Cubs

The ‘friendly rivalry’ between Theo Epstein and Andrew Friedman with Cubs, Dodgers becoming NL superpowers

The ‘friendly rivalry’ between Theo Epstein and Andrew Friedman with Cubs, Dodgers becoming NL superpowers

LOS ANGELES – A man stepped to the microphone during a Q&A session at Cubs Convention and called Theo Epstein and Andrew Friedman “the two boy geniuses.” The fan told Epstein how his friends used to call the Dodgers baseball boss “your Mini-Me,” asking about their personal rivalry and if beating L.A. in the playoffs had any extra meaning.

“We have a friendly rivalry,” Epstein told a packed hotel ballroom in downtown Chicago in January. “First off, didn’t he interview for an internship with us and we turned him down way back in the day?

“And then like nine months later, he was GM of the Rays. When he was with Tampa and I was with Boston, we never spoke, because we were in the same division. It was kind of a heated rivalry. We literally never called each other on trades or anything like that.”

But where it’s so difficult for the small-market Rays to keep up with the ultra-rich Red Sox – and replace Friedman’s vision and Joe Maddon’s star power and survive a string of wasted first-round draft picks and find a long-term stadium solution – the Cubs and Dodgers are positioned to be superpowers for years to come.

That’s what makes this Memorial Day weekend showdown at Dodger Stadium so compelling beyond the National League Championship Series rematch. It’s not just upcoming free agent Jake Arrieta returning to the site of his onesie no-hitter on Friday night, a reigning MVP (Kris Bryant) and Rookie of the Year (Corey Seager), two of the best closers on the planet (Wade Davis and Kenley Jansen) and a classic Jon Lester vs. Clayton Kershaw matchup on Sunday afternoon.

The Cubs eliminated the Dodgers less than a month after Epstein finalized a five-year contract worth in the neighborhood of $50 million, likely surpassing Friedman as the game’s highest-paid personnel executive.

“Jed developed a pretty good relationship with him, because I didn’t like talking to him,” Epstein said, referencing GM Jed Hoyer, another Boston transplant on the Cubs Convention panel that day. “But then when I came out here with the Cubs, a different league and everything, I developed a much better relationship with Andrew and we became friends, so now it’s much more of a friendly rivalry.

“I will say that losing to the Dodgers would have been a bitter pill to swallow on a number of fronts, including that one. But they’re developing a powerhouse out there.

“We see them as a team we have to go through each year to get where we want to be.”

[MORE CUBS: Summing up the Cubs' impressive, potentially season-altering homestand]

Backed by Guggenheim Partners’ financial muscle and flush with new TV money, the Dodgers have won four straight division titles and 90-plus games each season while ramping up a farm system that’s now ranked fourth, fifth or sixth by Baseball America, ESPN and MLB.com.

“Everyone’s got their own style and their own approach,” Epstein said. “Ours was more kind of bottom-up (where) they needed to keep it rolling at a high level in the big leagues while retooling their system and nurturing the talent that was already there.

“We had to go out and transact and bring some stuff in. We were at different points of the success cycle. They’ve done a really nice job of winning while kind of establishing something new at the same time.”

The blue-blooded franchise that produced 17 Rookie of the Year winners last month rolled out Cody Bellinger, a 21-year-old, left-handed first baseman/outfielder with nine homers in his first 28 games in The Show. Julio Urias – who might be the next Fernando Valenzuela – is supposed to be conserving some innings at Triple-A Oklahoma City for another October where the Cubs could be standing in the way of the Dodgers’ first World Series title since 1988.

“They’ve been producing great young talent for a long period of time,” Epstein said. “If you go back and look at some of the young studs they have in the big leagues that (former scouting director) Logan White and (the previous regime) brought in, some of the guys are still coming.

“They’re stocked and the Dodger tradition runs really deep. With Andrew and his front office, we know they’re going to be dynamic. They’re going to have more resources than anyone. And they’re a big threat to the whole league for a long period of time.”

Brandon Morrow, Craig Kimbrel and the 'puzzle' that is the Cubs bullpen

Brandon Morrow, Craig Kimbrel and the 'puzzle' that is the Cubs bullpen

From potential trades to payroll to their exact offseason checklist, the Cubs are playing things close to the vest early this offseason.

Which makes sense, as it doesn't do them any good to publicly talk about which players they're hoping to trade or exactly how much they have to spend to reshape a roster that missed the playoffs for the first time in a half-decade. 

But one thing is certain: The bullpen ranks very high on the Cubs priority list this winter.

At MLB's GM Meetings last week, Theo Epstein acknowledged the bullpen is a major focus for his front office and said, "we need to hit on a number of relievers this winter."

If the season started today, the Cubs bullpen might look something like this:

Craig Kimbrel (closer)
Rowan Wick
Kyle Ryan
Brad Wieck
Tyler Chatwood
Alec Mills
Danny Hultzen
Duane Underwood Jr.
Adbert Alzolay

That also doesn't take into account the potential of Chatwood, Mills or Alzolay getting a shot at the starting rotation (plus Colin Rea, who was added to the 40-man roster earlier this month).

There's not a whole lot of MLB experience in that projected bullpen beyond the closer. Kimbrel has 565 career big-league appearances under his belt, but the other eight names on that list have combined for only 329 relief appearances spanning 374.2 innings. 

That's not to say there's no promise in this group — Wick, Ryan and Wieck all impressed in varying degrees of sample size in 2019 while Mills and Chatwood also performed admirably in swingman roles — but there's simply not much of a track record. 

To some degree, the Cubs are going to be counting on guys from the aforementioned group (plus other internal candidates like James Norwood and Dillon Maples) in 2020, but there's also clearly a lot of work to do for a unit that struggled mightily in high-leverage spots last season.

"That's a puzzle we're going to be putting together all winter," Jed Hoyer said. "We'll look at every possible angle to do it — minor-league free agency, major-league free agency, trades. We're gonna be creative in how we put a bullpen together, but right now, there's a lot of flexibility.

"It's hard to picture that painting right now, but I think we'll be creative and try to put together a good bullpen."

As Hoyer indicated, there is no one way to put together a quality relief corps.

For example, the Cubs signed Kimbrel to $43 million deal, acquired Wick and Mills in under-the-radar minor-league trades, moved Chatwood from the rotation to the bullpen, drafted Underwood and picked up former second-overall pick (2011) Hultzen on a minor-league deal as he made his way back from a laundry list of injuries. Wieck is the most recent acquisition, quietly coming over from the Padres in exchange for Carl Edwards Jr. while everybody was focused on the Nicholas Castellanos deal.

One such unconventional option could be Brandon Morrow, the oft-injured former closer who initially signed with the Cubs prior to the 2018 season, but was only able to pitch for a few months before missing the last year-and-a-half with ongoing arm issues. The Cubs declined his $12 million 2020 earlier this month and thus owe him a $3 million buyout.

Morrow, 35, is reportedly healthy and has expressed interest in making a comeback. If he doesn't manage to land a big-league deal (which is unlikely given his recent elbow issue and track record of injuries), he is open to signing a minor-league deal with the Cubs, as first reported by the Chicago Sun-Times' Gordon Wittenmyer

The Cubs would be interested in that, as well, as it's a low-risk, high-upside move. When he's been able to get on a mound over the last four seasons, Morrow is 7-0 with a 1.79 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 24 saves and 12 holds.

"When healthy, he can certainly be a big part of the solution," Epstein said. "We appreciate his sentiments about if he's gonna sign a minor-league deal, he feels a responsibility that it should be here. That certainly seems like the type of thing that makes sense for both sides down the road."

The Cubs are already probably going to have to get creative to fit all their desired moves into the 2020 budget, so a reunion with Morrow makes sense as a potential piece of the bullpen puzzle. But obviously the Cubs cannot go into the season expecting Morrow to stay healthy all season or relying on him as a key cog.

The biggest key to the success of the 2020 bullpen will be Kimbrel, who had a very forgettable debut season in Chicago. 

Kimbrel went 0-4, posted a 6.53 ERA, gave up 9 homers in 20.2 innings and blew 3 saves in 16 chances with the Cubs after signing midseason. He also missed roughly a month of action between a knee injury and then an elbow injury that lingered into September.

Will a typical offseason and spring training be enough to get the 31-year-old back to his Hall of Fame-caliber form?

"Some of the injuries may well have been because of the lack of spring training, ramping up too quickly," Hoyer said. "Of course there's a lot of variables. I don't think we know exactly why he struggled. I thought there were some moments where he looked like he was about to take off and he looked really good and some injuries held him back. 

"Hopefully a really good spring training and he can get back on track, really stabilize our bullpen and allow us to build a bullpen without having to worry about the last three outs."

Regardless of how the Cubs build the bullpen this winter, all eyes will be on Kimbrel. If he can't regain his form, it's going to make life a lot more difficult on Epstein's front office and new manager David Ross. 

However, it does help that Wick, Wieck and Ryan got valuable experience pitching in high-leverage moments in the midst of a pennant race last season. All three figure to be big parts of that bullpen puzzle moving forward. 

Before a minor shoulder issue cut his season short, Chatwood was dialing it up to 99 mph out of the bullpen and impressing in short spurts or in a long relief role. After a long road, Hultzen finally made his MLB debut in 2019 while Underwood struck out all six batters he faced in his season debut in August and showed some promise.

If the Cubs are going to have to lean heavily on the group of relievers without much track record, at least they got a bit of a head start.

"Yeah, it gives us some comfort," Hoyer said. "We have a lot of uncertainty, a lot of moving parts in the bullpen. But the way some of those guys pitched at the end of the year does give us hope that we can find some diamonds in the rough and some of those guys that we found last year can continue to make strides and help us." 

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Christian Yelich to Yu Darvish on Twitter, 'Nobody needs help facing you'

Christian Yelich to Yu Darvish on Twitter, 'Nobody needs help facing you'

In the wake of the cheating allegations surrounding the Houston Astros, multiple parties have weighed in with their takes on the situation, and this includes Cubs starter Yu Darvish. He stated that this past season, he had noticed "weird behavior" from batters. Bleacher Nation then tweeted out a video showing Darvish stepping off the mound in a matchup against Christian Yelich and the Milwaukee Brewers, stating that he stepped off the mound because Yelich's "eyes move first...I'm not sure what he is trying to do."

Darvish then went on to elaborate that he wasn't trying to accuse the Brewers of stealing signs, rather that he was just stating what he had noticed in terms of batter behavior. Darvish made a minor grammar mistake, saying "your" instead of "you're" and when he responded to try to clarify that, it may have accidentally caused more confusion, as some mistakenly thought he was saying that Yelich indeed was stealing signs, but this was not the case.

That didn't stop Yelich from sounding off on Darvish with quite a harsh response, a response that was so harsh that some were shocked at the nature of it.

MLB free agent Josh Donaldson chimed in, humorously stating that he could definitely  use some help hitting off of Darvish and jokingly asked for what tips Yelich might have. 

Darvish then retweeted a few tweets that illustrated the point he was trying to make. 

Darvish also responded to Donaldson, saying that he doesn't think the third baseman needs any help hitting off of him either. 

At the end of the Darvish seems to be in a good place, and from his Twitter interactions, it is clear that he was not as upset or offended over the situation as Yelich was. 

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