Albert Almora Jr. is hungry for more

Albert Almora Jr. is hungry for more

While most of the Cubs were focusing on rest and relaxtion this winter, Albert Almora Jr. sees no need for chillin'.

Kris Bryant admitted he was worn down by the end of the Cubs' playoff run last October and most other regulars would say the same thing.

But some Cubs saw the winter not as an "offseason" but as the first opportunity to prove something.

Kyle Schwarber has shed weight and looks to be in great shape, but Almora is in the same boat.

The 23-year-old outfielder is chomping at the bit, anxious for the season to start. So anxious, in fact, that he spent just a couple weeks at home in Florida before heading to Arizona to start training for 2018. 

Yes, that's right. He's been in Arizona since November — training, eating right, mentally preparing himself for the grind ahead, taking swings. 

That's nothing new for the first draft pick under Theo Epstein's front office who's constantly trying to validate the sixth overall selection in the 2012 Draft.

"I'm always going out there trying to prove them right, trying to make them happy," Almora said.

This is a kid who earned a World Series ring before his 23rd birthday and has five gold medals from playing for Team USA as a teenager. 

Almora's no stranger to the big stage and he's already accomplished so much at such a young age, but he's never experienced anything quite like the 2017 season.

He's always been a starter and everyday player. From age 8, when he was playing up with 14-year-olds, Almora has been among the youngest guys on any team he's been on. 

That was the case with the 2017 Cubs once again, but this time, he wasn't a key contributor. He played nearly every day — notching 132 games — but only started 65 times throughout the course of the year. He had to learn a lot about waiting for his moment and making the most of his one at-bat or one inning in the field.

"[Playing time is] not in my control and I'm gonna do whatever I can when my name is called to help the team win games and have a lot of fun with it," Almora said. "That's the only way to stay sane and not worry too much.

"At the end of the day, all I can control is what I do on the ballfield and that's it."

Almora admitted he's let that external stuff creep into his mind in the past, though that was mostly in the minor leagues when he was wondering when he'd get called up to the next level.

In the majors, it's all about winning and Almora believes he can help the big-league team get back to the Promised Land.

Even Epstein admitted Almora is primed for a larger role in 2018, as the young outfielder proved down the stretch last year he could contribute against right-handed pitching as well as southpaws.

What does he make of his progression the last couple years?

"I can answer that by just saying I'm confident," Almora said. "The more opportunity I get, the more experienced under my belt. You're not intimidated, you're having a lot of fun out there and your confident in your game.

Javy Baez, the Cubs' versatile King of Swag

Javy Baez, the Cubs' versatile King of Swag

Even his teammates are having a hard time wrapping their minds around Javier Baez, the farmer.

Anthony Rizzo asked the flashy infielder before one of the panels this weekend at Cubs Convention, “What is it you do exactly? Feed chickens?”

The exchange garnered a good laugh from the crowd, but let’s be honest: only Baez could make feeding chickens look as cool as feeding a double play ball at Wrigley. Having asked at least 10 different Cubs players this weekend which teammate has the most swag, it was always Baez. And there was never any hesitation. 

Like the bling that hangs around his MLB logo-tatted neck, Baez dazzles on the field as well. His tags are a thing of beauty. You can just imagine young ballplayers around Chicago imitating the swipe, much like a Michael Jordan fadeaway jumper. Whether manning second or short, the 25 year-old has become a must-see defensive player.

Last season Baez took over at shortstop as Addison Russell dealt with a strained right foot/plantar fasciitis problem. In 30 games Baez thrived at his natural position, so much so he left some wondering if the Cubs would consider flipping Russell back to second base.

Baez has the more traditional, powerful shortstop arm, but Theo Epstein will tell you when you look at Russell’s defensive rankings compared to other shortstops, he’s a special player in his own right as well.

One thing’s for sure: the Cubs are fortunate to have that kind of depth up the middle. Joe Maddon made it clear last September that without the play of Baez, it’s doubtful the team would have been in position to clinch the division.

“We have two legitimate shortstops," Maddon said. "It’s very unusual to have that.”

Sure, a great problem to have. But how does it play out for the Cubs when all is said and done?

Does Baez take over at short with Russell moving to second, or is it Maddon having a tough conversation with Ben Zobrist and plugging No. 9 in as his everyday second baseman? There's Ian Happ, too. Is he the Cubs' second baseman of the future with Russell/Baez being the trade chip that lands a frontline starter?

All viable options, but just for fun we put Baez on the spot at Cubs Convention and asked him: Are you a shortstop playing second, or a second baseman playing short?”

He flashed a big grin and said a second baseman playing short. In other words, he gets it.

His bling doesn’t blind him from being a team player. "El Mago," the magician, knows his time is coming. A process that will begin in a few weeks when the Cubs report to Mesa.

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.”