Kaplan: Theo, Jed in Dominican Republic

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Kaplan: Theo, Jed in Dominican Republic

Baseball sources confirmed to me this afternoon that both Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer are in the Dominican Republic today meeting with Edgar Mercedes who is one of the advisers to Cuban outfield prospect Yoennis Cespedes.

The 26-year-old Cespedes is considered an outstanding athlete with plus-caliber power and is in hot demand with a number of major league teams traveling to the Caribbean to see him workout.

See his video workout that his agents sent to every major league team here.

Cespedes' main agent is Adam Katz, who Cubs fans might recognize as Sammy Sosa's agent.

Epstein and Hoyer may also be taking a look at 19-year-old outfielder Jorge Soler while in the Dominican Republic. Soler will likely come at a much cheaper price than Cespedes, but is projected to still be a few years away from being major-league ready while Cespedes could make an impact immediately.

How Ben Zobrist is finding the fountain of youth with Cubs

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How Ben Zobrist is finding the fountain of youth with Cubs

Joe Maddon laughed when a reporter mentioned the sense of renewal the older Cubs players are feeling now after signing as free agents, enjoying life on a young team with the best record in baseball and the vibrant atmosphere in Wrigleyville.

“They’ve been born again?” Maddon said. “That’s because they’re around Zobrist.”

Maddon can smirk because he knows Ben Zobrist’s journey to the big leagues so well after managing the Tampa Bay Rays for nine seasons. Zobrist, the son of a minister, grew up in downstate Illinois, played at Olivet Nazarene University and helps organize chapel services for his teammates.  

But even Maddon hasn’t seen Zobrist play at a higher level than right now, watching this hot streak continue during Sunday afternoon’s 7-2 win over the Philadelphia Phillies in front of 41,575 at Wrigley Field. 

“I’m trying to figure out myself if I can keep this up, to be honest,” said Zobrist, who turned 35 last week. “It just helps when you feel like things are going well up and down the lineup and we’re going to score a lot of runs. It kind of frees your mind up to be able to just try to see the ball and hit it.” 

That’s what Zobrist did in the third inning against Vince Velasquez, the talented 23-year-old right-hander who began the day with a 2.75 ERA, a 16-strikeout, complete-game shutout on his 2016 resume and a prominent spot in Philadelphia’s rebuilding plan.

Zobrist launched a three-run homer that flew out toward the right-field bleachers, bouncing into and out of the basket, extending Zobrist’s hitting streak to 15 games, giving him 34 consecutive starts where he’s reached base safely and leading to a three-game sweep of the Phillies (26-24).  

“He did have it when he was a baby – he always had a good eye at the plate,” Maddon said. “The difference is when guys get a little bit older, a lot of times they have to commit to pitches sooner. That’s when it goes away, and that’s when they start chasing a little bit more. He’s still quick and short to the ball, so he doesn’t have to commit early.

“He’s covering a greater variety of pitches more consistently. Off-speed, fastball, he’s covering everything probably better than he did when he was younger.” 

Zobrist needed to spend parts of three years with Tampa Bay’s Triple-A affiliate before finally establishing himself as an everyday player for the Rays during his age-28/All-Star season in 2009. 

Now Zobrist is getting “Benjamin Button” references for his age-reversing start to this season.  

“Do I look younger?” Zobrist said. “It’s a matter of just continuing to grow and mature as a hitter. You got to keep doing that. No matter how old you are, you’ve never arrived in this game. This game humbles you quick. And you got to try to stay on top of it.”  

That’s why the Cubs wanted Zobrist’s switch-hitting presence in the middle of their lineup, making the Starlin Castro-for-Adam Warren trade with the New York Yankees during the winter meetings and signing the game’s premier super-utility guy to a four-year, $56 million contract.

“Man, he’s raking,” pitcher John Lackey said. “When he gets up at the plate right now, we’re just kind of wondering which direction the hit’s going to go. When he gets out, it’s more of a surprise."

Zobrist probably won’t win a batting title – he’s now hitting .351 –  and he can’t keep getting on base 45 percent of the time. He pointed out that he didn’t have great at-bats on Sunday, striking out twice and grounding into a double play. But the Cubs have clearly felt the effects from his age-defying start.   
 
“Probably the best I’ve ever had, to be honest,” Zobrist said. “I’ve had some good stretches where I got a lot of hits. But as far as feeling comfortable, seeing the ball, putting good swings on the ball, this is probably the best it’s been for any three-, four-week stretch of time.

“You ride it out as long as you can.”

Maddon keeps thinking about how to manage the workload, to make sure Zobrist stays healthy throughout the season and fresh for October, and thinks focusing on one position (second base) should help. But right now, Zobrist is in the zone.  

“Sometimes hitting feels like you’re holding napkins down in the wind,” Zobrist said. “I got to do this and this and this and this. And then you got the ball coming at you. But lately I haven’t even had to do that. That’s the crazy thing about it. After I do my pregame work, I feel pretty locked.”

Phillies swept out of Wrigley and John Lackey has been exactly what Cubs needed

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Phillies swept out of Wrigley and John Lackey has been exactly what Cubs needed

Admit it, Cubs fans, part of you didn’t like the John Lackey deal, not after watching him pitch for the St. Louis Cardinals and hearing about his reputation with the Boston Red Sox. 

Or at least Cubs Twitter didn’t automatically hail this as another genius move for Theo Epstein’s front office when Lackey’s two-year, $32 million agreement leaked before the winter meetings even started at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee. 

But Lackey has been exactly what the Cubs needed, a snarling personality on the mound and a stabilizing presence in the middle of their rotation. Plus that big-game experience should come in handy for a team that will wake up 20 games over .500 on Memorial Day.

Lackey shut down the Philadelphia Phillies on Sunday afternoon at Wrigley Field, throwing seven innings in a 7-2 victory that completed a three-game sweep of a big-market team in the early stages of a full-scale rebuild. 

“We’re pretty good,” Lackey said. “There’s still a long way to go, but the potential to do something special is there, for sure. We just got to keep our head down, keep working at it. Don’t celebrate anything too quick. Just keep grinding.” 

There really wasn’t much suspense for the holiday-weekend crowd of 41,575. Lackey (5-2, 3.16 ERA) had a seven-run lead with two outs in the seventh inning when he gave up his first and only run – a homer to Tyler Goeddel – and that now makes him 8-for-10 in quality starts in a Cubs uniform. 

Just look at how much the Cardinals have missed Lackey’s ability to eat up innings, beginning Sunday with a 4.48 rotation ERA that ranked 11th out of the National League’s 15 teams and now falling 9.5 games behind the Cubs in the division. 

The Cubs sensed the price of pitching would explode and pushed to close the deal with Lackey before Zack Greinke’s decision – and after David Price agreed to a seven-year, $217 million megadeal with Boston. 

The Red Sox are a first-place team and Price has a 7-1 record – but with an ERA that’s still 5.34 after four straight quality starts and in a division that can be brutal for pitchers. 

The Arizona Diamondbacks stunned the baseball world by signing Greinke to a six-year, $206.5 million contract and making a blockbuster trade for Shelby Miller, a pitcher the Cubs discussed in depth with the Atlanta Braves.  

Greinke is underperforming (6-3, 4.71 ERA), Miller (1-6, 7.09 ERA) just went on the disabled list with a finger injury that sounds more like an excuse for a mental break and the Diamondbacks are fighting to stay out of last place.  

These are only snapshots, but the Cubs feel very comfortable paying for Lackey’s age-37 and age-38 seasons, knowing how much he wants a third World Series ring. 

“Johnny Lackey is one of those guys – when you grab a lead, he’s almost the perfect pitcher,” manager Joe Maddon, “because he treats every inning like it’s zero-zero, and he just keeps going after you.”

Joe Maddon on Dodgers' laser show: 'They can put bull's-eyes out there'

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Joe Maddon on Dodgers' laser show: 'They can put bull's-eyes out there'

Joe Maddon checks the websites for the New York Post and Daily News as part of his morning routine, so the Cubs manager had seen how the city’s tabloids covered the latest incident involving Major League Baseball’s endless fascination with technology and obsession in finding even a 1-percent competitive advantage. 

“Mets accuse Dodgers of cheating with lasers,” read one digital headline from the Post, a follow-up angle to Saturday’s Fox Sports report that the Mets contacted MLB about the Dodgers using a laser rangefinder to position their outfielders and requesting to put markers on the Citi Field grass.

The Mets-said, Dodgers-said stories would be overshadowed that night by Noah Syndergaard getting ejected for throwing a 99-mph fastball behind Chase Utley as payback for the takeout slide that knocked Ruben Tejada out of last year’s playoffs. 

But instead of becoming paranoid, Maddon will maintain his laissez-faire attitude on Memorial Day when Los Angeles begins a four-game series at Wrigley Field that won’t feature Clayton Kershaw.  

“If they’re putting markers on the field, that doesn’t bother me,” Maddon said Sunday. “They can put bull’s-eyes out there. I don’t care. It doesn’t really matter. There’s other ways to do exactly the same thing without that method of technology just by preparation before the game. 

“So when you read something like that, to me, it’s a little bit overblown, regarding both its importance and the fact that you should not permit somebody to do it. It really doesn’t matter, because there’s other ways to do exactly the same things without using a laser.”    

The Cubs lucked out when the Dodgers lured Andrew Friedman away from Tampa Bay to run baseball operations after the 2014 season, triggering an escape clause in Maddon’s below-market contract with the Rays.

Depending on your viewpoint, the Dodgers are either a cutting-edge organization flush with intellectual capital, or a cluttered franchise that leads the league in inflated titles and too many cooks in the kitchen.  

Beyond Friedman at the president’s level and an ownership group that includes Magic Johnson, there’s a heavy-hitter CEO (Stan Kasten), an MIT-/Cal-Berkeley-educated general manager (Farhan Zaidi) and a cabinet of advisors filled with former GMs (Josh Byrnes, Alex Anthopoulos, Gerry Hunsicker, Ned Colletti).  

“Most of the defenses are being set up today more in a generic sense,” Maddon said. “Whatever you think in your group, if you’re the Dodgers or the Cubs or whatever, just go ahead and do it. And if you had to put a mark on the field to indicate that, I have no problem with it.”

Run prevention became a top priority for the small-market Rays, who couldn’t afford big-name, top-of-the-market free-agent hitters. The Cubs and Dodgers are now ranked first and second in the majors in defensive efficiency. FanGraphs ranked those two teams second and third in Defensive Runs Saved. 

As much as Maddon listened to Friedman’s Wall Street insights and embraced Big Data, he had already applied some of those concepts in rudimentary ways during his 30-plus years in the Angels organization.  

“I used to be in charge of setting up defenses with the Angels,” Maddon said. “I would go out before the first game of a series and I would stand in my spot in the dugout – and I would have somebody go stand at each position – and I would find out where straight-up was.

“I’d stand in that corner – and then you would go stand at third base straight-up, shortstop straight-up. I would put a marker behind you – like a sign on the wall or whatever – that would indicate to me where you’re standing straight-up. So I could move you to the pull (side) three or four steps, or to the soft side three or four steps.” 

In the end, Maddon doesn’t care what the Dodgers do with their Department of Lasers. 

“They’re going to attempt to utilize all of that,” Maddon said. “I really like the idea of utilizing that stuff just to chart initially, to be able to use GPS (and) try to be really exact where the ball is hit. So then when you compile your information, you’re not getting negative noise. 

“We used to do the thing where you had a book in the dugout and you had different colored pencils and somebody would draw a line (to) where the ball is hit.

“(Now) you’re getting actual results. You know this is true. The dot is there. The dot is accurate.”