Cubs: Is Anibal Sanchez the right player at the right time?

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Cubs: Is Anibal Sanchez the right player at the right time?

All along, Theo Epstein said the Cubs were going to wait for the right player at the right time before making a splash in free agency.

That was the big idea when Epstein took on this rebuilding project some 14 months ago: The team president and his value-minded lieutenants in the front office would acquire as many talented young players as possible, enough core pieces that theyd feel comfortable buying the big-ticket item.

That appeared to be way off on the horizon until conflicting reports popped up across Twitter on Thursday. Within minutes, the Cubs were either close to signing Anibal Sanchez, or the pitcher had already agreed to a five-year, 75 million contract, or the negotiations were going back to the Detroit Tigers for the final chance to match.

Team officials remained silent, but an overall impression emerged: No done deal, with the waiting game going late into the night. USA Todays Bob Nightengale who broke the story before backtracking reported that talks would continue Friday morning.

This came from the blind side. There was said to be a sense of quiet at the Clark Street headquarters on Thursday morning, but this is why they want to keep such a tight lid on information.

Remember that the first piece added to the rotation this offseason was supposed to be Dan Haren until the Cubs had medicalfinancial concerns and pulled the plug on a trade with the Los Angeles Angels and held onto closer Carlos Marmol.

But the Cubs had already beaten the rush last month and signed two starting pitchers Scott Baker and Scott Feldman to one-year deals that matched up with all the other reasonable, incremental moves this front office had made with free agents.

While standing by the home dugout at Wrigley Field last week, surrounded by reporters during the Kyuji Fujikawa press event, general manager Jed Hoyer said the Cubs would continue to look for depth, but offered no hints they were close on a game-changer like Sanchez.

Were certainly not done, Hoyer said, but we certainly feel better about where we are looking at the offseason now. Were certainly not even halfway (in), but were really glad that we went in right away and added two starters in Baker and Feldman given the way the markets acted since. We feel like that (was) a wise move.

Well continue to try to add, but weve been building to be a little more discerning now, because we added two guys we wanted right away.

Those talking points plus the rising cost for free agents didnt suggest that the Cubs were going after perhaps the best pitcher on the board after Zack Greinke, who just got a six-year, 147 million contract from the Los Angeles Dodgers.

In the battle for Los Angeles, the Angels swooped in on Thursday and landed Josh Hamilton with a five-year, 125 million contract. The Cubs were known to be opposed to that kind of megadeal. They didnt have to win headlines or fight for attention within their market. They dont particularly care what the fans or the media think.

But industry sources familiar with the teams thinking say dont focus so much on the price range just analyze whether its a smart long-term investment.

The Cubs go through those exercises all the time even last winter with Prince Fielder, who didnt make perfect sense and wound up getting a nine-year, 214 million deal with the Tigers.

Sanchez checks off many of the boxes Epstein and Hoyer talk about when they evaluate free agents. Hes on the right side of 30 and will turn 29 during spring training. They also must know something about his makeup, from their time together in the Boston Red Sox organization.

As Bostons co-general manager in 2005, Hoyer helped engineer a huge trade with the Florida Marlins while Epstein briefly left the organization and went on a sabbatical. Sanchez and Hanley Ramirez were among the Red Sox prospects heading to South Florida in exchange for Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell and Guillermo Mota.

Sanchez developed into a reliable middle-of-the-rotation piece with the Marlins and only enhanced his value after last summers trade to the Tigers. He performed on the big stage, going 1-2 with a 1.77 ERA in three postseason starts.

Sanchez has made at least 31 starts in each of the last three seasons, though he hasnt reached the 200-inning mark yet. His career numbers are solid if not spectacular a 48-51 record with a 3.75 ERA but the Cubs would be betting that hes just entering his prime.

Sanchez will come close to getting paid like an ace, but he wouldnt necessarily have to be one if the Opening Day rotation includes Jeff Samardzija, Matt Garza, Baker and Feldman. That would be an interesting way for the Cubs to start 2013 ahead of schedule.

It certainly got the attention of Garza, who posted this message on his Twitter account: I'm at the edge of my seat also with the Sanchez supposed deal... waiting.

Preview: Cubs-Dodgers Sunday on CSN

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Preview: Cubs-Dodgers Sunday on CSN

The Cubs take on the Los Angeles Dodgers on Sunday, and you can catch all the action on CSN. Coverage begins with Cubs Pregame Live at 2:30 p.m. Then catch first pitch with Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies. Be sure to stick around after the final out to get analysis and player reaction on Cubs Postgame Live.

CSN will also carry the live audio call of Los Angeles Dodgers broadcasting legend Vin Scully during Sunday's game as the SportsNet LA audio feed will be featured during the third inning.

Sunday’s starting pitching matchup: Jon Lester vs. Kenta Maeda

Click here for a game preview to make sure you’re ready for the action.  

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— Channel finder: Make sure you know where to watch.

— Latest on the Cubs: All of the most recent news and notes.

— See what fans are talking about before, during and after the game with Cubs Pulse.

Cubs: Jason Hammel still fuming after Joe Maddon’s quick hook at Dodger Stadium

Cubs: Jason Hammel still fuming after Joe Maddon’s quick hook at Dodger Stadium

LOS ANGELES – Even from the upper levels of Dodger Stadium, inside the Vin Scully Press Box, you didn’t need binoculars or a lip reader to tell that Jason Hammel wanted nothing to do with Joe Maddon. 

Not this early on Saturday afternoon, not when the Cubs pitcher came into a possible playoff preview with a 13-6 record and a 3.07 ERA. An animated Hammel gestured toward home plate and walked off the mound in the middle of the third inning, continuing a sometimes awkward/usually productive relationship with the star manager that dates back to their time together as Tampa Bay Rays.    

The media waited several extra minutes outside the visiting clubhouse after a 3-2 loss to the Dodgers while Hammel met with Maddon in his office. Maddon’s postgame press conference then lasted almost eight minutes, giving Hammel time to shower and change into his street clothes. Hammel was still fuming by the time reporters wandered over to his locker.

“That’s between me and Joe,” Hammel said. 

Hammel – who normally enjoys the back-and-forth exchanges and gives insightful answers, even to uncomfortable questions – declined to get specific about the meeting, the decision-making process or how to work with Maddon.  

“That’s a conversation for me and him,” Hammel said. “There’s no reason for that to be in the papers. It’s a professional way of working through it. We’ll leave it there.” 

No, Hammel doesn’t get much latitude, even during his 11th year in the big leagues and a strong individual season that had so far answered questions about a second-half fade. But Maddon didn’t like what he saw against a stacked left-handed Los Angeles lineup.

Maddon walked out from the dugout with two runners on and one out in the third inning. Adrian Gonzalez loomed next, trying to extend a 3-1 lead with one big swing. Maddon summoned Rob Zastryzny from the bullpen and watched the rookie lefty get two groundball outs.  

“I didn’t even pitch today in my mind,” Hammel said. “I barely threw 40 pitches, so this is a side day for me.”

Zastryzny looked extremely impressive, retiring 11 of the 12 batters he faced, eight days after getting called up from Triple-A Iowa and making his big-league debut, showing that he could become an X-factor for October.

“He was not happy with me taking him out that early,” Maddon said of his conversations with Hammel. “I can understand why, because it’s happened in the past. But I just didn’t see the game straightening out.

“Watching them one time through, it looked like they were on him a little bit. And I thought that was a great lineup for ‘Rob Z.’ One of the things with bullpen arms – I want to put them in a meaningful spot. 

“I didn’t see it happening for ‘Hammer’ today, and that’s cool, because he didn’t throw that many pitches. He’s going to be very well-rested for his next start. But it also illustrates ‘Rob Z’ and what he can do for us in the future.” 

No, Hammel didn’t look all that sharp, giving up five hits to the 12 batters he faced, including a first-inning homer to Corey Seager and three consecutive hits to begin the third. But Hammel is also a respected veteran teammate who helped the Cubs transform into a playoff team last year and build baseball’s top-performing rotation this season. 

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Who cares? The Cubs are still 36 games over .500 and began the day with huge leads over the St. Louis Cardinals (14) and Pittsburgh Pirates (16.5) in a watered-down division. 

Well, Hammel is a guy who feeds off confidence and positive reinforcement. The Cubs might need him in October, especially if John Lackey (shoulder) experiences a setback before coming off the disabled list or another starter gets hurt down the stretch.  

“It is what it is,” Hammel said. “The guys fought hard. ‘Z’ did a hell of a job coming out of the ‘pen.”

Then again, the Cubs already think Mike Montgomery could develop into a good big-league starter – the lefty swingman got a longer leash given this particular Los Angeles matchup on Friday night – and thought enough of Zastryzny to make him a second-round pick out of the University of Missouri in 2013.

But for now, Maddon allowed Hammel to take advantage of his open-door policy and vent.

“I want them to be able to do that,” Maddon said. “I have a reason why I did it. I’m not going to hide about anything. It’s not like I just picked that out of the hat and chose to do it today. 

“You just got to shoot them straight back. And hopefully they can deal with it. There’s a great line: ‘Honesty without compassion equals cruelty.’ So at some point, you got to understand your audience, too.”

Joe Maddon defends bunt decision after Cubs can’t knock out Dodgers phenom Julio Urias

Joe Maddon defends bunt decision after Cubs can’t knock out Dodgers phenom Julio Urias

LOS ANGELES – The Cubs had Julio Urias and the Los Angeles Dodgers on the ropes, but couldn’t knock out the young lefty from Mexico who’s drawn comparisons to franchise icon Fernando Valenzuela and could be the next star to burst from this pitching-rich pipeline.  

The Cubs created their “you go, we go” sense of momentum on Saturday afternoon at Dodger Stadium with Dexter Fowler drawing a leadoff walk and MVP candidates Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo hitting back-to-back singles into right field to generate the game’s first run.

Urias had already thrown 17 pitches in the first inning when manager Joe Maddon instructed cleanup hitter Ben Zobrist to try to bunt for a hit. It became an easy out for Urias, who then struck out Addison Russell and Jorge Soler looking and began to find his rhythm during a 3-2 victory in front of 49,522 at Chavez Ravine. 

“Second and third was kind of a nice spot to be,” Maddon said. “(Zobrist) could have hit into a double play. He’s the one guy who’s heavy groundball against that particular pitcher. 

“I actually like the bunt for the hit right there, (because) we had (already) scored (and) Addison’s been a pretty good RBI dude. I thought it was a nice move right there (to) at least get one (run) out of that. 

“You got him and Soler coming up versus a left-hander who’s a little bit shaky right there – I kind of liked it.”

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The Cubs had roughed up Urias during his second career big-league start on June 2 – or two-plus months before his 20th birthday – by hitting three homers and scoring six runs off him in five innings at Wrigley Field.   

But Urias – who pitched at four different minor-league levels last season – clearly has an accelerated learning curve. He managed to last six innings this time and didn’t allow another run after that early flurry, finishing with eight strikeouts against two walks.  

Urias has gone 4-0 with a 2.03 ERA in his last six games (four starts), helping bail out a $250 million team and a fragile rotation that’s used 14 different starting pitchers. If the Dodgers (72-57) can get Clayton Kershaw back to full strength, keep Rich Hill healthy and continue to bring along Urias, then the Cubs might have some matchup nightmares in October. 

“(Urias is) all of what they think he is,” Maddon said. “The kid was outstanding. He knows how to elevate against the guy you’re supposed to elevate against. He knows how to throw the ball down against the guy you’re supposed to throw the ball down to. He’s got a nice move to first base. He handled himself well at the plate. And he’s 20 years old. That’s pretty good.”