Cubs

Theo Epstein doubts Cubs can sign two free agents in $100-million range

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Theo Epstein doubts Cubs can sign two free agents in $100-million range

BOCA RATON, Fla. – As the free-agent rumors and predictions began surfacing at last year’s general manager meetings, Theo Epstein ruled out the idea of the Cubs signing two pitchers to nine-figure contracts that offseason.

“You can pretty much apply that one going forward, at least until we get a TV deal, and probably beyond,” Epstein said Monday at the Boca Raton Resort and Club. “That’d be a big winter.”

Even after winning 97 games and advancing to the National League Championship Series, that same-as-it-ever-was feeling still followed the Cubs to the GM meetings in South Florida.

It’s not that Epstein sounded frustrated or ready to wave a white flag as he spoke with a group of Chicago reporters in the hotel lobby. It’s just the financial reality for the president of baseball operations as he heads into the fifth and final year of his contract (which should be extended at some point).

The Cubs are still sorting through their media options – Comcast SportsNet Chicago holds exclusive cable rights through the 2019 season – and waiting out the leveraged partnership between the Ricketts family and Sam Zell’s Tribune Co. (which limits the baseball department’s spending power).

[RELATED: Why the Cubs will be major players this offseason]

So forget about signing David Price for the top of the rotation and getting Jason Heyward to play center at Wrigley Field. The 2015 payroll had been set around $120 million, artificially inflated with the $20 million rolled over from last year’s losing bid for Masahiro Tanaka. The next TV contract is supposed to launch the Cubs into another economic stratosphere.

“If we want to do two things, we have to get pretty creative,” Epstein said. “Even if we want to do one really big thing, I think we have to get creative. Just because you guys know the situation – we’re going to have more money down the line than we have right now. So we just have to keep that in mind and be a little bit creative.

“We have the ability to add a little bit from where we are right now, but the arbitration raises cut into things quite a bit. I don’t necessarily think we have room to go do everything that’s been speculated in some areas, but we can get creative.”

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Infielder Starlin Castro, catcher Miguel Montero and pitcher Jason Hammel represent almost $80 million in future salary commitments and areas where the Cubs have options or would like to upgrade. Moving any of those assets could help free up funds for a Price or Zack Greinke megadeal and/or allow Epstein’s front office to invest in other areas of the roster.

Because right now, it sounds like signing two frontline starters would be a stretch. When asked specifically about Montero, Epstein said there haven’t been any discussions about trading the veteran catcher, but the Cubs will have to think outside the box to build another World Series contender.

“Two sizable things – we have to definitely get creative,” Epstein said. “But that doesn’t make it impossible. There’s a lot of moving parts. (And) there’s always ways to get things done if they make sense for the club.”

Cubs bullpen gets another reinforcement with Craig Kimbrel activated

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USA TODAY

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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