Cubs

Five more years: Theo Epstein signs massive contract extension with Cubs

Five more years: Theo Epstein signs massive contract extension with Cubs

PITTSBURGH — Theo Epstein understood the optics of how he once escaped Fenway Park in a gorilla suit, walking away from his dream job with the Boston Red Sox. Winning two World Series titles couldn’t stop the personality conflicts or the competing agendas or an epic collapse at the end of the 2011 season.

But Epstein never wanted to make that kind of power play here, not with the Cubs on the verge of what could be a historic run through October and a potential dynasty, not after leaving the Boston bubble and feeling a sense of renewal in Chicago, where his young family lives a few blocks from Wrigley Field.

Epstein signing a massive five-year contract extension seemed inevitable, no matter that it took until Sept. 28 for the Cubs to finally make the announcement.

While $50 million guaranteed is said to be an overestimate, it’s believed to be in the team president’s range, given the bonus potential — presumably through metrics like attendance and playoff appearances — and the sense that Andrew Friedman’s deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers could be worth $45 million.

“There was never any real drama,” chairman Tom Ricketts said Wednesday, sitting in PNC Park’s visiting dugout before a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. “Honestly, we sat down in spring training, had a nice dinner and talked about it. I basically told him I thought he was the best in the game at what he did. And he told me that no matter what I paid him, he wasn’t going to leave Chicago, so we were off to a good start.”

After a series of meetings through the summer, Epstein and Ricketts hammered out the final details over the weekend inside the team’s Wrigleyville headquarters and initially planned to hold the press conference on Sunday, but that felt wrong once they found out Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez died in a boat crash, leaving the industry in mourning.

Epstein’s contract does not include an equity stake in a franchise now valued at more than $2 billion. Two of his closest advisors — general manager Jed Hoyer and scouting/player-development chief Jason McLeod — will also get extensions through the 2021 season.

“When we had dinner in spring training, (Tom) started it off by saying some really nice things about me that might have hurt his leverage a little bit,” Epstein said. “And then I returned the favor by telling him that even if we couldn’t work out a contract, it would get awkward because I would still just keep showing up to work as an employee at will, ruining my leverage, so that was a nice way to start the negotiation. Really, the entire process reflected that spirit.”

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It hasn’t been an uninterrupted honeymoon period since Epstein bolted from Boston and signed a five-year, $18.5 million contract in October 2011. The Epstein regime fired three managers before hiring Joe Maddon, who used an out-clause that triggered when Friedman left the Tampa Bay Rays for Los Angeles after the 2014 season. The Cubs continually faced questions about spending like a big-market team — signing Jon Lester to a $155 million megadeal that winter required financial gymnastics and using money left over from losing the Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes.

But from the ashes of a 101-loss season in 2012, the Cubs methodically built a 101-win team this year through: executing shrewd trades for an All-Star first baseman (Anthony Rizzo), All-Star shortstop (Addison Russell), last year’s Cy Young Award winner (Jake Arrieta) and an emerging ace (Kyle Hendricks); drafting a leading MVP candidate (Kris Bryant); and going on a free-agent spending spree that approached $290 million (John Lackey, Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward, Dexter Fowler).

“They’ve given me great freedom to operate within baseball operations,” Epstein said of the Ricketts family. “They’ve given me the resources that we’ve needed to make this baseball operation healthier and thrive. It’s everything I could have ever asked for. So there’s no place I’d rather be. I think I said five years ago it’s a great day to be a Cub. I still feel that way. I still envision feeling that way for the foreseeable future.”

In leaving the Red Sox, Epstein quoted football legend Bill Walsh, referencing his belief that coaches and executives shouldn’t spend more than a decade in one job, or else risk burnout or becoming stale.

“I don’t know” if this will be the last contract in Chicago, Epstein said. “It was 10 years in Boston, and that certainly seemed like the right amount of time there. I do really believe in a lot of what Walsh was writing about.

“But it’s too early to judge. We’ll see how I feel at that point. Certainly, there’s some symmetry to 10 years. But it’s just too early. So many things can happen between now and then. I’m really not thinking beyond trying to win a World Series for this organization.”

When Epstein first met Ricketts in New York at the family’s spectacular residence overlooking Central Park, the Cubs had just lost 91 games, the second of five straight fifth-place finishes — and the beginning of what could be a golden age of baseball on the North Side.

“A lot of people have this perception — I know I was sort of in that camp — that he was more of a deeply quantitative number-cruncher kind of guy,” Ricketts said. “And that’s true. Obviously, Theo understands numbers. He understands how to apply them to make good decisions.

“But I think the thing that I’ve seen the last five years — which is even more remarkable — is how well he handles people. How well he chooses players for his team — and his ability to judge character and put together the right human resources together on the same team — has been truly remarkable.”

The curious ripple effects of the Cubs' trade for Martin Maldonado

The curious ripple effects of the Cubs' trade for Martin Maldonado

While the Cubs put the finishing touches on a lackluster loss to the Reds Monday night at Wrigley Field, the game quickly took a backseat as reports of a trade filtered through Baseball Twitter.

In came a veteran catcher — Martin Maldonado — from the Kansas City Royals in exchange for Mike Montgomery, who will live on in Cubs history books forever as the guy who threw the curveball that notched the final out in the 2016 World Series to break a 108-year championship drought.

There are many layers to this move, including the corresponding aspect of Cubs All-Star catcher Willson Contreras hitting the 10-day injured list with a strain in the arch of his right foot. Contreras had an MRI Monday afternoon/evening, which revealed the issue. 

Contreras felt like he could play through it and passionately pleaded his case, but the Cubs want to exercise an abundance of caution with one of their most important players.

"Our medical staff feels like if he were to try to play on it, that he'd be risking exacerbating the injury and turning it into something long-term," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. "So we have to get ahead of it, take it out of Willy's hands and take him off his feet. 

"We don't expect it to be longer than 10 days — that's what we hope for, anyways."

But even before the severity of Contreras' injury was known, Epstein said the team was already in talks with the Royals front office.

"We've been having discussions with Kansas City and they had an opening in their rotation after trading [Homer] Bailey and they'd been talking to a couple teams about Maldonado and we knew that," Epstein said. "We'd actually been working on a version of the deal beforehand and it was something we wanted to quickly finalize once it became clear that Willson was gonna miss some time."

That's interesting.

So the Cubs' interest in Maldonado is not solely based on Contreras' injury, which means they value the veteran catcher as more than just a short-term, couple-week insurance policy to pair with Victor Caratini. 

On the one hand, that leaves the Cubs free to trade Caratini over the next couple weeks if a deal developed.

But the move for Maldonado also shores up a major area of depth for the Cubs, which is exactly what Epstein talked about before Monday's game, referencing the change in MLB rules that eliminated the August waiver wire deadline. Now, every team has to make their moves ahead of the July 31 deadline and that's it.

"Teams need to keep depth in mind a little bit more, that you have to anticipate where you might be vulnerable to an injury and try to build that depth up in advance — preemptively, really — knowing that there's no escape valve in August," Epstein said. "So you gotta really do all your work this month as much as possible and really take a hard look at your organizational depth."

Well, despite fantastic seasons from Contreras and Caratini, the Cubs actually have very little in the way of catching depth beyond those two. Taylor Davis is the only other backstop on the 40-man roster and he has almost no big-league experience. When Caratini was on the IL earlier this year with a hand injury, Davis rarely played in the month-plus he was on the roster.

Even if Contreras' injury is as minor as it appears, it underscores the point that the Cubs' depth is very fragile at the most physically demanding position on the field. What would the team do if Contreras or Caratini suffered an injury in August or September?

Now, they can add Maldonado into the mix — a veteran catcher who draves rave remarks for his defense and game-calling. 

The right-handed-hitting catcher is due to turn 33 next month and is in his ninth big-league season. He hasn't done much with the bat in his career (.289 on-base percentage, .351 slugging) and that hasn't changed this year (.647 OPS), but his work behind the plate was enticing to the Cubs and their veteran-laden pitching staff.

"He's an established catcher in the league who does a lot of great things behind the plate," Epstein said. "He can really receive, he can really throw. He's caught playoff games. He's handled some of the best pitchers in the game; he's a favorite for pitchers to throw to.

"He's very calm back there, very prepared, calls a great game, really soft hands, lot of experience, lot of savvy and someone who we think can step in and share the job with Vic and get up to speed really quickly in what we hope is a brief absence from Willson."

The Cubs haven't yet shared a plan for how they plan to manage the roster crunch for all three catchers when Contreras returns from injury in a week or two, but that might be because they don't yet have a plan. That's more of a "cross that bridge when it comes" type of situation.

When everybody is healthy — if everybody is ever healthy all at the same time — the Cubs could carry three catchers and utilize Contreras' ability to play the outfield and Caratini's first/third base versatility. They could also option Caratini to the minors for a couple weeks and bring him back up when rosters expand in September or if another injury strikes.

Either way, the Cubs front office, coaching staff and pitching staff can rest easier knowing they have another experienced backstop on the roster. 

The other aspect to all this, obviously, is in the Cubs bullpen and starting depth. Montgomery is out, which means there is an easy open spot on the roster for Alec Mills, who is making a spot start Tuesday while Cole Hamels continues to rehab his oblique injury.

In the longer term, this could be a good thing for the Cubs bullpen, as Montgomery was miscast and rarely used as a short-inning reliever. The 30-year-old southpaw last threw on July 2 and has only made five appearances in the last month. 

Montgomery was slowed by injury in spring training and then again in the first couple weeks of the season, but he had been building up his workload of late - throwing at least 2.1 innings in each of his last three outings. Still, the Cubs opted to go with Mills Tuesday against the Reds instead of Montgomery and they also had Tyler Chatwood and Adbert Alzolay in the rotation at various points earlier this season.

Montgomery hasn't started once in 2019, but he made 28 starts in a Cubs uniform, including 19 last year while filling in for the injured Yu Darvish.

The Cubs clearly feel good enough with their rotation depth as is (Mills, Chatwood, Alzolay) and Hamels' return looks to be right around the corner, so the writing was on the wall that Montgomery wouldn't get many chances to start in the short or long term in Chicago.

It's also good for Montgomery, a guy who got the last out in the World Series and did everything asked of him in his three-plus years in Chicago, bouncing between the rotation and bullpen. 

Now he gets an opportunity to start, which he's been vocal about wanting to do, and he'll be thrown right into the fire — the Royals have him penciled in to start Friday...in Cleveland.

How's that for full circle?

Cubs trade Mike Montgomery to Royals for catcher Martin Maldonado

Cubs trade Mike Montgomery to Royals for catcher Martin Maldonado

It’s not a blockbuster move, but the Cubs have reportedly made a trade with more than two weeks until the trade deadline.

Theo Epstein confirmed previous reports after the game that the Cubs traded left-handed pitcher Mike Montgomery to the Kansas City Royals for catcher Martin Maldonado. Epstein added that Willson Contreras is heading to the 10-day IL with a strain in the arch of his foot, but he didn’t expect Contreras to be out much longer than those 10 days.

Montgomery, 30, joined the Cubs in the middle of the 2016 season, but struggled this season. He had a 5.67 ERA with 18 strikeouts and 13 walks in 27 innings this season.

Maldonado, 32, was hitting .224/.288/.359 with the Royals. Maldonado can fill in at catcher with Victor Caratini while Contreras is out. Maldonado is known for his defensive ability behind the plate.

Meanwhile, Montgomery's exit means the pitcher who recorded the last out of the 2016 World Series is no longer in the organization. Epstein addressed that to reporters after the game.

"Obviously you can't talk about his contributions without talking about getting the last out of the World Series that changed everybody's life," Epstein said.

Montgomery talked to reporters from his locker after it was announced that he was traded.

"I look back at that and it's an emotional experience," Montgomery said. "At the time, I didn't realize how much impact it was. Especially now, as I leave this team and the city, it's going to be something I can look back on and really be proud of. I was able to accomplish a lot here and now it's time to move on and see what else I can accomplish somewhere else."

Montgomery may have an opportunity to join the Royals rotation. The Royals traded starting pitcher Homer Bailey to the A's on Sunday. Montgomery didn't make any starts in 2019, but had 38 in his previous two and a half years with the Cubs.

"It's definitely an emotional thing to think of the last three and a half, four years here and obviously the World Series," Montgomery said. "I grew up a lot here. I'm definitely going to miss playing here in the city and with a lot of these guys. It's going to take a little while to settle in."

 

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