Cubs

Gleyber Torres may become a star, but Yankees GM credits Cubs for making Aroldis Chapman trade

Gleyber Torres may become a star, but Yankees GM credits Cubs for making Aroldis Chapman trade

The Cubs understood Gleyber Torres could become a star in New York and part of the next Yankee dynasty. But team president Theo Epstein sensed the opportunity and framed the blockbuster Aroldis Chapman trade this way: “If not now, when?”

Torres’ ETA in The Bronx is unclear, but the dynamic shortstop is definitely on a fast track after becoming the youngest MVP in Arizona Fall League history. The Cubs made an offer the Yankees couldn’t refuse, the same way the Cleveland Indians felt a sense of urgency to get game-changing reliever Andrew Miller.

After running the franchise’s first trade-deadline sale in a generation, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman “watched every out” of an epic World Series that went all the way to a 10th inning in Game 7.  

“I wanted Cleveland and Chicago to be rewarded, in my mind, for stepping up,” Cashman said. “They stepped up to get those guys. We’re hopeful that we’ll get what we want out of the deal down the line. It’s good to see that those guys got what they bargained for on the front end.”

At the age of 19, Torres led the AFL in batting average (.403) and on-base percentage (.513) while finishing second in slugging percentage (.645). Within the 15 years the AFL has handed out an MVP award, the winners have included can’t-miss prospects who never made it big, as well as future Colorado Rockies star Nolan Arenado (2011) and National League MVP Kris Bryant (2013).

The Cubs didn’t have an obvious infield spot for Torres with Bryant, All-Star shortstop Addison Russell and playoff hero Javier Baez all under club control through the 2021 season. Instead of racing to the bottom for a better draft pick, the Yankees tried to keep a competitive product on the field and wanted to bring back Adam Warren, the swingman who struggled to find a role in Chicago after being swapped for Starlin Castro.  

The Castro/Warren trade executed during last year’s winter meetings also allowed the Cubs to sign World Series MVP Ben Zobrist. The sense of freedom Epstein has felt since leaving the Boston Red Sox includes dealing with Cashman, another blunt executive who had been part of the Evil Empire at the heights of The Rivalry.

“He’s a straight shooter,” Cashman said. “He knows what he wants. He cuts to the chase. I have a saying: ‘Just land the plane.’ And he lands the plane.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

The Cubs didn’t completely gut their farm system, either, by throwing in two minor-league outfielders (Billy McKinney and Rashad Crawford). Ian Happ – the switch-hitter drafted with the ninth overall pick in 2015 – homered twice during Saturday’s championship game and helped lead the Mesa Solar Sox to an AFL title. The Cubs also hung onto outfielder Eloy Jimenez ($2.8 million bonus), the other big-time international prospect they added during the summer of 2013, when Torres signed out of Venezuela for $1.7 million. 

The Cubs also didn’t give up Baez or Kyle Schwarber, the two players the Yankees viewed as a starting point for Miller, who can still impact two more pennant races in Cleveland (at the reasonable cost of $18 million through 2018).

The Indians paid the price, giving up a four-player package headlined by outfielder Clint Frazier (the fifth overall pick in the 2013 draft) and left-hander Justus Sheffield (the No. 31 pick in the 2014 draft) to get what turned out to be the American League Championship Series MVP. And without Chapman, it’s hard to see the Cubs riding in that championship parade down Lake Shore Drive and Michigan Avenue.

“They’re high-end performers,” Cashman said. “They really did a great job for both of their teams. That’s why they got to the World Series. I just wish we had as many great players to surround those guys with as the Indians and the Cubs had. That’s what we were aspiring to get to.”

After a clumsy rollout where Chapman appeared to be disinterested and unprepared for explaining his 30-game suspension under Major League Baseball’s domestic-violence policy, the superstar closer began to fit into an easygoing clubhouse and made a strong overall impression on manager Joe Maddon.

If Chapman answered some of the personality questions, the Cubs still projected a rental pitcher because of looming financial commitments, potential holes in their rotation, a creative philosophy toward bullpen construction and what might ultimately require close to a nine-figure investment for a top-of-the-market closer.

Chapman appeared in 13 playoff games, notching two wins and four saves, working around three blown saves, including what could have been a disastrous Game 7 if he hadn’t bounced back to hold the Indians scoreless in the ninth inning before the rain delay at Progressive Field. Maddon clearly had trust issues with his bullpen, asking Chapman to throw 97 pitches combined as the Cubs came back from a 3-1 deficit to win the World Series.

That’s why Epstein gave up one of the game’s best prospects and didn’t really look back. But Cashman dismissed the idea that another big-market team’s successful teardown might have made it easier to sell a new Yankee Way to the Steinbrenner family, the New York media and a fan base accustomed to winning at all costs.

“We weren’t pointing at the Cubs,” Cashman said. “It just wasn’t an easy sell for our ownership. And I’m glad that they made the decision to allow me to do what we did.”

Steven Souza's healthy and ready to prove himself to Cubs fans and baseball in general

Steven Souza's healthy and ready to prove himself to Cubs fans and baseball in general

MESA, Ariz. –  Two years ago, things were looking bright for Steven Souza. At 28, he was coming off the best season of his career, one where he slashed .239/.351/.459 with 30 home runs, good for a 121 wRC+. The Rays are certainly never prohibitive favorites in the AL East, but the team was talented and the idea of catching up with the division’s juggernauts was no longer unrealistic. 

Then came the shoulder injury, which delayed the start of his 2018 season until mid-May. After that there was a pec injury, and before he knew it, the year was over and the right fielder had only played in 72 games. Think that’s bad? The following season, now playing for Arizona, Souza slipped while crossing home plate during one of the last games of Spring Training. He tore his ACL, and his season ended before it began. 

“It’s been a grind,” said Souza, who signed a one-year deal with the Cubs in late January. “Coming off the year I had in ‘17, I was excited for the future held for me, and I just kind of ran into a couple injuries that really derailed my last couple seasons. It’s been frustrating, but all that’s behind me, and even though it’s been a grind, I’m excited to get back out here and look forward to the future.” 

Freak injuries derailed what looked to be a promising prime of Souza’s career, and you wouldn’t blame him for harboring his fair share of resentment. It’s impressive, then, to hear him talk about what lasting effect the run of injuries has had on his psyche. 

“Personally, I don’t believe in accidents,” he said. “I believe everything happens for a reason. I don’t know what that reason was, but I know that I’m stronger for it. Mentally, I think if there’s a silver lining, it’s that I got to spend a full year with my son and my newborn daughter. As we all know, in this game, we don’t get to spend a lot of time with our families. So it was a huge blessing and I’m looking forward to moving on from that.” 

Unlike the years he spent playing alongside All-Star center fielders like Kevin Kiermaier and A.J. Pollock, Souza’s outfield positioning will be less set in stone with the Cubs. He’ll get ABs from the corners, but with Schwarber and Heyward not losing their starting positions anytime soon, the quickest road to more at-bats may come in center field. 

"Like I said, wherever I need to fit on the field,” he said. “Whether it’s first base, catcher, shortstop – I mean I’m not very good at those, and there are some really, really good players that are way better than me at those – but I’m just looking to help this team any way I can.” 

Not unlike new teammate Jason Kipnis, the draw of Wrigley was also too much to turn down. He has some moderate success there, too. Over 23 career plate appearances in the Friendly Confines, Souza’s hit .333/.391/.429 with an .820 OPS. It’s a small sample size, but it’s one that has him optimistic that he can prove himself the the North Side’s faithful. 

“I’ll tell you what, that was one of the things that brought me here, the fans and the environment. I’m super pumped,” he said. “And no offense, but I’ve played in Tampa and Arizona and those aren’t the greatest markets in the league. I’ve always enjoyed going to Wrigley, and I’ve had some good success at Wrigley, and I know the Cubs fans bring it every day and I’m looking forward to that.” 

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Can Cubs keep Báez and Bryant? Tom Ricketts says that's "on Theo and Jed"

Can Cubs keep Báez and Bryant? Tom Ricketts says that's "on Theo and Jed"

It's a pretty simple question with a pretty simple answer. Can the Cubs, one of baseball's wealthiest organizations, afford to keep both Kris Bryand and Javy Baez? Is there room in the infamous budget to make both of the team's homegrown stars Cubs for life?

“There’s certainly money out there. It’s a very, very profitable game," Bryant said, in regards to keep the core together. "It’s just a matter of if they want to. I don’t know, I really don’t. But it would certainly be cool.”

“It’s up to them,” Báez added. “I hope we both stay here. Obviously, we want to keep everyone here because we pretty much have the team that we want." 

Then, on Monday, "they" – being Cubs' owner Tom Ricketts – finally talked. So, Tom? You sign their checks, what do you think?

"Well, where we place our resources is a baseball decision," Ricketts said. "That’s Jed and Theo. But I mean, ultimately, we have to look at it from a bigger perspective."

It's been a week since Theo Epstein, David Ross and Jed Hoyer (he was there too!) addressed the media for the first time this spring, and no one seems to be able to get a straight answer on the team's most-pressing long-term concern. It's almost certainly by design, as the Cubs are adamant that speaking on finances publicly creates some sort of competitive disadvantage when it comes to negotiating with players and agents. KB and Báez say it's up to ownership, ownership says it's up to the front office (?) and the front office isn't going to speculate. Terrific! If you're to believe the rumor mill, the team seems marginally closer to an extension with Báez than they are with Bryant, and are maybe – according to some – more focused on moving the latter.

Epstein said Bryant was given no assurances about what the time between now and Opening Day holds, and regardless of Bryant's wishes to be in the loop, Ricketts also doesn't feel that an explicit guarantee is totally necessary. 

"I imagine there’s communication between Theo and Kris at some point," Ricketts said. "I think they met yesterday. But a lot of the stuff, what – do you communicate to say that the stuff you saw is a rumor? I mean, I don’t know. Like I said, we love KB. I think he’s ready to go and a full season of a healthy Kris Bryant is something we could really use." 

Put aside for a moment the fact that, yeah, that's exactly what you'd communicate. Compare the apparent transparency of an owner who said that the CBT "won’t define the situation" and "won’t determine the actual player moves" vs. what he said when pressed about all of the offseason turbulence surrounding Bryant and the Cubs. 

"Well obviously we love KB, he’s a great player and he’s a great teammate," he said. "He’s just a great part of the team. Most of the things that are out there are just rumors and noise. A lot of it is just not true. But with respect to all player decisions, if anything was going down that path, it’d obviously be a baseball decision."

Most of the things out there are just rumors and noise. A lot of it is not true. Can the Cubs' afford to keep Bryant and Báez? Yes. Will the Cubs' make that choice? 

"Once again, that’s in Theo’s camp. That’s his decision," Ricketts said. "We’d have to take a look at what that means for us all financially." 

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