Cubs

A perfect storm pushes Epstein to Chicago

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A perfect storm pushes Epstein to Chicago

Theo Epstein will meet the press at 11 on Tuesday morning. The Cubs will open their stadium club two hours before that, so the cameramen can start elbowing for position at Wrigley Field.

Epstein once worked as sports editor of the Yale Daily News. He took out a full-page ad in Sundays Boston Globe to thank Red Sox Nation. He must know that hes the big story now.

The Chicago media will alternate between fawning over the new president of baseball operations, and asking real questions about the direction of this franchise.

Boston reporters will want to know if he feels responsibility for the fried chicken and beer culture that poisoned the Red Sox clubhouse, and perhaps guilty about leaving a team in crisis.

The national writers are already heading to the DallasFort Worth International Airport for a travel day in the World Series, and could start rubbernecking at Clark and Addison.

Epstein got out of journalism at the right time, before the media industry started splintering and newspaper companies filed for bankruptcy. Baseball owners and executives began falling in love with young Ivy League graduates, entrusting wonder boys to run their franchises.

It took a perfect storm to sweep Epstein out of Yawkey Way. If one element had turned out different, who knows if he would have been dropped on the North Side next to chairman Tom Ricketts for Tuesdays news conference?

When Ricketts publicly announced Jim Hendrys firing on Aug. 19, the general manager called it one of the best-kept secrets in Cubs history. Hendry knew his fate almost a full month earlier, and it would lead to one of the worst-kept secrets in Cubs history.

But by the end of August, the Red Sox were still a first-place team with a 161 million payroll. They were 31 games over .500 and closing in on their 700th consecutive sellout at Fenway Park. Conventional wisdom had Ricketts trying to find the next Theo Epstein, not hiring the actual Theo Epstein.

The Red Sox experienced a total meltdown. Their pitching staff gave up 172 runs in September, and they lost 20 of 27 games that month. They finished in third place for the second consecutive season, one game behind the Tampa Bay Rays in the wild-card race.

The environment became toxic. Embarrassing details emerged about Terry Franconas marriage and the ex-managers use of prescription drugs in a Boston Globe investigate piece. Reports surfaced about Red Sox pitchers drinking in the clubhouse and in the dugout during games.

Principal owner John W. Henry went on the teams flagship radio station and talked about the shelf life of a general manager in that market. After nine seasons on the job, Epstein was nearing his expiration date.

The Red Sox never slammed the brakes on this process by reassuring Epstein with a promotion or a contract extension.

Nearing his 38th birthday, Epstein had reached the point in his life where he appeared to have outgrown his job or at least the many layers of upper management on Yawkey Way. He felt comfortable uprooting his family and leaving his hometown, moving his wife and young son to another great city.

With or without Epstein and the two World Series rings he helped bring them Red Sox executives seemed to have complete faith in their way of doing business. Ricketts and Cubs president Crane Kenney, who was born in Quincy, Mass., have been obsessed with that model for years.

Ricketts had to reconsider the structure of his front office, and his belief that he didnt need a baseball guy to watch my baseball guy as team president. Epstein had to be guaranteed that Kenney would be limited to business operations and kept out of baseball decisions.

After watching his team lose 178 games across the past two seasons, Ricketts had to find his voice and sell Epstein on his vision. Right or wrong, this would be a signature hire for the chairman.

The Cubs could offer a direct report to ownership and a chance to cement a Hall of Fame legacy. There would be a commitment to spending on amateur talent, with new player-development facilities about to break ground in Arizona and the Dominican Republic.

The Cubs had already paid the price for the "win one for the Tribune" before the team was sold mentality. Several big contracts were about to fall off the books, and the team would begin cycling back toward contention anyway.

The deal didnt fall apart when Cubs management failed to clue in baseball staffers and have them start putting together potential compensation packages. They did this all backwards, agreeing to terms with Epstein on a five-year, 18.5 million deal before settling with the Red Sox on two prospects to free him from the final year of his contract.

Desperately trying to turn the spotlight back on the World Series, commissioner Bud Selig had to threaten to arbitrate the dispute. This stalemate over compensation could be something they all laugh about years later after the parade down Michigan Avenue or perhaps the first signs Epstein could see of a deeper dysfunction within the Cubs organization.

After all the twists and turns that brought everyone to this point, the story is really just beginning.

Potential Cubs target Shogo Akiyama is reportedly in the U.S. during the winter meetings

Potential Cubs target Shogo Akiyama is reportedly in the U.S. during the winter meetings

The Cubs could use a leadoff hitter and a center fielder. One player who can fill both of those holes is available is looking to sign soon.

Japanese center fielder Shogo Akiyama is in the U.S. with his agent, according to Sports Nippon, while the winter meetings take place in San Diego.

Akiyama is a center field option when center field options are limited this offseason. Brett Gardner is a free agent, but the 36-year-old wouldn’t be easy to pry away from his only professional organization.

Akiyama is 31 and saw a dropoff in his numbers in Japan last season, but still had a .392 on-base percentage with 20 home runs in 143 games.

Albert Almora’s struggles last season left the Cubs with uncertainty in center going forward. That saw Jason Heyward spending some time in center with Kyle Schwarber and Nicholas Castellanos on the corners. That’s not a pretty defensive outfield. Meanwhile, Akiyama has two Golden Glove awards in Japan.

He would also bring on-base skills and speed to a Cubs lineup that has resorted to having power hitter Anthony Rizzo play leadoff at times.

Akiyama would also likely not be an expensive option, which is key for a Cubs team reportedly looking to get under the luxury tax this offseason.

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Report: Cubs have discussed Kris Bryant with the Phillies

Report: Cubs have discussed Kris Bryant with the Phillies

While most teams with World Series aspirations are looking to bolster their roster in free agency, the Cubs are in a precarious situation.

Theo Epstein and team need to shed payroll before being able to make any moves, and have reportedly been telling representatives of free agents as much.

And the easiest path to shedding payroll is trading away high-priced players. Two names that have come up frequently are former NL MVP Kris Bryant and catcher Willson Contreras.

While that's all been speculation, 670 The Score's Bruce Levine reported the Cubs talked to the Phillies about a Bryant deal.

The big hold up surrounding could be Bryant his unresolved service time grievance. What the arbiter will determine is how many years of team control are left, one or two years. That would impact Bryant's value on the market and a trade partner would be foolish to not wait to see how that plays out.

But as free agents come off the board, it could make teams more desperate and create a bidding war. That market could have already been shaped by Stephen Strasburg's extension in Washington.

It's worth nothing, Bryant's friend Bryce Harper signed with the Phillies last offseason for a mega contract and he could be intrigued by the option of playing with his pal. Not to mention, former Cubs teammate Jake Arrieta is on the Phils' pitching staff.

But with Harper's massive contract on the books for another 12 seasons, would a Bryant move land him a big, long-term contract to stay in the City of Brotherly Love? Perhaps not.

The Phillies entered free agency with about $150 million in committed payroll for the 2020 season, there is a lot of room under the expected $208 million luxury tax threshold to add a player like Bryant.

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