Cubs

Theo Epstein reveals how close Cubs came to being trade-deadline sellers

Theo Epstein reveals how close Cubs came to being trade-deadline sellers

Feeling frustrated with an underachieving team, boxed in by the labor deal and like he was running out of buttons to push, Theo Epstein nearly pressed the one that would have blown up the 2017 Cubs.

The defending World Series champs came dangerously close to becoming trade-deadline sellers and trying to shop upcoming free agents like All-Star closer Wade Davis and Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta.    

“If we had fallen eight, nine out, we would have certainly been looking at considering moving some of the players who were rentals,” Epstein revealed Tuesday at Wrigley Field. “But we immediately played great out of the stretch and didn’t have to head down that road, which you honestly never want to go down.”

It’s easy to gloss over now that the Cubs ramped up and welcomed the new additions – lefty reliever Justin Wilson and veteran catcher Alex Avila – into their clubhouse for a six-game homestand against the Arizona Diamondbacks and Washington Nationals.  

But there were only so many times the Cubs could demote Kyle Schwarber to the minors, cut ties with Miguel Montero, reshuffle the batting order or send messages through the media before Epstein would have to weigh punting on this season.

Epstein’s front office did its part during the All-Star break, engineering a blockbuster trade with the White Sox for Jose Quintana that was more about solidifying the 2018, 2019 and 2020 rotations than trying to save the 2017 season.

Quintana showed up in the visiting clubhouse at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on July 14 and introduced himself to a 43-45 team that trailed the Milwaukee Brewers by 5.5 games. Imagine the psychological damage if the Cubs had completely wasted the eight-run lead that night in Baltimore before Addison Russell’s game-winning homer in the ninth inning – or if the Brewers had closed the Quintana deal they discussed extensively with the White Sox and stayed hot throughout July.

“With the new CBA the way it is,” Epstein said, referring to the restrictions on spending internationally, luxury-tax implications and a modified qualifying-offer system, “contending teams, when they have an off year, have to take a hard look at selling in a given year, because it’s important to recoup young talent whenever you have an opportunity to do so.

“You never want to be in that situation, but it forces you to be realistic if you are.”

Between the Quintana boost, several key players getting healthy, a chance to recharge and talent rising to its level, the Cubs swept the Orioles and Atlanta Braves on the road and roared out of the All-Star break with a 13-3 surge that left no doubt about what to do before the July 31 trade deadline. 

That leaves August for waiver deals and a narrow window to reframe potential postseason rosters. But Epstein didn’t sound all that interested after sending right-hander Justin Grimm and catcher Victor Caratini to Triple-A Iowa as the corresponding moves to the Wilson/Avila trade with the Detroit Tigers, because this is a first-place team in the National League Central again.

“It’s always possible,” Epstein said. “But right now, we have a pretty cramped 25-man roster. We had to option two good players to make room for the acquisitions. Justin Grimm is a major-league reliever – and a good one – and Victor Caratini showed great in his first exposure to the big leagues.

“For the right player, we’ll get creative. But we really like our 25-man roster now.”

Scott Boras has a very high opinion of the Cubs — even if they won't hand Jake Arrieta $200 million

Scott Boras has a very high opinion of the Cubs — even if they won't hand Jake Arrieta $200 million

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Scott Boras saved all his money one-liners for other teams like the Miami Marlins and New York Yankees.

The Cubs weren't on the wrong end of any of the super-agent's zingers like they were a few years ago with Boras' "Meet the Parents" comment about how the Ricketts family preferred not to jack up their payroll during a rebuild.

Instead, Boras has completely changed his tune from that timeframe and took several opportunities to give the Cubs rave reviews as he stood on a literal pedestal to deliver his State of the Union Wednesday morning at the Walt Disney World Dolphin Resort.

"The club, economically, they're $2 billion above where they were five yeras ago, which just says a great deal about the operation with Tom [Ricketts] and Theo [Epstein] and Jed {Hoyer], what they've done," Boras said in a 1-on-1 interview with NBC Sports Chicago's Kelly Crull. "They've really done a remarkable job with the restoration of the franchise.

"The next step — and often the hardest step — is how do you reinvest in your success? How do you continue to give that fanbase their best opportunity?"

Boras, of course, is alluding to money and how the Cubs have to spend money to stay where they are. Because it always comes back to money with the world's most powerful sports agent.

Money is also a major sticking point for Jake Arrieta, the top free agent pitcher on the market and Boras' No. 1 priority this winter.

Arrieta and Boras are reportedly asking for somewhere in the neighborhood of $180-$200 million, though Boras balked at that, claiming he doesn't set the market (c'mon...).

But Boras was also creative in how he sold Arrieta to the media throng of 200+ people Wednesday morning. He could've gotten into the epic 2015 season, Arrieta's Cy Young votes the last few years or his reputation as an elite (or close to it) starter.

Instead, Boras continued to talk about the road to "Playoffville" and how Arrieta has joined the ranks of Madison Bumgarner and Justin Verlander as active October legends.

Boras also continually pointed to Arrieta's lack of wear and tear on his arm, with only 1,161 big-league innings under his belt through his age-31 season.

The Cubs almost certainly won't pay an exorbitant amount for what figures to be Arrieta's only big contract of his life, but that won't stop Boras from keeping Epstein and Co. in the loop publicly.

"There are a number of people who are Jake's age who are 30, 31 and they have 1,700-2,000 innings on their arm," Boras told Crull. "Much like Max Scherzer, who was a similar age when he signed his contract 2-3 years ago, he also only had about 1,200 innings on his arm.

"So [Arrieta is] about 4-5 seasons behind the customary wear and tear you usually see. I think it's part of the fact, but with Jake's conditioning, the rarity of his innings, having Cy Young success, being a big-game pitcher — those are components that you rarely don't find in a free agent market."

The Cardinals are absolutely coming after the Cubs now

marcell_ozuna_cardinals_slide_photo.jpg
USA TODAY

The Cardinals are absolutely coming after the Cubs now

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The Cubs may not be looking over their shoulder, but the Cardinals are hot on their tail. 

St. Louis pulled off a whopper of a trade on the final day of the MLB Winter Meetings, setting the Walt Disney World Dolphin Resort abuzz Wednesday afternoon by trading for stud outfielder Marcell Ozuna from the Miami Marlins.

Ozuna just turned 27 last month and is under team control for the next two years. He finished 15th in National League MVP voting last season after hitting .312 with a .924 OPS, 37 homers, 124 RBI and 93 runs scored.

He has made the All-Star team two straight seasons and also won a Silver Slugger and Gold Glove in 2017.

The move gives the Cardinals arguably the most dynamic outfield in the NL, with Tommy Pham (who finished 11th in NL MVP voting last year) expected to slide over to center field full time and Dexter Fowler filling out whatever other corner outfield spot Ozuna doesn't take.

Those three players — Pham, Fowler, Ozuna — will likely make up the heart of the Cardinals order for at least the next two seasons.

In return, the Cardinals' full package hasn't yet been announced, but it is reported to be a haul:

Right-handed pitching prospect Sandy Alcantara is one of the names heading back to Miami:

The 22-year-old Alcantara was ranked the Cardinals' No. 4 prospect by Baseball America last month.

Ozuna is the latest addition in a busy offseason for the Cardinals, who have added pitcher Miles Mikolas and Luke Gregerson on free-agent deals. Gregerson figures to slot in as a late-inning option (possibly even serving as closer) while Mikolas will join the rotation.

The Cardinals are still reportedly in on the game's top available closers, including Wade Davis. They lost pitchers Lance Lynn, Zach Duke, Seung Hwan Oh and Juan Nicasio to free agency this winter.

The Cardinals and Marlins already engaged in repeated talks earlier this offseason regarding a possible Giancarlo Stanton trade, but the slugger ultimately turned down a deal, citing a lack of desire to play in St. Louis. He was later dealt to the New York Yankees.

It's been three years since the Cardinals made the playoffs and despite 169 wins the last two seasons, have finished a combined 26.5 games behind the Cubs in the division. 

The last time the Cardinals made the postseason, they were ousted by the Cubs in the 2015 NLDS when Joe Maddon's team was still forming their winning ways.