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MLB Hot Stove: How Cubs are approaching the trade market this winter

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USA TODAY

MLB Hot Stove: How Cubs are approaching the trade market this winter

There's certainly a sense of urgency for the Cubs this winter, but they won't make moves just for the sake of shaking things up.

The Cubs always anticipated a window of contention for at least seven years and we're now on the backside of that estimate, with only three years until a bunch of core players like Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javy Baez all become free agents.

That doesn't necessarily mean the championship window is closing (a lot can happen in three years) but it does mean there is a strong desire from Theo Epstein's front office to try to capitalize and win another ring, especially after the 2018 season ended with only one playoff game.

"Everyone who's been around the team — from the players themselves to [the media] to the fans — we all know the takeaway from that season wasn't the positives," Epstein said last week at the GM Meetings in Southern California. "It wasn't the 95 wins. It wasn't how together the players managed to be (and that takes some doing — that was a really together, connected clubhouse). It wasn't the fine, outstanding individual seasons that many of our players enjoyed. It wasn't battling through a gauntlet of 42 games in 43 days.

"All those things are realities, but those aren't the takeaways from the season. The takeaways are that we got caught from behind and we had opportunities to put that division away and to make another postseason run and for myriad reasons, it didn't happen. So we damn well better be honest with ourselves about the reasons why it didn't happen and find ways to fix it, otherwise what the hell are we doing here?

"So yeah, we're not gonna sit here and celebrate 95 wins. We're gonna be pissed off about the way the season ended and it doesn't matter if I'm pissed off — our players are pissed off. And they know that they have an opportunity to be part of something special. They basically built it and helped build it. And we want to take full advantage of it.

"You can't take anything for granted in this game. You look up and it goes really fast — teams don't stay together forever and we need to find ways to take advantage of this great opportunity that we have. ... This has been a real winning group the last four years and that was a real low moment for us, 95 wins or not. And we don't want to live through that again."

Even reading those words on a screen, it's easy to feel Epstein's emotion and that sentiment undoubtedly rings true throughout ever corner of the fanbase.

The Cubs clearly want to fix their offense that faded down the stretch and they've already made a change with the hitting program, inserting Anthony Iapoce as hitting coach to replace Chili Davis. The pitching staff was handed a nice boost of consistency immediately after the World Series ended when the Cubs chose to pick up the options for Cole Hamels, Jose Quintana and Pedro Strop.

Given the current financial landscape, it's hard to see the Cubs landing either Bryce Harper or Manny Machado in free agency.

Which leaves the trade market as the most likely way to retool the 2019 roster.

Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said last week he and the Cubs front office were spending more time talking to executives from other teams than agents of players on the open market.

The Cubs also aren't interested in making any knee-jerk reactions to a team that still found a way to 95 games despite injuries and ineffectiveness from the group's top players — Bryant, Yu Darvish, Brandon Morrow, Willson Contreras, etc.

"We do feel like our answers are internal," Hoyer said. "We need to focus on getting our players to maximize their potential. With that said, I think we're open to business and listening and [the trade market] will probably be our focus more than shopping at the top of the [free-agent] market."

The main areas of focus Epstein's front office is working to address this winter include the lineup and the bullpen. It's easy to see how a trade for an impact reliever can develop given the Cubs' plethora of young position players with potential.

The Cubs would love to add more established, consistent hitters to augment their lineup and help avoid the Jekyll and Hyde nature of hot streaks and slumps brought about by so many young players still finding their way in the big leagues.

But how would a hitter-for-hitter type of deal work out if the Cubs want to truly take their offense to another level?

"There's lots of different ways to do it," Epstein said. "You can trade up the service time clock. You can trade backwards for more years of control. You can trade for an established guy. You can trade for somebody you think is ready to break out. There's no one way to do it. You can trade two comparable players with different shapes if you think it benefits you."

The last idea is particularly intriguing as the Cubs have plenty of hitters in the same high-strikeout/slugging mold.

Epstein and the Cubs teased a potential offseason of trades last winter and wound up retaining all of their young hitters.

But that theory didn't translate to on-field results, as the Cubs led baseball with 40 games of scoring 1 or 0 runs (including Game 163 and the Wild-Card contest). Couple that with the fact the season was over before the sun came up on Oct. 3 and it's safe to say the organization is approaching this winter differently.

"We're gonna be open-minded about trades and we still are," Epstein said. "We may make many trades. We may make a couple small trades. We may make no trades. What we're definitely going to do is hold ourselves to a higher standard with how we perform, how we execute.

"The job is not just accumulating talent. The job is winning baseball games. We have to get our players to perform and we have to be at least one game better than we were last year."

Ben Zobrist working to be a more vocal leader for Cubs in 2019

Ben Zobrist working to be a more vocal leader for Cubs in 2019

MESA, Ariz. — The Cubs are kind of the hipsters of the leadership committee world.

Before the Bulls got so much attention for their leadership council under coach Jim Boylen, the Cubs held their own closed-door meeting between the front office and the players.

The leadership narrative has been right up there with the payroll as far as top offseason storylines for the Cubs, with Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer often discussing their desire to find more veterans for the clubhouse to help keep guys "accountable," enforce the "urgency" needed throughout a long season and avoid any sort of "complacency" that may set in. (You can now cross those three buzzwords off your Cubs Bingo cards.)

The Cubs felt like they lacked that edge last season and pointed to it as one of the reasons why they were caught from behind by the Brewers in the final week of the season and wound up at home, barbecuing in the first week of October instead of on another march toward a potential championship.

So to learn from that situation and improve upon it, Zobrist was among the group discussion.

"We've had some very candid conversations with the leadership," he said Friday when he showed up at camp after a four-day excused absence for personal reasons. "I was really grateful to see how Theo, Jed sat several of us down and just asked a lot of questions to us — 'what do you think?' When you feel like you have a voice and you feel like you could potentially have say in what could happen as the new year comes in, you jump in.

"I've thought about it a lot over the course of this offseason. I'm excited about the potential of how things will change and the mindset moving forward. I can't wait to see it play itself out."

Zobrist turns 38 in May and in the final season of his contract, but he's been everything the Cubs could've wanted when they inked him to a four-year deal before the 2016 season. He stabilized the lineup that year, won the World Series MVP and has generally been a great example of the type of plate approach and work ethic the organization wants young players to model themselves after.

But "leader" was not a word attached to Zobrist often because he's not the David Ross type who continually lends advice in the clubhouse and chirps in the dugout.

"I'm just not an out-loud leader," Zobrist said. "I'm not that kinda guy. I'm not gonna try and go out and get in guys faces in any regard. I'm just gonna do my job. I think I was always just so focused on doing my job that I didn't worry too much about what's going on around me.

"But now at this point, you kinda see how things went last year. We all feel a collective responsibility. For me, not knowing what my future is next year, I definitely want to take my full responsibility and give whatever I can to the guys and give to this group so we can get back to where we want to be."

Like Jon Lester, Zobrist may not be all that comfortable with a role as a vocal leader, but the Cubs are challenging their experienced veterans to take more of a responsibility in helping keep this young core in line and nudge them in the right direction.

Zobrist feels veteran leadership is undervalued in the game right now and believes that's reflected in free agency, where so many older players have found difficulty finding homes.

He's entering his 14th season in the big leagues and has more than 1,600 games and 6,600 plate appearances under his belt. 

"I do think that it's necessary to speak up when you have something to say, but there's also a necessary tact that it takes, especially with younger players and guys that are great players in their own right," Zobrist said. "But the experience does give you something. You have been through a few things that maybe some of the young guys haven't.

"You see how the game changes, you see it from different eyes and so hopefully as I see things that are changing and I see little things within our clubhouse atmosphere, I do plan on saying something in the right way, just encouraging guys. I really believe that can do a lot for a ballclub."

Young players like Willson Contreras, Kris Bryant and Ian Happ have directly mentioned Zobrist and how they watch the way he goes about his business, prepares and can put together a professional at-bat regardless of the situation, where he's hitting in the order, what position he's playing, etc.

But again, the Cubs feel the team has a strong need for more vocal leadership in the clubhouse, which was a big reason why they picked up Cole Hamels' $20 million option and brought in veteran Daniel Descalso. 

Descalso is about all they could manage this winter with a strict budget that didn't allow much wiggle room, but the Cubs also spent the offseason internalizing the disappointment from last fall. They worked to try to improve what they had and pushing Lester and Zobrist to become more vocal leaders falls under that umbrella.

"I'm excited to kind of own my position, but also do a little bit more ownership of the entire group," Zobrist said. "I think everybody's kinda there. Everybody's like — 'how can we build each other up as a group?' instead of, 'how can I develop as a player?' I've been getting there for the last few years of my career, no doubt, but this year, probably even moreso."

Joe Maddon is just fine with Zobrist continuing to lead by example.

"Zo has always had this quiet leadership about him," Maddon said. "He's not really a vocal guy. I don't even know if he's gonna be able to get to that point. He really sets a great example. After the game, he'll be in the weight room with [strength coach Tim Buss] at least an extra hour before he even goes home.

"A lot of it depends on whether he's gonna play the next day or not. But he always has, by example, been a wonderful leader as far as I'm concerned. Just be more apt or possibly say something to somebody that he may see that he normally wouldn't have done in the past. It would take a lot to have Zo approach you about a specific moment. 

"He'd prefer showing you how it's done by just watching me. So all that stuff, it's wonderful and it'll all play organically. I think it's gonna play its way out. For me, he's done that for a while."

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MLB announces pitch clocks will be used in spring training; no decision made for regular season

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USA TODAY

MLB announces pitch clocks will be used in spring training; no decision made for regular season

Pitch clocks are coming to a ballpark near you in 2019.

Friday, MLB announced that a 20-second pitch timer will be used during 2019 spring training games. The decision comes on the heels of MLB commissioner Ron Manfred saying earlier this month that the league is focused more on pace-of-play initiatives rather than drastic rule changes.

No decision has been made on whether the timer will be implemented for the 2019 regular season. However, ESPN's Jeff Passan said that it such a move is "a very real possibility."

Both pitchers and batters share responsibility for a pitch getting delivered ahead of the timer's expiration. While the timer will not be used ahead of the first pitch of an at-bat, it will start the moment the pitcher receives the ball back from his catcher.

From there, the rule requires:

-Batters to be in the batter's box and alert to the pitcher with at least five seconds left on the timer

-A pitcher to begin his motion/windup before the timer's expiration — the pitch does not have to be released before the timer expires

The 20-second timer will be implemented in three phases during spring training. They are as follows:

1. In order for players and umpires to adjust to the change, the timer will operate without enforcement for the first spring training games.

2. Early next week, umpires will begin issuing reminders to players and hitters who violate the rule, albeit without assessing a penalty. Umpires will inform managers, pitching coaches and/or hitting coaches after the inning ends of any violations.

3. Later in spring training (depending on MLB's negotiations with the MLBPA) umpires will begin assessing ball-strike penalties to teams for any violations.

Like it or not, pace-of-play initiatives are coming to MLB. For fans, players and umpires alike, spring training offers the chance to get used to baseball's new normal. 

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