Win later: Theo looking to pass on big free agents


Win later: Theo looking to pass on big free agents

During a quiet moment with his son, Theo Epstein walked around Wrigley Field on Sunday and noticed how the ivy had turned into a collage of red, yellow and orange.

One year after the Cubs hired Epstein away from what was once his dream job, it all came into focus.

I just kind of flashed to how great it would be playing baseball this time of year at Wrigley, Epstein said Tuesday. Thats the goal to get there but to get there in a way that allows us to do it year in and year out. You cant help but look at what the Cardinals are doing and the Giants now and teams that are able to be factors in October, year in and year out.

Thats our goal to grow this so that we get there and stay there. Thats the way to win a World Series. (So), yeah, there is urgency, but that urgency will (be) paid back through hard work to get us there and get us there to stay. It wont necessarily translate into panic to get us there, or taking a shot at getting us there quicker, if it means a less healthy organization.

Its hard to imagine too many other executives being able to say that with such conviction or even a straight face after losing 101 games. But thats the kind of juice Epstein brought to the North Side after winning two World Series titles with the Red Sox. And the mandate from ownership remains the same methodically build the team through scouting and player development.

So while there are clear needs when the Cubs go shopping this winter, dont expect them to splurge. (Forget megadeals for Josh Hamilton and Zack Greinke too much baggage and too many question marks.)

Ideally, Epstein is looking to add at least two starting pitchers, the kind who wont be fighting for a job in spring training and can be plugged into the Opening Day rotation.

With Brett Jackson ticketed for Triple-A Iowa, the Cubs figure to be in the market for an outfielder David DeJesus is versatile enough to go back to center or a corner spot.

If Ian Stewart is non-tendered and wont accept a pay cut as he recovers from wrist surgery Epstein wouldnt commit either way and said the Cubs are continuing to gather information theyll also need a third baseman.

When Epstein took over last October, the Cubs possessed only one core player in his mind All-Star shortstop Starlin Castro, who at the age of 22 was ultimately rewarded with a seven-year, 60 million extension.

Twelve months later, Epstein can point to Jeff Samardzija, a self-described big Jim Hendry guy who has emerged as a legitimate starting pitcher. The Cubs went out and acquired Anthony Rizzo, who has followed this front office from Boston to San Diego.

Darwin Barney could be on the verge of winning a Gold Glove at second base, while Epstein sees Welington Castillo at the doorstep of being a legitimate everyday catcher. Javier Baez (2011 first-round pick) made a huge leap during his first full season of professional baseball, while the organization added Albert Almora and Jorge Soler with the expectation that they will one day be part of the nucleus.

Epstein said that you dont just go into free agency looking for stopgaps or placeholders. So he was asked what a potential core player might look like, and if it would be realistic to sign one. His answer revealed a pessimistic view of the market, particularly in the age of big television deals and revenue sharing.

Every teams looking for the same thing, Epstein said. Youre looking for a player whos entering his prime, so those younger free agents are always more attractive. The guys who hit free agency at 28 or 27 like a best-case scenario 26 are always the real targets.

Because if youre going to pay top-of-the-market dollars, you ideally want someone whos continuing to improve or will at least maintain his level of performance for a number of years or throughout the majority of the contract.

Youre looking for somebody who checks all your boxes. So from a position-player standpoint, youd love someone who is very solid defensively, ideally a middle-of-the-field-type player because they can always move to the corners as they age. Someone who controls the strike zone, gets on base, because thats something that we dont have enough of (here). Somebody with power to be a threat, drive the ball through the gaps and out of the ballpark.

Somebody who runs the bases and has good leadership qualities. I think your highest-paid players should be your leaders. Someone who sets a good example, represents the organization well. Someone who has a nice health history, projected to stay on the field.

I just described somebody whos probably a 150 million player. There will probably be a day when were staring at that player and we wont hesitate, regardless of the price. But because of the nature of free agency and the nature of the baseball economic landscape these days, players dont tend to reach free agency.

The Cubs actually have only one major-league free agent on their roster Shawn Camp, a veteran reliever they have an interest in re-signing. Though theyve talked internally about giving James Russell a shot at starting, its likely the left-hander will be back in the bullpen.

The Cubs will build their 2013 rotation without Arodys Vizcaino, the prospect acquired from the Braves in the Paul Maholm deal near the trade deadline. Vizcaino will be on an innings limit and eased back after Tommy John surgery, though he could still make an impact at the big-league level next season.

Alberto Cabrera has shown enough that he may be stretched out as a starter in Iowa. Epstein put Chris Volstad a non-tender candidate, even with a huge need for pitching depth in the well see category.

By October, there was already a strong sense in the clubhouse that the Cubs absolutely have to get off to a fast start next season and generate a sense of momentum. A good April could keep the front office at bay, maybe even convince them to add a few pieces. A couple bad weeks and theyd be looking to sell off parts and bracing for the possibility of another 100-loss season.

By this time next year, Epstein hopes to be in the playoff conversation, and expects to have added around six more future core pieces to the organization. Its no secret which one will be his No. 1 priority.

I have a burning desire to satisfy the publics need to win, Epstein said. Thats something that I feel every day, my own need to win, our collective need to win, the Ricketts need to win. That urgency is part of what we feel every day. But I also feel like the real way to satisfy that is to put us in a position to win every year and to be playing October baseball every year.

7 Cubs takeaways from the MLB Winter Meetings

7 Cubs takeaways from the MLB Winter Meetings

The Cubs didn't leave Las Vegas with a new superstar to add to their lineup or even a new arm for Joe Maddon's bullpen.

In fact, the Cubs are actually heading back to Chicago with one fewer person in the organization than they began the week, as bench coach Brandon Hyde is expected to be officially announced as the Baltimore Orioles' new manager soon. 

However, the Cubs front office insist they had a productive week even if they don't have any moves to point to.

Part of that production, apparently, is the organization's desire to improve communication with all their millennial players. So much so that Maddon is actually reading a book called "Managing Millennials for Dummies" and that's not a joke. 

But it's not just that. Theo Epstein's front office is trying to find ways to help all their young players develop and improve and digest the insane amount of information baseball teams have at their disposal nowadays. 

Here are 7 other takeaways from the 2018 Winter Meetings:

1. Yawwwnnnn

The 2018 Winter Meetings had the potential to be the most exciting December event yet with Bryce Harper — maybe the biggest free agent ever — possibly announcing what team he was going to spend the next decade of his life with while in his hometown of Las Vegas.

Instead, the Meetings wound up becoming the baseball version of the sloth from "Zootopia."

Case in point:

Take away waiver moves and that's only 6 free agent signings, 3 trades and the release of Troy Tulowitzki. Over what has historically been a week filled with a mind-bending flurry of deals.


Now, there were more moves on Thursday (including the Brewers' trade for a reliever) and there are still deals that have yet to be made official (including Hyde becoming the new Orioles manager), but this is as slow as it gets.

Even Cubs GM Jed Hoyer acknowledged the snail's pace of the market:

"The dialogue has been good for the whole industry, I just think it's been slow," Hoyer said Wednesday evening. "I think sometimes, it probably takes a couple deals to break the ice and it hasn't happened yet."

2. Maybe that means it's time for a change in how we approach MLB's offseason.

Baseball is the only major American sport with an offseason market that truly lasts months. In the NFL and NBA, most deals are done in the first day or two once free agency is open while MLB teams can be talking and negotiating from the first week of November all the way until early March (as we saw last spring). Even trades take a long time to come together. 

Former MLB GM Jim Bowden threw out an idea on Twitter at the end of the meetings and honestly, it's an interesting thought:

The other American professional sports leagues don't have trade deadlines in their respective offseasons, but they don't have the same issue of slow-moving markets, either.

Maybe MLB should take one or two weeks in early January as the official "offseason" where that's the only time moves can be made. That would allow teams plenty of time to prepare for their offseason, give everybody the holidays off in both November and December and then also still leave plenty of time for players to get acquainted with their new teams.

The free agenty market crept along at a record-breaking slow pace last winter and the 2018-19 offseason somehow seems to be surpassing that.

MLB has a problem with a lack of action during games with fewer balls being put in play than ever before and now the league has a problem with a lack of action during the offseason, too.

3. The relief market could eventually start moving quickly, which is good for the Cubs.

While the market has been slow to date, we may soon see a flood of moves in one particular area — bullpen additions.

In the wee hours on the morning of the final day of the Winter Meetings, a few relievers finally started to come off the market with Joe Kelly going to the Dodgers and Jeurys Familia headed back to the Mets.

That's good news for the Cubs, who are absolutely looking for another reliever or two this winter. But Theo Epstein and Hoyer will not be shopping at the top of the bullpen market (more on that later), so they had to see how things played out before truly jumping into the pool.

As more of the top relievers come off the board, expect the Cubs to make a move or two to add more arms to compete for high-leverage spots in Joe Maddon's bullpen.

We could even see a move before the week is over, but maybe that's just wishful thinking...

4. Maybe the trade market could be a better avenue for the Cubs this winter.

We've already talked a lot about the slow-moving market, but it's also understandable. In the history of the sport, we've never seen anything like two of the best players in the sport available on the open market at the same time in the midst of their prime (age 26). 

So until Bryce Harper and Manny Machado sign, free agency is still going to be held hostage by those two guys given the amount of money they're about to command. 

That means we've actually seen quite a few trades this winter...thanks to Jerry Dipoto. The Mariners GM has been wheeling and dealing like a fantasy baseball owner this winter and even made a trade with the Indians and Rays Thursday from his hospital bed. (Which, ironically, was the first Winter Meetings move made from a hospital bed since Cubs GM Jim Hendry signed Ted Lilly in 2006.)

The Cubs haven't made any moves yet on either front, but with such an active trade market over the last few weeks, maybe that's the avenue Epstein and Co. utilize to add to the roster or free up some payroll. 

It certainly doesn't seem like the Cubs will be outbidding many teams on the free agent market...

5. Either the Cubs are serious about their budget constraints or they deserve Oscars.

The Epstein family already has an Academy Award (Theo's grandfather, Philip, wrote "Casablanca") and they should add another if the Cubs somehow shock the world and sign Harper this winter.

Over the last 6 weeks, Epstein and Hoyer have maintained a lack of payroll flexibility at every turn. If this is all a smokescreen or an act to throw competitors and agents off, then they seriously deserve an Oscar. 

Don't put all the blame on Jason Heyward and his $184 million contract for that, either. Sure, all the money he's owed over the next 5 years is a huge factor, but there are so many other reasons, too. 

Chief among them is the failures of last offseason, as Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood and Brandon Morrow are combining to eat up a huge chunk of payroll while entering 2019 as major question marks and forcing Epstein's front office to pick up the $20 million option on Cole Hamels to boost the rotation.

The money issues continue to make it seem as if the Cubs will have a quiet offseason and will spend most of their time trying to improve from within.

6. The NL Central is going to be the best division in baseball in 2019.

The Reds were one of the most active teams in the rumor front this week, even if the only major move they pulled off was trading for pitcher Tanner Roark. 

Cincinnati has been competing for the worst record in the division the last few years, but they sure seem like they want to form a new narrative and are exhausting every avenue to try to improve a pitching staff that has ranked among the league's worst recently.

That means there are currently zero teams rebuilding or "retooling" or tanking in the NL Central which is the only division in baseball that can make that claim.

7. Chicago baseball could be very fun in 2019 and beyond.

People seem to forget the 2005 World Series championship a surprising amount, but make no mistake — the White Sox are not under the radar any longer.

The South Siders have been listed as the "frontrunner" for the services of Harper this winter and they were linked to just about every available player this week at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino. 

The White Sox have money, young talent, one of the best farm systems in the game and clearly seem motivated to join the ranks of baseball's contenders sooner rather than later.

All told — this could shape up to be a fun next few years in Chicago baseball...especially if the Sox can somehow land Harper or Machado.

Cubs stat mailbag: The best pinch-hitting seasons in team history


Cubs stat mailbag: The best pinch-hitting seasons in team history

Welcome to the first installment of my Cubs stat mailbag. My mailbag will tackle stat, trivia and history-based questions. I figured I’d try something different. Who knows, maybe I’ll do one of these each month. Thanks to everyone who reached out to ask questions. Let’s get started.

@DrCubColclasure asks:

Which Cubs Pitcher of All-Time is the Oldest to Record a Strikeout in a Cubs Uniform?

Hall of Fame knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm. At age 48 years, 61 days on Sept. 25, 1970, Wilhelm struck out the Phillies’ Don Money to end the seventh inning. Wilhelm appeared in only three games for the Cubs and that was his only strikeout.

@PassonJim asks:

After Miñoso gets in the Hall of Fame, will Stan Hack be next on your list of players to support for Cooperstown? #AskKamka

No. Dick Allen is next, so let me address who the next former Cub could be. One could argue for Sammy Sosa, but I feel no matter how good a case I might present, it all hinges on a voter’s stance on the PED question, so I’ll pass. I think constructing a case for Rick Reuschel might be fun… but I think if I were to choose a former Cub to campaign for, it might be the Crime Dog, Fred McGriff. One of the National League’s finest first basemen for a long time.

@bleedcubbieblue asks:

Tommy La Stella set the #Cubs record for pinch hits in a season in 2018. He broke a record shared by Thad Bosley & Dave Clark. Who are the next 10 (or so) players on the #Cubs single season PH list? #AskKamka

I used the play index for recent seasons, and for the older seasons I relied on a great SABR article on pinch hitters. With everything I had to work with, here’s the list to the best of my ability.

Most Pinch Hits in a season, Cubs history

24 Tommy La Stella. 2018

20 Dave Clark, 1997

20 Thad Bosley, 1985

17 Jim Bolger, 1957

17 Merritt Ranew, 1963

17 Bob Will, 1962

16 Thad Bosley, 1986

16 Jesus Figueroa, 1980

16 Babe Twombly, 1921 (the SABR article says 15, but his gamelog says 16)

15 Champ Summers, 1975

15 Frank Baumholtz, 1955

14 Albert Almora Jr., 2017

14 Blake DeWitt, 2011

14 Dwight Smith, 1992

14 Chick Tolson, 1926

@Vndr3w_ asks:

Didn’t Derrek Lee set the record for most home runs with the fewest RBIs in a season? I swear i heard that somewhere.

No. Lee had 107 RBIs with 46 home runs in his fabulous 2005 season, which is 2.326 RBI for each home run (107 divided by 46). Only once has a Cub ever had at least 10 home runs in a season with fewer than twice as many RBI as home runs. That’s Kyle Schwarber with 30 HR, 59 RBI (1.967 RBI/HR) in 2017. And even that’s not a record. Here’s a chart with the fewest RBI per home run in a season, for minimum 10, 20 and 30 home runs:

Lowest season ratios of RBI to HR, MLB history

Players with at least 10 HR in a season: Wayne Gross (1985) 11 HR, 18 RBI, 1.636 RBI/HR ratio

Players with at least 20 HR in a season: Matt Olson (2017) 24 HR, 45 RBI, 1.875 RBI/HR ratio

Players with at least 30 HR in a season: Barry Bonds (2001) 73 HR, 137 RBI, 1.877 RBI/HR ratio

@PrazMaster asks:

At 2-0 all-time in the month of November, are the Cubs the only team in the 4 major sports leagues that is undefeated in a singular month over the course of an entire franchise history? #AskKamka

They are not. In baseball alone, the Cubs (2-0) are joined by the Astros (1-0), Royals (1-0) and Giants (1-0) in the “undefeated in November” club. The Cubs are the only one in this group with multiple wins though.

@maddon4prez asks:

Late last year, the #Cubs had 4 LHP in their starting rotation (Lester, Q, Monty & Hamels). I don’t recall that ever happening before on the north side. Was it the first time? #AskKamka

There had been a few times throughout history where the Cubs had four consecutive starts by lefties, but there were always spot starters mixed in. Once Cole Hamels joined the mix in August, it was the first time the Cubs ever had four lefties in a regular rotation.

@mikewiz1 asks:

#askkamka What was the Cubs record (and runs per game) last year with pitcher batting 8th vs 9th?

The 2018 Cubs had 153 games in which the starting pitcher batted. While they had a better record when the pitcher hit eighth, they scored over a run more per game when the pitcher hit ninth. In my opinion, I think it’s a coincidence; I don’t think the spot in the batting order could possibly account for anywhere near a run scored per game. Either way, here are the numbers:

Pitcher batting 8th: 32-22 (.593), 3.96 runs/game

Pitcher batting 9th: 57-42 (.576), 5.06 runs/game


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