Theo Epstein doubts Cubs can sign two free agents in $100-million range


Theo Epstein doubts Cubs can sign two free agents in $100-million range

BOCA RATON, Fla. – As the free-agent rumors and predictions began surfacing at last year’s general manager meetings, Theo Epstein ruled out the idea of the Cubs signing two pitchers to nine-figure contracts that offseason.

“You can pretty much apply that one going forward, at least until we get a TV deal, and probably beyond,” Epstein said Monday at the Boca Raton Resort and Club. “That’d be a big winter.”

Even after winning 97 games and advancing to the National League Championship Series, that same-as-it-ever-was feeling still followed the Cubs to the GM meetings in South Florida.

It’s not that Epstein sounded frustrated or ready to wave a white flag as he spoke with a group of Chicago reporters in the hotel lobby. It’s just the financial reality for the president of baseball operations as he heads into the fifth and final year of his contract (which should be extended at some point).

The Cubs are still sorting through their media options – Comcast SportsNet Chicago holds exclusive cable rights through the 2019 season – and waiting out the leveraged partnership between the Ricketts family and Sam Zell’s Tribune Co. (which limits the baseball department’s spending power).

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So forget about signing David Price for the top of the rotation and getting Jason Heyward to play center at Wrigley Field. The 2015 payroll had been set around $120 million, artificially inflated with the $20 million rolled over from last year’s losing bid for Masahiro Tanaka. The next TV contract is supposed to launch the Cubs into another economic stratosphere.

“If we want to do two things, we have to get pretty creative,” Epstein said. “Even if we want to do one really big thing, I think we have to get creative. Just because you guys know the situation – we’re going to have more money down the line than we have right now. So we just have to keep that in mind and be a little bit creative.

“We have the ability to add a little bit from where we are right now, but the arbitration raises cut into things quite a bit. I don’t necessarily think we have room to go do everything that’s been speculated in some areas, but we can get creative.”

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Infielder Starlin Castro, catcher Miguel Montero and pitcher Jason Hammel represent almost $80 million in future salary commitments and areas where the Cubs have options or would like to upgrade. Moving any of those assets could help free up funds for a Price or Zack Greinke megadeal and/or allow Epstein’s front office to invest in other areas of the roster.

Because right now, it sounds like signing two frontline starters would be a stretch. When asked specifically about Montero, Epstein said there haven’t been any discussions about trading the veteran catcher, but the Cubs will have to think outside the box to build another World Series contender.

“Two sizable things – we have to definitely get creative,” Epstein said. “But that doesn’t make it impossible. There’s a lot of moving parts. (And) there’s always ways to get things done if they make sense for the club.”

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.”