Cubs

Be ready for anything: Cubs open to all trade avenues this winter

Be ready for anything: Cubs open to all trade avenues this winter

While Cubs fans sit on the edge of their seats waiting to see if Theo Epstein's front office trades away a core player — and which guy that might be — the question has really become more of a when

Both because it seems likely Epstein shakes up this Cubs roster this winter and because there's natural curiosity about the timing of such a move. 

If the Cubs don't get the type of return they're seeking for players like Willson Contreras and Kris Bryant, they are not going to trade just for trade's sake. But it's clear the roster needs a change and the front office has also shifted a good amount of focus on the long-term future of the organization — beyond 2021, when most of the core players are set to hit free agency.

As for when a major trade may come down, there's really no indication on that front. The MLB Hot Stove season has taken longer and longer to get going in recent winters and that very much appears to be the case again this 2019-20 offseason as many teams — including the Cubs — have just recently finalized their coaching staff and key front office hires.

At the GM Meetings last week, the Cubs said they were in the early stages of any offseason moves and had just started to exchange names with other teams about who is and isn't available.

They're not pigeonholing themselves into any one avenue for how the winter will play out.

"Sometimes you get a feel for the marketplace or kernels of ideas and they end up coming true and you look back and you're like, 'ah, that feel we had really matched the whole tenor of the offseason with certain teams,'" Epstein said. "Other times, you can go through a whole Russian novel's worth of twists and turns in an offseason depending on one or two player moves or clubs changing course or being able to execute things or not execute things. 

"We'll see. I think the important thing is to keep a really open mind and be prepared for all different permutations of how things can work out."

As for what shape the trades may come in, be ready for anything. 

The Cubs have said they still have no issues trading within the division, so even in a year where they're planning on competing in the wide-open NL Central, they're more concerned with improving their organization in the long run than worrying about potentially making a rival better.

Epstein also said they're not afraid of acquiring a player with only one year of team control left, as long as it makes sense. But there's no reason right now for the Cubs to mortgage the future to go all-in on 2020.

"It just depends on the player and the fit and the acquisition cost, and everything else," Epstein said. "I think we're like every team — to one extent or another, we're trying to balance an immediate future vs. a longer-term future. We knew that as we got closer to the end of the period of club control with some of our best players, we had to be increasingly mindful of if you put the longer-term future rather than just the short-term. 

"It's a bit of a transition for us, but it doesn't mean you rule anything out, even if it's something short-term. But you try to strike that right balance."

The Cubs also insist they're not locked into adding any one specific position or type of player. For example, they're not only looking to trade for centerfielders or leadoff guys — even if both are clear areas of need in the short-term.

Anything is on the table, which makes sense considering trading a core guy would also open up a hole elsewhere on the roster. If Contreras is dealt, the Cubs could feel pretty confident about Victor Caratini sliding into a larger role, but they would obviously need more catching depth both in the short- and long-term.

"I still think we have a lot of pieces that can move around the board a bit," Jed Hoyer said. "As we think about what we're gonna do [and] have conversations the whole winter, there's a big picture element to it where I think we're not gonna be entirely married to this position or that position — making moves that make sense both long-term and short-term. 

"We do have pieces that you can move around that makes us able to do that. We don't have particular holes that we feel like we have to spend the whole winter trying to fill, but rather we can make some moves maybe a little bit more strategically."

So the Cubs are saying all the right things, but what does that mean? 

For starters, it doesn't appear any major move is approaching on the horizon and regardless of what the first trade or free agent signing is, it will be just one piece to a larger puzzle. This is shaping up to be a crucial offseason in every aspect of the organization, so the final judgement of the winter will be the most important one.

But as the Cubs try to put that puzzle together and make their big-picture plans a reality, they're not going to get sidetracked by the incessant rumors and aim to continue trying to shield their players from a similar fate.

"We can't chase down every rumor," Hoyer said. "People are gonna put stuff out there about our guys and there's definitely some clickbait opportunity about our guys. We have a lot of guys who have been All-Stars and you can put a story out pretty easily that gets clicks. 

"One of the things about our players in general is we're in a big market, they're used to having their name in trade rumors, they're used to having their names out there. I think they have a sense of what's real and what's not real. But we can't chase down every rumor. We can't deny every rumor because we know that's going to happen. We have to live with that. We're not gonna add fuel to that fire, that's for sure." 

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Jon Lester on Cubs-Cards series amid COVID-19 news: 'I don't see that happening'

Jon Lester on Cubs-Cards series amid COVID-19 news: 'I don't see that happening'

At least the Cubs got to try out that new extra-inning rule. They even got five innings of scoreless baseball from their much-maligned bullpen before the weekend was done.

But where does the hottest-starting team in the National League go next?

Nobody could be sure Sunday as worsening COVID-19 news swirled around the Cardinals during the Cubs’ extra-inning victory over the Pirates.

Various reports suggested as many as four more Cardinals players and staff tested positive for the coronavirus Saturday night, in addition to the four confirmed cases from earlier in the week. That led to another round of testing Sunday to confirm the results of the potentially positive cases — all playing out five days before the Cubs are scheduled to open a three-game series in St. Louis.

“I would imagine that we’re probably not playing those games this weekend. But I can’t fully speak to that,” veteran pitcher Jon Lester said.” That’s just my opinion. Maybe there’s a way where we flip the schedule around where we’re playing somebody else. I think guys right now just want to keep playing.

“It sucks that we’re dealing with this, but it’s the nature of the beast right now. The league I’m sure will alter the plans going forward. If we’re in St. Louis on Friday, we’re in St. Louis on Friday. We’ll figure it out, and we’ll try to beat the Cardinals and move on to the next day. But right now, as of today, I don’t see that happening.”

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The Cardinals already have had four days of games postponed — the second team to deal with an outbreak after the Marlins had 18 players test positive in the days following their opener in Philadelphia. The Marlins haven’t played in a week. Their outbreak prompted MLB to juggle the schedules of other teams impacted by the Marlins shutdown to allow them to keep playing during the week. 

If the Cardinals news doesn’t improve fast, it could mean a much tougher decision for commissioner Rob Manfred, who in recent days had pledged to persist with the season, even if it meant teams would finish with different numbers of games played.

Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said on Saturday his conversations with MLB and officials from other teams in recent days offered no sense of clarity on the viability of play during the first-week crisis — even as MLB mandated safety compliance officers for each team and stressed greater adherence to protocols.

“I don’t think there’s any consensus,” Hoyer said. “Our experience so far has been positive, and based on what I have viewed this is absolutely survivable. But our experience hasn’t been the rule.”

RELATED: Why no Cubs have expressed intent to opt out amid MLB COVID-19 outbreaks

The Cubs are the only team in the league that hasn’t had a player test positive since intake testing began more than a month ago — though star third baseman Kris Bryant has self-quarantined since reporting a stomachache to team officials Saturday. He has continued to test negative, was said to feel better Sunday, and might be cleared to play Monday or Tuesday depending on the results and timing of two more tests.

Whether the 7-2 Cubs and everyone else have a season to keep playing by the time he were to return — much less a Cubs-Cardinals series to play Friday — remains in flux.

Depending on how widespread the Cardinals’ outbreak becomes, the Cubs might already have faced a higher risk series in their sweep of the Pirates — who faced the Cardinals five days before taking the field at Wrigley.

“Those are the kinds of things you start thinking about during this,” Hoyer said. “You’d be crazy not to start thinking about the number of days and making sure that [the Cardinals’] outbreak is under control. I think you have a right to have those concerns and ask those questions.

“That’s probably the area that I’m focused on right now, is that as they test, the positives have to stop before we can really have a sense of what we’re dealing with.”

Until then, the team that has looked impressive against the Brewers, Reds and Pirates — and even better in containing the virus within its bubble — could be on the brink of having all its best laid plans and early performance wiped out by teams outside their bubble and factors beyond their control.

“You don’t want to see something go down just because of, I guess, a couple teams,” said Kyle Schwarber, who drove in his sixth run Sunday, threw out a runner at the plate in the 10th and has an .851 OPS so far. “Hopefully, this is something quick [with the Cards]. Hopefully, there’s able to be a fix and they’re able to keep the season going.

“It would be a disappointment just because you see the group in here, what we’ve been doing,” he added. “We’ve been responsible in everything that we’re trying to do because we know we’re part of something greater here.”

That’s about doing their part to make sure a two-month season and playoffs can be completed during a global pandemic as much as it is about doing what they can to still be one of the teams playing at that point.

The Cubs say all they can do now is show up Monday for their game against the Royals until or unless they hear otherwise.

“You can’t worry about Team ‘X’ testing positive three or four or 10, 11 times,” Lester said. “We have to worry about what’s in front of us.

“And if the commissioner comes and says we’re done, then we’re done. And if he says play on, then we play on.”

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How the Cubs bullpen became the surprise hero in series finale vs. Pirates

How the Cubs bullpen became the surprise hero in series finale vs. Pirates

Cubs reliver Jeremy Jeffress clapped in triumph. Shortstop Javier Baez had just fielded a sharp ground ball and thrown a dart to third baseman David Bote to tag out the lead runner.

The new extra innings rule had put Jeffress under pressure as soon as he stepped on the mound, but that out was like a relief valve.

“That’s exactly how you do it,” Bote said. “The pitchers made good pitches, kept them off balance.”

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In the Cubs’ 2-1 win over the Pirates on Sunday, the Chicago bullpen held Pittsburg scoreless through five innings, including two extras. This was the same bullpen that entered play Sunday with an MLB-worst 9.75 ERA. But in the series finale, Jeffress, Ryan Tepera and Dan Winkler all performed under pressure, buying the Cubs time until Baez’s walk-off single in the 11th inning.

With less than a week until the active roster is cut to 28 players, the Cubs bullpen is taking shape.

“That’s a lot of innings that we asked out of our bullpen tonight,” Cubs manager David Ross said, “and they did a really good job.”

The bullpen’s shutout began with Casey Sadler, who pitched 1 2/3 scoreless innings. But with two outs in the eighth inning, Sadler walked Jose Osuna, and runners stood on first and second with cleanup hitter Colin Moran up next.

Ross turned to Dan Winkler, who only lasted a third of an inning in his first appearance this season. A week ago, he walked two and gave up an RBI single in the Cubs’ narrow win at Cincinnati. He redeemed himself Sunday.

Winkler threw three cutters in a row to Moran, and he whiffed on all of them. Winkler came back out the next inning and preserved the 1-1 tie, setting the Cubs up for their first extra-inning game of the season.

“Real big outing tonight,” Ross said. “Thought he looked sharp. Some nice cutters in there deep. Pitching though some moments was poised. Things get a little bit tenser as the game moves on in a 1-1 game, first real clincher that I think I’ve had coming down the stretch. … When you’ve got somebody out there that you feel like’s in control of the ball game, it’s just a nice feeling as a manager.”

For this season, in an attempt to avoid 15-inning games in a jam-packed schedule, Major League Baseball has adopted the international tiebreaker rule.

The hitting team starts every half inning after the ninth (or the seventh during double headers) with a runner on second. For the Cubs, that meant a bullpen that has struggled in pressure situations this year had to start each extra inning under pressure.

“For guys to step up right there and make pitches, I can only imagine what that feels like,” said starting pitcher Jon Lester, who allowed just one run in six innings. “You haven’t even thrown a pitch yet and you’ve got a guy on second base.”

With the game on the line, Ross put the ball in Tepera and Jeffress’ hands.

Craig Kimbrel, who has traditionally been the Cubs’ closer, is working through mechanical issues. On Saturday, Ross declined to say whether Kimbrel would remain the Cubs closer after a pair of disappointing outings. Kimbrel was notably absent from late innings on Sunday.

Tepera and Jeffress delivered.

“A lot of people don’t know Tep got up (in the bullpen) multiple times today,” Ross said. “So, for him to come in and have that nice outing … our guys were definitely engaged, locked in.”

Josh Bell pinch hit to lead off the 10th inning and hit a hard ground ball off Tepera into left field. Pirates baserunner Jacob Stallings, who started the inning on second, rounded third base and sprinted home. But Schwarber’s throw beat him there. Cubs catcher Willson Contreras held onto the ball through the collision at the plate.

Extra-innings threat eliminated. Tepera retired the next two batters in order.

Then it was Jeffress’ turn. Three up, three down.

 

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