday. "It was just a wonderful baseball experience.

"As much as we all enjoyed it and our fans enjoyed it, I think the players who were right in the middle of it recognized that it was something special. It really helped.

"We didn't have to heavily recruit Jason Heyward because he's very self-aware. He knows what's important to him and what he was looking for in an environment and he really sort of targeted us as a place of interest."

With the young core already having success at the big-league level, one of the game's top managers in Joe Maddon and a Wrigley Field renovation project that will include a new home clubhouse for the 2016 season, the Cubs sat in an entirely different position in free agency this offseason.

Heyward didn't have to listen to Epstein's front office make a sales pitch about why he should put his faith in the Cubs and sign with a last-place team the way Epstein and Co. sat down with Jon Lester last winter.

[RELATED - Joe Maddon feels like Cubs won baseball lottery again with Jason Heyward]

And this year, the promotional video the Cubs showed free agents had quite a bit more substance with the playoff run leading the way.

"We updated the video again this year," Epstein said with a smile. "We had a lot better material to put in the video this year to explain what we were trying to accomplish as an organization and what we see our future and how we treat players and how we treat families.

"[Heyward] got a copy of it and watched it and I think that sort of laid the foundation for the recruitment. But in the end, I think it was a very intelligent young man making a great life decision. He knew what he wanted and there was mutual interest."

It's quite a progression from the offseason the Cubs had just a few years ago, when Anibal Sanchez used the offer from Epstein's front office to drive his price up and ultimately re-signed with the Detroit Tigers for an $80 million deal prior to the 2013 season.

Now, the Cubs are getting players to put pen to paper and hop on board for less money than they had elsewhere.

The Cardinals and Washington Nationals reportedly offered Heyward a deal in the neighborhood of $200 million total and he opted for the Cubs' $184 million instead.

Ben Zobrist signed with the Cubs for $56 million over four years even though the San Francisco Giants and Nationals offered $60 million over the same span.

Epstein said it was the same thing for John Lackey and even confirmed that Trevor Cahill - who finished the 2015 season with the Cubs and re-signed for one year and $4.25 million - had more money on the table with another team.

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"It's up to each player," Epstein said. "I think players definitely notice how much fun our guys were having this year. It's a credit to our fans for creating a wonderful atmosphere, to Joe Maddon and his coaching staff for setting the right tone for the players and letting them be themselves and then our guys.

"It doesn't feel like settling when you talk about the players that we have and how much they support each other and how much fun they have playing the game. It's obvious from across the field.

"We've had four acquisitions take less ... Lackey, Zobrist and Heyward all really demonstrated their desire to be here. Cahill has experienced firsthand how much fun it is to be here.

"That's really sort of an honor and a credit to the organization that [chairman Tom Ricketts] has built."

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.

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

News broke to Willson Contreras that the league will be limiting mound visits this upcoming season, and the Cubs catcher —notorious for his frequent visits to the rubber — is not having it.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If you have to go again and pay the price for my team, I will," he said.

The new rules rolled out Tuesday will limit six visits —any time a manager, coach or player visits the mound — per nine innings. But, communication between a player and a pitcher that does not require them moving from their position does not count as a visit.When a team is out of visits, it's the umpire's discretion to allow an extra trip to the mound.

But despite the new rules, Contreras is willing to do what's best for the team.

“There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? They cannot say anything about that. If you’re going to fine me about the [seventh] mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”