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 executive Jason McLeod reportedly linked to Giants' GM opening


Cubs executive Jason McLeod reportedly linked to Giants' GM opening

Is this the offseason that Cubs executive Jason McLeod finally becomes an MLB general manager?

According to Bruce Levine, the Giants are reportedly interested in McLeod, the Cubs senior vice president of scouting and player development, for their vacant general manager position.

McLeod joined the Cubs' front office in 2011 alongside Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer. Before the Cubs, he spent six years in the Red Sox front office and two in the Padres' (with Hoyer, who was San Diego's general manager from 2010-2011). 

Of course, the Giants' reported interest in McLeod doesn't necessarily mean that he will interview for the job. However, it's worth noting that McLeod interviewed for the Twins' general manager job in 2016; he also withdrew his name from consideration for the Padres' general manager job in 2014. 

In addition to the Giants, McLeod's name has been linked to the Mets' general manager vacancy. This is more speculation, but the point is that it seems to be only a matter of time before McLeod is hired as general manager elsewhere.

For what it's worth, though, McLeod is under contract through 2021 and has previously said that he is grateful to be with the Cubs. 

“I’m exceptionally grateful,” McLeod said. “All of us are. Look at where we are at this moment in time with this team," McLeod said in 2016. "I can’t imagine a better environment, a better culture to work at in baseball.

"We’ve been together a long time. We’re friends. We’re good. We embrace the fact that we are good. And we challenge ourselves to be even better.”

Cubs have new hitting coach in Anthony Iapoce

Cubs have new hitting coach in Anthony Iapoce

The Cubs are heading into a new season with a different hitting coach for the second straight winter, but the most recent choice is a familiar face.

Anthony Iapoce is set to join Joe Maddon's coaching staff this week after serving in the same capacity with the Texas Rangers for the last three seasons. The Cubs confirmed the move Monday afternoon shortly after the news broke out of the Rangers camp.

The Cubs fired Chili Davis last week after just one season as the team's hitting coach.

Entering the final week of the season, the Rangers fired manager Jeff Banister, leaving Iapoce and the rest of the Texas coaching staff in limbo.

As such, Iapoce is rejoining the Cubs, where he served as a special assistant to the General Manager from 2013-15 focusing on player development, particularly in the hitting department throughout the minor leagues.

Iapoce has familiarity with a bunch of the current star offensive players on the Cubs, from Willson Contreras to Kris Bryant. 

Both Bryant and Contreras endured tough 2018 seasons at the plate, which was a huge reason for the Cubs' underperforming lineup. Bryant's issue was more related to a left shoulder injured suffered in mid-May while Contreras' offensive woes remain a major question mark after the young catcher looked to be emerging as a legitimate superstar entering the campaign.

Getting Contreras back to the hitter that put up 21 homers and 74 RBI in only 117 games in 2017 will be one of the main goals for Iapoce, so the history between the two could be a key.

With the Rangers, Iapoce oversaw an offense that ranked 7th, 9th and 14th in MLB in runs scored over the last three seasons. The decline in offensive production is obviously not a great sign, but the Rangers as a team have fallen off greatly since notching the top seed in the AL playoffs in 2016 with 95 wins only to lose 95 games in 2018, resulting in the change at manager.

Iapoce has worked with an offense backed by Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus, Shin-Soo Choo, Nomar Mazara and Joey Gallo the last few seasons.

Under Iapoce's tutelage, former top prospect Jurickson Profar shed any notion of a "bust" label and emerged as a budding star at age 25, collecting 61 extra-base hits with a .793 OPS in 2018.

When the Cubs let Davis go last week, they provided no update on assistant hitting coach Andy Haines, who just finished his first season in that role and is expected to remain with the team for 2019. The same offseason Iapoce left for the Rangers, Haines took over as the Cubs' minor league hitting instructor.