Tom Ricketts

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.”

Overheard at Cubs Convention: The best and funniest moments from the 2018 fan fest

Overheard at Cubs Convention: The best and funniest moments from the 2018 fan fest

What a difference a year makes.

Cubs Convention 2017 brought with it a ton of emotional moments as fans constantly discussed their own personal World Series championship moments and there were many "thank you"s to Cubs players and personnel.

But there was also some negativity, as Cubs fans grilled Joe Maddon about his pitching decisions - why he kept Aroldis Chapman in so long or why he pulled Kyle Hendricks so early, etc.

2018 featured a much more laid-back approach. 

Maddon made it more than 31 minutes into his panel before his pitching decisions were second-guessed. Fans were still appreciative of anybody who contributed to the championship drought, but they're also hungry for more and wanting to know what the organization is doing to win another World Series in 2018.

With that, here are the best sights and sounds from the weekend:

♦♦This was easily the best moment of the Convention (Warning: NSFW language):

And Schwarber's reaction to it was incredible, too:

Apparently Contreras is willing to sign his new catch phrase on a bat, too:

♦♦A young fan won our NBC Sports Chicago contest and got a chance to meet Addison Russell Saturday.

Grace's dad is deployed in Afghanistan for the third time and we surprised her by bringing her and her mom up to meet Russell. While everybody was waiting at the security desk, Kris Bryant walked through one of the side entrances, saw Grace holding a cheer card and asked, "What's an Authentic Fan?" To which Grace responded - "We are!"

Watch the video of her meeting Russell here:

♦♦There were many funny moments from the weekend, but one of the best lines was from chairman Tom Ricketts. 

In talking about the changes to Wrigley Field in 2018, Ricketts said the notoriously cramped and outdated visitor's clubhouse "may have hot water this year."

♦♦Ricketts also told a story Saturday of an interaction he had with FOX staffers after the Cubs won the NLCS in 2016 and received a trophy:

FOX: "There's something for your trophy case."

Ricketts: "We're the Cubs, we don't have a trophy case."

♦♦Todd Ricketts shared a story of an experience he had with a fan following the magical fall of 2016.

Two brothers had Cubs World Series tickets and one of the brothers ended up having a stroke and had to go to the hospital right before the game they were supposed to attend.

Todd: "Sorry you had to miss the game."

Fan: "Oh, I didn't miss it. As soon as I heard he was gonna live, I grabbed a buddy and went to the game!"

♦♦The best shirt seen at Cubs Convention:

♦♦Some of the best moments come from kids getting up to the microphones and asking questions to Cubs players or staff. One young man got up to the mic and first thanked Theo Epstein for his advice to the fan at a previous convention about how to get a job working in baseball.

The fan then asked the front office how they can find a way to finally get some use out of all those pitchers they've drafted over the years with the Cubs who have yet to make an impact in the big leagues.

Epstein joked that the kid really built up the front office's confidence before shutting them down. Newly-promoted assistant GM Scott Harris jokingly got up and offered the kid a seat his own seat on the podium. 

♦♦Another kid asked Theo Epstein when he should get his own Bryce Harper Cubs jersey.

Epstein: "Ask Kris Bryant. He seems to own a bunch of 'em."

♦♦The first question to Epstein and the front office panel also came from a kid keepin' it real: "What happened to all the pitching in the NLCS??"

♦♦Another kid question to Cubs front office: "Are you going after Yu Darvish?

Kid proceeds to list off teams Darvish is reportedly interested in, including the Cubs.

Epstein: "Wow, you're way more on top of it than our writers are."

♦♦Yeah, yeah, Kyle Schwarber is all skinny now. But Albert Almora Jr. looks like he's in great shape, too. It's not like Almora has ever really looked out of shape, but he looks skinnier and has spent the last month or so working out in Arizona in anticipation of playing a much larger role on the 2018 Cubs.

♦♦Maddon loves his coaching staff, calling it right up there with the best coaching staff he's ever been a part of. Now, he says something along those lines every single year, but this time, the entire staff is filled with guys he hand-picked himself. 

If this coaching staff doesn't work out for whatever reason, more blame than ever will fall on Maddon's shoulders. 

That being said, every coach he brought on - particularly hitting coach Chili Davis, pitching coach Jim Hickey and third-base coach Brian Butterfield - is highly, highly respected around the league.

♦♦Cubs catching coach Mike Borzello said his favorite player growing up was Steve Garvey. Assistant hitting coach Andy Haines said his favorite player was Ozzie Smith.

Both were booed roundly by the Chicago faithful.

♦♦Fan asking Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney said: "Nachos were never harder to find [at Wrigley] than last year." Then proceeded to try to pump up the crowd by asking if there were any nacho fans out there. 

It was weird.

♦♦One of the oddest hot takes from the Convention was a fan saying he hates the baskets in the outfield at Wrigley. Not sure I've heard that one before and other fans there did not appreciate it (he was booed mercilessly).

♦♦Who is Kyle Schwarber's celebrity crush? Well...

♦♦This adorable fan:

♦♦Pretty awesome gender reveal with the help of Kris Bryant, Javy Baez, Kyle Schwarber and Anthony Rizzo:

♦♦An awesome selfie from the Kapman:

♦♦Dillon Maples showing young fan how he holds his slider and arm slot:

♦♦Derrek Lee was asked what homer was most memorable from his career. He said his first one ever, but then also said one in the first couple months he was a Cub. 

He had been traded for Hee Seop Choi and got off to a rough start in Chicago, struggling at the plate. He would hear fans chanting "Hee Seop Choi! Hee Seop Choi!" whenever he came up to the plate. 

Lee finally broke through once at Wrigley and hit a grand slam. He said Saturday he will never forget that curtain call.

♦♦D-Lee and Big Z were an absolute riot. They had a great rapport and could probably work in comedy if they wanted. 

Both players gave each other good-natured crap and Zambrano was hilarious in response to several questions, like a fan asking if he ever had any regrets from his playing career. 
"Next question..." he said to laughs.

♦♦Zambrano also signed a Gatorade bottle for a fan since you know, he loves Gatorade so much...

https://twitter.com/DraftStars_Kaz/status/952335267112898561

♦♦Zambrano's dig on Lee was classic:

♦♦How did Lee celebrate the Cubs World Series? Watching with family as they all wore Cubs jerseys. He admitted he was jealous he couldn't be a part of the team that ended the drought, which - I imagine - is a common refrain among former Cubs, especially those that played rather recently.

♦♦In case anybody cares, Ronnie Woo Woo would like to see Ladies Night back at Wrigley Field.

♦♦Let's end on some breaking news: 

Another year, another non-update on potential Sammy Sosa reunion from Cubs Convention

sammy_sosa_new_look_slide.jpg
AP

Another year, another non-update on potential Sammy Sosa reunion from Cubs Convention

Tom Ricketts actually got more than halfway through his Cubs Convention session before Sammy Sosa was finally brought up. 

You see, the Sosa question has become an annual staple at Cubs Convention, particularly in Ricketts' panel. 

Sosa may be undergoing some bizarre physical changes, but he still resonates with fans of all ages after delighting the Wrigley Field faithful for a decade. 

"I know people won't recognize him..." the fan qualified while still asking Ricketts when Sosa might make his way back to the Cubs Convention.

Ricketts declined to talk about Sosa specifically, but mentioned the Steroid Era as a whole.

"Yeah, I've talked about this a lot over the years and it seems to come up every year," Ricketts said. "I really believe that all the players from that era, who went through that performance-enhancing, steroid era, I think we owe them a lot of understanding.

"I think we have to put ourselves in their shoes and be very, very sympathetic to all the decisions they had to make. And, as it turns out, after testing began in 2002, a large number of players tested positive.

"So I think we all need to be sensitive and understand their situation. But I also believe that players from that era owe us a little bit of honest, and I kind of feel like the only way to turn this page is to put everything on the table.

"And I think that's kind of a better answer. So that's kind of the way I feel. We'll see what happens in the future."

In a media session after his panel, Ricketts was asked again, specifically about Sosa.

"I'm not gonna talk about Sammy in particular," Ricketts said. "I'm just gonna talk about the whole era. I just think we need to put everything on the table and move forward."

OK, so if Sosa admits to PED use, he can come back to the Cubs "family"?

Ricketts wasn't the owner of the Cubs during Sosa's tenure on Chicago's North Side, but "Slammin' Sammy" brought countless millions to the organization, whether he took PEDs or not. (For the record, Sosa reportedly tested positive for PEDs in 2003, but he was never suspended.)

Sure, he's officially entered the Upside Down now, but the Cubs Convention is for the fans and there certainly seems to be no shortage of fans interested in seeing Sammy Sosa...even if people won't immediately recognize him.

Sosa's fellow late-'90s/early-2000s sluggers Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds haven't exactly come forward with any admission of PED guilt and neither guy has any trouble finding a job or role in today's Major League Baseball. 

Ricketts and the Cubs don't employ either McGwire or Bonds, but they did boast Manny Ramirez — a similar product of the era who was suspended for PEDs twice during his career — as a hitting instructor for three seasons through 2016.

Of course, the end of Sosa's Cubs tenure had more to it than just the suspicion of steroid use, with the slugger not leaving on the best terms with the team and his teammates before getting traded away to the Baltimore Orioles.

This has been your yearly Sammy Sosa Cubs Convention update.