Chicago Cubs: Free agency

Inside the pursuit of Russell Martin

November, 23, 2014
11/23/14
7:22
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- Though the Chicago Cubs lost out on their bid for free-agent catcher Russell Martin early last week, it doesn’t mean they weren’t in the hunt until the end. Martin’s Chicago-based agent, Matt Colleran, says it was neck-and-neck between the Cubs and the team Martin eventually signed with, the Toronto Blue Jays.

"There were times throughout the process where it was Toronto and the Cubs, 1 and 2," Colleran recalled this past weekend. "They probably flipped spots in that process. One day the Cubs [were] going a little ahead, and the next Toronto was ahead. When we got into the [last] weekend the dollars started to come into play, and Toronto was just super aggressive with their approach."

[+] EnlargeRussell Martin
Andrew Francis Wallace/Toronto Star/Getty ImagesFree-agent catcher Russell Martin was deciding between the Cubs and Blue Jays, according to his agent. He ultimately chose Toronto.
Colleran actually indicated the Blue Jays were the most aggressive team from the start of free agency, as he received a call from them at "9:01 a.m. on the very first day." But the Cubs were nearly as aggressive, and their face-to-face meeting couldn't have gone better, according to the agent.

"Those guys are incredibly professional," Colleran said of the Cubs' front office. "The presentation was professional and on point … Russ came away super impressed."

The presentation highlighted the Cubs' future and featured both current and former players, but at the end of the day the Blue Jays simply wouldn't be denied. Last Sunday morning is when Toronto's general manager Alex Anthopoulos basically told Colleran the Blue Jays were getting his client one way or another.

"He flat-out said that [in the] morning," Colleran stated. "He said it in a way that he was determined and that he was going to be in it until the end. He was aggressive throughout the entire process, so that statement didn't surprise me."

By that evening, Martin had agreed to a 5-year, $82 million deal. The price tag was simply too steep for the Cubs, who were of the mindset that a four-year deal was their limit. At some point in the process, it became clear to Colleran that Martin's former team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, couldn't afford to have him back, and GM Neal Huntington intimated as much in interviews late in the final week before his former catcher signed. But just days before the agreement with the Blue Jays, the Cubs sounded like a team that had hopes of landing him -- without mentioning Martin by name -- while discussing the development of 2014 first-round pick, Kyle Schwarber.

"Catchers take a little bit longer to develop in the minor leagues, and when they break in, they break in gradually and it's important for them to have good mentors," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said at the general manager meetings in Arizona. "He could very much be in our plans, and it would still make sense to sign a catcher if it's the right catcher out there."

Martin was that right guy, but not at Brian McCann-type money. McCann's 5-year contract for $85 million with the New York Yankees last offseason was the deal Martin's camp used for comparison, according to Colleran. He was the only comparable catcher who actually made it to free agency, though McCann is one year younger.

"We wanted to get close," Colleran said.

And the Blue Jays were a willing participant. Colleran indicated having the best free-agent catcher is a little different from other positions. It's why a deal was able to get done so early in the offseason.

"I sensed that things were going to move because each team involved in it was not waiting for something else to happen to get to Russell," Colleran explained.

In other words, going after Martin wasn't contingent on anything else the Cubs were doing. They wanted him, as did the Los Angeles Dodgers and Pirates, but only the Blue Jays "stepped up to the plate."

"They took the lead in everything," Colleran said.

And what if the offers by the Cubs and Blue Jays were equal?

"He never had to answer the question because of where it [the money] went," Colleran said.

Cubs make pitch to Jon Lester

November, 19, 2014
11/19/14
8:00
AM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- After a day and night of courting by the Chicago Cubs, free-agent hurler Jon Lester is moving on, presumably to talk with the Atlanta Braves and possibly the St. Louis Cardinals, according to various reports.

The Cubs made their big pitch to the lefty pitcher on Tuesday, according to a source familiar with the situation. It was probably similar to the one they made last week to catcher Russell Martin that involved a tour of Wrigley Field under renovation, a presentation expressing the potential of the team’s future and then, dinner. The Cubs lost out on Martin to the Toronto Blue Jays and could lose out on Lester for similar reasons: They aren’t desperate enough to get into a bidding war.

[+] EnlargeJon Lester
Bob Stanton/USA TODAY SportsSeveral teams are in the running to sign Jon Lester, but the pitcher's ties to Theo Epstein could give the Cubs an edge.
Teams such as the Boston Red Sox and Cardinals are in a win-now mode, and if Lester wants to be assured of a return to the postseason in 2015, he’ll choose St. Louis or Boston before picking the Cubs, while the Braves might have a shot because Lester lives in the Atlanta area and reportedly purchased a $3.4 million home there last April. But the Braves are in a retooling mode and aren’t looking to spend big money, though they’ve stated they’re looking for pitching wherever they can find it.

The Red Sox and Cubs are considered front-runners because of their ties to Lester, who was drafted by Theo Epstein in Boston and matured as a player under then-pitching coach John Farrell. Farrell is the Red Sox's manager now, and the two helped Boston to a World Series title in 2013, as Epstein did with Lester in 2007. Farrell was there that year, as well.

It might simply come down to the better contract, as it usually does “99 percent” of the time, according to Epstein. The Cubs smartly got out of the Martin bidding when it went too high, and they could easily do the same with Lester.

The Red Sox could be entering the end of a competitive window that has seen them go from last to first and back to last again over the past three seasons. Presumably, the window closes when David Ortiz retires and Dustin Pedroia starts to slow down. By most metrics, the latter had his worst year as a full-time starter in 2014, as he’s on the other side of 30 after spending just under a decade with the Red Sox.

So Lester can take a last stab or two with Boston, where he’s beloved and probably comfortable, or he can go “home” to Atlanta and live in his mansion during the season. Or he can buy what the Cubs were selling him on Tuesday: something new, something on the upswing, something historic. And probably about $120 million to $130 million on top of it.

It has to be enticing for Lester to take his talents to the National League, as many a career American League pitcher has had success going over to face lighter hitting lineups. One prominent agent recently said Lester could produce a “Kershaw-type season” if he pitched in the NL. That might be stretching it, as 2014 might have been his best year of his career, especially since he was pitching for an awful team in Boston until his trade to Oakland. Can he repeat that? He’ll have a better chance to improve on it in the NL -- undoubtedly a selling point for the Cubs' front office.

Dinner in Chicago probably isn’t going to impress a veteran as much as the chance to break the longest championship drought in professional sports, but will Lester buy in? And will the Cubs pay up a year or two sooner than they’re ready to really contend? Of course, the addition of Lester moves them that much closer, but a team like the Cardinals can say, “We’re already there.” And they’d be right.

The Lester tour continues. Where it ends is still a mystery.

Martin looking even better for Cubs

November, 12, 2014
11/12/14
10:52
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
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PHOENIX – The general managers meetings in Arizona end where they began for the Chicago Cubs: with free-agent catcher Russell Martin.

News that the Pittsburgh Pirates traded for backstop Francisco Cervelli underscores that they're more than likely losing Martin to free agency. And if they lose him to the Cubs, it's a double whammy for the Pirates, who've qualified for the past two postseasons only to fall in the NLDS in 2013 and the wild-card game this year.

"It makes your team a little bit worse or a lot worse and makes the other team a little bit better or a lot better," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said Wednesday afternoon. "The challenge becomes, in our market, we can only do what we can do. And we have to stay true to that."

[+] EnlargeRussell Martin
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsRussell Martin has visited with the Cubs, and sources say contract talks could begin soon.
That sounds like a man who could be moving on from his star catcher -- and those statements came before the trade for Cervelli. It means the door is wide open for the Cubs.

Cubs president Theo Epstein didn't shoot down the notion of signing a catcher, even while acknowledging his enthusiasm for 2014 first-round pick Kyle Schwarber. Epstein has been as high on Schwarber as any of his prospects, but that doesn't mean he's near ready for the big leagues.

"He hasn't even played his first professional season yet," Epstein said. "He could very much be in our plans and it would still make sense to sign a catcher if it's the right catcher out there."

Martin already visited with the Cubs in Chicago, and sources familiar with the situation say contract talks should pick up as soon as the general managers meetings conclude Thursday morning. Martin's agent wasn't in Phoenix this week. And remember, though Martin will command top dollar -- think 4-5 years and $60-70 million or more -- he would be brought in for more than the numbers he produces.

"Catchers take a little bit longer to develop in the minor leagues, and when they break in, they break in gradually, and it's important for them to have good mentors," Epstein said. "It's important not to look at players you love in the minor leagues and start making big league decisions. You don't want to block guys, but if you make assumptions like your top-10 prospect list is going to show up in the big leagues, that can be just as big of an error. So you have to balance those things."

That sounds a lot like a man ready to bring in a veteran for Schwarber to learn from, doesn't it? Just as Huntington sounded like a man about to lose one. Stay tuned, because the first big domino for the Cubs could fall very soon.

Cubs claim pitcher Roach from Padres

November, 12, 2014
11/12/14
4:21
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
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PHOENIX -- The Chicago Cubs acquired right-handed pitcher Donn Roach off of waivers from the San Diego Padres, the team announced Wednesday.

Roach, 24, appeared in 16 games for San Diego mostly out of the bullpen in 2014 and produced a 4.75 ERA.

“He does a real nice job of keeping the ball on the ground,” Cubs President Theo Epstein said from the GM meetings in Arizona. “He’s a guy to add to that next tier of relievers.”

Roach was 4-6 with a 5.24 ERA for Triple-A El Paso after being sent down in June. He was a third-round pick of the Los Angeles Angels in 2010. The Cubs' 40-man roster now stands at 38.

Epstein: Cubs 'no longer runt of the litter'

November, 10, 2014
11/10/14
9:26
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
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Theo EpstienAP Photo/M. Spencer Green"Though we're trying to develop," Theo Epstein said, "we also want some accountability for winning."

PHOENIX – The Chicago Cubs' return to relevance continues to take shape, with team president Theo Epstein saying Monday that he’s receiving more calls from opposing executives than has been typical at this point in past offseasons, while top free agents are starting to take the franchise seriously again.

“It’s probably the first time agents can come into our suite without having to look both ways to make sure no one sees them coming in,” Epstein joked on the first day of baseball's general-managers meetings in Arizona. “We’re no longer the runt of the litter, I guess.”

In other words, it’s no longer an embarrassment to be associated with the Cubs -- despite the Tampa Bay Rays' accusations of tampering in Chicago's hiring of new manager Joe Maddon. Epstein thinks the Cubs' stated goal of making a push for the playoffs in 2015 might have influenced Maddon and should have an effect on free agents as well. He met with a few agents Monday and at least one last week.

“It’s important to identify winning as the only objective,” Epstein said. “It’s important to be clear that even though we’re trying to develop, we also want some accountability for winning.”

The youngest team in baseball will try to do both next season, but who will join its core group to help the cause? That’s what this week’s GM gathering and baseball's winter meetings next month will help determine. There’s a sentiment in Arizona that available, good position players will be quickly sought after, while the pitching market might take longer to develop. There projects to be more pitching than hitting available over the next two winters, so teams might want to gobble up the position players as soon as possible. Perhaps that’s why the Cubs met with free-agent catcher Russell Martin last week -- very early in the process.

“The early deals take a lot of conviction on both sides,” Epstein said. “It takes a player that’s really comfortable and wants a certain destination. It takes a team that wants a certain player.”

Martin might qualify as that player for the Cubs, but the veteran will have other suitors. Only a few will be able to afford him, though. The Cubs have as good a chance as any, and once these meetings are over, talks should pick up.

There’s also talk of mutual interest in Jason Hammel returning to the Cubs after his big first half in Chicago the past season. One name the Cubs haven’t called on -- at least not yet -- is lefty reliever Andrew Miller.

As for trades, general manager Jed Hoyer said Friday the team’s priority wasn’t going to be trading from its prospect base. Epstein reiterated that Monday -- sort of.

“Definitely open to making trades,” he said. “In the long run, trades can work out better than free agency. You’re targeting players in trades rather than just what’s available.

“Trades, while seemingly more painful at the time because you have to give up talent instead of just money, in the long run, they can work out better. The obvious move is to hold on to your talent and just use money to sign free agents, and that will be our primary approach over the next 15 months, but you can make mistakes by holding on to your own players too long. There’s a good chance we’ll make some trade of some significance over the next 15 months, though.”

The bottom line is the Cubs will trade their young talent if they can get back young talent they can control or know they can sign to long-term deals. Epstein noted the difficulty in trading for a player with one year left on his contract -- because the compensation for such a rental probably isn’t worth giving up, unless the deal comes with an extension. Either way, moving Chicago's young talent right now seems like a long shot.

“There’s a real dearth of impact position players out there right now,” Epstein said. “We have some of that. We’re not in a rush to move it.”

Given that thinking, striking early for Martin is a real possibility, but the Cubs will take their time in possibly spending $100 million or more on a pitcher. Jon Lester and Max Scherzer simply aren’t coming off the board any time soon. And the Cubs will need to weigh the pros and cons before committing to a contract that will probably be a bad one for the team in the long term -- unless it brings the Cubs a World Series, of course. In that case, no contract will have been a bad one.

“Just because you can afford one, does that mean you should?” Epstein asked. “I think it has to be the right pitcher because those contracts tend not to work out.”

Cubs head to Arizona with 'momentum'

November, 9, 2014
11/09/14
6:57
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
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PHOENIX -- It all starts here.

The most important offseason -- to this point, at least -- of Chicago Cubs president Theo Epstein’s regime begins in earnest at the posh Arizona Biltmore hotel, where general managers will meet this week to discuss everything from rule changes to ways to speed up the game.

But it’s the personnel decisions -- of the trade and free-agent variety -- that Cubs fans will focus on most. The winter meetings next month in San Diego might produce more headlines, but Cubs GM Jed Hoyer admitted recently that the offseason has morphed into more than a just a few weeks in December.

“It’s probably going to last three, three-and-a-half months,” Hoyer said. “You probably don’t want to be overly aggressive out of the gate.”

By the same token, you don’t want to wait too long, either. Not this year. Not when the Cubs want to take advantage of the “momentum” they’ve created by producing the top farm system in the game and hiring one of the best managers. Hoyer admitted it’s a Nik Wallenda kind of tightrope the Cubs need to walk. Remember, this front office hasn’t nearly been as active over the past three winters as it will be moving forward, starting now and extending to after the 2015 season.

“It’s a delicate balancing process,” Hoyer said. “Sometimes there is a better fit in trade than free agency, but you have to balance what you have to give up [from] your team.”

[+] EnlargeJoe Maddon
AP Photo/M. Spencer GreenHiring Joe Maddon as the manager topped off the momentum the Cubs are brimming with so far this offseason.

However, free agency these days isn’t producing the big fixes it might have in the past.

“The overall [free-agent] talent over the last few years is not what it was five to six years ago,” Hoyer said. “It does force teams, including us, to talk trades more than in the past.”

Hoyer is right, but that trend might end next winter, when a more talented set of players are in line to become free agents. Just take a look at the top of the pitching class this year, as opposed to next. Two true aces in Max Scherzer and Jon Lester are available now, with James Shields behind them. Next winter, Jordan Zimmermann, Johnny Cueto and David Price are the top hurlers scheduled to become free agents, along with an impressive secondary list including Jeff Samardzija, Doug Fister, Rick Porcello, Yovani Gallardo and Hisashi Iwakuma -- to name a few.

As for position players -- the market the Cubs will probably be less active in overall -- the difference between this year and next is similar to the pitching. Yes, Pablo Sandoval and Russell Martin are available now, but the top two home run hitters coming off 2014, Nelson Cruz and Victor Martinez, are 34 and 35, respectively. Neither would be a great fit in the National League for a long-term deal, anyway.

Some of these players will undoubtedly sign deals with their current teams, but with only one season until a chance to hit the open market, don’t expect the majority to become unavailable to the Cubs. As for those trades, the Cubs still aren’t likely to move players they just spent three years acquiring -- at least not yet.

“I don’t think we go into an offseason looking to trade from our biggest strength,” Hoyer said in what might be the most revealing winter statement. “As we enter this offseason, our discussions are not around trading those guys, but rather how to add players around those guys to form a better team.”

So don’t expect the crowded infield of prospects to be on the move. If they are, it’s more likely for veteran pitching -- think Cole Hamels -- which might be more reliable than young starters who, ironically, could be just as injury-prone as any other 30-year-old. In fact, players such as Lester might prove to be the better bet for sustained health because they’ve already proved it for so long. Lester has made 31 or more starts in each of the past seven years. Can he do it for three or four more? The word in baseball these days is young pitching isn’t worth all the risk, and it's certainly not worth giving up young hitters to attain.

Where does that leave the Cubs?

As has been well reported (at least in Chicago), the Cubs won’t lose their minds this free-agent season. Not without a fully formed team and not without knowing where their long-term holes are. As much as they want to add talent, they’re more sure about who can bring leadership. And Joe Maddon isn’t enough.

“It’s not the same,” Hoyer said. “The coaching staff and the manager are never going to have the same relationship that a peer would. It’s why we would like to add multiple people. Maybe a player in the starting lineup, maybe a bench player, maybe someone in the bullpen, maybe someone in the rotation.”

If they can fill all those “holes,” it will be a good offseason, indeed. It’s a cliché, but the Cubs still need to learn how to win. That’s where that need for leadership comes in. Mostly, their young players need to understand how to grind out a 162-game season while limiting the slumps. It’s why free-agent catcher Russell Martin has much more value than his numbers, and the Cubs might be willing to pay for it.

“The phase we were in before, we tried to acquire as much young talent as possible,” Hoyer said.

That’s no longer the case, so it’s about to become fun for the Cubs' front office. They get to play fantasy baseball while understanding they aren’t desperate. Agents and general managers sitting across the table from them might feel differently until they hear the Cubs' front-office talk. Unless, of course, Epstein and Hoyer are just playing possum as they attempt to bring down the price on several of the big names.

More than likely, the Cubs will be as methodical as they have been throughout the rebuilding process. And they will strike at any time -- perhaps even here in Arizona. Hoyer indicated as much in a conference call with reporters on Friday.

“You don’t want to lay back and wait,” he said.

But later he added: “There will be some good deals that come late in the winter.”

The best thing the Cubs' front office has always had going for it is a patient owner. Although the presence of Maddon might change things conceptually, nothing has changed inside the Cubs' hierarchy. The additions will come when they're right and make sense, not in some dramatic flood of signings and trades to make the big run in 2015. Although the outside world might look at the Cubs differently at these meetings, it’s business as usual internally. The only difference is the phase of the rebuild the Cubs are in -- and the enthusiasm behind it.

“There’s pretty good momentum that we have,” Hoyer said. “Joe coming onboard kind of underscored we have momentum.”

Hoyer: 'Super-charged offseason ... is overstated'

November, 7, 2014
11/07/14
5:28
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- With rumors already swirling that the Chicago Cubs are interested in some of the game’s biggest free agents, general manager Jed Hoyer explained Friday where some of that rhetoric is coming from.

“We’re literally linked to every free agent it seems like,” Hoyer said on a conference call with reporters. “Some of that is agent driven. They’re trying to connect us to everyone because they realize we do have some payroll flexibility. We said all along that if the right things line up we can have an active offseason.”

[+] EnlargeJed Hoyer
Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY SportsJed Hoyer knows the Cubs will be linked to a lot of free agents, but he's not going to force anything.
That last statement hedges Hoyer’s bets because every team can claim an active offseason “if things line up.” The bottom line is the Cubs are going to kick some tires on some of the better players available -- like catcher Russell Martin -- but that doesn’t mean they’ll sign multiple names for mega-bucks. It does mean they’ll talk to a lot of them though.

“We’re not going to force it, and certainly a lot of the reports we’ve read makes us seem like we’re going to have some supercharged offseason and I think that’s probably overstated.” Hoyer said.

The Cubs won’t comment on individual free agents or trade targets, but Martin is in their sights, according to sources familiar with the situation. The issue is the cost. Last November, the New York Yankees signed Brian McCann to a five-year, $85 million deal. Martin had a better walk year with the Pittsburgh Pirates than McCann did with the Atlanta Braves despite less power and is just one year older than McCann. Will Martin get the same kind of deal?

“We want veteran leadership on the team,” Hoyer said. “Whether that’s one person or 3-4 people.”

Martin would qualify, as he helped the Pirates to the playoffs in each of his two seasons in Pittsburgh. Only a handful of teams can afford him, and the Cubs are one of them.

And so as the front office heads to Arizona next week for the general manager’s meetings they’ll have a more focused agenda than last offseason.

“In general, we’re a little more targeted than we were,” Hoyer said. “I will be very surprised if we weren’t involved with guys early. If something gets done, that’s great.”

It just won’t get done with everyone you’re hearing about.

Why Russell Martin makes sense for Cubs

November, 5, 2014
11/05/14
5:34
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- He’s become one of the hottest names in free agency though he’s technically not even available to 29 other teams just yet. Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Russell Martin is expected to have many suitors if he leaves Pittsburgh, where he’ll undoubtedly turn down a $15.3 million qualifying offer to play for them next year. He could still sign a long-term deal with the Pirates, but the Chicago Cubs might have something to say about it, as could a host of other teams.

Martin, 31, is the prize among available catchers after producing an impressive slash line in 2014: .290/.402/.430/.832. That on-base percentage sticks out as the Cubs could use some walks from wherever they can get them in the lineup. He also ranked second in defensive WAR for the second consecutive year. The Cubs have a starting catcher in Welington Castillo but, he’s not progressing in the manner the club may have hoped. Though four years younger than Martin, Castillo's slash line in 2014 was decidedly less impressive: .237/.296/.389/.686.

And while Castillo led all catchers in defensive WAR in 2013 -- just ahead of Martin -- he dropped to 12th this past season. Additionally, Castillo isn’t known for some of the more nuanced parts of the game, including calling pitches, pitch framing and simply having the best feel for what’s needed at that position. At one time he looked like an up-and-comer, but he’ll be 28 in April and has yet to have any kind of a breakout to his career. He’s not bad -- he’s just not Joe Maddon-type of dynamic. Martin might have that quality, as Pirates pitchers swore by him last season. To be fair, Cubs pitcher Kyle Hendricks emerged last year mostly working with Castillo, but, simply put, Martin is a better player and brings more to the table.

Now, Martin’s BABIP (batting average on balls in play) was a career-high .336 in 2014 despite his line-drive percentage (21.4) being a tick below the league average. It means he could have had some decent luck in getting to that .290 batting average. It’s bound to come down, but that doesn’t matter much considering he brings a lot more to the table. A dynamic catcher can touch so many parts of a team, starting with leadership. The Cubs are looking for some of that, and Martin would check off a bunch of different boxes. He works with the pitchers, deals with the coaches and of course is right there with hitters as well. A great, veteran catcher who can lead is a luxury in baseball that any manager would want.

So can the Cubs land him? Should they?

(Read full post)

How will the Cubs fare in free agency?

October, 6, 2014
10/06/14
11:24
AM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
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ESPNChicago.com's Jesse Rogers takes a look at the biggest storylines facing the Cubs during the offseason.

Will it be Jon Lester or Russell Martin? Will James Shields end up a Cub? What about those veteran-leader types the club wants to bring in, such as Jonny Gomes?

[+] EnlargeJon Lester
Steven Bisig/USA TODAY SportsThe Cubs' front office has ties to former Red Sox pitcher Jon Lester.
As with almost any baseball offseason, free agency, which begins after the World Series, tends to be the No. 1 storyline. The Chicago Cubs were fairly quiet on that front last winter, with pitchers Jason Hammel and Jose Veras ending up as the only significant acquisitions. The Cubs flipped Hammel as part of the trade that sent Jeff Samardzija to the Oakland Athletics in July, and an ineffective Veras was designated for assignment in June.

This winter the Cubs say they will be eyeing some potential impact names, especially when it comes to starting pitching. Will they spend the $100 million-plus they had ready for Masahiro Tanaka last year? It's the same money they chose not to spend on Samardzija during this season before trading him.

Three top-level free agent pitchers will be on the market, unless they surprisingly sign with their old teams before free agency begins.

Lester of the Athletics, the Detroit Tigers' Max Scherzer and the Royals' Shields are the best of the class. If 2015 team options on Johnny Cueto of the Cincinnati Reds or Yovani Gallardo of the Milwaukee Brewers are declined, then the starting pitching class gets much deeper. But don't hold your breath on either happening.

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It actually might be a deeper class if the solid second-half performances of Jake Peavy, Brandon McCarthy and Francisco Liriano, all of whom are set to become free agents, are factored in. Justin Masterson might check a few boxes for the Cubs coming from the American League to the National League, although he struggled with St. Louis after being acquired from Cleveland.

It's not clear how far the Cubs will go in a bidding war for one of the top arms. They've already stated they won't "sell out" for 2015. Whoever they bring in at this point should be counted on to be a playoff pitcher someday soon. The Cubs are on record as saying their intended strategy is no longer to sign and flip players in trades as they have the past three seasons.

As for position players: Martin, the veteran Pittsburgh Pirates catcher who will be 32 this winter, makes sense since he combines an offensive and defensive game. Even if the Cubs have to overpay for a player on the wrong side of 30, Martin could be a nice tutor for Cubs pitchers and a stopgap until 2014 top pick Kyle Schwarber, or another, is ready. More than likely, the Cubs will also bring in a veteran position player with playoff experience, even as a platoon or a backup.

Free-agent focus: Veteran OF Jonny Gomes would fit with Cubs

October, 3, 2014
10/03/14
10:17
AM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
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Jonny GomesThearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesJonny Gomes is used to sharing time in the field and is the type of clubhouse presence the Cubs want.
CHICAGO – While the free-agent frenzy is close to beginning for big-name pitchers such as Jon Lester and Max Scherzer, the Chicago Cubs are on record saying they want to bring in some veteran position-player leadership along with a top-of-the-line hurler.

More than likely that will come in the form of an outfielder, as Cubs president Theo Epstein indicated Tuesday in his end-of-the-year news conference.

"In an ideal world, we'd like to add to the outfield mix," Epstein said. "Just because we have three guys that go out there and form an Opening Day outfield as it is, that doesn't mean we're content. We're certainly going to add talent and shape the way the parts fit together once we can acquire some more talent."

The Cubs want a guy who has been there before. Someone who has playoff experience and can help lead a young team. He probably won't be an everyday starter, because the Cubs want to give their prospects a chance to grow and, frankly, there aren't many good outfielders hitting the market at the right age anyway. The proper target would also need to be good with the media, as that would help players like Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro if someone else was around to answer the tough questions.

League sources indicate that the Cubs could be interested in Oakland Athletics outfielder Jonny Gomes for this role. He checks the boxes for leadership and playoff experience, having been to the postseason four of the past five years playing for three teams, including the A's in 2012 and 2014. He's exactly the type of player the Cubs' front office is undoubtedly looking for. He won a championship with Boston last season before winding up back to Oakland this year, hitting a combined .234 with six home runs and 37 RBIs between the two teams.

[+] EnlargeTorii Hunter
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesIt's unclear if Torii Hunter would accept a platoon role in the outfield, but the 39-year-old has postseason experience aplenty.
"The outfield is always an opportunity where you can add talent and the parts can fit well together," Epstein said.

Translation: the outfield is where a platoon works best, and it's the leadership, not the numbers, that the Cubs are looking for. The right-handed-hitting Gomes will turn 34 in November and isn't an everyday player, but he might fit nicely in left field along with incumbent Chris Coghlan. Gomes might find an American League team more to his liking because he could find at-bats as a designated hitter as well as in the outfield, but the Cubs could probably lure him to Chicago with the right two-year deal.

The Cubs are going to be careful with whatever veteran they bring in, and while Gomes and Epstein weren't in Boston at the same time, they were in the same division for plenty of years, Gomes having broken in with the Tampa Bay Rays while Epstein was running the Red Sox. Plus, everyone saw what Gomes brought to the Red Sox last season, and Epstein has plenty of people he can turn to in Boston to inform him. The Cubs shouldn't be surprised by any character issues.

There are other players who might fit the bill as a veteran leader, including longtime standout Torii Hunter. He might want more than platoon at-bats, though he turned 39 this season. But he's still going strong, helping the Detroit Tigers to another division title while hitting .286 with 17 home runs and 83 RBIs in 142 games and 549 at-bats. And he's been to the postseason eight times, including this season. So is Hunter ready for a part-time role? If so, he's another ideal fit.

Emilio Bonifacio is available and did a credible job with the Cubs in the first half this season helping some of the younger players, but he doesn't have postseason experience and didn't take the pressure off Rizzo or Castro when it came to facing the media. Gomes and Hunter could do that.

The Cubs are going to let Jorge Soler and Arismendy Alcantara get as much experience in right and center fields as possible, so that leaves a right-handed bat to share left field with Coghlan.

While the top-of-the-rotation pitcher the Cubs pursue will undoubtedly garner more headlines, the veteran leader they bring in might be -- relatively speaking -- as important. Someone has to show the youngest team in baseball what it takes to win over 162 games. Think Gomes, or someone like Hunter. One could be a Cub.

GM: Cubs' needs include veteran leadership

September, 16, 2014
9/16/14
9:00
AM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
Jonny GomesAP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastJonny Gomes has the veteran edge the Cubs seek, though he's more of a platoon player.
CHICAGO -- Chicago Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer gave insight Monday into the team’s offseason needs -- other than pitching -- in saying that veteran leadership will be a priority.

“We need to add some guys to our roster that can help provide that,” Hoyer said before the Cubs beat the Cincinnati Reds. “We also have to lengthen out our position-player group.”

As much as Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro have taken over leadership roles, the Cubs still think they need help. It wasn’t that long ago that the two All-Stars were finding their way themselves. In fact, they still are.

“They probably need some guys around them that can teach them the right things to do,” Hoyer said. “I’ve talked to them both individually about that and they want to do it, but I don’t think right now they have enough experience, or I don’t think they’ve been around enough guys that are real clubhouse leaders that have taught them the ropes. I think we need to provide that for those guys.”

So who can the Cubs bring in and where would they play? Hoyer said many starting jobs will be filled by young prospects, some of whom have already made their major league debuts this season.

“That takes up a fair number of positions," Hoyer said, "but we wouldn’t rule out adding a starting player or two that can help there as well."

Going around the infield and outfield as it’s currently constituted, there would seem to be only a couple of openings for a true starter unless the Cubs are going to push a young player aside. Hoyer said it wasn’t a sure thing that the franchise's minor league player of the year, Kris Bryant, would begin the season as the Cubs' starting third baseman, but the team has a good stopgap in Luis Valbuena. Left field is a possibility -- Chris Coghlan has had a nice season there but could be an extra outfielder or platoon player when it’s all said and done.

How does a player with championship experience such as Jonny Gomes sound? That’s the kind of leadership the Cubs are undoubtedly looking for, though he wouldn’t necessarily be an everyday player. But remember, there aren’t a lot of players in their prime who become free agents these days. Baltimore’s Nelson Cruz will be available after a huge year, for example, but he comes with the baggage of having served a PED suspension last season. So a quasi-starter who has winning experience might be the best option.

[+] EnlargeRussell Martin
Mitchell Leff/Getty ImagesRussell Martin is a pennant-chase veteran and is a presence both offensively and defensively.
Looking at the current incumbents, the only other possible positions the Cubs might explore are center field and catcher. Hoyer praised Welington Castillo for his hard work, but, reading between the lines, he left the door open for a replacement behind the plate considering Castillo hasn’t had the best of years.

“Early this season he really didn’t capitalize on the big second half he had last year,” Hoyer said of the 27-year-old. “Everyone’s hope was he would springboard off that big second half and go right into this year. That didn’t happen, but at the same time he’s been better in the second half.”

Again, while saying the Cubs want to see more, there was still plenty of praise for Castillo.

“His name doesn’t get mentioned a lot when we talk about our established young veterans, but I think he can be in that mix as well,” Hoyer said. “He’s shown glimpses of being a front-line guy."

But that doesn’t mean the Cubs can’t do better. Castillo is still behind the eight ball when it comes to calling a game and getting the best out of his pitchers. The Pirates’ Russell Martin is the biggest of the catching names that will become a free agent at year’s end, and he could check all the boxes in terms of offense and defense. A young pitching staff sometimes screams for a veteran catcher. John Baker has helped on the defensive end, but doesn’t have the bat to play -- and lead -- every day.

Center field could be in play as well. Arismendy Alcantara showed great instincts when he was first called up, but he’s had some growing pains and his plate discipline could be a concern; he’s produced a 5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in the big leagues so far.

That's not to say Alcantara will be pushed aside, but the Cubs might want to bring in a veteran to show him the way. And it remains to be seen if he’s the leadoff hitter the Cubs will employ when they are ready to contend. But expect Alcantara to be given every chance to be the man in center ... at least until prospect Albert Almora is ready. That doesn’t mean Alcantara can’t still move around the diamond again. He’s that versatile.

Some more depth should come from within as the Cubs have developed possible role players in Logan Watkins or Matt Szczur, but they don’t fit the veteran need Hoyer discussed. A dangerous lineup of young talent, mixed with some experience and understanding of how to get on base, is the Cubs' ideal.

“When you do accomplish it, it’s really hard on the pitchers,” Hoyer said of a good Nos. 1 through 8 in the order. “They’re not used to it over here [National League] as much.”

So while keeping an eye on where free-agent-to-be pitcher Jon Lester is going to sign, also watch some veteran position players. The Cubs are bound to grab at least one.

Why Jon Lester makes sense for Cubs

September, 9, 2014
9/09/14
3:16
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
While watching the Chicago Cubs take on the Toronto Blue Jays on Tuesday night, you might want to change the television channel to get a glimpse of Oakland Athletics starter Jon Lester as he pitches against the White Sox.

Could Lester return to Chicago next season as a top-of-the-rotation starter for the Cubs?

[+] EnlargeJon Lester
Ed Zurga/Getty ImagesJon Lester has a 2.59 ERA in seven starts with the Athletics since his trade from Boston.
A free agent at season's end, Lester has a good relationship with the Cubs' front office and is still seemingly in the prime of his career. We also know the Cubs are on the record saying they need top-end pitching.

Lester, 30, is 13-10 with a 2.54 ERA in 28 starts split between the Boston Red Sox and the Athletics. He's set to become a free agent for the first time in his career in a matter of weeks, and he will command top dollar. But here's the most important aspect of Lester: He's made a minimum of 31 starts every season since 2008. That should be very enticing to a team like the Cubs, which is likely to make at least one big splash in the free-agent pitching foray over the next two offseasons. You don't want to miss on a $100 million-plus investment.

"They [Cubs brass] always treated me with the utmost respect and class," Lester said earlier this season. "I have nothing but good things to say about them."

Theo Epstein was hired by the Boston Red Sox in 2002, the fall after Lester was drafted, but they won a World Series together in 2007. In 2009 Epstein signed him to a $44 million contract extension that ends this year. The Red Sox also saw Lester through while he dealt with non-Hodgkin Lymphoma in 2006.

"Obviously there's the familiarity with those guys," Lester said.

The Cubs may not want to get into a bidding war for Lester's services since they aren't in a win-at-all costs mode, nor are they one player away. But maybe the past connection with him is enough to forge a deal that fits their liking.

There's little doubt pitchers coming over from the American League have a history of success when they put on a National League uniform. The lineups are easier to navigate with the pitcher looming at the bottom of the order. Jason Hammel, Scott Feldman and Jake Arrieta are just the most recent examples.

Lester has been trending toward more fly balls than groundouts, but the sample size isn't large enough to be overly concerned. And as much as the wind blows in at Wrigley Field these days, giving up fly balls may not be as disastrous as it used to be.

If there was any 30-year-old, free-agent pitcher who you could predict success for in a Cubs uniform -- at potentially the right price -- Lester might be it. Plus, the Cubs would not have to give up a draft pick to sign him since he was traded midseason this year.

And if not Lester, maybe the Cubs should hold off on a major free-agent investment until after the 2015 season. That class is deeper. After the A's lefty, Max Scherzer of the Detroit Tigers is the only other true top-of-the-rotation pitcher going to the market this year. He's already reportedly turned down a $144 million extension from the Tigers. Can you see the Cubs going higher than that figure as soon as this offseason? Then again Lester might be asking for the same or more. No one knows.

After Lester and Scherzer, the pitching market drops. There's quality, such as Kansas City Royals starter James Shields and former Cub Hammel. But those pitchers probably don't change the narrative for 2015 as a developmental/building year. If things fall right, the Cubs could have an outside chance to contend for a playoff spot next season, but only if they grab a No. 1 pitcher and move everyone down a slot. Otherwise, it's more baby steps and wait until next year.

And that might be fine, too. Next year entails free-agents-to-be Jeff Samardzija, David Price, Jordan Zimmerman, Rick Porcello, Johnny Cueto and Yovani Gallardo. Of course, some might sign extensions with their current teams, but those names alone make for a better market than the ones who will become available in about seven weeks.

That means the Cubs should pursue Lester because he's the right guy for a lot of reasons. But they should do it on their terms with the mindset that they can always get another ace in 2015 if they can't get Lester now.

But Lester sure looks good at the moment.

Samardzija keeping his eye on Chicago

September, 8, 2014
9/08/14
7:01
PM CT
Padilla By Doug Padilla
ESPNChicago.com
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Jeff SamardzijaAP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastJeff Samardzija chats with former Cubs GM Jim Hendry before Monday's game at U.S. Cellular Field.
CHICAGO – The smell of home was in the air Monday for Jeff Samardzija, leaving a strong hint that when he reaches free agency after the 2015 season, he could have an interest in returning to Chicago.

Both the Cubs and White Sox could be in the market for starting pitching help at that point, and if either team calls, the Oakland Athletics right-hander sounds as if he would be more than willing to listen.

Samardzija, a native of northern Indiana, has pitched well at U.S. Cellular Field in the past (and he's due to start there Wednesday night). And he obviously also has his history with the Cubs, where he transitioned from reliever to staff ace before he was traded to the American League on July 5.

Samardzija can’t pitch any closer to his roots than he does when he is in the White Sox’s home ballpark, and that is part of the reason he has given up just one earned run in 12 innings on the South Side.

“It’s just so close to home,” Samardzija said Monday as his A’s were set to begin a four-game series against the White Sox. “You go out and step in the outfield to shag, or pitching, or whatever you’re doing outside, you take a deep breath and it smells like I’m on the Valparaiso High School field playing.

“There is just a comfort level to being in this area. I always have to show up well because I have a lot of people in the stands that are here expecting a lot of me.”

There is a chance the Cubs could come calling, too, although the 29-year-old still has one more year of arbitration eligibility before becoming a free agent. The Cubs not only helped Samardzija make his transition into a quality starter, they know what makes him tick. And as the team’s young offensive prospects have started to arrive in the likes of Javier Baez and Jorge Soler, Samardzija said he is impressed with what he sees.

“Yeah, obviously I enjoyed the talent coming up for sure,” Samardzija said. “Obviously you see how they develop as a team and that’s the most important thing. Coming over here [to the A’s] you see how these guys are playing together and they have been doing it for a while, what makes them successful as a winning team. Those are important things.

“Home runs are great and natural talent, but you have to piece it all together and become a team and that’s the most important thing. In this game, numbers and talent are important, but a lot of times it’s how the unit plays as a whole and how you pitch. Those are the two important things.”

Samardzija had the opportunity to lock in a deal with the Cubs, but both sides failed to agree on the pitcher’s value. At that point, his eventual trade was inevitable.

Samardzija doesn’t seem to have any hard feelings about how things turned out.

“Yeah, that is absolutely something that is on my list; I love it here,” Samardzija said about a return to Chicago. “I’ve spent my whole life here and even to come back is exciting -- to see the same sights coming in from the airport and staying downtown. It brings back a lot of memories. It goes fast, so it seems like it was a long time ago, but for sure that’ll definitely be something that’s on my list. It’ll be an exciting time. But like I said, there’s still a lot of work to be done to get to that spot.”

For now, though, it’s Samardzija, the former Notre Dame wide receiver on the same team as Adam Dunn, the former Texas backup quarterback, embracing a playoff chase while enjoying the start to the college football season.

“Midweek when there’s no football on, is usually when, ‘Hey Samardzija, let’s go, man,’” Samardzija said. “[Dunn’s] got his worn-out NFL ball. My routes are getting better and I’m dusting off the old cleats. But Dunner is great. What a great addition to a team, and a guy that’s been there before, hit 1,000 home runs and hopefully he’s got a few more in there for the rest of the way. But we’re really excited to have him. He’s a great guy.”

Lester could make sense for Cubs in '15

July, 3, 2014
7/03/14
10:18
AM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
CHICAGO -- The Chicago Cubs are in need of top-of-the-rotation pitching in the coming years, so why not call Boston Red Sox left-hander Jon Lester, who likely is headed to free agency this winter?

[+] EnlargeJon Lester
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesJon Lester has made at least 31 starts in each of the past six seasons.
Lester was a longtime favorite of the Cubs' current front office when Theo Epstein ran the Red Sox for a decade. Epstein signed him to a five-year extension worth $30 million in 2009 which included a team option for $14 million for this season. Now, at age 30, Lester likely will be a free agent for the first time in his career.

"They always treated me with the utmost respect and class," Lester said this week of Epstein and the front office. "I have nothing but good things to say about them."

Lester wouldn't comment specifically about the Cubs, but it's been well reported that a new deal with the Red Sox doesn't seem imminent. The Cubs might open their purse strings for a player such as Lester, who's reportedly already turned down a four-year, $70 million extension from Boston. That offer seems way below market value.

"If you're in that position you do your homework," Lester said about free agency. "Obviously, there's the familiarity with those [Epstein] guys. That's kind of predicting the future and possibly be putting a foot in my mouth which I don't want to do."

Lester is 9-7 this season with a 2.92 ERA. He's made at least 31 starts in each of the past six seasons since becoming a full-time big league player and beating cancer in 2006-2007. That kind of durability is going to be attractive to teams, although no one knows what his asking price is or what the market for him will look like.

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The Cubs reportedly offered Jeff Samardzija five years at $85 million, so maybe a deal could get done with those kinds of numbers. But more than likely it would take much more. The Cubs might go higher if they believe in him as an ace, something that's in question with Samardzija.

"Watching them and looking at them it seems like they are pretty close to being there," Lester said of the Cubs. "Maybe one or two players away from putting it together."

Lester had only good things to say about Chicago adding his wife "never misses that trip." He also knows that Cubs fans are "fanatical."

"They do such a good job no matter who it is, they make it attractive to go there," Lester said. "Next year or two will be good for them. I know what (Epstein's) able to do."

Cubs could still to add to pitching staff

January, 22, 2014
1/22/14
1:58
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
CHICAGO -- The Chicago Cubs' search for their No. 1 starter of the future continues after they lost out on the Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes, but they still need to field a starting staff for 2014.

They've made it pretty clear they won't replace Tanaka with one of the remaining big name free agent pitchers, including former Cub Matt Garza. Not unless one falls into their lap. So where do they turn?

Internally, the Cubs have Jeff Samardzija, Travis Wood, Edwin Jackson and Jake Arrieta as mainstays. Justin Grimm, acquired last season for Garza, could be an option as could 2013 Cubs minor league pitcher of the year Kyle Hendricks. Lefty Chris Rusin is leftover from last year as well. But like any team, five, six or even seven starters aren't enough in this day and age. So expect a minor signing to compete with those names.

A source familiar with the situation says the Cubs won't be re-signing Scott Baker, who threw well for the Cubs the final month of the season after rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. He's moving on. Former Cub Paul Maholm is available as is Jason Hammel, who pitched for the Baltimore Orioles last season. Both have been linked to Chicago.

The hole Tanaka leaves is bigger in the coming seasons when the Cubs hope to compete for the playoffs. They have time to find that ace, it just means 2014 is shaping up to be another rough year.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

TEAM LEADERS

WINS LEADER
Jake Arrieta
WINS ERA SO IP
10 2.53 167 156
OTHER LEADERS
BAS. Castro .292
HRA. Rizzo 32
RBIA. Rizzo 78
RA. Rizzo 89
OPSA. Rizzo .913
ERAT. Wood 5.03
SOJ. Arrieta 167