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.

After winter of taking heat, Cubs still have Joe Maddon's back

After winter of taking heat, Cubs still have Joe Maddon's back

MESA, Ariz. — It only took 21 minutes into spring training — or the first press conference on the day pitchers and catchers officially reported to Arizona — before Joe Maddon listened to another question about all the heat he took for his World Series Game 7 decisions.

More than 2,000 miles away at Yankee camp in Florida last week, Aroldis Chapman told the Chicago Sun-Times that he "was just being truthful" when he used the conference call to announce the biggest contract ever for a closer — five years and $86 million — to inform the New York media that Maddon misused him during the playoffs. Nothing lost in translation there.

Miguel Montero finally declared a ceasefire on Monday night, getting the sit-down meeting the Cubs felt should go longer than the standard meet and greet after the veteran catcher's jarringly critical comments on WMVP-AM 1000 (if only because it happened on the same day as the championship parade and Grant Park rally).

"It's such an unusual situation," general manager Jed Hoyer said, "because we won the World Series, and theoretically you think that people would be really happy."

As ex-Cub manager Dale Sveum might say: "Ya think?"

Ending the 108-year drought might lead Maddon's Hall of Fame plaque someday, but it also led to waves and waves of second-guessing and speculation about how it might impact his clubhouse credibility. But with Maddon and Montero declaring their Andreoli Italian Grocer summit a success, gonzo strength and conditioning coordinator Tim Buss cruising onto the field in a Ferrari for the first wacky stunt of 2017 and Cactus League games beginning on Saturday, it's time to remember that the Cubs still have their manager's back.

"Everyone says they don't see or read anything," pitcher Jake Arrieta said. "We see and hear a lot of the stuff. But I just think that critics are going to find holes in something always.

"Joe was our leader all year last year. He obviously set the tone in spring training and gives us all these freedoms that help us play the way we played. So the people that matter — and know what Joe's about — are on the same page with his philosophies.

"The way he expresses himself to us is the most important thing. And we stand behind him. We trust that he's going to do what's in our best interest. And we know that any decision he makes is geared towards trying to help us win."

Within the last two seasons, the Cubs have won 200 games, five playoff rounds and their first World Series title since the Theodore Roosevelt administration. Maddon readily admits that the scouting and development wings of Theo Epstein's front office did most of the heavy lifting and credits the strong coaching staff he largely inherited. Spending more than $475 million on free agents like Jon Lester and Ben Zobrist certainly helped.

But all this doesn't happen without Maddon and the environment he created. The Cubs Way absolutely needed a ringmaster for this circus.

Arrieta developed into a Cy Young Award winner. Kyle Hendricks transformed into an ERA leader. Kris Bryant burst onto the scene as a Rookie of the Year and the National League MVP. Addison Russell became an All-Star shortstop by the age of 22. Maddon didn't prejudge Javier Baez, immediately appreciating the dazzling array of skills and super-utility possibilities.

Surprised by the Maddon backlash?

"Yes and no," All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. "Because there needs to be a story. But what he did — people who are real involved know that since Day 1, he came in and he set the tone.

"He completely flipped the way people think, the way we believe, and everyone has bought into it. The credit he deserves — he gets a lot of it — but I don't think he gets enough of it. Because he lets me be me. He lets Javy be Javy.

"Willson (Contreras), Kris and Addie — everyone has their different personalities. He understands that. And it's not easy to do."

It's such an impossible job, at times, that even Cubs officials and players have acknowledged their frustrations with some of Maddon's in-game decisions and communication gaps. This can't just be written off as a media creation. But imagine the grumbling if the Cubs didn't have a leader with seven 90-win seasons and three Manager of the Year awards on his resume.

"We have a competitive group of guys," Hoyer said. "Every guy wants to be on the field at the right time. Every guy wants to be on the roster. Every guy wants to pitch in winning games.

"That's not realistic sometimes. It comes from a great place. It doesn't come from a place of selfishness. It comes from a place of: 'I want to contribute to winning.'

"The meetings we've had have been awesome. Our camp is unbelievably focused. We are just as focused as last year. I really don't look at it as a negative."

The last word from Maddon, who turned 63 this month and has a $25 million contract, a wide range of off-the-field interests and the championship ring that will make him a legend in Chicago forever, no matter what kind of heat he took this winter.

"Stuff like that doesn't bother me at all," Maddon said. "Regardless of what people may have thought — like any other game that I worked all year long — I had it planned out like that before the game began. So it wasn't anything I tried to do differently game in progress. Had I not done what I thought I was supposed to do — then I would have second-guessed myself.

"So, no, I have no problem with that. I really don't mind the second-guessing from anybody. I kind of encourage it. Please go ahead and do it, because I'll take that kind of second-guessing after winning a World Series on an annual basis. Thank you very much."

Kris Bryant: Major League Baseball could be going down 'slippery slope' with rules changes

Kris Bryant: Major League Baseball could be going down 'slippery slope' with rules changes

MESA, Ariz. – Kris Bryant has led a charmed baseball life – Golden Spikes Award winner, Arizona Fall League MVP, consensus minor league player of the year, two-time All-Star, Hank Aaron Award winner, National League Rookie of the Year and MVP and World Series champion – all before his 25th birthday last month.

So, no, the Cubs superstar doesn't see the need for any dramatic overhaul to a sport that's desperately trying to connect with Bryant's demographic and keep up at a time when iPhones are killing everyone's attention spans and the entertainment options are endless.            

"I love the way it is," Bryant before Wednesday's workout at the Sloan Park complex.

Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred essentially fired a warning shot during Tuesday's Cactus League media event at the Arizona Biltmore, threatening to unilaterally impose pace-of-play changes – think pitch clock, limited mound visits, new strike zone – for the 2018 season if the players' union doesn't cooperate.

The first reported difference is the traditional four-pitch intentional walk turning into a dugout signal, which seems to be more of a cosmetic change than an actual efficiency measure.

"You're in the box, you want to force someone to make a pitch," said Bryant, who remembered Anthony Rizzo’s 10th-inning matchup against Cleveland Indians reliever Bryan Shaw. "Just the World Series, for example, when 'Rizz' got intentionally walked. There were a couple that were low. What if the ball got away? That's huge. Especially in that type of situation – Game 7 of the World Series – you want to put pressure on the pitcher any way you can.

"It seems like it's not stressful at all, but any time you're not throwing at full effort for a pitcher, it seems like there's a chance that we could do damage on that."

That's actually Manfred's agenda in an age of grinding at-bats, specialized bullpens and defensive shifts – trying to create more action and eliminating some of the dead air more than simply cutting the length of games by a few minutes.

"The game's been the same to me since I was young, so I don't think there's anything wrong with it," Bryant said. "I think that's what makes our game great. It is a long game and we play 162 games a year and there's more strategy involved with it. I think it could be a slippery slope once you start changing all these things. 

"The people you really need to ask are the fans. The diehard fans are going to be the ones who oppose more changes. They're the ones who pay to watch us play. Those are the opinions that you need."

In using this power in the new collective bargaining agreement as leverage, Manfred is looking at the future of a $10 billion industry, insisting the game isn't broken when more than 75 million people visited major-league stadiums last season.

But even Cubs manager Joe Maddon – who’s usually open-minded and in tune with these kind of big-picture ideas – doesn’t get the pace-of-play focus.

"I'm not privy to all the reasons why it's so important," Maddon said. "It just appears to be important for the people in New York. My job is not to make those decisions. My job is to ultimately make the Cubs play well again, etc., so there are certain things that I don’t quite understand.

"If I had more interior information maybe you could be more supportive of it. On the surface – I've talked about it in the past – I don't really understand the pace-of-game issues because I don't really pay attention to that. I'm just locked into managing the game. The nine innings go 2 hours and 15 minutes, or 3 hours and 20, as long as you win, I don’t care.

"That's where I come from, but there's something obviously larger than that that's really causing a lot of these discussions. Again, from my office, I don't necessarily know what that is. But I do know new normals may occur."