Cubs

Culture shock: Epstein won't obsess over Yankees anymore

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Culture shock: Epstein won't obsess over Yankees anymore

There was a golf cart parked outside the visiting clubhouse at Busch Stadium. The years the Cardinals had won the World Series were painted onto the back 26, 31, 34, all the way to 06 and filled up the entire bumper.

The rumor was that the cart was positioned like that only when the Cubs were in town, so that the players would see it each time they showed up for work (as if theyd bother to take off their sunglasses, turn off their cell phones and notice). Thats St. Louis.

Theo Epstein grew up rooting for the Red Sox, and went to Brookline High School, which sits about two miles from Fenway Park. He was braced for the Boston media, and understood how much the fans there hated the Yankees.

Cubs-Cardinals wont generate as much heat as Yankees-Red Sox. Fighting George Steinbrenners Evil Empire is a bigger national story. But theres no doubt that Epstein will have to close the gap on the Cardinals.

Because while the Cubs just spent nine days haggling with the Red Sox over two prospects as compensation to get an executive with two championship rings the Cardinals were chasing their 11th World Series title.

Does Epstein really have an idea of what hes getting himself into? The answers will start coming Tuesday, when hes introduced as the new president of baseball operations at Clark and Addison.

The Red Sox viewed almost everything through the Yankees prism. The Cubs arent as obsessed with the Cardinals, but Epstein can learn something about this group by how they responded against their biggest rival.

Just ask Carlos Zambrano, minutes after Carlos Marmol blew the save on June 5 in St. Louis: We played like a Triple-A team. This is embarrassing. Embarrassing for the team, for the owners. Embarrassing for the fans. Embarrassing. Thats the word here for this team. We stinks.

Or Mike Quade, who sat in his Busch Stadium office on July 30 and was asked if he felt like he was managing for his job: I feel like that every day. When the blame game starts, you cant sit in this seat and not take some of it. I understand that. But me sitting here and cowering because of that is absurd.

Decisions should be coming soon on Quade and his coaching staff, and eventually Zambrano and Alfonso Soriano. Epstein whiffed big on several free agents in Boston Carl Crawford, John Lackey, Daisuke Matsuzaka, to name a few and hes coming to an organization that has been crippled by the wrong long-term contracts.

When Albert Pujols hugged Jim Hendry behind the batting cage at Wrigley Field on May 10, the Cubs general manager at the time immediately knew it would become a runaway national story. (The Cardinals were also in town on Aug. 19 when chairman Tom Ricketts publicly announced Hendry was fired.)

Chicago reporters may not become as obsessed with Epsteins personal life, because he didnt grow up here, but its not like hell be getting a free pass. Just ask anyone who covered Dusty Baker or Lou Piniella how worn out they were by the end.

That Pujols ducked out of the clubhouse without speaking to the media after Thursday nights Game 2 loss to the Rangers probably shows that life inside the Wrigley Field fishbowl would get real old, real fast for the future Hall of Famer.

When Epstein became the youngest general manager in baseball history in late 2002, he inherited a 93-win team built around Cooperstown-level talents Pedro Martinez and Manny Ramirez, plus foundation pieces like Johnny Damon, Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe.

The Cubs have been a fifth-place team for the past two seasons, but Epstein will find that the game can be more forgiving outside the American League East. The Cardinals won 83 games in 2006 and the National League Central and another World Series title.

In Epsteins nine seasons on the job, the Red Sox won at least 90 games seven times, and never less than 86. Even if you are a tortured Cubs fan, you have to like those odds.

If its all about getting in the tournament and getting hot, then these Cardinals are the perfect example. They were 10 12 games back on Labor Day. They snuck into the playoffs by one game as a wild card.

It helped that the Cardinals won 10 of their 15 games against the Cubs, including two on the seasons final weekend in St. Louis. Immediately after that loss on Sept. 25, the Cubs had their rookie hazing. Young players dressed up in short skirts for the long flight to San Diego.

One coach couldnt hide the disgust on his face as he walked out of the dressing room, though it was hard to tell whether it was all the laughter, or another one-run loss to the Cardinals, or some combination of both. It remains to be seen how many will be back in that clubhouse next year.

No momentum yet on potential Cubs-Zobrist reunion

No momentum yet on potential Cubs-Zobrist reunion

SAN DIEGO — Theo Epstein's front office has a lot of difficult decisions to make this winter, but Ben Zobrist has yet to come up with his own tough answers.

The 2016 World Series MVP is currently a free agent after wrapping up his four-year deal with the Cubs. He played a major role on the team in September following a four-month absence to deal with a family matter. 

Zobrist, 38, said at the end of the season that he was unsure if he would call it quits after an impressive career or return for another season on the diamond. More than two months since he last put on a uniform, he still has not reached an answer:

If he does play another season, it would have to be in the right situation for his family. He's made enough money in his career and accomplished plenty — including hoisting a couple championship trophies — but he clearly still had the drive and desire to play, as he said in his September return.

The Cubs figure to be on the short list of teams that would make sense for Zobrist given the mutual familiarity, a home in Chicago and how the entire organization supported him as he stepped away from the team to address his personal life.

It would seem to fit from the Cubs' perspective as well, since they talked all season long about how they missed Zobrist's professional at-bats and his presence inside the clubhouse. 

But there is no traction on the reunion front at the moment.

"I haven't talked to him recently," Epstein said Monday. "I've talked to him since the season ended, but it was more just checking in on his family. As far as baseball, he hadn't made a decision at that point. He was gonna wait a while before deciding what to do. He left open the possibility, but that was it."

The Cubs have an avenue for playing time next season at second base and potentially in the outfield for Zobrist and they are currently searching for leadoff options. He proved he can still play at his advanced age by hitting .284/.388/.377 in September after months away from the game. He isn't an everyday guy anymore, but can still provide value as a role player.

If Zobrist decides to give it one more go, the price would have to be right for the financially-hamstrung Cubs, but a reunion would make a lot of sense for both sides.

Angels' search for catching help could lead them to Willson Contreras

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USA TODAY

Angels' search for catching help could lead them to Willson Contreras

Could we see a Willson Contreras-Joe Maddon reunion in Los Angeles?

According to Maria Torres of the Los Angeles Times, the Angels are “heavily engaged in the catcher market,” and are having “active conversations with two teams” regarding a trade for a catcher.

Torres didn’t specifically mention Contreras, but he’s one of several Cubs who have been linked to trade rumors this offseason. The Cubs aren’t looking to enter another all-out rebuild, but they’re keeping the future of the organization in mind following a disappointing 84-win season.

The Cubs farm system has grown barren of impact talent. They’ve struggled to develop big-league starting pitching under team president Theo Epstein. Their payroll is projected to exceed MLB’s luxury tax threshold for a second straight season, meaning they’d encounter a 30 percent luxury tax on their overages and see their draft position drop 10 spots, should they exceed the $208 million threshold by $40 million or more.

Trading Contreras — who’s projected to make $4.5 million via arbitration next season — won’t solve the financial problem. However, trading him could net the Cubs the type of blue-chip prospects they desperately need to replenish their farm system.

Contreras is also under team control through 2022, so there’s not a huge rush to deal the two-time All-Star. But if the Cubs sense he’s unlikely to sign a contract extension now or in the future, they must do their due diligence on him and see what they could acquire in a potential trade. The same is true for Javier Báez, Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber.

The Angels have one top 100 prospect, (outfielder Jo Adell — No. 5 overall), according to MLB Pipeline, so what Los Angeles could offer the Cubs is questionable. Epstein and Co. won’t trade their backstop for the sake of doing so, especially if they deem any offers to be unsatisfactory.  

Contreras hit .272/.355/.533 with 24 home runs and 64 RBIs last season. He’d be a major addition for the Angels, whose catchers posted a combined .221/.293/.344 slash line with 15 home runs and 61 RBIs. The 27-year-old also has a special bond with former Cubs/current Angels manager Joe Maddon.

Contreras posted a heartfelt good-bye to Maddon on Instagram after the Cubs announced they weren’t retaining the manager for 2020. Contreras later commissioned a painting of he and Maddon as a gift for his former skipper.

Monday, Maddon said it’s “weird” to hear Bryant and Contreras mentioned in trade rumors, adding that he likes both players. 

The Angels aren't definitively linked to Contreras and Epstein recently advised to take rumors with a "mouthful of salt." But considering the Angels are reportedly seeking a catching upgrade, it won't be a surprise to see that change soon.