Cubs

Epstein doesn't have to make a splash right now

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Epstein doesn't have to make a splash right now

DALLAS This is the perfect nugget for the 247 news cycle: Theo Epstein met with the agent for Albert Pujols.

The age of Twitter doesnt leave much room for context. The Cubs president of baseball operations pointed out that Dan Lozano also represents Rodrigo Lopez.

Epstein indicated that the Cubs have interest in bringing back Lopez, who will turn 36 next week and went 6-6 with a 4.42 ERA last season. The journeyman right-hander wouldnt generate any buzz.

But as the winter meetings began on Monday at the Hilton Anatole in Dallas, Lopez is exactly what the Cubs are looking for now. They absolutely need to stock up on pitching inventory.

The Miami Marlins are rumored to be in the Pujols sweepstakes and want to sell tickets and make a dent in their market. They need the wow factor LeBron James brought to South Beach.

The Cubs are looking to give a megadeal to the right player at the right time. They already made their biggest move of the offseason.

Epstein has payroll flexibility, ownerships full support and the credibility to preach patience after winning two World Series titles with the Boston Red Sox. He said he has zero interest in making a splash just for show.

Five (or) 10 years from now, Epstein said, if we look back on this and say we made any move for any reason other than its in the best short-, medium- and long-term interests of the Cubs, wed have a hard time sleeping at night.

This is hard enough. If you try to serve perception, as well as reality, you end up hurting yourself.

Twelve months ago at the winter meetings, Jim Hendry had to structure Carlos Penas one-year pillow contract across three fiscal years. Pena will receive a 5 million payment next month. The Cubs are supposed to act like a major-market team again and dont have to do those financial gymnastics anymore.

Pena is expected to decline an arbitration offer this week. Epstein believes there are multiple multi-year deals out there for Pena. Epstein said the Cubs havent closed the door on Pena, though theyre looking at all options at first base, some of which wont make big headlines.

Bryan LaHair came to the winter meetings to pick up an award for leading all minor-league hitters with 38 home runs last season. He met with Cubs executives and wasnt promised anything. But he will be given a chance.

LaHair is 29 years old and was a 39th-round pick. He has less than 200 at-bats on his big-league resume. But the Pacific Coast League MVP generated 109 RBI and a 1.070 OPS last season at Triple-A Iowa.

I tend not to buy into the concept of a 4-A hitter, Epstein said. If you can dominate the Triple-A level, get on base and hit for power (and) demonstrate that you can handle different kinds of pitching and cover the entire strike zone, I think given enough time, hell contribute at the major-league level.

Were not giving him the job. And Im not saying were not looking to upgrade at first base. But if it ends up with him playing a significant role or getting a significant opportunity, I think wed all be comfortable with that.

Epstein is uneasy with the state of the Cubs rotation, and thats where hes encouraging his scouts to again think outside the box. Soon all this talk Epstein estimated that you might make one move for every 100 conversations will have to lead to some action.

If you just get on line with everybody else and say: Were not going to overpay. Were just going to wait for the reasonable pitcher to be out there, Epstein said, youre going to be waiting until the end of spring training, hoping to claim someone off waivers. Because theres way more demand than there is supply for starting pitching.

Were going to have to take some chances and be creative. You need to know who your eight or nine starters are. You have 1,400 innings out there to fill. You want to get 1,000 of them out of your starting pitching. It takes a lot of bodies to do that. We dont have enough (quality arms).

Stay tuned even if the next move doesnt lead to a press conference.

We just have to work really hard to figure out whats in (our) best interest (and) be disciplined about that, even if its unpopular, Epstein said. Sometimes it will be popular, sometimes it wont. You work towards pleasing the fans every October because I think in the end thats what they really want.

The trade rumors aren't going away, but that hasn't changed Cubs' faith in Addison Russell

The trade rumors aren't going away, but that hasn't changed Cubs' faith in Addison Russell

How much do the Cubs really need Manny Machado? 

They entered play Tuesday leading the National League in runs per game, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and run differential.

That doesn't sound like a team desperate for another bat and would trade future assets to go all-in for only a few months of a player, even one as good as Machado.

Of course, the Cubs went out and got walloped 10-1 by the Indians Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, but that had more to do with awful pitching and Machado won't do a thing to help that area of the game. In fact, Machado would actually hurt the team's run prevention given he's a worse defensive shortstop than Addison Russell.

All that being said, the Machado rumors probably won't be going anywhere until the Baltimore Orioles deal their shortstop to either the Cubs or another team, so Russell will have to get used to hearing his name included in such conversations.

Any Cubs package headed to Baltimore for Machado likely has to start with Russell, the Cubs' 24-year-old shortstop who won't become a free agent until after the 2021 season.

"He would be robotic if it did not [affect him]," Joe Maddon said. "I think honestly if he was 7, 8, 10 years into the league and something like this was being bandied about, probably not nearly as much. But the age that he's at, the experience level that he's at, I think it just can't help but have an impact.

"So we just gotta continue to nurture him here. I talk to him all the time. There's certain things you can't control. You can't control what's being said, but you can control how you react to it. That's about the best thing we could encourage him to do and he'll get our support."

Maddon said he gives Russell a hug and reminds him of "something" before every game as he tries to massage the confidence of a player that is currently the shortstop of a Cubs team with World Series expectations.

Russell doesn't turn 25 until next January, yet many people act like he's already peaked as a player. 

He's two years removed from hitting 21 homers and driving in 95 runs as part of the 2016 championship season.

2017 was a lost year for so many reasons — from off-field issues to shoulder and foot problems — and Russell has only 1 homer in the first quarter of the 2018 season, but he's taken other strides this year.

He currently boasts career best marks in walk percentage, strikeout percentage, line drive percentage, groundball percentage and is using the opposite field more than ever.

The power hasn't come yet this year, but a .343 on-base percentage is a pretty solid complementary piece to one of the best all-around defenders in the game.

Russell ranks 10th in baseball in Defensive Runs Saved among all players, tied for second among shortstops. Fielding metrics are not perfect, but Machado is 133rd in DRS among qualifed fielders and 24th among shortstops, so there is clearly a gap between the two players' glovework.

Maddon has never shown any outward sign of altering his belief in Russell becoming a dynamic player.

"Addy's gonna continue to progress to the point where all his game is gonna become consistent," Maddon said. "And even beyond that, who do you like better at shortstop [defensively] right now? ... His throwing's dramatically improved. His baserunning decisions — I know he had a gaffe in Cincinnati, but for the most part, he's gotten better.

"So what we're really talking about is his hitting. That's where people get hung up about this game all the time. I see absolute progress in that, also. He just came off a hot week and he had a couple tough days and then all of a sudden, it becomes exaggerated. Why? Because he's 24.

"I think the sky is the limit for this guy. He's a confidence guy like most of us are. As he's feeling good about himself, that's when the line drives start to occur. I mean, one of the biggest hits so far was the ball over the centerfielder's head in Atlanta [last week].

"And he always has this tendency to do some really good work when it matters most. He's been that guy already. So just be patient. He's just gonna keep getting better."

Remember, Russell is the same guy that hit a grand slam and drove in 6 runs in Game 6 of the World Series in Cleveland and started every game at shortstop that postseason. Every year Russell has been the Cubs' shortstop, the season has included a trip to the National League Championship Series.

"Our front office has always been one to make moves and they’re not afraid to do things and we’ve seen that," Kris Bryant said. "We won a world series because of that, getting [Aroldis] Chapman and some of the other guys we got, but we don’t put one ounce of thought into that because we’re happy with the guys we have here.

"The effort that everybody puts forth day in and day out when they’re on the field is spectacular. You know we have a great group of guys here and until someone is gone, we’re going to play with what we’ve got and continue to play the way we have. So, not much thought about [trade rumors]."

Russell has also quietly been very productive over the last month after a slow start to the season. Since April 26, he boasts a .306/.386/.444 slash line (.830 OPS).

It's still hard to see the Cubs willing to give up the next 3.5 years of Russell for 3 months of Machado and MAYBE a slightly better chance of re-signing the superstar this winter.

"I was talking about a 24-year-old hitter, what about a 24-year-old human being having to process all of that?" Maddon asked. "Whether he's hearing it or not from anywhere here, it's just mom, dad, brother, friend, former coach on the phone — 'What's that all about?' 

"He's gotta be inundated with that conversation. He didn't ask for that. He's just doing his job."

Cubs still searching for answers for Tyler Chatwood's puzzling control issues

Cubs still searching for answers for Tyler Chatwood's puzzling control issues

Tyler Chatwood looked to be turning the corner with his control issues, but alas, he and the Cubs aren't so lucky.

After walking only two batters in a solid start in Atlanta last week, Chatwood had taken a big step in the right direction. It was, after all, only the third time he'd walked fewer than 5 batters in an outing this season.

Those control woes reared their ugly heads once again Tuesday night at Wrigley Field in a 10-1 loss to the Indians. Chatwood walked 6 batters and managed to net only 8 outs, getting hammered for 4 runs in the third inning.

"Ugh, it was tough," Maddon said. "The stuff was so good, we just couldn't get a strike."

"It's definitely frustrating," Chatwood said, "because one at-bat, I'll feel really good and the next one, I feel like I'm fighting myself.

"Last time [out], I was able to stay in the rhythm. Tonight, I was kinda battling, rushing rather than staying back, so it's just keeping that feeling and maintaining that."

His season ERA is only 3.74, which looks good until you consider his WHIP is 1.62 and he's walked 40 batters in 45.2 innings with only 41 strikeouts in the process. He now leads baseball in walks per 9 innings.

Chatwood said earlier this month in St. Louis that he's figured out what has led to the startling lack of control and while he didn't elaborate on the mechanical issue, he was working hard at correcting the problem in bullpens.

He's also used the term "fighting myself" at least a dozen times this month alone and it's become a common refrain for his explanation of what's going on. 

"He's got a busy delivery when he throws the baseball," Maddon said. "He's kinda busy what he does with his hands. It's not like he can just change it easily because that's how his arm works, how his body works.

"Sometimes, like you see him the other day, everything's on time and how good it can be and when it's out of sorts a bit, then all of the sudden it becomes shotgun. Ah man, you can see the movement [on his pitches] from the side, how good it is. 

"We gotta harness it somehow. I spoke to him briefly on the bench; I reassured him it's gonna be fine, it's gonna be really good by the end of the year. We gotta figure it out and he knows that. But man, that's good stuff. We just gotta get it in the zone."

Chatwood also admitted part of the problem is mental in that he's trying to force pitches rather than trusting his stuff. He's also gotten into the bad habit of drifting down the mound, though he's not sure when or where he picked up that hitch in his delivery.

Chatwood and Cubs pitching coach Jim Hickey are working on slowing his delivery down to get his arm in the same spot on a more consistent basis.

When the Cubs signed Chatwood over the winter, it was easy to see why.

He just turned 28 in December, his peripherals and a move from hitter-friendly Coors Field foretold a potential leap in performance and his stuff is nasty. Plus, he signed a three-year deal at a relative bargain of $38 million.

Once the Cubs signed Yu Darvish in spring training, you could make the case that Chatwood could be among the best No. 5 starters in baseball.

Nine starts later, the honeymoon period is well over with Chatwood, as he threw only 30 of his 74 pitches for strikes Tuesday night and sent catcher Willson Contreras sailing all around home plate for pitches way out of the zone.

Still, it's clear to see there is some intriguing talent there and the season there is roughly 70 percent of the season remaining before the Cubs make what they hope is another run at the World Series.

"I have a lot of faith," Maddon said. "I know we're gonna reap the rewards, the benefits as he figures this thing out."