Cubs

Cubs go quietly into winter, their reign as defending champs finally over

Cubs go quietly into winter, their reign as defending champs finally over

The armchair psychology went like this: Force the Los Angeles Dodgers onto the plane, let them think about it during the long flight to the West Coast, get in their heads during Friday’s day off and feel all the momentum and pressure shift in this National League Championship Series.

At least that’s what the Cubs told themselves and the media, whether or not they actually believed it, playing the kind of mind games designed for lesser teams. From Theo Epstein and the top of baseball operations down, the Cubs had enough connections to the 2004 Boston Red Sox to hope they could become only the second team to overcome an 0-3 LCS deficit.

That dream officially ended at 10:15 p.m. on Thursday when Willson Contreras lined Kenley Jansen’s 93.3-mph cutter at backup shortstop Charlie Culberson, another symbol of Dodger Way game-planning and the overall depth to withstand the loss of All-Star Corey Seager as he recovered from a back injury. The mosh pit formed in the middle of Wrigley Field, where it got very quiet except for a few sections of Dodger fans cheering and Gary Pressy playing the organ.

The Cubs are no longer the defending World Series champs after an 11-1 loss that had no drama or suspense and felt more like a getaway day. There will be no Game 6 or Game 7 this weekend at Dodger Stadium.

“I only experienced winning,” said Albert Almora Jr., a rookie outfielder on last year’s forever team. “Jon Jay told me: ‘Look at the expressions on their face when they’re celebrating on your field and let that sink in and learn from that and build from that.’”

You believed Almora, a baseball gym rat, when he stood at his locker and said: “It hurts.” But when the clubhouse doors opened to the media roughly 30 minutes after the final out, you didn’t really feel any tension in the room, more like a collective exhale, a time to sit around and drink a few Presidente beers and realize that the Dodgers deserved to go to the World Series for the first time since 1988.

“They just flat-out beat us,” said Kris Bryant, who got the first hit off Clayton Kershaw, a garbage-time homer in the fourth inning when the Cubs were already down 9-0.

Bryant is everything you could ever want in a franchise player – diligent on the field, polished off the field, even more productive in many ways after his MVP campaign, someone who doesn’t even drink during clinch celebrations – but even he admitted he still felt the World Series hangover that bugged the Cubs.

“I was just looking back at last year,” Bryant said. “I didn’t get home until like November 10 last year with all the festivities after winning and stuff. I think that really caught up to some of us this year. So I don’t know, maybe the extra time to recoup, maybe train a little harder. I am getting older, so I got to watch that.”

The reporters chuckled along with Bryant in a room where the sound system played classic rock like Dire Straits and Tom Petty. The Cubs know they should be good again in 2018 – and for years after that – and didn’t exactly sound devastated.

To be honest, Wednesday’s thrilling Game 4 win felt like the Super Bowl for this team, Jake Arrieta getting a standing ovation and tipping his cap before signing his free-agent megadeal somewhere else, Wade Davis having the guts to finish off a 48-pitch, two-inning save and the Cubs feeling the adrenaline rush of staving off elimination for another night.

When Jon Lester saw the media gathering by his locker, he joked: “What? I didn’t do s---. Why the f--- do you want to talk to me?”

“Obviously, nobody likes to lose, but we’ve been in the NLCS for three years in a row,” said Lester, who raised the bar for expectations when he signed a $155 million contract with a last-place team after the 2014 season. “You know how special that is. I know everybody kind of goes back to the first half of the season and they like to nitpick. But we won the division, made the playoffs and made it to the NLCS.

“Sometimes, you’re not always going to be in the World Series. The Dodgers are a really good team. They’re playing really good baseball right now. This series showed it. Sometimes, it is what it is, and you just kind of move on.”

The Cubs had Lester, a three-time World Series champion, lined up for a Game 6 that is no longer necessary. Jose Quintana – who shined against the Washington Nationals in the last round and battled Kershaw to a draw in Game 1 – didn’t give his team a chance this time.

Quintana, a signature trade-deadline move made with multiple playoff runs in mind, allowed runs in the first and second innings and left the bases loaded in the third for Hector Rondon, who watched Kike Hernandez drive the second of his three home runs into the right-center field basket for a grand slam.

The Cubs were desperate enough that John Lackey, five days before his 39th birthday, pitched two innings in what was likely his last game in a big-league uniform. Lackey kept walking out of the clubhouse and declined to speak with reporters: “No, I’m good, man.”

“It’s not easy to be the best,” outfielder Jason Heyward said, “but that’s what you want. You don’t want easy. You don’t want to expect to be going home every year. You want to be in October. You want to have a chance to win the World Series. And you want to be one of the teams that expects to be there.”

That’s what the Cubs will be next year, when the last day of the season won’t have the same big-picture perspective. It will be either a stinging loss or spraying champagne.

“Seems like a hundred years ago, right?” Lester said about his decision to sign with the Cubs. “It’s one of those Catch-22s. You look at it as it’s a disappointing season for the simple fact that we didn’t make it to the World Series. But you got to look at the positives, too, in that moment whenever you get on a plane to go home.

“We gave ourselves a chance. It just didn’t happen this year. We got beat by a better team. We beat them last year (in the NLCS), and they beat us this year, so you got to tip your hat sometimes, and you move on. We’ll be ready to go in spring training.”

Humorous things we learned at Cubs Convention

Humorous things we learned at Cubs Convention

One of the best things about Cubs Convention is the access fans and media have to the team and the state of mind the players possess in mid-January.

At this point, they’ve had time away from the field to rest and relax with their family and friends and as Anthony Rizzo says “no one is oh for four yet.” While workouts are in full swing, few have started hitting or pitching at this point in their off-season schedule, so “baseball talk” is not always priority. Instead, this is when we get to hear fun stories and entertaining tidbits about these players.

It’s no secret this team genuinely enjoys being around one and other and that the camaraderie is on full display for fans as they interact and poke fun at one and other during the question and answer panels. So, for those that may have missed the weekend’s festivities here are a few humorous things we learned about the Cubs:

  • When asked about a celebrity crushes, Anthony Rizzo coaxed Javier Baez into a J-Lo response while Kyle Schwarber weighed out his options before coming up with Katy Perry. That was “until she shaved her hair off and now looks like Eleven from Stranger Things!”
  • Schwarber’s name has consumed the recent headlines following his physical transformation this winter, but he isn’t the only Cub who dropped some weight this off-season. Those that got a picture or autograph from Ian Happ over the weekend should have noticed a slimmer physique as well. Happ told me “you have to look and feel your best for your first full season.” And when it comes to all the trade rumors involving his name, he said he’s been too busy golfing and working out this offseason to pay any attention.
  • During a one-on-one interview with new Cubs starter Tyler Chatwood, he gave us his best scouting report on himself, “four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, I’ll throw my curveball a lot more. That’s always been my best pitch and I kind of got away from it a little bit, but I’m going to be throwing that a lot more. Cutter and a changeup, too. So, you know, try to trick them with something.” And when asked which Cubs player he’s most interested in meeting, his response was Kris Bryant. “Just watching him it seems like he does everything cool.”
  • Addison Russell recalled his favorite memory or most funny moment of 2017 as the exchange with Nacho Man. Bringing Cubs and Cardinals fans together over nacho cheese and selfies. The All-Star shortstop also informed us that if he weren’t playing major league baseball, his fallback would be, a dart player. That’s right.
  • After being left off the panel of last year’s Kids Only Press Conference, Anthony Rizzo asked to be the host this year. “It’s my favorite event of the weekend,” Rizzo said. The Cubs first baseman did a tremendous job, toeing the line between appropriate parent/child humor. And after a few minutes of trash talking with Kris Bryant, Rizzo conceded that the younger Bryzzo partner would likely beat him in a one-on-one pickup game. Something I’m sure we’ll see a few weeks from now in Mesa at Spring Training.
  • And last, but certainly not least, Willson Contreras stole the weekend as he recalled the best defensive play of 2017 being Jon Lester’s pickoff of Tommy Pham. “I went out there and said hey motherfu**** throw the ball to first.” A moment that left his teammates on stage shaking their heads in disbelief. But our takeaway: the young, fiery catcher is not intimidated working with the veteran lefty, and he’s just the guy you want behind the plate for this experienced rotation.

After an easy going weekend full of laughs and selfies, the players now buckle in and turn their attention to spring training, with pitchers and catchers reporting to Mesa in less than a month.

Cubs know waiting for Bryce Harper and next winter's insane free-agent class is affecting baseball's offseason

Cubs know waiting for Bryce Harper and next winter's insane free-agent class is affecting baseball's offseason

You might have heard that baseball’s offseason has been slow. Dreadfully slow. Drive-you-crazy slow.

What’s the deal?

Well, one theory is that teams are hesitant to spend too much money this winter because they’re gearing up for next winter, when things will most definitely not be slow.

The 2018 free-agent class is unlike anything that’s come before it. Headlined by Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper, Baltimore Orioles third baseman Manny Machado and possibly even Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw, the amount of high-quality players that will be on the market is ridiculous: Dallas Kuechel, Charlie Blackmon, Daniel Murphy, Adam Jones, Gio Gonzalez, Andrew Miller, Zach Britton, Nelson Cruz, Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus, Andrew McCutchen, Craig Kimbrel and Cody Allen, just to name some of the biggest names.

This winter isn’t devoid of high-quality players, of course, with Jake Arrieta, Yu Darvish, Eric Hosmer, J.D. Martinez and others still trying to find a home before spring training starts. But if you’re a team looking to be in the running for Harper, Machado, Kershaw or anybody else next winter, you might not want to blow your cash now.

Do the Cubs fit that description?

Both team chairman Tom Ricketts and president of baseball operations Theo Epstein talked about that dynamic during the Cubs Convention this past weekend. It’s not exactly a hint at the Cubs’ thinking, as the team has been connected to Arrieta, Darvish and other top-of-the-line pitchers all offseason. But the Cubs are one of the oft-speculated destinations for Harper, who’s expected to earn the largest contract in baseball history.

“It’s a number of factors. Every team has to make decisions in their own best interest, and that’s what’s going on,” Epstein said Friday when asked why this offseason has been so slow-moving. “But there’s some macroeconomic trends in the game that probably after the last collective-bargaining agreement teams are just trying to position themselves the best way they can, probably in some cases with one eye on next season’s free-agent market, trying to get their payroll where they want it to be. It’s hard to say it’s any one reason. It’s probably a combination of factors. But I don’t know that we’ve ever seen anything quite like this.”

“Next year’s free-agent class is different than this year’s free-agent class,” Ricketts said, putting it mildly. “I think what you’re seeing with teams out there would rather have dry powder a year from now. … There’s a lot of pieces and parts, but ultimately, I think teams are trying to keep their powder dry.”

Cubs fans’ desire of Harper is no secret, of course, with one questioner even asking Epstein during a Saturday morning panel at the Sheraton Grand Chicago when he’ll be able to buy a Harper jersey. Epstein didn’t take that bait, but the planets seem to be aligning for the Cubs to make an enticing pitch to bring Harper to the North Side.

A big-market club would figure to have the edge in signing the game’s most visible star, and the New York Yankees, always willing to spend, might have taken themselves out of the running this offseason with the trade they made for Giancarlo Stanton, the previous record-holder for baseball’s beefiest contract. Not only does Stanton now account for a large portion of the Yankees’ payroll for the foreseeable future, but he also crowds the outfield, along with Aaron Judge, perhaps leaving nowhere for Harper to play. Plus, no one is ignoring the connection between Harper and Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant, a pair of Las Vegas natives who grew up playing in the same area.

And for Harper, who during his time with the Nationals has never won a playoff series, there are few teams with a more wide-open championship window than the Cubs, who have advanced to the National League Championship Series in each of the past three seasons, including that curse-smashing World Series win in 2016.

But while you would figure the Cubs to be in the bidding for Harper next winter, saving money might not explain why they haven’t landed a big fish this winter. They’ve been connected to the three biggest free-agent starting pitchers on the market — Arrieta, Darvish and Alex Cobb — none of which have signed elsewhere yet. They have an Arrieta-sized hole in the starting rotation that needs filling, and while they have the option to stick with players currently under contract, there’s little doubt that going from Arrieta and John Lackey in 2017 to Tyler Chatwood and Mike Montgomery in 2018 would be a downgrade.

The Cubs’ front office keeps stating its desire to add a starting pitcher before this offseason is over. Epstein opened the door to that acquisition perhaps not being of the bank-breaking variety, though, indicating over the weekend that it could be a move that simply provides depth for a starting staff realistically no deeper than five guys at the moment. Of course, until Arrieta, Darvish and Cobb are all off the market, the Cubs will have the ability to pursue those guys.

The Cubs also have other looming financial commitments if you look further into the future. Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell and Javy Baez are all slated to become free agents after the 2021 season. The team’s top four starting pitchers — Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and the aforementioned Chatwood — are all slated to become free agents after the 2020 season. So Harper is not the only guy the Cubs have to think about paying.

Saving up for next winter? It might not be the only reason for a lack of activity this offseason. But for teams hoping to be in the Harper sweepstakes — or one of a number of other sweepstakes — it might not be the worst idea.

An indication that for many teams, including the Cubs, this winter is about far more than just the upcoming season.

“Obviously Theo has the resources to do what he has to do to win on the field. We’ll see what happens this year,” Ricketts said. “I’m not sure what’s going to happen with the guys that are out there or whether that’s a good fit for us. But everybody’s got constrained resources that have to be put together in the right way. We have to think about 2018 and beyond 2018. I just trust those guys to do what’s right with those dollars.”