Theo Epstein ready to make the big deal when Cubs need pitching


Theo Epstein ready to make the big deal when Cubs need pitching

What do you get for the roster that already has everything?

The Cubs have too much emotional scar tissue, too many trade chips and enough computer simulations to know that what you see on Opening Night at Angel Stadium of Anaheim won’t be a finished product.

The Cubs will find out the cost of Jake Arrieta throwing almost 250 innings during a Cy Young Award season, with his encore performance beginning Monday in Orange County. The trade-off in getting Jon Lester and John Lackey’s big-game experience is the breakdown risk involved with two 30-something pitchers who have more than 4,500 innings on their odometers combined.

As versatile as that bullpen looks in early April, remember that essentially all relievers are failed starters on some level. Plus, spending so much capital on hitters during the rebuilding years helps explain why a farm system doesn’t have any obvious candidates to step into a playoff-caliber rotation right now.

[MORE: What Cubs learned from playoff loss to Mets]

President of baseball operations Theo Epstein should be right in the middle of the action at the trade deadline, which this season falls on Aug. 1, meaning 24 more potential hours to see if the San Diego Padres pick a lane with Tyson Ross (who’s positioned to become a free agent after the 2017 season).

Maybe the Oakland A’s realize they can’t keep going for it every year and ask for a Sonny Gray offer they can’t refuse. Or the Cleveland Indians get a better idea of where they stand in the American League Central and what happens with Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco. Or the Atlanta Braves — already loaded with young pitching and playing for their new ballpark in 2017 — decide to flip Julio Teheran.

“It has to be the right opportunity,” Epstein said near the end of spring training in Arizona. “It’s not going to be a deal where we just sell out for the moment.

“It has to be someone that fits — both for now and probably for the long-term if it’s going to be a bigger deal. But we’re very open to it. We understand we’re a little bit deeper, a little bit better positioned with our position players and with our pitchers.

“It’s certainly something that we talk about every day.”

[MORE: How Cubs finally landed Ben Zobrist as a piece to their World Series puzzle]

Epstein already built the uber-team that is now seen as the cautionary tale for offseason winners. The 2011 Red Sox experienced an epic collapse that led to sweeping changes at Fenway Park and would be memorialized with four words from a Boston Globe clubhouse autopsy (fried chicken and beer).

Epstein jumped for the chance to make history at Wrigley Field and run a department the way he wanted, without day-to-day interference or second-guessing from above. By Year 5, The Cubs Way has become the biggest story in baseball, a blueprint for copycat teams in tank mode and a trendy pick to win the World Series.

But even as the Cubs pushed their major-league payroll into the franchise-record range of $150 million, Epstein kept sticking to a logical plan — and not worrying about making a splash — and thinking about what could go wrong.

“We built in a little bit of room for in-season,” Epstein said. “We built in some (budget) flexibility, but I wouldn’t expect a very aggressive winter next year. I think we’ve been open about the fact that we really did two offseasons worth of spending and acquisitions in one winter, knowing that we like the players available this winter more than next winter.”

Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer traveled to Nashville, Tenn., this offseason to meet with David Price and agent Bo McKinnis at The Southern, the restaurant where the Cy Young Award winner wanted to hear free-agent pitches.

The Cubs were blown away by Boston’s offer — a seven-year, $217 million guarantee — and then pivoted by spending more money on free agents than anyone else in baseball this offseason.

The Cubs poured almost $290 million into a 97-win team, taking Lackey and Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward away from the St. Louis Cardinals and adding All-Star super-utility guy Ben Zobrist to play second base and deliver the clutch hitting that helped the Kansas City Royals win the World Series last year.

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

The farm system probably isn’t as good as ESPN thinks (fourth-best in baseball) — or as bad as the Baseball America rankings (No. 20 overall) — but there could be a generation of players blocked by Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber and Heyward.

The Cubs have top international players (Gleyber Torres, Eloy Jimenez), first-round pick outfielders (Albert Almora, Billy McKinney, Ian Happ) and an Arizona Fall League All-Star (Jeimer Candelario) — not to mention Jorge Soler and Javier Baez, two players involved in trade talks leading up to last summer’s deadline.

“That time may or may not come,” Epstein said. “We haven’t made a big trade for a pitcher yet, (which) we’ve figured to make at some point. Whether it happens or not, I don’t know. But I think we feel well-prepared to make that kind of a move with some of the depth that we’ve built up — not only in our farm system — but our big-league team.”

Translation: The young unproven GM who once traded Nomar Garciaparra out of Boston — to help put the 2004 Red Sox over the top — won’t be afraid to make another blockbuster deal if it means a better chance of ending the 1908 drought.

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey


Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

Spring training baseball games are up around the bend, but before the boys of summer get into organized action, two of the team’s new coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey sit down with Kelly Crull.

Plus, Vinnie Duber joins Kelly to discuss these baseball conversations including the memorable first words of Kyle Schwarber to Chili Davis, “I don’t suck!"

Listen to the full episode at this link (iOS users can go here) or in the embedded player below. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts.

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.”