Will Cubs make another big splash in free agency?


Will Cubs make another big splash in free agency?

Theo Epstein has explained the mixed emotions during that first press conference. You hold up the jersey for the cameras and feel the initial rush of excitement after closing the deal with a big free agent, as well as the sense of dread lurking in the back of your head, because those contracts usually don’t end well.

Within one week, the Cubs will be sequestered inside the Opryland complex in Nashville, Tennessee, trying to find the finishing pieces for a 97-win team and ultimately construct a World Series winner.

But it will be hard for Epstein to make a bigger splash than the team president created during last year’s winter meetings in San Diego, where the Cubs agreed to a six-year, $155 million deal with Jon Lester, giving the All-Star lefty and two-time World Series champion the richest contract in franchise history.

It’s shaping up to be a bidding war between the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants for Zack Greinke, an industry source said, with the pitcher’s strong preference being to stay in the National League West.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

The Cubs have been in the mix for David Price, sources said, but there appears to be at least some reservations about the idea of committing roughly $50 million annually to two 30-something pitchers, given the questions about the franchise’s next TV deal and short-term financial outlook.

Without getting specific about the potential player paired with Lester, Epstein said: “It would put us in a position with a lot less flexibility going forward, but a lot more talent going forward. It’s a trade-off.”    

The Cubs planned to do deep dives on basically every significant pitcher on the market, a team source said, but Johnny Cueto wasn’t near the top of that list. In terms of a price range, reported on Sunday that Cueto has already rejected a six-year, $120 million offer from the Arizona Diamondbacks, so the meter should keep running from there.

The dominos started falling on Monday with the Detroit Tigers formalizing a reported five-year, $110 million deal with Jordan Zimmermann, a pitcher the Cubs have admired for his bulldog mentality, though that probably came with concerns about his shelf life following a Tommy John procedure on his right elbow in 2009.  

[MORE: Cubs bolster bullpen with addition of Brothers]

If Jeff Samardzija comes back to the North Side, it won’t be on a one-year, prove-it deal. While there is mutual interest in a reunion, Samardzija has already bet on himself long enough, from turning down NFL opportunities and offers to stay with the Cubs and White Sox, waiting for this shot to cash in as a free agent.

Samardzija had a down season with the White Sox (11-13, 4.96 ERA), but he still threw 200-plus innings for the third straight year, and his combination of physical build/skills, clean medical history and big-market attitude is appealing from a front-office perspective.

The four years and $75 million the San Diego Padres guaranteed James Shields last offseason is seen as a reasonable floor for Samardzija, who will also cost a draft pick after declining the one-year, $15.8 million qualifying offer from the White Sox.

Now that The Plan has come into focus – with Jake Arrieta a Cy Young Award winner, Kris Bryant a Rookie of the Year and Joe Maddon a Manager of the Year – does it get any easier handing out that huge contract?

“Depending on the size of the commitment, there’s always some anxiety that goes along with it,” Epstein said. “Not for any other reason than there’s inherent risk, and you’re thinking about the team. You don’t want to put the team in a situation where you limit flexibility (and) you limit our odds of putting winning teams on the field for years to come.

“It’s natural. You always see the smiles at the beginning of the contract at the press conference – and it’s a much smaller percentage of the time that you see smiles all the way at the end.

“But you hope that you’ve got a fair contribution for the investment and that it helps the club win. And that you can diversify your investments and structure your investments in a way that keeps us nimble, so we can address needs as they arise over the coming years, because we really like the core that we have.”

So keep refreshing Twitter for the latest rumors, but what’s clear is Epstein has already ruled out the idea of adding two $100 million players this offseason, the Cubs will prioritize pitching over a veteran hitter and this group feels absolutely no pressure to win the winter meetings again. 

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.”

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.