Cubs

Tom Ricketts: Cubs moving closer to extension for Theo Epstein

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Tom Ricketts: Cubs moving closer to extension for Theo Epstein

ANAHEIM, Calif. – The Cubs didn’t make an Opening Day splash by announcing a new contract for Theo Epstein, but that still appears to be an inevitability for the president of baseball operations who built this franchise into a World Series contender.   

Tom Ricketts had “nothing to report” before Monday night’s game at Angel Stadium of Anaheim, though the chairman did reengage in extension talks with Epstein near the end of spring training and sounded optimistic about finalizing the deal.

“I’d imagine we’ll get it wrapped up at some point here in the near future,” Ricketts said. “But (there’s) no deadline.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

After supervising the Wrigley Field teardown, Epstein isn’t about to walk away and let someone else have all the fun. Now in the fifth and final year of his contract, Epstein also has a genuine appreciation for the way Ricketts believes in scouting and player development and focuses on the big picture.

“I thought they were good, productive conversations,” Epstein said. “Neither one of us had a ton of time to focus on it. It’s hard to make it a focus with so much else going on. But (there’s) no cause for concern.

“We had good talks. And it’s something we’re going to continue to talk about. I think we both feel like it’s going to get done at some point soon.”

Like as soon as the April 11 home opener? That would be one way to kick off this season in Wrigleyville.

“I don’t know,” Ricketts said. “I don’t feel a lot of super time pressure.

“I think that we’ll get to a conclusion here pretty soon.”

After collecting all this young blue-chip talent and winning 97 games last year, the Cubs reinvested some of that playoff money and took advantage of the cheap labor and spent almost $290 million on free agents this offseason.

The Cubs don’t want Epstein to hit the open market. The Ricketts family will probably have to work off the five-year, $35 million deal the Los Angeles Dodgers gave Andrew Friedman to run baseball operations (plus inflation). Epstein also wants to make sure his inner circle will be taken care of in Chicago.

“This is not a one-man operation,” Epstein said. “We’re in this together as an organization. Everyone’s got a different contract status. But our goal is to keep the group in the front office together for a long time.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

Jon Lester has arrived at Cubs camp, and he’s pleased with the new-look rotation full of potential aces. Kelly Crull and Vinnie Duber discuss the 5-man unit, and where Mike Montgomery fits into the Cubs’ plans.

Plus, Kelly and Vinnie talk Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber, along with the continuing free agent stalemate surrounding Jake Arrieta.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here:

Jon Lester sounds the alarm baseball's lack of free-agent spending this winter

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USA TODAY

Jon Lester sounds the alarm baseball's lack of free-agent spending this winter

MESA, Ariz. — Spring training is no longer some upcoming deadline. Spring training is here.

And still there are dozens of free agents without jobs, including some of the bigger names in the game, guys like Jake Arrieta, J.D. Martinez, Eric Hosmer and plenty of others.

The reasons behind this inactive offseason have been written about ad nauseam. But to the players themselves, as Jon Lester put it, it’s just alarming.

“It’s crazy,” Lester said, talking at length about the situation Friday at Cubs camp. “I kind of thought once February hit, it would be kind of a mass signing, that guys would sign in that first week and we really wouldn’t talk about it anymore. But obviously that’s not the case.

“I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t know behind closed doors what’s being said, what’s been said. It’s just alarming, that’s kind of how I look at it. We’re not talking about middle relievers with 5.00 ERAs. We’re talking about big guys. We’re talking about guys that need to be playing. It’s alarming. Hopefully we can get this thing figured out and get these guys a team relatively soon.”

The Cubs have made plenty of moves this offseason, making the league-wide situation seem like it might not apply to the North Siders. After all, the Cubs have been the ones to hand out the two biggest pitching contracts of the winter, first to Tyler Chatwood and then to Yu Darvish earlier this week.

But the affected parties are closer to home than it might seem, with Arrieta being perhaps the biggest unsigned name out there. It would be completely unforeseen if Arrieta returned to the Cubs after the Darvish signing locked the rotation into place for the foreseeable future. But the topic of where one of the biggest parts of the team’s three-year playoff stretch might land continues to be a big one in Cub World. Tommy La Stella spoke about it earlier Friday. Then it was Lester’s turn.

“I would imagine (Arrieta is frustrated), yeah. He doesn’t have a job,” Lester said. “This is what we do. So I can only imagine what those guys are going through probably emotionally and physically, too. If they do a free-agent camp, if they don’t, whatever, you’re physically behind the 8-ball when you come back. You’ve got to get to know your new teammates or even just settle into a team that you were with. It’s alarming. I don’t understand it. Selfishly, I’m glad I’m not in that situation. But for those guys, it’s got to be hard.”

Lester continued to hit home that he had no insider information, but he came to the same conclusions many have, that next winter’s free-agent bonanza starring Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, potentially Clayton Kershaw and a host of other All-Star caliber players is having a big effect this winter. And he also made an understated finger-point at the owners, talking about teams’ unwillingness to spend on free agents like they have in every offseason prior.

The caveat with that, of course, is that it’s Lester’s team that has potentially set the trend that player agents have been complaining about. Not the one of refusing to spend — Lester, Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and Darvish have big paychecks from the Ricketts family — but the trend of a total teardown rebuild. Theo Epstein’s front office committed to multiple years of losing in order to produce this current team, one of the best in baseball for the past three seasons with no sign of slowing down, using top draft picks to build the core.

“There’s too many good players out there that don’t have teams, you’re kind of scratching your head on why,” Lester said. “I think each individual year is different, it’s just like the season. I know people have kind of downplayed it, but you’ve got next year, as well. Big class that’s coming out. I would imagine that has something to do with it, teams trying to set themselves up to be able to spend next year on those guys. But at the same time, it screws the guys that are going through it now.

“There’s no reason why Jake Arrieta or J.D. Martinez or any of these guys should have to sign a one-year deal. That’s ridiculous. There’s too much money in the game. It’s going up, our game’s not suffering at all. There’s money there to be spent, and for whatever reason it’s not being spent.

“The money that’s being made on the other side in this game, absolutely (I could foresee a $400 million contract next winter). I think people are forgetting where a lot of that money is actually going to. It’s there to be spent, and it’s not being spent right now.”

The unpredictability of the offseason signals that the upcoming months will be unpredictable, as well. Who knows when Arrieta and the other jobless players will sign? As Lester mentioned, those guys are already behind schedule. And while they’re surely working out and keeping their bodies in shape, it’s tough to sign a contract in March or April or May or June and instantly hit the ground running with a new team.

So while baseball season is indeed underway in Arizona and Florida, there’s still a lot of uncertainty about how the season will play out — because some of its main characters have yet to receive their roles.