Cubs

Baseball’s new normal: How an unpredictable offseason has changed the game for the Cubs

Baseball’s new normal: How an unpredictable offseason has changed the game for the Cubs

In a normal baseball offseason, most of the marquee free agents have found new homes and most of the major trades that occur each winter have already been finalized. However, this winter in baseball is unlike any that we have seen before.

“For the first time I can recall, every team is being exceptionally prudent in the contract offers that they are making to free agents,” a well-known player agent who has a handful of available free agents told me. “Usually, teams panic if they haven’t landed a player that they want by Christmas, but this time we are actually seeing teams let the market settle.”

In speaking with multiple MLB front-office executives, player agents and players themselves, they all talked about a common theme never before seen in baseball history: Teams are actually showing restraint instead of handing out long-term, huge-money contracts to players that aren’t worthy of such massive commitments.

“Our industry is now run by young, analytical executives instead of the crusty old baseball man, and with that change in almost every front office, we are seeing a renewed emphasis on keeping prospects, not signing average players to lengthy, obscene deals and most importantly we are seeing teams not get bullied by agents,” a former general manager said.

Another observation that many who work in the game are making is the coverage of the offseason and the nonstop stream of rumors that fill social media on minute-by-minute basis.

“I can’t believe some of the stuff I read out there,” one executive told me. “The contract offers, trade proposals and stories are — in most cases — so far from the truth, they are laughable.”

Another executive was more direct in his criticism of the media that covers the baseball offseason with a fury.

“Who holds you guys accountable? I’m serious. Some of the stuff I read about rumored trades and contract offers is so absurd and people take every tweet, post and story like it’s gospel. It really is a joke.”

From a Cubs perspective, things have been quiet on the surface but behind the scenes, multiple sources told me that Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have been exploring dozens of scenarios to improve their club while their window to win another World Series remains wide open.

“Theo and Jed have kicked the tires on every available guy and on guys who they have almost no chance of acquiring,” a rival executive told me. “But, I know what the price is to trade for Christian Yelich, Chris Archer, Manny Machado and others. The Marlins are asking for a ton, as they should.”

What would it take to land Yelich, who would fit perfectly into the Cubs lineup? Well, he is under contract for five more years at a total commitment of just over $58 million. For a player of his caliber who just turned 26 in December, the acquisition cost would be staggering.

“Fans think they can trade a bunch of OK players and get back a star who is under contract for several years and it just doesn’t work that way unless the player has a contract that a team has to move,” a general manager told me. “In the case of Yelich, he makes reasonable money, he’s a great teammate and he is getting better each year. Think about the best young players on the Cubs' roster and two or more of those guys would be the cost along with a top prospect or two.”

In the case of Jake Arrieta, several reports last week indicated that the Cubs had offered the star right-hander a four-year deal for $110 million, but a well-known agent told me that he did not believe that to be accurate.

“Would the Cubs do that deal? They probably would, but Scott (Boras, Arrieta's agent) is thinking about a much bigger deal at this point,” the agent said. “I don’t believe the Cubs made that offer at this point.”

In this new world around baseball, players have some big decisions to make.

“Players and their agents have long believed that if they wait out teams, the clubs will panic or the owners will overrule their front offices and the money spigot will start flowing as it always has,” another executive said. “Does a player take maybe 10 or 15 percent more to play somewhere that he has no chance to win? Is the money that important when you have made serious money already in your career?

“I get it if a guy has never made any money but the top guys — if they are really competitors — want to win. It’s not like they are being asked to play for the league minimum. This is, I believe, the new reality in baseball. Guys will make great money but teams will also show restraint when it is warranted.”

Early in the offseason, the Cubs tried to sign Tampa Bay Rays right-handed pitcher Alex Cobb, but he rejected the club’s offer of a three-year deal at approximately $42 million. Reports have pegged Cobb’s asking price at $80 million for four years, but those close to Cobb dispute that vehemently.

Will he do better than the Cubs’ original offer? Only time will tell, but one thing is certain: Most of the unsigned players that currently don’t have homes will find employment soon.

With spring training just over a month away, these guys aren’t going to stay home. They will accept their millions and play baseball. After all, that’s what they do. They’re baseball players.

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

MESA, Ariz. — “That’s last year, don’t want to talk about that.”

In other words, Addison Russell is so over 2017.

The Cubs shortstop went through a lot last year. He dealt with injuries that affected his foot and shoulder. He had a well-documented off-the-field issue involving an accusation of domestic abuse, which sparked an investigation by Major League Baseball. And then came the trade speculation.

The hot stove season rarely leaves any player completely out of online trade discussion. But after Theo Epstein admitted there was a possibility the Cubs could trade away one or more young position players to bolster the starting rotation, well, Russell’s name came up.

And he saw it.

“There was a lot of trade talk,” Russell said Saturday. “My initial thoughts were, I hope it doesn’t happen, but wherever I go, I’m going to try to bring what I bring to the table here. It’s a good thing that it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m happy being in a Cubs uniform, I want to be in a Cubs uniform, for sure. But there was some talk out there. If I got traded, then I got traded, but that’s not the case.”

No, it’s not, as the Cubs solved those pitching questions with free-agent spending, bringing in Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood to replace the departed Jake Arrieta and John Lackey. It means Russell, along with oft-discussed names like Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Javy Baez, are all still Cubs.

While the outside world might have expected one of those guys to be moved in some sort of blockbuster trade for Chris Archer or some other All-Star arm, the Cubs’ young core remains intact, another reason why they’re as much a favorite to win the World Series as any team out there.

“I’m really not surprised. The core is still here. Who would want to break that up? It’s a beautiful thing,” Russell said. “Javy and I in the middle. Schwarber, sometimes playing catcher but mainly outfield. And then (Kris Bryant) over there in the hot corner, and of course (Anthony) Rizzo at first. You’ve got a Gold Glover in right field (Jason Heyward). It’s really hard to break that up.

“When you do break that down on paper, we’ve got a lineup that could stack up with the best.”

This winter has been about moving on for Russell, who said he’s spent months working to strengthen his foot and shoulder after they limited him to 110 games last season, the fewest he played in his first three big league campaigns.

And so for Russell, the formula for returning to his 2016 levels of offensive aptitude isn’t a difficult one: stay on the field.

“Especially with the injuries, I definitely wanted to showcase some more of my talent last year than I displayed,” Russell said. “So going into this year, it’s mainly just keeping a good mental — just staying level headed. And also staying healthy and producing and being out there on the field.

“Next step for me, really just staying out there on the field. I really want to see what I can do as far as helping the team if I can stay healthy for a full season. I think if I just stay out there on the field, I’m going to produce.”

While the decrease in being on the field meant lower numbers from a “counting” standpoint — the drop from 21 homers in 2016 to 12 last year, the drop from 95 RBIs to 43 can in part be attributed to the lower number of games — certain rate stats looked different, too. His on-base percentage dropped from .321 in 2016 to .304 last year.

Russell also struggled during the postseason, picking up just six hits in 36 plate appearances in series against the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers. He struck out 13 times in 10 postseason games.

Of course, he wasn’t alone. That World Series hangover was team-wide throughout the first half of the season. And even though the Cubs scored 824 runs during the regular season, the second most in the National League and the fourth most in baseball, plenty of guys had their offensive struggles: Schwarber, Heyward and Ben Zobrist, to name a few.

“You can’t take anything for granted. So whenever you win a World Series or you do something good, you just have to live in the moment,” Russell said. “It was a tough season last year because we were coming off winning the World Series and the World Series hangover and all that. This year, we had a couple months off, a couple extra weeks off, and I think a lot of guys took advantage of that. I know I did. And now that we’re here in spring training, we’re going to get back at it.”

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: