Cubs

Baseball’s new normal: How an unpredictable offseason has changed the game for the Cubs

Baseball’s new normal: How an unpredictable offseason has changed the game for the Cubs

In a normal baseball offseason, most of the marquee free agents have found new homes and most of the major trades that occur each winter have already been finalized. However, this winter in baseball is unlike any that we have seen before.

“For the first time I can recall, every team is being exceptionally prudent in the contract offers that they are making to free agents,” a well-known player agent who has a handful of available free agents told me. “Usually, teams panic if they haven’t landed a player that they want by Christmas, but this time we are actually seeing teams let the market settle.”

In speaking with multiple MLB front-office executives, player agents and players themselves, they all talked about a common theme never before seen in baseball history: Teams are actually showing restraint instead of handing out long-term, huge-money contracts to players that aren’t worthy of such massive commitments.

“Our industry is now run by young, analytical executives instead of the crusty old baseball man, and with that change in almost every front office, we are seeing a renewed emphasis on keeping prospects, not signing average players to lengthy, obscene deals and most importantly we are seeing teams not get bullied by agents,” a former general manager said.

Another observation that many who work in the game are making is the coverage of the offseason and the nonstop stream of rumors that fill social media on minute-by-minute basis.

“I can’t believe some of the stuff I read out there,” one executive told me. “The contract offers, trade proposals and stories are — in most cases — so far from the truth, they are laughable.”

Another executive was more direct in his criticism of the media that covers the baseball offseason with a fury.

“Who holds you guys accountable? I’m serious. Some of the stuff I read about rumored trades and contract offers is so absurd and people take every tweet, post and story like it’s gospel. It really is a joke.”

From a Cubs perspective, things have been quiet on the surface but behind the scenes, multiple sources told me that Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have been exploring dozens of scenarios to improve their club while their window to win another World Series remains wide open.

“Theo and Jed have kicked the tires on every available guy and on guys who they have almost no chance of acquiring,” a rival executive told me. “But, I know what the price is to trade for Christian Yelich, Chris Archer, Manny Machado and others. The Marlins are asking for a ton, as they should.”

What would it take to land Yelich, who would fit perfectly into the Cubs lineup? Well, he is under contract for five more years at a total commitment of just over $58 million. For a player of his caliber who just turned 26 in December, the acquisition cost would be staggering.

“Fans think they can trade a bunch of OK players and get back a star who is under contract for several years and it just doesn’t work that way unless the player has a contract that a team has to move,” a general manager told me. “In the case of Yelich, he makes reasonable money, he’s a great teammate and he is getting better each year. Think about the best young players on the Cubs' roster and two or more of those guys would be the cost along with a top prospect or two.”

In the case of Jake Arrieta, several reports last week indicated that the Cubs had offered the star right-hander a four-year deal for $110 million, but a well-known agent told me that he did not believe that to be accurate.

“Would the Cubs do that deal? They probably would, but Scott (Boras, Arrieta's agent) is thinking about a much bigger deal at this point,” the agent said. “I don’t believe the Cubs made that offer at this point.”

In this new world around baseball, players have some big decisions to make.

“Players and their agents have long believed that if they wait out teams, the clubs will panic or the owners will overrule their front offices and the money spigot will start flowing as it always has,” another executive said. “Does a player take maybe 10 or 15 percent more to play somewhere that he has no chance to win? Is the money that important when you have made serious money already in your career?

“I get it if a guy has never made any money but the top guys — if they are really competitors — want to win. It’s not like they are being asked to play for the league minimum. This is, I believe, the new reality in baseball. Guys will make great money but teams will also show restraint when it is warranted.”

Early in the offseason, the Cubs tried to sign Tampa Bay Rays right-handed pitcher Alex Cobb, but he rejected the club’s offer of a three-year deal at approximately $42 million. Reports have pegged Cobb’s asking price at $80 million for four years, but those close to Cobb dispute that vehemently.

Will he do better than the Cubs’ original offer? Only time will tell, but one thing is certain: Most of the unsigned players that currently don’t have homes will find employment soon.

With spring training just over a month away, these guys aren’t going to stay home. They will accept their millions and play baseball. After all, that’s what they do. They’re baseball players.

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

1020_albert_almora.jpg
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."