Cubs

Epstein will have to answer the Garza question

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Epstein will have to answer the Garza question

Forget Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder. The bigger litmus test will be Matt Garza. That could reveal what Theo Epstein really thinks about this team.

The tricky question of when the Cubs will truly be able to compete could be answered by what Epstein does with Garza. There wont be an easy answer. Even the new president of baseball operations seems conflicted.

Epstein watched Garza eliminate the Boston Red Sox in 2008 and win the ALCS MVP award. Garza wasnt afraid of pitching in a brutal division and loved Fenway Parks big stage.

Thats why, when pressed, Epstein will say: Hes exactly the type of guy that wed like to build around.

But its more complicated than that. Garza, who made close to 6 million last season, remains arbitration-eligible for two more years. For a team looking to win now, a 28-year-old, big-game power pitcher might be more attractive than any free agent on the market.

The Cubs will have to at least wonder what they could get for that, maybe multiple pieces that will help accelerate this rebuilding process.

Thats one of the greatest challenges of the job, Epstein said Thursday, balancing short-term interests with long-term interests and making sure they align, being honest about where you are as an organization and when your opportunity to really win comes.

Jim Hendry never felt like he was mortgaging the future when he sent five players to the Tampa Bay Rays almost 11 months ago. The ex-general manager had studied future free-agent classes and knew it was a rare opportunity to get a frontline starter under club control through 2013.

When the industry gathers for the winter meetings next week in Dallas, Garzas name will be linked to trade rumors all over again. But that doesnt automatically mean hes going somewhere else.

There are ways to turn quote-unquote short-term assets into longer-term assets, Epstein said. Its not just through trade. You can also do it through contract extensions. There are a lot of different ways to build a foundation.

Well be open-minded about that with all of our players and see which way things go.

Epstein isnt emotionally attached to these players the way Hendry once was, though he is locked into the idea of getting more pitching. Look for more value signings, like the reasonable two-year, 10 million commitment (plus an option) just given to outfielder David DeJesus.

We need starting pitching, Epstein said. You cant take your chances very seriously as a club if you go into the season without not just five guys you can point to but six, seven, eight guys. You better know who your ninth starters going to be because (the) numbers show youre going to need (him) at some point during the course of the year.

Which seems to suggest it wouldnt make sense to unload your best starter. Epstein had good things to say about Jeff Samardzija and Andrew Cashner, but wouldnt reveal whether those two young pitchers are ticketed for the bullpen.

Epstein isnt prepared to move Sean Marshall to the rotation: If you have the best left-handed reliever in baseball, its hard to think about taking him out of that role.

Garza went 10-10 with a 3.32 ERA last season, though thats deceptive because he left with the lead seven times without factoring into the decision. He has the ability to make hitters swing and miss (197 strikeouts in 198 innings), which is something this front office values.

Garza did miss a few weeks with a right elbow contusion, but has made at least 30 starts in each of the past four seasons. He definitely has an edge, a few personality quirks, but teammates respected his energy and effort. He answered the questions about how hed handle playing in a big market.

DeJesus has spent his entire major-league career in Kansas City and Oakland, but he seems ready for the bright lights. He recently moved into a home in Wheaton with his wife and 18-month-old son, so hes seen the wall-to-wall Epstein coverage.

The hype thats going around, its a beautiful thing, DeJesus said. To be able to be a part of it (is) such a blessing.

Perhaps the biggest question for the Cubs this winter remains unanswered: Will Garza become part of Epsteins grand plan?

Willson Contreras, Jon Lester carry Cubs to eventful win in the first game of the series with Atlanta

Willson Contreras, Jon Lester carry Cubs to eventful win in the first game of the series with Atlanta

The Cubs and Braves got through roughly one inning of Stranger Things Night at Wrigley Field before Willson Contreras made the evening his own. 

The catcher went 2-4 with three RBI, and provided the most notable moment from the game: a 2nd inning solo homer that caused both benches to clear. Contreras had taken issue with a few of the called strikes earlier in the at-bat, and said something to home plate umpire John Tumpane about it. Contreras continued to make his feelings known as he left the box, drawing the ire of Braves catcher Tyler Flowers.

“To be honest, those pitches weren’t even close to the strike zone,” he said. “[Flowers] got mad because I was talking to the umpire about that, and he jumped into the conversation. 

Contreras then proceeded to shout in the direction of Atlanta’s dugout while rounding first base, and the two catchers exchanged more words as he crossed home plate. The benches quickly emptied, and after a few moments of posturing, returned to their dugouts. 

“It was a lot of emotions together,” he said after the game. “I was having a conversation with the umpire, and it ended up with [Flowers], so that’s all I can say. I just basically told him to do his job and I’ll do mine. I don’t know why he got pissed off because that’s all I said - you do your job and i’ll do mine.”

“I was kind of amused by the whole thing,” Joe Maddon added. “I don’t really know Mr. Flowers - we had a nice conversation, walked away, and it was over. It really wasn’t worth more than what happened.

The confrontation was just one of a few testy moments between these two teams. In the top of the 2nd inning, Braves third baseman Josh Donaldson was caught on cameras shushing the Cubs dugout: 

Two innings later, it was Javy Baez who returned serve by blowing the Braves a kiss after stealing second on Flowers: 

“It’s fun because they’re good,” Maddon said. “And we’re good - that’s the fun part. Monday night, at 7:05, to have that kind of attitude and atmosphere is outstanding. That’s what baseball needs.” 

On the mound, Jon Lester bounced back from a run of three straight underwhelming performances. June hasn’t been kind to Lester, as the lefty had allowed 14 runs over the last 23 IPs prior to Monday’s start, good for a 5.93 FIP. He threw 94 pitches against the Braves, lasting six innings while allowing two runs -- both unearned, though -- and striking out seven. He only threw 94 pitches, but his control (0 BB) was excellent. Lester spotted his strikeout pitch well all night, getting four of his six right-handed K’s on the low outside corner:

“I just tried to stay down there, and had the backdoor cutter to those guys,” Lester said. “We were able to kind of exploit that, and then when we felt that guys were reaching out there a little bit, I ran the cutter in on some guys too. I was just able to command both sides of the plate tonight, which is huge against an offense like that.” 

“Great job by Jon,” Maddon added, “Jon had great stuff. Coming off of [throwing 114 pitches], he’s been throwing a lot of pitches on regular rest, so I wanted to limit that tonight. He was lobbying to go back out, but I didn’t feel good about it based on the longevity of the season and we had a rested Kintzler.

“But Jon was really good, and really good against a tough lineup.”

Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Live from Wrigley it's Cubs Authentic Fan Night

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USA TODAY

Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Live from Wrigley it's Cubs Authentic Fan Night

Ozzie Guillen and Doug Glanville join Leila Rahimi to talk all things Chicago baseball as the Cubs take on the Braves and the White Sox look to get a win in Boston.

Listen to the full episode in the embedded player below: