Cubs

Cubs will be open for business as Theo Epstein weighs trading hitters for pitching

Cubs will be open for business as Theo Epstein weighs trading hitters for pitching

Theo Epstein answered questions from the Chicago media for more than an hour on Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field, but the most interesting part might have been what the Cubs president didn’t say, something along the lines of: These are our guys.

Or at least Epstein didn’t give the same full-throated endorsement of The Core that he delivered after engineering the Jose Quintana trade with the White Sox this summer, getting an All-Star pitcher without giving up anyone from the big-league roster.

Whether it’s the way the Los Angeles Dodgers dominated the Cubs throughout the National League Championship Series that ended Thursday night, the inconsistencies and frustrations during a 43-45 first half of this season or the reality of losing 40 percent of the rotation, you walked out of that stadium club press conference thinking big changes could be coming.

“We’re going to pursue all avenues to get better,” Epstein said.

The Cubs already understood this would be a challenging time to dramatically reshape their pitching staff, with Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta, Big Boy John Lackey and All-Star closer Wade Davis about to become free agents.

The Cubs don’t really have many (any?) high-end, headliner prospects left to trade after borrowing heavily from their farm system to acquire Aroldis Chapman for last year’s World Series run and get Quintana to help solidify the rotation through 2020.

All of Major League Baseball is looking beyond this winter and preparing for the monster free-agent class that will hit the open market after the 2018 season.

Meaning it’s time for the Cubs to make some difficult decisions about all these young hitters they’ve collected.

“It may or may not be,” Epstein said. “Those choices, they’re not unilateral things. You can’t sit there and decide: ‘Hey, this guy, we’re moving him.’ Because you don’t know what the return might be. You don’t know how the different moving parts might fit together.

“I think going into the offseason prepared to make some tough choices and execute on them — and keeping an open mind to anything — is appropriate under the circumstances where we have some obvious deficits and we have some real surplus with talented players who are really desirable.”

Let’s assume All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo, MVP third baseman Kris Bryant and catcher Willson Contreras are essentially untouchable.

The Cubs used the ninth overall pick in the 2015 draft on Ian Happ with the explicit idea that the college hitter should be on a fast track and could be flipped for pitching later: Is it time to sell high after the rookie just put up 24 homers and an .842 OPS?

During an exit meeting with Albert Almora Jr., Epstein said he couldn’t promise an everyday job in 2018, though the expectation would be more responsibilities: Think anyone else would be interested in a potential Gold Glove center fielder who’s already playoff-tested?

Do you want Addison Russell or Javier Baez as your everyday shortstop for the next four years? Is there an American League team willing to bet big that Kyle Schwarber will crush 40 homers a year as a designated hitter?

The Cubs have to ask themselves those types of questions, which could mean getting outside of their comfort zone and taking on some riskier pitching investments and sapping the strength that has turned them into the dominant force in the NL Central.

“We’ve really benefitted from having two or three extra — and ‘extra’ in quotes because they’re not really extra — starting-caliber players on the roster,” Epstein said. “That helped us win 97 games in ’15, 103 last year, 92 this year. That’s as big a part of the club as anything.

“Having an Addison Russell go down and being able to move Javy Baez to shortstop — that’s an obvious example of it. But those things show up every week for us. There’s a day where someone can’t make the lineup and someone else slides in and you’re still starting eight quality guys. That’s huge.

“Sooner or later, you reach a point where you have to strongly consider sacrificing some of that depth to address needs elsewhere on the club. There’s no sort of deadline to do that. But I think we’re entering the phase where we have to be really open-minded to that if it makes the overall outlook of the team and organization better.”

Translation: The Cubs are open for business. Make your best offer.

Day after reported offer to Yu Darvish, now Brewers have trade offer for Christian Yelich, too?

0123_christian_yelich.jpg
USA TODAY

Day after reported offer to Yu Darvish, now Brewers have trade offer for Christian Yelich, too?

The Milwaukee Brewers apparently mean business.

How much that business will pay off in superstar players remains to be seen, of course, but a day after the Cubs' division rivals to the north reportedly made a contract offer to free-agent starting pitcher Yu Darvish, there's a report out there that they also have put together a trade offer for Miami Marlins outfielder Christian Yelich.

There's been plenty of discussion involving Yelich this offseason as a trade target for just about every team in the game. The Marlins — and more specifically their new regime led by Derek Jeter — sparked speculation that they'll deal just about anyone after trades that shipped Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna and Dee Gordon out of South Florida. That fueled guesses that Yelich would be next considering how attractive a trade candidate he is, with five seasons of major league success under his belt (including a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger) and a desirable contract that keeps him under team control for another five seasons.

So of course it's no surprise that any team, including the Brewers, would have "strong interest" in acquiring Yelich. The Brewers, however, might be a more attractive trade partner than most considering their rebuilding efforts that have produced a bunch of young talent the Marlins might find appealing. And with the Brew Crew advancing their timeline last season and becoming unexpected competitors with the Cubs in the National League Central, adding a player of Yelich's caliber could change the dynamics in the division.

Social media is home to plenty of Cubs fans who'd like to see Yelich land on the North Side, seeing an opportunity to upgrade in the outfield after less-than-ideal 2017 campaigns from the likes of Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist. But after the Cubs' own wildly successful rebuild and last summer's trade with the White Sox, the minor league cupboard isn't as fully stocked as it used to be, and that could make crafting a return package difficult. That is, if the Cubs were even interested in acquiring Yelich in the first place. They're pretty happy with their already populous outfield.

The team across town has been involved in plenty of online speculation regarding Yelich, too. But while the White Sox have a tremendous amount of minor league talent, they might not be far enough along in their rebuild to part with any of their highly rated young players until they know exactly what they have.

The Brewers, for what it's worth, had six of the top 100 prospects in baseball as of MLB Pipeline's most recent (and soon to change) rankings: the Nos. 13, 59, 81, 82, 86 and 97 guys. Is that enough to fetch Yelich? And is Yelich enough to put the Crew on even footing with the Cubs in 2018 and beyond? And what if Darvish takes the Brewers up on their offer?

All valid questions. But the biggest question involving the Brewers: Who's going to sponsor the sausage race?

Looking to take next step, Ian Happ hoping for more of what fueled his Cubs breakout

Looking to take next step, Ian Happ hoping for more of what fueled his Cubs breakout

Ian Happ knows 2018 is going to be different than 2017. That's why he's hoping it's the same.

Happ will be a big leaguer from Day 1 this season, the obvious biggest difference as he's prepared for the upcoming campaign. Happ didn't make his major league debut until May 13 last year, though he did so with a bang, homering in his first game against the St. Louis Cardinals. He burst onto the scene with a .357/.455/.786 slash line and seven extra-base hits in his first eight games.

But that was all part of proving he belonged at the major league level, something he won't have to worry about now that the calendar has turned.

After slashing .253/.328/.514 and belting 24 homers in his rookie season — one behind the 25 Billy Williams hit in his rookie season and two off the 26 Kris Bryant sent out in his rookie year — Happ's spot is safe, and that made for an entirely different offseason for the 23-year-old former Cincinnati Bearcat.

"Definitely a different offseason for me, just going through the process, getting ready to go to spring training, getting ready for the season instead of getting ready to compete and try to prove that I can be on the team," he said during the Cubs Convention earlier this month at the Sheraton Grand Chicago. "For me, definitely a more relaxed offseason.

"This offseason, just getting in good shape, trying to get ready to really enjoy spring training and mesh with these guys and see how much I can learn again. For me, going into the year, just want to help the team any way I can, same thing as last year, being as versatile as possible."

And so in the different comes hope for the same for Happ, who wants to again show the versatility that resulted in him playing five different positions in 2017.

The rookie became yet another utility man on Joe Maddon's roster full of those kinds of players. The mix-and-match manager values versatility in the field as much as anything, and he took full advantage with Happ, who played 54 games in center field, 44 at second base, 29 in left field, 14 in right field and even four at third base.

The roster, at least from a position-player standpoint, looks much the same as it did in 2017. And coming off a third straight trip to the penultimate round of baseball's postseason — and the World Series hangover that defined the first half of last season — Maddon will surely look to give his players rest where he can. Being able to plug in Happ all over the field helps in that effort.

Happ has actually been an oft-mentioned name this offseason, and not necessarily for what folks are expecting from him in 2018 and beyond. Instead, Happ has been a frequent subject of trade speculation. As of this writing, the Cubs have yet to acquire a top-of-the-line starting pitcher to replace Jake Arrieta, and the suggestion that a young position player — be it Happ, Kyle Schwarber, Javy Baez or Addison Russell — could be moved for a pitcher has been common.

Unsurprisingly, none of that chatter has affected Happ and he's ready to go with the rest of the Cubs' current roster.

"All of the media speculation, it's part of the deal, it's part of the gig," Happ said. "For me, I'm excited with the guys we've brought in and excited for what they'll put on the field this year."

But whether it's part of his motivation or not, if 2017's performance proved that Happ belonged at the big league level, then what he does in 2018 could go a long way in proving to outsiders that he belongs in the "untouchable" category and nowhere near future trade speculation.