Cubs' offseason moves just beginning

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Cubs' offseason moves just beginning

The Cubs are far from done as they continue putting their roster together for 2013, while Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer also work on completely overhauling an organization that was in far worse shape than they realized when they accepted the Cubs challenge.
From talking with a collection of agents and baseball sources over the past few days, the Cubs left Nashville and the annual Winter Meetings with a handful of short term needs on their shopping list. They are hoping to add a veteran center fielder who can play regularly. This would allow them to put David DeJesus back in his more natural position of right field which is where they originally intended on playing him when he was signed in November 2011.
The Cubs are also hoping to add another starting pitcher, but most agents I spoke with believe they will not spend significant money unless they are adding a definite upgrade after adding Scott Baker and Scott Feldman early in free agency. The candidates still on the market that have been on the Cubs' list include Shaun Marcum, Jair Jurrjens, John Lannan, Joe Saunders and Francisco Liriano. The Twins were hopeful of bringing Liriano back but reports today out of Minnesota seem to indicate that the two sides are at a stalemate.
Ryan Dempsters name has been linked to the Cubs on a number of occasions, but unless he is willing to accept a short term deal the Cubs have no interest in giving him the three-year contract he is seeking. Sources tell me they have not had substantive talks since the end of the 2012 season. He has already rejected a two-year, 25 million offer from the Red Sox as he holds out for a third guaranteed year.
But those offers do not seem to be coming his way. He will probably have to accept a two-year deal with an option for a third year, with the Milwaukee Brewers in hot pursuit along with a handful of other clubs.
Consider that the Cubs were able to land both Feldman and Baker on one-year deals for very modest salaries compared to the money that is now going to other mediocre starters. Joe Blanton landed a 15 million deal over two years and Kevin Correia, who signed with the Minnesota Twins for 10 million over two years, are examples. Todays market makes it imperative to strike early when going after pitching before the supply dries up and the demand sends contracts skyrocketing.
In addition to another starter, the Cubs are looking to add a right-handed bat that can play third base but the options there are extremely limited in free agency. Forget reports that had the Cubs linked to Placido Polanco, as his lack of power has the Cubs looking elsewhere. Other names they have at least explored include what it would take to land Texas Rangers prospect Mike Olt, Jack Hannahan and former Cub Casey McGehee.
The Cubs have already re-signed Ian Stewart to a one-year deal that will only become guaranteed if he makes the Opening Day roster, but that signing cannot be putting much confidence into the Cubs' fan base after Stewarts abysmal 2012 season that ended on the Disabled List. Its hard to believe that there was no better option available than a guy who appears to be a former first round bust.
Olt is ranked as one of the better third base prospects in baseball, along with Tigers minor leaguer Nick Castellanos, but the price to acquire either one appears to be prohibitive. The irony of trying to acquire Olt is that he would probably already be a Cub had Matt Garza not gotten injured last summer, which derailed the Cubs plans to trade him to Texas in a blockbuster deal.
The Cubs are also hoping to upgrade their bullpen with another move, but before they can add another significant arm they have to figure out what they are going to do with Carlos Marmol. They considered trading him to the Los Angeles Angels in a deal for starter Dan Haren, but backed away after becoming squeamish about Harens medical history and significant price tag. Marmol had a solid 2012 season when he was reinstalled as the Cubs closer after an early season demotion, and still has value pitching at the back end of games.
Most scouts that I spoke with believe that his high-wire act will scare off many teams when they look at his 9.8 million salary, but they also believe that some teams will take a chance on him if they are moving a high salary back in the deal. The Yankees, who are looking for bullpen insurance as Mariano Rivera tries to come back from ACL surgery have no interest in Marmol despite having former Cubs' pitching coach Larry Rothschild on their staff.

How soon before Cubs make Javier Baez an everyday player?

How soon before Cubs make Javier Baez an everyday player?

SAN DIEGO — The airtight defensive alignment for October would have to include Javier Baez, a game-changing force moving in all directions. The Cubs have seen Baez make barehanded plays and laser throws, take charge on bunts and frustrate hitters with an uncanny ability to improvise and make split-second decisions.

Baez and Addison Russell are two of the best athletes in the entire game, Jake Arrieta said after Tuesday night’s win over the San Diego Padres, so put the ball in play and let those two middle infielders take over.

There could be playoff lineups where Baez starts at second base and bumps Ben Zobrist to the outfield. But manager Joe Maddon isn’t about to hand Baez an everyday job, sticking with the super-utility formula and versatile philosophy that’s helped the Cubs become the best team in baseball.

“It depends on how we morph as a group over the next couple years,” Maddon said Wednesday at Petco Park. “Right now, I like the way it’s working out. I like the fact that (Javy’s) getting rested (and) not playing every day. Look at his at-bats — they have gotten better, too. He is making adjustments or adaptations during the at-bat. He’s not just out of control every swing.”

Baez has channeled his aggressiveness, hitting .276 with 13 homers, 47 RBIs and 83 strikeouts through 343 plate appearances, becoming a more mature and well-rounded player at the age of 23.

“You’re seeing a lot of progress,” Maddon said. “Who knows if by playing sporadically this is becoming more part of who he is? As opposed to playing every day, maybe getting caught in the trap of not hitting well, whatever, and all of a sudden he takes it on defense. It’s natural progression. He’s an everyday player, there’s no question, in maybe a couple years.”

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The Geek Department and scouting reports will ultimately influence where Baez plays, because Maddon wants him wherever the ball will most likely be hit most often. When Jon Lester pitches, that can mean Baez starting at third base and Kris Bryant moving to the outfield.

The Cubs promised Zobrist the second-base job when he signed a four-year, $56 million contract, agreeing the focus on one position would help reduce the wear and tear on his body at the age of 35. The Cubs still need Zobrist’s switch-hitting skills and World Series experience in the lineup.

Maddon also wants to keep Jorge Soler involved — because he’s a presence other teams have to account for — and maybe that will mean sacrificing Jason Heyward’s Gold Glove defense in right field at times.

But Baez is the type of defender the Cubs will want to see out there in one-run, low-scoring playoff games.

“He’s unbelievable,” Bryant said. “Any ball hit his way — whether it’s in the air, on the ground, on line — you kind of just expect him to make the play and make it look good. That’s what he’s been doing all year. I certainly think he’s Gold Glove worthy, but he plays all over. I feel like there should be a utility man Gold Glove, because he definitely (deserves it).”

Cubs conserving Jake Arrieta for October and see another Cy Young push coming

Cubs conserving Jake Arrieta for October and see another Cy Young push coming

SAN DIEGO – West Coast atmosphere, late August, almost no-hitter stuff for a Cubs team riding a wave of momentum. Jake Arrieta might be reentering the zone that made him the hottest pitcher on the planet last year. Get your onesies ready.

It felt that way on Tuesday night at Petco Park, where Arrieta shut down the San Diego Padres, allowing only two hits across eight scoreless innings in a 5-3 victory, making another statement in his Cy Young Award defense.

For all the questions about Arrieta’s fastball control and mechanical tweaks – and times where he’s admitted he’s felt a click off – this is still a top-of-the-rotation guy who leads the league with 16 wins and has a 2.62 ERA.

“He should be” in the Cy Young discussion, manager Joe Maddon said. “The only thing that’s been amiss is a little bit of command issues on occasion. Otherwise, stuff is the same. Numbers are fabulous. It’s hard to replicate what he had done last year, because he just nailed it.

“If he gets hot over these last couple weeks…”

It will be up to Arrieta to complete that thought in a World Series-or-bust season for baseball’s first team to 80 wins this year, one that’s now 35 games over .500.  

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This didn’t feel like a perfect game or create any no-hitter drama. The Padres are already 20 games under .500 and years away from being a serious contender. And Arrieta had to bounce back from last week’s ugly win over the Milwaukee Brewers – when he walked a career-high seven batters – and work around a first-inning walk to San Diego leadoff guy Travis Jankowski.

But the Cubs played spectacular defense behind Arrieta, with catcher Willson Contreras making a lightning-quick throw to pick off Jankowski at third base. The Cubs turned three double plays while a thunderous lineup led by Kris Bryant (33rd home run) and Addison Russell (fifth home run in his last five games) lowered the stress level. After Alex Dickerson’s single leading off the second inning, the Padres didn’t get another hit until Christian Bethancourt’s double with two outs in the eighth.

“I really wanted to let my defense work,” said Arrieta, who finished with six strikeouts against three walks. “When you have Addison and (Javier) Baez in the middle of the infield – two of the best athletes in all of baseball – you want the ball to go to those guys.”

At a time when Clayton Kershaw (back) and Stephen Strasburg (elbow) are on the disabled list, leaving potential playoff opponents like the Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals in scramble mode, the Cubs can see Arrieta building toward October.

The way Arrieta did with that Aug. 30 no-hitter last year at Dodger Stadium on national TV, walking into the press conference in a moustache-covered onesie, Maddon going with the pajama theme again for the flight home after this weekend’s series in Los Angeles.

But the Cubs ultimately paid the price for all that effort poured into the wild-card chase, which explains why Maddon pulled Arrieta after 99 pitches with a five-run lead (leaving Aroldis Chapman to clean up Felix Pena’s mess in the ninth inning and get the final two outs, giving him eight saves in a Cubs uniform).

“Yeah, I was mad at Joe taking me out,” Arrieta said. “But at the same time, he came over to me and he said: ‘Hey, just remember last year and let’s conserve some things for October.’

“That’s our game plan. We want to be as strong and as dominant as we can be, but still in the back of our mind understanding that late September, early October, mid-October is really the most important time for us.

“Could I have finished the game? Yes. Does it play in our favor to maybe conserve that for later? Yeah. Joe’s a really smart guy. He knows what he’s doing. I feel like he makes the right moves in the right situations. And that’s why we’ve been playing as well as we have.”

No doubt, Addison Russell is becoming a star for Cubs

No doubt, Addison Russell is becoming a star for Cubs

SAN DIEGO – On a team bursting with MVP frontrunners and Cy Young Award candidates – and in a clubhouse with louder, flashier personalities – Addison Russell can emerge as an All-Star shortstop and not become the center of attention.

But here at Petco Park last month, Russell drew scrutiny for his spot in the all-Cub infield, patiently answering questions from reporters about whether or not he deserved to be the National League starter the fans voted for in that popularity contest.

Russell might actually be developing into a superstar now, a Gold Glove-caliber defender with legitimate middle-of-the-order power, someone absolutely essential to what the Cubs are doing now. Russell crushed the San Diego Padres again on Tuesday night, opening up a two-run game with a two-run homer in the fifth inning of a 5-3 victory.

“Just watch me over the course of a year,” Russell said. “My numbers may not be great or whatever, but I contribute to my team every single day. I play my heart out for my team.”

Super-agent Scott Boras, posted up at Petco Park to see clients and watch Jake Arrieta pitch, pointed out that Russell is now only one of five shortstops within the last 40 years to have at least 19 homers during his age-22 season, joining Cal Ripken Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Troy Tulowitzki and Corey Seager.

Russell is the first Cubs shortstop to reach the 80-RBI mark since Ernie Banks did it in 1961. For all the comparisons to Barry Larkin, he didn’t make his big-league debut with the Cincinnati Reds until the age of 22, and didn’t exceed 12 homers in a season until five years later.

Russell has homered five times in his last five games, leads the best team in baseball with 23 multi-RBI games and exemplifies a no-panic approach that should translate in October.

“I’ve said all year, we have guys on our team that get on base and it’s my job to get them over or get them in,” Russell said. “I’ve taken that role to heart. It’s a lot of fun out there. I challenge myself whenever I’m in that situation.”

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Russell’s highlight-reel play during Monday night’s victory inspired manager Joe Maddon to give him a bottle of Justin Isosceles wine with a “6-3” written on it. Imagine the reward if Russell wins a Gold Glove.  

“Defensively, it’s as good as there is being played right now,” Maddon said. “It’s getting to the point where there’s nobody else like that right now.”

Whether or not Russell can stay healthy and remain productive enough to become another Mr. Cub – or come close to matching Larkin’s Hall of Fame numbers – you don’t get the sense he will be a one-time All-Star.

“I’m very happy for him, because I know prior to being selected, that was an issue,” Maddon said. “I’m so proud of him, how he came out and confronted it in his own way, very quietly, but in a distinguished manner. That’s who he is.

“Now he’s showing everybody how good he is. And I also believe that event has pretty much catapulted him to the point he’s at right now (with) the status that he felt by being here. In some ways, there was this negative dialogue going on. He’s turned it into a very positive one. Good for him.”