Cubs

Joe Maddon knows Cubs have nowhere to hide: ‘We are the target’

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Joe Maddon knows Cubs have nowhere to hide: ‘We are the target’

HAZLETON, Pa. – Not even Joe Maddon can talk his way around this. Not when the Cubs just dropped $272 million on Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and John Lackey. For a team that smashed all expectations by winning 97 games last season, there will now be nowhere to hide.

“Of course, we are the target,” Maddon said. “Of course, you are, so why deny that you are? You’re the target, OK? Embrace it. Seriously, embrace the target. And process it properly and move on. But to deny it? To say that’s not true? It is true.

“But that shouldn’t really alter the way we think. It shouldn’t alter our preparation. It shouldn’t alter anything except, I think, once you admit to it, then you kind of disarm it a bit. If you want to constantly push it back and say it’s not true, then you give it more power.”

Of course, this is exactly what Maddon signed up for when he scored a five-year, $25 million contract, a deal that immediately gave the franchise a new sense of swagger.

To be on the other side of the David vs. Goliath story after nine seasons managing the Tampa Bay Rays. To work at Wrigley Field and take advantage of everything that Chicago has to offer. To use the louder megaphone and bigger platform for his Hazleton Integration Project, the nonprofit organization staging “Thanksmas” this week in his old working-class neighborhood in Pennsylvania.

[MORE CUBS: Theo Epstein feels like Cubs are selling themselves now]

The national media already crowned the Cubs winners of the winter meetings by adding a big-game pitcher Maddon has compared to John Wayne (Lackey) and a Swiss Army knife that can hit anywhere in the lineup and play all over the field (Zobrist).

Now here comes the online headline from USA Today’s coverage of Tuesday’s press conference at Spiaggia on Michigan Avenue: “Jason Heyward gives Cubs the next great dynasty.”

“People are really going to be looking at us now,” Maddon said. “Of course, people are going to be predicting all these grandiose things for us. And that’s great, cool, because that probably means we are pretty good. But then how do you go about achieving those (things)? That’s why you can’t get caught up in this outcome society. You have to just really focus on today.”

Maddon exhaled while making his next point, which is pretty much the same thing he’s been saying since his “Hazleton Way” shot-and-a-beer press conference at The Cubby Bear on Nov. 3, 2014.

“And then when you do that,” Maddon said, “that pressure lightens up. Because all you got to do is win Monday. And then all you got to do is win Tuesday. And then you got to win on Wednesday. As opposed to trying to win 2016.

“I really believe a combination of me, the coaches, (sports psychologist) Ken Ravizza – all the people we have at our disposal – will be able to get that message out there.

[MORE CUBS: Joe Maddon feels like Cubs won baseball lottery again with Jason Heyward]

“Believe me, man, I’m going to pound that home again. Because if we can really adopt that attitude – which I know we can – that’s our best way to really win eight more games next year.”

The last time the Cubs advanced to the National League Championship Series, Sports Illustrated responded by putting Kerry Wood on the cover of its 2004 baseball preview: “Hell Freezes Over: The Cubs Will Win the World Series.” That team won 89 games but finished in third place and missed the playoffs.

The last time the Cubs won 97 games, the team was still up for sale, the window to contend started to close and Milton Bradley poisoned the clubhouse during a miserable follow-up season in 2009.

The Cubs will need good health, good fortune and good chemistry in a division where the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates won’t be conceding anything. At a time when the New York Mets will be defending their pennant, the Washington Nationals are reloading and the NL West has the Arizona Diamondbacks jumping into the arms race between the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants.

[MORE CUBS: Why Jason Heyward chose Cubs over Cardinals]

Jake Arrieta threw almost 250 innings – including three draining playoff starts – during his Cy Young Award campaign. Jon Lester will be 32 next season, or five years younger than Lackey.

That’s why Maddon appreciates team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer preparing for worst-case scenarios in the rotation with Adam Warren, Trevor Cahill, Clayton Richard and Travis Wood.

Whether or not Addison Russell can stay healthy and play shortstop for seven months, the front office is also giving Maddon two potential super-utility guys in Zobrist and Javier Baez.

The message to young, middle-of-the-order stars like Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber should be: Don’t get too comfortable.

Heyward certainly comes across as someone who gets it, but he will have to deal with the pressure of signing the biggest contract in franchise history (eight years, $184 million) and the transition from right to center at Wrigley Field.

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

Forget “Do Simple Better.” It sounds like Maddon now has the perfect slogan for his next T-shirt idea: “Embrace The Target.”

“Regardless of how good we are on paper, theory and reality are two different things,” Maddon said. “We’re going to go through bad stretches next year, regardless of these beautiful names. We’re still going to go through problems. How do we react to them? And how do we keep those windows of failure to a minimum?

“Because it’s going to happen. It happens to everybody every year. So how do you process that? How do you get to the next moment that makes it better?”

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." 

Competitive Balance Taxes are looming, but the Cubs are still willing to bend the budget

Competitive Balance Taxes are looming, but the Cubs are still willing to bend the budget

Tom Ricketts met with the media on Monday morning to give his usual spring State of the Cubs press conference, and the state of the Cubs is … sorta the same? The Cubs look almost identical to the 84-win, third place team of 2019, but Ricketts’ expectations are far above that. 

“I think we have the best team in our division,” the Cubs’ owner said. “I think we have a really dynamic, exciting new manager. I think the players are going to play very, very hard for David Ross. Barring some kind of crazy injuries, I think we should win our division and get back in the playoffs.”

Considering there’s not a whole lot of on-field news to discuss, much of the 20-minute press conference was focused on the team’s finances, their (lack of) headway towards a television deal with Comcast, and what to expect as teams ramp up for the oncoming round of CBA negotiations. Ricketts talked at length about the club’s perceived battles – or lack thereof, he claims – with baseball’s Competitive Balance Tax (CBT). 

“I think the CBT is a factor that every large market GM has to put into their calculus when they create their teams,” Ricketts said. “I don’t know how much fans know, but it’s not just a financial penalty. It’s a financial penalty that grows over time, for a number of years you’re above the threshold. And then it gets into a player penalty, which you have to be careful to avoid. So like I said, it’s a factor – I don’t think it’s a defining factor – but it’s definitely a factor that every team has to deal with, at least every large market team.” 

Ricketts mentioned that some of this offseason’s planned budget was fronted when the Cubs signed closer Craig Kimbrel to a three-year, $43 million deal towards the end of last summer. He was also adamant that payrolls don’t correlate directly to winning, which is certainly not unfair to claim but also not entirely accurate. He pointed to the Cubs’ baseball budget in 2019, which was, according to him, the highest in the league as to say that the team wasn’t exactly sitting on their hands. While the front office’s inactivity surprised many of the Cubs’ players, Ricketts shot down the idea that something needed to happen for the sake of something happening. 

“I’m not disappointed,” he said. “The fact is that we have a great team, we have guys that are proven winners and verteran players. We have the talent to win our division and go deep into the playoffs. So that’s a good starting place. In terms of big changes, it’s hard. You guys follow the game, it’s not like there’s a lot of player for player swaps anymore. Trades don’t happen like they used to.” 

And while many view the Red Sox-Dodgers player swap that took place literally last week as a concerning sign of baseball’s current economic market heading into the next round of CBA discussions, Ricketts chose not to comment on what he thinks the owners are going to try and bargain for. Instead, he left the door open for activity – even if it means swallowing the rather costly CBT pill. The Cubs were over the CBT last year, and are open to the notion of a second-straight violation if it means making the right move. Penalties for third-time offenders are particularly harsh, though, and Ricketts conceded that it’s that point when spending begins to give ownership pause. 

“Obviously paying large taxes on CBT is really inefficient and not a great use of team resources, so if there’s a way to put a great team on the field and not pay that, then they will,” he said. “But I leave it up to Theo and Jed. 

“Like I said, the CBT thresholds are a piece of the puzzle. They’re something that we’re always mindful of, but they won’t define the situation and they won’t determine the actual player moves.” 

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