Cubs

Cubs: Dexter Fowler plays the waiting game in free agency

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Cubs: Dexter Fowler plays the waiting game in free agency

The sense is Dexter Fowler returning to Wrigley Field as Joe Maddon’s “You go, we go” leadoff guy is highly unlikely, but the Cubs won’t completely shut the door on that remote possibility until he signs somewhere else.

The White Sox didn’t turn Fowler into their SoxFest splash over the weekend, even though he would make a lot of sense on the South Side as a top-of-the-order complement to Adam Eaton.

The White Sox have already built a foundation with Cy Young/MVP award candidates Chris Sale and Jose Abreu, plus elite closer David Robertson and young starting pitchers Jose Quintana and Carlos Rodon.

After giving up five young players to get Todd Frazier and Brett Lawrie into their everyday lineup – at a time when the Cubs appear ready to dominate the Chicago summer for years to come – why stop now?

The draft pick attached to Fowler has clearly had a chilling effect on his market after he declined a one-year, $15.8 million qualifying offer from the Cubs. But back in November, no one was saying he should take that deal.

It’s now February and Fowler still hasn’t cashed in after a strong platform season on the North Side.

“I am a little shocked by that,” Cubs hitting coach John Mallee said Sunday in Tinley Park before receiving a coach of the year award from Chicago’s Pitch and Hit Club. “He was a big part of our offense. He was a big part of what we were doing. To (watch) him every day – and look at the (board now) and see he hasn’t gone yet – it is a little surprising. It’s actually really surprising.”

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Theo Epstein’s front office doesn’t like to rule anything out, always trying to keep all options open. But in both public statements and private comments, the Cubs have repeatedly signaled that pretty much all of the heavy lifting for this team is done, not expecting another major move this winter.

The Cubs have a full 40-man roster and need to preserve some flexibility for in-season adjustments and trade-deadline deals after dropping more than $276 million on outfielder Jason Heyward, super-utility guy Ben Zobrist, pitcher John Lackey and swingman Trevor Cahill. 

The Cubs have found the cost of acquiring a young starting pitcher to be outrageous, meaning it would be difficult to flip Jorge Soler in a worthwhile trade that would clear a spot in right field for Heyward. Plus, the Cubs understand Soler has untapped potential and Fowler is not a standout defender in center field.

The Cubs would also like to recoup a draft pick after giving up two selections – and the corresponding bonus-pool money – in signing Heyward and Lackey.

What’s a pick in the mid-60s range worth? Jason McLeod, the vice president of scouting and player development, has pointed to his first pick in his first draft with the Boston Red Sox in 2004, when they found an undersized Arizona State University infielder at No. 65 overall: Future American League MVP Dustin Pedroia.   

Leading into Cubs Convention weekend in the middle of January, Maddon predicted Yoenis Cespedes making a decision would help clarify the market for Fowler.

[MORE: Cubs invite Albert Almora and Duane Underwood to big-league camp

“That just seems to be the last shoe to fall,” Maddon said. “I don’t know why. I’m sure he’s going to be fine, because he did have a good year and he’s young and he’s good. I don’t even know if there’s going to be like a pecking order with Cespedes and then him. I guess it depends on the financial (terms) – how they view what they’re worth or not probably matters.”

Fowler went into 2016 still looking for a four-year deal, but there aren’t many obvious fits left on paper.

The Seattle Mariners traded for Leonys Martin in the middle of November. The Cubs reached an eight-year, $184 million agreement with Heyward coming out of the winter meetings. The San Francisco Giants gave Denard Span three years and $31 million guaranteed in early January. The Washington Nationals then acquired Ben Revere.

Cespedes circled back to the New York Mets in late January, compromising on a three-year, $75 million contract that contains an opt-out after this season, which could make him a headliner in next winter’s weak class of free agents.  

Maybe a pillow contract will be the blueprint for Fowler, who isn’t an elite centerfielder or a leader in the clubhouse or the most durable player.

[RELATED: Cubs hoping to change offensive identity with Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist]

But Fowler also won’t turn 30 until March 22. He’s a switch-hitter with a career .363 on-base percentage. He put up 17 homers and 20 stolen bases for a 97-win team last season. 

“We had a great year with him,” general manager Jed Hoyer said recently, declining to say anything about Fowler’s future. “We really like him as a guy, as a player. He gets on base. He grinds his at-bats. He did a good job for us on the bases and in center field. He was a big part of what we did last year.” 

It’s Super Bowl Week, but there are still two months left until Opening Day, and some team will find the right price point and see an opportunity to jumpstart a lineup and upgrade in the outfield. 

Is @DexterFowler worried about it? Check out the video clip posted to his Twitter account on Sunday night: “Oh Dexter Fowler? He’s just dancing in the rain…”

   

Podcast: Cubs pass the first test in midst of crucial stretch

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Scott Changnon

Podcast: Cubs pass the first test in midst of crucial stretch

On the latest CubsTalk Podcast Scott Changnon and Tony Andracki discuss the state of the Cubs offense, the value of Javy Baez and Addison Russell and what it means now that the starting rotation looks to be finding its form.

With 17 games in 17 days (most of which come against contending teams), the Cubs started things off right with a series victory in St. Louis.

Listen to the entire podcast here:

The Cubs are in a way better spot than they were a year ago

The Cubs are in a way better spot than they were a year ago

ST. LOUIS — It's night and day watching the 2018 Cubs compared to the 2017 version.

Even with the injury to Javy Baez Sunday night, the Cubs are in a way better spot now than they were a year ago.

On June 17 of last season, the Cubs sat at 33-34 with a run differential of just +6.

They looked flat more often than not. "Hangover" was the word thrown around most and it was true — the Cubs really did have a World Series hangover.

They admit that freely and it's also totally understandable. Not only did they win one of the most mentally and physically draining World Series in history, but they also ended a 108-year championship drought and the weight of that accomplishment was simply staggering. 

The 2018 iteration of the Cubs are completely different. 

Even though they didn't finish off the sweep of their division rivals in St. Louis Sunday night, they're still only a half-game behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central and for the best record in the league. A +95 run differential paced the NL and sat behind only the Houston Astros (+157), Boston Red Sox (+102) and New York Yankees (+98) in the AL.

Through 67 games, the Cubs sat at 40-27, 13 games above .500 compared to a game below .500 at the same point last summer.

What's been the main difference?

"Energy," Joe Maddon said simply. "Coming off the World Series, it was really hard to get us kickstarted. It was just different. I thought the fatigue generated from the previous two years, playing that deeply into the year. A lot of young guys on the team last year.

"We just could not get it kickstarted. This year, came out of camp with a fresher attitude. Not like we've been killing it to this point; we've been doing a lot better, but I didn't even realize that's the difference between last year and this year.

"If anything, I would just pinpoint it on energy."

Of course the physical component is easy to see. The Cubs played past Halloweeen in 2016 and then had so many demands for street namings and talk shows and TV appearances and Disney World and on and on. That would leave anybody exhausted with such a shortened offseason.

There's also the mental component. The Cubs came into 2018 with a chip on their shoulder after running into a wall in the NLCS last fall against the Los Angeles Dodgers. They have a renewed focus and intensity.

But there's still plenty of room for more. The Cubs aren't happy with the best record and run differential in the NL. They know they still haven't fully hit their stride yet, even amidst a 24-13 stretch over the last five weeks.

"I think we've been pretty consistent," Jon Lester said. "We've had some ups and downs on both sides of the ball as far as pitching and hitting. But the biggest thing is our bullpen and our defense has been pretty solid all year.

"That's kept us in those games. When we do lose — you're gonna have the anomalies every once in a while and get blown out — we're in every single game. It's all we can do. Keep grinding it out.

"Our offense will be fine. Our defense and the back end of our bullpen has done an unbelievable job of keeping us in these games. And if we contribute as a starting five, even better. 

"You have the games where our guys get feeling sexy about themselves and score some runs. That's where the snowball effect and we get on that little bit of a run. I feel like we've been on a few runs, it just hasn't been an extended period of time. I don't have any concerns as far as inside this clubhouse."

Lester hit the nail on the head. The Cubs sit at this point with only 1 win from Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood struggling with command and low power numbers from several guys including Kris Bryant.

Throw in the fact that Joe Maddon's Cubs teams always seem to get into a groove in August and September when they're fresher and "friskier" than the rest of the league and this team is currently in very good shape for the remainder of the year. 

If they can get 3 wins away from the World Series after going 33-34, the sky should be the limit for a 2018 squad that's in a much better position 67 games in.