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Cubs might have to get creative without budget for a winter meetings splash – WSAIGO Sports
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Cubs might have to get creative without budget for a winter meetings splash

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CHICAGO — What happens when you don’t have the money to fix something that’s broken? Sometimes the answer is to find a creative solution instead. That’s seemingly what the Chicago Cubs‘ front office is facing this winter as it attempts to improve its club without spending gobs of money on free agents.

As is, its payroll commitments for 2019 buck right up against the luxury-tax threshold, so the notion of spending on Bryce Harper — a name Cubs fans have been salivating over since the day they realized he and third baseman Kris Bryant were friendly — seems far-fetched. It wouldn’t be if the team was willing to blow past the tax thresholds and commit to having one of the top two or three payrolls in baseball. That doesn’t sound like a possibility right now.

“We’re not ruling anybody out, but it’s important to have some perspective too,” president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said last month. “Like every other team, we’re going to have our budgets, not set artificially at all, but set as a result of looking at revenues and looking at expenses and doing everything we can to put a winning team on the field for the fans.”

Epstein sounds like he’s trying to balance his household budget and might have to cut back on the gourmet coffee. Agents who have spoken with the Cubs confirm their reluctance to spend big, which means the team might have an offseason that is more creative than impactful. To Epstein’s credit, he puts the blame squarely on his own shoulders because he’s right about one thing: A $200 million-plus payroll should be more than enough to win.

“We’ve had a top-six payroll each of the last three seasons,” he said. “We certainly expect to have another top-six payroll this season. And going forward. That investment by the club, by ownership, has been everything we could ask for. It’s been enough to win more games than any other team the last four years. It’s more than enough money to win.

“Some offseasons are more challenging than others. If that means anything, it means I need to do my job better. And that we need to do our job better as a baseball operation to continue to put a top-level team on the field and feel secure in that for years to come.”

There’s little to argue with there, but the fact is the Cubs are in their window for winning now. Frankly, the team won the World Series in 2016 with a less-than-bulky payroll considering almost the entire position-player base was made up of pre-arbitration-eligible players. Now it’s the opposite. It’s called the cost of winning.

“And on top of that [increased payroll] this is an ownership group that’s poured in $750 million of private investment to fix Wrigley Field,” Epstein continued. “I appreciate and understand the desire for more every winter. That’s part of the fun of the hot stove, and we should do everything we can to make this team better and there are some great names out there.”

Of course, he means everything they can do short of outspending everyone else in the game. Cubs ownership didn’t respond to an email about the team’s payroll, but the question still stands: Why can’t a team worth nearly $3 billion have the highest payroll in the game, if not for just a season or two?

“When you look at the Ricketts [family] track record with their investment in the club, the top-six payrolls, their investment in Wrigley Field, I think we should all feel great with the ownership group that we have,” Epstein said.

Of course, Chicago should feel good about ownership. It brought the city a World Series winner after a 108-year drought. Time has moved on and the Cubs have the talent to compete for another one, but are also in an ultra-competitive NL Central that just got even tougher with the Cardinals pulling off a blockbuster deal to land Paul Goldschmidt. Now Cubs fans are hungry for a move or two that could put their own team over the top.

Could lack of funds be a blessing?

The theme of the Cubs’ offseason heading into next week’s winter meetings is fixing an offense that seemingly “broke” in the second half of the season.

“If you look back at the first half of the season, we led the league in runs scored, we led the league in OPS, we led the league in virtually every significant offensive category,” Epstein said. “We were cruising. We felt really good offensively. And then in the second half, things were dramatically different, culminating in what happened down the stretch. … We stopped walking, we stopped hitting home runs, we stopped hitting the ball in the air and we stopped being productive.”

Former hitting coach Chili Davis was the scapegoat for those second-half woes, as he lost his job one year after the Cubs hired him to replace John Mallee. Those coaching decisions underline the confusion the team is facing with its young core of hitters who already have won a World Series.

In fact, what happened in the latter months of 2018 doesn’t make much sense. Davis didn’t mesh well with Cubs hitters from the start, yet the team performed well in April, May and June. Perhaps the more his message sunk in, the less the Cubs produced, but imagine if the results were reversed. What if the Cubs stunk at the plate in the first half and were great in the second half? How different would their game plan look right now?

Baseball can be fluky and there are crazier things in the game than an entire team slumping at the plate for one half of one season. Turning over an entire roster isn’t realistic, and perhaps in this case, it’s not necessary. The team admits it was trying to make a few tweaks it hoped would be finishing touches on some hitters, but now it may get back to emphasizing its core beliefs. It’s hard to find a perfect offense in the National League — the Cubs will take a competent one right now. Maybe they can have one with their current players, combined with a renewed focus after an embarrassing end to last season.

Where do they go from here?

Industry sources say the Cubs haven’t exactly given up on free agency, but their moves so far have been more of the cost-cutting nature. They saved a few dollars in trading pinch hitter Tommy La Stella to the Angels and perhaps saved a few more when they couldn’t come to terms with recently acquired infielder Ronald Torreyes. The Cubs also didn’t re-sign valuable reliever Jesse Chavez, saving money there as well. They did spend on keeping their own, most notably pitcher Cole Hamels. And they have checked in on some free-agent relievers, such as lefty Zach Britton.

But what was once thought could be an offseason with big moves is now likely to be marked by creativity more than anything else. The creativity would come via the trade market, as the team is ready to break up its major league core — if the right deal comes along.

“We have a lot of moving parts, we have an open mind and we have a desire to get better, so I’m not ruling anything in or anything out,” Epstein said.

But so far, the Cubs have been on the outside looking in as other teams have made significant deals. The 2016 world champs didn’t take advantage of the Seattle Mariners‘ fire sale, though infielder Jean Segura could have fit in nicely while allowing them to move on from suspended shortstop Addison Russell. If the cost of picking up Segura’s contract wasn’t what prevented the Cubs from being in the mix, then it was the state of their farm system.

In any case, the Cubs would be more likely to strike a deal with a club willing to take on major league contracts, such as those of Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ, Albert Almora Jr., Willson Contreras, Victor Caratini and, yes, perhaps even Bryant, whose name has come up with other teams. The catching market is flooded right now, so a deal there seems remote, and one involving Bryant would make much more sense as he gets closer to free agency in a couple of seasons. But not exploring every avenue to get better on offense would be negligent on the Cubs’ part. It’s all in an effort to find that rhythm again, the one that took the team to three straight NL Championship Series.

And if some of the cost-cutting moves lead to signing a second-tier free agent, then former Cub DJ LeMahieu would make sense despite some down numbers in 2018. He routinely makes contact, which is what the Cubs need instead of attempting to change the fundamentals of their sluggers. One thing is for sure, Epstein & Co. won’t stand for another finish like the one they just experienced. That’s something everyone can agree on.

“I’ve never been part of this offensively and I never want to be again,” Epstein said after the season. “We have to be an offensive force. We should be with the talent on our roster.”

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Excitement, angst face Cubs fans as winter winds down

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CHICAGO — Talk to a Chicago Cubs fan these days and you’re likely to find mixed emotions. That’s been the theme of the offseason right up to, and through, this past weekend’s annual winter fan convention.

Mixed emotions. Conflicting thoughts. Excitement and angst.

Those are all part of the Cubs experience right now as the calendar inches toward spring training. In the past, the Cubs signed big-ticket free agents like Jon Lester, Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and Yu Darvish. But this winter has been anything but big. The front office forecast early that the budget wouldn’t allow for additions like those splashes. Utility man Daniel Descalso is the lone new player on the team that’s won the most regular-season games the past four seasons but has come up short in the postseason the past two years.

“We didn’t have the flexibility this year to go ahead and sign a huge free agent and I’m not sure we would have anyway,” owner Tom Ricketts said on ESPN WMVP-AM 1000 last week in a rare interview. “We like the team we have. We have strong young guys at most positions.”

So free agent Bryce Harper would not have been on the Cubs’ radar, even with the budget for him? Not many fans believe that from an owner who has been less transparent in recent days. Ricketts canceled his annual fan forum over the weekend for the first time since buying the team in 2009. Yet team president Theo Epstein held a session with fans himself. He wanted to face the music after a disastrous end to 2018, and he did.

So there was transparency from one executive, whereas the owner claimed “low ratings” from previous years were to blame for canceling his own panel discussion. Ricketts did explain himself regarding the employment of shortstop Addison Russell, who is suspended for the first 28 games of 2019 after violating the league’s policies on domestic violence. That’s yet another topic ripe with mixed emotions, especially when you consider the Cubs won’t invite former star Sammy Sosa back into the fold until he comes clean about use of performance-enhancing drugs. For some fans, that opened the door to compare and contrast Russell’s and Sosa’s situations. Right or wrong, it doesn’t sit well that one has a job with the team and the other can’t wave to the fans at a fan convention.

Without Ricketts answering questions, without charismatic team leader Anthony Rizzo in attendance (he was on his honeymoon) and without a major new addition to the team, the headlines from the convention fell to Kris Bryant. He was openly critical of how free agency has played out again this winter, then hours later called the city of St. Louis “boring” — starting an offseason feud with the rival Cardinals. Many fans loved it, but since Bryant and his team must now back up the rhetoric, even that moment brought some mixed emotions.

Eventually, the weekend discussion returned to the field, where the Cubs failed on offense down the stretch last season and then vowed to fix what ailed them. That’s when the Harper discussion picked up, only to be quashed early in the offseason.

“The money got eaten up in a lot of ways by the guys that were coming through the [arbitration] system, and it’s not like we had a big contract roll off,” Ricketts said.

So the team turned inward, with manager Joe Maddon saying over the past few days there was more to “extrapolate” from his current group, while the front office has asked players to maximize their day-to-day prep better. After all, the Cubs won 95 games last season. Tweaking to maximize potential only makes common sense.

“You turn over every stone,” Zobrist said. “You’re thinking about ‘why.’ It’s not just that it did happen. You have to figure out why and then you have to make an adjustment and do something different.”

The Cubs also want better leadership in the clubhouse. This was supposed to be a tight group — the same that won the World Series in 2016. But perhaps it’s been too tight. Calling each other out, when needed, hasn’t been a part of the room since David Ross and Jon Jay moved on. Perhaps a full season with pitcher Cole Hamels will provide some extra leadership.

“That’s where I need to be,” Hamels said this past weekend. “That’s the role directed towards you if you play this game long enough. Being more vocal, instead of just letting it play out on the field.”

Ultimately, if the Cubs start to hit again, the rest should take care of itself. The starting staff is deeper — Darvish is healthy and seems more confident — and Epstein has found effective arms for his bullpen over the years, even if they aren’t always the biggest names. The key might simply be the Cubs’ attitude. They were once on top of the world, but the end of last season knocked them down. How they get up off the mat is how they’ll be judged moving forward. Mixed emotions and all.

“We’re a confident group,” Albert Almora Jr. said. “We just have to finish what we start. We want to send a message early on.”

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MLB — Everything you need to know on Hall of Fame announcement day

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The results of the second stage of the annual Hall of Fame voting process will be announced Tuesday evening with the Baseball Writers’ Association selections, and we can safely say not to expect any stunning news along the lines of what happened in December with the Today’s Game Era committee.

In other words, we’re not going to see a reunion of the 2005 White Sox with the elections of Jon Garland and Freddy Garcia.

The committee’s election of Harold Baines, however, does raise an interesting question: How much does the BBWAA vote even matter if a 16-person committee is simply going to override those results in the future?

Take Fred McGriff. He’s on the BBWAA ballot for the final time. He’s not going to get in. Not to worry; in a few years he seems like a surefire committee choice. He’s like Baines — a one-dimensional slugger, highly respected, played a long time — except even better at that one dimension. McGriff hit .284 with 493 home runs and an OPS+ of 134. Baines hit .289 with 384 home runs and an OPS+ of 121. McGriff’s 52.6 WAR dwarfs Baines’ 38.7. He’s fared much better in BBWAA voting than Baines ever did.

The same can be said of some of the other borderline candidates on the ballot, such as Larry Walker, Scott Rolen and Jeff Kent. Todd Helton and Andy Pettitte are on for the first time. They aren’t strong candidates based on traditional BBWAA standards, but compared to Baines, Lee Smith and Jack Morris — elected the past two years by the special committees — they look pretty good. We can debate their merits, but in the long run they’re probably all getting in. The BBWAA vote only (potentially) expedites the process.

That isn’t to suggest that everyone better than Jack Morris or Harold Baines should get in. Heck, there are 21 players on this ballot with a higher career WAR than those two. What remains to be seen is how the soft selections of Morris, Baines and Smith might start influencing the BBWAA vote.

Anyway, here are some key things to look for with Tuesday’s results. All references to voting totals are courtesy of the great work Ryan Thibodaux does with his Hall of Fame vote tracker.

Will Mariano Rivera become the first player elected unanimously?

Among those who obsess about Hall of Fame balloting, there is a small subset who obsess over this twist of history: No Hall of Famer has received 100 percent of the vote. Somehow, 23 people didn’t vote for Willie Mays. Nine people didn’t vote for Hank Aaron. Imagine having a Hall of Fame ballot and not voting for Willie Mays or Hank Aaron. Twenty didn’t vote for Ted Williams, but, hey, a lot of writers despised the man. In the first election in 1936, 11 writers didn’t vote for Babe Ruth. The rules might not have been entirely clear: Ruth had just retired the previous year. Still, Ruth received just 215 votes out of 226 ballots.

So, as Joe Posnanski related in a recent column, the issue of unanimity became a thing right from the beginning.

Tom Seaver came close. He was named on 425 of 430 ballots in 1992. Three writers sent in a blank ballot, protesting that Pete Rose was not on the ballot. One writer had just gotten out of open-heart surgery and simply missed checking off Seaver’s name. The final non-vote, as Posnanski writes, came from a retired writer named Deane McGowan, who apparently refused to vote for any player on his first ballot. And you think Baseball Twitter is cranky.

Ken Griffey Jr. set the record with 99.3 percent of the vote in 2016. Three writers didn’t vote for him. We don’t know who they were since voters don’t have to reveal their ballots. Maybe somebody sent in a blank ballot. Maybe somebody refused to vote for anybody who played in the steroid era. Maybe somebody decided, “If Babe Ruth wasn’t no unanimous, nobody should be unanimous.”

So it goes. As did Griffey, Rivera has received 100 percent of the publicly revealed ballots. He’s 180-for-180 so far. My guess: He won’t get 100 percent. Somebody will enforce the Ruth rule. Maybe somebody feels no reliever deserves to be enshrined. Maybe somebody, knowing Rivera will get elected, will use his or her 10 spots on the ballot for other candidates. But Rivera has a chance to end the silly 100 percent stigma.

Does Edgar Martinez get in on his final ballot?

It would be a little awkward if Baines is giving a speech in July and Martinez isn’t. After all, the Designated Hitter of the Year award isn’t named after Baines. Fortunately, it looks like Martinez will get elected. He’s received 90.8 percent of the public ballots, compared to 76.3 percent last year, when he finished at 70.4 percent. So even with an expected decline in the percentage he receives from the private ballots, he looks in good shape. Book those hotel rooms now, Mariners fans.

Does Roy Halladay get in on his first ballot?

Halladay is polling at a surprising 94.1 percent — not that he’s undeserving, but he’s not a slam dunk by career WAR (64.3) or wins (203), standards that BBWAA voters have employed in the past. Compare him to Mike Mussina and Curt Schilling:

Halladay: 64.3 WAR, 203-105, 3.38 ERA, 131 ERA+
Mussina: 83.0 WAR, 270-153, 3.68 ERA, 123 ERA+
Schilling: 79.6 WAR, 216-146, 3.46 ERA, 127 ERA+

Mussina is on the ballot for the sixth time and received just 20.3 percent of the vote on his first ballot. Schilling is on for the seventh time and received 38.8 percent of the vote his first time. There are reasons to like Halladay over Mussina and Schilling — he won two Cy Young Awards and finished second two other times, and his seven-year peak is highest of the three (50.4 WAR, 48.7 for Schilling, 44.6 for Mussina) — but it seems Halladay is being viewed much differently than those two. Perhaps his unfortunate death in a plane crash is helping his vote total.

Anyway, like Martinez, his total will surely drop in the private ballot, but he needs just 59.5 percent on the remaining ballots to clear 75 percent.

Speaking of Mussina and Schilling, how will they do?

Mussina is inching closer, but it looks like he’ll fall just short. He’s at 82.2 percent of the public vote and would need 69.2 percent of the remaining ballots. He received just 46.7 percent of the private ballots last year, so he will need a significant increase in that area. Still, he’s trending in the right direction and looks primed for 2019. If Halladay gets in, that helps Mussina since it clears a strong candidate off the ballot and there aren’t any strong starting pitchers hitting the ballot in upcoming years. (Tim Hudson and Mark Buehrle are the best.)

Schilling, meanwhile, continues to fall behind Mussina — even though as recently as 2016 he was well ahead (52.3 percent to 43.0 percent). Schilling is polling at 74.1 percent, which is better than the 60 percent he received on public ballots a year ago, so it’s difficult to know how much his various contentious statements on Twitter and elsewhere have hurt his vote total.

Will Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens get any closer?

We know the Hall of Fame’s stance on these two. Joe Morgan’s letter in November 2017 — he’s the Hall’s vice chairman and on the board of directors — made that clear. Issued from a Hall of Fame email address, Morgan implored voters not to vote for known steroid users. “We hope the day never comes when known steroid users are voted into the Hall of Fame. They cheated. Steroid users don’t belong here,” he wrote.

Of course, there’s the almost certain likelihood that there are steroid users already in the Hall of Fame, and recent elections have voted in players strongly suspected of steroid use. The Hall doesn’t want Bonds or Clemens in, and it could simply remove the pair from the ballot (not to mention Manny Ramirez, who actually failed tests for performance-enhancing drugs), but hasn’t had the audacity to do that.

Anyway, Bonds and Clemens won’t get in, at least not this year. They’re both polling at 73 percent, which is an increase from last year’s public ballots, when they were at 64 percent. Like Schilling, this is their seventh year on the ballot and time is running out, with just three years remaining after this vote and likely not enough momentum in the private ballots (which tend to be more anti-steroids).

What happens after that if they don’t get elected? Who knows. The Hall of Fame could simply choose not to put Bonds and Clemens on the committee ballot. Or it could put them on with the implicit knowledge they won’t get elected. We certainly know one board member who won’t vote for them.

Will Andy Pettitte stay on the ballot?

A player needs 5 percent of the vote to remain on the ballot the following year. Pettitte is at 6.5 percent. Like Jorge Posada a couple of years ago, he’s in danger of getting the boot after one year. (Even Bernie Williams lasted two years.) Pettitte has a stronger case than those two former teammates, however, and a similar — but much stronger — case than Morris. The strongest part of Pettitte’s case might be his postseason record: He went 19-11 with a 3.81 ERA over 44 starts, including 23 starts in which he allowed two runs or fewer.

Still, he’s not one of the 10 best players on this ballot, and his 3.85 career ERA is a tough hill to climb to get in. He also admitted to a one-time use of PEDs, although I haven’t seen anybody reference that as a reason they didn’t vote for him.

How close will Larry Walker get?

Walker is polling at 67 percent of the public ballots compared to 37.5 percent last year. That’s good! Except this is Walker’s ninth year on the ballot. That’s bad! It feels too late to make a run. Tim Raines, for example, was up to 69.8 percent in his ninth year and Martinez was even closer last year. Even if Walker becomes the guy everyone pushes next year, he’s probably going to have to finish with at least 65 percent of the vote this year, and it seems unlikely his private support will keep him at that level.

Even if he falls short next year, there’s always the Today’s Game Era committee. After all, Baines, who lasted only five years on the ballot, topped out at just 6.1 percent on the BBWAA vote.

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MLB — Cincinnati Reds risk overpaying to finally land Sonny Gray

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The long-rumored trade of Sonny Gray to the Cincinnati Reds came through on Monday, with Gray and minor league reliever Reiver Sanmartin going to Cincinnati, infielder Shed Long going to the Seattle Mariners, and outfielder Josh Stowers and a 2019 competitive balance pick (from the Reds) going to the New York Yankees. It’s a puzzling deal for the Reds, some value for the Yankees in moving a player they didn’t want, and I’m not really sure why the Mariners are here unless Jerry Dipoto was bored.

Gray’s tenure in New York was a disaster, but the Reds are hoping that reuniting him with his college pitching coach Derek Johnson, who came over from the Brewers and was with Gray at Vanderbilt, will help him rediscover his form.

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