Cubs

Padres looking to add starting catcher and Willson Contreras could be a fit

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USA TODAY

Padres looking to add starting catcher and Willson Contreras could be a fit

If the Cubs decide to shop catcher Willson Contreras, a suitor for the two-time All-Star could emerge out west.

Sunday, Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union-Tribune reported the Padres seek a starting catcher. Whether that leads them to Contreras is to be seen, but San Diego makes a ton of sense as a trade partner for the Cubs backstop.

Padres starter Austin Hedges (22 Defensive Runs Saved in 2019) is a superior defensive catcher to Contreras (-1), though the latter would be an offensive upgrade for San Diego. Contreras hit .272/.355/.533 with 24 homers and 64 RBIs last season, while Hedges hit .176/.252/.311 with 11 homers and 36 RBIs. Padres catchers combined to hit .212/.278/.349 with 18 homers and 53 RBIs.

The Padres hold one of the top farm systems in baseball, a group featuring five top 100 prospects, according to MLB Pipeline. The Cubs have two top 100 prospects — infielder Nico Hoerner (No. 47) and catcher Miguel Amaya (No. 90) — but they need to replenish their system after years of making win-now trades and struggling to develop homegrown talent the past few seasons.

At last month’s GM Meetings, Padres general manager A.J. Preller admitted the organization is open to trading its prospects to help build a championship-contending team. Preller defended that notion last week by sending infielder Xavier Edwards (MLB Pipeline’s No. 72 prospect) to the Rays to acquire outfielder Tommy Pham.

"You get tied to these players," Preller said in November. "And you should. You envision each of these guys playing with the Padres, and you have history with them. But you've got to understand at the end of the day, it's about building a championship-level team at the big-league level.

“If you do it the right way, you have multiples at different spots. Not everybody is going to be able to play for the Padres."

Lefty starter Mackenzie Gore is San Diego’s No. 1 prospect (No. 4 overall in MLB), but he’ll be off limits in any trade talks. Behind Gore, the other Padres prospects in MLB Pipeline’s top 100 list are:

-Outfielder Taylor Trammell (No. 28)
-Right-handed starter Luis Patino (No. 30)
-Shortstop CJ Abrams (No. 45)
-Catcher Luis Campusano (No. 86)

The Cubs are searching for a center field upgrade this offseason and have struggled to develop impact big-league starting pitching under Theo Epstein. After trading Edwards, the Padres may not want to deal more than one of the aforementioned four prospects in a single deal, but Trammell or Patino would be a major addition for the Cubs.

Trammell, 22, hit .234/.340/.349 in Double-A with the Reds and Padres in 2019. He projects as a corner outfielder but has the speed to play center. Patino posted a 2.57 ERA in 20 games (19 starts) in high-A and Double-A in 2019.

Adding any blue-chip prospects — regardless of position — should be the Cubs’ goal. Javier Báez is entrenched at shortstop, but if the Cubs were able to acquire Abrams, they can figure out how the 19-year-old fits defensively when the time comes. Abrams was the No. 6 overall draft pick last season and slashed .393/.436/.647 between rookie ball and low-A.

A Contreras trade could also include big league players. The Padres have 24-year-old catcher Francisco Mejía — .265/.316/.438, 8 homers, 22 RBIs, 0 DRS in 79 games last season — on their depth chart and he could be expendable in a Contreras trade.

The Cubs aren’t guaranteed to move Contreras. He’s under team control through 2022 and is only projected to make $4.5 million via arbitration in 2020. Plus. they don't get better in the immediate future by dealing him.

But if the Cubs look to move Contreras to replenish their farm system, the Padres make a ton of sense as trade partner.

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Following 2019 'learning process,' Ian Happ's offensive progression key for 2020 Cubs

Following 2019 'learning process,' Ian Happ's offensive progression key for 2020 Cubs

It’s been another quiet offseason for the Cubs.

January is almost over and the Cubs have yet to commit a single guaranteed dollar to the big-league roster. After exceeding MLB’s luxury tax threshold in 2019, Theo Epstein and Co. are looking to get under the figure in 2020 and reset penalties entering 2021.

Barring any major surprises — i.e. a core player getting dealt before Opening Day — the club will return largely the same team from last season. That group has plenty of talent, but there are some question marks, like second base and center field.

A fan made waves at Cubs Convention last Saturday, reciting the definition of insanity to Epstein and Jed Hoyer during a baseball operations panel. With a similar roster in hand, why should fans expect anything different from the Cubs in 2020?

For Epstein, part of the answer lies in the continued development of homegrown players like Ian Happ.

Happ was supposed to be a key cog for the Cubs in 2019, but he was sent to Triple-A Iowa at the end of spring training after striking out 14 times in 52 at-bats. This followed a 2018 season in which he sported a 36.1 percent strikeout rate.

“He was striking out 30 percent of the time and we decided to send him down, because what we were seeing with Ian Happ, in our mind, wasn’t the finished product,” Epstein said Saturday at the Sheraton Grand Chicago. “We believe it’s the same way with a lot of our hitters, that’s there’s tremendous talent in there, but it wasn’t manifesting in major league games — which is all that matters — the way we needed it to.”

Happ was reportedly upset with the move, but his strikeout rate dropped to 26.3 percent with Iowa. After the Cubs recalled him on July 26, he posted a 25 percent rate in 58 games (156 plate appearances), slashing .264/.333/.564. He recognizes the demotion was beneficial.

“I got a lot of at-bats. I used it as a learning process,” Happ told NBC Sports Chicago Friday of his Triple-A stint. “To be able to come back and have success, it was a good way to finish the season."

Happ ended the season on a high note, slashing .311/.348/.672 in September with six home runs. He was tremendous over the season’s final eight games: .480/.519/1.200, five homers and 12 RBIs.

“Just being more aware of the ways guys were gonna pitch me,” Happ said regarding his hot September. “There’s some tweaks. For me, it was more about handling different pitches and when to use two different swings — when to be a little bit more defensive, when to put the ball in play. It led to results.”

Cubs players have been criticized in recent seasons for a seeming unwillingness to shorten up at times to put the ball in play. Their 73.8 percent contact rate in 2019 was last in the National League, though Ben Zobrist’s personal absence contributed to the low figure.

Happ posted a 71.7 percent contact rate, up from his 63.5 percent rate in 2018.

“He went through a really difficult stretch in Iowa, making significant adjustments to his approach and his swing and as a person, growing from some failure,” Epstein said. “When he came back up towards the end of last year, his strikeout rate was under much better control, he had much more contact ability.

“He wasn’t driving the ball quite the same, and then by the end of the year, he had maintained that better contact rate, was starting to drive the ball again, and it looked pretty dynamic and pretty promising for the future.”

It’s not a coincidence Happ made strides with Iowa. He got to work on his swing in an environment where he played every day. This wouldn’t have been the case in the big leagues, especially if his struggles lingered.

Happ started each of the Cubs’ last six games; he said it's huge for his confidence knowing he'd be playing every day. 

“It’s huge, it’s huge. I think that’s what everyone’s striving for in this league, is be able to [play every day],” he said. “For me, after that stretch and being able to finish strong and look back on a solid year, that’s big moving forward.”

The Cubs roster may look the same, but there’s plenty of room for internal improvement. Pitchers will continue adjusting to Happ, but he’s a better player for what he went through last season. He can take what he learned and carry it into 2020.

“So now, same player on the roster — and I understand the definition of insanity — but to expect Ian Happ to grow from what he’s gone through and benefit from the coaching that he’s gotten,” Epstein said, “and the lessons that he’s learned and the adversity that he’s gone through, and go out and be a productive player for us next year in a certain role, I don’t think is insane.”

“It’s just about sticking with the process, understanding that that’s what worked and that’s what you want to do,” Happ said. “It’s not always easy at the beginning of the year at Wrigley. It’s cold, it’s windy. The results don’t always show up. But if you’re true to the process and you keep going, by the end of the year you’ll be at a good spot.”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: It's time for a culture change for the Cubs

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AP

Cubs Talk Podcast: It's time for a culture change for the Cubs

After the Cubs Convention, fans left still uncertain about the team headed into the 2020 season. Host David Kaplan and NBC Sports Chicago Cubs writer Tim Stebbins discuss what they took from Cubs Con, the culture change that is coming to the organization and a realistic possibility that the Cubs are looking into disgruntled star Nolan Arenado.

Listen to the episode here or in the embedded player below.

Cubs Talk Podcast

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