Chicago Cubs: Hot stove

Agent Scott Boras: 'There are grand incentives to tank a season'

November, 12, 2014
Nov 12
8:42
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
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PHOENIX – It was a simple question, but baseball mega-agent Scott Boras doesn’t do simple.

Boras usually makes one public appearance for the media at events like this week’s general managers meetings and will entertain questions about his star clients and the game of baseball itself. And then he provides entertaining answers that are so blatantly pro-player and anti-system that you almost know what’s coming before it happens.

Boras is the agent for high-profile Chicago Cubs clients like Kris Bryant and Jake Arrieta, so his opinion matters, considering he gives it to his clients as well as the rest of the baseball world.

[+] EnlargeScott Boras
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports"If any fan base in Chicago deserves 'now' and not 'tomorrow,' it's the Chicago Cubs," said agent Scott Boras, whose Cubs clients include Kris Bryant and Jake Arrieta
He’s saved some of his best rhetoric in recent years for the Chicago Cubs -- specifically ownership. Boras has a healthy respect for the Cubs' front office, but his needling during the Tom Ricketts ownership era has produced a laugh or two among the throng of media present for his diatribes.

Back to the question at hand. It lasted a matter of seconds. The answer went on for over seven minutes.

Boras was asked the following on Wednesday afternoon in the lobby of the Biltmore Hotel after meeting with teams:

“Did you get a gauge of how willing the Cubs are to spend some of this cash they have sticking out of their pockets?”

“When you sit back and look at things that are going on, there are some things that are rather interesting,” Boras began. “In the new ownership grouping there really have only been seven out of 30 that have won a world championship. What we’re finding is the course of conduct to win one is now almost something we have to re-examine. So few are doing it. Then those that are doing it seem to be doing it in threes, whether it be the Yankees or Red Sox or Giants.

“We have 14 new ownership groups since 2003. Fourteen. None of them have won a World Series. Zero. In looking at that, it’s either that it takes a long time to do this or it’s due to our infrastructure change. In looking at what’s gone on with qualifying offers and the draft there is this dynamic that goes on that says ‘you can’t use free agency and the draft in unison to win.’ You have to pick one or the other and therefore it’s the shadow approach, ‘if I’m not using free agency then I have to use the draft system and basically I’m noncompetitive for a period of time.’

You almost have to lose seven or eight years in a row to develop enough draft-pick currency.

- Agent Scott Boras, on incentives for teams to tank.
“And there are grand incentives to tank a season. To go and move my club into a losing mode in August and September so that I can win the higher dollar awards in draft currency. It’s very clear that 'draft dollars' are readily more valuable than dollars themselves. And so to lose No. 1 draft picks and lose dollars by signing free agents, that means we can’t do that and build our franchise for the future. So we can’t be competitive currently, so we have the ready-made excuse to say ‘we don’t want to lose draft picks so therefore we’re out of competition currently.’ That’s a problem. That’s a real problem. I think we have to address that to make the system more competitive so we have owners coming into the game that can do both, who can readily invest their resources in free agency and also have the ability to utilize the draft and scouting and developing so they’re not parallel universes. I think the major reason when a lot of new owners come in, the demand to win, is far less than it is for someone that’s been at it a long time. You almost have to lose seven or eight years in a row to develop enough draft-pick currency.”

That’s this year’s not-so-veiled shot at the Cubs' rebuilding strategy, and frankly it’s one that many fans have made as well. The Cubs will argue their way will produce more sustained success, and with playoff upsets an annual ritual, they believe yearly entries into the postseason are the answer to breaking through to a championship -- or several. Maybe that’s why only a few ownership groups have won. They’ve created sustained success. In any case, Boras was quick to point out how much the Cubs have increased in value since Ricketts purchased the team in 2009.

“That’s a reason to invest in your resource because you’re sitting on something that’s made you 200 times, 300 times your investment,” Boras said. “That in itself is reason for ownership to look at this asset. They’re taking positive steps. If any fan base in Chicago deserves ‘now’ and not ‘tomorrow,’ it’s the Chicago Cubs.”

He has hope that the cheaper days of the Cubs are behind them. It starts with the hiring of the new manager.

“I told [Joe Maddon] he’s the only guy I know that goes on a vacation in his RV and comes back and makes $20 million,” Boras said.

Heyward a fit, but Cubs might have to wait

November, 11, 2014
Nov 11
7:50
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
CHICAGO -- They might have to wait a year to grab him, but Atlanta Braves right fielder Jason Heyward would be a perfect fit for the Chicago Cubs as they move into their contending phase. Besides being a very good player, Heyward fits the profile of what the Cubs want in signing or trading for key players: He's young.

"The game is going younger," general manager Jed Hoyer said Tuesday at the GM meetings in Arizona. "We're probably going to be too young next year, but the game is moving younger."

[+] EnlargeJason Heyward
Jason Getz/USA TODAY SportsJason Heyward could be the right player for the Cubs, but right now just isn't the right time to grab him.
Heyward, 25, is set to become a free agent after next season not long after turning 26. That's unique because of his breaking into the big leagues at age 20. How good is he? After Mike Trout, he has the highest WAR (24.5) among players 25 and younger.

Some of that is due to the early start to his career, of course, but his 162-game average over his five years in the league includes 20 home runs and 15 steals to go along with a .351 on-base percentage. He's never come close to the 91 walks he earned in his rookie year in 2010, but his career on-base percentage as a leadoff man is a nifty .357. And he still drew 67 free passes in 2014. The Cubs could use some of that.

"Any team would take Heyward," an agent said Tuesday. "He's going to get a lot of money."

Money is something the Cubs will have come next offseason, when the free-agent class is deeper and Heyward should be available. Could the Cubs pull off a deal with the Braves now and then sign him to an extension before he gets to the market? It's not likely, though they have the prospects to do a trade. It might not cost Kris Bryant or Jorge Soler, but Addison Russell would probably have to go, along with another good prospect, again, presuming Heyward would sign a deal right away.

Atlanta has some decisions to make regarding its entire outfield, as B.J. Upton is signed to a long-term deal, though he has underachieved, and Justin Upton will be a free agent after next season as well.

Heyward is likely to test the market, so a move for him now wouldn't make sense unless he was convinced otherwise.

"He wants the ability to explore it," Braves president of baseball operations John Hart said Tuesday. "This is a homegrown player that we love. There's a lot to like about him. My assumption is it's the wrong time [for a deal]. I don't think there are a lot of legs for doing something on either side. That doesn't mean there can't be a deal a year down the road."

That's when the Cubs should step in with a huge offer. They'll have a better idea how their outfield will look, and if Bryant is the incumbent at third base by then, Soler could move to left field. The lefty Heyward, a top-notch defensive outfielder and two-time Gold Glove winner, and the righty Soler, would make a dynamic duo in the corner outfield positions.

The Cubs say they want to add impact players over the next two offseasons. Heyward would be a good fit at the right age -- either now or later.

Epstein: Cubs 'no longer runt of the litter'

November, 10, 2014
Nov 10
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
Nov 9
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
Nov 7
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.

Maddon's arrival doesn't change Cubs' offseason plans

November, 4, 2014
Nov 4
3:02
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- How many press conferences, radio shows and other media interviews does Cubs president Theo Epstein have to do for people to understand one simple point: his plan for the team hasn’t changed even after hiring an elite manager like Joe Maddon.

The Cubs will stay the course.

“Having Joe doesn’t necessarily change our plans this winter,” Epstein said Monday. “We’re out to add talent. It (Maddon) might make it easier, but we’re growing. We’re not going to speed it up because Joe is here. We’re not going to slow it down because Joe is here. We’re going to continue to grow this thing organically and compete and I look forward to that.”

Does that sound like a man who's ready spend a huge amount on free agents? Epstein could always be lowering expectations but that’s not been his style since arriving in Chicago. He’s usually brutally honest about the Cubs' situation and what they’ll do in the front office.

“I like where we are as an organization,” he said. “It’s a lot more fun to have an eye on competing and we’re going to try and build it the right way, not force it, not rush it. We’re mindful of next offseason as well as this offseason to try and find the right fits and make the right moves.”

In almost every one of these interviews, Epstein brings up next winter. He did so the day after the season ended and he did it again Monday, and he’ll keep doing it to remind people the Cubs are more likely to be aggressive in signing players after 2015 then before. That’s when pitchers like Jordan Zimmerman, Jeff Samardzija, Johnny Cueto and former Ray David Price are available. It’s a deeper class, the Cubs will be one year closer to becoming a full and functioning offense and they’ll be inching toward realizing new money streams from television and Wrigley Field.

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Time is here for Cubs to pitch to Tanaka

January, 9, 2014
Jan 9
1:00
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- Here comes the pitch.

[+] EnlargeMasahiro Tanaka
Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty ImagesJapanese star pitcher Masahiro Tanaka is in the United States and ready to hear offers from MLB teams.
No, not the type that put former Chicago Cubs pitcher Greg Maddux into the Hall of Fame on Wednesday, it's the one the current front office will be throwing towards Japanese star pitcher Masahiro Tanaka. Can the Cubs convince the 25-year-old to sign with them over his many other suitors?

"We're going to be part of the process," general manager Jed Hoyer said in November. "We've done our work on him and plan on being part of it."

The time has come. As this report out of ESPNNewYork.com indicates, Tanaka’s discussions with teams -- including the Cubs -- are heating up. As the process is considered confidential it’s not quite clear when and where the Cubs will meet with Tanaka and his representatives, but sources say it’ll be sometime before next weekend’s Cubs Convention.

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Cubs sign LHP Sanchez, 3 others

December, 19, 2013
12/19/13
2:31
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- The Chicago Cubs signed former San Francisco Giants left-handed pitcher Jonathan Sanchez to a minor league deal, the team announced on Thursday.

They also signed left-handers Tsuyoshi Wada and Tommy Hottovy along with outfielder Mitch Maier to minor league deals with spring training invites.

Sanchez, 31, will be invited to spring training as a reliever while Wada will come as a starter. Sanchez won 13 games with the Giants in 2010 before pitching for Kansas City, Colorado and Pittsburgh over the last two years. He has a career record of 39-58 with a 4.70 ERA.

Wada, 32, was most recently in the Baltimore Orioles organization recovering from Tommy John surgery performed in May 2012. He went 5-6 with a 4.03 ERA in 19 starts for Triple-A, Norfolk last year.

Hottovy, 32, bounced around the minor leagues last season after pitching for Boston and Kansas City in 2011-2012. Maier, 31, has spent his entire six year career with the Royals producing a .248 batting average with 10 home runs and 93 career RBI.

The Cubs also announced their minor league coaching staff for 2014, adding eight new coaches including former Cubs pitcher Angel Guzman. He'll be the pitching coach in the Venezuelan rookie league. Former major league pitcher Bruce Walton was named pitching coach at Triple-A Iowa.

Ruggiano a better 'fit' in Cubs outfield

December, 12, 2013
12/12/13
5:40
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- It might not be the big trade fans were hoping for at the winter meetings but the acquisition of right-handed outfielder Justin Ruggiano from the Miami Marlins, for lefty Brian Bogusevic, finally provides an even distribution from both sides of the plate in the outfield heading into 2014. Last season the Cubs were too left-handed and the mix never really felt right.

“It’s a better fit for our roster,” general manager Jed Hoyer said Thursday morning after the Rule 5 draft. “He can platoon with one of several guys that we have.”

Junior Lake, Ryan Sweeney and Nate Schierholtz are holdovers from last season and are the presumptive starters going into the next one. The former hits from the right side, while the latter two are lefties. The immediate question after the acquisition of Ruggiano was how it affects Lake.

“Junior Lake is going to get a ton of playing time,” Hoyer said. “A player like that needs to be out there getting at-bats and developing.”

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Cubs active but might need to wait

December, 11, 2013
12/11/13
6:01
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
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Lake Buena Vista, Fla. -- As the winter meetings wind down, the Chicago Cubs are still hopeful to make some impactful moves for 2014 but might have to wait until later in the winter.

“We have offers out for a starting pitcher in free agency, we have offers out for a relief pitcher, we have a trade offer out for a position player,” team President Theo Epstein said Wednesday afternoon. “We’re doing a lot. We’re not just hanging out at the ‘ole Dolphin (hotel). Teams that have less currency often times execute things later in the winter.

“We’ll probably be active later than earlier.”

It’s believed that the trade offer involves an outfielder.

The Cubs have inquired about many available second tier players both in free agency and through the trade market. They’ve also fielded a lot of calls.

(Read full post)

Will Braves be favorite to land Samardzija?

December, 10, 2013
12/10/13
10:32
AM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The lobby at the Swan & Dolphin hotel was full of energy -- and rumors -- on Monday night as the winter meetings got underway. It's the only time all year that executives, scouts and media members will mingle with tape recorders off and ties loosened.

[+] EnlargeJeff Samardzija
AP Photo/John BazemoreThe list of interested teams in Jeff Samardzija appears to be growing.
Not surprisingly, one topic of conversation was Chicago Cubs pitcher Jeff Samardzija. The list of contending teams not interested in him is growing smaller. Toronto, Atlanta, the New York Yankees, Washington, Arizona and Pittsburgh have all been linked to Samardzija at one time. And there are probably more teams lining up knowing they have two years of control over Samardzija before he becomes a free agent. These teams are in win-now mode.

Two National League observers said Monday that they believe the Braves could emerge as the favorite, either during this offseason or closer to the July trade deadline. The Braves potentially match up well as a trade partner because their top prospects come from their pitching ranks, although some of that pitching is very young and not major league ready. Additionally, the Braves already have a young staff which used Julio Teheran and Alex Wood in the rotation in 2013. A veteran like Samardzija would help. It remains to be seen if the Braves' package is enough for a Cubs front office more interested in quality than quantity to pull the trigger on a deal.

The Samardzija story could take a new turn as his agent, Mark Rodgers, arrives in Orlando on Tuesday for a 36-hour stay. There's no "summit" meeting scheduled between the Cubs and Rodgers, although the sides will undoubtedly talk. Trading Samardzija is still much more likely than extending his stay in Chicago via a new contract. It's still a matter of when and to whom, not if.

While the Cubs try to figure out what to do with Samardzija, they're also waiting to see if Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka will be made available this offseason. General manager Jed Hoyer was asked Monday if the Cubs could only spend on one of the two players.

"They're not attached," Hoyer said. "It's not an either/or type thing. ... What people are speculating about isn't based on any kind of facts. There are very few people who know exactly what we have the resources to do. We'll keep that internal."

Meetings changing: Hoyer lamented the fact that the winter meetings have become less and less about face-to-face meetings between teams. With communication just a touch away on a smartphone, teams don't need the long sitdowns as in previous years or decades. The week before the meetings easily saw more flurry of activity than there likely will be this week.

"When it comes to deal-making and contact, both at the GM meetings and winter meetings, they lack a little bit of what they did in the past because we're on the phone and text," Hoyer said. "You know so much more on the Internet and Twitter. We comment all the time. It used to be you'd sort of have team road trips (in the hotel) to other teams. You have three to four people go to another team and talk a half an hour and 45 minutes."

Big year for Barney: Cubs second baseman Darwin Barney is coming off a season in which he hit .208. There are several infield prospects who could push him in 2014, making it a big year for the veteran.

"It's a big year for him no matter what," Hoyer said. "It doesn't have to do with competition among young players. I think he simply wants to bounce back and get back to where he was."

Barney hit .276 in 2011 and .254 in 2012 while playing Gold Glove-caliber defense. Hoyer says the Cubs' plan is for him is to be the starter, but his numbers need to improve.

"With him, mechanically and approach-wise, he got caught in between some things last year," Hoyer said. "He brings aspects [defense] to our club that are pretty much impossible to find."

Cubs bullpen: 'One of our biggest regrets'

December, 9, 2013
12/09/13
7:50
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Improving the Chicago Cubs’ bullpen might not be the top priority for the organization at the winter meetings, but it should get more attention than it did last year at this time.

“That was one of our biggest regrets from last year,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer bluntly stated on Monday.

The Cubs' bullpen imploded right from the start of the season. It ranked third to last in the National League with a 4.04 ERA and blew 26 saves -- third most in the league. Only two pitchers, James Russell and Hector Rondon, lasted the entire season on the roster. And Rondon was forced to be there due to Rule 5 draft status, though he threw well as the season progressed. The same can’t be said of the rest of the group.

“We have spent a lot of time thinking about the bullpen, thinking of ways to get better,” Hoyer said.

Reports on Monday indicated the Cubs might be interested in relievers Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard of the Washington Nationals. And there are several free agents with closing experience, including John Axford and Kevin Gregg, who saved 33 for the Cubs last season. He’s not expected back. The team already agreed to terms with left-handed pitcher Wesley Wright, formerly of the Tampa Bay Rays. The Cubs will look from within, as well.

“We should have been a lot closer to .500 at the beginning of the season,” Hoyer said. “A lot of the trades over the last year will help that bullpen.”

The case to keep Jeff Samardzija

December, 8, 2013
12/08/13
9:00
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- For the first time since the rebuilding process began, Chicago Cubs team President Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer have a decision to make – if it hasn’t been made already – on a core player.

Make no mistake, as the winter meetings commence in Orlando, Fla., there is no bigger issue currently confronting the rebuilding process than what the Cubs will do with pitcher Jeff Samardzija. Unless the Cubs shock the baseball world, whoever else they sign or trade for this offseason probably won’t be part of the long-term future. This isn’t the year for those kinds of additions, unless they are very youthful ones. Figuring out Samardzija’s fate is more important than anything else the Cubs do.

[+] EnlargeJeff Samardzija
David Banks/USA TODAY SportsThe Cubs have a decision to make on Jeff Samardzija, and they might be best served locking him up now before he is eligible for free agency.
Until now, the front office has been slowly adding and, in some cases, locking up core players. Shortstop Starlin Castro and first baseman Anthony Rizzo have long-term deals. Catcher Welington Castillo is now part of that group, as is pitcher Travis Wood. So is Samardzija. But Samardzija might be days away from being an ex-Cub. If not days, then he’s likely no more than a few months away from being traded.

As has been well documented, the sides are far apart on a long-term deal for the arbitration-eligible right-hander who will become a free agent after the 2015 season. Basically, he wants to be paid like he’s a free agent now to keep him from becoming one in two years. Should the Cubs ante up?

The short answer is yes.

The Cubs rebuild is going to take long enough. Trading a core player like Samardijza means he has to be replaced. If the Cubs do that with youth, then there is no guarantee or timeline. If they do it through free agency, then the Cubs are going to have to spend some money anyway. Why not do it on a guy they like, who’s a leader and hopefully has his best days ahead of him? Yes, they might have to spend it before they want to, but that’s sometimes the price you pay for a long, rebuilding process in order to keep a few players you like.

Based on last season, Samardzija is an average No. 2 pitcher or a very good No. 3. But there’s room for improvement, and everyone knows it. It’s not a stretch to believe Samardzija is a better pitcher throwing with a little more adrenaline for a contending team. The Cubs hope to be one in the coming years.

Right now, if he was on the open market, Samardzija probably commands the going rate of $10-14 million per season. If Phil Hughes can get $8 million a year with a 4-14 record and 5.19 ERA, then Samardzija certainly deserves more with his 4.34 ERA. Samardzija is big, strong, healthy and now has 200 innings pitched in a season under his belt.

Make no mistake, he’s nowhere near an ace based on last season, but he’s reliable and has shown ace stuff at times. Five years at $60 million has a nice ring to it, but it sounds like Samardzija wants more. The Cubs are probably getting the right value in Years 3-5. It’s in Years 1 and 2 that they’d be overpaying him, as he’s still arbitration eligible.

But there are plenty of ways to internally justify paying him, even if you have to go as high as $70-75 million. First off, unlike most other players in similar arbitration positions, Samardzija isn’t as desperate for that first big payday as Castro and Rizzo probably were. You’re just not going to get a team-friendly deal from him. He’s willing to wait for free agency, so knowing that means accepting that. Second, the whole idea of building your core to win means needing to keep that core together. Getting rid of him means replacing him, and that’s going to cost assets or money or time. Or maybe all three.
Here’s one thing the Cubs can insist on: Samardzija doesn’t get a no-trade clause. If the rebuilding process stalls and Samardzija is still pitching alright, he can be moved in a year or two.

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Cubs Notes: No Rule 5 pick

December, 6, 2013
12/06/13
11:03
AM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- The Chicago Cubs introduced new manager Rick Renteria to the local media Thursday while the front office also held court in advance of the winter meetings in Orlando, Fla., next week.

Here's some news and notes as the Cubs head to Disney World in search of talent:

[+] EnlargeTheo Epstein
David Banks/USA TODAY SportsTheo Epstein says the Cubs are in search of a starter, bullpen help, an outfielder and looking to "round out the bench" during the winter meetings.
No Rule 5 pick: The Cubs won’t be as busy next Thursday when major league baseball holds it’s annual Rule 5 draft which exists so teams aren’t allowed to stockpile talent in their minor leagues. Their pick will go to the Philadelphia Phillies to resolve a grievance regarding former Rule 5 pick of the Cubs, pitcher Lendy Castillo.

Castillo wasn’t active for the required number of days for a Rule 5 pick in 2012, so the Cubs are giving their pick to Philadelphia this year. Team President Theo Epstein said the club wasn’t going to select anyone with their selection anyway.

Winter meetings: Epstein says the Cubs are in search of a starter, bullpen help (closer), an outfielder and looking to “round out the bench” during next week’s meetings. He expressed some jealousy over a flurry of baseball activity earlier this week and wants to be part of that when his club is ready. It also means keeping a level head next week.

“It’s important to have people around you reminding you it’s important to do the right deal not just to do a deal,” Epstein said. “There’s deal momentum at the winter meetings unlike anything you’ve ever seen before so it’s important to make sure you keep your perspective.”

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Tendering Barney was the right move

December, 3, 2013
12/03/13
2:35
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
CHICAGO -- The Chicago Cubs made the right choice in tendering second baseman Darwin Barney a contract for 2014. If there was any angst over the decision, there shouldn't have been, because Barney deserves another chance.

[+] EnlargeDarwin Barney
AP Photo/Al BehrmanThe Cubs have to hope Darwin Barney can regain his 2011 form when he batted .276.
Make no mistake, if No. 1 prospect Javier Baez was ready for the big leagues and the Cubs believed second base was where he needed to play, that would mean a different story for Barney. Same goes for rising prospect Arismendy Alcantara. Some may even think Logan Watkins deserves a real chance at second base. Watkins was an on-base machine in the minors before being recalled last season, but he barely got off the bench. And for all we know, he'll push Barney this spring or summer.

But until further notice, Barney gets another chance to rebound from a rough season at the plate in which he hit just .208 and got on base only 27 percent of the time. The simple reason is Dale Sveum and the old coaching staff. If Sveum and Co. are going to be blamed for the "regression" of Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro, then Barney fits into that category as well.

In fact, going back to last offseason, Sveum may have worked more closely with Barney than Rizzo or Castro. The bottom line is Barney hit .276 the season before Sveum arrived. He hit .254 and .208 in the two years under him. It would be way too simplistic to put that all on Sveum, but Barney deserves a fresh start with a new coaching staff just like Rizzo and Castro.

And even with some poor numbers, he has shown some signs. He'll battle an opposing pitcher with the best of them -- he was third in the league in foul ball percentage at 43.6 percent, according to ESPN Stats and Information. With two strikes he fouled a pitch off 47.6 percent of the time, tops in the league. It's a good reason why he's only struck out an average of 63 times in three full seasons in the big leagues.

But those foul balls don't mean much -- other than driving up a pitch count -- if the at-bat ends in an unproductive out. And Barney actually fouls off more pitches (46 percent) outside the zone than inside (42 percent). Maybe that's where his upside lies or perhaps his deficiency. All players get hits off pitches outside the zone, or at least take more walks than Barney's 36 last season. So a few more balls that go forward instead of backward could make the difference for him as will laying off a few of those outside the zone. And Barney's seven home runs and 41 RBIs in 2013 aren't bad for a hitter who mostly bats in the eighth spot in the lineup. In fact, only Matt Dominguez of the Houston Astros had more runs driven in from that position in the order than Barney.

Of course, Barney doesn't get another chance at the plate without his work in the field. As bad as he was on offense, he was a Gold Glove winner as well as a finalist at second base in two years under Sveum. That counts for more than just a passing mention. If Sveum gets some blame for Barney's offense then his coaching staff gets some credit for mentally keeping him in the game on defense. FanGraphs basically has Barney as the best defensive second baseman in the game over the past two years. So for Barney to be an effective overall player he only has to return to respectability at the plate.

Unless something unexpected happens, expect the Cubs to sign him for 2014. After that, there are no guarantees. But he deserves another chance to improve at the plate.

At least for a while.

Roster shaping


There were no major surprises during Monday's tender deadline.

The Cubs signed their new backup catcher in George Kottaras after Dioner Navarro joined the Toronto Blue Jays. Navarro wanted a multiyear deal and the Cubs wouldn't give more than one. That has basically been their philosophy lately. If you're not part of the core for the future the Cubs aren't going to be locking you up.

Infielder Donnie Murphy fits into that category and between his signing and the Cubs tendering Luis Valbuena a contract, it made Mat Gamel expendable. According to sources, Murphy had a lucrative offer from Japan after hitting 11 home runs in less than two months last season. An arbitration hearing would have been unique considering his short but successful stay in the majors in 2013, so instead, both sides decided to lock him up. But again, it's for one year.

With prospects Baez, Alcantara, Kris Bryant, Mike Olt and others getting ready to break into the majors, one-year deals is the norm right now. And that's the right thing to do.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

TEAM LEADERS

BA LEADER
Starlin Castro
BA HR RBI R
.292 14 65 58
OTHER LEADERS
HRA. Rizzo 32
RBIA. Rizzo 78
RA. Rizzo 89
OPSA. Rizzo .913
WJ. Arrieta 10
ERAT. Wood 5.03
SOJ. Arrieta 167