Kaplan: Cubs to go through a complete rebuild

586674.png

Kaplan: Cubs to go through a complete rebuild

After speaking with several baseball sources over the past few days I am hearing that a complete and total rebuild of the Cubs is more likely than ever to take place during the remainder of the off-season. I have confirmed that Sean Marshall has been dealt to Cincinnati for Travis Wood and two minor leaguers, pending a physical.

However, Marshall along with several other players on the Cubs roster are all being shopped as Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, and company look to maximize their value as they look to completely overhaul the team. In speaking with a current major league executive from outside Chicago who would only speak with me on the condition of anonymity he was brutally honest in evaluating where the Cubs are right now.

If you are completely honest about the current roster that Theo and Jed inherited I dont see more than a handful of pieces that a championship type team would want to have on their roster. Garza, Castro, Marshall, perhaps Marmol if they can get his wildness under control, and maybe another bullpen piece or two and thats about it, he told me.

As I questioned him further he told me that the talk around baseball when it comes to the Cubs is that they need a full scale house cleaning. There is no doubt that the Cubs need a major overhaul and with that comes a couple of seasons of teams that will have more than its share of struggles. However, if Theo and Jed can make astute deals for the few pieces that they do have the rebuild can get off to a very good start. In the addition, the farm system is not in good shape in terms of nearly major league ready starting pitching so if they can make some very solid deals they can reload in the minor leagues as well, he said.

A look at the current makeup of the Cubs roster shows a handful of big contracts that the Cubs are having trouble trying to move despite their willingness to eat significant portions of the remaining dollars. From Alfonso Soriano to Carlos Zambrano, to Ryan Dempster, the Cubs have approximately 50 million tied up in players who do not figure to be a part of their future when they are ready to win. Add in Marshall, Carlos Marmol and Marlon Byrd along with a handful of others who do not figure to be a part of the Cubs long term future and you have current 2012 salary commitments that total 72,850,000. Add in deals that would have to get done with Matt Garza, Geovany Soto, and others who are arbitration eligible and the Cubs 2012 payroll climbs into the 90 million dollar range.

Now with that much money already committed you have a 71 win team from 2011 that has lost one of its top power bats in Carlos Pena and has only added David DeJesus and Ian Stewart which cannot at this point be considered major additions to the roster. The starting pitching is still among baseballs worst and the everyday lineup has a number of holes in it. Question marks include first base, third base, left field, at least two if not three spots in the rotation and a couple of spots in the bullpen.

That doesnt include the question marks that occupy the other positions of the current team. Is Soto really worth the 4-5 million or so that he will earn in 2012 and is he the catcher of the future? Is Darwin Barney the long-term answer at 2nd base?

A look at the pitching staff shows more questions that need answers such as the closer role where Marmol has a world of talent but is coming off of a horrific 2011 when he blew 10 saves and saw his Ks per 9 innings drop by four strikeouts from his record-setting 2010 season. Is he the long-term answer in that role or could the Cubs get a solid return if they were to move him in a deal?

The Cubs roster is devoid of impact position players with the exception of Starlin Castro. So the question that must be asked is does it make sense for Epstein and Hoyer to spend significant dollars to try to patchwork a lineup that has virtually no chance of contending? Or should they use this one opportunity to truly tear the team down to its foundation and rebuild it the right way knowing that major on field success is a few years away?

One thing that Tom Ricketts has shown in his statements to the media and the fan base ever since he purchased the franchise is that he is in this for the long haul so from that perspective a complete rebuild makes a lot of sense. When Epstein spoke to the media before the winter meetings he gave this assessment of the potential for the Cubs to sign a free agent to a mega contract. Weve been consistent from Day 1 that our priorities are building this thing the right way, for the long haul, mainly through scouting and player development and through the acquisition of young players. The second priority is to take advantage of every opportunity to win that you have. But were not going to do anything to serve the second priority that disrupts the first. So any rumor that you hear, its probably worth your while to assess it through that lens. Not saying that were not going to make a move that might be unanticipated or catch people by surprise or might not on its face fit perfectly into that box. But generally thats our philosophy. Thats how were evaluating moves as we try to build this thing.

Two other sources confirmed to me today that the Cubs are not players in the Prince Fielder negotiations and are not preparing to make a major offer to land him. In fact, the same major league sources expect the Cubs to try to move most of their valuable assets before spring training and that a complete overhaul of the team will definitely happen. As one current NL executive told me it is about time that it happened. The Cubs have never had the guts to completely blow up their roster and build it the right way. They have to have a plan for sustained success instead of always trying to patchwork a roster for a surprising season. They should have done that when Andy MacPhail took over but for whatever reason they couldnt or wouldnt. By the time Jim Hendry became the GM they had some young starting pitching and a mandate from management in 2006-09 to try to buy their way to a championship. It never worked out so the rebuild is the right way to go, he said.

Game changer: Dexter Fowler’s return fuels Cubs in Milwaukee

Game changer: Dexter Fowler’s return fuels Cubs in Milwaukee

MILWAUKEE – Cubs fans, Dexter Fowler feels your pain: “It sucks being on the couch and watching your team struggle.”

It only took five pitches on Friday night at Miller Park before Fowler answered the questions about how much this lineup missed his presence and how long it would take him to get back into a rhythm.

“You go, we go” is what manager Joe Maddon tells Fowler, and a sellout crowd of 42,243 roared when the All-Star leadoff guy hammered a 94-mph Jimmy Nelson fastball off the black batter’s eye in center field, setting the first-inning tone in a 5-2 win over the Milwaukee Brewers.

“I was just happy to be back around the boys,” Fowler said after going 3-for-4 with a walk, three RBI and two runs scored in his return. “It’s like being back home.”

Fowler’s strained right hamstring alone doesn’t begin to explain all this, because he had been hitting .207 in June, the rotation cooled off, the bullpen became unreliable and a 24-games-in-24-days stretch wore this team out before the All-Star break. But the Cubs were 27 games over .500 and had a 12.5-game lead in the division on June 19, the night Fowler went on the disabled list with what sounded like a minor injury.

If panic didn’t completely set in around a first-place team, underlying issues kept bubbling to the surface, the Cubs losing 15 of their last 21 games before that summer vacation.

[SHOP: Buy a "Try Not to Suck" shirt with proceeds benefiting Joe Maddon's Respect 90 Foundation & other Cubs Charities]

But the second-half Cubs (58-37) now look energized, beating the American League’s best first-half team (Texas Rangers) and the defending National League champs (New York Mets) at Wrigley Field before rolling up Interstate 94 for a virtual home game.

Now here comes Fowler, who jumpstarted the offense again with the bases loaded in the second inning, lining a two-run double down the left-field line and saying postgame that he felt no lingering issues with the hamstring.

“He’s an asset at the top of the lineup,” winning pitcher Jason Hammel said. “Tough at-bat. And he can get you. It was nice to see him run around out there again.”

Yes, Hammel (9-5, 3.35 ERA) ate a handful of potato chips to help prevent cramping in the 86-degree heat, lasting five innings before five relievers combined to hold the Brewers (40-54) scoreless the rest of the night. For all the buzz about Theo Epstein’s front office upgrading the bullpen by the Aug. 1 trade deadline, Maddon may already have a shiny new toy in Carl Edwards Jr.

The skinny right-hander entered the game in the sixth inning, with a runner on second, and cut through the heart of Milwaukee’s order, forcing Ryan Braun to ground out and striking out Jonathan Lucroy and Chris Carter on six pitches combined.    

Just like that, the Cubs are getting answers from within, after all the outside noise screamed: Do something! The fans chanted “Let’s go, Cubbies!” before closer Hector Rondon got the final out and his 17th save. This is again looking like the team Fowler envisioned when he turned down the Baltimore Orioles for a one-year, $13 million guarantee, shocking the industry by showing up in Arizona in late February.     

“It’s really apparent how important he is to us,” Maddon said. “It just looked right.”

The next Andrew Miller? Mike Montgomery wants to show what he can do for Cubs bullpen

The next Andrew Miller? Mike Montgomery wants to show what he can do for Cubs bullpen

MILWAUKEE – “The next Andrew Miller” might be an unfair label for Mike Montgomery, who’s already been traded three times and still hasn’t completed a full season in the big leagues yet.

But Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein alluded to the possibility after acquiring Montgomery from the Seattle Mariners, projecting a 6-foot-5 lefty with first-round/top-prospect stuff who could thrive in the bullpen after struggling to make it as a starter.  

Epstein had watched the beginning of the Miller reboot with the Boston Red Sox, and felt like the Cubs should trade for Montgomery this week, before the price skyrocketed beyond minor-league slugger Dan Vogelbach and minor-league pitcher Paul Blackburn.  

Miller remains a target leading up to the Aug. 1 trade deadline – if the New York Yankees break up their dominant bullpen and sell off an All-Star reliever – but for now the Cubs will give a long runway to a pitcher who’s under club control through the 2021 season.

[SHOP: Buy a "Try Not to Suck" shirt with proceeds benefiting Joe Maddon's Respect 90 Foundation & other Cubs Charities]

“I’ve seen his career,” Montgomery said before Friday’s game against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park. “I’ve watched a lot of his stuff, actually. He’s unbelievable with what he does. We’re definitely different types of pitchers. I don’t necessarily like to compare that much. I’m just going to try to be the best I can be with my style.”

Manager Joe Maddon noticed the differences in performance and maturity since seeing Montgomery as a minor-league pitcher with the Tampa Bay Rays after that blockbuster James Shields/Wil Myers trade with the Kansas City Royals following the 2012 season.

“He’s got all kinds of potential,” Maddon said. “You talk about Andrew Miller: Did you see him when he pitched in Boston a couple years ago? It wasn’t as polished as it looks like right now.

“With Monty, I know a big part of his ascension has been better command out of the bullpen. The velocity is back up to where it had been. He’s got a really good curveball, man. And he’s got a very good changeup, too.

“Part of the process is to be patient. Give the guy opportunities. Don’t expect too much too soon. But if you do everything well, this guy could really build to something very special.”

[RELATED: Cubs keep Andrew Miller in mind while making Mike Montgomery trade with Mariners]

The Cubs believe it’s already starting to click for Montgomery, who turned 27 on July 1 and put up a 2.34 ERA, a 59 percent groundball rate and 54 strikeouts in 61.2 innings with the Mariners this season.

“I got a lot of confidence in what I’m doing,” Montgomery said. “I really feel I can help this team out in any situation. I know they got a lot of good players here already. But (I’ll) just go about my business the way I have been and pitch the way I have been.

“However that shapes up, I think it’s going to help this team and be good for me. I think I bring value in a lot of different ways. It’s just going out there and being confident and doing what you do and making good pitches. It’s that simple. I try not to get too far outside of that. Just worry about baseball and keep that tunnel vision on my craft.”

Getting married and demoted is ‘bittersweet,’ but Albert Almora Jr. showed he belongs in Cubs’ plans

Getting married and demoted is ‘bittersweet,’ but Albert Almora Jr. showed he belongs in Cubs’ plans

MILWAUKEE – The Cubs sent Albert Almora Jr. down to Triple-A Iowa the day after his wedding. This is a cold business, but the franchise does have a soft spot for the first player drafted by the Theo Epstein regime, still believing he could become the center fielder of the future, perhaps as soon as Opening Day 2017.

The Cubs rebooked Almora into a Pacific Coast League honeymoon by activating Dexter Fowler (hamstring) from the disabled list before Friday’s 5-2 win over the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park, getting back their “You go, we go” leadoff guy.

This was less than 24 hours after Almora posted a photo on Twitter and Instagram with the caption: “Finally hitched! #MrsAlmora.” Almora posed with Krystal, who’s expecting a baby boy in early September, or about the time there should be another call-up to The Show.

Teammates Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber and Justin Grimm – and their wives and girlfriends – attended the ceremony at a Chicago courthouse. Almora and his bride then bumped into manager Joe Maddon on Thursday night at Ocean Cut, the River North restaurant.

“It’s bittersweet,” Almora said inside the visiting clubhouse. “This is a big family in here. We look out for one another and we have a lot of fun playing baseball.”

Almora hit .265 with two homers, seven doubles and a .712 OPS in 34 games, showing his natural instincts, potential as a Gold Glove defender and the need for what Maddon called “a little bit more sophistication in regards to his at-bats.” It’s all part of the learning curve for a 22-year-old baseball gym rat accustomed to elite competition after growing up in South Florida and playing on Team USA.

“I’m confident I can play here, 100 percent,” Almora said. “I played like I belong. Like I said when I first got here – what helps me sleep at night is that I played my all. I left it all on the field. I can’t predict what could happen. But I’m happy with where I’m at.”

[SHOP: Buy a "Try Not to Suck" shirt with proceeds benefiting Joe Maddon's Respect 90 Foundation & other Cubs Charities]

Given the first-round pedigree, this most recent snapshot and the expectation that Fowler will hit the free-agent market again this winter, is Almora your everyday center fielder next season?

“I can’t answer that,” Maddon said. “All I know is that he’s proven to himself and us how good he is. Yes, he can play on a consistent basis. There’s no question about that. But I don’t know what the overall game plans are.

“The biggest thing with a guy like that is he gets his feet wet (and realizes): ‘I belong here. I can do this.’ And then he gets to go back and work on things that he knows is going to make him better here.

“We – and the front office – are comfortable with the fact that we believe that he can. And, more importantly, he believes that he can.”