Albert Almora Jr.

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."

Do the Cubs consider the 2018 season a success? 'No'

Do the Cubs consider the 2018 season a success? 'No'

My, how things have changed at the corner of Clark and Addison.

Wrigley Field was once home of the "Lovable Losers" and now it houses a 95-win team that just made the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season for the first time in the history of the franchise and yet everybody is unhappy.

Thus is the nature of "World Series or bust" expectations.

And that's exactly what the Cubs have here now.

Don't get me wrong, it's not a bad thing the Cubs and their fans are unhappy right now after a 2-1 loss in the thrilling — and stressful — 13-inning Wild-Card Game. 

We are truly in the golden era of Cubs baseball. So much so that a reporter cited Derek Jeter and the powerhouse Yankees when comparing the culture in a clubhouse that used to be home of the team with the longest championship drought in professional sports history.

Jeter and the Yankees expected to win the World Series every single year.

Now, Kris Bryant and the Cubs have the same goals and anything less is a disappointment.

"Absolutely. We totally feel that," Bryant said. "After we won in 2016, it was a World Series or bust attitude. I mean, that's the right attitude to have. You play to be the last team standing. You don't play just to make the playoffs. 

"I think we've kinda built that culture up here that we are some of the best Chicago Cub teams that they've ever fielded and we take that and I'm pretty proud of that. We wanna go out there and win, but this year just wasn't our year."

This is the earliest young players like Bryant and Kyle Schwarber have had their seasons end since joining the big-league roster in 2015. They weren't even sure what to do with themselves in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, spending time hugging each other or just sitting at their locker staring speechless into space.

A handful of players still hadn't showered or changed out of their uniforms more than an hour after the final out. Javy Baez talked to the media with eye black smeared all over his face.

Most of the Cubs players were asked how they would sum up this season and if it would be considered a success or not despite 95 wins, a run in first place that lasted for the entire second half of the season and took a Game 163 to dethrone.

Albert Almora Jr. didn't even let a reporter finish the question.

"No. No. We lost," Almora said. "There's a lot of positives, but it's not a success unless we win. That's just the mindset that we have here. There were a lot of positives throughout the way. A lot of character grew in this clubhouse. That's all we can ask for, man.

"Unfortunately, this league is unbelievably hard and we're trying to get to the World Series, trying to win another World Series. It's good players out there and I think we did a great job with the hand we were dealt and we never gave up."

The hand the Cubs were dealt does include a brutal stretch to close out the regular season (only one off-day over the final 5-plus weeks) and then a tiebreaker the day before the win-or-go-home postseason game.

But nobody used that as an excuse in the Cubs clubhouse and they don't feel like they choked down the stretch to let the Brewers take the division. After all, Milwaukee had to win its final 8 games in a row just to be able to sit alone atop the NL Central.

"There's a couple goals throughout the season that you set out to do and obviously to win the division first and then move on to the World Series," Jon Lester said. "Sometimes you can't always control what goes on around you. But at the end of the day, I feel like coming down the stretch, we played good baseball. It wasn't like we beat ourselves.

"Sometimes you gotta tip your hat to the opponent. I mean, you go 13 innings tonight against a really good team and we come out on the short end of the stick. But I feel like we shoulda won that game."

Jason Heyward's voice and perspective carries a lot of weight in that clubhouse and he isn't here for consolation prizes.

"Successful? Well, I'll tell you the way we go about things here," Heyward said. "We didn't pop any bottles this year. Tonight, of course, if we had won, we would've popped bottles. We had plenty to toast to. And we don't take postseasons for granted, we don't take winning for granted.

"But our mindset is World Series or no. So that's kind of where our head is. It's a successful season. We were in the postseason, we played after the regular season. But where we want to go is win the World Series and that didn't happen for us this year."

Anthony Rizzo is the face of the Cubs franchise and was a gigantic reason why they won it all in 2016.

But he's seen it all in his 7 years in a Cubs uniform and certainly remembers what a 101-loss season feels like.

“In 2015, we were winning the Wild-Card game no matter what," Rizzo said. "In 2018, I’d say fans were pissed that we were in the Wild-Card game because we had a chance to win the division, we didn’t. But we’ve really flipped this culture here in the Chicago Cubs organization to being winners, and we fell short this year."

Schwarber was positive as always, looking ahead to bigger and better things in 2019.

“Right now it’s hard to swallow for all of us, but the big picture is we’ve done a lot of things here in the last couple years the Cubs faithful should be very proud of," Schwarber said. "And we’re expecting bigger things each and every year. So hang with us. Obviously, we’re all going to take our time here to swallow it, and trust us, we’ll be back and better than ever next year.”

Nobody knows yet what changes this offseason will bring, but one thing's for certain — the Cubs' main goal in 2019 will absolutely be another World Series trophy.

Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Can the Cubs escape playing in the wild card game?

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USA TODAY

Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Can the Cubs escape playing in the wild card game?

Doug Glanville and Scott Podsednik join Leila Rahimi on Baseball Night in Chicago to talk about the hero, Albert Almora Jr., and we hear from Theo Epstein about fan interactions with foul balls. Plus, are there still some lingering bullpen issues the Cubs need to tackle?

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below: