Cubs

Will Theo Epstein build 2016 ‘super-team’ or try to keep window open longer for Cubs?

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Will Theo Epstein build 2016 ‘super-team’ or try to keep window open longer for Cubs?

BOCA RATON, Fla. — Theo Epstein knows the Cubs are walking a tightrope to get back to October, trying to balance their lofty ideals about the future with the reality these next two seasons might be their best chance to win a World Series.  

Putting David Price or Zack Greinke on a team that won 97 games last season and already has Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester at the top of the rotation must be tempting.     

Especially when Arrieta is positioned to become a free agent after the 2017 season, Lester will be 32 next year and soon enough the salary structure for Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Addison Russell will explode.  

[MORE CUBS: Scott Boras on Jake Arrieta's future, Cubs' 'budding garden of talent']

Plus, the Cubs have sent mixed messages about their next media deal and how soon Epstein’s baseball-operations department will be able to tap into that TV money. Does that mean waiting until 2020 for a new cable network and the huge payroll surge?  

Cubs executives checked out of the Boca Raton Resort and Club on Thursday, the end of the general manager meetings and another step into what should be a dizzying winter.

“It’s hard to argue that the next two years represent a great chance to sort of amass maybe the most talent onto a single roster that we can,” Epstein said before leaving the South Florida hotel. “Because the young guys haven’t started to make a lot of money yet and Arrieta’s locked in and Lester’s pitching at the top of his game.

“One way to look at it is (this) might be the best opportunity to have the single most talented roster that you can. But things get a little more complicated as you move forward.”

The Cubs are worried about becoming a top-heavy team, with two 30-something pitchers making around $50 million combined and taking up too much payroll space.

So maybe signing John Lackey to a shorter-term deal makes sense, since he’s Lester’s buddy, a two-time World Series champion and just went 13-10 with a 2.77 ERA for the St. Louis Cardinals during his age-36 season.

“It’s a balancing act,” Epstein said. “You want to use the dollars that you have available to your advantage, especially when you’re in a position (where) every added win has great impact.

“And then you want to try to avoid a situation where you’re tied into too many big, long contracts that may lead to dead money on the books and inhibit your flexibility in the future.

“We’re out there trying to put the best team we can on the field, given the resources that we have.”

[MORE CUBS: Dave Martinez gets chance to make pitch for Dodgers job]

The Cubs also can’t count on being so lucky or healthy next year after winning 34 one-run games and having four pitchers make 30-plus starts. Realistically, the minor-league pipeline is years away from producing impact pitchers. 

The Cubs don’t sound willing and able to go to the top of the market to sign submarine reliever Darren O’Day, but they kept rebuilding their bullpen on the way to the National League Championship Series.

So the Cubs will hope to strike gold again in the Rule 5 draft – the way they did with Hector Rondon – and find the next Trevor Cahill or Clayton Richard on a minor-league deal (while maintaining interest in re-signing Cahill and bringing back Richard).

There’s also mutual interest between the Cubs and Ben Zobrist, but at this point it’s more about monitoring the situation. The Cubs would probably need to trade one of their young hitters for Joe Maddon’s super-utility guy to become an ideal fit again. And Zobrist’s versatility appeals to teams across the board.

But building a team that’s nimble, deep and multidimensional makes sense, given the financial parameters and a division where the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates won 198 games combined this year (and the Cincinnati Reds and Milwaukee Brewers are clearly rebuilding and playing for the future).

“We’re right at that point in the win curve where every win that we can tack onto this roster on paper is potentially really, really meaningful,” Epstein said. “I don’t take that for granted at all.

“Those wins could be really important. They can be the difference between getting in, not getting in. They can be the difference between winning the division or winning the wild card. If things go really wrong, it could be keeping you in contention so you can reshuffle the deck midseason and still make a run at it.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

Whether or not that involves signing Price, Greinke or Jordan Zimmermann, the Cubs will still be trying to build a perennial contender, especially when everyone knows winning the offseason can mean losing when it actually matters.   

“You can’t count on building a super-team and that will translate to winning the World Series,” Epstein said. “The best way to do it is have really good teams year after year, get in year after year. And eventually you’ll win it.” 

Podcast: Albert Almora Jr. dishes on his role and the Cubs’ unsung hero that keeps things loose behind the scenes

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USA TODAY

Podcast: Albert Almora Jr. dishes on his role and the Cubs’ unsung hero that keeps things loose behind the scenes

Albert Almora Jr. joins Kelly Crull on the Cubs Talk Podcast to weigh in on a variety of topics, including his budding bromance with rumored Cubs target Manny Machado, his expanded role and how he spends his time off away from the ballpark.

Plus, Almora has a surprise pick for the organization’s unsung hero, stating the Cubs would’ve never won the World Series without this guy.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here:

How Ian Happ got his groove back at the plate

How Ian Happ got his groove back at the plate

There's a legit case to be made that Ian Happ has been the Cubs' second-best hitter in 2018.

Yes, really.

Happ ranks second on the Cubs in OPS (.895), behind only Kris Bryant (.995) among regulars, though a recent hot streak has buoyed that overall bottom line for Happ.

Still, it's been a pretty incredible hot streak and it's propelled Happ back to where he began the season — at the top of the Cubs order. 

Happ has walked 10 times in the last 6 games and hammered out 3 homers in that span, including one on top of the Schwarboard in right field as a pinch-hitter Tuesday night.

Even more jaw-dropping: He's only struck out 5 times in the last 9 games after a dreadful start to the season in that regard.

"It was just a matter of time until things clicked a little bit," Happ said. "That's why we play 162 games and it's a game of adjustments. At the end of the day, it all evens out.

"Look at the back of Tony [Rizzo's] baseball card — it's the same thing every single year. That's how this thing goes. You're gonna have your ups and your downs and I'm just trying to be as consistent as I can. If I can level it out a little bit and be more consistent over a period of time, that'll be better for our team."

So yes, Happ is on the upswing right now and he'll inevitably have more slumps where he strikes out too much and looks lost at the plate.

Such is life for a 23-year-old who is still a week away from his 162nd career MLB game.

The league had adjusted to Happ and he had to adjust back, which he'd been working hard doing behind the scenes.

"I just try to get him to primarily slow things down," Joe Maddon said. "Try to get him back into left-center. And I did not want to heap a whole lot of at-bats on him. When you're not going good, if you heap too many at-bats on somebody, all of a sudden, that's really hard to dig out of that hole.

"So a lot of conversations — a lot of conversations — but nothing complicated. I like to go the simple side of things. I wanted him to try not to lift the ball intentionally, really organize his strike zone."

Maddon believes Happ had lost sight of his strike zone organization, chasing too many pitches out of the zone — particularly the high fastball.

Now, the Cubs manager sees Happ using his hands more and less of his arms in his swing, working a more precise, compact path to the ball.

The Happ experiment at leadoff was a disaster to begin the year — .186 AVG, .573 OPS and 22 strikeouts in 10 starts there — but all the same tools and rationale exist for why Maddon likes the switch-hitting utiliy player in that spot.

And that's why Happ was leading off Wednesday with both Ben Zobrist and Albert Almora Jr. getting the night off.

"We're gonna find out [if he can stick at leadoff]," Maddon said. "I just thought he's looked better. He's coming off a nice streak on the road trip. [Tuesday night], pinch-hitting. I know the home run's great and of course that's nice.

"But how he got to the pitch that he hit out, to me, was the important thing. Got the two strikes, took the two borderline pitches and then all of a sudden, [the pitcher] came in with a little bit more and he didn't miss it.

"That's the big thing about hitting well, too — when you see your pitch, you don't either take it or foul it off. You don't miss it. He didn't miss it."