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Why Cubs believe winning the offseason won't be a curse

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Why Cubs believe winning the offseason won't be a curse

Theo Epstein hasn’t been on an offseason roll like this since ... the Boston Red Sox traded Anthony Rizzo to the San Diego Padres in the Adrian Gonzalez deal and signed Carl Crawford to a $142 million contract?

“Expectations got so high,” Epstein remembered. “People were speculating: ‘Is this the greatest team of all-time? A super-team? An uber-team?’”

The 2011 Red Sox started out 0-6 and 2-10, finished August in first place in the American League East and then lost 20 games in September, missing the playoffs in a spectacular collapse that led to manager Terry Francona being forced out and The Boston Globe publishing the fried-chicken-and-beer story.

Tired of the power struggles at Fenway Park and looking for a new challenge, Epstein bolted to Chicago that October for a president’s title with the Cubs and a direct report to ownership.

“It is an unbelievable dynamic the last few years,” Epstein said, “how the winners of the offseason tend to be miserable the following September.”

[MORE CUBS: How Cubs wound up spending big on Jason Heyward]

Epstein said that during the general managers meetings in the middle of November, when the idea of spending $272 million on bulldog pitcher John Lackey, super-utility guy Ben Zobrist and Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward sounded completely unrealistic given the franchise’s financial limitations.

But Epstein’s front office lobbied chairman Tom Ricketts and Crane Kenney’s business operations department, and the Cubs got creative, pulling off some accounting tricks and reinvesting money generated during a surprising trip to the National League Championship Series. A franchise that usually seems so focused on the future and risk management thought big and acted decisively, trying to win a World Series.

After Heyward agreed to an eight-year, $184 million contract and started trending on Twitter on Friday, Jason Hammel set the bar for the 2016 Cubs at “#162-0.” So there would be no confusion, the veteran pitcher clarified his tweet three minutes later: “Strike that. Reverse it. Let’s make that 173-0.”

After being the fun-loving, out-of-nowhere team that won 97 games last season, the Cubs will now be the hunted.

“The target’s going to be bigger, and I want us to embrace the target,” manager Joe Maddon said during the winter meetings. “The pressure is going to be possibly greater, and I want us to embrace the pressure.

“The bigger target, the greater pressure, I think, equals a grander chance for success. So I’m all about that, and I definitely will bring that to our guys’ attention.

“(With) the accountability of our young players — combined with our veterans — I really believe we could avoid those kind of pitfalls.”

[MORE CUBS: What the Jason Heyward deal means for Jorge Soler and Javier Baez]

Who knows if this means more or less zoo animals, but the Cubs do have the perfect manager to distract the media, keep the clubhouse loose and make rapid-fire decisions in the dugout.

At least the Cubs haven’t been thrown together like Ozzie Guillen’s reality-show Miami Marlins. The Cubs have their thin-skin moments and certainly try to shape public opinions, but they really don’t care what you think about this trade or that contract or make baseball decisions based on TV ratings or the next morning’s headlines.

The Cubs also have a foundation that appears to be stronger than the White Sox and Padres teams that won last year’s winter meetings — and wound up finishing 37 games out of first place combined.

Lackey probably won’t be amused by the Chicago media or have patience for nonsense questions. It was also interesting to see the mixed reactions to the Lackey signing on Twitter from Cubs fans ready to rubber-stamp any Theo move.

But Maddon worked as Mike Scioscia’s Anaheim Angels bench coach when Lackey beat the San Francisco Giants in Game 7 of the 2002 World Series. Epstein already drew up a five-year, $82.5 million contract with Lackey in Boston, where he reshaped his image after the fried-chicken-and-beer stuff and Tommy John surgery by helping the Red Sox win the 2013 World Series.

Maddon and Epstein insist Lackey brings an edge to the clubhouse, takes charge of the rotation in between starts and pushes teammates to get better.

Zobrist is one of Maddon’s favorite players ever after spending nine seasons together with the Tampa Bay Rays and transforming a last-place team into a World Series contender.

Heyward is getting paid like a superstar now, but the Cubs really just need him to be a supporting player who does the little things, grinding out at-bats, getting on base, going first-to-third and performing at a Gold-Glove level.

The idea of “don’t try to be something you’re not” probably appealed to Heyward after being surrounded by so much hype with the Atlanta Braves. This lineup already has 40-homer threats in Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber.

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

This didn’t create a splash, but the Cubs are feeling optimistic about Adam Warren — the swingman acquired from the New York Yankees in the Starlin Castro trade — and insurance policies like Trevor Cahill, Clayton Richard and Travis Wood. Because, as Epstein said: “We’ve been walking a tightrope with our lack of starting-pitching depth.”

The Cubs still haven’t really mortgaged their farm system yet, meaning there should be plenty of trade chips available to get whatever they need leading up to the July 31 deadline.

“Organizations that are the healthiest,” Epstein said, “(with) the most talent coming through the pipeline, the fewest holes, the most areas of surplus and depth, tend to have the least active offseasons. And those organizations tend to win.

“It means they’re doing something right. It means they have ways to address their needs internally. It means they have a lot of talent spread out in different areas of the organization. The teams that sometimes quote-unquote ‘win the offseason’ do so in response to a glaring need to infuse talent in a number of different areas.

“A healthy organization is not made by virtue of one busy offseason. It’s really years and years and years of planning, hiring scouts and development people and putting processes into play and seeing that approach manifest over time.”

Whether or not the Cubs are paper tigers, the only guarantee is they will be the biggest story in the baseball world in 2016.

Scott Boras' history lesson illustrates why Cubs are unlikely to trade Kris Bryant

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AP

Scott Boras' history lesson illustrates why Cubs are unlikely to trade Kris Bryant

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — As the Cubs move into a new era, the Kris Bryant Decision looms large over the entire organization.

Should they trade him now, two years out from free agency (or one year away if he actually wins his service time grievance)? Or is now the time for the Cubs to deliver a huge offer and lock him up long term?

Bryant's agent, Scott Boras, has been one of the most powerful men in baseball over the last couple decades and he's seen many teams go through the same dilemma the Cubs are currently weighing.

In encountering similar situations with players of Bryant's caliber (a former MVP and Rookie of the Year), Boras shed some light on how unlikely it is that the Cubs would actually wind up dealing him.

"Certainly every player I have that is at that level, they're always asking the question about, 'will they? Won't they? Will they trade him? Will they do it?'" Boras said. "And the answer to that is always: I can give you a percentage over a decade of how many of those players get traded and the answer is very low. If you think that much of him and to get something back for him with a limited period of time is always very hard."

He's got a strong point there. Bryant has a career .901 OPS and averages 32 homers, 92 RBI and 112 runs scored per 162 games over his five years in the big leagues. He proved that the lack of power and production in 2018 was injury related with a strong bounceback season this past year, finishing 14th in WAR in the National League while battling through a lingering knee issue. 

Bryant provides a ton of value to the Cubs and his presence on the roster increases the likelihood of winning another World Series over the next two seasons. In order to trade him, they would need a huge haul in return — a package of players that sets the franchise up for success the future without completely sacrificing the short-term and current window of contention. Will some team actually meet the Cubs' asking price?

The service time grievance is a major issue here, as the difference between one and two years of Bryant would be vast. Red Sox star Mookie Betts is a free agent a year from now and Boston is in a similar situation in that they're weighing a potential trade now rather than risk losing Betts to the open market and getting only draft pick compensation in return.

Boras pointed to how the Red Sox and Cubs both won World Series with Betts and Bryant earlier in their careers, leveraging the star players on cheaper deals to allow more resources to augment the roster around them. But now both guys are due a hefty sum of money in 2020 (MLB Trade Rumors estimates the arbitration figure to be $18.5 million for Bryant and $27.7 million for Betts) and it's time for each team to decide which path to go down.

The prevailing thought around the game is that Bryant won't win his grievance, which puts the Cubs in a different spot than the Red Sox in that they have two years of control left. That's key to either dangle in a trade or to allow more time for the two sides to reach an agreement on an extension.

"I've seen clubs take this decision on and it's often been a decision that they regret — whether they've kept him or whether they've traded him," Boras said. "Again, because they're great players, they're really key decisions."

If no team is able to — or decides to — meet the Cubs' price for Bryant in any trade talks, how likely is it the two sides would work out an extension that keeps him in Chicago beyond 2021?

Both sides waved off any notion that the service time grievance has done anything to damage the relationship between Bryant and the club, with Boras emphasizing that this was a "union matter" and was more about being an "advocate for the rights of players." Even if the arbiter rules against Bryant's grievance, it could still be a major step forward in changing the structure of free agency and service time for the next Collective Bargaining Agreement.

In the matter of extension talks, Bryant and Boras are all ears.

"Look, we're open to talking with them and we've always said that to them," Boras said. "It's always been Kris' philosophy with the team. 

"I would certainly keep the terms and conditions of the contract negotiations private with the Cubs, but obviously it's always a fairness standard. You want what's fair for him and where he stands in the industry and that's true of any player." 

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Cubs continue behind-the-scenes makeover by hiring new scouting director

Cubs continue behind-the-scenes makeover by hiring new scouting director

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - The Cubs are close to the point of the offseason where their sole focus will be on the roster.

As the final coaching staff comes together, the organization also announced their scouting director Wednesday, adding Dan Kantrovitz as the VP of scouting.

Kantrovitz, 41, spent the last five seasons as the assistant general manager to Billy Beane with the Oakland A's and previously served as the director of scouting for the St. Louis Cardinals for three seasons (2012-14). He is a Brown University graduate and also got his Master's Degree at Harvard.

Kantrovitz is a St. Louis native and was reportedly discussing a return to the Cardinals this winter before he took the job with the Cubs:

He was part of the Cardinals scouting department that drafted Jack Flaherty 34th overall in 2014, plus current Cubs reliever Rowan Wick in the ninth round (300th overall) in 2012 and has other successful high picks on his resume (Michael Wacha, Stephen Piscotty, Luke Weaver).

"We're really excited to be able to bring Danny Kantroviz on board," Theo Epstein said Wednesday at the MLB GM Meetings. "To be able to hire somebody to run our drafts who's already held that position and already run successful drafts in the past, it's a unique opportunity. Guys don't usually go back once they reach the assistant GM level. But in Dan's case, he has just discovered that his passion is running the draft.

"It really fits the exact profile we're looking for. He can scout - he goes out and sees 200 players a year when he's running the draft - and he can really relate very well to scouts and he's also got experience building advanced analytical models and combining both those worlds in a really effective manner. I think he fills a big void for us and look forward to working with him for years to come."

Epstein also called the Kantrovitz hire a "best case scenario" for the Cubs as they reshape their front office infrastructure. In September, Epstein moved Jason McLeod from head of scouting and player development (the position he held since coming over to the Cubs after the 2011 season) into a special assistant role in the big-league front office and shook up the player development department.

They wanted a fresh perspective and new insight into the draft and developing players given the organization's inability to produce homegrown pitchers in the eight years under Epstein's reign. Kantrovitz is the guy they've chosen to now lead the scouting department and the hope is he's able to find more success in the draft.

"Dan is as qualified as maybe anyone out there in baseball to do [balance all the information on draft day] since he has scouted extensively and is on the road the entire draft season seeing players and has done so for many years," Epstein said. "He also is one of the top quants [quantitative analyst] in the game as well. Builds his own models and understands it on a granular level - not just to the R & D department, but being a part of it and not just relating to scouts but being one. He brings a really unique skillset and set of experiences to the position."

That's another big hire to check off the list for the Cubs as the offseason starts to heat up. Epstein and Co. can now turn their attention to fine-tuning the roster to ensure the whole is greater than the sum of the parts in 2020. 

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