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David Price, Jason Heyward and how Cardinals respond in rivalry with Cubs

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David Price, Jason Heyward and how Cardinals respond in rivalry with Cubs

Just a thought: Could all this media speculation about Jason Heyward be a strategic way for the Cubs to drive up the price for the St. Louis Cardinals?

Because Theo Epstein’s front office needs to pour those limited resources into the pitching staff and would have to jump through so many hoops to steal Heyward away from the Cardinals, who reportedly finished second to the Boston Red Sox in the $217 million David Price sweepstakes.

Either way, a rivalry that started in 1892 is beginning a new chapter after the Cubs beat the Cardinals in October, winning their first playoff matchup ever. The balance of power hasn’t completely shifted inside the National League Central, but it’s still a division that produced three playoff teams that won at least 97 games this year.

“I wouldn’t say urgency,” Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said during last month’s GM meetings in South Florida. “My point is things happen and we adjust. You’re not going to make irrational decisions just because you feel like your division is extraordinarily difficult. You have to stay disciplined to your process.”

[MORE CUBS: Why John Lackey would make a lot of sense for Cubs]

If those runner-up-for-Price reports are accurate – USA Today had the final offer at $180 million – the patient, sensible, homegrown Cardinals should have money to burn at next week’s winter meetings in Nashville, Tennessee.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch keeps hinting the 11-time World Series champions will have to get out of that comfort zone with headlines like: “Time for Cardinals to get silly?

While the Cubs have faraway plans about their TV future – and picture a much bigger payday – the Cardinals have already locked up a reported 15-year deal with Fox Sports Midwest that begins with the 2018 season and guarantees the club more than $1 billion and an equity stake in the regional network.

The Cardinals have outfielder Matt Holliday entering the final season of a seven-year, $120 million deal – the largest contract in franchise history to this point – and right-hander Lance Lynn recovering from Tommy John surgery and top pitching prospect Alex Reyes serving a 50-game drug suspension.

[MORE CUBS: Cubs have options with David Price heading to Red Sox for $217 million]

Factor in the 3.5 million-plus in attendance at Busch Stadium this year, new revenues from the Wrigleyville-inspired Ballpark Village and the rising tide in what’s becoming a $10 billion industry, and maybe making a huge splash makes sense.

But the Cardinals aren’t going to overreact to winning 100 games and then losing to the Cubs in the divisional round, when Gold Glove/All-Star catcher Yadier Molina tried to play through a thumb injury and Opening Day starter Adam Wainwright could only pitch out of the bullpen after coming back from a torn Achilles tendon.

“I don’t think we went into September full strength,” Mozeliak said. “And we clearly didn’t go into October full strength. But no one’s having pity parties for us. That’s the business.

“It’s one of those things where ideally you hit October 1 (and) you’re at like full stride. We weren’t. But that’s not to take away from the six months we had. The timing wasn’t there.”

The Cubs know they can’t magically recreate the same chemistry they had during the season no one saw coming. Players will get older and more expensive and feel more entitled. Expectations will change on the North Side.

The Cardinals keep finding ways to maintain their competitive edge, making the playoffs 12 times since 2000.

“We’ve had a group of core players that experienced some of our success as early as ’04 with Yadi,” Mozeliak said. “(It’s) understanding what the winning culture’s about. We’ve had advocates and mentors to carry that along. And then we’ve had healthy churn as well, so I think sometimes adding new energy or a new face to it is helpful.

“It’s a balance. Fortunately, we’ve been able to strike that. But it’s a fragile environment. I’m not ready to tell you we’ve got it figured out for next year.”

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

The Cardinals acquired Heyward from the Atlanta Braves last November with the idea that both sides would take a year to see if it would be a good long-term fit.

The Cardinals may or may not have their next core player in Heyward, who’s hard to put a price tag on because he’s only 26 years old and a Gold Glove outfielder who’s hit 20-plus homers only once in his career. Heyward is also a left-handed hitter with speed, on-base skills, clubhouse presence and an .869 career OPS against the Cubs.

The Cubs, Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates – who’ve made three playoff appearances within the last three seasons – all look like built-to-last contenders with young talent, star power and savvy front offices. At a time when the Cincinnati Reds and Milwaukee Brewers appear to be punting on 2016 and playing for the future.

However the Cardinals decide to respond, the Cubs always understood their road to the World Series would have to go through St. Louis.

“A lot of people have asked me this question (about) the Cubs’ emergence, Pittsburgh’s sustainability,” Mozeliak said. “Candidly, four or five years ago, it was Milwaukee.

“Ultimately, we try to worry about ourselves. But it’s hard not to acknowledge what’s happening in your division. And what’s going on right now with both Pittsburgh and Chicago is extremely impressive.”

Should the Cubs bring Daniel Murphy back in 2019?

Should the Cubs bring Daniel Murphy back in 2019?

With MLB Hot Stove season about 10 days away, Cubs fans are on the edge of their seats waiting to see how Theo Epstein's front office will reshape an underperforming lineup this winter.

The first step in that will be determining if there is a future with Daniel Murphy in Chicago and if so, what that future might entail. 

Murphy's introduction to the North Side fanbase was rocky, but he drew rave reviews from his teammates and coaches for how he conducted himself in the month-and-a-half he wore a Cubs uniform. 

He also filled a serious hole in the Cubs lineup, hitting .297 with an .800 OPS in 35 games (138 at-bats) while spending most of his time in the leadoff spot, helping to set the tone. Extrapolating Murphy's Cubs tenure over 550 plate appearances, it would be good for 23 homers, 86 runs, 49 RBI and 23 doubles over a full season. That would be worth 3.4 WAR by FanGraphs' measure, which would've ranked third on the Cubs among position players in 2018 behind only Javy Baez (5.3 WAR) and Ben Zobrist (3.6). (By comparison, Baseball Reference rated Murphy a -0.2 WAR player with the Cubs due to a much worse rating on defense.) 

Murphy's performance defensively at second base left quite a bit to be desired, but it's also worth pointing out he had major surgery on his right knee last fall. The procedure wasn't just a cleanup — he had microfracture surgery and cartilage debridement and wasn't able to return to the field until the middle of June this summer despite an Oct. 20, 2017 surgery.

The Cubs will begin the 2019 season without a clear, everyday choice at second base and the lineup can use a guy like Murphy, who has a great approach each time up and leads baseball with a .362 batting average with runners in scoring position since the start of the 2016 season.

So could a reunion be in the cards?

"I wouldn't rule anything out," Epstein said the day after the Cubs' 2018 campaign ended prematurely. "It was a pleasure having Daniel here. He did a lot to right our offense right after he got here and contribute while being asked to play a bigger role than we envisioned when we got him because of some other injuries, because of our lack of performance offensively and then because of the schedule. He was asked to play a lot more than expected, than probably he was ready to based on the proximity to his knee surgery.

"So I think he's gonna have a real beneficial offseason, get even stronger and be ready to contribute next year. Which league that's in and for what team remains to be seen. But I certainly think he acquitted himself well here, was REALLY respected by his teammates. Our guys loved talking hitting with him. It was a daily occurrence. Long discussions about hitting with him, picking his brain. 

"We look a lot better with him than without him, so I wouldn't rule anything out."

There's a lot to unpack here. Epstein was refreshingly honest throughout his whole press conference and that continued with regards to Murphy.

For starters, notice how Epstein first said he wasn't sure "what league" Murphy will be playing in. The Cubs president of baseball operations is typically extremely measured when speaking with the public and he almost never says anything by accident.

Murphy will turn 34 April 1 and was never renowned as an elite fielder even before that major knee surgery. Meaning: The writing has been on the wall for over a year that the veteran may be best suited for a designated hitter role with his new contract and Epstein is clearly well aware of that perception/narrative.

The other aspect of Epstein's comments is how he began and ended his statement on Murphy — that he wouldn't rule anything out and the Cubs obviously thought it was a successful pairing.

It's hard to argue with that on the offensive side of things and his impact was also felt off the field, where he was praised often by his teammates and coaches for talking hitting with younger players like Ian Happ and David Bote. 

Imagine how the final 6 weeks of the season would've looked had the Cubs not acquired Murphy in the middle of August to agument the lineup. The Brewers would've probably nabbed the division lead well before a Game 163.

Still, Murphy's hitting prowess both on and off the field wasn't enough to help the Cubs lineup avoid a slide that led to a date with the couch before the NLDS even began. Epstein's statement about how the Cubs "look a lot better" with Murphy than without is probably more about how fresh the sting was from the inept offense that managed just 2 runs scored in 22 innings in the final two games of the season.

Given his consistency the last few years, his advanced approach at the plate and his (recent) unrivaled ability to come through in key spots, Murphy's bat would be a welcome addition to any Cubs lineup moving forward. 

But it would still be tough to fit Murphy on the Cubs' 2019 roster for a variety of reasons. 

For starters, if the Cubs truly have a desire to write out a more consistent lineup next year, it's tough to add another aging veteran to a mix that already includes Ben Zobrist (who will be 38 next year), especially when they both spend a majority of their time at the same position (second base) and shouldn't be considered everyday players at this stage in their respective careers.

Murphy's defense/range also doesn't figure to get much better as he ages — even with an offseason to get his knee back up to 100 percent health — and second base is a key spot for run prevention, especially in turning double plays with a pitching staff that induces a lot of contact and groundballs.

Offensively, Murphy isn't perfect, either. He's never walked much, but in 2018, he posted his lowest walk rate since 2013. He also struck out 15.7 percent of the time in a Cubs uniform and while that's a small sample size, it still represents his highest K% since his rookie 2008 season (18.5 percent). 

Then there's the splits — the left-handed Murphy hit just .238 with a .564 OPS vs. southpaws in 2018, a far cry from the .319 average and .864 OPS he posted against right-handed pitchers. That was a steep drop-off from the previous three seasons (2015-17), in which he put up a .296 average and .810 OPS against lefties.

Add it all up and Murphy's potential fit with the 2019 Cubs is questionable at best, especially if an American League team hands him more money and years to come DH for them and hit near the top of their order.

But like Epstein said, don't rule anything out.

Report: People around baseball believe Joe Girardi is waiting for managerial job with Cubs or White Sox

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USA TODAY

Report: People around baseball believe Joe Girardi is waiting for managerial job with Cubs or White Sox

Joe Girardi won't be the manager of the Cincinnati Reds in 2019, perhaps because he has hopes of landing a gig in Chicago.

According to Fancred's Jon Heyman, Girardi was in the running for the Reds' managerial job (which went to former Cubs third-base coach David Bell this weekend) but pulled himself out, this after interviewing for but not getting the same position with the Texas Rangers. Heyman cites "industry speculation" that Girardi might want to remain a free agent so he can land the job of skipper in Chicago.

Heyman is of course not specific, listing a city with two major league teams, leaving this open for interpretation as either the Cubs or the White Sox.

Obviously Girardi has a history on the North Side. He had two stints there as a player, from 1989 to 1992 and again from 2000 to 2002. Joe Maddon has one year remaining on his contract, and Cubs president Theo Epstein said during his end-of-season press conference that the team has not had discussions with Maddon about an extension. After managing the New York Yankees to their most recent World Series championship in 2009, Girardi might again want a crack at managing a big-market contender.

But if Girardi is simply itching to get back to his home state — he was born in Peoria and graduated from Northwestern — perhaps he has the White Sox on his wish list, too. Rick Renteria has one year remaining on his current contract, as well, and should the rebuilding White Sox see all their young talent turn into the contender they've planned, the manager of such a team would be an attractive position to hold.

But just because folks believe Girardi wants to manage in Chicago doesn't mean there'd be mutual interest. Despite Epstein's comments that there have been no extension talks with Maddon, the president of baseball operations also backed his manager in that same press conference, refusing to blame Maddon for the team's "broken" offense down the stretch last month. And Rick Hahn and the rest of White Sox brass heap frequent praise on the job Renteria has done in his two years, describing him as an important part of player development and of establishing a culture hoped to spread throughout the organization.

Plus, it's worth mentioning that Girardi's decade-long tenure in the Bronx came to an end amid suggestion that he was unable to connect with his young players. It's unknown how much of a realistic concern that would be for any team thinking about hiring him. But the recently fired Chili Davis believed that very issue was part of the reason his time as the Cubs' hitting coach came to an end. And there are few teams out there younger than the White Sox.

Again, it's just speculation for now. But if for some reason one or both Chicago teams don't hand out new contracts to their current managers, perhaps Girardi would be interested in an opening on either side of town.