Cubs

How Cubs will determine if this is the time to sell — or hold — stock on young players

How Cubs will determine if this is the time to sell — or hold — stock on young players

Do the Cubs envision Ian Happ as a vital piece of their future or the organization's best trade asset?

What about Kyle Schwarber? Albert Almora Jr.? Victor Caratini? 

We might not get surefire answers to these questions this winter, but we'll at least get an indication in a pivotal offseason for this quartet. (The Cubs already know what they have with their other young position players apart from maybe Willson Contreras, but it's nearly impossible to find another catcher in the same stratosphere as Contreras in terms of physical tools and potential).

The Cubs are at a crossroads of sorts with the development of these four players (and others) as they try to retool for another run at a championship in 2019 after a disappointing end to 2018. There's urgency for production in the lineup and not simply potential and the growing pains that coincide with young players.

So how do the Cubs determine if they should sell stock on players like Happ, Schwarber or Almora when it's still unknown who — or what — they are as players?

"Through evaluation and through a lot of discussion with our most trusted evaluators and the people around the players every day," Theo Epstein said last week at the GM Meetings. "And through conversations with the players, too. Honest discussions about their weaknesses.

"I don't want to generalize, but many players follow a path where they come up from the minor leagues and have some immediate success and as the league finds out more about them, the league makes an adjustment. I've never seen a major-league environment that's more ruthless than the one that exists today. We're going right to a player's weakness, quickly finding it, exploiting it and staying there until they adjust back.

"You have to have honest conversations about the area where players need to improve in order to have the types of careers that they want to have in order to help us win the way they want to help us win. And seeing how players react to that and the plans they come up with and the work ethic to make those adjustments and the trace record to make those adjustments — all that stuff really matters."

We know the Cubs don't operate with any "untouchables" (as was reiterated in a very high-profile way over the last week), but that's also all about how important the word value is.

The Cubs have zero interest in selling low on guys like Schwarber, Almora or Happ because those are three players they've held conviction on for years as first-round draft picks to top prospects to impact players in the big leagues. 

But it's also entirely possible another team around the league values Schwarber more than the Cubs do and offer Epstein's front office a deal that's too hard to pass up. Sure, Schwarber's 2018 was something of a disappointment, but he also drastically increased his walk rate, cut down on strikeouts and improved his defense. Oh yeah, and he'll still only be 26 in March.

We could run the same exercise for Almora, Happ and Caratini, but the main takeaway here is that the evaluations of these players are incomplete as they're still very young/inexperienced with potential.

But if the Cubs trade any of those three guys this winter, it's not necessarily an indication of doom for the player. It's more about finding the right time to pull the trigger.

"That's the nature of it," Epstein said. "Trades happen in this game. A lot of times when trades are made, it doesn't mean you've completely given up on a player. A lot of trades are more about what you're receiving back than what you're giving up in the first place."

There's also value for the Cubs in not necessarily selling one of those young players but choosing to get a little more veteran and diverse with a lineup that "broke" in the second half, as Epstein described it.

Due to the inexperience and youth, the Cubs lineup was more prone to slumps. That was highlighted by the trade for (and subsequent playing time of) Daniel Murphy in August. When the veteran hitter was acquired, the Cubs initially intended to utilize him to help augment the lineup on a fairly regular basis, but with the struggles around him, they instead needed to lean on Murphy to play essentially every day.

When it comes down to it, the Cubs just want production — no matter where it comes from.

"We're setting out to add to the personnel, so I guess in that sense, if we come back with the status quo, it means there are a couple things out there that we would've lovd to have done that we couldn't, but that happens," Epstein said. "But I think ultimately, we should be held accountable for our performance, not for the amount of change in the names. And we will be. This group will be.

"In order to keep this thing going with the realities of the business and what happens as players move through the service time structure and escalating salaries and everything else, the time for that talent to translate into performance is now to get the absolute most out of this group. Or else we're going to be looking at some hard realities and the need for a lot of change going forward."

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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