Can Cubs land a big-name outfielder at winter meetings?


Can Cubs land a big-name outfielder at winter meetings?

Can the Cubs accomplish what they need to do on the pitching side and still have enough money leftover to make a significant multiyear commitment to a position player?

“I wouldn’t rule anything out or anything in,” team president Theo Epstein said.

That’s how the Cubs roll into the winter meetings that begin Monday in Nashville, Tennessee, looking to add to their rotation, strengthen the bullpen and find someone to play center field. But after assembling a young core that advanced to the National League Championship Series, the Cubs won’t feel any pressure to walk out of the Opryland with deer antlers (as general manager Jed Hoyer would say).

The Cubs already crossed a major item off their list, agreeing to a two-year, $32 million contract with veteran right-hander John Lackey, a short-term deal that looks reasonable at a time when the Boston Red Sox and Arizona Diamondbacks just guaranteed $423 million combined to David Price and Zack Greinke.

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Epstein’s front office always likes to keep an open mind and kick the tires on everything, but the Lackey deal and a surplus of hitters does create a degree of flexibility.

All the buzz leading up to the winter meetings revolved around big-ticket pitchers, and maybe now the Cubs will get a better idea of whether or not they can really compete for an established outfielder from a group that includes Jason Heyward, Alex Gordon and Dexter Fowler.

“It depends on some other things that take place,” Epstein said. “Sometimes, when you make a trade, it opens up the ability to then sign a free agent. Not all really good players are expensive, especially if you get them through trade and you can get creative with how you structure certain deals.

“We’ve been working with our business side on some ways to create a little bit more room for 2016 within the parameters that we have.”

[MORE: Cubs see center-field possibilities for Javier Baez]

The Cubs have been linked to the Atlanta Braves, Cleveland Indians and San Diego Padres since the July 31 trade deadline, and maybe that’s where they find another starter like Julio Teheran, Danny Salazar or Tyson Ross.

The Cubs also have nearly $80 million still tied up in infielder Starlin Castro, catcher Miguel Montero and pitcher Jason Hammel. You know Castro’s name will somehow wind up on MLB Trade Rumors this week, but the Cubs believe a healthy Hammel will bounce back next season, and catching isn’t an area where a contending team can cut corners.

The Cubs will probably have to think along those lines – trades to add pitching and free up more funds – if they want something more than a stopgap solution in center field (which actually might make the most sense at this point in The Plan).   

“I don’t feel like if we do something on the pitching end, we won’t be able to do anything with position players,” Epstein said. “It just depends on exactly the type of commitments you’re looking at, and how they’re structured.”    

With the St. Louis Cardinals positioned to spend aggressively and already having a comfort level with Heyward, it’s hard to see the Cubs actually setting the market for a defensive game-changer and a good-enough hitter who’s still only 26 years old.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

If years were an issue in the Jeff Samardzija talks – The Shark got $90 million over five from the San Francisco Giants – then it will probably be problematic with Gordon as he enters his age-32 season after a World Series run with the Kansas City Royals.  

During the season, the Cubs and Fowler gave off vibes that it would only be a one-year rental, though Epstein has kept the lines of communication open with agent Casey Close (who represents Fowler and Gordon and is involved with Heyward’s camp).

If the money is right – and that is usually a question mark in the economic climate surrounding this franchise – the Cubs have so many other selling points to free agents.  

“We’ve become a really attractive destination,” Epstein said. “It’s not just getting to be one of the Final Four this year. It’s the atmosphere at Wrigley Field. It’s our fan base. It’s that we’re still on this tremendous journey to try to win a World Series for the first time in what will now be 108 years.

“It’s (manager) Joe Maddon and the culture that he creates. It’s our ownership and how they treat players like family. It’s our young players and veterans wanting to come here and be part of this surge that we’re having right now.”

Cubs rallying behind Jon Lester after another tough outing

Cubs rallying behind Jon Lester after another tough outing

There are three ways to look at the Cubs' 9-3 loss Friday:

1) Jon Lester had another rough outing and the sun is starting to set on his career as a front-of-the-rotation starter.

2) Lester gave up some hard contact, but also had some tough luck and pitched better than his final line indicated.

3) Meh.

To be honest, each of the three perspectives has an element of truth to it, but the third one is probably the main way to look at it as the Cubs tasted defeat for the first time in a week.

No, the team did not play well, but it went far beyond Lester.

The Nationals didn't get into town until the wee hours of Friday morning, yet it was the Cubs who looked sluggish Friday. They managed only two baserunners - a single and a walk - until the ninth inning when they put together a too-little-too-late rally thanks to some shoddy Washington fielding.

But even if the offense did come to play, the game was out of hand by the fifth inning, when Lester and Pedro Strop combined to allow 3 runs, extending Washington's lead to 7-0.

Lester was charged with 6 runs on 9 hits and a walk over 4.1 innings, but 8 of those 9 hits were singles. The only extra-base knock off the Cubs southpaw was Adam Eaton's line drive home run in the first inning that he smacked into the 18 mph wind howling in off the lake.

Of the singles, a couple were hard ground balls knocked down by Cubs infielders and one was a perfectly executed bunt by pitcher Anibal Sanchez with two strikes that the Cubs had no choice but to hope it would roll foul. At that point in the fourth inning, the score was only 3-0, but the Cubs' misfortune seemed to open the door for the Nationals.

"I'm telling you, I don't think he was that bad today," Maddon said. "We were a little bit unlucky with him. ... Outside of that last inning when they squared him up, I thought he actually threw the ball decently.

"I think he's gonna be fine. He will find a way to get himself back into the picture in the right way. There's a lot of time left with the playoffs, etc., so I'm counting on it. I believe in Jon."

Beyond the tough luck, the Nationals hit five balls more than 100 mph off Lester, including a 108.5 mph single on the final batter (Juan Soto) he faced in the fifth inning.

After the game, Lester couldn't do much but shrug and accept responsibility for the loss.

"I feel fine," he said. "Today sucks. Tomorrow, I'll wake up and start a new day and get ready for another start. That doesn't take the sting away from today. Joe's always said, 'you win hard, you lose hard' and losing for me is even harder than that. Sucking as a pitcher is even harder than that.

"It's my job to do better and I'm not. I let a five-game winning streak basically go by the wayside because I didn't throw the ball very well. It's frustrating, but tomorrow starts a new day and move on to the next one."

Friday's game marks the fifth time this season Lester has allowed at least 6 runs in an outing. This was his 25th start of 2019, so that means 20 percent of his appearances have resulted in putting his team in a major hole.

"I think we're getting to the point where you can't isolate [the rough games]," Lester said. "They're happening a little bit too much for myself. I felt pretty good about myself after the last one, just being able to continually execute pitches. I don't feel like stuff was much different than last time, just different results and that's the shitty part about this game and my job - it's results driven and it doesn't matter how I feel or what the gameplan was going in.

"You have to execute and get people out and keep them from scoring runs and I'm just not doing that."

Lester started the five-game winning streak for the Cubs with a performance befitting true "ace" or "stopper" status. After a pair of disheartening bullpen meltdowns, he took the ball last Saturday and shut out the Pirates through 6 innings, battling despite not having his best stuff (5 walks).

But even including that start in Pittsburgh, Lester has now allowed 23 earned runs in 24.1 innings in five starts in August.

For a 35-year-old with three World Series rings and a long track record of pitching well when the lights are the brightest, he isn't where he wants to be as September approaches in a tight playoff race.

"Better than this," he said. "Usually this is the time of year where I pitch a lot better than I have been. For whatever reason, I haven't hit that stride. I usually have ups and downs to every season, but usually more ups than downs.

"Right now, it's just continuing to go down. The old saying - one step forward, two steps back - is kinda what I'm doing right now. The positive is I physically feel fine. Can't blame it on that. Just have to be better. Tomorrow's a new day, prepare for the next one."

Even with the recent struggles, Kyle Schwarber said Lester is still the guy the Cubs would want to give the ball to in Game 1 of a playoff series.

"He'll bounce back," Schwarber said. "He knows how to handle himself really well. He's a leader out there and we always have his back."

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As Cubs continue to ride the roller coaster, they won't 'play with the scoreboard'

As Cubs continue to ride the roller coaster, they won't 'play with the scoreboard'

The Cubs woke up Friday morning riding the high of their longest winning streak in nearly four months (five games) and a season-high 11 games over .500. 

That was only good enough for a half-game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals in the division, but the Cubs will take it considering the way things were just a week ago. 

After getting swept by Bryce Harper's Phillies on the road, the Cubs went to Pittsburgh and witnessed another late bullpen meltdown last Friday. But they haven't lost since and it's gotten to the point where Joe Maddon was asked ahead of the series with the Nationals if he feels his team is clicking in all facets of the game.

Maddon didn't answer that question directly, but it's a fair assessment of this team right now. As an added boost, Ben Zobrist should be activated off the restricted list next weekend and Willson Contreras will travel with the Cubs to New York next week and could ramp up his baseball activities there as he recovers from a Grade-2 hamstring strain. 

What a difference a week makes. 

"I can't emphasize enough — it is a 24-hour cycle," Maddon said. "It's no different than a news cycle and if you have a bad day, our game is so beautiful you can have a great day the very next night. You don't have to wait a week to play again.

"I've been involved in some really tight races in September where you're going good, good, good and all the sudden, man, you get your teeth smashed in towards the end and you can't permit that to take you out of your methods. It's great that the boys feel that way. I feel that way. 

"I still believe our best baseball's ahead of us for the rest of the season. ... With the new additions and the guys coming back, we should be capable of doing that kind of stuff."

The Cubs still have 14 games left with the Cardinals and Brewers, including a series each in St. Louis (Sept. 27-29) and Milwaukee (Sept. 5-8). 

With just over five weeks left in the season, the division race could come down to that final weekend of the year in St. Louis. That is, unless one team goes on a run and pull away with things before that point.

Either way, the Cubs are just trying to stay focused on their game while blocking out all the outside noise, which is something Javy Baez felt they didn't accomplish down the stretch last season.

"I think we're in a good spot," Baez said earlier this month. "We're actually not paying attention to other teams. It looks like they're paying attention to us. We've had ups and downs and we're just trying to get that out of the way and keep going.

"Me personally, I can't play with the scoreboard. I know where the game's at, but I can't play with numbers. I put too much pressure on myself."

Given the way last year ended and the call for more urgency this season, things certainly haven't played out in a dream scenario for the 2019 Cubs. The more time that goes by, the more 2016 looks like an outlier in terms of the way that team cruised and how pretty much everything went right.

But the rest of the division — and the entire National League — has improved while the Cubs are still searching for consistency in their own game, particularly away from Wrigley Field.

Still, there are way worse positions to be in than a half-game up in the division with five-and-a-half weeks to go.

"We all know what's at stake here," Kyle Schwarber said. "We're in a good position where we're in control of our own destiny. It doesn't really matter the home/road splits — it just comes down to playing each ballgame, one game at a time. It doesn't matter if we're at home or on the road, we got X amount of ballgames left and we can control what we do."