Theo Epstein believes Cubs are selling themselves now


Theo Epstein believes Cubs are selling themselves now

Jason Heyward didn't choose to come to the Cubs based on a pitch by Theo Epstein's front office.

In an industry where money is the bottom line, Heyward left millions on the table to make Chicago his home and become a big piece of "The Plan."

The upstart Cubs look like a contender for years to come with a young core in place riding on the heels of a 97-win regular season and a visit to the National League Championship Series.

[RELATED - Why Jason Heyward chose Cubs over Cardinals]

And Heyward got to see it firsthand, watching the Cubs clinch the NLDS at a raucous Wrigley Field while sitting in the other dugout as a member the St. Louis Cardinals.

"As far as recruiting goes, they didn't have to do too much," Heyward said. "They let the product on the field speak for itself."

These days, the Cubs are selling themselves.

"That was probably the best recruiting we could have done was having Jason there for the NLDS with Wrigley just going absolutely bananas and our young players putting on a pretty good show and our pitchers stepping up," Epstein said after the Cubs introduced Heyward in a press conference Tuesday. "It was just a wonderful baseball experience.

"As much as we all enjoyed it and our fans enjoyed it, I think the players who were right in the middle of it recognized that it was something special. It really helped.

"We didn't have to heavily recruit Jason Heyward because he's very self-aware. He knows what's important to him and what he was looking for in an environment and he really sort of targeted us as a place of interest."

With the young core already having success at the big-league level, one of the game's top managers in Joe Maddon and a Wrigley Field renovation project that will include a new home clubhouse for the 2016 season, the Cubs sat in an entirely different position in free agency this offseason.

Heyward didn't have to listen to Epstein's front office make a sales pitch about why he should put his faith in the Cubs and sign with a last-place team the way Epstein and Co. sat down with Jon Lester last winter.

[RELATED - Joe Maddon feels like Cubs won baseball lottery again with Jason Heyward]

And this year, the promotional video the Cubs showed free agents had quite a bit more substance with the playoff run leading the way.

"We updated the video again this year," Epstein said with a smile. "We had a lot better material to put in the video this year to explain what we were trying to accomplish as an organization and what we see our future and how we treat players and how we treat families.

"[Heyward] got a copy of it and watched it and I think that sort of laid the foundation for the recruitment. But in the end, I think it was a very intelligent young man making a great life decision. He knew what he wanted and there was mutual interest."

It's quite a progression from the offseason the Cubs had just a few years ago, when Anibal Sanchez used the offer from Epstein's front office to drive his price up and ultimately re-signed with the Detroit Tigers for an $80 million deal prior to the 2013 season.

Now, the Cubs are getting players to put pen to paper and hop on board for less money than they had elsewhere.

The Cardinals and Washington Nationals reportedly offered Heyward a deal in the neighborhood of $200 million total and he opted for the Cubs' $184 million instead.

Ben Zobrist signed with the Cubs for $56 million over four years even though the San Francisco Giants and Nationals offered $60 million over the same span.

Epstein said it was the same thing for John Lackey and even confirmed that Trevor Cahill - who finished the 2015 season with the Cubs and re-signed for one year and $4.25 million - had more money on the table with another team.

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

"It's up to each player," Epstein said. "I think players definitely notice how much fun our guys were having this year. It's a credit to our fans for creating a wonderful atmosphere, to Joe Maddon and his coaching staff for setting the right tone for the players and letting them be themselves and then our guys.

"It doesn't feel like settling when you talk about the players that we have and how much they support each other and how much fun they have playing the game. It's obvious from across the field.

"We've had four acquisitions take less ... Lackey, Zobrist and Heyward all really demonstrated their desire to be here. Cahill has experienced firsthand how much fun it is to be here.

"That's really sort of an honor and a credit to the organization that [chairman Tom Ricketts] has built."

Cubs bullpen gets another reinforcement with Craig Kimbrel activated


Cubs bullpen gets another reinforcement with Craig Kimbrel activated

The Cubs bullpen has had its share of struggles in recent days, but the team’s new closer is coming back from the injured list.

Craig Kimbrel was activated off the IL ahead of Sunday’s game against the Pirates. The game will be played in Williamsport, Pa., as the Little League Classic.

Kimbrel took the spot of Duane Underwood Jr., who heads back to Triple-A Iowa. Outfielder Mark Zagunis also joined the Cubs roster as the 26th man for Sunday’s game.

Kimbrel joined the Cubs as a free agent in the middle of the season and debuted on June 27. He made 14 appearances before going to the IL with right knee inflammation. He last pitched on Aug. 3.

In 12 2/3 innings, Kimbrel has 17 strikeouts, eight walks and 13 hits for a 5.68 ERA. He has nine saves.

The Cubs suffered back-to-back walk-off losses on Thursday and Friday with the bullpen blowing late leads. Three of the team’s most experienced relievers, Kimbrel, Brandon Kintzler and Steve Cishek were all on the IL at the same time. Kintzler was activated Friday, but promptly blew a lead in Pittsburgh on Friday in his first game back.

Kimbrel’s return gives Joe Maddon another option in the bullpen after going through a rough stretch with relievers.

With Cubs reeling, Jon Lester comes up big and plays stopper

With Cubs reeling, Jon Lester comes up big and plays stopper

The last three games have been more than forgettable for the Cubs.

From Wednesday’s 11-1 drubbing at the hands of the Phillies to back-to-back walk-off losses on Thursday and Friday, the Cubs’ current road trip has looked much like those that preceded it. At various times, the offense has scuffled, the rotation has pitched a clunker and the bullpen has cracked.

The solution to the latest road trip woes? Give the ball to Jon Lester and get the hell out of the way.

Lester —  who pitched a clunker himself Aug. 6 against the A’s — did what the Cubs have become so accustomed to see him do over the past four seasons. The 35-year-old tossed 6+ shutout innings, allowing just four hits, leading the Cubs to a 2-0 win.

Lester had no room for error on Saturday, as the Cubs offense went hitless for the first 4 1/3 innings. While the Cubs bats were asleep, the Pirates threatened to break the game on open multiple times, loading the bases with one out (first inning), no outs (fifth) and getting runners on first and second with no outs in the sixth.

The latter two of those instances were assisted by errors by third baseman Kris Bryant, but that’s neither here nor there. Point being, with how the Cubs looked offensively, any Pirates runs could have proved critical on Saturday. Instead, Lester worked out of every jam, stymying the Pirates bats to an 0-for-12 line with RISP.

Winning Saturday’s game was obviously important for the Cubs, as it puts them a game ahead of the Cardinals in the win column (pending the outcome of St. Louis' game against the Reds later Saturday). But it was equally important for Lester, who called himself the “weakest link” in the Cubs starting rotation after that tough outing against the A’s.

The beautiful thing about baseball is that the regular season is 162 games long. Each day presents teams with a new slate, a chance to forget about what happened in the previous game and move forward.  If Saturday’s start shows anything, it’s that Lester and the Cubs are more than capable of putting a tough game in the rearview mirror and keep moving forward.

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