Cubs

Cubs get 3B Stewart in four-player trade

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Cubs get 3B Stewart in four-player trade

Apart from several rumors, the Cubs were quiet during this weeks MLB winter meetings in Dallas and headed back to Chicago without any new additions to the club.

But just as the weeks events wrapped up, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer pulled off their first trade.

The Cubs sent Tyler Colvin and D.J. LeMahieu to the Colorado Rockies for third baseman Ian Stewart and pitcher Casey Weathers.

Were really excited for both of these guys, Hoyer said in a conference call after the move was made official. Stewart is the first guy we circled at the beginning of the offseason. He had a disappointing 2011 season, but has a ton of potential, provides a left-handed bat at third base and is affordable. We expect big things out of Ian.

Its a classic change-of-scenery move for two former first-round picks as both Colvin and Stewart suffered through dismal 2011 seasons.

Stewart volleyed between the Rockies and their Triple-A affiliate all season while Colvin spent his share of time at Triple-A Iowa and struggled to find his groove after an impressive rookie season.

Both players hit in the .150s last season (Colvin hit .150 while Stewart didnt fare much better at .156). Stewart did not hit a home run and Colvin managed just six in 222 big-league plate appearances.

At 26, the Cubs expect a rebound from Stewart.

A change of scenery can make a big difference, Hoyer said. I read a couple quotes from Stewart at the end of the year saying he did need a change of scenery but that he wanted to see things through in Colorado. I really respect that attitude that he felt like he wanted to make it work there.

I do think a change of scenery can work and were certainly hopeful it does.

Stewart, who was taken as the 10th overall pick of the 2003 draft by the Rockies, showed promise earlier in his career, slugging 25 homers and 70 RBI in just 425 at-bats in 2009.

The deal has been in the works for a few days, but was held up until Stewart could get checked out by the Cubs doctors after finishing last season with a wrist injury.

Our doctors were very thorough, Hoyer said. We consummated deal on Tuesday evening and we ended up flying Ian into Chicago to have him checked out. Everything looks very good. Hes been hitting off tees and hes been working out. The wrist injury that bothered him at the end of the year is cleared up and hes ready to go.

The Cubs project Stewart as the starting third baseman next year and are counting on a return to form. Hoyer cannot point to anything specific as to what plagued Stewart last season, but believes the young slugger was constantly changing his stance and pressing at the plate, something he also attributes to Colvins struggles with the Cubs.

With a guy like Stewart, we control him for 3 years, Hoyer said. Hes affordable. Hell play next year at 27. Well get three years at his prime when a lot of players come into their own. Theres plenty of examples of players like this -- like Stewart, like Colvin -- who have struggled in their 20s, had a poor season and bounced back. And were hopeful Ian is one of them.

The Cubs drafted LeMahieu in the second round of the 2009 draft and hes shown a good glove all over the infield as well as a career .317 minor-league batting average.

Weathers is another former first-round pick who turned in a solid 2008 season with Colorados Double-A affiliate (3.05 ERA, 11.0 K9) but had Tommy John surgery after the season and sat out all of 2009. Hes struggled since, posting a 5.32 ERA and 48 walks in 45.2 innings at Double-A last year.

Were hoping hes a change of scenery guy as well, Hoyer said. Hes shown glimpses of his talent, but he hasnt put it together. Were hopeful that our coaches and our staff can bring it out of him.

Including the David DeJesus signing last week, this marks the second move of the Theo era at Wrigley, providing a glance at the thought process the new front office has in trying to turn this franchise around.

With our first two moves, weve attempted to make the team less right-handed than it has been and weve attempted to add better defense, Hoyer said. \We feel pretty good with both the moves that weve made.

Following 2019 'learning process,' Ian Happ's offensive progression key for 2020 Cubs

Following 2019 'learning process,' Ian Happ's offensive progression key for 2020 Cubs

It’s been another quiet offseason for the Cubs.

January is almost over and the Cubs have yet to commit a single guaranteed dollar to the big-league roster. After exceeding MLB’s luxury tax threshold in 2019, Theo Epstein and Co. are looking to get under the figure in 2020 and reset penalties entering 2021.

Barring any major surprises — i.e. a core player getting dealt before Opening Day — the club will return largely the same team from last season. That group has plenty of talent, but there are some question marks, like second base and center field.

A fan made waves at Cubs Convention last Saturday, reciting the definition of insanity to Epstein and Jed Hoyer during a baseball operations panel. With a similar roster in hand, why should fans expect anything different from the Cubs in 2020?

For Epstein, part of the answer lies in the continued development of homegrown players like Ian Happ.

Happ was supposed to be a key cog for the Cubs in 2019, but he was sent to Triple-A Iowa at the end of spring training after striking out 14 times in 52 at-bats. This followed a 2018 season in which he sported a 36.1 percent strikeout rate.

“He was striking out 30 percent of the time and we decided to send him down, because what we were seeing with Ian Happ, in our mind, wasn’t the finished product,” Epstein said Saturday at the Sheraton Grand Chicago. “We believe it’s the same way with a lot of our hitters, that’s there’s tremendous talent in there, but it wasn’t manifesting in major league games — which is all that matters — the way we needed it to.”

Happ was reportedly upset with the move, but his strikeout rate dropped to 26.3 percent with Iowa. After the Cubs recalled him on July 26, he posted a 25 percent rate in 58 games (156 plate appearances), slashing .264/.333/.564. He recognizes the demotion was beneficial.

“I got a lot of at-bats. I used it as a learning process,” Happ told NBC Sports Chicago Friday of his Triple-A stint. “To be able to come back and have success, it was a good way to finish the season."

Happ ended the season on a high note, slashing .311/.348/.672 in September with six home runs. He was tremendous over the season’s final eight games: .480/.519/1.200, five homers and 12 RBIs.

“Just being more aware of the ways guys were gonna pitch me,” Happ said regarding his hot September. “There’s some tweaks. For me, it was more about handling different pitches and when to use two different swings — when to be a little bit more defensive, when to put the ball in play. It led to results.”

Cubs players have been criticized in recent seasons for a seeming unwillingness to shorten up at times to put the ball in play. Their 73.8 percent contact rate in 2019 was last in the National League, though Ben Zobrist’s personal absence contributed to the low figure.

Happ posted a 71.7 percent contact rate, up from his 63.5 percent rate in 2018.

“He went through a really difficult stretch in Iowa, making significant adjustments to his approach and his swing and as a person, growing from some failure,” Epstein said. “When he came back up towards the end of last year, his strikeout rate was under much better control, he had much more contact ability.

“He wasn’t driving the ball quite the same, and then by the end of the year, he had maintained that better contact rate, was starting to drive the ball again, and it looked pretty dynamic and pretty promising for the future.”

It’s not a coincidence Happ made strides with Iowa. He got to work on his swing in an environment where he played every day. This wouldn’t have been the case in the big leagues, especially if his struggles lingered.

Happ started each of the Cubs’ last six games; he said it's huge for his confidence knowing he'd be playing every day. 

“It’s huge, it’s huge. I think that’s what everyone’s striving for in this league, is be able to [play every day],” he said. “For me, after that stretch and being able to finish strong and look back on a solid year, that’s big moving forward.”

The Cubs roster may look the same, but there’s plenty of room for internal improvement. Pitchers will continue adjusting to Happ, but he’s a better player for what he went through last season. He can take what he learned and carry it into 2020.

“So now, same player on the roster — and I understand the definition of insanity — but to expect Ian Happ to grow from what he’s gone through and benefit from the coaching that he’s gotten,” Epstein said, “and the lessons that he’s learned and the adversity that he’s gone through, and go out and be a productive player for us next year in a certain role, I don’t think is insane.”

“It’s just about sticking with the process, understanding that that’s what worked and that’s what you want to do,” Happ said. “It’s not always easy at the beginning of the year at Wrigley. It’s cold, it’s windy. The results don’t always show up. But if you’re true to the process and you keep going, by the end of the year you’ll be at a good spot.”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: It's time for a culture change for the Cubs

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AP

Cubs Talk Podcast: It's time for a culture change for the Cubs

After the Cubs Convention, fans left still uncertain about the team headed into the 2020 season. Host David Kaplan and NBC Sports Chicago Cubs writer Tim Stebbins discuss what they took from Cubs Con, the culture change that is coming to the organization and a realistic possibility that the Cubs are looking into disgruntled star Nolan Arenado.

Listen to the episode here or in the embedded player below.

Cubs Talk Podcast

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Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Chicago Cubs easily on your device.