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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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Manny Machado, San Diego Padres reach deal

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Manny Machado has agreed to the biggest free-agent contract in American sports history — a 10-year, $300 million deal with the San Diego Padres, league sources told ESPN’s Jeff Passan on Tuesday.

Machado, a four-time All-Star and two-time Gold Glove Award winner at third base, made $16 million between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Baltimore Orioles last season.

The deal with the Padres includes an opt-out after the fifth season, sources told Passan.

The 26-year-old slugger posted a career-high .905 OPS in 2018, finishing the season with a .297/.367/.538 slash line, 37 home runs, 107 RBIs and 14 stolen bases. In 66 regular-season games with the Dodgers, Machado hit .273 with 13 homers and 42 RBIs.

“[He is] a generational talent,” Padres first baseman Eric Hosmer said Monday about the possibility of the team landing Machado or Bryce Harper. “… I think it just shows where this organization is at. Where we’re at, at the process right now. We’re trying to win baseball games. … It’s exciting, it’s motivating.”

San Diego, which has missed the playoffs for 12 consecutive seasons, ranked 28th in the majors last season after averaging just 3.8 runs per game.

Machado has hit 30 home runs in each of the last four seasons; only Wil Myers (2017) has surpassed that mark for the Padres during that span. And only six times in Padres history has a player hit more home runs in a season than Machado did in 2018.

The Padres now have spent $474 million in free agency over the past two seasons — tops in the majors. Hosmer signed an eight-year, $144 million deal last offseason.

As a comparison, San Diego had spent a combined $309 million in free agency over the previous 25 seasons, which ranked 27th in the majors.

ESPN’s Keith Law ranked the Padres’ farm system as the best in baseball entering this season.

Machado spent most of this past season at shortstop, his preferred position, and produced the third-worst Defensive Runs Saved total (minus-13) among the 22 players with enough innings to qualify at that spot. The 26-year-old played a better shortstop upon joining the Dodgers, who gave up five minor leaguers to acquire him from the Orioles on July 18, but his 15-week stint in L.A. was tumultuous.

The former No. 3 overall pick drew incessant criticism for constantly loafing up the first-base line, then fanned the flames when he told Fox Sports during the postseason that hustling is “not my cup of tea.”

“He got booed in Baltimore three weeks before we traded for him,” the Dodgers’ Andrew Friedman said at the general managers meetings on Nov. 6. “It’s not like it was a secret. … I think there are other times where guys do it and they really do care. And by care, I mean the effort they put into their work, the type of teammate they are, and Manny checks all those boxes.”

Machado had several big moments with the Dodgers, several of them while the team was fighting for a sixth consecutive division title in September and a few more during a victorious NL Championship Series. But he hit just .182 in the World Series, committing the final out as the Boston Red Sox won the championship.

Machado was limited to 82 games in 2014, but he has played at least 156 games in each of the past four seasons. He has hit at least 30 home runs and 30 doubles in each of those four seasons, making him one of just two players, along with Colorado’s Nolan Arenado, to reach both of those marks every season since 2015.

He has compiled 29 FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement since his first full season in the majors in 2013, tied with Joey Votto for sixth among position players since then. Only Mike Trout, Josh Donaldson, Paul Goldschmidt, Mookie Betts and Jose Altuve have a higher WAR in that six-year stretch.

ESPN’s Alden Gonzalez contributed to this report.

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MLB — Think Bryce and Manny are hot commodities? They can’t touch Mike Trout

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Mike Trout returns to his hometown of Millville, New Jersey, whenever he can — this is where he will live when his baseball career ends — because he can just be himself and spend hours each day with family. The folks in the town know him, he knows them, and he can go about his life being treated like their neighbor Mike — the son of Debbie and Jeff, the brother of Teal and Tyler, Jess’ husband.

In a sense, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim are a baseball version of his hometown — a great, comfortable place where the people of the organization fully appreciate him for who he is. He knows them, they know him, and knowing how much he does for them daily, the organization endeavors to give him his space, to allow him to do what he wants to do. When the Angels are home, Trout leaves his house near the water, heads to the park and plays the game he loves, his professional life as free of complication as any superstar could hope for. Millville West.

The question is: Will Trout’s desire to win the most important games of the year drive him out of this safe place in southern California?

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MLB outfield tiers — Mike Trout tops a list of franchise players

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To jump to the individual positions, click here: Left field | Center field | Right field

As our tier ratings series begins to wind down, we come to the outfielders. That means, of course, it’s Mike Trout Day.

Trout’s status as “best player in the game” has been touted for so long now that it’s almost a cliché. It’s also a hard notion to challenge. Even in evidence-based estimates like these, his edge is just too large to allow room for a good debate. The Boston Red Sox’s Mookie Betts is probably better positioned to challenge Trout’s reign than any other player. But my forecasts have Trout with a 1.5 hWAR edge over Betts, which is to say that he’s 1.5 hWAR ahead of every other player in the majors.

Betts had a better season than Trout last year. He had a better season than anyone in the majors, a declaration that few Red Sox fans would challenge and probably not many New York Yankees fans would either. However, that’s a separate thing from claiming that Betts has usurped Trout’s status as the game’s best player. That sort of changeover doesn’t happen overnight.

I decided to get at this topic by looking at how long best-in-the-game players have generally held the title, and how Trout stacks up historically. He first began to be touted as the game’s best way back in 2012 — his first full season in the majors. That wasn’t a consensus feeling right off the bat, but it wasn’t long before that idea spread from coast to coast.

Many of those who defended Miguel Cabrera‘s selection as the 2012 American League MVP — just because he happened to become baseball’s first Triple Crown winner in 45 years — really didn’t argue that Cabrera was better than Trout, just that he had a better year. The same dynamic was in play in 2013, when Cabrera again outpointed Trout for MVP. By that point, however, the idea that Trout was the best player in baseball was firmly embedded and it hasn’t really been challenged since.

That means even if we don’t anoint Trout for his rookie season, we’re still looking at a six-year window (2013 through last season) when he has been baseball’s consensus best player. That seems like a long time. To see how that compares historically, I dumped every season’s single-season win shares measurement from thebaseballgauge.com into a file and calculated five-year averages. (Note: These numbers vary slightly from the “official” win shares figures as compiled at Bill James Online.)

In other words, for each season, a player is measured by his win shares for the two preceding years, the current year, and the two years after. (Rolling averages is the statistical term.) This gives us a glimpse of who the actual best-in-game players were at a given time, regardless of what challengers might have bobbed up with a career season, while also giving us enough window to mute the effect of fluke/injury seasons. The downside with this size of a rolling window is that we can’t get a good measurement until a player’s third season. Also, we don’t have the year-after and two-years-after measurements for the last two seasons of a player’s career, nor for players from 2017 and 2018. Those future seasons haven’t happened yet. So we just count the seasons that we have. It might seem odd to consider two seasons that haven’t happened when assessing the best player in a given year, but what we’re after is a good estimate of true talent level. Hindsight helps sharpen that estimate.

Here is the progression of “Best Player in the Game” estimates for the modern era, based on these five-year win share estimates:

‘BEST IN BASEBALL’ REIGNS
Cy Young, (3 years, 1899-1901)
Honus Wagner, (7 years, 1902-1908)
Ty Cobb, (3 years, 1909-1911)
Walter Johnson, (2 years, 1912-1913)
Tris Speaker, (1 year, 1914)
Ty Cobb, (6 years, 1912-1917)
Babe Ruth, (13 years, 1918-1930)
Lou Gehrig, (5 years, 1931-1935)
Mel Ott, (2 years, 1936-1937)
Joe DiMaggio, (3 years, 1938-1940)
Ted Williams, (2 years, 1941-1942)
Stan Musial, (2 years, 1943-1944)
Hal Newhouser, (1 year, 1945)
Ted Williams, (5 years, 1944-1948)
Stan Musial, (7 years, 1947-1953)
Mickey Mantle, (7 years, 1954-1960)
Willie Mays, (6 years, 1961-1966)
Hank Aaron, (1 year, 1967)
Carl Yastrzemski, (2 years, 1968-1969)
Pete Rose, (2 years, 1970-1971)
Joe Morgan, (5 years, 1972-1976)
Mike Schmidt, (8 years, 1977-1984)
Tim Raines, (1 year, 1985)
Wade Boggs, (3 years, 1986-1988)
Will Clark, (1 year, 1989)
Barry Bonds, (14 years, 1990-2003)
Albert Pujols, (7 years, 2004-2010)
Miguel Cabrera, (1 year, 2011)
Robinson Cano, (1 year, 2012)
Andrew McCutchen, (1 year, 2013)
Mike Trout, (5 years, 2014-2018)

Based on this method, there was a highly unusual power vacuum between the beginning of Pujols’ decline phase and the arrival of Trout as a superstar, though the method might be wrong to not declare Trout the best player by 2013. Still, you get a sense of the place in baseball history that Trout has already established.

This is a bit of regurgitation from the list above, but here are the only players to own a five-year reign as the game’s best player: Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Joe Morgan, Mike Schmidt, Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols, Mike Trout. This is as Hall of Famey as a list can get.

In case you somehow missed this fact, let’s state this emphatically: Every time we get to watch Mike Trout play baseball, we are watching an all-time great. Incredibly, he’s still only 27 years old. Perhaps the Angels might want to externalize some of those internal discussions.



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