Cubs

Cubs should be in position to make much bigger moves

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Cubs should be in position to make much bigger moves

SAN DIEGO – The time will come for the Cubs to put their money where their mouth is.

If this team really is that good, then it’s up to Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and their baseball operations department to find the right pieces between now and the July 31 trade deadline, perhaps dealing from what’s arguably baseball’s best farm system.

If this team stays in contention, then it’s up to president of business operations Crane Kenney to deliver on that memorable quote from a Bloomberg Businessweek cover story: “Basically, my job is fill a wheelbarrow with money, take it to Theo’s office, and dump it.”

Chairman Tom Ricketts put it this way during his state-of-the-team news conference in spring training: “We’ll have the flexibility to do whatever Theo needs to do in the middle of the season.”

The roster churn won’t stop, not with the Baseball Prospectus calculations giving the Cubs a 63-percent chance of making the playoffs before Tuesday night’s sloppy 4-3 loss to the San Diego Padres at Petco Park. 

This team clearly isn’t a finished product yet, not with Kris Bryant, Starlin Castro and Addison Russell combining for three errors that led to three unearned runs, and a young lineup striking out 14 times against James Shields and San Diego’s lights-out bullpen. 

[MORE: Cubs trade Welington Castillo to Mariners for Yoervis Medina]

The Cubs needed a bigger wheelbarrow for Shields, who waited to sign until after Super Bowl Sunday and almost fell into their lap just before pitchers and catchers reported to spring training. Shields had played for manager Joe Maddon and helped lead the Tampa Bay Rays and Kansas City Royals to the World Series.

“It was very close,” Maddon said. “It came down to the wire. He and I talked often. I’m a big fan of his. We had a great relationship in Tampa Bay.” 

Shields got the no-decision after limiting the Cubs to two solo homers (Chris Coghlan, Dexter Fowler) across seven innings and notching 11 strikeouts. Shields is 5-0 with a 3.74 ERA at a time when the Cubs are struggling to squeeze innings out of the back of their rotation, already exiling Travis Wood and Edwin Jackson to the bullpen. 

Maybe investing in a 33-year-old pitcher who’s put up eight straight seasons with 200-plus innings would have backfired. But the Cubs floated a three-year, $60 million concept that included a significant amount of deferred money and a vesting option that would still cap the overall value at less than $80 million. 

Shields wound up grabbing four years and $75 million guaranteed from the Padres and the chance to max out at $91 million with a club option for 2019. 

“Yes,” Maddon said, he’s confident the resources will be there if the Cubs keep doing their part between the lines this summer.

[RELATED: Javier Baez will be an X-factor as Cubs stay in contention]

“But I don’t even think about that,” Maddon said. “Just win tonight’s game. I’ve talked about that a lot, just staying in the present tense. I really have tried to train myself to win tonight’s game.

“Keep doing that often enough, and then that moment will take care of itself. Organizationally speaking, ownership, front office – fabulous. So if we just take care of our job on a daily basis, then that will take care of itself. I don’t worry about stuff like that. Ever.”

The 25-and-under infield didn’t take care of business as the Cubs wasted a strong performance from Jason Hammel, who took a no-hitter into the fifth inning and made his fifth straight quality start.

As the Cubs (21-17) slowly unraveled, Bryant fielded a chopper near the third-base line in the fifth inning and made a high throw that ricocheted off the top of first baseman Anthony Rizzo’s glove. Castro couldn’t handle a routine groundball in the seventh inning. Russell got caught in “no man’s land” in the eighth inning and dropped a pop-up in shallow center field as the Padres (20-20) kept capitalizing on mistakes.

“I got to make that play,” Castro said. “When you make an error, that kills the team.” 

“I got a good read, a good bead on it and it just kept drifting away,” Russell said, “and no one else really called it.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here

“We gave them that game,” Hammel said. “We should have won that game. Everything we did tonight, there’s no way we should have lost that game.”

The Cubs are going to have to live with some of these growing pains. But inside the clubhouse, they’re not talking about this being a stepping-stone season or trying to build a bridge to 2017. Epstein and Hoyer don’t have to mortgage the future now, but there should still be bigger moves out there.

“Since December, I saw the front office doing the best they can to put a team together to compete,” catcher Miguel Montero said. “They put a really good team together with the addition of (Jon) Lester, (Jason) Motte, (David) Ross. The young guys are big-league players already. They’ll still develop, but they’re (doing it) in the big leagues. 

“Maybe they think about next year or the year after. But it can be this year – and then next year and the year after. Because these guys are just getting better.” 

Glanville: Fall to Spring - A player’s offseason changes meaning with each changing season

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USA TODAY

Glanville: Fall to Spring - A player’s offseason changes meaning with each changing season

A few weeks after the we (the Cubs) were eliminated from the 2003 playoffs, I got a phone call from my college professor. Since it was officially the off-season, I was in the early stages of a break from following a pocket schedule to tell me where to be every day for nearly eight months.

But this was a man I could not refuse. I chose my college major to go into his field of transportation engineering and he was calling because he needed a teaching assistant to accompany him on his trip to South Africa.

One minute I could barely move off of my couch in my Chicago apartment after losing Game 7 against the Marlins. The next minute, I would be standing within miles of the Southern most point in Africa at the Cape of Good Hope. Why not? I needed the distraction so I agreed to go.

The offseason is its own transition. Leaving the regimen of routine, of batting practice and bus times, to an open ended world that you have to re-learn again. When I finished my first full major league season in 1997, I lived in Streeterville at the Navy Pier Apartments.

That offseason, I decided to stay an extra month in Chicago only to wake up panicked for the first two weeks because I thought I was missing stretch time for a home day game. A major league schedule becomes etched in your DNA after a while.

It is also a time that you get to reflect. The regular season does not give you a moment to really get perspective on what was just accomplished, what it all means, what you would change. I always joked about the T-shirt I wanted to a sell that listed all of the things a major league player figures out during the off-season. From the perfect swing to the ex-girlfriend you need to un-break-up with next week.

It all becomes so clear when a 96 MPH fastball isn’t coming at you.

For years, I would arrange a training program to follow, but I quickly learned that I had to mix it up. There was only so much repetition I could stand in the off-season. So some years, I moved to the site of spring training and worked out early with the staff, other years I found a spot at home where I grew up or wherever I played during the season, to train.

I was single when I played, but now with a family, I have a better understanding of the challenges my teammates would express as they were re-engaging as a daily father again after this long absentee existence.

To keep it fresh and spicy, when I got older in the game, I enrolled in a dance studio and took a winter of dance lessons. Salsa, Foxtrot, Rumba, you name it. On Thursdays we had to dance for an hour straight, changing partners in the room every song change. Dancing with the Stars had nothing on me.

Of course, not every offseason is fun and games. There were years when I wasn’t sure I would have a job the next year, or I was in the throes of a trade rumor. In 1997, I was traded from the Cubs to the Phillies two days before Christmas. In 2002, my father passed away on the last game of the season, leading the offseason to be a time of mourning.

By my final season in 2005, I thought I was officially on my couch forever. I was going to fade away into oblivion like many players do. No fanfare, the phone just would stop ringing and I would just let the silence wash over me. The Yankees had called earlier in that off-season, acting like they were doing me a favor which I turned down, then they called back later with a more open tone, seeing me as a potential key piece in their outfield with Bernie Williams slowing down quite a bit at that point.

I did get off that couch for that call, only to get released the last week of camp, so I was back on the couch, with a fiancé and some extra salt in the wounds after that final meeting with Brian Cashman and Joe Torre, who boxed me into the coaches office to tell me I was released. Released? Come on. Never had that happen before.

The Cubs players will go through all of this if they have the good fortune of playing a long time. The wave of uncertainty, the meaning of age in this game spares no one. Each offseason is a time to reset, a period where you get away, seemingly adrift from the game, then as spring gets closer, the shoreline comes up in the horizon once again, magnetically drawing you to its shores for another season.

Amazingly, you don’t always know your age and what it has done to your body. 34 can’t be that old, right? I can still run, or throw 95. Then those 23-year-olds in camp are the wake up call, or maybe you are that 23-year-old and can’t believe your locker is next to Ryne Sandberg’s.

Then you blink, and you are advising Jimmy Rollins about etiquette and realize you have become that guy, the seasoned vet, preaching about locker room respect.

For the 2018 Cubs, they fell short of their goal to repeat their 2016 magic. Failed to meet their singular destination that meant success over all else. Yet, those who come back for 2019, will not be the same player, the same person, that left the locker room at the close this season. They will have grown, changed, aged, wizened up, rehabbed, hardened. All of which means that new perspective is the inevitable part of this time off, whether you like it or not.

Baseball is a game that has this unique dynamic. The highest intensity rhythm of any sport. Every day you are tested. You are pushed to the brink by sheer attrition. According to my teammate Ed Smith, who was playing third base at the time when Michael Jordan reached third, Jordan, after playing well over 100 games in a row, said to him “Man, I have never been this tired in my entire life.”

The grind.

Then it stops on a dime. Season over. Only on baseball’s terms.

But you may be granted another spring. Another crack at it. Until one day, the baseball winter never ends and its time for you to plant your own spring.

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

Ricky Gutiérrez played in the Majors from 1993-2004. He played shortstop for the Cubs from 2000-01 and later signed with them again in June 2004. 

However, Gutiérrez never got back to the Majors with the Cubs, who sent him to the Red Sox the following month. His final Major League game was with the Red Sox on Oct. 3, 2004, the final game of the 2004 regular season; he didn’t play in the 2004 postseason. Gutiérrez was subsequently signed and released by a few other teams, including the White Sox in 2005.

Gutiérrez holds the distinction of being the first Cubs player to hit a regular season grand slam against the White Sox (July 12, 2001). In his two seasons with the Cubs, he tied for the Major League lead in sacrifice bunts both years (16 in 2000, 17 in 2001) which was odd since he had a grand total of 18 sacrifice bunts in his 847 career games NOT in a Cubs uniform. He also had uncharacteristic power with the Cubs:  21 home runs for Chicago in 272 games, 17 home runs with everyone else (847 games).

What Cubs fans probably remember most is what Gutiérrez did against them. On May 6, 1998 he had the lone hit (many dispute it should have been ruled an error) for the Astros off Kerry Wood in Wood’s 20-strikeout masterpiece at Wrigley Field (Gutiérrez was responsible for two of the strikeouts). 

Later that season, on June 26, the number 20 and Gutiérrez were again connected when he had a 20-pitch battle against Bartolo Colón, which ended in a strikeout. It remained the last plate appearance in the Majors of at least 20 pitches until Brandon Belt flew out on the 21st pitch of an at-bat against the Angels' Jaime Barria on April 22, 2018.

Gutiérrez’s nephew, James Jones, played 14 seasons in the NBA for the Pacers, Suns, Trail Blazers, Heat and Cavaliers.