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-Marlins Sunday on CSN

Preview: Cubs-Marlins Sunday on CSN

The Cubs take on the Miami Marlins on Sunday, and you can catch all the action on CSN and streaming live on CSNChicago.com and the NBC Sports App.

Coverage begins with Cubs Pregame Live at 11:30 a.m., followed by first pitch with Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies on the call. Be sure to stick around after the final out to get analysis and player reaction on Cubs Postgame Live.

Starting pitching matchup: Mike Montgomery (1-3, 2.26 ERA) vs. Edinson Volquez (3-8, 4.19 ERA)

Click here for more stats to make sure you’re ready for the action.

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

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

Jon Lester: It’s go time for Cubs

Jon Lester: It’s go time for Cubs

MIAMI – Jon Lester dropped his head and wiped the sweat from his face. The Cubs ace didn’t jerk his neck and twist his body, hoping the swing and the sound somehow fooled him. The slow turnaround revealed the obvious – the 75-mph curveball out of his left hand flew over the left-field wall and nearly into the Clevelander bar billed as an adult playground. 

Lester gripped the next ball, stared out into the visual noise at Marlins Park and went to work late Saturday afternoon after J.T. Realmuto’s two-out, three-run homer in the first inning. This is the bulldog determination and tunnel vision that’s been the antidote to the big-market pressures at Fenway Park and Wrigley Field and made Lester such a big-game pitcher.

“You really just have to lock it down,” Lester said after doing just that in a 5-3 win. “You have to try to figure out a way to pitch innings. That was one thing I learned at an early age in Boston with ‘Schill’ (Curt Schilling) and Josh (Beckett). It doesn’t matter. Now we start over. You have to take that mindset of ‘It’s back to zero’ and not keep looking at the scoreboard.”

From that Realmuto moment, Lester retired the next 13 hitters he faced, 15 of the next 16 and 18 of his last 20 at a time when the Cubs needed that performance to buy time for their young hitters, weather a series of injuries and survive a brutal schedule.

Lester believed enough in the coming waves of talent to sign with a last-place team after the 2014 season, and got rewarded with his third World Series ring, continually impressed with this group’s poise and maturity.

The day after getting shut out for the sixth time this season, Addison Russell, Ian Happ, Javier Baez and Albert Almora Jr. – four 24-and-under players – combined to go 7-for-15 with five RBI and four runs scored.

“It’s a test for everybody,” Lester said. “These guys are kind of getting broken in early. They’re going to figure it out and we’re going to go. Now it seems like our guys are really feeling comfortable at the plate. We’re having good at-bats, normal at-bats.

“The results will come. This is, obviously, a results-driven industry. But the plans – as far as on the mound and in the batter’s box – just look a lot smoother right now, a lot cleaner and hopefully we can just keep playing good baseball.”

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The Cubs are 38-36, a half-game behind the first-place Milwaukee Brewers and in position to win three consecutive series for the first time since April. Whether or not Lester (5-4, 3.83 ERA) returns to Little Havana for the All-Star Game, he is the bellwether for this rotation.  

“Jonny’s just got this thing going on right now,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He knows where the ball is going and he gets the high-number velocity when he wants to. He’s not just pitching at 92, 93, 94 (mph). It’s in his back pocket when he needs it. And he gets it with command when he wants it.

“As well as I’ve seen him pitch – I know he had a great run last year also – from a stuff perspective, command perspective, it’s as good as he can pitch.”

This $155 million investment will at some point become a sunk cost. The Cubs understand the history of nine-figure contracts for pitchers and how desperately they need reinforcements. But almost 100 innings into this title defense, Lester feels like he’s just getting started. 

“I feel better now than I did in April and May, for sure,” Lester said. “I think bigger bodies just take a while sometimes. Some years are different than others. Some years you come out like gangbusters and you’re ready to go and the body feels fine. And other years it takes a while to get into that rhythm of pitching every five days again. This was one of those years.”