Cubs

The 3 biggest Cubs questions as MLB Winter Meetings kick off

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USA TODAY

The 3 biggest Cubs questions as MLB Winter Meetings kick off

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — As the baseball world descended upon Disney World, the Cubs are sitting pretty.

Theo Epstein's front office is poised to make "The Happiest Place on Earth" a reality as they already appear to have some of their major offseason issues resolved.

The Cubs reportedly have an agreement in place with late-inning reliever Brandon Morrow, a move that should be announced Monday once a physical is passed, the "I" are dotted and the "T"s are crossed. 

Couple that with last Thursday's signing of starting pitcher Tyler Chatwood and the Cubs' search for pitching has gone well even if they missed out on 23-year-old Japanese sensation Shohei Ohtani.

However, while the Cubs are in an enviable position of filling most of the pressing holes on their roster entering the MLB Winter Meetings, there are still questions to be answered.

Here are the top three questions facing Theo and Co. in Florida this week:

1. Who will fill the final rotation spot?

The Cubs are said to be pushing hard for Alex Cobb to fill out their starting staff, but as of the official tipoff of the Winter Meetings, no deal had been reached.

Cobb and the Cubs have been linked since before the right-hander even reached free agency. There was a clear need for another starter on Chicago's North Side heading into the winter and Cobb had the connection with Joe Maddon from their days together in Tampa Bay.

Cobb's connection to the Cubs was strengthened when Maddon hired former Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey to serve in the same role in Chicago.

If the Cubs are able to secure Cobb's services, they will have their starting rotation set for 2018:

Jon Lester
Kyle Hendricks
Jose Quintana
Alex Cobb
Tyler Chatwood

Depending on the length of the deal for Cobb, the Cubs could have some rotation consistency for the next several seasons as all four current starters (Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, Chatwood) are signed through the 2020 season.

However, if the Cubs and Cobb can't come to an agreement — they are hardly the only team bidding on the 30-year-old's services — who will be the fifth and final starter? The free agent market is rather slim after Cobb, Jake Arrieta and Yu Darvish, though the trade market is clearly an option with the Cubs currently possessing a surplus of young position players.

2. Will the Cubs pull off any major trades?

There's no doubt the Cubs will be linked to plenty of trade rumors throughout the week at Disney World, but will anything actually come to fruition?

Kyle Schwarber has been linked to a pair of American League East teams — the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox — over the last few days, but it'd be tough to see the Cubs sell low on a guy they absolutely love.

Forget the fact that he's lost a bunch of weight and in the best shape of his life (which does matter if he's to improve his range in the outfield), here's how Epstein explained why the Cubs feel such a personal attachment to America's Now-Not-So-Large Adult Son:

"I will say that it's really an organization-wide evaluation of this player," Epstein said the day after the Los Angeles Dodgers eliminated the Cubs from the NLCS in October. "But I'm not skirting responsbility. I'll happily endorse him. He's the type of the player that we want to win here with the Cubs and have won with. 

"The fact that he hit 30 bombs in a bad year is a good start. But power is not everything. I think he fell into this year becoming a little bit more of a slugger and less of a hitter than he really is. That's important for him to get his identity back as a hitter, as a dangerous hitter that honestly, we feel he has the potential to be an all-around hitter on the level of Anthony Rizzo, per se. 

"When he reaches his prime, I think we feel like that's what he could be. He's got certain toughness and certain leadership qualities that are hard to find that we don't necessarily have in surplus in abundance running around in this clubhouse and organization. Certain energy and grit and ability to bring people together. That's important. We rely on it. But the biggest thing is his bat. We think he's the type of offensive player that you build around along with a couple other guys like him."

You'll be hard-pressed to find a better public endorsement of any player from Epstein.

But even if Schwarber isn't dealt, the Cubs can still trade any number of guys from a pool that includes Ian Happ, Albert Almora Jr., Javy Baez or Addison Russell.

3. Will Morrow have any other new bullpen mates?

Assuming Morrow's deal doesn't hit any snags, will the Cubs add any other relief reinforcements this week?

It's a pretty good bet to take. Never in the history of baseball have relievers had such an impact on important games — particularly in October — and the Cubs clearly understand that as well as anybody.

After Maddon's mix-and-match approach with the bullpen the last two postseasons, the Cubs clearly cannot go into 2018 with World Series expectations when they boast essentially the same relief corps, with Morrow replacing Wade Davis.

Speaking of Davis, the presence of Morrow doesn't necessarily mean the 2017 Cubs closer with "huge balls" won't be returning. Morrow's reported $10+ million per year makes a Davis return less likely, but the Cubs certainly need another impact reliever and Morrow can slot in as a seventh/eighth inning setup guy.

Here's how the Cubs bullpen depth chart looks right now (with Morrow inserted):

Brandon Morrow
Carl Edwards Jr.
Pedro Strop
Mike Montgomery
Justin Wilson
Justin Grimm
Dario Alvarez

Plenty of high-leverage relief options remain available on the open market, including Brandon Kintzler (whom the Cubs were linked to this week), Addison Reed, Anthony Swarzak, Jake McGee and Bryan Shaw.

Reliving the magic of Nacho Man

Reliving the magic of Nacho Man

There have been so many memorable baseball moments between the Cubs and Cardinals throughout the years. 

In 1958, Stan  Musial collected his 3,000th hit at Wrigley.  

There was the “Sandberg Game” — June of 1984, where Ryne Sandberg hit a pair of home runs off Cardinals closer Bruce Sutter.

Skip ahead to 2008, when Ted Lilly collided with Yadier Molina at home plate during a game at Busch Stadium. Few could forget that.

Just a few years ago, Anthony Rizzo was hit by a pitch in what the Cubs viewed as retaliation, so Joe Maddon dropped the Soprano reference: “We don’t start stuff, but we will stop stuff.”

And last season, there was Addison Russell’s run-in with Nacho Man, which is likely to go down as the only collision to bring the two rival fanbases together.

It was something I witnessed firsthand. Sitting next to the Cubs dugout on the third base side in Busch Stadium that night, the play transpired so quickly it was tough to see from my vantage point.  As he often did, Russell broke backward for the foul ball and started sprinting towards the wall in left. I could tell from the crowd reaction that the Cubs shortstop didn’t make the play, but I could see that he was slow to get back to his position. It was about this time that the video board in center field showed the replay of Russell diving into the stands and crashing into a Cardinals fan who had lost his full plate of nachos.

Russell had nacho cheese all over his arm and I heard the dugout yelling, “Get him a towel! Grab a towel!”  As Russell wiped the cheese off his arm, a few of the coaches next to me were collaborating on a way to get some new nachos for the man. Within minutes, a tray of nachos were delivered to Dave Martinez — the Cubs' bench coach at the time — and later passed along to Russell. In between innings, the often-reserved infielder made amends by bringing out another order of nachos and taking a selfie with Nacho Man.

"Normally I don't do that, but being the case of me being nacho'd all over — my cleats even — I was like, 'you know what, why not?'" Russell said after the game. "A once-in-a-lifetime experience."

Within minutes, the video of this exchange went viral. Both myself and Jim Hayes of Fox Sports Midwest set out to get our in-game interview with Andrew Gudermuth, the Nacho Man. Not exactly hard-hitting journalism, but it was entertaining nonetheless and boy did Gudermuth enjoy his 15 minutes of fame.  

“I came to catch a foul ball, but instead I caught a Russell,” he joked.  

Which to be more accurate, Gudermuth’s poor girlfriend actually “caught a Russell.” If you watch the replay, she took the brunt of the hit, but what a good sport!

No doubt, an unforgettable night for all involved, and one that proved that one thing can bring Cubs & Cardinals fans together — nachos!

Cubs adding catching depth that may help them out in the Yu Darvish sweepstakes

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AP

Cubs adding catching depth that may help them out in the Yu Darvish sweepstakes

Chris Gimenez, come on down.

The 35-year-old catcher isn't exactly a household name, but he's been signed by the Cubs to add backstop depth, according to Chris Cotillo and Ken Rosenthal:

The Cubs didn't have much depth in the catching department beyond Willson Contreras and inexperienced rookie Victor Caratini and while Gimenez doesn't light up the stat column, he's a link to Yu Darvish that could give the Cubs a unique advantage in that domain:

Darvish and Gimenez played together with the Texas Rangers in 2014-15 (though Darvish was hurt in 2015) and Gimenez has been shedding some light on what the free-agent pitcher may be thinking this winter. Is this Part II of a David Ross-Jon Lester personal catcher situation?

That may be reading a bit too much into things, as the Cubs were always going to sign a veteran catcher to provide depth beyond the unproven Caratini. They saw how important that was in 2017 when Alex Avila spent roughly a month as the starter when Contreras was hurt.

The link between Gimenez and Darvish is real, but the frontline starter has also made 48 starts over the last two seasons while throwing to a catcher not named Gimenez. And the free agent catching market is pretty thin beyond Avila and Jonathan Lucroy, both of whom should earn starter's money or close to it.

Gimenez has played 361 games in the big leagues over the last nine seasons as a journeyman, with stops in Cleveland, Seattle, Tampa Bay, Oakland, Texas, Cleveland (again), Texas (again), Cleveland (again) and then Minnesota last year. He played for Cubs manager Joe Maddon and new pitching coach Jim Hickey while in Tampa Bay.

Gimenez turned in a career season in 2017 with the Twins, notching new highs in games played (74), at-bats (186), runs (28), hits (41), homers (7), RBI (16) and walks (33).

He has a career .218 batting average with a .309 on-base percentage, .345 slugging and .654 OPS. 

But Gimenez isn't just a catcher. He's made nine appearances as a pitcher over the last few years, including six in 2017, where he allowed four runs on seven hits in five innings.

Gimenez will probably compete with Caratini for the backup catcher role in Chicago and can lend a veteran presence. He's also the best bet to take for first position player to pitch in a game in 2018.