Why Theo Epstein believes Cubs offense will click on all cylinders

Why Theo Epstein believes Cubs offense will click on all cylinders

What if the “hitting young” theme Cubs manager Joe Maddon keeps talking about lasts all season? What if team president Theo Epstein doesn’t see that anticipated growth until late in the year or this even drags into 2018?

“I hope not,” Maddon said with a laugh.

“You’d really have to roll snake eyes,” Epstein said skeptically.

This is a 95- or 100-win team on paper that has already been at the .500 mark at 10 different points this season and hasn’t yet pulled away in the weakest division in Major League Baseball. Between going 0-for-6 on a West Coast trip and then sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals, the overreactions swing from “World Series hangover” to “The Cubs are back.”

There doesn’t need to be any sweeping conclusions after Tuesday night’s 10-2 blowout where the Cubs beat an underwhelming starter (Jeff Locke) and a flawed Miami Marlins team to extend their winning streak to five games at Wrigley Field.

As Epstein said without sarcasm — more of a reminder that the solutions will come from within rather than a trade-deadline deal or the shock treatment of demoting guys to the minors: “These players won the World Series.”

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The Cubs (30-27) always look better when Anthony Rizzo drills a three-run homer into the right-field bleachers, but this diversified approach also saw them score six runs on six hits in the seventh inning and finish at 6-for-16 with runners in scoring position Tuesday.

Still, more than one-third of the way through the 162-game marathon, the Cubs have already been shut out five times, beginning the day ranked 10th in the National League in OPS (.730) while hitting .216 with runners in scoring position (or next to last in the majors).

Some of this is cyclical and a reflection of how Big Data can stifle offense. There are elements of bad luck and bad weather when you still need a winter coat in Wrigleyville in early June. But roughly 54 percent of the team’s 2,000-plus plate appearances this season have gone to seven players between the ages of 22 and 25: Ian Happ, Addison Russell, Albert Almora Jr., Kyle Schwarber, Javier Baez, Willson Contreras and Kris Bryant.

Could this learning curve stretch through most — or all — of 2017?

“I mean, it can,” Epstein said. “Usually not collectively. Teams are 25 individuals. You’d really have to roll snake eyes, regardless of age, for players to underperform their projections or their talent level that uniformly over the course of a whole season.

“Could it happen? Yes, it could happen. We don’t think it’s going to happen. We also have a lot of good players. We have a lot of different lineups that we can put out there. We have a lot of different players that we can lean on to carry us.

“We don’t need everyone to get hot. We don’t need everyone to hit their projection. We don’t need everyone to have a nice, steady progression building off of where they were last year. We just need a few guys to get going to make our offense really viable.”

Russell (.636) and Schwarber (.635) are among the bottom 10 percent of all qualified big-league hitters in terms of OPS. Baez has walked three times since the beginning of May. Happ now has almost as many career games in The Show as he does on the Triple-A level (26) and will have to keep making adjustments. Contreras is in the middle of his first full season in the majors. Maddon is trying to make sure that Almora doesn’t get lost in the shuffle.

“We need time,” Epstein said. “Over time, our guys are going to continue to progress. And when that gap (between talent and performance) exists, it’s a better position to be in than not having the talent, because then you’re fighting and scratching and clawing to get more talent because you’re not good enough.

“But we are plenty talented. It’s on us to figure it out, sooner rather than later.”

Cubs still trying to break through on extension talks with current players

Cubs still trying to break through on extension talks with current players

SAN DIEGO — While the rest of the baseball world is occupying their time with free agent signings and trades, the Cubs have been waiting for their number to be called.

They've been trying to nail down extensions with key players that are only a couple years away from free agency, though nothing appears imminent on that front. 

Kris Bryant, Javy Baez, Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber are all free agents after the 2021 season, leaving the Cubs two years to work out a deal or trade the player before losing them for nothing but a compensation pick. Willson Contreras is a free agent after 2022. Theo Epstein's front office reached a four-year, $55.5 million deal with Kyle Hendricks in spring training, extending his team control through the 2023 season.

The Cubs won't comment specifically on the current extension talks, but they'd ideally hope to wrap anything before spring training this year, so the players can focus solely on baseball by then.

"We always take the position of not commenting on extensions, but are we having those discussions? Yes," Jed Hoyer said Tuesday. "People focus so much on trades and free agent signings at these meetings, but all the agents are under the same roofs, also, and allows us to have those kinds of discussions. I'm not gonna specify who or what, but yeah certainly those conversations are ongoing."

Bryant has long been thought of as the toughest of the group to lock up long-term given that his agent, Scott Boras, typically advises clients to hit the open market and maximize their value. Boras reiterated Tuesday afternoon at the Winter Meetings he and Bryant are still open to extension talks with the Cubs.

Baez and Rizzo loom as the two most likely to extend their Wrigley Field stays, with the two emerging as the faces of the franchise in their own ways.

As the Cubs try to navigate an offseason where they're "serving two masters" (trying to compete in 2020-21 while also enhancing the long-term future of the franchise), a potential extension would check both boxes in a major way. If Hoyer and Theo Epstein knew Baez would be locking down shortstop and the middle of the lineup for the next six seasons, they could breathe a bit easier thinking about the big picture and long-term health of the franchise. 

At the same time, they can't operate as if anything is a certainty. Bryant could decide he likes the Cubs' offer and make Chicago his baseball home forever. Baez could conclude the opposite. 

It's what makes this particular offseason so tricky for the Cubs.

"We have to be able to have parallel tracks in our mind," Hoyer said. "We have to be able to do multiple things at once. It doesn't make it more difficult. We have a lot of really good players. We've had them for a long time. When we talk to these players about contracts, there's no player that we talk to that we haven't had a conversation with at some point before about a contract. 

"We've talked about these players for five years in some way, shape or form. When we sit down with these players, we're not covering a ton of new ground. We've already been over a lot of it. I think we're able to have parallel tracks."

Two MLB moves that changed the landscape of Kris Bryant's trade market

Two MLB moves that changed the landscape of Kris Bryant's trade market

Two reported transactions Tuesday may not have drawn much attention from Cubs fans, but both directly impact the North Siders.

First, The Athletic’s Fabian Ardaya reported the Angels are trading third baseman Zack Cozart to the Giants for cash and a player to be named later. Soon thereafter, free agent shortstop Didi Gregorius agreed to a one-year deal with the Phillies, as Joel Sherman of the New York Post reported.

From a Cubs perspective, the Angels' and Phillies' moves impact a potential Kris Bryant trade market. According to Ardaya, the Giants are picking up the remaining $12.67 million on Cozart’s deal. This clears payroll space for Los Angeles to make a run at a superstar free agent, like third basemen Anthony Rendon and Josh Donaldson.

The Phillies inquired with the Cubs regarding a potential Bryant trade, according to multiple reports. However, Bryant’s unresolved grievance case is a holdup in any trade talks, should the Cubs entertain offers. If he wins, he'll become a free agent next winter. If he loses, he'll remain under team control through 2021.

Gregorius will slot into shortstop for Philadelphia, while incumbent Jean Segura will move to second base, according to NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Jim Salisbury. The Phillies are less likely to pursue Bryant — should the Cubs shop him — than they were entering Tuesday. Things can change, but they have less of an infield need as they did on Monday.

On the other hand, the Angels and new manager Joe Maddon suddenly could be a candidate to pursue Bryant. Acquiring him would bring less certainty than Rendon or Donaldson, as Bryant is only under contract for two seasons more, max. Furthermore, acquiring Bryant will cost the Angels prospect capital, while adding Rendon and Donaldson will 'only' entail paying them handsomely as free agents.

In short, Philadelphia is less likely to pursue Bryant than they were entering Tuesday; the possibility of the Angels doing so is stronger than it was entering the day. The Angels haven't been directly connected to Bryant at this point, but that now could change.