Making the Jump: Albert Almora, Jr. Is Closer Than You Think

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AAJ 1986 2016

Albert Almora, Jr does not care if you think he is not ready to move to the major leagues. He does not care if you think his bat can produce at the AAA level. If you ever listened to Almora talk, you would know he only cares about one thing – winning. That’s it. That’s all he wants. He does not care if he goes 0-5 or 5-5 as long as the team wins. He will run through a brick wall if that is what it takes.

In 2016, Almora will most likely be at AAA Iowa to start out the season. After a year and a half at AA, Almora is finally ready. In the second half of 2015, Almora, after a poor first half, returned from a stint in the Pan-Am games. In the second half Almora hit .301, with what was for him, an amazing 19 walks and a .370 OBP. In fact in 2015, Almora nearly doubled his career walk total of 33 with 32 more.

aaj 2015 2nd half

It really was a breakout second half of the season for him. And yet, not many paid attention with what was happening in Chicago.

What Can Be Agreed On

Almora is already an elite defender. At 6’2” Almora relies on instinct, a great first step, and impeccable angles to get to the ball. Except for maybe Trey Martin, there is no better defender in the Cubs organization. His arm is considered average and he is a highlight reel waiting to happen every night.

To me, he has always seemed like a caged panther in the outfield. He is always waiting to attack a fly ball or pounce on a ball in the gap.

Why Are Some Down on Him?

Since he was selected at the first draft pick by Theo Epstein in 2012, Almora has had some unrealistic expectations hung on him. He is not going to hit 30 HRs or steal 50 bases. He is not the savior of the franchise. He is, when he is at his best, an intense individual who competes at an extremely high level at the plate, on the base paths, and in the field.

almora 86To me, Albert is a great hitter – always has been since I first saw him at Kane County in 2013. That young 19-year-old coming off a broken hamate bone destroyed low A pitching to the tune of a .329 average but only in 62 games. He hit a little above average in the pitcher friendly Florida State League in the beginning of 2014. He made it to Tennessee in late July and struggled for the better part of a year to get above .250 and to take some walks at AA.

If you just watch him play in person, you can tell he is special. He can hit almost any pitch. He has incredible plate coverage and timing along with some potential for power in his 6’2” frame. The issue is, however, that his ability to hit any pitch is he downfall. Just because he can hit a pitch does not mean he should. That is the adjustment he has to make: When to layoff and when to attack.

The past two years at Daytona and Tennessee, the Cubs have been trying to get Albert to be more selective; to look for certain pitches in certain counts in certain place in the zone. It has not been an easy transition learning that approach. I think something within him clicked after the Pan-Am games. In August, he hit .352 for the month.

almora august

Making the Jump: What Needs to Happen in 2016?

Albert needs to go to Iowa and to continue to be selective at the plate. That’s it. Sure sounds easy, doesn’t it? He has to continue what he started the second half of 2016 at Tennessee. In the offensive friendly Pacific Coast League, his odds are pretty good of turning up the dial to eleven this year. But the reality is he has to hit for average, he has to take his walks, and he has to continue to be a beast in the field.

almora 70 2016What the Future Holds

With a glaring hole for a natural center fielder for the Cubs in 2016, Almora has not been given the job or even considered by some. The thing I think most people forget about Almora is that he is still only 21 years old. He comes across as an old man in a young man’s body. When it comes to getting the position in the middle of Wrigley Field every day, he is going to have to earn it.

On the other hand, the Cubs have gone out and acquired a long term solution for an outfield position; it is almost as if  the Cubs are counting on Almora to be that guy. Dexter Fowler was a placeholder last year. Maybe Heyward is only going to play center before a move over to right field in 2017.

The Cubs are not looking for a placeholder after this year. They are looking for the man. For Almora, he wants to be that man. What the Cubs care about is that Almora sustains his jump in development at Iowa. Whether he makes it to Wrigley in 2016 or 2017 is still unclear. He could be at Iowa all year, or he could be in Wrigley in July. We just don’t know. All eyes will turn to Des Moines in April.


Cubs Stocking Stuffer Ideas for the Holidays and Beyond

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With the holidays in full swing, today seems like a good day to continue our annual stocking stuffers post. Last year I asked for Jon Lester, a left handed bat that turned out to be Kyle Schwarber, Kris Bryant by May, a new leg kick for Javy Baez, a no trade card for Addison Russell, a $150 million for signing international free agents, and a bullpen pass for Carl Edwards. Most of them we got. I’d say it was a pretty good list.

This year’s list for stocking stuffers is different because the Cubs already signed Jason Heyward, John Lackey, and Ben Zobrist while trading for a few bullpen pieces. It’s taken a full week to think of things we might need in the next year. While last year’s list was filled with short term things, this year’s list is filled with a mix of short and long term stuffers.

underwood 86 2015

1. Changeups for everyone!!! You get a changeup and you get a changeup and you get a changeup! In reality, the actual pitch could be an integral part of three prospects’ development in the next year. Duane Underwood, Trevor Clifton, and Dylan Cease all could ratchet up their arsenals by improving their changeup. Currently, Underwood is a little too reliant on his fastball and propensity for throwing said fastball to get hitters out. A changeup could revolutionize his approach to pitching without sacrificing his curve or the amount he throws the curve. For Underwood, a changeup could really vary the amount he throws his devastating 95 mph heater with late movement.

clifton 86

2. For Trevor Clifton, he throws a changeup now. Like Underwood, he needs to throw it more. And like Underwood, Trevor has a nice fluid motion on his fastball that generates easy low 90s heat. Clifton had a great last 6 weeks in 2015 where after the first inning, he was almost unhittable. Like most organizations, the Cubs like for their A ball pitchers to establish fastball command in the early innings and leave their junk in the trunk until the second time through the order. A solid changeup for Trevor would get hitters out in front of his fastball. His curve, which he is still trying to tame, would give Trevor 3 exquisite pitches to throw this year at Myrtle Beach.

cease 86

3. You wouldn’t think you would need secondary pitches when you throw between 95-100 mph. But you do. It’s just a matter of hitters timing you up. This is the dilemma of Dylan Cease. Last year Dylan Cease worked on fastball command coming off Tommy John Surgery. This year, Cease needs to develop his secondary pitches to offset the 95-100 mph heater and a changeup is the perfect complement to his fastball. Last year, Cease was limited to 2-3 inning starts. This year, I am sure the Cubs will keep a close eye on his innings and pitch counts, loosening them up as the year goes on. The more pitches he throws later in the year should include more and more changeups to offset the timing of the fastball. I think Cease could move two levels this year if he can get his off speed stuff over on a consistent basis.

4. A Load of Lefties – With the departure of Michael Heesch, the Cubs don’t have a lot of lefties in the upper parts of the organization. This year’s draft could rectify that for years to come when combined with last year’s draft. With the Cubs losing their first two picks in the first round and compensation round, the Cubs won’t have a pick until late in the second round. Looking at who the Cubs have selected for second round picks in the past five years (Underwood, Zastryzny, Stinnett, and Dewees), it is an eclectic mix. I am sure the Cubs will take the best player available. But on the second day of the draft (picks 11-40), I think the Cubs should load up on as many LHP as they can get. That total could be as small as five, as they don’t grow on trees, but still five lefties is a lot. Last year, the Cubs selected five for the whole draft. I tend to think the Cubs draft strategy has been to draft pitchers in waves. This year, it should be the same, but from the left side of the rubber.

5. Cuban Migration – I am obsessed with signing Cuban free agents this offseason. Now that we lost our top two picks, my obsession grows. Here’s why – They are young, they play at a high level around the globe, and they are greater than or equal to the talent you get at the top of the draft. I am not going to spit out names at you, as I have done that several times since October. The problem right now for the Cubs is that MLB has not certified several players to be eligible to sign. Once they do, the Cubs should fill their stockings with as many Cubans as they can, including free agents over the age of 21 as the Cubs would not be required to pay a penalty for signing.

rose 67

6. Power – There are five players whose power profiles I would love to see take off this year.

  • AAA – Billy McKinney – If he can hit 15-20 HRs, he becomes a much more valuable prospect
  • AA – Mark Zagunis – As much as he gets on base, if he can hit 15-20 HRs, his future as a pro sky rockets.
  • High A – Matt Rose and Ian Happ – This will be their first full season as pros. I love Rose’s balanced feet in his swing and Happ’s hands through the zone. Both have great power potential. For Rose, he will be fully healthy this year and for Happ, who is overcoming the loss of his father, his intensity will be burn brighter.
  • Low A – Eloy Jimenez – I can’t wait to see Eloy launch some home runs into left field onto the grass in South Bend, the fields of Clinton, or the Mississippi River in the Quad Cities. I think he grew by leaps and bounds last year from a maturity standpoint. This year, I expect to see it on the field. The key will be for him to stay healthy in full season A ball. Out of all the players the Cubs have in the minors, he has the most potential for power.

Bryant 707. 120 RBIs – I think Kris Bryant can hit this figure. If the Cubs bat him third behind Zobrist and Heyward, Bryant will have a lot of chances to drive the two of them in along with Addison Russell, who I see getting on base more than he did in 2015 when he was focused on playing second base, then shifting over to short.

8. An Easy September – I would like to see the Cubs come out and get out to a big lead so that come September, the Cubs could coast into the playoffs. That way, the rotation could be set up and some pitchers could skip a start and rest their arms a time or two. However, playing in a division with St. Louis and Pittsburgh is going to make this very hard. Still, I can ask for it. Even for a pitcher just being able to skip one start might help a lot.

Here’s to a great holiday season and a great 2016 for the Cubs!

Making the Jump: 2016 Is a Big Year for Some Top Prospects

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I don’t think I’ve ever been this excited for an upcoming season as I am for 2016. Most of that has to do with the major league club’s postseason run and the chance to win a World Series. It’s a pretty exciting time to be a Cubs fan! And when the Cub Convention starts in about a month, I’m going to be sitting in a room listening to Tom Ricketts, Theo Epstein, and Joe Maddon talk about the Cubs opportunity to win a World Series and I am going to believe that it all could happen.

I am also going to be sitting in other rooms at the Convention listening to Jason McLeod and others talk about what is happening in the minor leagues. 2016 is going to be huge for player development. To me the focal point, as far as teams go, will be at AA Tennessee and low A South Bend. It might seem like a lot of hyperbole to say that, but the Cubs invested a lot of time and money into the development of their prospects.

Throughout minor-league baseball, the jump to AA is seen is the biggest jump in talent. If you’re a pitcher in high A ball, you can get by with throwing 95 with a nice curve. AA hitters are going to destroy a two pitch pitcher. AA is also known for having the most talent of all the minor-league system, yet it is still a developmental league. A pitcher who got A ball players to chase after high heat or a curve out of the zone will face more disciplined hitters at AA who lay off the high heat and don’t expand their zone. Pitchers are going to have to throw strikes all the time. They are going to have to hit their spots.

jeimer tenn 73Think about this: prior to last year, Willson Contreras hit .273 at his best in A ball. Last year at AA Tennessee he hit .333 and led the Southern League in hitting. Ryan Williams skipped high A and had an ERA well under three at AA. Conversely, Albert Almora was at AA for almost 2 years before he figured it out. Jeimer Candelario, in 2014,was sent from high A Daytona back down to low A Kane County. He arrived mid season at AA in 2015 and never looked back. Now, Jeimer Candelario is knocking on the door to the majors after his very successful stint in the Arizona Fall League.

In the past 10 years, AA is the starting line, for lack of a better phrase, of where prospects can get to the major leagues quickly. It is not uncommon anymore for a prospect to go straight from AA to the majors.

Last year, Addison Russell wasn’t at AAA very long (11 games) and neither was Kyle Schwarber (17 games). Combined, they each played about month in Des Moines. Once players prove that they can survive the rigors and challenges of AA, prospects pretty much have the talent they need to make it in the big leagues. AAA has become more of a store house and a place to stash players in case of injury than a place of development.

The Cubs currently have several prospects who are very close to helping the big league club. None is of the stature of Kris Bryant or Kyle Schwarber, but the players could help the Cubs win. Making up most of Tennessee’s roster this year will be 17 players who have won back to back championships in A ball. It will be interesting to see them all make the jump to AA. It will also be interesting to see some players make changes to their game or physique or approach at the plate.

almora 86However, five sets of players at extremely close to making it to Chicago. Some we don’t need to profile because their development doesn’t need to make a jump. For example, Pierce Johnson just needs to work on better command and staying healthy. Willson Contreras and Jeimer Candelario just need a little more seasoning at AAA. However, other top prospects need a little jump or boost in their development to get them to make the last jump.

Over the next month, our Sunday post will be profiling prospects who need a jump in their development in 2016. They are:
1. Albert Almora, Jr.
2. Duane Underwood, Jr.
3. Chesny Young and Mark Zagunis
4. Ian Happ
5. Dylan Cease

10 Things I Think – The December Edition

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heyward 65 trade1. With Jason Heyward signing with the Cubs, I don’t hear too many people complaining about losing a second draft pick in the 2016 MLB draft. And I don’t think you will hear anybody complain about it. In fact, it’s going to lighten the Cubs Central draft coverage quite a bit this spring and summer. Who am I kidding – it all but eliminates it until the week of the draft. No one is going to want to hear about who the Cubs will pick with the 28th pick in the second round (except me).

2. I still think the Cubans are in play before Spring Training. In reality, a lot of when the Cubs can sign Cuban players, like Yasiel Sierra and Norge Ruiz, depends upon when MLB declares them to be free agents. We are just sitting and waiting for players like “Lazarito” to be eligible to sign. This may take up until the July 1 deadline in 2016. In lieu of not having any draft picks, their talent level is equal to or exceeding of those in the first three rounds of the 2016 MLB Draft.

3. With the majority of the position players signed through at least the 2018 to 2021 seasons, I think the Cubs begin to use some of those prospects at AA and AAA to acquire more Major League talent. The Cubs are still in need of a reliever and maybe another starting pitcher. Next year’s free agent class is all about Strasburg. After him, it doesn’t look so good.

4. It’s not that the Cubs starting pitching staff is old, but it’s not young either. There seems to be a finite window when this starting rotation can compete. After Lester, whose contract runs through 2021, Arrieta is still under control for a two more years. Kyle Hendricks has three, but Jason Hamel is only signed on for one more, and Lackey will be done in two years. Right now I like how these contracts are staggered to allow for future free agents and prospects to slide right in to a spot.

almora 64 155. I like the fact that the Cubs pretty much stripped AAA Iowa of half its players. While some are on the 40 man, the affiliate still has a lot of spots left to be filled in with prospects who are getting pretty close. I like that McKinney, Contreras, and Almora will be able to develop and play every game this year in Des Moines.

6. I Still think the Cubs need to go out and get a center fielder for one year, but it will not be Dexter Fowler. I think we might be surprised on who it is. Then again, the Cubs may just stick with Heyward.

7. I am getting a little geeked up for my Cubs Convention tickets to arrive in the mail. It takes place on January 15-17. For someone, who is a little agoraphobic (that would be me), I think I can make it through the Saturday sessions. The vibe this year should be ecstatic!

8. I am beginning to fill up my minor league baseball calendar. I have several short one hour trips to the Quad Cities, Clinton, Iowa, and Kane County to see South Bend play. It looks like I’ll also be making my way to Tennessee this summer to see the Smokies for the first time, and then on to Cincinnati to see the Cubs for a couple of days. Hopefully, I can see four games in six days in late-June.

9. Is going to be 60° out on December 12. I Find that just as amazing as the Cubs signing Jason Heyward.

10. Friday was just unreal, unreal! The 2016 Cubs will score a lot of runs. But you knew that already.

Cubs Positional Breakdown – Waves of Pitching About to Hit the Shores of Chicago

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When I began this series several weeks ago, I thought for sure that starting pitching would have the most depth in the Cubs’ system. I think that holds true in this article. The Cubs have a lot of depth spread across the system. While AAA has the fewest number of top pitching prospects, it also has 2-3 starters who could impact the majors in next year. In fact, in 2016, Cub fans could see the first pitcher drafted in the Theo era make it to the major leagues.

PIERCE 2016 78The names closest to making it to the majors are Pierce Johnson and Ryan Williams. Both will be at AAA Iowa in 2016. Johnson might be the second best starting pitcher in the Cubs minor league organization, but he’s had issues in the past with walks. At 24, he still is very young and can throw 91 to 95 miles an hour. He also has the use of four pitches but has yet to throw over 120 innings in the minors.

Williams, on the other hand, was a work horse for the Cubs in 2015. He began the year at South Bend and dominated the Midwest League with an ERA of less than one. He skipped hi A Myrtle Beach and the converted reliever was outstanding at AA Tennessee. Between the two levels he threw 141 innings with a 2.16 ERA. He struck out 98 with an amazing WHIP of 0.90. In September, Williams was named the Cubs minor-league pitcher of the year.

As a pitcher, Williams attacks zone, mainly the lower part of the zone, and gets hitters to hit ground balls. He may get some strikeouts but he is more of a command pitcher. His frame is big at 6’4” and 220 pounds and he is built to withstand the innings of being a starter in the major leagues. He could relieve or he could start. He could do like he did in college and do both.

For seven pitchers, 2016 could be an amazing year. The problem is I don’t know how these seven starting pitchers are going to get all get their innings in at AA Tennessee. Between Duane Underwood, Jen-Ho Tseng, Tyler Skulina, Daury Torrez, Jonathan Martinez, Paul Blackburn, and Brad Markey, AA Tennessee cannot have 7 starting pitchers. In fact, AA usually goes with 5 starters rather than six starters at all levels of A and rookie ball.

It is just mind-boggling the amount of starting pitching that that the Cubs have collected. They’ve gone after high end high school pitchers, experienced college pitchers, international free agents, and other teams’ prospects. The Cubs have a wide variety of pitchers with different styles.

Starting in 2017, every level is going to be filled with high-end pitchers. Some of the starters could be relief pitchers in the pros, but right now their job is to stretch out their arm get as many innings in that they can to develop that experience of pitching.

underwood 65If I had to rank ten of these pitchers to make it as pros based on their potential, I would take:

  1. Duane Underwood – Currently with two plus pitches in a 95 mph fastball and 12-7 curve, if Underwood can master his change, the Cubs will put in an express lane to Wrigley just for him.
  2. Pierce Johnson – There are only two things blocking his appearance at Wrigley: walks and staying healthy. If he can master those, you will see him this fall.
  3. Ryan Williams – Williams might be, the more I think about it, the first player drafted by Theo to make it to the show. Williams is a hardworking man whose versatility to start and relieve will work in his favor.
  4. Dylan Cease – If he ever pitches six innings in back-to-back starts, he moves up to #2 on this list. If he does it for a season. He will be the number one pitching prospect in the Cubs system with a FB of 96-100.
  5. Justin Steele – His first full season of A ball should delight us; well, make that his tight breaking curve will delight us.
  6. Oscar De La Cruz – He could shoot up this list, too, as he is still growing. If he comes out throwing 95-97 this year, he can say goodbye to South Bend very quickly along with #6.
  7. Trevor Clifton – The talent is all there and he began to develop some consistency with his curve later in the year. His goal for 2016 should be to be a three pitch pitcher who can throw any of his pitches at any time at any count for a strike.
  8. Jake Stinnett – To watch him pitch is magnificent as his pitches move and dart and dink and dive. Once he learns to control them, look out.
  9. Preston Morrison – He has a great feel for how to pitch and how to control the zone. The Cubs may have gotten a steal. It would not surprise me to see him go to high A to begin the year. He is turning into a weight room rat and has gained 4 mph on his fastball since college.
  10. Carson Sands – Just 20, Sands should get a work out at South Bend this year. Expect some up and downs, but also expect someone who does not get rattled and won’t back down.

Honorable Mention – Brad Markey and Paul Blackburn

I think these two guys really were the studs of the Myrtle Beach staff the second half of 2015. It would not surprise me to see them move to AAA faster just based on their experience and ability to actually pitch without overpowering pitches. It’s a skill often discounted in favor of flashy numbers on a radar gun. However, being able to put the pitch where you want it is even more valued in my book.

Evaluating minor league pitching is not an exact science. I am sure there will be one SP burst on to the scene that we didn’t see coming in 2016. In 2015, it was Oscar De La Cruz,

effross 73 2015Breakout Pitcher Picks

  1. My best bet for 2016 is on Scott Effross starting at South Bend. The former closer from Indiana University will begin getting stretched out in Spring Training. The fact that he can throw four pitches for a strike should make his transition easier.
  2. Casey Bloomquist – He’s a competitor with great command out of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. In limited action he pitched 20.2 innings after being signed. Opponents only hit .176 off him. His ERA was 2.19 with 22 Ks. He should be at South Bend and/or Myrtle Beach in 2016.

I thought 2015 was a great season to watch Cubs pitching prospects develop in the minors. There were some breakout pitchers like Ryan Williams and Oscar De La Cruz, but also some kids just kept on clicking despite some setbacks in the first half and it paid off with great second halves and two teams making the playoffs. In 2016, these arms could lead 3-4 of the Cubs 6 stateside teams to the playoffs.


The Heyward Signing: What Does It Mean?

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heyward 851 2 signIt’s only been about 5 hours since I heard the news at lunch.

I honestly didn’t think the Cubs were going to get Jason Heyward yesterday when rumors about the price range reached $200 million and 8 years. In fact, word about the details leaked late this afternoon. Jason Heyward is now the highest paid Cub ever! Over the next 8 years, Heyward is scheduled to make $184 million with opt out clauses after years 3 and/or 4 based on performance clasues. For Heyward, he cashes in now when he is 26, and he can cash in later when he is 29 or 30; and still get a nice payday then. Ken Rosenthal writes:

The first opt-out clause will give Heyward a chance to re-enter the market at 29 — still in his prime. The contract is expected to be front-loaded, with the Cubs gladly paying a premium in the early years. If Heyward performs well and bolts, so be it. The Cubs might win a World Series by then.

What Does It Mean for the Offense:
You have a player who will be in the prime of his career the next 4 seasons of the deal. Heyward has improved his batting average and on base percentage the past two years. He has the potential to be a 20/20 player every year. A left hander at the plate, Heyward gives the Cubs 3 of the game’s top lefties along with Rizzo and Schwarber. He could hit 2nd, he could hit 5th or 7th. Wherever Joe Maddon wants to put him, that’s where he will go. I think it all depends on the pitcher.

Possible Lineup
Zobrist (S)
Heyward (L)
Rizzo (L)
Bryant (R)
Schwarber (L)
Soler (R)
Monetro (L)
Russell (R)

Outside of Monetro/Ross, all these kids are under 26. They will all be in their prime years the next 3-4 years. It is becoming unreal to think that this team will be together for a while.

heyward 851 1 signThis is one monster lineup that Joe will tinker with on a daily basis. I love the balance between right handers and left handers, something has talked about since he came a year ago. Maddon will have a lot of options to use including Baez and LaStella off the bench.

I don’t think Heyward is going to be expected to hit homers. I think his job will be to get on base so the next three guys can drive him in. It is going to be scary good how devastating this offense can be. Teams will bring their “A” game to face the Cubs next year. They will need to.

Did I mention we add Javier Baez to the lineup when we the Cubs are in the AL parks? Fun, fun, fun!

What Does It mean for the Defensive Lineup
Heyward has one of the best arms in all of baseball. He was ranked 13th in all of MLB in dWAR regardless of position. It’s hard to imagine, but his arm is better than Soler’s. I see Heyward in CF next year, for now, but not long term. This might cause some problems as to where to put him in year 2 or 3 of his contract when the Cubs will likely have a more truer CF in Albert Almora. Then again, Almora doesn’t have the bat of Heyward. Almora has better range and Heyward also has the better arm.

I am still not sure how this will work. I think Heyward is best suited to right field. Whether Soler stays in right and/or the Cubs get a CF later this winter remains to be seen. The Cubs definitely have a lot of options. Let’s give it some time to play out.

What’s Left to Get This Winter
I would feel more comfortable adding a truer CF and another pitcher. Jake McGee and Jake Odorizzi come to mind for pitchers. I don’t think the Cubs need to trade within the NL. I think they have to go AL. I don’t want to see whomever is traded come back and haunt the Cubs in a game or NL Playoffs. Since the Cubs only face AL teams every three years, I’d be OK trading with a Tampa, Cleveland, or Baltimore.

Getting the CF is not going to come cheap. The Cubs could trade major league talent or a mixture of major league and minor league talent to get their final few needs for 2016. I think the free agent market has been all played/spent out. It’s time to see that creativity Theo has talked about this offseason.

PS – This is so GREAT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Cubs Do It Again! Heyward Signs!

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More particulars to come later!