Cubs

All-in? What Cubs have to deal and where next wave of talent is coming from

All-in? What Cubs have to deal and where next wave of talent is coming from

Theo Epstein wanted to see how the team responded to the Jose Quintana trade and performed after the All-Star break before deciding how aggressive the Cubs should be before the July 31 deadline. The clubhouse just sent the answer back: Don’t stop now. 

The Cubs opened the second half by going 6-0, their longest winning streak of the season, outscoring the Baltimore Orioles and Atlanta Braves by a 44-17 aggregate. At 49-45, the Cubs are at a high-water mark they haven’t reached since late May, finally looking more and more like the team they envisioned leaving spring training.

Knowing how Epstein operates, nothing should be ruled out during a 10-game stretch that begins Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field against the St. Louis Cardinals: A rivalry weekend series that will draw ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball,” four crosstown games against the rebuilding White Sox and a Miller Park showdown that will be a sea of blue with Cubs fans and the first-place-for-now Milwaukee Brewers. 

That takes us to July 31, when Epstein won’t worry about the prospect rankings or how the Cubs will find a next generation of talent. 

“The best farm system in the world is when they’re on your big-league team,” Epstein said. “Ian Happ doesn’t count as a prospect anymore. I’ll take a 22-year-old coming up and hitting 13 tanks in his first two-and-a-half months in the big leagues any day of the week over a farm system.”

Within the last year, the Cubs have traded two of the game’s top-five prospects on Baseball America’s 2017 midseason rankings, packaging Gleyber Torres in a blockbuster deal with the New York Yankees to acquire Aroldis Chapman and bundling Eloy Jimenez, Dylan Cease and two more minor-leaguers to get Quintana from the White Sox.

If they keep their big-league core intact, the Cubs probably don’t have the headliner to make a deal that sends the same shockwaves the Quintana deal created last week. 

But it would never become a buy-or-sell decision – more like how much and what to give up – because getting Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber back together in the lineup plus Kyle Hendricks’ eventual return to the rotation would automatically give the defending World Series champs a boost.  

To get a backup catcher, a high-leverage reliever and/or a buy-low pitcher, the Cubs can look in several different directions and not feel like they’re mortgaging the future – or hold onto certain assets with the hopes they might help keep Wrigley Field rocking in October for years to come.

Victor Caratini would be competing for a Pacific Coast League batting title if veteran catcher Miguel Montero hadn’t talked his way off the team. Jeimer Candelario is a 23-year-old switch-hitter who works out with Robinson Cano during the offseason and has 19 homers, 96 RBI and a .901 OPS in 147 career games at the Triple-A level.

Jim Hendry’s group that built the Latin American pipeline that produced Jimenez and Torres – and Starlin Castro and Willson Contreras – is still largely in place and will discover more talent.

The Epstein administration just used its highest picks ever on pitchers in the June draft, taking a junior-college lefty with one of the best curveballs in the draft at No. 27 (Brendon Little) and a College World Series performer/LSU’s Friday night starter at No. 30 (Alex Lange). 

“I have all the faith in the world that we’re going to continue to draft and sign players that will restock our farm system,” Epstein said. “Again, the best farm system, you can see it by watching your big-league team, whether they’ve been promoted or you’ve (traded) guys away to bring talented players here. That’s what we’re looking for.

“And, I should say, there are a lot of really talented players still down on the farm who we believe in who are going to play for the Cubs.”

It almost sounded like a running joke at Cubs Convention, team officials talking up a new group of A-ball guys as the next wave of pitching each January.

But Jen-Ho Tseng, the organization’s 2014 minor league pitcher of the year, has put up a 1.46 ERA in his first two starts at Triple-A Iowa during his age-22 season. The Taiwanese right-hander, starter Trevor Clifton and reliever Daury Torrez were three of the seven players from Double-A Tennessee chosen for the Southern League All-Star Game.

Most of the buzz revolves around right-hander Adbert Alzolay, who graduated to Tennessee after shining in 15 starts at advanced Class-A Myrtle Beach (7-1, 2.98 ERA). That’s where the Cubs are seeing Kyle Hendricks parallels with Dartmouth guy Duncan Robinson and feeling optimistic about Thomas Hatch, last year’s top draft pick (No. 104 overall). Hatch – who missed the entire 2015 season with a right elbow injury and came back to become the Big 12 pitcher of the year – has a 3.49 ERA through 18 starts with the Pelicans.

Even forgotten prospect Dillon Maples – who leveraged a football scholarship to the University of North Carolina into a $2.5 million bonus as a 14th-round pick in the 2011 draft – has leaped from Myrtle Beach to Tennessee to Iowa while putting up 74 strikeouts in 46 innings as a reliever.

“I think it’s been a really good year for pitching development in our system,” Epstein said. “We are excited about certain guys on the way here.”

For the first time since Epstein took over baseball operations at Clark and Addison, the Cubs don’t appear to have a Baseball America top-100 prospect.

“And it’s the first time we can call ourselves defending world champions,” Epstein said.

Why Cubs core's desire to sign extensions might not matter anymore

Why Cubs core's desire to sign extensions might not matter anymore

The day after Kris Bryant suggested that first-time fatherhood and the dramatic reality of world events have changed how he looks at his future with the Cubs, general manager Jed Hoyer outlined why it might be all but moot.

Setting aside the fact that the Cubs aren’t focusing on contract extensions with anyone at this time of health and economic turmoil, the volatility and unpredictability of a raging COVID-19 pandemic in this country and its economic fallout have thrown even mid-range and long-term roster plans into chaos.

“This is without question the most difficult time we’ve ever had as far as projecting those things,” Hoyer said. “All season in projecting this year, you weren’t sure how many games we were going to get in. Projecting next season obviously has challenges, and who knows where the country’s going to be and the economy’s going to be.”

Bryant, a three-time All-Star and former MVP, is eligible for free agency after next season. He and the club have not engaged in extension talks for three years. And those gained little traction while it has looked increasingly likely since then that Bryant’s agent, Scott Boras, would eventually take his star client to market — making Bryant a widely circulated name in trade talks all winter.

MORE: Scott Boras: Why Kris Bryant's free agency won't be impacted by economic crisis

The Cubs instead focused last winter on talks with All-Star shortstop Javy Báez, making “good” or little progress depending on which side you talked to on a given day — until the pandemic shut down everything in March.

Báez, Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber are both also eligible for free agency after next season, with All-Star catcher Willson Contreras right behind them a year later.

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None has a multiyear contract, and exactly what the Cubs are willing to do about that even if MLB pulls off its 60-game plan this year is hard for even the team’s front office executives to know without knowing how hard the pandemic will continue to hammer America’s health and financial well-being into the winter and next year.

Even with a vaccine and treatments by then, what will job markets look like? The economy at large? The economy of sports? Will anyone want to gather with 40,000 others in a stadium to watch a game anytime soon?

And even if anyone could answer all those questions, who can be sure how the domino effect will impact salary markets for athletes?

“There’s no doubt that forecasting going forward is now much more challenging from a financial standpoint,” Hoyer said. “But that’s league-wide. Anyone that says they have a feel for where the nation’s economy and where the pandemic is come next April is lying.”

The Cubs front office already was in a tenuous place financially, its payroll budget stretched past its limit and a threat to exceed MLB’s luxury tax threshold for a second consecutive season.

And after a quick playoff exit in 2018 followed by the disappointment of missing the playoffs in 2019, every player on the roster was in play for a possible trade over the winter — and even more so at this season’s trade deadline without a strong start to the season.

Now what?

For starters, forget about dumping short-term assets or big contracts for anything of value from somebody’s farm system. Even if baseball can get to this year’s Aug. 31 trade deadline with a league intact and playing, nobody is predicting more than small level trades at that point — certainly not anything close to a blockbuster.

After that, it may not get any clearer for the sport in general, much less the Cubs with their roster and contract dilemmas.

“We have a lot of conversations about it internally, both within the baseball side and then with the business side as well,” Hoyer said. “But it’s going to take a long time and probably some sort of macro things happening for us to really have a good feel for where we’re going to be in ’21 and beyond.”

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Cubs GM Jed Hoyer: Everyone in MLB has to take COVID-19 'equally' serious

Cubs GM Jed Hoyer: Everyone in MLB has to take COVID-19 'equally' serious

Veteran umpire Joe West made waves Tuesday downplaying the severity of COVID-19 in an interview with The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal. 

“I don’t believe in my heart that all these deaths have been from the coronavirus," West said. "I believe it may have contributed to some of the deaths.”

As far as the Cubs are concerned, those comments don’t represent how to treat the virus. In fact, they’ve gone out of their way to ensure everyone treats it with equal severity.

“That’s one of the things we've really tried internally to instill in our players and our coaches,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said Tuesday, “[that] everyone here has to take it equally [serious].”

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Hoyer noted like the world, MLB isn’t immune to people having different viewpoints on the virus — those who show concern and those who don’t. This echoes comments made by manager David Ross earlier on Tuesday, and Hoyer said those he’s talked to with the Cubs don’t feel the same way as West.

The Cubs had an up close and personal look at pitching coach Tommy Hottovy’s battle with COVID-19 during baseball’s shutdown. It took the 38-year-old former big leaguer 30 harrowing days to test negative, and in the past week many Cubs have said watching him go through that hit home. 

“When you get a 38-year-old guy in wonderful health and he talks about his challenges with it,” Hoyer said, “I think that it takes away some of those different viewpoints.”

To ensure everyone stays safe and puts the league in the best position to complete a season, MLB needs strict adherence to its protocols.

“I think that's one of our goals and one of the things that we feel is vital is that we have to make sure everyone views this the same way, because we can't have a subset of people within our group that don't view it with the same severity,” Hoyer said.

“That’s not gonna work. We're not gonna be successful."

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