Cubs

Let’s make a deal: Cubs will be open-minded at GM meetings and ready to trade for pitching

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AP

Let’s make a deal: Cubs will be open-minded at GM meetings and ready to trade for pitching

Any Cubs players who might have gotten a little too comfortable during the World Series victory tour should feel a little more on edge this offseason, because Theo Epstein’s front office sounds willing to make big changes that would shake up this team.

The bookends to a second straight division title and a gutsy playoff-series win over the Washington Nationals became an unfocused 43-45 first half and a disappointing National League Championship Series where the Cubs looked checked out and ready to go on vacation.

Whether that can just be written off as a bad World Series hangover – or says something more about the clubhouse dynamics – the Cubs already understood this would be a difficult offseason.

Jake Arrieta, John Lackey and Wade Davis becoming free agents means replacing 40 percent of a championship rotation and an All-Star closer – while all this cheap labor is about to get expensive through the arbitration system and the farm system still isn’t producing impact homegrown pitching yet.

The underlying risk to betting so heavily on hitters – a good long-term strategy – is that one year you might not be able to piece the pitching staff together and stay healthy. Any big contract handed out this offseason will have to be weighed against next winter’s superior class of free agents.

All this means the Cubs should be rethinking The Core this week at the general managers meetings in Orlando, Florida, finding out the true value of their young hitters and if it makes sense to flip one or two in another big trade for pitching.

“We have to be open-minded,” GM Jed Hoyer said. “We’re loyal to the guys that have won with us. And we’re loyal to the guys that have been drafted and developed and gotten here, no question. But they’re talented and we’re going to be asked about them.

“Our No. 1 loyalty has to be to the Cubs and to the Cubs fans and making sure that we can try to put ourselves in position to win another title, so I think we have to be open-minded.

“Certainly, I’d love to have an offseason where we didn’t have to do anything like that. But in order to get better and make improvements in certain areas, we might.”

From the 2015 trade deadline where they didn’t make a splash by moving Javier Baez for a frontline starter, to making Kyle Schwarber off-limits while he recovered from knee surgery during a World Series season, to not touching the big-league roster this summer while making the Jose Quintana deal with the White Sox, the Cubs have repeated different versions of: These are our guys.

But from Epstein’s end-of-season autopsy after the Los Angeles Dodgers dominated the NLCS to Hoyer’s media rounds to the clumsy way manager Joe Maddon handled a coaching-staff housecleaning, the Cubs don’t sound too attached or sentimental now.

It’s Epstein not dismissing a question about whether Baez should displace All-Star shortstop Addison Russell and admitting the Cubs frequently have those internal discussions.

It’s the 24/7 nature of Twitter and MLB Trade Rumors and the Cubs being a big-market team that moves the needle.

It’s Chris Bosio, John Mallee and Gary Jones getting fired after three straight trips to the NLCS – Brandon Hyde got promoted to bench coach after Dave Martinez took Washington’s manager job – and Jim Hickey, Chili Davis and Brian Butterfield getting hired.

“I wouldn’t assume anything based on the coaching changes,” Hoyer said. “Each one, we felt strongly about to help us get better. People overuse, I think, a ‘different voice’ and ‘different message.’ That’s something people say a lot as a kind of catch-all when they let someone go. In this case, it really was accurate.

“This group of players, they’ve been together for three years. They’ve had a lot of success. I think they’ve done some things really well. Some of the things we felt like we could improve upon as a group – situational hitting, using the whole field, sort of becoming a little bit less pitch-able as an offense – that was important. Chili Davis was perfect for that at that moment.

“Our overall base-running, at times, has not been as good as certain other areas of our team. We felt like that was something we could improve upon. This was really about addressing with our current player group some of the things we haven’t necessarily done as well as we’d hoped.

“As a front office, and working with Joe, I do think it’s our job to think about: ‘What can we do to help this group of players improve?’ Those were the moves we made to do that.”

At some point, the Cubs will come to this conclusion: “Different players.” That doesn’t necessarily mean wholesale changes. Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Willson Contreras will be in the middle of the lineup for years to come. Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Quintana should be a Big Three at the top of next season’s rotation. It’s hard to imagine the Cubs actually breaking up the Russell-Baez double-play combination this quickly and leaving themselves exposed at shortstop.

“All in all, one of the things I really like about this group is this group is going to be together for a while,” Hoyer said. “Fans like seeing the same faces, and when people are at the home opener next year, I think that our position-playing group will look pretty similar.”

But this could be a test of the organization’s man crush on Schwarber. Imagine what center fielder Albert Almora Jr. could do for a rebuilding team with a 150-game runway. Ian Happ can be marketed as an infielder/outfielder and a switch-hitter with potential 30-homer power. If Victor Caratini had come along several years ago, we would all be hyping him as the next catcher at Wrigley Field. Let the wild rumors begin Monday at the Waldorf Astoria Orlando.

One MLB executive thinks Kyle Schwarber can emerge as Cubs' best hitter in 2018

One MLB executive thinks Kyle Schwarber can emerge as Cubs' best hitter in 2018

When the 2017 season ended, Cubs left fielder Kyle Schwarber looked in the mirror and didn't like what he saw.

He was stocky, slower than he wanted to be and he had just finished a very difficult season that saw him spend time back in the minor leagues at Triple-A after he struggled mightily through the first three months of the season.

Schwarber still put up solid power numbers despite his overall struggles. He slammed 30 home runs, putting him among the Top 15 hitters in the National League and among the Top 35 in all of baseball. But, Schwarber was honest with himself. He knew he could achieve so much more if he was in better shape and improved his mobility, his overall approach at the plate and his defense.

Schwarber was drafted by the Cubs out of Indiana University as a catcher. However, many scouts around baseball had serious doubts about his ability to catch at the big league level. The Cubs were in love with Schwarber the person and Schwarber the overall hitter and felt they would give him a chance to prove he could catch for them. If he couldn't, then they believed he could play left field adequately enough to keep his powerful bat in the lineup.

However, a serious knee injury early in the 2016 season knocked Schwarber out of action for six months and his return to the Cubs in time to assist in their World Series run raised expectations for a tremendous 2017 season. In fact, the expectations for Schwarber were wildly unrealistic when the team broke camp last spring. Manager Joe Maddon had Schwarber in the everyday lineup batting leadoff and playing left field.

But Schwarber's offseason after the World Series consisted of more rehab on his still-healing injured left knee. That kept him from working on his outfield play, his approach at the plate and his overall baseball training. 

Add in all of the opportunities and commitments that come with winning a World Series and it doesn't take much detective work to understand why Schwarber struggled so much when the 2017 season began. This offseason, though, has been radically different. A season-ending meeting with Cubs president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer led to a decision to take weight off of Schwarber's frame. It also included a decision to change his training program so that he improved his quickness, lateral movement and his overall baseball skills.

"I took two weeks off after the season ended and then I went to work," Schwarber said. "We put a plan together to take weight off and to improve my quickness. I have my meals delivered and I feel great. My baseball work combined with a lot of strength and conditioning has me in the best shape that I have ever been in."

Schwarber disagrees with the pundits who felt manager Maddon's decision to put him in the leadoff spot in the Cubs' loaded lineup contributed to his struggles.

"I have no problem hitting wherever Joe wants to put me," Schwarber said. "I didn't feel any more pressure because I was batting leadoff. I just needed to get back to training for a baseball season as opposed to rehabbing from my knee injury. I'm probably 20-25 pounds lighter and I'm ready to get back to Arizona with the boys and to get ready for the season."

Many around the game were shocked when the Cubs drafted Schwarber with the No. 4 overall selection in the 2014 MLB Draft, but a rival executive who was not surprised by the pick believes that Schwarber can indeed return to the form that made him such a feared hitter during his rookie season as well as his excellent postseason resume.

"Everyone who doubted this kid may end up way off on their evaluation because he is a great hitter and now that he is almost two years removed from his knee injury," the executive said. "He knows what playing at the major-league level is all about I expect him to be a real force in the Cubs lineup.

"Theo and Jed do not want to trade this kid and they are going to give him every opportunity to succeed. I think he has a chance to be as good a hitter as they have in their order."

Watch the full 1-on-1 interview with Kyle Schwarber Sunday night on NBC Sports Chicago.

The low-key move that may pay dividends for Cubs in 2018 and beyond

The low-key move that may pay dividends for Cubs in 2018 and beyond

The Cubs-Cardinals rivalry is alive and well and this offseason has been further proof of that.

The St. Louis Cardinals haven't made a rivalry-altering move like inking Jake Arrieta to a megadeal, but they have proven that they are absolutely coming after the Cubs and the top of the division.

However, a move the St. Louis brass made Friday afternoon may actually be one that makes Cubs fans cheer.

The Cardinals traded outfielder Randal Grichuk to the Toronto Blue Jays Friday in exhange for a pair of right-handed pitchers: Dominic Leone and Conner Greene. Leone is the main draw here as a 26-year-old reliever who posted a 2.56 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and 10.4 K/9 in 70.1 innings last year in Toronto.

But this is the second young position player the Cardinals have traded to Toronto this offseason and Grichuk is a notorious Cub Killer.

Grichuk struggled overall in 2017, posting a second straight year of empty power and not much else. But he once again hammered the Cubs to the tune of a .356 batting average and 1.240 OPS. 

He hit six homers and drove in 12 runs in just 14 games (11 starts) against Joe Maddon's squad. That's 27 percent of his 2017 homers and 20 percent of his season RBI numbers coming against just one team.

And it wasn't just one year that was an aberration. In his career, Grichuk has a .296/.335/.638 slash line against the Cubs, good for a .974 OPS. He's hit 11 homers and driven in 33 runs in 37 games, the highest ouput in either category against any opponent.

Even if Leone builds off his solid 2017 and pitches some big innings against the Cubs over the next couple seasons, it will be a sigh of relief for the Chicago pitching staff knowing they won't have to face the threat of Grichuk 18+ times a year.

Plus, getting a reliever and a low-level starting pitching prospect back for a guy (Grichuk) who was borderline untouchable a couple winters ago isn't exactly great value. The same can be said for the Cardinals' trade of Aledmys Diaz to Toronto on Dec. 1 for essentially nothing.

A year ago, St. Louis was heading into the season feeling confident about Diaz, who finished fifth in the NL Rookie of the Year race in 2016 after hitting .300 with an .879 OPS as a 25-year-old rookie. He wound up finishing 2017 in the minors after struggling badly to start the season and the Cardinals clearly didn't want to wait out his growing pains.

The two trades with Toronto limits the Cardinals' depth (as of right now) and leaves very few proven options behind shortstop Paul DeJong and outfielder Tommy Pham, who both enjoyed breakout seasons in 2017.