Chicago Cubs

The art of the megadeal: Like Nationals, Cubs will have to sign their Werth

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The art of the megadeal: Like Nationals, Cubs will have to sign their Werth

The day is coming where the Cubs are going to force you to pay attention. Jay Cutler and Derrick Rose won’t dominate talk radio. The buzz won’t revolve entirely around the Bears and Bulls.

Team president Theo Epstein will hold up a white pinstriped jersey at a stadium club news conference. There will be a photo shoot in front of the ivy and outside the Wrigley Field marquee, selling the dream of a parade down Michigan Avenue.

This will be The Right Player at The Right Time.

The Atlanta Braves landed B.J. Upton on Wednesday with a reported five-year, $75.25 million deal. The Cubs won’t be making any $150 million investments next week during the winter meetings in Nashville, Tenn. But eventually they’re going to have to jump in and sign a free agent to a contract longer than one year, even if the splash messes up their precise definition of value.

It could happen sooner than you think. Just listen to Chicago guy Mike Rizzo explain the art of the megadeal, and you get an idea of how the Cubs might get it done.

Two years ago, on the eve of the winter meetings, Rizzo made a huge bet on Jayson Werth and sent shockwaves throughout the industry. The numbers seemed like pure fantasy at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort: Seven years at $126 million.

But it was all part of a carefully calculated plan for the Washington Nationals general manager. Dec. 5, 2010 would be a landmark day in franchise history.

“We were at the point (with) our young players (where) we saw them coming,” Rizzo recalled. “They weren’t going to be those impact players yet, but we saw those guys scratching the surface and we were convinced that they were going to be good, solid core pieces for us for a long time.

“We had just come off 59 wins and then 69 wins, so we had an uptick in improvement and we felt that we needed (something). There was very much a loser mentality there, a losing culture, not only in the clubhouse, but in all surrounding areas, and I wanted to cut that out.”

Relaxed after a season in which the Nationals won 98 games and the National League East, Rizzo rattled off the details during an interview earlier this month at the general manager meetings in Indian Wells, Calif.

The kid who grew up west of Wrigley Field on Waveland Avenue sketched out the kind of player the Cubs will chase.  

“Jayson brought us a veteran presence with a good skill set,” Rizzo said. “He was the two-way type of player that we were looking for. If you remember, at that time, we had guys like (Cristian) Guzman playing second and Adam Dunn was at first and we were very one-dimensional.

“We weren’t good defensively. We didn’t run the bases well. We could hit a home run with you, but it didn’t help our good, young pitchers that were coming up. (So) we wanted to get more athletic, more high-energy.”

Werth would turn 32 during his first season in Washington, but he had earned a World Series ring with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2008. He had emerged as a strong supporting outfield piece on teams that won four straight division titles. Big-money players have to be leaders.

“I was extremely comfortable with who the person was, the makeup,” Rizzo said. “I had scouted him since he was in high school. He’s an Illinois kid. I played in the minor leagues with his uncle, so I knew the kid backwards and forward.”

This is what Epstein means when he says the premier free agents have to check off (almost) all your boxes.

But it also means dealing with Scott Boras, because the super-agent shrewdly pushes his clients to the open market at a time where clubs are locking up their best players with extensions. And you have to pull the trigger, even if the timing isn’t exactly right.

“It was a year ahead of schedule,” Rizzo said, “because that player was there that year. We knew with the length of the contract, he was going to be with us when these guys really came into their own.

“With Bryce Harper on his way up, (Werth) was going to be one of the guys to take him (under his wing). Same agency, same position – he was going (to) mentor him to become a better player at a quicker rate, accelerate his developmental curve and we’d get our money that way out of him.”        

On the North Side, maybe that’s someone who will push Starlin Castro, protect Anthony Rizzo and teach Javier Baez.   

Rizzo estimated his major-league payroll was around $50 million that winter. The Nationals had Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann lined up for their rotation, Ryan Zimmerman and Ian Desmond on the left side of the infield, and power arms like Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard out of the bullpen.

Werth had been an All-Star just once, never finished higher than eighth in the MVP voting and still hasn’t generated 100 RBI in a season. But this negotiation went beyond numbers.

“Most importantly, he was good on the field, off the field, in the dugout, in the clubhouse and in the community,” Rizzo said. “He brought us a winning attitude. After he sat down with ownership and myself, we were convinced that he was going to change the culture and he wasn’t going to allow us to be ‘the losing Nats.’

“We knew we had some money to spend. He was our No. 1 target and we went hard after him. To convince him to come to a 59-, 69-win team, we had to overpay him. But he fit the criteria that we wanted.”

Werth broke his wrist last May, but came back as a leadoff hitter, grinding out at-bats for a team that looks like a contender for years to come. The Nationals were so self-assured that they shut down Strasburg as a precaution in his full recovery from Tommy John surgery.

“We have a philosophy,” Rizzo said. “It was a difficult time for me personally, and for the organization, to take the heat for that decision, but that’s what I get paid for. You take the arrows for the manager and ownership and everything else.

“I felt at ease with the decision the whole time, and I still do. (But) the furor in the industry – (the decibels from) the analysts and the experts – (that) surprised me a little bit.”

The Cubs aren’t doing shock and awe yet. They will have to stick to their plan, but deviate when necessary. They need to study the deals from every angle, without experiencing paralysis by analysis. They will need to identify the missing piece – and then block out all the noise.  

Get off my lawn: Jon Lester breaks down big Cubs win

Get off my lawn: Jon Lester breaks down big Cubs win

ST. LOUIS – Jon Lester went into get-off-my-lawn-mode, tired of math nerds and people being famous for no reason and the questions about whether or not he will be ready for the playoffs.   

Lester is actually a great talker when he gets going, introspective, self-deprecating and a voice of authority after winning three World Series rings with the Cubs and Boston Red Sox.

But Lester didn’t exactly sound ready to pop champagne bottles after Monday night’s 10-2 win at Busch Stadium eliminated the St. Louis Cardinals from the National League Central race and guaranteed at least a tie with the Milwaukee Brewers for the division title.  

Whether it was Lester’s brutal honesty, simmering frustration or high expectations for himself, he downplayed a quality start against a team still battling for a wild-card spot. He also took a subtle jab at the team’s sophisticated game-planning system and ripped the culture that brought us “Nacho Man.”

“I got to get back to being me,” said Lester, who had given up 27 hits and 12 walks in his previous four September starts since coming off the disabled list with what the Cubs termed left lat tightness/general shoulder fatigue. “I got to get back to putting the hitters on a defensive mode, as opposed to trying to pitch to a scouting report from pitch 1.

“That was a conscious effort going into tonight, and I felt a lot better with everything, based off of that.”

Lester attacked the Cardinals with fastballs, working with 4-0, 5-0 and 8-1 leads across six innings. Once again, he found his rhythm later, giving up two walks in the fourth, getting his only 1-2-3 innings in the fifth and sixth and maxing out at 103 pitches.

The Cardinals scored their only run off Lester in the second inning when Jedd Gyorko launched a ball 410 feet out toward left field and “Big Mac Land” – in the same at-bat where shortstop Addison Russell almost made a Derek Jeter catch and turned “Nacho Man” into an instant celebrity.   

“I’m laughing more at the fact that the guy’s taking pictures and signing autographs,” Lester said. “I really don’t know what he did. A guy fell into him and got nacho cheese on his arm and now he’s taking pictures and signing autographs. I guess that shows you where our society is at right now with all that stuff.

“I really didn’t think it was that far foul. I thought it was a pretty routine play that just kept going. And I think it surprised Addie as well. So great effort, but I don’t understand the other stuff.”

Classic Lester, who changed the clubhouse vibe and fundamental nature of this rivalry when he decided to sign with a last-place team after the 2014 season and will be 3-for-3 in playoff seasons as a Cub.

“I don’t know,” Lester said three times when asked if those command issues are rooted in taking more than two weeks off in the middle of the season. “I haven’t had stuff like this before, so figure it out as we go.”

How close are you to where you want to be?

“I don’t know,” Lester said. “I was good tonight, so let’s go with that.”

The Cubs trusted Lester enough to give him $155 million guaranteed and make him their Game 1 starter in all three playoff rounds last year. But the team’s inner circle of decision-makers had to be breathing a sign of relief, knowing that plans will take shape before Lester’s final regular-season start, what should be a meaningless Game 161 against the Cincinnati Reds at Wrigley Field.  

“He’s just been searching, command-wise, (and) I can’t give you an exact reason why,” manager Joe Maddon said. “We just need to get him out of the gate a little bit more on top of his game. Again, I can’t give you a solid reason. He’s well. The numbers on the gun are good. It’s just a matter of executing his pitches and finishing them.”   

Lester always seems to be so hard on himself on the mound, and that competitive fire has made him one of the best big-game pitchers of his generation. The Cubs expect to see that guy show up in October against the Washington Nationals.   

“Everything was just a little bit sharper today than it has been in a little while, so that’s good, moving in the right direction,” Lester said. “There’s a few things in there that I need to clean up. But as far as overall, it’s definitely a positive."

With no more drama left in division race, Cubs-Cardinals turns into Addison Russell vs. Nacho Man

With no more drama left in division race, Cubs-Cardinals turns into Addison Russell vs. Nacho Man

ST. LOUIS – The Cubs played with an all-out intensity that drove Addison Russell to sprint over from shortstop and dive headfirst into the front-row seats beyond the left-field line, kicking a tray of nachos out of some dude’s left hand.

The St. Louis Cardinals have sunk to the point where Nacho Man became their biggest star on Monday night, going viral on social media and getting interviewed by the Chicago Tribune and both CSN Chicago and Fox Sports Midwest during the in-game broadcasts.

Russell didn’t catch that foul ball in the second inning with a Derek Jeter leap that left his right hand covered in cheese. He got booed when the Busch Stadium video board showed the replay of the nachos hitting the ground. He made amends by bringing out another order of nachos and taking a selfie with the Cardinal fan.

“He had a great night at the ballgame,” Russell said. “Initially off the bat, I was thinking that I could make the play. I didn’t see the fence and collided with it and got all nacho-d up.”

No, this didn’t feel like a playoff atmosphere at all, beginning with the 85-degree heat and ending with entire sections of empty seats. Jedd Gyorko actually homered during that at-bat, but it didn’t matter because the Cubs had already given Jon Lester a four-run lead before he threw his first pitch in what was supposed to be a dress rehearsal for October.

The Cubs will be there as the National League Central champions, eliminating the Cardinals from the division race with a low-stress 10-2 victory that sets up the chance for a blowout party late Tuesday night in the visiting clubhouse with another win or a Milwaukee Brewers’ loss.

“Woof,” catcher Willson Contreras said when asked what it would mean to clinch in St. Louis. “It always means a lot.”

Sensing the opportunity to bury the Cardinals, the Cubs jumped St. Louis right-hander Luke Weaver, a talented rookie who came in with a 7-1 record and a 2.05 ERA and lasted only three innings. Russell – who had been such a clutch performer late in last year’s playoff run – started it by driving a two-out, bases-loaded double into the right-field corner in the first inning.

Kris Bryant, the reigning NL MVP, drove Weaver’s 93-mph fastball beyond the left-field wall and into the visiting bullpen for his 29th homer and a 5-0 lead in the second inning. Javier Baez, the No. 8 hitter, launched a three-run homer that traveled 422 feet and slammed off an advertisement overhang above the bullpen in the third inning.

This is like a dream for Cubs fans enjoying this road trip to St. Louis and trolling Cardinal fans this week (with or without taking their nachos).

“I just want to win, honestly,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I understand all that. But I’m so contrary to coming to try to force those kind of thoughts in my methods. It’s about tonight’s game. And whenever we have this first chance to get there, let’s get there. You never want it to drag out. You want to be able to set things up, so it doesn’t matter to me.

“Believe me, man, I just want to win tonight.”

Or, as 2016 World Series MVP Ben Zobrist said: “The testosterone probably raises a little bit this time of year.”

Get your goggles and trash bags ready. The Cubs are the type of team that designed a Party Room into their state-of-the-art clubhouse as part of the $600 million Wrigleyville development and stretched out their World Series victory lap across Disney World, “Saturday Night Live,” and countless talk shows, commercials and ring ceremonies.

Anthony Rizzo – the only player left from the 2012 team that lost 101 games and a consultant on that Party Room project – insisted that celebrating in front of their rivals at a stadium that used to give the Cubs nightmares wouldn’t make a difference.       

“I really would love to be able to do it at Wrigley and use our new facilities even more,” Rizzo said. “But St. Louis is a good baseball city. They appreciate good baseball.

“If it was there, if it was in Arizona, it doesn’t matter where we clinch. Our goal was to win the division.”  

Even if it took until Sept. 26.

“It’s starting to smell like playoff baseball,” Russell said. “I know that these guys are amped up. It’s definitely feeling like playoff baseball."