Cubs

Cubs targeting Alex Cobb while Theo Epstein says fans ‘absolutely’ should expect a division title next year

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USA TODAY

Cubs targeting Alex Cobb while Theo Epstein says fans ‘absolutely’ should expect a division title next year

ORLANDO, Fla. – Theo Epstein sat in the middle of a hotel suite at the Waldorf Astoria Orlando and pushed back against any idea that the Cubs will lower their sights this winter or take a step back in 2018.

“Should fans expect us to win the division next year?” Epstein said. “Absolutely. Absolutely, they should expect that.”

The president of baseball operations isn’t conceding anything, even as the Cubs begin laying the groundwork to replace 40 percent of their rotation and rebuild the bullpen during this week’s general manager meetings in Florida.

The Cubs have already met with Alex Cobb’s agent, creating a dialogue with Danny Horwits of Beverly Hills Sports Council when there’s obvious mutual interest in potentially making him the next core player at Wrigley Field.  

Cobb trusts Joe Maddon and Jim Hickey – his old manager and pitching coach with the Tampa Bay Rays – and wants to be in a winning situation with a good clubhouse vibe. This still might take a four- or five-year commitment, even with a guy who underwent Tommy John surgery in 2015 and has never come close to throwing 200 innings in a single season.

But Epstein is looking at the glass as more than half full, knowing that the rotation should already be 60 percent complete for 2018, 2019 and 2020 with Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana. Combined, they have 18 seasons with at least 30 starts while only Lester, a three-time World Series champion, is on the wrong side of 30.

By Tuesday night, super-agent Scott Boras hadn’t yet done his State of Boras. Corp media scrum in the hotel lobby and announced his new Jake Arrieta metaphor, but the sense is the Cubs are at best a safety-net option if the Cy Young Award winner lingers too long on the open market this winter.  

John Lackey isn’t retiring, but he’s more of a last resort than a realistic option to return to Chicago, given his age (39), starter’s ego and bad fit if he had to move to the bullpen.  

If the Cubs go for a higher-end pitcher like Cobb, look for them to pick up more of a buy-low starter and create an opportunity at the back of their rotation. Think of an under-the-radar name like Miles Mikolas, who pitched parts of three seasons for the San Diego Padres and Texas Rangers before moving to Japan and going 31-13 with a 2.18 ERA across the last three years with the Yomiuri Giants.

“Fans should be extremely optimistic about this seven-year run that we’re hopefully on,” Epstein said. “By no means do we look at it as a run of three years of contention and then any sort of falloff. But that within a run of that length – seven years, hopefully, at least – there are going to be years that pose more challenges than other years.

“We’ve known for a long time that 2018 was going to pose unique challenges, because it was the year that Jake would be eligible for free agency and it was also the same year that a lot of our best players would enter the arbitration process.

“We did look at 2016 and 2017, for example, as posing unique opportunities, because so many of our best players were not yet eligible for arbitration. We had Jake under control. We had the first half of Jon Lester’s contract, so we wanted to make sure we maximized our club’s chances in those years. Didn’t hold anything back.

“At the same time, right now, the exercise is: How do we maximize the next four years? How do we make sure we have as many bites at the apple?”

A foursome that includes Lester, Hendricks, Quintana and Cobb would maintain a high floor in an underwhelming division and allow the front office to get aggressive at the trade deadline again. The Cubs should have Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant in the middle of a lineup that scored 800-plus runs last season, Addison Russell and Javier Baez at the center of a defense that played at a historic level during the World Series year and a bullpen that will be upgraded with multiple free agents from a strong class of relievers.

“We’re excited about our future,” Epstein said. “We’ve been to three straight (National League Championship Series) with this group largely intact. There are always going to be some changes, but the challenges also represent opportunities to get better.

“We were far from a perfect team last year. We weren’t a perfect team in 2016, either. There’s tremendous opportunity for growth, both with the players that we have and players that we can bring in from outside the organization.

“Our goals haven’t changed at all. We know that some years things are going to line up better than others for obvious improvement in the offseason or tremendous flexibility. And other years there are going to be more obstacles that you have to consider as you operate. But that’s what makes it interesting.”

Jason Heyward predicts he will be the MVP of 2018 Cubs

Jason Heyward predicts he will be the MVP of 2018 Cubs

“Who will be the Cubs’ 2018 team MVP?”

Jason Heyward: “Me!”

No hesitation, no pause. Just an honest answer from a confident 28-year old with a $184 million contract.

Nobody wants to succeed more at the plate than the Cubs’ two-time Gold Glove award winner, but the offense has been downright ugly (.243, 18 HR, 108 RBI in 268 games).

Despite not performing up to a megadeal, Heyward has no problem talking about his contract:

“It is what it is, I earned it," Heyward said. "I earned that part of it. For me, it’s awesome. To be where I want to be, that’s the most important thing.”

After spending time talking at Cubs Convention speaking with Heyward, his manager and six of his other teammates, it’s no surprise that it was Heyward who delivered the now-famous Game 7 “Rain Delay Speech.”

His teammates adore him.

Question to Ben Zobrist: “Who’s your favorite teammate of all-time at any level?”

After a 10-second pause: “Jason Heyward.”

That definitely says something coming from a 36-year-old, three-time All-Star and World Series MVP.

For the true blue Cubs fans that can’t stand Heyward and his untradeable contract, sorry, his teammates and manager have nothing but good things to say. 

By all accounts, Heyward is a quality human being despite his shortcomings in the batter’s box the last two seasons.

And his goals for an offensive renaissance in 2018 are simple and basic:

“Just being in the lineup every game.”

His teammates will be behind him 100 percent, even if the fans are not.

How Addison Russell plans to keep nagging arm/foot injuries at bay in 2018

How Addison Russell plans to keep nagging arm/foot injuries at bay in 2018

Addison Russell doesn't have time to think about whether or not Javy Baez is coming for the starting shortstop gig.

Russell is too busy making sure he's able to perform at his physical peak for as much of 2018 as possible after a rough few years in that regard.

The soon-to-be-24-year-old only played in 110 games last year as he missed more than a month with a foot injury. He also has a history of hamstring injuries (including the one that kept him out of the 2015 NLCS) and a sore throwing arm that has cropped up at times throughout the last few years (though whether the arm is an issue or not depends on who you ask).

Russell admits his arm has been an issue and he has a new plan of attack this winter that will carry into the spring.

"I've been doing a throwing program," Russell said. "I feel like in the past, with my arm, I started throwing a little bit too early in spring training.

"This year, in the offseason, just kinda ease into it a little bit. In the offseason last year, I feel like I threw a little bit too much. Once midseason hit, it was all the downward effect of me throwing too early in the offseason.

"Having that in mind, taking things easier in the offseason and then going into spring training and then once the season's here, maybe around a quarter of the way through the season, start revving it up and that way, I'll be able to last with both my foot and my arm."

Russell had a bad case of plantar fasciitis last summer that also affected his ability to throw the ball to first base.

He joked he feels like an old man because he is happy he can now wake up without any pain in the foot, but still makes sure he rolls his foot on a golf ball to keep things loose.

With regards to his offseason workouts, Russell is prioritizing quality over quantity and he's taken full advantage of the longer offseason that featured far less distractions than a year ago when the Cubs were coming off the first World Series championship in 108 years.

"I'm getting a little bit older and I think a little wiser when it comes to training and knowing my body," Russell said. "With that being said, it's just kinda being in tune to my body more than pounding out weights.

"Definitely running and cardio is something that has been beneficial to my career in the past. I'm keeping up with that."

Between the foot and arm modifications to his training regimen, Russell is hoping to cut down on some of his throwing errors that plagued him in 2017 and try to get back to the hitter he was when he clubbed 24 homers and drove in 108 runs in 168 games between the 2016 regular season and postseason.

"Definitely I want to be in the All-Star Game this next year," Russell said. "I feel like with the type of skillset that I have and the type of guys around me, I think that could be a goal that I could hit.

"Smaller goals as far as staying consistent with my workouts. Remaining flexible is a huge goal that I wanna hit this year. I see a lot of veteran guys after ballgames stretching and they've been playing for quite a while, so it definitely works out for them.

"Just taking something from veteran guys and kinda incorporating it into my game and picking their ear and listening to how they prepare and how to keep your body in shape is beneficial, for sure."

To make the All-Star Game, Russell would need to get out to a hot start, which is something the Cubs and their fans would love to see. His steady presence in the lineup and as a defensive anchor contributed to the inconsistencies of the 2017 Cubs.

Entering a pivotal season in his development, Russell has emerged as one of the biggest X-factors surrounding the Cubs entering 2018. 

The entire Addison Russell 1-on-1 interview will air Friday night on NBC Sports Chicago.