CLEVELAND – A Cubs official admitted that it almost feels wrong to think about next season when this could still be The Year. But Theo Epstein’s front office has quietly been having those discussions during the downtime in an exhilarating, high-stress, emotionally draining playoff run.
Reputations can be made in October and November, and until this World Series it looked like Aroldis Chapman could not – or would not – do what Andrew Miller did for the Cleveland Indians, springing into the middle of games and working multiple innings, even if it wasn’t the ninth.
But Chapman’s high-maintenance vibes faded into the background when he stepped forward and got eight outs in Game 5 and four more in Game 6, helping push the Cubs to the brink of their first World Series title in 108 years.
Chapman – who will become a free agent after Wednesday night’s Game 7 at Progressive Field – showcased the ideal flexibility that had been in doubt ever since the Cubs made that blockbuster deal with the New York Yankees in late July.
“Of course,” manager Joe Maddon said, he would like to have Chapman back in 2017. “He’s been an extremely large reason why we’re in this moment right now. I think the perception has to have changed with him – and bully for him.
“We’ve done a lot of conversations over the last two months. In the beginning, you’re all well aware that I tried to do it (this way). Then we talked and he preferred not, so we got away from it, with the understanding that when we got to this point that it would change.
“Industry-wide, I would have to believe his stock has risen dramatically for what he’s done and how he’s done it. Total team guy right now.”
Chapman – a physical specimen with a left arm that has a 100-mph default setting – already expected to smash the four-year, $50 million contract the Philadelphia Phillies gave Jonathan Papelbon after the 2011 season.
Chapman has so far appeared in 12 out of 16 possible playoff games, going 1-0 with four saves, a 2.51 ERA and 19 strikeouts in 14-plus innings. Maddon credited Chapman’s personal assistant – Santiago Mateo travels with the team and hangs around the clubhouse – for being the conduit between the coaching staff and the superstar closer after a rocky start in Chicago.
“I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to be communicative with these guys,” Maddon said. “They are definitely luxury items. They are the best sports car. They’re the yacht. They’re the coolest, hottest plane in the air right now.
“It really requires a lot of communication to definitely be on the same page. And I think we achieved that.”
This class of free agents also includes Kenley Jansen and Mark Melancon, though Epstein’s overall philosophy for constructing bullpens revolves around growing from within, looking for change-of-scenery/bounce-back guys and staying away from the big contracts for relievers.
The Cubs spent nearly $290 million on free agents during the last offseason, essentially combining two winters into one with the knowledge that this class would be particularly weak. Chapman also comes with off-the-field baggage, serving a 30-game suspension under Major League Baseball’s domestic-violence policy at the start of this season.
“I don’t know what our financial structure is,” Maddon said. “But I know that ‘Chappy’ has made a great impression on all of us.”