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It's time for Theo Epstein and the Cubs to be honest with themselves

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USA TODAY

It's time for Theo Epstein and the Cubs to be honest with themselves

Put yourself in Theo Epstein's position as the head of a multi-billion-dollar corporation knowing that every decision you make could have a franchise-altering outcome. Think that sounds overly dramatic? Well, it isn't. 

A quick recap of some of the best moves made by Epstein's administration since he arrived in Chicago from Boston in the fall of 2011 proves that sometimes some of the smaller moves you make on paper can turn out to have a major effect on your team. 

When the Cubs traded journeyman pitcher Andrew Cashner for minor league first baseman Anthony Rizzo before the 2012 season, no one could have predicted that Rizzo would go on to become the face of the team and one of the best players in Cubs history. 

Another example is the trade the Cubs made to send veteran pitcher Ryan Dempster to the Texas Rangers for two lower-level minor leaguers at the 2012 July MLB trade deadline. For two months of Dempster, the Rangers parted with a solid but unspectacular starting pitcher named Kyle Hendricks who would go on to start and win the 2016 pennant-clinching game over the Los Angeles Dodgers and start Game 7 of the 2016 World Series.

The Cubs best pitcher since Epstein arrived in town was Jake Arrieta who won the 2015 Cy Young Award after coming over alongside reliever Pedro Strop in a deal with the Baltimore Orioles. Arrieta was so underwhelming in Baltimore that he actually began his Cubs career with a stint in the minor leagues at Triple-A Iowa. Strop had an ERA north of 6.00 and was considered a throw-in in the deal. Both men were major factors in the Cubs 2016 World Series title.

So, as we enter the hot stove season in advance of 2020 baseball season the Cubs have to be very honest with themselves about where they are as a major league team and more importantly, where they are as an organization. 

Yes, they have some very talented players on their major league roster. However, they also have significant holes in their lineup that at this point keep them from being a serious World Series contender. 

They currently don't know who their starting second baseman is although they have high hopes for Nico Hoerner. They don't know who their starting center fielder is. They don't know who their leadoff hitter is and that is an area they have steadfastly refused to address since the Cubs allowed Dexter Fowler to leave via free agency after the 2016 season.

As far as their pitching staff goes, the Cubs have holes in their rotation with at least one definite opening and perhaps more if they choose to upgrade multiple spots. Add in a bullpen that struggled to pitch in high leverage situations in 2019 and you see all of the areas that must be addressed successfully before the Cubs can consider themselves championship contenders. 

That means that Epstein, GM Jed Hoyer, and their staff have to be willing to consider any and all opportunities that are presented to them no matter how hard it might be to trade some of the organization's most popular players. They must tune out all of the exterior noise from the Cubs' massive fan base, who as fans don't want to see their favorite players traded.

However, the fact of the matter is that Epstein and Hoyer have offered extensions to every key player on the roster over the past few seasons and only Kyle Hendricks was willing to commit long term to the organization.

If the Cubs choose to go down that road again with the best players on their roster and those players say no, then it is incumbent on the front office to explore trading anyone that does not want to make that same commitment and chooses to get to free agency.

With only two years of control left on Bryant, Rizzo, Baez and Schwarber and three on catcher Willson Contreras, the Cubs are at a crossroads for their future. 

If they decide to ride it out with their stars and hope to re-sign them when they reach free agency, then the Cubs run the risk of turning into the Detroit Tigers. They had a 2014 starting rotation of Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, David Price, Rick Porcello and Anibal Sanchez. All five men helped win a World Series ring, but all five men did it for a franchise other than the Tigers who got very little in return after losing those stars. 

Epstein has a responsibility to maximize his assets and to try to extend the Cubs window of contention as long as he can. The only way to do that is to either lock up his stars now or move them for as much as he can get to replenish the talent level in the organization. Despite many clamoring for the Cubs to throw more money at their holes and trying to sign the best players on the free-agent market, I fully expect Epstein to pull back from that path which is often fraught with peril.

Take your heart out of the equation and ask yourself what you would do if you were in Theo Epstein's shoes. The answer is clear and obvious. Maximize your assets. It may hurt to see a big name in another uniform, but it is the only way to keep the Cubs a contender for years to come.

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Why Cubs-Cards COVID-19 postponement raises heat on MLB, ethics questions

Why Cubs-Cards COVID-19 postponement raises heat on MLB, ethics questions

Millions of Americans have lost jobs or taken pay cuts because of the economic impact of a coronavirus pandemic that in this country shows no signs of going away anytime soon, including countless members of the sports media.

So despite some of the more laughably ignorant opinions from the dimmer corners of social media, exactly nobody in the media wants any sport to shut down again.

That said, what the hell are we doing playing games outside of a bubble during the deadliest pandemic in this country in more than 100 years?

With Friday's news that another Cardinals staff member and two more players tested positive in the past two days for COVID-19, the Cubs-Cards weekend series was postponed as officials scrambled to test and retest Cardinals personnel and try to get their season restarted.

The Cubs, who have not had a player test positive since the intake process began in June, have done everything right, from management to the last player on the roster, to keep their team healthy and playing.

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But the operative, most overlooked, word in all of this has always been “playing.”

And the longer MLB pushes through outbreaks, and measures the season’s viability in counting cases instead of the risk of a catastrophic outcome for even one player, the deeper its ethical dilemma in this viral cesspool.

“Ethically, I have no problem saying we’re going to keep doing this,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said over the weekend about asking players to continue working as the league experienced outbreaks involving the Marlins and Cardinals.

“That said, we have to do it the right way,” Hoyer said, citing the extra lengths the Cubs have taken to keep players and staff safe.

RELATED: Cubs better prepared than MLB to finish COVID-19 season — which is the problem

But even he and other team executives understand the limits of all the best-made plans.

“The infection is throughout the country. That’s the reality,” team president Theo Epstein said. “If you’re traveling around, there’s a real risk. Protocols are not perfect. No set of protocols are perfect. They’re designed to minimize the risk as best you possibly can.”

And while the odds for surviving the virus favor young, athletic people such as baseball players, the nearly 160,000 Americans killed by COVID-19 in the last five months include otherwise healthy toddlers, teens and young adults.

Add that to the best-known characteristic of this virus — its wildfire-like ability to spread within a group — and baseball’s attempt to stage a two-month season involving travel in and out of 30 locales starts to look like Russian roulette.

Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodríguez, 27, contracted COVID-19 last month and as a result developed myocarditis — an inflammation of the heart — that might shut him down for the season even after multiple tests say he’s clear of the virus.

Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy, a fit, 39-year-old, recent major-league athlete, had a monthlong case so severe he went to the emergency room at one point for treatment before the viral pneumonia and high fever began to improve.

The vast majority of players insist they want to play, including Rodríguez, even after his heart diagnosis. More than 20 others have opted out because of the risk, including All-Stars Buster Posey, David Price and — in the past week — Lorenzo Cain and Yoenis Céspedes.

Obviously the owners want to play, with more than $1 billion in recouped revenues at stake in a season of deep financial losses.

“Everyone that I know outside of baseball who’s become positive, who’s gotten COVID-19 at some point, did everything right — washed their hands, wore masks, socially distanced — and they still became positive,” Epstein said. “They don’t know where. It could have been the grocery store. It could have been walking down the street.

“And as far as I know that’s the case inside baseball, too,” he added. “This is everywhere in the country and unfortunately going the wrong direction nationwide. It’s a fraught environment out there that we’re operating in, and we’re going to need to do our absolute best and also be fortunate.”

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Cubs-Cardinals series postponed after Cardinals' COVID-19 outbreak worsens

Cubs-Cardinals series postponed after Cardinals' COVID-19 outbreak worsens

The COVID-19 pandemic finally caught up to the Cubs, who had their weekend series against the Cardinals postponed Friday after the Cardinals' coronavirus outbreak worsened by three positive tests before the teams were scheduled to open a three-game series in St. Louis on Friday night.

The Cardinals, who haven't played since last week because of an outbreak that now includes at least 16 players and staff, scrambled to test and retest personnel Friday as Major League Baseball wiped another series off their schedule.

Cardinals president John Mozeliak said Friday the latest players to test positive are outfielder Austin Dean and pitcher Ryan Helsley. The club announced Tuesday catcher Yadier Molina and shortstop Paul DeJong recently tested positive.

The Cubs, who have not had a player test positive since intake testing began more than a month ago, had not lost a game on their schedule because of coronavirus issues.

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The Cubs (10-3) were scheduled to fly home from St. Louis Friday night and are not scheduled to play again until Tuesday in Cleveland. This weekend's series has not been rescheduled yet.

“Based on the information MLB has shared with us, postponing this series is a necessary step to protect the health and safety of the Cardinals and the Cubs,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said in a statement. “Therefore, it is absolutely the right thing to do.

“While it’s obviously less than ideal, this is 2020, and we will embrace whatever steps are necessary to promote player and staff wellbeing and increase our chances of completing this season in safe fashion,” he added. “We will be ready to go on Tuesday in Cleveland. In the meantime, we wish the Cardinals personnel involved a quick and complete recovery.”

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