Cubs

Cubs have their eyes on new cable network in 2020

crane-kenney-1111.png

Cubs have their eyes on new cable network in 2020

BOCA RATON, Fla. — All along, the Cubs have pointed toward their next TV contract as the accelerator that launches the franchise into another economic stratosphere.

Until then, it appears Theo Epstein’s front office won’t have a big-market payroll, or will at least have to wait for incremental boosts from the Wrigley Field renovations and the buzz surrounding a young, compelling team that just won 97 games and two playoff rounds.

While Epstein created headlines this week during the general manager meetings in South Florida — essentially ruling out the idea of signing two free agents to nine-figure contracts this winter — president of business operations Crane Kenney made news back in Chicago on Wednesday by announcing a change in flagship radio stations.

As anticipated, the Cubs will move from WBBM Newsradio after one season and switch next year to WSCR-AM 670, another CBS affiliate. During a promotional appearance on The Score, Kenney sounded more certain than ever the Cubs will start their own cable network.

“2019 is our last year with Comcast, so we’ll move over and launch our own channel in 2020,” Kenney said on the “Mully & Hanley” morning show.

[MORE CUBS: Dave Martinez gets chance to make pitch for Dodgers job]

The Cubs have an ownership stake in Comcast SportsNet Chicago — which owns exclusive cable rights through the 2019 season — and synced up their local deals with ABC and WGN with the idea of becoming a broadcasting free agent.

So does this mean the Cubs will be waiting until 2020 for their infusion of TV money?

“I think that’s just one option,” Epstein said at the Boca Raton Resort and Club. “My understanding is that we’d be open to a deal earlier than that as well, as long as a good one presents itself.”

Before leaving Fenway Park for a president’s title and a direct report to ownership in Chicago, Epstein helped build two World Series winners for the Boston Red Sox, a franchise that uses NESN to support a 2015 payroll that soared to around $200 million for luxury-tax purposes.

Epstein said he thought a Cubs network in 2020 would be “a very real option.”

“But, frankly, it’s a landscape that I don’t feel qualified to talk about,” Epstein said. “I don’t fully understand it, and I trust our people to deliver the right deal at the right time.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

It’s a constantly changing landscape, and who knows what it might look like five years from now, or how the Cubs would find winter programming if the White Sox, Bulls and Blackhawks stick together with their own regional sports network.

At a time of cord-cutting, online streaming and digital innovation, the Cubs can’t get stuck behind the curve or experience the gridlock that slowed the early stages of the Wrigleyville construction project.

All the carriage problems surrounding the Los Angeles Dodgers and their reported $8 billion deal with Time Warner Cable has fueled fears of a bubble.

The Ricketts family and Epstein’s baseball staff are counting on Kenney — a former Tribune Co. lawyer who’s spent more than two decades in the organization — to deliver.

“There’s a lot of content there for a launch of a network,” Kenney said. “Not everyone succeeds. The ones that have succeeded, though, have done really well for their teams in providing resources back to the club, and to save the ballpark, in our case.

“We’re very excited about it. Fortunately for me, that’s what I grew up doing. My career started in law and media, and we put together first Fox Sports Chicago and then Comcast SportsNet.

“Maybe the one thing I actually do know is how to put these things together.”

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.