Cubs

Future GM Jason McLeod plans to finish the job with Cubs

Future GM Jason McLeod plans to finish the job with Cubs

Jason McLeod sat next to Theo Epstein on Tuesday night as the Fox Sports 1 camera zoomed in on the Cubs president behind home plate at AT&T Park. A laser-focused, stressed-out Epstein gulped while watching his team trail the San Francisco Giants, perhaps thinking about Johnny Cueto and Madison Bumgarner in an elimination Game 5. 

It became the perfect reaction shot on national TV, an image made for Twitter GIFs, something general manager Jed Hoyer could laugh about after that stunning ninth-inning comeback that ended a National League Division Series: “Yeah, I got a lot of screen shots from various friends…you never know what position you’re going to be in or where your hand’s going to be. You try to tell yourself the cameras might be on. And then you forget every time.”

It framed McLeod on the edge of the picture, but the senior vice president of scouting and player development has been a central figure to the Cubs becoming just the third team in major-league history to win at least 100 games within four years of a 100-loss season.

With the Cubs heading back to the NL Championship Series for the second year in a row, McLeod should be in position to run his own baseball-operations department someday. “No question,” Hoyer says, McLeod is ready to be a GM. McLeod’s name usually surfaces in Internet speculation whenever a top job opens up, but his recent sit-down with the Minnesota Twins has been his only formal interview for a GM job.

Leaving Chicago would have been a difficult decision for McLeod on personal and professional levels, but the Twins ultimately offered the job to Derek Falvey – a 33-year-old administrator who just finished his first season as an assistant GM with the Cleveland Indians – and gave him the elevated title of chief baseball officer.

“If the opportunity presents itself again at some point in the future, then we’ll talk about it then,” McLeod said. “But I just couldn’t be more grateful to be here.” 

By the end of September, chairman Tom Ricketts announced a five-year extension for Epstein, a market-setting deal believed to be worth in the range of $50 million. Hoyer also signed a five-year extension, with McLeod getting two more years tacked onto his deal, keeping the band together (on paper) through the 2021 season.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

That executive timeline matches up with a spectacular array of on-field talent: Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Javier Baez, Kyle Schwarber, plus rookies like Willson Contreras and Albert Almora Jr. who are already gaining valuable playoff experience now. 

“I’m exceptionally grateful,” McLeod said. “All of us are. Look at where we are at this moment in time with this team. I can’t imagine a better environment, a better culture to work at in baseball. We’ve been together a long time. We’re friends. We’re good. We embrace the fact that we are good. And we challenge ourselves to be even better.”

Epstein’s style is to listen to a cross-section of voices and mine as many sources of information as possible, but he goes way back with McLeod, to the beginning stages of their careers in the 1990s with the San Diego Padres. At a ground zero for the rebuild, Epstein memorably put it this way during an introductory press conference in the fall of 2011: “Jason McLeod is the rarest commodity in the industry. He’s an impact evaluator of baseball talent.”

McLeod’s first draft with the Boston Red Sox produced Dustin Pedroia, a 2007 American League Rookie of the Year and 2008 MVP, a back-to-back feat that Bryant might replicate in the NL. McLeod also became involved in the drafting of pieces – for Boston’s 2007 World Series team or elsewhere – like Rizzo, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jed Lowrie, Clay Buchholz and Josh Reddick.  

McLeod, a former minor-league pitcher, isn’t some propeller-head. He comes across as someone you would have a beer with, an easygoing personality that meshes with scouts and staffers. But he can also speak to an ownership level, talking the corporate language of systems, processes and analytics. Working in Boston and Chicago has made him comfortable around the media.

McLeod withdrew his name from consideration while his hometown Padres searched for a GM in the middle of the 2014 season, saying he didn’t want to leave with unfinished business and miss being part of a World Series blowout in Wrigleyville.

San Diego hired A.J. Preller, who is currently serving a 30-day suspension after a Major League Baseball investigation into how he mishandled the medical information during the Drew Pomeranz trade with the Red Sox. The Arizona Diamondbacks – a franchise that can match the Padres in terms of dysfunction and instability – are now looking for a new baseball boss after firing Dave Stewart and sidelining Tony La Russa.    

McLeod isn’t seen as a fit in Arizona. For now, McLeod plans to watch the scouting-and-player-development machine Epstein promised to build on the North Side, seeing how all these magnificent talents grow up, while staying close to his family in the Chicago area. But someday, the TV cameras might be looking for McLeod in the stands during an emotionally draining playoff game.

Cubs Talk Podcast: Kimbrel, blisters and the business of baseball

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Kimbrel, blisters and the business of baseball

Luke Stuckmeyer, David Kaplan and Tony Andracki tackle all the pressing topics surrounding the Cubs, including the Brewers' reported connection to Craig Kimbrel (:45), Yu Darvish's blister woes (5:15), how the current run of extensions in MLB will affect the Cubs in the future (9:10), and Tony makes the case for Kris Bryant to be the regular lead-off hitter (16:00).

Listen to the full episode in the embedded player below:

Cubs Talk Podcast

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2019 MLB preview and predictions: How Cubs stack up against Brewers

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AP

2019 MLB preview and predictions: How Cubs stack up against Brewers

The National League looks as strong as ever, with as many as 12 of the 15 teams planning to contend in 2019.

The Cubs had a quiet winter, transactionally speaking, but almost every other team in the NL bolster their roster this offseason. 

But expectations haven't changed at the corner of Clark and Addison. After a disappointing finish to 2018, Kris Bryant and Co. once again have their sights set on another World Series.

With that, let's take a look at all of the teams that could stand in the way of the Cubs getting back to the Fall Classic:

Milwaukee Brewers

2018 record: 96-67, 1st in NL Central

Offseason additions: Yasmani Grandal, Alex Claudio, Ben Gamel, Bobby Wahl, Cory Spangenberg, Brett Lawrie, Tuffy Gosewisch, Jake Petricka...and maybe Craig Kimbrel??

Offseason departures: Domingo Santana, Keon Broxton, Jonathan Schoop, Wade Miley, Xavier Cedeno, Curtis Granderson, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Lyles, Dan Jennings, Joakim Soria

X-factor: Jimmy Nelson

The 29-year-old right-hander emerged as the ace of the Milwaukee pitching staff with a breakout 2017 campaign (12-6, 3.49 ERA, 10.2 K/9) but hasn't thrown a pitch in a game since Sept. 8 of that season.

He's been dealing with a shoulder injury that kept him on the shelf all of last season and will ensure he won't break camp with the club this spring. But he is currently on the comeback trail and still expected to take a spot in the rotation at some point early this year.

When he returns, what kind of pitcher will he be? Is he the guy that struck out 199 batters and walked only 48 in 175.1 innings (as he did in 2017)? Or is he the pitcher that led the NL with 86 walks against only 140 whiffs in 179.1 innings in 2016? 

And how healthy will Nelson be? After missing an entire season, will his innings limit be somewhere around 100 frames?

Not much has changed for the Brewers from a year ago in that they still have a clear weakness in their rotation but a dynamite bullpen. But they obviously made it work last year.

If Nelson can return and give the Brewers some really valuable innings to begin games before he hands it over to Josh Hader and Co., that could be a huge asset to a squad that won 96 games and made it a one victory shy of the World Series without him.

Projected lineup

1. Lorenzo Cain - CF
2. Christian Yelich - RF
3. Jesus Aguilar - 1B
4. Travis Shaw - 3B
5. Ryan Braun - LF
6. Mike Moustakas - 2B
7. Yasmani Grandal - C
8. Orlando Arcia - SS

Projected rotation

1. Jhoulys Chacin
2. Chase Anderson
3. Zach Davies
4. Corbin Burnes
5. Freddy Peralta

Outlook

For all the talk of the Cubs' quiet winter, the Brewers were just as silent. Then again, they were the ascending team heading into the winter after they caught the Cubs from behind to win the NL Central and took the Dodgers to a Game 7 in the NLCS.

The Cubs finished 11-9 against the Brewers in 2018 with a +4 run differential, illustrating how neck-in-neck the two teams were a year ago. But the Brewers' arrow is pointing up in the rivalry while the Cubs now have a Year of Reckoning. 

The Cubs jumped out to a 7-1 record against their neighbors to the north by the end of April, but that took a turn for the worse as Milwaukee went 8-4 the rest of the way (including that Game 163).

The Brewers also didn't necessarily need to add much to their roster this winter since they had so many answers in house to fill needs. 

Still, they're potentially close to making a huge splash to further improve an area of great strength. Reports trickled out from Ken Rosenthal and Robert Murray of The Athletic Tuesday night that the Brewers were in talks with free agent closer Craig Kimbrel. Jon Heyman doubled down on that info and said the talks were "getting serious" Wednesday afternoon:

That would be an incredible addition to what was already the best bullpen in the NL a year ago. Pairing Kimbrel with Josh Hader and Corey Knebel puts three of the best relievers in the game at the back end of the Milwaukee relief corps. That unit would only get better once veteran Jeremy Jeffress returns after his bout with shoulder discomfort that's limited him this spring.

The Brewers adding Kimbrel would also be a huge slap in the face to the Cubs, who have a clear need for elite bullpen arms yet maintain they don't have "any more money" to spend on the roster. 

Beyond that, the Brew Crew made some shrewd moves this winter in bringing back Moustakas and also adding Grandal on one-year deals.

Grandal is one of the best defensive catchers in the game and shores up a potential hole on the Milwaukee roster. Last season, the Brewers finished 13th in MLB in catcher WAR, but much of that was based on defensive value. The collection of catchers — Manny Pina, Erik Kratz and Jett Bandy — ranked 21st in OPS (.657) from the position. Grandal has a career .782 OPS and has hit at least 22 homers every year since 2015. 

Moustakas wasn't necessarily a game-changer for the Brewers last year when he came over in a midseason trade (.767 OPS), but he gives the lineup more length and has clubbed 66 homers with 180 RBI the last two seasons combined.

There are certainly question marks about this group of position players.

Aguilar was fantastic last year while clubbing 35 homers with 108 RBI, but he had just 16 homers in his MLB career prior to 2018 and he was a completely different hitter in the second half. Before the All-Star Break (and his appearance in the Home Run Derby), the big slugger hit 24 homers, knocked in 70 runs and posted a .995 OPS. After the break, he hit just 11 homers with 38 RBI while sporting a .760 OPS and watched as his slugging percentage fell nearly 200 points. Was that a sign the league figured him out? Was the first half simply a hot stretch and the real Aguilar is a late bloomer who is a servicable slugger, but not necessarily a 35 homer/100 RBI threat each year?

Shaw crushes righties but can't hit lefties. Braun is 35 now and coming off arguably the worst season of his career. Cain had a fantastic first season in Milwaukee, but he's 33 now it's certainly possible his best seasons are behind him. Yelich is a legit star, but will he put up a .598 slugging percentage and 1.000 OPS again this year? 

And what will Arcia's production look like? Already a defensive whiz at shortstop, the 24-year-old hit .310 with a .733 OPS the final six weeks of 2018, including going 4-for-4 against the Cubs in that Game 163.

All that being said, the Brewers should have no trouble putting up runs this year and have some remarkable depth with Eric Thames, Hernan Perez and Ben Gamel on the bench, plus guys like Spangenberg in the minors and top prospect Keston Hiura potentially right around the corner.

Milwaukee is also one of the best teams in baseball in terms of executing the shift and preventing runs, especially with elite defender Cain patrolling the outfield. That run prevention will help a rotation that again has concerns.

Chacin-Anderson-Davies isn't exactly a three-headed monster, but they've all had good seasons in the past (including Chacin last year when he certainly had the Cubs' number).

Then there's Nelson, who could play a huge role this year as well as young arms Corbin Burnes, Freddy Peralta and Brandon Woodruff — all guys who can pitch at the back end of the rotation or move to the bullpen and help bridge the gap ahead of Hader and Knebel (and maybe Kimbrel??).

The reason I have the Brewers in the middle of the pack in the division is the Chuck Tanner Rule, as David Kaplan has discussed several times on the CubsTalk Podcast. So many guys on the Brewers roster had career seasons and baseball typically normalizes over a larger sample with regression to the mean. Some of those breakouts are legit (Yelich, particularly), but to what extent?

Meanwhile, the Cardinals improved their roster this winter the Cubs are banking on positive regression for their group. Make no mistake: Even with a slight regression across the board, the Brewers are still plenty good enough to contend for the NL Central crown and potentially even the NL pennant.

Adding Kimbrel to the Brewers bullpen might push them over both the Cardinals and Cubs in my personal projections. But really, you could create any combination of how these three teams finish in the division and it'd be an easy sell.

For now, let's go with the Brewers in 3rd place, close behind the Cubs and Cardinals in the division and just out of the final Wild-Card spot.

Prediction: 3rd in NL Central, just outside the Wild-Card race

All 2019 previews & predictions

San Francisco Giants
Arizona Diamondbacks
San Diego Padres
Colorado Rockies
Los Angeles Dodgers
Miami Marlins
New York Mets
Atlanta Braves
Philadelphia Phillies
Washington Nationals
Cincinnati Reds
Pittsburgh Pirates
Milwaukee Brewers
St. Louis Cardinals

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