Beyond Zambrano, Ramirez: Five Cubs on the spot

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Beyond Zambrano, Ramirez: Five Cubs on the spot

Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2011
5:27 p.m.

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

The marketing department can put up billboards highlighting the new faces of the franchise. And you will no doubt see more Tyler Colvin and Starlin Castro jerseys this summer.

But in so many ways the 2011 Cubs will hinge upon Carlos Zambrano and Aramis Ramirez, who combined have spent 20-plus years in the organization. Follow the money: Together they will make more than 33 million this season.

When healthy and focused, they are supposed to be anchors. Another transition year could be successful if Zambrano accounts for 200 innings - something he hasn't done since 2007 - and Ramirez generates close to 30 homers and 100 RBI in what could be his final season in a Cubs uniform.

"We need Aramis to be the guy that he has been most of his career here," general manager Jim Hendry said. "We need to get Aramis to play 135, 140 games and the numbers will take care of itself. (He's) as clutch an RBI guy as we've had here in a long time. And the rest of the league respects that."

Reconnecting with Zambrano will be a priority for manager Mike Quade, who watched him go 8-0 with a 1.41 ERA down the stretch. Last month at the Cubs Convention, Quade laughed off a fan's suggestion that a 29-year-old husband and father could use Greg Maddux as a kind of personal life coach.

"I expect Carlos to handle himself the way he finished up last year," Quade said. "Whether he explodes or whatever...all right, so he explodes. Take a walk, see you in five days, pitch well. If it becomes a reoccurring thing, yeah, we have a problem. But if we're going to have individual guys taking care of each guy that has some emotional issues, man, we're not going to have a big enough plane."

Zambrano and Ramirez will be flying north at the end of camp. Here are five other Cubs who will be watched closely in spring training, whether or not they get seats on the team charter.

Andrew Cashner
Everyone agrees that Cashner has a high ceiling, though the organization has been split on whether he projects as a front-line starter or closer. The 2008 first-round pick could end that debate with a good spring. The plan for now is to stretch Cashner out and have him compete for one of the two open spots in the rotation. It will be interesting to see just how committed the Cubs are to this idea, because Cashner's confidence soared after Quade took over last season, and the rookie began to dominate out of the bullpen (1.40 ERA in his final 18 games).

Jeff Samardzija
Did you know that he used to play football? Samardzija is tired of those questions and may never again have this kind of leverage. Now entering his fifth full professional season after an All-American career at Notre Dame, Samardzija is out of minor-league options. So this is probably his last chance to justify the 10 million the Cubs gave him to bypass the NFL. There is a new pitching coach to impress, and Mark Riggins could have some unique insight into Samardzija after his work in the minor-league system.

Randy Wells
At some point expectations outran a converted catcher drafted in the 38th round. Across the past two seasons Wells has accounted for 20 wins, a 3.70 ERA and almost 360 innings - at a cost of less than 1 million. Yet that still leaves him fighting for a rotation spot, and dismissing questions about his maturity and consistency. Maybe it's time to appreciate Wells for who he is - and not force him as a No. 3 starter. At 28, Wells could either really establish himself as a Cub, or begin drifting back toward Triple-A Iowa.

John Grabow
At this time last year, the Cubs hoped Esmailin Caridad would emerge as a primary setup man, and he wound up giving them only four innings in 2010 because of arm issues. The bullpen now appears to be a point of strength with Kerry Wood and Sean Marshall in front of closer Carlos Marmol. They still need a bridge to get there, and that's why Grabow is being paid 4.8 million. The veteran left-hander tried to pitch through a knee injury (7.36 ERA) and was eventually shut down last summer. The preliminary reports on his health have been good.

Geovany Soto
In a lineup filled with hitters on the wrong side of 30, trying to match numbers from the past, Soto is one with growth potential. The 28-year-old profiled as one of the best offensive catchers in the game last season (.890 OPS) before undergoing shoulder surgery in late September. How he responds physically - and handles a huge raise to 3 million - will be worth monitoring. The pitchers seem to enjoy working with Soto, who takes his defensive responsibilities seriously and could step up into a more visible leadership role.

PatrickMooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. FollowPatrick on Twitter @CSNMooneyfor up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

Clubhouse frustration bubbling up for Cubs and Jake Arrieta

Clubhouse frustration bubbling up for Cubs and Jake Arrieta

PITTSBURGH — We interrupt your regularly scheduled coverage of The Plan and that wacky, fun-loving Cubs team to bring you a snapshot of clubhouse frustration.

Jake Arrieta sounded defensive while talking to reporters after Wednesday night’s 8-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park, standing in front of his locker and second-guessing manager Joe Maddon. On the other side of the room, veteran catcher Miguel Montero questioned the way the Cubs are preparing for the playoffs with Cactus League scripts.

The postgame questions started with Arrieta’s first-inning issues with umpire Chris Guccione’s strike zone. When reporters mentioned Maddon’s positive spin on a seven-run outing, Arrieta dismissed those happy-talk answers about his stuff — “it just wasn’t crisp” — and then wondered why he went from throwing to Montero to rookie Willson Contreras.

“The feeling of the game, from the first pitch, just wasn’t there,” Arrieta said. “Switching catchers just felt like we were trying to do a little too much instead of win a ballgame. But I didn’t throw well, no way around it.”

Montero went with a similar passive-aggressive tone, riffing on how the Cubs will maintain their edge almost two weeks after clinching the National League Central title and nine days before their first playoff game at Wrigley Field.

“Did it feel like spring training?” Montero said. “I do believe that. And that’s not a good feeling for a pitcher, for a player, to go into a game knowing that you’re going to play just four innings or five innings or whatever it is.

“This game is still important for all the players. It’s still important for every single guy. I don’t want to go out there not caring about winning or losing. That’s not my mentality. My mentality is going out there because I want to win, regardless.

“We have to trick our mind. Because if that’s how we’re going to go the rest of the way, I guess we need to trick ourselves.”

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Unprompted, Montero brought up the Pirates scoring three runs in the ninth inning on Tuesday night before the Cubs hung on for a 6-4 victory — without using Aroldis Chapman — as Maddon tries to keep the bullpen fresh for the playoffs.

“We didn’t have our closer warming up,” Montero said. “That’s something I take personally because I’m catching and I want to win.

“It’s hard. I understand (Joe’s) point. And I understand the organization’s point. I respect it. I can only control what I can control. It is what it is.”

OK then, the Cubs are still a 101-win team and the NL’s No. 1 seed. But this became a sharp contrast to all the backslapping after the pregame announcement of Theo Epstein’s monster contract extension. And Arrieta didn’t look like a reigning Cy Young Award winner, giving up 10 hits while John Jaso — who does look like a Pirate — lined a curveball into the right-field seats for a three-run homer in the fourth inning and hit for the cycle.

“We’re moving on,” Arrieta said. “We’ll prepare for the next one. I don’t like giving up seven runs. I’m pissed about that. But moving forward, everything’s fine.”

With Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks lined up at the front of the playoff rotation, Arrieta’s next start is almost two weeks away.

“It doesn’t matter,” Arrieta said. “I’ll throw sides. I’ll prepare. And whoever I face first round — they’re going to be in trouble.”

After burning through 103 pitches in five innings, Arrieta’s regular-season odometer is now at 197 1/3 innings, but he has zero interest in a gimmick that would get him to 200 this weekend against the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park.

“Listen, I want to pitch on a schedule,” Arrieta said. “I don’t want to throw an inning in a game. I’m not trying to do anything different. Let’s just prepare like we normally do and go out and try to win games. I’m not trying to throw a bullpen in a game.”

Look, if this isn’t trouble in paradise, then it’s obvious that the Cubs are a hyper-competitive group that knows what’s at stake in October and has some independent thinkers and strong personalities. And that Arrieta’s unreal 2015 season created impossible standards for this year that couldn’t be met with an 18-8 record and a 3.10 ERA, the type of numbers that still get pitchers $200 million contracts.

“I don’t think you know how hard this game is unless you play it,” Arrieta said. “I feel I can have another season like that. People have done it before. Why can’t I do it? I can do it again. So, yeah, I appreciate it. But at the same time, that’s what you strive for. That’s why you work hard. You go out and you try to perform that way.”

Theo Epstein keeps the band together with Cubs extending Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod

Theo Epstein keeps the band together with Cubs extending Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod

PITTSBURGH — Theo Epstein namedropped Eddie Vedder in the middle of last year’s champagne-soaked celebration at Wrigley Field, comparing a Cubs team that won 97 games and bounced the St. Louis Cardinals from the playoffs to a band that bursts onto the scene and blows up with an amazing first album. It would only get more complicated, with expectations changing and the Cubs now having to deal with success, the egos and the backlash.

Whatever happens in October — either the franchise’s first World Series title since 1908 or a massive disappointment — Epstein will get to keep the band together and have his friends around for future Pearl Jam concerts at Wrigley Field.

General manager Jed Hoyer will also get a five-year contract extension to match the timeline of the team president’s new deal, which chairman Tom Ricketts announced before Wednesday night’s 8-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park. Jason McLeod, the senior vice president of scouting and player development already under contract for two more years, will also be extended through the 2021 season.

“When you have great leadership at the top, it normally filters into the rest of the group,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Every successful organization has that. We have that.

“It doesn’t happen everywhere. It’s not like this everywhere, the way it’s been built, the attention to detail. It’s not just numbers. There’s a very human side to all this. It’s a great balance.”

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Management’s 2021 timeframe matches up with All-Star talents Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Addison Russell, who all remain under club control through that year, along with Kyle Schwarber and Javier Baez, part of a 20-something cast that now also includes Jason Heyward, Willson Contreras and Albert Almora Jr.

Epstein, Hoyer and McLeod had all won World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox and saw how New England responded to the 2004 team that ended an 86-year drought. They decided to reunite in the fall of 2011, with Hoyer taking on some of Epstein’s out-front, day-to-day responsibilities and dealing with the executives and agents he knew better. McLeod — who recently interviewed for a top job with the Minnesota Twins that will reportedly go to Cleveland Indians executive Derek Falvey — should continue to be linked to just about every GM job that opens.

“I see this contract, this show of faith from the Ricketts (family) in me as a validation of everybody,” Epstein said. “The contract is really a product of all the hard work that literally hundreds of people have performed to make this a healthier and better baseball operation, from Jed and Jason and Randy (Bush) and Shiraz (Rehman) and Scott (Harris) to all the guys in scouting and player development and the R&D team, the guys behind the scenes.

“Of course, (it’s) Joe and his staff and the players doing a remarkable job on the field at the big-league level the last couple years. So this is a product of everybody’s hard work, and I accept it kind of on their behalf. The strength and stability that we have now is a reflection of what happens when there’s trust, teamwork, transparency from a lot of talented people working together, starting from the very top with the Ricketts family.”