Theo Epstein shrewdly planned ahead, so Cubs wouldn’t have to make a splash this winter

Theo Epstein shrewdly planned ahead, so Cubs wouldn’t have to make a splash this winter

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Sports Illustrated already declared the Houston Astros “Your 2017 World Series Champs.” The cover for that June 30, 2014 issue labeled Ground Control as “Baseball’s Great Experiment,” with the magazine predicting Houston would beat the Cubs in that Fall Classic.

Flash forward to the general manager meetings that ended Thursday in Arizona and the Astros are again creating a lot of buzz about their potential to finally spend like a big-market team, which sounds exciting until you look at the underwhelming list of available free agents and begin to factor in the supply-and-demand dynamics that will drive prices through the roof.

At the same time, Cubs executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer checked out of the Omni Scottsdale Resort & Spa looking to quietly find the finishing pieces for the team that will defend the franchise’s first World Series title in 108 years.

The Cubs already made their biggest splashes, lobbying the Ricketts family and business operations to essentially combine two offseasons into one after the 2015 team caught fire. Winning 97 games and two playoff rounds helped bankroll a spending spree that nearly totaled $290 million and led to a championship parade down Lake Shore Drive and Michigan Avenue and into Grant Park.

“We have to live by that,” Epstein said. “That’s the general framework still. We put that plan on the table and we should abide by it. We moved a lot of resources into last winter, knowing that there wouldn’t be a lot of impact talent available this winter.”

By cutting loose Jason Hammel, the Cubs allowed a well-liked veteran to earn exponentially more than the $10 million he would have made if they had picked up that option for 2017. Hammel will now get paid like a 15-game winner, not someone who didn’t make the playoff rosters and might have been the sixth or seventh starter when pitchers and catchers report to spring training.

In a remarkably weak class of free agents, super-agent Scott Boras made it sound like Jeremy Hellickson will probably decline the one-year, $17.2 million qualifying offer the Philadelphia Phillies made to a pitcher who’s never thrown 200 innings in a season and put up ERAs of 5.17, 4.52 and 4.62 between 2013 and 2015.

That reality helps explain why Epstein looked relaxed and content – at least while talking about baseball and not politics – for someone who promised to go on an epic bender. The Cubs have already done the heavy lifting for the 2017 team.

Ben Zobrist emerged as the World Series MVP in the middle of a lineup that scored 800-plus runs during the regular season without Kyle Schwarber. Jason Heyward won his fourth Gold Glove – while underachieving offensively and becoming a steady influence within the clubhouse – for the team that led the majors in defensive efficiency.

Even at the age of 38, John Lackey might be a better bet to make 30 starts next season than any other pitcher on the free-agent market. A strong player-development system and welcoming big-league environment means Albert Almora Jr. should get a chance to take over for Dexter Fowler in center field.

“I wouldn’t rule anything out,” Epstein said. “But generally speaking, we’re going to adhere to what we discussed last winter.

“It’s just important to view it through more of a two-year lens than a one-year lens, given what we did last year. I know winning also helps a little bit. It could help us maybe be a little more open-minded in certain areas. We’ll see. We’re still going through all the books – and seeing exactly where we are – and that process will be done by the middle of next week.”

And Houston might have a problem if this is really when it wants to ramp up and spend aggressively on the missing pieces for a World Series contender.

A series to forget: Facts and figures from Cubs' rough weekend in Cincinnati

A series to forget: Facts and figures from Cubs' rough weekend in Cincinnati

The Cubs and their fans may want to invent and use one of those Men In Black neuralyzers because the four-game series in Cincinnati was one to forget.

The Reds finished off a four-game sweep of the Cubs on Sunday with an 8-6 win. The way the Reds won the finale will be especially painful for the Cubs considering they led 6-1 after six innings. Mike Montgomery appeared to tire in the seventh inning and Pedro Strop got rocked out of the bullpen to lead to a seven-run seventh for the hosts.

The Reds have now won seven in a row and 10 of 12, but still sit 13 games under .500. Bizarrely, the Reds also swept the Dodgers, the Cubs’ next opponent, in a four-game series in May. Duane Underwood will start for the Cubs Monday against the Dodgers and make his major league debut.

Here are some other wild facts and figures from the series:

  • The last time the Reds swept the Cubs in a four-game series was back in 1983. That was the first week of the season and three weeks before the infamous Lee Elia rant.
  • One positive for the Cubs from the game was Montgomery’s start. Through six innings he allowed one run on three hits and two walks. However, he gave up a single, a double and a single in the seventh before Strop relieved him. Montgomery had gone six innings and allowed one run in each of his last four outings.
  • Strop was definitely a negative. On his first pitch, Strop gave up a home run to pinch-hitter Jesse Winker, the second home run for a Reds pinch-hitter in the game. Then Strop allowed a single, a walk, a single and a double before getting an out. Strop’s final line: 2/3 inning pitched, four runs, one strikeout, three walks, four hits.
  • The Cubs led in three of the four games this series, including two leads after five innings.
  • The Cubs were 5-for-23 (.217) with runners in scoring position in the series. On the season the Cubs are hitting .233 with RISP, which is 22nd in the majors and fourth-worst in the National League (but ahead of the division-rival Brewers and Cardinals).
  • The Reds outscored the Cubs 31-13 and scored at least six runs in every game. The Reds are now 6-3 against the Cubs this year after going a combined 17-40 against the Cubs from 2015-2017.

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 32nd homer in 1998

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 32nd homer in 1998

It's the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Sammy, when Sosa and Mark McGwire went toe-to-toe in one of the most exciting seasons in American sports history chasing after Roger Maris' home run record. All year, we're going to go homer-by-homer on Sosa's 66 longballs, with highlights and info about each. Enjoy.

Sosa victimized the Tigers pitching staff again on the next night, taking Brian Moehler deep in the 7th inning for a 400-foot solo blast.

The homer tied the game at 3, but the Cubs blew the lead in the bottom of the 7th when the Terrys (Adams and Mulholland) gave up 3 runs. The Cubs wound up losing 6-4.

The Cubs were putting together a really nice season in 1998 that ended with a trip to October. They entered the series with the Tigers with a 42-34 record, yet lost both games to a Detroit team that entered the series with a 28-45 record. The Tigers finished the season 65-94; the Cubs finished 90-73.

Fun fact: Luis Gonzalez was the Tigers left fielder and No. 5 hitter for both games of the series. He spent part of the 1995 season and all of '96 on Chicago's North Side. 1998 was his only year in Detroit before he moved on to Arizona, where he hit 57 homers in 2001 and helped the Diamondbacks to a World Series championship with that famous broken-bat single in Game 7.

Fun fact  No. 2: Remember Pedro Valdes? He only had a cup of coffee with the Cubs (9 games in 1996 and 14 in '98), but started in left field on June 25, 1998. He walked and went 0-for-1 before being removed from the game for a pinch-hitter (Jose Hernandez).