Cubs

Theo Epstein ready to make the big deal when Cubs need pitching

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Theo Epstein ready to make the big deal when Cubs need pitching

What do you get for the roster that already has everything?

The Cubs have too much emotional scar tissue, too many trade chips and enough computer simulations to know that what you see on Opening Night at Angel Stadium of Anaheim won’t be a finished product.

The Cubs will find out the cost of Jake Arrieta throwing almost 250 innings during a Cy Young Award season, with his encore performance beginning Monday in Orange County. The trade-off in getting Jon Lester and John Lackey’s big-game experience is the breakdown risk involved with two 30-something pitchers who have more than 4,500 innings on their odometers combined.

As versatile as that bullpen looks in early April, remember that essentially all relievers are failed starters on some level. Plus, spending so much capital on hitters during the rebuilding years helps explain why a farm system doesn’t have any obvious candidates to step into a playoff-caliber rotation right now.

[MORE: What Cubs learned from playoff loss to Mets]

President of baseball operations Theo Epstein should be right in the middle of the action at the trade deadline, which this season falls on Aug. 1, meaning 24 more potential hours to see if the San Diego Padres pick a lane with Tyson Ross (who’s positioned to become a free agent after the 2017 season).

Maybe the Oakland A’s realize they can’t keep going for it every year and ask for a Sonny Gray offer they can’t refuse. Or the Cleveland Indians get a better idea of where they stand in the American League Central and what happens with Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco. Or the Atlanta Braves — already loaded with young pitching and playing for their new ballpark in 2017 — decide to flip Julio Teheran.

“It has to be the right opportunity,” Epstein said near the end of spring training in Arizona. “It’s not going to be a deal where we just sell out for the moment.

“It has to be someone that fits — both for now and probably for the long-term if it’s going to be a bigger deal. But we’re very open to it. We understand we’re a little bit deeper, a little bit better positioned with our position players and with our pitchers.

“It’s certainly something that we talk about every day.”

[MORE: How Cubs finally landed Ben Zobrist as a piece to their World Series puzzle]

Epstein already built the uber-team that is now seen as the cautionary tale for offseason winners. The 2011 Red Sox experienced an epic collapse that led to sweeping changes at Fenway Park and would be memorialized with four words from a Boston Globe clubhouse autopsy (fried chicken and beer).

Epstein jumped for the chance to make history at Wrigley Field and run a department the way he wanted, without day-to-day interference or second-guessing from above. By Year 5, The Cubs Way has become the biggest story in baseball, a blueprint for copycat teams in tank mode and a trendy pick to win the World Series.

But even as the Cubs pushed their major-league payroll into the franchise-record range of $150 million, Epstein kept sticking to a logical plan — and not worrying about making a splash — and thinking about what could go wrong.

“We built in a little bit of room for in-season,” Epstein said. “We built in some (budget) flexibility, but I wouldn’t expect a very aggressive winter next year. I think we’ve been open about the fact that we really did two offseasons worth of spending and acquisitions in one winter, knowing that we like the players available this winter more than next winter.”

Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer traveled to Nashville, Tenn., this offseason to meet with David Price and agent Bo McKinnis at The Southern, the restaurant where the Cy Young Award winner wanted to hear free-agent pitches.

The Cubs were blown away by Boston’s offer — a seven-year, $217 million guarantee — and then pivoted by spending more money on free agents than anyone else in baseball this offseason.

The Cubs poured almost $290 million into a 97-win team, taking Lackey and Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward away from the St. Louis Cardinals and adding All-Star super-utility guy Ben Zobrist to play second base and deliver the clutch hitting that helped the Kansas City Royals win the World Series last year.

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

The farm system probably isn’t as good as ESPN thinks (fourth-best in baseball) — or as bad as the Baseball America rankings (No. 20 overall) — but there could be a generation of players blocked by Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber and Heyward.

The Cubs have top international players (Gleyber Torres, Eloy Jimenez), first-round pick outfielders (Albert Almora, Billy McKinney, Ian Happ) and an Arizona Fall League All-Star (Jeimer Candelario) — not to mention Jorge Soler and Javier Baez, two players involved in trade talks leading up to last summer’s deadline.

“That time may or may not come,” Epstein said. “We haven’t made a big trade for a pitcher yet, (which) we’ve figured to make at some point. Whether it happens or not, I don’t know. But I think we feel well-prepared to make that kind of a move with some of the depth that we’ve built up — not only in our farm system — but our big-league team.”

Translation: The young unproven GM who once traded Nomar Garciaparra out of Boston — to help put the 2004 Red Sox over the top — won’t be afraid to make another blockbuster deal if it means a better chance of ending the 1908 drought.

What the Cubs can learn from the 2019 MLB postseason so far

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USA TODAY

What the Cubs can learn from the 2019 MLB postseason so far

For the 10 teams that qualify for MLB’s postseason, October represents a chance to climb baseball’s mountain and secure a championship. For the 20 other teams sitting at home, though, October is a chance to evaluate those in the Big Dance.

Less than two weeks into the postseason, here’s some things that the Cubs can take away from the action thus far.

1. Starting pitching matters

With bullpens being relied on more than ever, starting pitchers aren’t used the same way as just a few seasons ago. The Brewers rode their bullpen all the way to Game 7 of the NLCS last season, while the Rays used an “opener” (a reliever who starts a game and pitches 1-3 innings) in Game 4 of the ALDS this season – beating the Astros 4-1.

And yet, the Astros and Nationals are proving how important it is to have a difference-making rotation. The bullpening method can work, but being able to throw Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke at an opponent in a single postseason series is downright unfair.

The Nationals have Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin in their rotation, as formidable of a trio as any in the National League. They also have Anibal Sánchez, who took a no-hitter into the eighth inning of Game 1 of the NLCS against the Cardinals on Friday. No big deal...

And despite getting eliminated, the Rays — Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow, Charlie Morton — and Dodgers — Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler and Hyun-Jin Ryu — have talented rotations, as do the Cardinals and Yankees.

Meanwhile, the Cubs rotation didn’t have as big of an impact this season as they expected, a contributing factor to the team not making it to October.

“We had really high hopes for our starting group this year," Theo Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference. "You looked at it 1-through-5, we had a chance to roll out a really quality starter on a nightly basis, and that might be an area that was a separator for us versus some of the teams we were competing with. While we had a couple guys who had really good years and all our starters had their moments, it didn't prove to be a separator.

"There was some injury and regression (especially after injury) that led us to be closer to the pack certainly than we had envisioned. It’s an accomplished and experienced group, but with experience means that we could stand to add some younger talent, refresh the group as well. We certainly need to add depth and we need to add some youth and a little bit of a different look to the staff, as well, going forward.”

Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester are under contract for 2020, while Jose Quintana has an $11.5 team option. The Cubs don’t have an Astros or Nationals-esque trio, but their rotation can still be good enough to lead the charge in 2020. They’ll need them to do just that if they are to return to the top of the NL Central.

2. Manager decision-making is far more important in October than regular season

The Dodgers’ season came to an abrupt close in Game 5 of the NLDS, with manager Dave Roberts being smack dab in the spotlight.

With the Dodgers leading 3-1 in the seventh inning, Roberts called Clayton Kershaw’s number to get Los Angeles out of a two on, two out jam. Kershaw did just that, but the Nationals opened the eighth with home runs from Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto (on consecutive pitches) to tie the game.

Kershaw is one of the best pitchers in his generation, a three-time Cy Young Award winner and one-time NL MVP. However, his postseason woes are real (4.43 ERA, 32 games/25 starts), and therefore, Roberts made a questionable decision going with Kershaw in that moment. 

Where was Kenta Maeda to face Rendon? Maeda had allowed just a single hit in 3 2/3 innings at this point in the postseason. He took over for Kershaw after Soto’s home run, striking out three-straight Dodgers to end the eighth. 

Roberts also didn't bring in closer Kenley Jansen to start the 10th inning, when the game was still tied 3-3. Instead, he left in Joe Kelly, who allowed a decisive grand slam to Howie Kendrick. Only then did Jansen come in, but the damage was done. Not bringing in your closer in an extra-inning postseason game is inexcusable, and while it may be outcome bias, this game proves why.

Roberts has 393 wins in four seasons as Dodgers manager, leading them to World Series appearances in 2017 and 2018. Even with that experience, though, he made a bad decision at a terrible time. The postseason is a different animal, not only for players, but the coaches in the dugouts, too.

Of the known candidates the Cubs have interviewed for manager — David Ross, Joe Girardi, Mark Loretta and Will Venable — only Girardi has big-league managing experience. And while Epstein noted at his press conference that it isn’t everything, he added that experience is important.

"Lack of experience - and I'm speaking broadly for the group, not necessarily [about Ross] - is always a factor,” Epstein said. “It's not a determining factor, but it's a significant factor. I always have greater comfort level hiring for roles in which the person has done the role before. Especially with manager.

“But I think there are ways for that to be overcome - there are a lot of different ways to get experience in this game - beliefs, skills, personal attributes, those can outweigh a lack of experience, but experience certainly helps.”

3. Winning in the postseason is tough

After the Cubs won the World Series in 2016, there was a feeling that baseball’s next dynasty was underway. After all, the Cubs had a talented, young position player group that reached the promised land early in their time together. It made sense.

Those talks have died down, of course, as the Cubs haven’t even appeared in the World Series since 2016. And while they've had plenty of success since 2015, it feels like they could’ve had more.

The thing about baseball, though, is that it’s extremely hard to sustain those high levels of success. A few teams (Red Sox, Cardinals, Giants) have won multiple World Series this century, none have repeated as champions since the Yankees, who won three-straight from 1998-2000.

The Twins won 101 games this season and were swept out of the ALDS. The Braves won 97, only to lose Game 5 of the NLDS in brutal fashion at home to the Cardinals.

The Dodgers made it to the World Series in 2017 and 2018 and came up empty both times. They won 106 games this season, a franchise record, only to be eliminated in the NLDS by the Nationals — a Wild Card team, nonetheless.

Does that make last few seasons even more frustrating for the Cubs and their fans? Probably. October is a crapshoot, meaning as long as a team gets in, they have a shot at winning it all, no matter their record.

At the same time, the Cubs made things look easy in 2016. They had brilliant injury luck, a historic defense, a deep position player group, a loaded starting rotation and the right manager for their young core. Even so, it took erasing a 3-to-1 series deficit against the Indians to win it all, not to mention a dramatic Game 7 win that nearly didn’t go their way.

This isn’t an excuse for the Cubs shortcomings in 2019, but merely a reminder: they won the 2016 World Series, and that's no small feat. This offseason offers the chance to improve as a team for 2020, when they’ll set out to win again.

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Cubs Talk Podcast: Kap breaks down the Cubs managerial search

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USA Today

Cubs Talk Podcast: Kap breaks down the Cubs managerial search

David Kaplan shares his thoughts on the Cubs, the decision to move on from Joe Maddon (0:50), the process in hiring a new manager (2:40), and who should be in the dugout next season (4:05).

Listen here or in the embedded player below. 

Cubs Talk Podcast

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