Will Cubs make another big splash in free agency?


Will Cubs make another big splash in free agency?

Theo Epstein has explained the mixed emotions during that first press conference. You hold up the jersey for the cameras and feel the initial rush of excitement after closing the deal with a big free agent, as well as the sense of dread lurking in the back of your head, because those contracts usually don’t end well.

Within one week, the Cubs will be sequestered inside the Opryland complex in Nashville, Tennessee, trying to find the finishing pieces for a 97-win team and ultimately construct a World Series winner.

But it will be hard for Epstein to make a bigger splash than the team president created during last year’s winter meetings in San Diego, where the Cubs agreed to a six-year, $155 million deal with Jon Lester, giving the All-Star lefty and two-time World Series champion the richest contract in franchise history.

It’s shaping up to be a bidding war between the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants for Zack Greinke, an industry source said, with the pitcher’s strong preference being to stay in the National League West.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

The Cubs have been in the mix for David Price, sources said, but there appears to be at least some reservations about the idea of committing roughly $50 million annually to two 30-something pitchers, given the questions about the franchise’s next TV deal and short-term financial outlook.

Without getting specific about the potential player paired with Lester, Epstein said: “It would put us in a position with a lot less flexibility going forward, but a lot more talent going forward. It’s a trade-off.”    

The Cubs planned to do deep dives on basically every significant pitcher on the market, a team source said, but Johnny Cueto wasn’t near the top of that list. In terms of a price range, reported on Sunday that Cueto has already rejected a six-year, $120 million offer from the Arizona Diamondbacks, so the meter should keep running from there.

The dominos started falling on Monday with the Detroit Tigers formalizing a reported five-year, $110 million deal with Jordan Zimmermann, a pitcher the Cubs have admired for his bulldog mentality, though that probably came with concerns about his shelf life following a Tommy John procedure on his right elbow in 2009.  

[MORE: Cubs bolster bullpen with addition of Brothers]

If Jeff Samardzija comes back to the North Side, it won’t be on a one-year, prove-it deal. While there is mutual interest in a reunion, Samardzija has already bet on himself long enough, from turning down NFL opportunities and offers to stay with the Cubs and White Sox, waiting for this shot to cash in as a free agent.

Samardzija had a down season with the White Sox (11-13, 4.96 ERA), but he still threw 200-plus innings for the third straight year, and his combination of physical build/skills, clean medical history and big-market attitude is appealing from a front-office perspective.

The four years and $75 million the San Diego Padres guaranteed James Shields last offseason is seen as a reasonable floor for Samardzija, who will also cost a draft pick after declining the one-year, $15.8 million qualifying offer from the White Sox.

Now that The Plan has come into focus – with Jake Arrieta a Cy Young Award winner, Kris Bryant a Rookie of the Year and Joe Maddon a Manager of the Year – does it get any easier handing out that huge contract?

“Depending on the size of the commitment, there’s always some anxiety that goes along with it,” Epstein said. “Not for any other reason than there’s inherent risk, and you’re thinking about the team. You don’t want to put the team in a situation where you limit flexibility (and) you limit our odds of putting winning teams on the field for years to come.

“It’s natural. You always see the smiles at the beginning of the contract at the press conference – and it’s a much smaller percentage of the time that you see smiles all the way at the end.

“But you hope that you’ve got a fair contribution for the investment and that it helps the club win. And that you can diversify your investments and structure your investments in a way that keeps us nimble, so we can address needs as they arise over the coming years, because we really like the core that we have.”

So keep refreshing Twitter for the latest rumors, but what’s clear is Epstein has already ruled out the idea of adding two $100 million players this offseason, the Cubs will prioritize pitching over a veteran hitter and this group feels absolutely no pressure to win the winter meetings again. 

Jon Lester saw a start like this coming

Jon Lester saw a start like this coming

Jon Lester had easily his worst outing of the year, allowing the Cardinals to score eight runs on seven hits, the veteran All-Star only managed three innings before Joe Maddon turned to his bullpen. 

The Cardinals would take game two of the series by the score of 18 to 5, and while none of the Cubs pitchers could silence the Cardinal bats, Lester didn't shy away from his poor outing. 

"You know, I don't want to chalk this up as bad days happen," said Lester. "I think mechanically this has kinda been coming." 

Lester knew he was struggling to hit his spots, and while his ERA was a sparkling 2.58 coming into this start, his peripheral stats had him pegged as a potential regression candidate in the second half of the season.

His 4.35 FIP and 3.30 walks per nine innings show a pitcher who is relying heavily on his defense to get outs, which isn't surprising for a 33-year-old veteran but the walks are a concern. 

Cubs manager Joe Maddon was aware Lester had been working on his mechanics, but even he was surprised that Lester's start went downhill so quickly. 

"I thought he had good stuff to start the game, hitting [92-93 mph] and I'm thinking this might be a good day," said Maddon. "But you could just see from the beginning he was off just a little bit." 

Over Lester's last four starts his ERA has been an uncharacteristic 4.57, issuing 10 walks over those four starts, and only making it past the 6th inning once. At this point of Lester's career, he knows the best way for him to get outs isn't through strikeouts but by inducing soft contact and avoiding walks. 

And while both his hard contact rate and walks have increased this season, Lester's experience and high baseball I.Q. has allowed him to navigate his way through sticky situations. 

"I've been getting outs," Lester said candidly. "I just feel like when I've had that strikeout or I have a guy set up for that pitch I haven't been able to execute it." 

And while this outing was one to forget, it's at least a positive sign that Lester is aware of his issues on the mound. The veteran knows how to get outs and he knows what he needs to do to be successful in the latter part of his career. He just needs to get back to executing those pitches. 

Just don't expect Lester to dive head first into the analytics on how to fix his issues, he'll stick to hard work and baseball common sense. 

"I'm not too concerned with the analytic B.S., I'm worried about my mechanical fix for my next start." 

Cubs set the wrong kind of history in blowout

Cubs set the wrong kind of history in blowout

Cubs fans had plenty to cheer about late in Friday's game against the Cardinals, but not in the way they expected.

With St. Louis absolutely wearing out the Cubs pitching staff in an 18-5 blowout, Joe Maddon turned to a trio of position players to pitch.

In front of 41,077 people at Wrigley Field for the second game of the official second half of the season, Tommy La Stella came on to pitch for the Cubs with 2 outs in the top of the sixth inning. After La Stella got 4 outs, it was Victor Caratini's turn for the eighth inning.

The Cubs have actually used multiple position players as a pitcher before, but it was back on June 16, 1884 in a 20-9 loss, according to historian Ed Hartig. Obviously, the game of baseball was quite different back then.

But just using two position players on the mound wasn't enough for this wacky day at the ballpark.

Ian Happ got the nod for the ninth inning on the mound, serving as the third different position player on the mound. He joked he was using his sinker effectively and that he's now the Cubs clubhouse leader in ERA after not giving up a run in his inning of work.

Was there a friendly competition between Happ, Caratini and La Stella?

"Yes," Happ said. "I won." 

How did Maddon determine who would get the opportunity to make history?

Well, for starters, the process began with getting a certain player OUT of the lineup.

"I had to take Rizzo out of the game because he would've been badgering me the whole time," Maddon laughed. "So it started by getting Rizzo out, and that made my decision-making process a lot easier. Otherwise just imagine him harping in your ear constantly that he wants to pitch and every time I go out to the mound and the game may be lopsided as I'm maybe bringing somebody else in, he reminds me.

"At some point, hopefully in a good situation where we're leading [he can get in and pitch]."

Seeing a position player pitch has actually been a pretty common occurence under Maddon as he's done everything he can to limit the stress on the bullpen:

"I think the fans kinda started to enjoy it, too, which is always fun when you're getting blown out," said Kris Bryant, who connected on his 11th homer of the season in the blowout loss. "Those guys stepped up for us to save the bullpen. So there ya go. We're making history."

Meanwhile, on the other side, Matt Carpenter had a record-setting game.

Before being removed from the game in the sixth inning, Carpenter smashed 3 homers and 2 doubles and drove in 7 runs. It tied a Cardinals record for total bases (16) while tying the MLB record for most extra-base hits in a game (5):

It also was only the second recorded game in MLB history where a player had 3 doubles and 2 homers. The other? Bryant, of course — in Cincinnati in 2016.

Of course, the fact he did it all before the game reached the seventh inning is remarkable:

Offensively, the Cubs left 12 men on base, which would normally be the focal point of ire for the fanbase if not for the rest of the day's events...