Why the Cubs and Theo Epstein haven't done anything this offseason

Why the Cubs and Theo Epstein haven't done anything this offseason

With the calendar flipped to 2020, the upcoming baseball season is not far away. Spring Training starts in a little over a month and Opening Day is right around the corner in late March.

If you live in Chicago or you root for one of the two Chicago baseball teams you have seen two wildly different approaches to this winter. While the White Sox have had perhaps the best offseason of any team in the sport, the Cubs have regressed dramatically from their 84-win 2019 team that finished third in the NL Central division.

There is no question the Cubs had a wildly successful four-year run after being built from the ground up by Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer. They won 97, 103, 92 and 95 games and reached the National League Championship Series three consecutive years, including the greatest season in Chicago Cubs history when the club won the 2016 World Series, its first title in 108 years.

However, for as successful as the Epstein led front office was in building the championship team they have had a very subpar run since that magical night in Cleveland in 2016.

Now, with less than 40 days left before players return to their respective spring training camps there is serious concern the Cubs' championship window has slammed shut.

Currently, the Cubs have a player payroll that is projected to be over the luxury tax and has hampered their efforts to improve a club with several major holes.

Despite losing Cole Hamels ($20 million), Ben Zobrist ($14 million), Steve Cishek ($6.5 million), Pedro Strop ($6.5 million), Brian Duensing ($3 million), Tony Barnette, Xavier Cedeno, and various other salary commitments the Cubs currently have a projected 2020 payroll of $218 million. This includes projected arbitration awards to Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and Willson Contreras, plus salary raises to others such as Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Hendricks and Craig Kimbrel.

How can the Cubs be over the luxury tax after saying goodbye to over $60 million in 2019 payroll obligations?

So, let’s put the cards on the table.

The 2020 Cubs have lost significant talent from their 84-win 2019 team and have done almost nothing to replace ANY of those players. They still have no payroll flexibility to add even mediocre free agents to augment their roster.

So, how did the Cubs get in this position?

To answer that question, I called a former MLB general manager and other high ranking baseball executives, and all spoke with tremendous candor.

Kris Bryant's pending service time grievance has hampered the Cubs ability to trade the former MVP. Consequently, it's hindered their ability to accomplish much this offseason. People around baseball believe the Cubs trade demands are far out of line with what Bryant’s value is in the marketplace.

“The Cubs' asking price for Bryant is a joke," a former GM said. "They want nearly ready major league talent at the level of a Gleyber Torres type or close and there is no chance a team is going to give them a package of those caliber of players.

"I like Bryant but he is not a Top 30 player in baseball in my opinion. He is mediocre at best as a defender at third base. His swing has changed dramatically since 2016 and I question if he is truly 100% healthy. Sure, he has ability and he is a big, strong man but his offensive impact is nowhere close to what he looked like when the Cubs won the World Series."

Multiple people in baseball echoed that sentiment. They don’t see the same impactful offensive player Bryant was in 2015 and 2016, and they believe that the Cubs are in a very difficult spot to turn the team around.

“The Cubs are in a trick box. They did a terrible job locking up their young stars to deals that would have extended their window of contention," one executive said. "Yes, they got Rizzo and Starlin Castro but until Kyle Hendricks took a deal they had signed no one else long term from their core guys. Look across your city and see what Rick Hahn has been able to accomplish. He has a great young core and he has been able to sign some of his guys to outstanding deals.

“The Cubs are trying to jump start their team again and while I don’t blame them for asking for a ton in return for Bryant, I don’t believe they are going to get it."

Another believes the Cubs are in a terrible position as they launch a new TV network. Marquee Sports was supposed to infuse the franchise with a significant revenue stream to allow them to compete with all of the other financial behemoths in the industry.

“If they simply want to move Bryant’s financial commitment for the next two years and get back some decent players then teams will be interested," an executive said. "But when you factor in what they want, what he will be owed (approximately $45 million over the next two seasons) and the fact that he has regressed as a player then they are in a really difficult position.

"I like Bryant but he is not a player that I would pay $30-plus million a year for. He and Scott Boras are going to want a massive deal and I would never commit to that type of commitment at this point in time."

The Cubs have other desirable young stars they could entertain trading for financial flexibility, like Baez and Contreras.

"It is getting late in the offseason and Contreras will not bring you the return that they are asking for and what they are asking for is obscene," the same executive said. "Yes, he’s a really good player but the Cubs want a king’s ransom for him and I don’t see them getting that back.

"As for Baez, he is a great talent but he is their most marketable player and I would be stunned if they traded the number one guy they have that connects with the kids in their huge fan base. Can you imagine, with all of the bad press they have been getting over the past 18 months if they traded their number one asset in Baez? No way they are doing that."

So, as we sit here in early January 2020 the Cubs are eerily quiet as they wait for a decision on Bryant’s service time grievance and the rest of the industry keeps making moves.

"The Cubs did a really bad job developing minor league talent and along with a few bad signings and trades, have really crushed them," one exec said.

"However, if there is one guy I would trust to figure a way out it is Theo Epstein. He will be in the Hall of Fame someday and while I don’t think he will still be there in Chicago in three years, there is no way when his time is up there that he wants to leave Chicago like this."

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Andy Green ‘fired up’ to be with Cubs, help David Ross any way he can

Andy Green ‘fired up’ to be with Cubs, help David Ross any way he can

It’s quite fitting Andy Green’s introduction to Cubs Nation came at the team’s annual fan festival this weekend.

Green, whom the Cubs officially hired as bench coach in December, grew up a Reds fan in his native Lexington, Ky. It wasn’t long before his allegiances changed to one of Cincinnati’s geographic neighbors, however.

“I went to [former Reds ballpark Riverfront Stadium] as a kid at like 5, 6, 7, first time I saw big-league baseball,” Green told NBC Sports Chicago on Saturday. “But my mom took me up to Wrigley at 12 or 13. I was like ‘This is big-league baseball.’

“I switched over allegiances that time as a Cubs fan, watched Ryne Sandberg — Mark Grace was somebody who jumped off the page to me at that point in time. It was late 80s, early 90s.”

After four years managing the Padres, Green’s childhood fandom has come full circle. Now, he’s David Ross’ right-hand man, brought in to use his own experience managing to help the first-year manager adapt to his new position.

When Green took the helm in San Diego in 2016, the Padres were in the thick of a full-scale rebuild. He holds a 274-366 won-loss record, but that isn’t indicative of what he’s bringing to the Cubs dugout.

“Andy so far for me probably [has been] the biggest help for me in directing my thoughts, getting things organized, getting prepared,” Ross said Saturday at a coaching staff panel. “This guy has been through the season, the National League, knows the details of what it takes to lead.

“Obviously, his resume and what he’s done building a young group over in San Diego speaks for itself. Who he is as a person, Andy right off the bat probably [has] been the biggest help for me. Sends me text messages, emails about leading, about coaching. I can’t say enough about this guy, and I’m very blessed to have him next to me in every game. You guys are gonna see a great product, and a lot of my big decisions, I’ll have a great mind next to me helping me make those.”

Green said he’s spent the last few months learning what Ross’ vision is as a manager and how he intends to execute it going forward. Managing games and preparing for them are different beasts, but Green can already see the intangibles that could make Ross successful.

“He’s fun to work with, he’s hungry to win, he can hold people accountable and smile at the same time, which is an unbelievable skillset that I don’t have,” Green said of Ross. “People feel it when I come down on them. They feel love when he comes down on them. He just has that [relatability] that very few people do, and that’s incredibly impressive to me.”

Accountability has been the word of the offseason for the Cubs. After five seasons with Joe Maddon as manager, the club felt it was time for a new voice in the dugout. They hired Ross not only to try and make the team greater than the sum of its parts, but also hold players accountable, putting them in their place and using tough love when needed.

Ross will have a lot on his plate this season, so he'll rely on Green to lead in areas as needed and take a load off his plate.

“For [managers], there’s a large number of tasks that if you have a capable staff, you can just delegate and not even think about,” Green said. “I want to take that kind of stuff off his plate, stuff that doesn’t have to have the manager’s attention, because you can get some decision fatigue, because it’s amazing what comes at you in that seat.

“I know what that feels like, so every now and again, it’s nice to have somebody who doesn’t just have the answer but has the feelings that come with the answer. I’ve enjoyed it, and honestly, it’s a whatever he needs type thing. My vision on him is I’ve watched him do so much prep work this offseason getting ready for game decisions. He’s going to be great. He’s going to be great.”

It also helps that Green has four years of managing under his belt. Ross can learn from his successes in San Diego, but also learn from Green’s failures to ensure he doesn’t make the same mistakes common in new managers.

“It takes a little minute to know where the best answer is on the bench, and he’ll figure that out pretty quickly,” he said of Ross. “Executing the game decisions, you have to find out in time how he processes those things.

“I made a lot of mistakes. He can learn from my mistakes without having to make them himself. If you can share things in humility, a lot of times it keeps somebody else from repeating your mistakes. There’s things I messed up on, things I did well too. Kinda share those visions along the way and make certain the whole way that this is David Ross’ team and he’s leading this team and all I’m here to do is support and help him and help the players perform at their top level.”

Green spent four years with a losing club. He’s joining a Cubs team full of star players — which, as functioning infield coach on a team with Javier Báez, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, excites him. He wants to win now and believes Ross is the man to lead the way.

And, again, the lure of being a Chicago Cub was strong.

“The fan base is one that you’re fired up to go to work for and bring a winner to,” he said. “Whatever part I can play in that, I’m fired up to do it.”

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Willson Contreras, expert at going viral, tells hilarious profanity-laced story from 2019

Willson Contreras, expert at going viral, tells hilarious profanity-laced story from 2019

Willson Contreras and viral moments at Cubs Convention go hand-in-hand.

At the team’s annual fan festival in 2018, Contreras stole the show with a story from the 2017 season. During a mound visit against the Cardinals, the Cubs catcher gave profanity-laced advice to Jon Lester, the Cubs starter who rarely throws pickoffs due to a serious case of the yips.

"I went out there and I said, 'Hey motherf--ker, throw the f--king ball to first,'” Contreras recalled in January 2018.

Contreras stole the show again Saturday, telling a story about a moment against the Cardinals — this time from the 2019 season.

“So last year, we were facing the Cardinals and I started talking to [Marcell] Ozuna,” Contreras said. “He told me ‘Just call a fastball right down the middle.’ [And I said] ‘Yeah okay, I will.’ Then I called the fastball and he took it.

“I told him ‘What the f— are you talking about? Just hit the ball, just hit it.’

“He asked me ‘Just call it again.’ And I did it. He took it. Swing the [bat]. I called a third pitch and it was a strikeout. And then next time it was like just ‘Shut up,” or something."

Warning: graphic language

How Contreras will top this at 2021 Cubs Convention is uncertain, but considering he now has two viral moments on his resume, we can be sure the next one will be just as amazing.

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