Cubs

What it will take to close the Epstein deal

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What it will take to close the Epstein deal

Sometime within the next 48 hours, Theo Epstein is expected to smile for the cameras.

With flashbulbs popping all around the stadium club, Epstein will pose for the before picture at the news conference where the Cubs will introduce him as their next head of baseball operations.

The after picture whether Epsteins hair turns gray or the stress of the job starts to show on his youthful face could be telling. This city demands nothing less than another World Series title from the 37-year-old executive.

What it will take for the Cubs and Red Sox to close this deal is gradually coming into focus. High-ranking officials from both sides remained underground over the weekend. On both days there were SUVs parked in the reserved spots for employees near the entrance to Wrigley Fields administrative offices.

As much as Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts and team president Crane Kenney would no doubt like to take a victory lap, there remains the matter of compensation, what it will take to pry Epstein from the final year of his contract.

Its also unclear if Epstein will be able to bring any Red Sox staffers along with him to Chicago. Sources continue to insist that Brett Jackson is untouchable and not part of the discussions.

Jackson generated 20 homers, 58 RBI, 21 stolen bases and a .379 on-base percentage in 115 games split between Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa last season. The Cubs believe that their 2009 first-round pick out of Cal-Berkeley could make the big-league club out of spring training.

The Red Sox are believed to be focused on Trey McNutt, a 22-year-old right-hander who is arguably the organizations best pitching prospect. The 32nd-round pick seemingly came out of nowhere (Haleyville, Ala.) in 2010 and went 10-1 with a 2.48 ERA and 132 strikeouts in 116.1 innings.

McNutt dealt with injuries in 2011 and didnt really build off that breakout season, finishing at 5-6 with a 4.55 ERA at Tennessee. But theres still enough upside where the Cubs could think hed eventually be part of their 2012 staff and refuse to give in to Bostons demands.

Either way, it will likely take two prospects. The Marlins set that baseline when they lured Ozzie Guillen from the South Side to South Beach.

A source familiar with the negotiations said that the Cubs are reluctant to give up anyone wholl be on their 40-man roster this winter. In that sense, Josh Vitters and Matt Szczur are viewed as unlikely to be included in the deal.

Vitters, the third overall pick in the 2007 draft, has been slower to develop. But hes still only 22 and team officials believe hes maturing.

Vitters is currently playing in the Arizona Fall League after hitting .283 with 14 homers and 81 RBI at Tennessee. He could probably use a full season on the Triple-A level in 2012. The Cubs will risk losing him if they dont sign him to the 40-man roster.

Szczur, a two-sport star at Villanova, has a unique contract that requires him to be moved to the 40-man roster this offseason. That was part of the recruiting pitch to give up his NFL ambitions and focus only on baseball. The 22-year-old outfielder finished last season at Class-A Daytona.

While the Red Sox examine the system, they will find intriguing players from the 2011 draft. Ricketts told his scouting department to take chances last summer and find more impact players. The chairman authorized close to 12 million in bonuses.

Those players cannot be traded until a year after the day they signed their contracts. In theory, a player could be labeled to be announced in the final Epstein settlement. But the Red Sox wouldnt want to take on the injury risk or stash him at a Cubs affiliate for almost the entire 2012 season.

A source predicted that the Red Sox will play this exactly like the agents at the signing deadline, waiting until the last minute to get the best possible deal for their clients.

There was no rush to hold a press conference on Sunday, with the Bears playing in primetime and the New England Patriots and Dallas Cowboys featured in another marquee game. Why compete with the NFL for attention?

A harder deadline will come before Wednesday, when the World Series begins and Major League Baseball forbids teams from making formal announcements. There are no games scheduled for Tuesday, and then commissioner Bud Selig imposes his news blackout.

While the tone of these negotiations made headlines, the big picture is that the Cubs and Red Sox have already found so much common ground. There is a motivated buyer and a determined seller. Everyone agrees that Epstein now belongs in Chicago.

Cubs' 'unbelievable' defense is bringing back 2016 vibes early on

Cubs' 'unbelievable' defense is bringing back 2016 vibes early on

The Cubs’ 9-2 start is their best through 11 games since 2016 (also 9-2). It’s probably not fair to compare anything about this team in this surreal set of circumstances to that team. But one element of this group that reminds the Cubs of that fateful season is the stellar defense they’ve played so far.

“Yeah, that’s certainly what it feels like right now,” said Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks Tuesday of whether the defense compares to 2016.

The 2016 Cubs lapped the league in advanced fielding metrics, finishing first in Defensive Runs Saved (91) and Ultimate Zone Rating (47.1). DRS rates how far or below average (0) a team is defensively, while UZR quantifies how many runs a team saves or gives up through their fielding.

Through 11 games, the 2020 Cubs are first in DRS (15; the Dodgers are second at 14) and fifth in UZR (2.8).

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“The defense has just been unbelievable right now,” Hendricks said. “It gives all the pitchers more confidence in the world to go right at guys.”

Hendricks is well equipped to make that evaluation because his game is all about inducing soft contact. That’s also the case for Alec Mills, who benefited in his start Monday from several excellent plays by David Bote at third base.

In the fourth inning, Bote, positioned near shortstop in a shift, ranged to his right, picked a grounder on a short hop and made a strong off-balance throw to retire Alex Gordon. In the seventh, he charged a bunt barehanded and threw out Adalberto Mondesi.

“Obviously, when that happens it’s a big energizer for the whole team,” Mills said Monday. “Bote made two really good plays. It does nothing but fire you up.”

Those are only a few examples of strong showings by Cubs fielders in recent days. Kyle Schwarber threw out Jacob Stallings at the plate on a single to leadoff the 10th inning against the Pirates Sunday. Javier Báez executed another magical tag on a Mondesi stolen base attempt Monday.

Kris Bryant made two diving plays at third on Tuesday, including a game-saver in the ninth. Cubs manager David Ross said Bryant looks as good as he’s seen him defensively, highlighting the work Bryant put in with bench coach Andy Green in spring training.

RELATED: Cubs' Kris Bryant's diving grab starts triple play vs. Reds — kind of

“I think KB’s played phenomenal defense this year for us, especially at third base, and that’s not easy to do as much as I’ve moved him around,” Ross said Tuesday. “He’s really athletic over there, moving well, the glove’s working. It’s fun to watch our defense right now. We’ve got some really slick gloves out there."

“All around, guys have been making all the plays, even making the great ones,” Hendricks said. “Everybody's in a really good spot right now.”

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Inside the bullpen: What Cubs' Craig Kimbrel is working on behind the scenes

Inside the bullpen: What Cubs' Craig Kimbrel is working on behind the scenes

Craig Kimbrel’s brief appearance in the Cubs’ 5-4 victory over the Royals on Tuesday offered a glimpse into what he’s working on in bullpen sessions behind the scenes.

“I've been working a lot,” the seven-time All-Star closer said Wednesday. “I felt like last night I did some things a little better, but when it comes down to it, you still have to execute a certain pitch at a certain location at certain times. And I wasn’t able to do that.”

Tuesday was the least troubling of Kimbrel’s three outings this season, which isn’t much of a vote of confidence after four walks in his first and back-to-back home runs in his second. On Tuesday, Kimbrel recorded one strikeout and put two runners in scoring position before Cubs manager David Ross replaced him with Kyle Ryan. Both runners scored.

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Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said the focus for Kimbrel, as he works through mechanical issues, is consistency.

“I think that's the key to pitching in general,” Hottovy said, “consistency in mechanics, consistency in delivery, consistency in where your release points are. All those things add up to better stuff, better velo, better spin, but also better command.”

Hottovy has identified inconsistency in Kimbrel’s arm path and release point. Kimbrel’s control issues stem from that. Those control issues have shown up in different ways for his two pitches.

First, the fastball: Hottovy used two different at-bats in Kimbrel’s appearance Tuesday night as an example.

Against Royals pinch hitter Franchy Cordero, Kimbrel located a 97-mph fastball at the top of the zone for a swing-and-miss strike three. Against Adalberto Mondesi, that same pitch crept into the middle of the zone, and Mondesi scorched a line drive off the right field wall.

“What you see from Craig, the stuff is still trending in the right direction,” Hottovy said. “The breaking ball was better yesterday. The fastball life is coming back. But in the end, in this game, we're facing professional hitters.”

Professional Hitters who can make a pitcher pay for a mistake.

That becomes especially easy when teams can gear up for one pitch and ignore the rest.

“You have to get them to honor it,” Hottovy said of Kimbrel’s curve ball, “and to get them to honor it, you have to consistently be able to throw that pitch in the strike zone, and then be able to attack (with the) fastball.”

Kimbrel has faced three different teams: The Reds, Pirates and Royals. None of them have swung at his curve ball.

“I think at times it's one of two things,” Kimbrel said, “Either I'm showing it too early or it's not starting as a strike, or they've already had that game plan to eliminate the curve ball.”

In the Reds’ case, it was the latter. Cincinnati rookie Tyler Stephenson told reporters as much after the game. He laid off three curve balls in his at-bat against Kimbrel. Stephenson walked.

According to Hottovy, Kimbrel is working on slowing down his lower body – “staying taller, sitting more on his back side” – to consistently give his arm time to get to the right release point.

 “I'm still going out there trying to compete,” Kimbrel said. “I'm not going out there and saying, 'I think I'm going to get beat today, I don't want to be out here.' By no means am I anywhere close to that. I think if anything, it’s just more frustration towards myself (for) putting myself in I'm spot I'm in, … having to ask guys to get up and throw more, based on my performance.”

 

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