Cubs still in position to make the big trade when they need it


Cubs still in position to make the big trade when they need it

Plan A would be the best way to describe this offseason, the Cubs getting exactly what they felt they needed to augment a 97-win team in John Lackey, Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward.

That $272 million spending spree only cost money and two draft picks, meaning the Cubs will plan for worst-case scenarios and can still make the big trade when they absolutely need it.    

That day is coming. But the star-studded cast that needed security to move around the Sheraton Grand Chicago over the weekend will largely be the same group that reports to Arizona in February.

This is Year 5 for the Theo Epstein administration and the Cubs still haven’t really sacrificed an elite prospect in assembling a team that advanced to the National League Championship Series last season.  

“We were trying to acquire as much young talent as we could,” said Jason McLeod, the senior vice president of scouting and player development, as Cubs Convention shut down on Sunday. “But I think we’re in that area now where we do have volume.

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“We have some prospects and we have guys that are blocked, so to speak, when you look at the corners with Kris (Bryant) and ‘Rizz’ (Anthony Rizzo). We’ve got a really good everyday lineup up there. (So) I think we certainly would be more open to it now.”

Epstein called the odds of pulling off a major trade this month “pretty slim” and said: “It’s more likely than not that we’re done with any significant moves.”

At least until the Cubs get past Opening Day and see how Jake Arrieta responds after throwing almost 250 innings during his Cy Young Award year, whether or not outfielder Jorge Soler can stay healthy and if Joe Maddon’s bullpen needs another power arm.

“There’s no doubt we’ve transitioned,” Epstein said, “(from) that phase where we’ve been building through the minor leagues almost exclusively to get them to Wrigley and form a core that we can build around.

“There are more players coming who are going to make an impact in Wrigley. But I do think we have surplus in certain areas. And as we get into the 2016 season, we know things are going to go wrong. We know guys are going to get hurt. We know needs are going to arise.

“We like to have the ability to adjust midstream, because we’re not smart enough to know exactly how we’re going to have to fix the team. But we probably know we are going to have to fix certain areas.

“We’re going to probably dip into our minor-league system, at times, and make trades and try to make the 2016 team better midstream, so we can win eight more games than we did last year.”

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The Cubs didn’t have the financial flexibility or the frontline pitching prospects or the stomach to make a huge trade before the July 31 deadline last summer.  

The Cubs were a third-place team at that point and the reasonable position figured to be: Why go all-in for a coin-flip wild-card game? That group caught fire in August, September and early October and there are only World Series expectations now.   

So the Cubs continue to be linked in trade rumors, but as Epstein said: “That’s not our fault.”

If the Tampa Bay Rays were that serious about making a deal, president of baseball operations Matt Silverman probably wouldn’t be talking about the Cubs on MLB Network Radio.

It’s also fair to wonder how much the Rays would actually want to help the Cubs after pushing so hard for MLB to investigate the Maddon hire, turning the manager’s contractual opt-out right into a tampering case.

“We’re very happy with our roster right now,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “It fits our manager really well. We have tons of guys he can move all over the field. We have a lot of versatile pitchers.

“If we had to go to Mesa tomorrow, we’d be OK with that. If something makes sense over the next month and makes us better, obviously, we’ll do it. But we’re not looking for big changes.”  

Lackey is the 200-innings workhorse with two World Series rings, a take-charge attitude and a sense of urgency at the age of 37.

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Zobrist is Maddon’s super-utility guy and the clutch hitter who helped turn the Kansas City Royals into champions after a midseason trade from the Oakland A’s.

Heyward is a three-time Gold Glove outfielder whose teams have averaged almost 92 wins during his first six seasons in the big leagues – and he’s still only 26.

But the Cubs can’t count on being as lucky and as healthy as they were last year, and all these young players won’t automatically stay on this upward trajectory.

Willson Contreras – who won a Southern League batting title last year and will begin this season at Triple-A Iowa – is projected as a frontline catcher in the majors and essentially viewed as untouchable. Gleyber Torres – the 19-year-old shortstop who got a $1.7 million bonus out of Venezuela – would also probably be in that off-limits category.   

But scan the rest of Baseball America’s top-10 list and you see first-round picks Ian Happ and Albert Almora – plus outfielders Billy McKinney and Eloy Jimenez and third baseman Jeimer Candelario – in what Epstein still believes is at least a top-third farm system.  

Even after winning the offseason, the Cubs still understand they will eventually have to give up future assets to get the missing pieces for a World Series contender.  

Cubs to reportedly conduct second interview with Joe Espada for managerial opening

Cubs to reportedly conduct second interview with Joe Espada for managerial opening

Astros bench coach Joe Espada has two days off before Houston hosts Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday, but it looks like some of that time will be spent in Chicago.

According to multiple reports, the Cubs will interview Espada a second time for their managerial opening. MLB Network's Jon Heyman reports that the interview is happening on Sunday.

Espada is one of the more sought after managerial candidates this offseason, as he's spent the last six seasons with two of baseball's leading franchises. The 44-year-old has been Astros bench coach since 2018, and prior to that, he spent four seasons with the Yankees — 2014 as a front office assistant, 2015-17 as third base coach.

David Ross was the presumed favorite for the Cubs' opening, when the process got underway. However, by landing a second interview, Espada has clearly given the team something to think about. In fact, NBC Sports Chicago's David Kaplan reported on Thursday the Cubs came away "exceptionally impressed" from Espada's first interview on Monday. 

MLB prefers teams not to make managerial announcements during the World Series. So, it might be a few more weeks before the Cubs announce their decision, unless they do so on Sunday or Monday.

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As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

When Ben Zobrist rejoined the Cubs active roster on Sept. 1, it was fair to wonder how much he could provide offensively. After all, he spent the previous four months on the restricted list while tending to a family matter, last playing a big-league game on May 6.

Zobrist did no baseball activities from May to mid-July, only working out to stay in shape. Although he eventually ramped things up, he played in just 12 minor league rehab games in August before returning to the Cubs, a small number compared to the length of his absence.

Even Zobrist admitted upon his big-league return that his timing at the plate wasn’t where he wanted it to be. And yet, what he did in September was nothing short of impressive. In 21 games, he posted a .284/.377/.388 slash line, performing at a level many couldn’t have expected, considering the circumstances.

Zobrist's impact on the Cubs' lineup goes beyond what you see in the box score, however. Not only is he a switch hitter with some pop, but he has a keen eye for the strike zone and frequently puts together professional at-bats.

On a Cubs team that tends to expand the zone, Zobrist’s presence mattered. In his second game back, for example, he went 3-for-3 with two walks, helping the Cubs beat the Brewers 10-5. After the game, Brewers starter Chase Anderson pointed out how different the Cubs' lineup looks with Zobrist in it.

"They play the matchups really well and Zobrist makes that team so much better," Anderson said on Sept. 5. "Just bringing his presence to the top of the lineup, it changes their dynamic a little bit."

Where Zobrist stands entering 2020, though, is currently unclear.

Zobrist is set to hit free agency after the World Series and will turn 39 next May. Therefore, it’s possible that he’s played his last game in the big leagues, as he has little, if anything, left to prove at this stage in his career.

Ahead of the Cubs’ season finale on Sept. 29, Zobrist told reporters in St. Louis that he hasn’t thought about how much time he’ll take before deciding what’s next for him. His family situation will obviously play a big role in his decision, but if September showed anything, it's that he still has something left in the tank.

“I’m 38 but I got that feeling all over again,” Zobrist said following the Cubs’ season finale, a 9-0 loss to the Cardinals in which he pitched a scoreless inning. “Just really fun, you know? It’s a fun game. Sometimes you don’t come out on the winning end, but you still gotta have fun with it and enjoy it. I enjoyed it today."

The Cubs roster is expected to undergo changes this offseason, with center field, second base and the leadoff spot being just a few areas the team will look to address. The latter two spots became revolving doors during Zobrist’s absence, as the Cubs struggled to replace what he brought offensively.

Zobrist is past the point in his career of being an everyday player. However, he still could be a useful asset for the Cubs in a supporting role, bringing his veteran approach to the lineup when he plays while still offering an experienced voice in the clubhouse.

“I take a lot of joy in that role, just being a supporting guy and being a part of winning clubs and part of winning atmospheres and cultures,” Zobrist said on Sept. 29. “The Chicago Cubs have been that since I’ve been around. This year we didn’t make the playoffs — we still have a winning record — (but) the kind of relationships that are built here and the culture that’s been built here is definitely a winning one.”

After the Cubs announced that they wouldn’t retain Joe Maddon for 2020, Zobrist acknowledged that more changes were likely coming in the offseason. Only time will tell what that means for the veteran utilityman — should he continue playing.

Whether he retires or joins a different team for 2020, though, Zobrist will look back on his four seasons with the Cubs fondly.

“(They’re) just the most passionate fans I’ve ever met,” he said of Cubs fans. “They’re very loyal, very passionate and it’s been such a pleasure to be a part of that team that beat the curse back in ’16, so I feel that still, when I see Cubs fans, there’s a lot of them that hug me and thank me for being a part of that.

“I’ll always look back at [my] time here — I don’t know what’s going to happen in the offseason — but look back at these four years and [be] very grateful to be able to be part of a group like this and be able to do what we did while I was here.”

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