Cubs

After making blockbuster Aroldis Chapman deal last year, how aggressive will Cubs be at this trade deadline?

After making blockbuster Aroldis Chapman deal last year, how aggressive will Cubs be at this trade deadline?

The New York Yankees operated in an ideal seller’s market last summer, beginning with the iconic team with the 108-year championship drought, a stash of young blue-chip talent and a front office that’s never afraid to think big.

Cubs president Theo Epstein put it this way after making the blockbuster deal for Aroldis Chapman: “If not now, when?”

The Cubs wanted the parade down Michigan Avenue and got maybe one of the largest gatherings in human history, generations of fans flooding the streets of Chicago last November and spilling into Grant Park. 

For a moment late Friday afternoon, Chapman stood alone on the Wrigley Field mound after beating Javier Baez with a 100.4-mph fastball. That helpless foul tip ended New York’s 3-2 comeback win over the Cubs, another reminder of Chapman’s intimidating presence on the day he got his World Series ring, a Rage Against the Machine tribute on the video board and hugs from his ex-teammates.

What about the trade deadline now that the Cubs are no longer on the greatest quest in professional sports?

“I don’t think the urgency changes,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “The goal is to win every year. I do think that the team last year – their play almost demanded us to be aggressive. We came out from Day 1 and we played like the best team in baseball.

“We were pitching well, hitting well, blowing people out and felt like that team had one Achilles’ heel – the back of the bullpen. And given where we knew we were going in the playoffs, we needed that guy.”

The resurgent Yankees (18-9) were down to their last strike when Brett Gardner blasted a Hector Rondon slider into the right-field patio deck for a three-run homer, but that moment didn’t necessarily reveal deeper issues within the bullpen.     

Wade Davis – zero runs through 13-plus innings and 7-for-7 in save chances as a Cub – had already worked three days in a row. Rondon, a one-time 30-save closer, entered the ninth inning with a 1.59 ERA. Pedro Strop screamed and punched the air after striking out Aaron Judge looking at a slider to end the eighth inning. Carl Edwards Jr. (0.69 ERA) continues to look like someone who could handle that Andrew Miller hybrid role.

“I don’t want to say forced our hand (last year),” Hoyer said, “but with the way they played it was clear that this was a team to be really aggressive for. I think every year you have to feel that out. You have to get a sense of your club.

“Obviously, it’s too early to have a sense of this club. But last year, give them credit, they went 25-6 out of the gate and they made it really clear this was a year to be aggressive.”

The Cubs are 16-13 and leading a division that doesn’t have any other superpowers and playing in a National League that doesn’t look quite as intimidating with the New York Mets and San Francisco Giants already in damage-control mode.

On Cinco de Mayo, it’s impossible to say exactly what the Cubs will need by July 31. But the Cubs conserved resources for that deadline and also have a pretty good idea of what their everyday lineup will look like through the 2021 season, which made elite prospect Gleyber Torres available in the Chapman deal and means someone like Ian Happ could be dangled in a trade for pitching.  

With Jake Arrieta and John Lackey positioned to become free agents after this season – and Brett Anderson taking a 6.23 ERA into Saturday night’s start against the Yankees – the Cubs could be looking at a 60-percent turnover rate for their 2018 rotation.

“You can’t get in a cycle where you’re always doing something for rentals,” Hoyer said. “But at the same time, every season is sacred and you only have (so many chances). There are going to be years where things don’t come together, you have injuries, another team runs away with it. That’s going to happen. So when you know you’re in a good position, (go for it).”

That’s why Torres – who entered his age-20 season as Baseball America’s No. 5 prospect – could become a star in New York and the Cubs will never have any regrets about that 4-for-1 Chapman trade.

“I’m always confident in Theo and Jed,” manager Joe Maddon said. “We gave up a lot. The kid we gave up is very good. However, to win a World Series, I think you do it like 11 out of 10 times.”

Ian Happ trying to force his way into Cubs second base picture

Ian Happ trying to force his way into Cubs second base picture

MESA, Ariz. — Don't write the obituary on Ian Happ's career as a second baseman just yet.

The versatile young player started 28 games at second base during his rookie year in 2017, but did not see a start in 2018 and played just 3 innings at the position the entire season.

Thats not a trend that typically bodes well for Happ's future at second base.

But it's not necessarily a trend that will continue.

After last season ended, Happ had a conversation with Maddon and was direct: He wants to be included in the second base picture.

"We were in contact several times," Maddon said Sunday. "One of the things I really like about Ian is that he is very lucid and transparent regarding what he's thinking and he brought that to my attention."

Happ has been clinging to his desire to play second base in much the same way Kyle Schwarber passionately stuck by his love for being a catcher. But as the Schwarber situation proved, you need more than just passion (though, undoubtedly, Schwarber's major knee injury in 2016 and that entire lost year of development played a factor in his scenario).

The Cubs drafted Happ with the 9th overall pick in 2015 out of the University of Cincinnati, where he spent time in both the infield and outfield. Coming out of college, there were concerns about Happ's ability to stick in the infield, but he started more games at second base (107) than he did in the outfield (30) over his 3 years in the minor-league system.

Last spring, there was a push for Happ as a primary outfielder for several reasons: 1) it was the position he was most likely going to end up at long-term and 2) the Cubs had more playing time available in the outfield with Jon Jay departing and the combination of Ben Zobrist and Javy Baez dominating time at second base.

This spring, things are quite a bit different. Baez will shift over to shortstop for at least the first month of the season and the second base picture is filled with a bunch of players (Zobrist, Daniel Descalso, David Bote) who can also play a host of other positions. (Nobody knows yet how Addison Russell fits into the picture if he returns from suspension.)

If Happ wanted another shot at proving his mettle at second base, now is as good a time as any.

But it won't be easy. Zobrist and Descalso have much more experience at the position and Bote is a natural second baseman who has already impressed the Cubs with his infield defense in his brief big-league career.

The switch-hitting Happ, meanwhile, still figures to see a good amount of playing time in the outfield as a potential platoon option to Jason Heyward (right field), Albert Almora Jr. (center field) and Kyle Schwarber (left field). Happ will also back up the corner infield spots as he did last year.

"He made it clear to me he wants to be considered to play second base," Maddon said. "...He wants for me and us to know that he'll do whatever it takes to get in the lineup. If we're facing a lefty or whatever and he wants in the lineup or a righty and the outfield's set up a certain way, he knows there might be an option somewhere else to play if we want to move it around or just give somebody a day off. He's smart. It's just about him wanting to get into the lineup."

Happ has only played 263.1 innings at second base in the majors and the Cubs would like to see him grow as a defender, though they understand he needs reps to continue to develop.

"When you watch him, he's still a work in progress when it comes to being — for lack of a better term — a little bit more smooth, but then again, he's effective," Maddon said. "I've seen some really good defenders that aren't necessarily this Spalding guy, but they don't make mistakes. Probably just [improving his] lateral range, going to his right as much as anything, backhanding, throwing that ball. He's got a really strong arm; he can complete a double play.

"It's just a nuance — the lateral movement nuance of the position. But he's smart — he knows where to be, he knows where cutoffs and relays occur, he knows all that stuff. It's just like this repetitive thing, I would say for me in my mind's eye - going over [to the right] more smoothly to make that play would be something optimal for him.

"He's not the Spalding guy all the time, but he's pretty effective out there. I think it's just repetition."

The Cubs aren't guaranteeing Happ playing time at second base or anything like that. But at the very least, it appears they're open to giving him a legitimate shot this spring to potentially earn an opportunity in the regular season.

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Phillies reportedly willing to meet Bryce Harper's price tag

Phillies reportedly willing to meet Bryce Harper's price tag

MESA, Ariz. — We may finally be nearing a resolution in the Bryce Harper free agency saga at just the right time.

Spring training begins in earnest Monday with position players officially reporting around the league and Harper may not be far behind.

USA TODAY's Bob Nightengale reported Sunday evening the Philadelphia Phillies are reportedly willing to meet Harper's price tag and give him more than the $300 million, 10-year deal the Washington Nationals offered before the season ended:

Keep in mind, Nightengale is not reporting a done deal and the key word is Harper "appears" to have found a team willing to meet his price tag in the Phillies.

But this is one of those "big, if true" situations that portends a potential conclusion to Harper's 3.5-month free agency tour.

The Cubs ruled themselves out of the Harper Sweepstakes back at the very beginning of the offseason due to a bloated payroll for 2019 and a budget that doesn't have the room for the salary Harper is about to make.

The Phillies have been rumored to be in on Harper from Day 1 and owner John Middleton famously said his team may spend "stupid" money this winter. They've been very aggressive this offseason trying to build around a young core and improve upon thhe 80 wins they put up a season ago.

The Phillies have already signed Andrew McCutchen and David Robertson and traded for Jean Segura and J.T. Realmuto in the last couple months while also giving ace Aaron Nola a long-term extension.

Adding Harper to the mix would be a huge boost to the Phillies' chances in what is shaping up to be a very competitive National League East.

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