Cubs still shaping offseason plans as potential lockout looms

Cubs still shaping offseason plans as potential lockout looms

After a World Series that beat the NFL’s “Sunday Night Football” in head-to-head TV ratings and saw more than 40 million people tune in for Game 7, Major League Baseball can’t be seriously thinking about ending 20-plus years of labor peace.

One Cubs player still processing those 10 crazy innings against the Cleveland Indians had the same thought during the postgame celebration inside Progressive Field’s visiting clubhouse: “Hell, if we can’t get our CBA done after this year, I mean, we’re (expletive).”

Whether it’s textbook posturing in collective bargaining — or signs of deeper mistrust between management and the players’ union — it doesn’t sound quite as automatic anymore. Three weeks after the Cubs established themselves as the game’s next potential superpower, Fox Sports broke the news that the owners are considering a lockout if the two sides don’t settle on a new agreement before the current deal expires on Dec. 1.

“I have no comment on that stuff,” Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts said Tuesday night.

Ricketts held the championship trophy and walked the red carpet outside the Civic Opera House before the premiere of MLB’s “The 2016 World Series,” a documentary narrated by movie star/Cubs fan Vince Vaughn. Commissioner Rob Manfred had already gathered with owners in downtown Chicago last week during their quarterly meetings, expressing optimism to reporters at a Drake Hotel press conference.

Ricketts — whose family will be remembered for ending the 108-year drought — serves on MLB’s executive council. The maze of reported issues includes: the implementation of an international draft; restructuring the qualifying-offer system and draft-pick compensation; and how to impose the luxury tax.

While all those concerns shouldn’t ground an industry that’s approaching the $10 billion stratosphere, it’s probably slowed down some of the offseason action.

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By playing into early November, the Cubs didn’t exactly get a head start on all their winter planning. But Theo Epstein’s baseball-operations group already jumped the market, working with Ricketts and the franchise’s business side to essentially combine two offseasons into one, spending almost $290 million to capitalize on the momentum the 2015 team created and not save up for this winter’s extremely weak class of free agents.

Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer went into the GM meetings two weeks ago waiting for a full accounting of what this World Series run might mean for the 2017 payroll. But both Cubs executives confirmed that the general framework built last offseason would remain the same after splurging on World Series MVP Ben Zobrist, Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward and Big Boy Game pitcher John Lackey.

“I’ll leave it up to those guys,” Ricketts said when asked if the Cubs would do something big again this winter or play it more conservatively. “I don’t think they know yet. They have their strategy, but it’s a (matter of timing) and whatever opportunities exist. We’ll see.”

For years, the Cubs have been exploring trades for an established top-of-the-rotation starter — while allowing Jake Arrieta to blossom into a Cy Young Award winner and helping Kyle Hendricks develop into the majors’ ERA leader. Those prices aren’t going to drop in this pitching-starved environment, and the Cubs genuinely believe lefty Mike Montgomery could become their next success story.

The Cubs got what they wanted out of the Aroldis Chapman deal and don’t sound ready or eager to completely reset the market for closers, trusting their ability to identify diamonds in the rough and reshape the bullpen.

Assuming Dexter Fowler moves on and cashes in as a free agent — that’s what Epstein’s front office planned for last offseason until an extraordinary set of circumstances led to his surprising return in spring training — the Cubs could use a veteran outfielder who can play center/certain matchups, help ease Albert Almora Jr. into the job and be a good clubhouse influence.

But manager Joe Maddon could write out a 2017 Opening Day lineup on his iPad Pro tomorrow and feel good about all the names. Whatever happens at the bargaining table, the Cubs will still be the reigning World Series champs.

“It means so much to so many people,” Ricketts said. “I’m just so happy that every fan has a chance to really enjoy this. We’re just going to have a great offseason and hopefully get a few more of these.”

Fallout from Albert Almora Jr.’s scary foul ball incident, one year later

Fallout from Albert Almora Jr.’s scary foul ball incident, one year later

A year ago Friday, a foul ball off the bat of Cubs center fielder Albert Almora Jr. struck a young girl in the stands at Minute Maid Park in Houston.

The young girl was rushed to the hospital and her family later revealed she suffered several head injuries as a result. The moment brought forth league-wide changes to protect fans from injury. 

One year later, here is a timeline of key dates in the fallout from the incident.

Fallout from Albert Almora Jr.'s scary foul ball incident

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How Cubs' Albert Almora Jr. regrouped after emotionally trying 2019 season

How Cubs' Albert Almora Jr. regrouped after emotionally trying 2019 season

Among the more interesting Cubs storylines sidelined with the rest of baseball during the coronavirus shutdown was the career restart center fielder Albert Almora Jr. seemed to promise after an emotionally trying 2019 season.

A tumultuous, wrenching 2019 season unlike any he had ever experienced in his baseball life.

“That’s a fact,” Almora said after a strong start in spring games, and just before professional sports across the country were shut down indefinitely in March.

Friday marks the one-year anniversary of the harrowing night in Houston when Almora’s foul ball struck a young girl in the head, an incident that caused serious, lingering injuries, resulted in league-wide action to better protect fans and that in the moment dropped Almora to a knee, shaken and in tears.

TIMELINE: Fallout from Albert Almora Jr.'s scary foul ball incident

It was the most emotionally fraught moment in a Cubs season that was otherwise filled with competitive extremes that finished on a low note, off-the-field drama that finished with the release of a former All-Star shortstop and failed expectations that finished with the manager getting fired.

What followed for Almora was his worst performance as a baseball player, including a .215 average and .570 OPS the rest of the season, and a two-week demotion to the minors in August.

Almora has repeatedly denied his performance was impacted by that moment in Houston.

“No,” he said again this spring. “That’s an excuse.”

But the father of two young kids won’t deny that “it definitely impacted me.”

What’s certain is that by the time he returned to the team this spring, he had a new, quieter swing and a renewed mindset that had him in what he called a better place mentally.

A strong inner circle of friends and loved ones were part of the reset, he said, and in particular “just me listening and opening up to new advice.”

Almora, of course, did nothing wrong, and there was nothing he could have done to prevent the horrible moment — like so many other players and fans and similar moments at games that came before that one.

And while that knowledge won’t eliminate the emotions that might linger, one valuable outcome of the incident was near immediate action by the White Sox and Nationals to extend their protective netting to the foul poles at their ballparks — and MLB announcing in December all teams would expand protective netting by the start of the 2020 season.

Almora’s response, meanwhile, has been about just that — focusing on his response to the way his performance fell short last year, on the things he could change to regroup and restart a career that seemed on the rise until 2019.

“I’m glad [the struggles] happened,” he said. “You have to grow from things like that. You have two options: You can fold and let it beat you, or you learn from it and grow.

“I’m fortunate I had good people around me that gave me an easier chance to just turn the page, man. You hear that phrase a lot in this game: Turn the page, turn the page. But it’s hard. It’s hard when you’re constantly failing and constantly not performing the way you know you can and letting your guys down …

“It was tough,” he added. “And it’s not figured out. No one here figures it out. But you do the things you can control. … I’m in a good mental spot right now, and that’s all I can really ask for.”

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