Cubs

Epstein, Cubs looking for action at winter meetings

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Epstein, Cubs looking for action at winter meetings

DALLAS -- The Cubs have given Theo Epstein the keys to the kingdom.

The president of baseball operations has total control but wont necessarily rule with an iron fist. His management style has been described as inclusive. He listens and challenges his staff. He views his front office as a think tank or a boiler room.

The Cubs will run through every scenario at the winter meetings, which officially begin on Monday at the Hilton Anatole in Dallas. This is where Epstein will earn his money.

Jason McLeod, the new Cubs scouting executive, started out with the San Diego Padres around the same time Epstein did. They were in their early 20s and would grab beers after the game and talk baseball. They would make side trips to see prospects at USC and Cal State Fullerton, even Adrian Gonzalez in high school.

It became quickly apparent that his intelligence level was at a way different level than everyone else, McLeod said. But he was always the guy (who) could sit in any crowd and have a conversation (and) make anyone feel important. He just has that special way (about him).

A new collective bargaining agreement will force the Cubs to work smarter. Spending in the draft and internationally will be capped and taxed. Testing for human growth hormone is another variable teams will have to consider.

Epstein has the authority to eat money in order to move Carlos Zambrano andor Alfonso Soriano. Buyer beware: The megadeals for Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder will be the biggest stories of the winter meetings.

This much is clear: The Cubs dont want to see them back in the division (or if they are, its at a price that makes the St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers uncomfortable). Their agents would certainly benefit from the perception that the Cubs are in.

Epstein doesnt think you should pay too much attention to rumors. The Cubs are a major-market team that will explore every possibility.

Weve been consistent from Day 1 that (our) priorities (are building) this thing the right way, Epstein said, for the long haul, mainly through scouting and player development and through the acquisition of young players.

The second priority is (to) take advantage of every opportunity to win that you have. (But) were not going to do anything to serve the second priority that disrupts the first.

So any rumor that you hear, (its) probably worth your while to assess it through that lens. Not saying that were not going to make a move that might be unanticipated or catch people by surprise or might not on its face fit perfectly into that box. But generally thats our philosophy. Thats how were evaluating moves as we try to build this thing.

Even new manager Dale Sveum whos tight with Fielder after their time together in Milwaukee acknowledged that it might not be the time or the place to go all in.

Youd like to have all the great free agents that are out there, Sveum said. Were trying to do something here in Chicago to build now and win right now but be smart about it.

Its more realistic to think that the Cubs will land at least one mid-level starter for a rotation that was shredded by injuries and finished among the worst in the game last season.

Were having a ton of conversations with agents and with teams, general manager Jed Hoyer said. Hopefully, we can move the ball forward in Dallas this week. (We) know we have to add pitching depth, and thats something were focused on.

The Cubs also have openings at first and third base. Matt Garzas agent told him this will be an active winter meetings. Carlos Marmol is an intriguing closer, and several teams are looking for one. This front office wont be as attached to these players as the previous administration.

Its time to see what all the hype is about.

So far, theres been a lot of talk, Epstein said. There hasnt been a ton of action. Hopefully, this talk is over. We lead the league in press conferences. (Its) easy to have a vision for how you want the organization to be, an ideal in your mind. Its hard to put it into action.

Some perspective on Pedro Strop's tough outing and struggles

Some perspective on Pedro Strop's tough outing and struggles

Pedro Strop has had a tough go of it lately, but that doesn't mean it's time to panic on one of the most consistent relievers in Cubs history.

After blowing the game Monday night in San Francisco — his third blown save of the month — Strop now has a 5.47 ERA on the year and an 8.22 mark in July alone. In fact, nearly half the runs he's allowed in 2019 have come this month — 7 of 16.

But Strop has been pitching better than his ERA indicates — his FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) is nearly a full run lower than his ERA this season. His strikeout rate (27.4 percent) and walk rate (8.5 percent) are the lowest they've been since 2016. 

That being said, the 34-year-old has also seen a precipitous spike in hard contact rate and his soft contact percentage is way down. He's been plagued by the home run ball this year more than ever before, serving up 1.7 dingers per 9 innings, the highest rate of his career (though the same can be said for many pitchers this season).

So Strop clearly hasn't been his typical dominant self this year, but he also deserves a better fate than he's had to this point in the season.

Take Monday night, for example. 

Strop came on to pitch the eighth inning of a game the Cubs were leading 4-2 and promptly gave up a leadoff double to Pablo Sandoval. On paper, that's obviously not a great start, but look at where this pitch was when the Giants third baseman hit it:

Strop followed that by striking out Stephen Vogt before executing a nice pitch to Brandon Crawford and inducing a groundball...only to see it sneak through the infield for an RBI hit:

Then came a groundout before Austin Slater's game-tying double that came just inches away from Albert Almora Jr.'s glove in center field. 

The final blow was the go-ahead double by Joe Panik...on a ball that was higher than Strop would've liked it, but still not a bad pitch off the plate outside:

These are not bad pitches; it's not like Strop was leaving the ball over the heart of the plate all inning.

How's this for bad luck — the Sandoval double was pegged for just a .070 expected batting average. 

Crawford's single was hit at 89.7 mph and had an expected batting average of .360. By comparison, Kyle Schwarber hit a grounder in the top of the inning at 102.9 mph with an expected batting average of .630 and it was an out. It was simply a matter of Crawford's ball finding a hole while Schwarber hit his right at a defender. 

No matter which way you slice it, this was a tough luck outing for the veteran setup man. 

But bad luck or not, Strop still hasn't been getting the consistent results the Cubs need in crucial innings of a tight playoff race, so it's understandable manager Joe Maddon was asked about the bullpen usage on his weekly appearance with 670 The Score Tuesday afternoon:

"When Pedro's in the game, I really feel good about it," Maddon said. "We all do. I think last night, it was more about pitch selection than it was necessarily about stuff. He was one pitch away from getting out of that thing. 

"If you replay and look at it, you see the hit by Sandoval — that ball literally almost bounced. It really did and it almost hit his back foot. I don't know how he kept that ball fair, but he did. Good for him. And then Crawford hits a slow ground ball up the middle that gets between two guys that are outstanding infielders and that's a hit."

Maddon went on to say the last hit — Panik's double — was the more concerning one because it was a sinker that just didn't drop enough. Maddon said he'd rather see Strop go to his wicked slider in that situation than lean on a pitch (the sinker/fastball) that has seen a dip in velocity and value this season.

"I don't think Pedro's that far off," Maddon said. "Maybe the velocity's down a little bit more than anything. To utilize his cutter/slider and really get that to where he wants it — those are the devastating pitches. So that was my bigger concern last night."

Moving forward, it doesn't sound as if Maddon will shy away from utilizing Strop in high-leverage situations again, but the Cubs also have the luxury of a pretty deep bullpen where they could utilize some other arms (Steve Cishek, Brandon Kintzler) to pitch the eighth inning and help bridge the gap to closer Craig Kimbrel.

Strop is 34 now and has dealt with some health issues over the last calendar year, but he has such a long track record of success that it wouldn't be surprising to see him once again emerge as a lights-out reliever before the season ends.

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Cubs lead Bears, Bulls on Forbes' Most Valuable Sports Teams 2019 list

Cubs lead Bears, Bulls on Forbes' Most Valuable Sports Teams 2019 list

The Chicago Cubs tied the Washington Redskins for 14th on Forbes' Most Valuable Sports Teams 2019 list with a $3.1 billion valuation. The Cubs' valuation grew by 7% year over year.

The Cubs are the fourth-most valuable franchise in MLB behind the Yankees ($4.1B), the Dodgers ($3.3B) and the Red Sox ($3.2B). Only seven MLB teams made the Top 50.

Two other Chicago teams, the Bears and the Bulls, are tied for 19th on the list with a value of $2.9 billion. The Bears' value grew just 2% while the Bulls' valuation grew by 12% year over year.

The rise of the pro sports teams valued over $2 billion has been pretty meteoric over the past decade. In 2012, only Manchester United was valued over $2 billion and in 2019 that number has risen to 52.

In 2012, only the Knicks and Lakers made the Top 50 list but in 2019 the Bulls are one of nine teams to earn a spot. The Bulls were the fourth-most valuable NBA franchise in 2019 behind the Knicks ($4B), Lakers ($3.7B) and Warriors ($3.5B).

Forbes credits the NBA's international prospects and worldwide revenue growth for the league's rise in the list.

No NHL teams made the list, the New York Rangers were the most-valued hockey team at $1.55 billion, 72nd highest.