Cubs

Next big Cubs free agent? Theo Epstein calls contract status a nonissue

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Next big Cubs free agent? Theo Epstein calls contract status a nonissue

Two years ago, Theo Epstein promised the social-media outrage over Clark the Cub would go away, that the new mascot introduced during the middle of a do-nothing offseason would eventually become “a blip instead of a cacophony, or Clark-ophony.”

This franchise needed Epstein’s image as a rock-star executive during all those Cubs Convention rollouts, slick presentations to season-ticket holders and fuzzy features on national TV.

The squirm factor, awkward silences and venting at the microphone just won’t be the same now during all those Q-and-A sessions this weekend at the Sheraton Grand Chicago.

Epstein has already built the Cubs into a World Series contender, assembling arguably the game’s best collection of young blue-chip talent, hiring star manager Joe Maddon and upgrading a 97-win team with a $272 million investment in Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward, super-utility guy Ben Zobrist and veteran pitcher John Lackey.

All that makes a new contract for Epstein – who’s now in the fifth and final season of his $18.5 million deal – feel inevitable. Except the Cubs haven’t gotten around to it yet.

Chairman Tom Ricketts – who takes a long-range view and allows Epstein to run his department – has described an extension for the president of baseball operations as just a matter of time. Just not as the surprise announcement on stage this weekend at Cubs Convention.

“Status quo in that we are completely on the same page,” Epstein said before Friday’s opening ceremony. “We just haven’t gotten around to like hammering out an actual contract. But, again, I only really think about it when you guys (in the media) ask. I see myself as staying in the exact same role for a long time – and I think Tom sees it the same way.”

[RELATED: Cubs, Jake Arrieta still need to make a deal]

By leaving the Tampa Bay Rays, Andrew Friedman not only triggered Maddon’s opt-out clause after the 2014 season, he also reset the market for the industry’s top executives with that five-year, $35 million deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers. The meter for Epstein could keep running from there.

“At some point, we’ll get around to doing a contract extension,” Epstein said. “But I actually think players deserve contracts first before front-office guys. And we’re not done with our players yet. Jake (Arrieta) probably deserves a contract before I do. In fact, I know he deserves a contract before I do, so we’ll take care of that first. And at the right time, I’m sure we’ll address my situation.”

Do you anticipate signing a new deal before spring training?

“I haven’t thought about that,” Epstein said. “Honestly, I want to get the players taken care of first, and then we’ll see where it goes from there.”

[SHOP: Gear up for another big year, Cubs fans!]

Epstein creatively worked with ownership and business operations to make this spending spree happen, and pretty much does his job without interference from above within those financial limits.

That’s a dramatic change from the gorilla-suit exit from Fenway Park and the power struggles in Boston that led to Epstein’s resignation after the 2011 season.

And Epstein clearly wants to be the executive in charge who helps finally end the century-and-counting drought and raises the World Series trophy at Wrigley Field.

“We’re ready to roll,” Epstein said. “We’re ready to go into spring training and compete. It didn’t used to be a story when the GM was under contract for a year – I guess it is now – and I haven’t been very good at it in the past with some of the stuff in Boston. But it’s seriously not a concern at all. It’s going to take care of itself. Tom and I could not have a better relationship.”

The Cubs might not need Epstein’s brand name for the same PR purposes anymore, and he doesn’t like being the center of attention anyway. But Theo’s still their biggest upcoming free agent. Imagine the cacophony – or Clark-ophony – if this doesn’t get done.

Glanville: Fall to Spring - A player’s offseason changes meaning with each changing season

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USA TODAY

Glanville: Fall to Spring - A player’s offseason changes meaning with each changing season

A few weeks after the we (the Cubs) were eliminated from the 2003 playoffs, I got a phone call from my college professor. Since it was officially the off-season, I was in the early stages of a break from following a pocket schedule to tell me where to be every day for nearly eight months.

But this was a man I could not refuse. I chose my college major to go into his field of transportation engineering and he was calling because he needed a teaching assistant to accompany him on his trip to South Africa.

One minute I could barely move off of my couch in my Chicago apartment after losing Game 7 against the Marlins. The next minute, I would be standing within miles of the Southern most point in Africa at the Cape of Good Hope. Why not? I needed the distraction so I agreed to go.

The offseason is its own transition. Leaving the regimen of routine, of batting practice and bus times, to an open ended world that you have to re-learn again. When I finished my first full major league season in 1997, I lived in Streeterville at the Navy Pier Apartments.

That offseason, I decided to stay an extra month in Chicago only to wake up panicked for the first two weeks because I thought I was missing stretch time for a home day game. A major league schedule becomes etched in your DNA after a while.

It is also a time that you get to reflect. The regular season does not give you a moment to really get perspective on what was just accomplished, what it all means, what you would change. I always joked about the T-shirt I wanted to a sell that listed all of the things a major league player figures out during the off-season. From the perfect swing to the ex-girlfriend you need to un-break-up with next week.

It all becomes so clear when a 96 MPH fastball isn’t coming at you.

For years, I would arrange a training program to follow, but I quickly learned that I had to mix it up. There was only so much repetition I could stand in the off-season. So some years, I moved to the site of spring training and worked out early with the staff, other years I found a spot at home where I grew up or wherever I played during the season, to train.

I was single when I played, but now with a family, I have a better understanding of the challenges my teammates would express as they were re-engaging as a daily father again after this long absentee existence.

To keep it fresh and spicy, when I got older in the game, I enrolled in a dance studio and took a winter of dance lessons. Salsa, Foxtrot, Rumba, you name it. On Thursdays we had to dance for an hour straight, changing partners in the room every song change. Dancing with the Stars had nothing on me.

Of course, not every offseason is fun and games. There were years when I wasn’t sure I would have a job the next year, or I was in the throes of a trade rumor. In 1997, I was traded from the Cubs to the Phillies two days before Christmas. In 2002, my father passed away on the last game of the season, leading the offseason to be a time of mourning.

By my final season in 2005, I thought I was officially on my couch forever. I was going to fade away into oblivion like many players do. No fanfare, the phone just would stop ringing and I would just let the silence wash over me. The Yankees had called earlier in that off-season, acting like they were doing me a favor which I turned down, then they called back later with a more open tone, seeing me as a potential key piece in their outfield with Bernie Williams slowing down quite a bit at that point.

I did get off that couch for that call, only to get released the last week of camp, so I was back on the couch, with a fiancé and some extra salt in the wounds after that final meeting with Brian Cashman and Joe Torre, who boxed me into the coaches office to tell me I was released. Released? Come on. Never had that happen before.

The Cubs players will go through all of this if they have the good fortune of playing a long time. The wave of uncertainty, the meaning of age in this game spares no one. Each offseason is a time to reset, a period where you get away, seemingly adrift from the game, then as spring gets closer, the shoreline comes up in the horizon once again, magnetically drawing you to its shores for another season.

Amazingly, you don’t always know your age and what it has done to your body. 34 can’t be that old, right? I can still run, or throw 95. Then those 23-year-olds in camp are the wake up call, or maybe you are that 23-year-old and can’t believe your locker is next to Ryne Sandberg’s.

Then you blink, and you are advising Jimmy Rollins about etiquette and realize you have become that guy, the seasoned vet, preaching about locker room respect.

For the 2018 Cubs, they fell short of their goal to repeat their 2016 magic. Failed to meet their singular destination that meant success over all else. Yet, those who come back for 2019, will not be the same player, the same person, that left the locker room at the close this season. They will have grown, changed, aged, wizened up, rehabbed, hardened. All of which means that new perspective is the inevitable part of this time off, whether you like it or not.

Baseball is a game that has this unique dynamic. The highest intensity rhythm of any sport. Every day you are tested. You are pushed to the brink by sheer attrition. According to my teammate Ed Smith, who was playing third base at the time when Michael Jordan reached third, Jordan, after playing well over 100 games in a row, said to him “Man, I have never been this tired in my entire life.”

The grind.

Then it stops on a dime. Season over. Only on baseball’s terms.

But you may be granted another spring. Another crack at it. Until one day, the baseball winter never ends and its time for you to plant your own spring.

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

Ricky Gutiérrez played in the Majors from 1993-2004. He played shortstop for the Cubs from 2000-01 and later signed with them again in June 2004. 

However, Gutiérrez never got back to the Majors with the Cubs, who sent him to the Red Sox the following month. His final Major League game was with the Red Sox on Oct. 3, 2004, the final game of the 2004 regular season; he didn’t play in the 2004 postseason. Gutiérrez was subsequently signed and released by a few other teams, including the White Sox in 2005.

Gutiérrez holds the distinction of being the first Cubs player to hit a regular season grand slam against the White Sox (July 12, 2001). In his two seasons with the Cubs, he tied for the Major League lead in sacrifice bunts both years (16 in 2000, 17 in 2001) which was odd since he had a grand total of 18 sacrifice bunts in his 847 career games NOT in a Cubs uniform. He also had uncharacteristic power with the Cubs:  21 home runs for Chicago in 272 games, 17 home runs with everyone else (847 games).

What Cubs fans probably remember most is what Gutiérrez did against them. On May 6, 1998 he had the lone hit (many dispute it should have been ruled an error) for the Astros off Kerry Wood in Wood’s 20-strikeout masterpiece at Wrigley Field (Gutiérrez was responsible for two of the strikeouts). 

Later that season, on June 26, the number 20 and Gutiérrez were again connected when he had a 20-pitch battle against Bartolo Colón, which ended in a strikeout. It remained the last plate appearance in the Majors of at least 20 pitches until Brandon Belt flew out on the 21st pitch of an at-bat against the Angels' Jaime Barria on April 22, 2018.

Gutiérrez’s nephew, James Jones, played 14 seasons in the NBA for the Pacers, Suns, Trail Blazers, Heat and Cavaliers.