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'Zero fear:' Cubs will stick to Theos plan

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'Zero fear:' Cubs will stick to Theos plan

NASHVILLE, Tenn. Ten years ago, Theo Epstein showed up here for his first winter meetings as a general manager, the wonder boy who grew up near Fenway Park now running the Boston Red Sox.

Five years ago, Epstein returned here in the afterglow of his second World Series title, a curse-busting legacy that appeared to make him a legend throughout New England forever.

On Sunday night, Epstein landed in Nashville, Tenn., and headed toward the Gaylord Opryland, knowing that he probably wont leave the hotel or feel any sunlight again until Thursday. The Cubs president of baseball operations makes ballplayer money now and hangs out with Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder, but he wont be the star of these winter meetings.

Before the lobby even started buzzing, the Cubs had already reached an agreement with Kyuji Fujikawa. An industry source confirmed that a deal was made late Saturday night all thats left is the Japanese closer taking a physical. The reported terms two years at 9.5 million, plus an option show the type of commitments the front office is willing to make this offseason.

Insiders were left shaking their heads at the idea the Cubs are going after Michael Bourn. Yes, theres a need for an outfielder, but there arent any megadeals in the works. Epstein isnt going to waver from his plan just because the Cubs lost 101 games.

Hes got conviction, Arizona Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers said. Hes got zero fear. Hes a great friend, but he would step on my neck, slice my throat to win. Thats just who he is.

Towers warned his friend Brian Cashman, the New York Yankees general manager, when Epstein went to Boston: Look out, this kids good.

Epstein had just graduated from Yale University in 1995 when he went to work for the San Diego Padres, first in the communications department and then baseball operations. Towers was the general manager there when he had Epstein handling the radar guns and learning how to evaluate players up close. Epstein also graduated from University of San Diegos law school during that time, though he didnt spend much time in the actual classroom.

Id give Theo a project, it would take some interns two to three weeks, Towers said, snapping his fingers. It would be on my desk the next day.

Incredible listener, incredible recall. Hed listen to the veteran scouts and show respect. He wouldnt talk out of turn. He would listen and take things in and really learned that side of the game.

Towers is convinced that Epstein has broken down all the teams in the National League Central, analyzing their contract situations and windows for contention, preparing for his chance to attack. And then the Cubs will be in total go-for-it mode.

But in the meantime, the Cubs will be looking for value and making under-the-radar moves. Like when Epstein noticed the Red Sox put David Eckstein on waivers in 2000.

He came running in, saying we got to claim this guy, Towers recalled. I got the STATS Inc. book out at the timeI say: No way. He says: Im telling you, man, theres some indicators. This guys going to hit. Hes an on-base machine.

Could have just claimed him for 20 grand. Hes MVP of the World Series (a couple years later). I said: I may want to start listening to this guy. Hes got some pretty good ideas.

The Cubs have already added two starters to their rotation on one-year deals. It only took a few minutes before Scott Baker and Scott Feldman were asked about the possibility of being flipped at the trade deadline. The clubhouse knows they need a strong start next April and May, or else risk Epstein pulling the plug on next season.

As soon as you get to spring training and Opening Day starts, youre in it to win it, until youre not, Epstein said. Nothing would make me happier than being solidly in contention in June and July and adding pieces for next year. Well build the team and leave a little bit of a cushion, so that if things break our way and we get off to a good start, we can add pieces. With the second wild card, thats never total fantasy.

If we find ourselves in that position, well be thrilled and well go for it. If were not in that position, well make the hard call that we made this year and do it in the best interests of the Cubs and look to move shorter-term assets for longer-term assets.

Well look to move veteran players for younger players and use that as a way to improve our long-term prospects and build our foundation. But its not like we build the team hoping we go down that path. I hope were in a position to add, but well be prepared for either scenario.

Of course the Cubs are going to look at trade possibilities for Alfonso Soriano. And Fujikawa could make Carlos Marmol a trade chip again. But theres probably not enough inventory to pull off a blockbuster deal.

Profiles of Towers have mentioned how the general manager used gunslinger as part of his personal e-mail address.

So Towers admired how Epstein pulled the trigger on a four-team trade on July 31, 2004, sending franchise icon Nomar Garciaparra to the Cubs and getting key pieces in return that helped the Red Sox win their first World Series title in 86 years.

In Epsteins world, no one is untouchable. Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo and Jeff Samardzija will be core players until theyre not anymore. Theyre all assets in the rebuilding project on the North Side.

Moving Garciaparra couldnt have been easy, Towers said. He dont care. He doesnt fall in love with people. Hell slice your throat and step on you.

Cole Hamels is out to prove the naysayers wrong, whether that's with the Cubs or elsewhere

Cole Hamels is out to prove the naysayers wrong, whether that's with the Cubs or elsewhere

How you evaluate Cole Hamels’ 2019 performance depends on which half of the season you look at.

Hamels was the Cubs’ most reliable starting pitcher through June, putting his name firmly in the conversation to make the All-Star Game. Through his first 17 starts, he held a 2.98 ERA, with 97 strikeouts and 35 walks in 99 2/3 innings.

That 17th start – June 28 against the Reds – represented a turning point for the left-hander, however. After throwing one warmup pitch ahead of the second inning, Hamels took a beeline for the Cubs’ dugout, exiting the game with a left oblique strain.

Hamels quickly detecting the strain was key, as he avoided a more significant injury and only missed one month as a result. However, he never got back to his pre-injury level after returning. In 10 starts, he posted a 5.79 ERA, walking 21 batters in 42 innings as opponents slashed .315/.397/.506 against him.

Which of the two pitchers does Hamels more closely resemble at this point? That’s what teams will have to evaluate this offseason, when the soon-to-be 36-year-old lefty hits free agency for the first time in his career.

On top of his oblique strain, Hamels also missed a start in September with left shoulder fatigue. By the time he returned, the Cubs were eliminated from postseason contention, but he wanted one last chance to show what he’s capable of before free agency.

“I don’t want to put that in the back of teams’ heads of how I finished,” Hamels said the day before his final start of the season. “I think I’m capable of what I was able to do in the first half - that’s who I am - and I can still get those good results for hopefully [the Cubs], if they consider that.

“But also, for other teams to know that I’m not the type of player that’s on the regression. This is what we’re gonna expect. It’s more so what I was able to do in the first half - the type of player that I am and the results that I can get out on the field.”

He certainly backed those words up, shutting down the Cardinals – who hadn’t clinched the NL Central yet – in the second-to-last game of the regular season. Hamels pitched four innings, allowing no runs on just two hits.

Hamels looked stellar in that game, but it doesn’t change the fact that returning from an extended injury absence isn’t easy on pitchers. They need time to regain command of their pitches, plus any amount of arm strength lost during their time on the shelf.

Hamels made two rehab starts at Triple-A before rejoining the Cubs on Aug. 3. He was determined not to return too quickly, as he did so with the Rangers in 2017 after straining his right oblique. That wound up negatively affecting him the rest of the season.

Still, maybe one or two more starts this time around would’ve served him well, though he felt that he could compete at the majors without his best stuff. Plus, it’s not like he was guaranteed to find his groove again by pitching in more minor league games.

Results are all that matter in the big leagues, however, and they show that while the Cubs starting rotation was okay, it wasn’t the difference maker capable of leading the team to October, as anticipated. Cubs starters finished the season with a 4.18 ERA, 10th in MLB and sixth in the National League.

Hamels’ post-injury woes played into those numbers, and he’s determined to bounce back in 2020 to prove his second half performance was a fluke. His first half show that he still can pitch at a high-level, but he may not be in the Cubs’ plans for next season, regardless.

"There was some injury and regression (especially after injury) that led us to be closer to the pack certainly than we had envisioned,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said of the team’s rotation at his end-of-season press conference. “It’s an accomplished and experienced group, but with experience means that we could stand to add some younger talent, refresh the group as well.

“We certainly need to add depth and we need to add some youth and a little bit of a different look to the staff, as well, going forward.”

Those comments seem to indicate that Hamels won’t be back next season. The Cubs have Adbert Alzolay, Tyler Chatwood and Alec Mills as internal rotation options for 2020 and could look outside the organization for more. Hamels also made $20 million in 2019, so freeing up his salary would help the Cubs address other roster needs.

The Cubs could do a lot worse than having a healthy Cole Hamels in their rotation, though. He’s enjoyed a resurgence since the Cubs acquired him and has had plenty of success against the NL Central and at Wrigley Field overall during his career:

vs. Brewers: 20 starts, 8-5, 3.53 ERA
vs. Cardinals: 17 starts, 5-6, 2.21 ERA
vs. Pirates: 13 starts, 5-4 record, 2.52 ERA
vs. Reds: 20 starts, 11-2 record. 2.30 ERA
at Wrigley Field: 25 starts, 7-4 record, 2.20 ERA

Granted, a large portion of those starts came earlier in his career. But with how competitive the NL Central was in 2019 and will be in 2020, the results can’t be ignored.

“Obviously I do very well at Wrigley, so I hope that’s a consideration - I love to be able to pitch there,” Hamels said about the Cubs possibly re-signing him. “For some reason, it’s just the energy and I’ve mentioned it before, it’s baseball to me. And that’s what I really feed off of and that’s hopefully what they think about.”

But if the Cubs decide to part ways with Hamels, he’ll have his fair share of suitors. The Brewers and Reds each could benefit from adding starting pitching this offseason, and Hamels would bring a ton of experience to two squads that will be competing for postseason spots in 2020.

“Otherwise, I know the other teams in the division are gonna think about it,” Hamels said with a laugh. “If you have to come to Wrigley three different times [as an opponent], I don’t pitch bad there.

“I just want to win. I think that’s it. When you get the taste of it early and then you don’t have it for a while, that’s what you’re striving for. To play this game and in front of sellouts and the energy and the expectation of winning, it’s why I enjoy the game.

“That’s what I want to be able to continue to do for the few years I have left.”

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Javy Baez is now the face of baseball

Javy Baez is now the face of baseball

Javy Baez is one step closer to becoming the unquestioned face of Major League Baseball.

For the next year, El Mago will be the cover boy for video-game-playing baseball fans, as Baez announced on his Twitter Monday morning he is gracing the cover of MLB The Show 2020:

On the even of Game 1 of the World Series, Playstation released a video depicting why they chose Baez as the new face of the game:

Last year's cover featured Bryce Harper, announced before he even signed with the Phillies. 

Baez also joins the likes of Aaron Judge, Ken Griffey Jr., Chipper Jones, Barry Bonds and David Ortiz as cover athletes for the PS4 game.

The 26-year-old Baez has become one of the most recognizable figures in the game, playing with a flair and swag that includes mind-bending baserunning maneuvers and impossible defensive plays. 

Case in point:

Baez missed the final month of the 2019 season with a fractured thumb, but still put up 29 homers and 85 RBI while ranking second on the team in WAR. In 2018, he finished second in NL MVP voting while leading the league in RBI (111) and topping the Cubs in most offensive categories. 

Theo Epstein said he never deems any player as "untouchable," but Baez is about as close as it gets for this Cubs team right now. He made the switch to shortstop full time this year and wound up with elite defensive numbers to go along with his fearsome offense and an attitude and mindset the rest of the Cubs hope to emulate.

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