Any truth to the report that Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein asked free agent Bryce Harper and agent Scott Boras to wait and consult with them before signing a contract with another team?
-- Eric W., Florida
Cubs fans have been searching and hoping for any scrap of positive Harper-related news throughout this offseason, and that tidbit was delivered as an early stocking stuffer a few days before Christmas.
According to the Chicago Sun-Times, Epstein had a lengthy meeting with Boras during last month's Winter Meetings in Las Vegas and "urged them to wait" and check in with the Cubs before signing a long-term contract with a rival team. Although I can't confirm the validity of that report, it certainly fits in with the overall messaging that has come out of the Cubs' offices this winter.
Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer have emphasized over and over that Chicago's biggest need is improvement via the players already in the fold, noting that the team would probably need to be creative to add a contract of significance. In baseball jargon, that translates as a requirement to free up payroll through trades to realistically pursue an expensive free agent.
Already this offseason, we have seen teams like the Mariners, Indians, Dodgers, Reds and Mets swing complicated trades that not only moved talent, but swapped contracts. It's a safe bet that the Cubs have been doing what they can to find potential fits along those lines. The most obvious contracts to move would be those of Jason Heyward or Tyler Chatwood. Benjamin Zobrist could also be a candidate. Jose Quintana would certainly draw interest (not to mention a better return package).
Given the Cubs' history of blockbuster moves in recent years, it's hard to completely count them out, even with the lack of payroll flexibility seemingly hindering the team. Harper is too perfect a fit for a Cubs lineup in need of a jolt to completely rule it out. So even if the Cubs aren't at the forefront of the rumors right now, it makes sense for them to ask Boras to circle back to see if the club is any closer to finding the financial fortitude required.
I would warn against Cubs fans getting their hopes up, however. As things stand, it remains far more likely that Harper will be hoisting another team's jersey at his introductory press conference. Until that happens, fans can keep hoping that Chicago is flying under the radar as a mystery team.
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I saw your article on the Cubs' recent coaching hires, including bringing Bob Tewksbury on board as a mental skills coordinator. Does every team have one these days? What does that job entail? What is Tewksbury's approach?
-- Dan P., Montara, Calif.
Most teams have at least one person on staff in this area now. Tewksbury, specifically, has held this type of job with the Red Sox (2004-13, '15-16) and Giants ('17-18).
For more on his background and approach, you could dive into his book, "Ninety Percent Mental: An All-Star Player Turned Mental Skills Coach Reveals the Hidden Game of Baseball," which Tewksbury co-authored with longtime baseball writer Scott Miller. Tewksbury played a role in the development of Jonathan Lester's pregame preparation, helping the Cubs lefty with focus drills and breathing exercises. I plan on providing more on the addition of Tewksbury during Spring Training.
Anything that falls under the mental side of the game is typically handled by coaches in this position. While I was covering the Indians last year, for example, Mike Clevinger revealed that Cleveland's performance coach, Ceci Clark, helped him with breathing exercises to keep his heart rate down (similar to a sniper in the military). I've also covered multiple pitchers (Roy Halladay, Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco, among others) who relied heavily on Harvey Dorfman's book, "The Mental ABCs of Pitching."
I've noticed that a substantial number of the Cubs' hitters almost refused to swing at the first pitch last year. If you could watch all at-bats in fast-forward, you'd see what I mean. And it seemed like opposing pitchers keyed on this, getting ahead in the count constantly. Is this something they've been coached to do, or just an insanely frustrating coincidence?
-- Loren N., Wichita, Kan.
The cool thing about this newfangled internet machine thing is that you don't have to watch every at-bat to get information these days! And sometimes the numbers do not align with gut feeling. This is a great example. Per Statcast™, the Cubs swung at the first pitch 31.9 percent of the time in 2018. That was the third-highest rate in the Majors. In fact, looking at raw data, only the Braves (2,100) had more first-pitch swings than the Cubs (2,019) last year. Chicago hit .344 with a .580 slugging percentage on the first pitch -- a tick above the MLB averages (.338 and .575). The Cubs' percentage of 0-1 counts (12.8 percent overall, per Statcast™) was right on the MLB average (12.81).
Why is David Bote not being considered as an everyday infielder for second base or shortstop?
-- Robert, Lombard, Ill.
It's always a bit of a challenge for a player young in MLB experience to crack the everyday lineup of a team built to contend now. In Bote's case, his offensive splits and defensive versatility would probably make him a role player out of the chute on the MLB roster. It's all about maximizing production until a player forces a team's hand and emerges as an everyday option.
While the sample size is limited, Bote performed much better against lefties (134 wRC+) than against righties (79 wRC+) in '18. So maybe he could be paired with Daniel Descalso at second base in the first month of the season (while Javier Baez handles shortstop until Addison Russell's return). Or if Zobrist and Descalso handle second, Bote could play third against lefties, with Kristopher Bryant spelling Kyle Schwarber in left.
In a recent article, you mentioned Albert Almora Jr. as a player in need of a comeback season? Are you kidding me? A comeback year from a player who proved he should be the everyday center fielder and was the Cubs' best hitter the first half?
-- Kent W.
Given that Almora is 24 years old, maybe the better characterization would've been "continued development" from him in 2019. What I was looking at was a drop in OPS to .700 in '18 compared to .782 in '17, and a drop in wRC+ to 89 ('18) from 103 ('17). Part of the decline was production against righties (84 wRC+ in 335 plate appearances) and a dismal second half (.546 OPS). But you're right, Almora's first half (.795 OPS) was strong. Chicago needs more of that in '19, and that's why I included his name in that summation.
I noticed that Russell is not on the Cubs' 40-man roster. What is his exact status entering 2019?
-- David S., Chicago
Russell is on MLB's restricted list and will remain there until he has completed his 40-game suspension. So the shortstop will not count against the 40-man roster until being activated (his eligibility date is May 3). In the meantime, Russell has been tendered a non-guaranteed contract through the arbitration process.