Believe the hype? Cubs will be major players this offseason


Believe the hype? Cubs will be major players this offseason

Remember this general rule the next time you scroll through Twitter and see the Cubs mentioned next to a big-name free agent: Theo Epstein’s front office likes to kick the tires on everything and never rule out anything.

So don’t believe all the hype when the general manager meetings start rolling this week in Boca Raton, Florida. But the Cubs will be major players this offseason, zeroing in on a deep free-agent class of pitchers headlined by David Price, Zack Greinke, Johnny Cueto, Jordan Zimmermann and Jeff Samardzija.

“We’re likely to focus a lot of our resources on pitching and pitching depth,” general manager Jed Hoyer said.

That’s the bottom line for a team that just won 97 games and advanced to the National League Championship Series. And a franchise locked into the Ricketts family’s leveraged partnership with Sam Zell’s Tribune Co. and an exclusive cable deal with Comcast SportsNet Chicago, which for now are financial boundaries in place through the 2019 season.

[MORE: Cubs jump into free agency looking for big-time pitchers]

But after drawing almost 3 million fans to Wrigley Field, then hosting four home playoff games, plus putting up those new video boards and seeing a spike in TV ratings, the Cubs should be in position to at least fill the $20 million hole in their budget.

Remember, the rough calculation for the 2015 payroll had been $100 million plus the $20 million leftover from last year’s Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes, which still isn’t in the neighborhood of a big-market team. But the Cubs aren’t going to turn into the New York Yankees or Los Angeles Dodgers overnight.

“We have a very good sense of where our payroll is going to be,” Hoyer said. “We feel like we have the means to fill the holes that we want to fill. We don’t have the big cable deal yet, so I think that probably tempers things a little bit, as far as how much flexibility we have.

“But obviously the fact that our attendance looks to be up next year, the new ballpark is starting to churn off some more revenue, I certainly think that we have the ability — within reason — to go after the things we need.”

Cubs executives wouldn’t be doing their jobs if they didn’t at least ask what it might take to sign Jason Heyward or Alex Gordon.

Heyward is only 26 years old and a well-rounded player (who has hit 20-plus homers only once in his career). Signing the Gold Glove outfielder would also mean weakening the St. Louis Cardinals. Gordon is another Gold Glove outfielder/professional hitter who just won a World Series with the Kansas City Royals.

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But since the Cubs already have a surplus of young hitters — and such a huge organizational pitching deficit — it’s harder to see them setting the market for Heyward’s unique skills and untapped potential or rewarding Gordon with a five-year deal when he will be 32 next season.

“We’ve been linked to everyone already,” Hoyer said. “First of all, as a staff, we try to be as diligent as we can and try to talk to as many people as we can. I (also) think that people are sort of talking about the Cubs because of the postseason.

“But even last year, people linked us to all these different free agents. I do think that there’s a level of common sense that has to be used when thinking about what we’re going to do.

“We have areas of improvement. We have some financial flexibility. But certainly we’re not going to head into the winter and look to sort of win the offseason.

“We’re going to look to improve the team — within reason — and fill the holes that we need to fill. But I think that some of the rumors about us are a little bit extreme.”

You’ve probably heard this line before, but it applies to the Cubs now more than ever, because they could wake up tomorrow and roll out an Opening Day lineup that might win them a World Series: It’s the pitching, stupid.

Double the fun: Cole Hamels, Cubs defense make history

Double the fun: Cole Hamels, Cubs defense make history

Cole Hamels' dominant start to his Cubs career continued on Friday in stellar fashion, and with some considerable help from his infield.

The 34-year-old veteran not only pitched seven innings of five-hit ball without allowing a run, but induced five ground ball double plays. The Cubs finished with a staggering seven double plays in a 1-0 win at the Pirates on Friday.

The last time the Cubs turned five double plays was in 1985. 

All five hits Hamels gave up were groundball singles. The 16 groundballs induced is the most for a Cubs pitcher this year.

After Hamels exited after seven innings, the Cubs got double plays in the eighth, on a line drive double play with Jorge De La Rosa on the mound, and ninth, on a groundball induced by Jesse Chavez to end the game.

Hamels was initially brought in to provide depth to a struggling rotation and ease the pain of Yu Darvish being unavailable. But Hamels has now started an honest debate over who should be the Cubs' starter in Game 1 of the postseason. He has been otherworldly since joining the Cubs, with an 0.72 ERA, three wins and one no-decision (the Cubs won and he had nine strikeouts). 

The 1-0 win over the Pirates gives the Cubs more breathing room in the NL Central. The St. Louis Cardinals beat the Milwaukee Brewers on Friday, pushing the Cubs lead to 4.5 games in the division.

And the Hamels hot-streak comes at an excellent time for the North Siders, who took in Jon Lester's gem of an outing on Thursday, where he went six innings with no earned runs and eight strikeouts in a win against the Pirates. The Cubs starting pitching seems to be turning the corner, and with three straight series against sub-.500 teams following their series in Pittsburgh, this could be the beginning of a great run of outings that carries the Cubs confidently into the postseason.

A stellar Jon Lester outing gives the Cubs more than just a win

A stellar Jon Lester outing gives the Cubs more than just a win

It's been a tale of two halves for the Cubs veteran Jon Lester, who after a sparkling first half of baseball that saw him win 12 games with a 2.58 ERA, has looked nothing like a 2018 All-Star. Prior to Thursday's start, Lester had posted a 10.32 ERA, allowed 4 or more runs in 4 of his 5 most recent starts, and had yet to win a game in the second of the season. 

The 34-year-old veteran flipped the script Thursday night, throwing 6-shutout innings while striking out 8 Pirate batters in the Cubs 1-0 win in Pittsburgh. Lester surrendered only 5 hits and baffled the Pirates all-night, finally busting out of his slump and giving the Cubs his 2nd quality start since the All-Star break. 

Lester attacked the bottom portion of the strike zone all night with his fastball, which topped out at 93 mph, generating 4 whiffs with his heater. Over the last month, Lester has said he's felt he can't quite execute his "out" pitches, explaining that when he has a hitter set up for a strikeout he hasn't been able to throw the ball effectively in those moments. 

And while Lester walked off the mound after the 6th inning amassing 8 punch outs, the veteran starter never looked like he was trying to strike out batters. He just continued to dot the corners, occasionally raise the eye-level of the batter with an elevated heater, and threw his secondary pitches just enough to keep the Pittsburgh batters uncomfortable at the plate. 

The Cubs offense once again struggled, facing Ivan Nova who has won four his last five starts against the Cubs, but Ian Happ's solo shot in the 4th inning was enough run support for Lester to push the Cubs to 20 games over .500. But the biggest takeaway from Thursday night's win isn't that the Cubs came out on top, it's that Jon Lester returning to form gives this Chicago rotation something they've lacked seemingly this entire season. 

Stability at the front of the rotation. 

With Cole Hamels impressive three starts in a Cub uniform and Kyle Hendricks finally figuring out his issues on the mound, if Jon Lester can replicate Thursday's performance throughout the rest of the season, the Cubs rotation may finally turn into the strength many thought it could be before the season started. At the very least, Lester showed that whatever he's been working through over the last month of baseball is fixable. 

It's only one start in a string of poor outings for Lester, and while The Athletic's Sahadev Sharma did find some positives in his starts prior to Thursday's big win, Lester will have to show he can maintain this level of pitching through the remainder of this season. But I think our own Tony Andracki put it best tonight on Twitter. 

With the Cubs pitchers finally starting to perform to their expected level, and the return of Yu Darvish looking closer each day, it could be the Cubs starting pitching that carries through the rest of the season.