Cubs dont appear to be thinking big right now

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Cubs dont appear to be thinking big right now

DALLAS Theo Epstein has the luxury of a five-year contract, a mandate from ownership to build from within, all without having to worry about getting headlines or selling tickets.

Epstein has moments of anxiety after he signs a free agent. Almost by definition, he knows he overpaid, because those deals usually close with the highest bid. Thats the backdrop as the Cubs remain quiet so far at the winter meetings.

Theres a winners curse associated with that sometimes, Epstein said Wednesday. That moment when youre at the press conference and youre holding up the jersey, youre sitting there thinking this could be a great moment in franchise history.

And then theres a big voice in the back of your head saying: I might be regretting this for the next six years.

You cant get away from it. And that voice is louder than the one that says: This could be a great thing for the team going forward. Because just look at the history of long-term free agent contracts. They tend not to work out.

Not long after general manager Jed Hoyer told MLB.TV that the coverage of the Cubs interest in Prince Fielder was overblown, Epstein said that were not close to anything big.

While Albert Pujols apparently leans toward returning to the St. Louis Cardinals, the Cubs are focused on small, incremental moves.

Epstein met with the agency that represents Kerry Wood and again said that bringing back the franchise ambassador is a priority: Our bullpen looks a lot better with him in it, so does our clubhouse.

As expected, Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena declined arbitration, meaning the Cubs will pick up one or two draft picks as compensation. Ramirez has drawn some interest from the Los Angeles Angels and Milwaukee Brewers and will not return to the North Side.

The Cubs continue to have a dialogue with Penas camp. But as a left-handed power hitter who plays Gold Glove defense and is a good clubhouse influence, Epstein thinks Pena could get a bigger multiyear deal that doesnt fit in their plans.

The Cubs are going to be linked with Fielder, because thats how this game works. Scott Boras, the industrys most powerful agent, emerged late Wednesday night to hold court with the media for the first time this week at the Hilton Anatole.

This is a negotiation that is really one of its own because hes 27 years old, Boras said. He has a different place in the market and the demands for his services are broader because you have teams that are not as playoff-ready that are interested. You have clubs that are very veteran that are interested. So you have a whole variety of teams that are involved.

He asked me to take an open view and collect all the information here from each club. I didnt meet with too many teams that said that they were three years away. Thats not something you hear too often.

The Cubs are not a team built to win now, which is why Pujols doesnt make sense. Fielder doesnt fit neatly into their box either. Big moves or small, Epstein says no one really knows for sure until five or 10 years later.

Epstein pointed to his first winter as general manager of the Boston Red Sox, 2002 into 2003.

We signed a released player for a million bucks, who turned out to be David Ortiz, Epstein said. We signed a previously injured third baseman who couldnt hit for power in Bill Mueller, who ended up winning the batting title. (We) claimed a guy off waivers who was headed to Japan that no one wanted in the States (named Kevin Millar).

Those are the types of moves, to be honest, that were focused on. Thats what fits where we are right now and fits the picture with our resources and our roster to try to get incrementally better.

Ozzie Guillen wishes Epstein the best with this patient plan. But the new Miami Marlins manager had one warning.

Chicago people, they forget pretty quick, Guillen said. Its a very tough town. I live (there) and Im a Chicago fan (and) they need some great stuff out of there. I think this man has great, great, great ideas and theyre going to do fine. But remember that one: I hope they love him in two years the way they love him right now.

Brett Anderson’s personality mixing well with Cubs: ‘I don’t hate anybody yet’

Brett Anderson’s personality mixing well with Cubs: ‘I don’t hate anybody yet’

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Joe Maddon's T-shirt slogans can get a little old at times, but the Cubs manager found a new audience in Brett Anderson, who liked the idea of "Be Uncomfortable" after signing a one-year, prove-it deal with the defending champs.

"It's been awesome so far," Anderson said. "That's my running joke – we're a month into it now or whatever it is – and I don't hate anybody yet.

"That's a testament to the group as a whole – and maybe me evolving as a person."

Yes, Anderson's sarcasm, social-media presence and groundball style fits in with a team built around short-term pitching and Gold Glove defense. The if-healthy lefty finished his Cactus League tour on Saturday afternoon by throwing four innings (one unearned run) during a 7-4 loss to the Colorado Rockies in front of 13,565 at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick.

Anderson will open the season as the No. 4 starter after a camp that has been remarkably low-key and drama-free.

"I'm kind of cynical by nature, but it's a fun group to be a part of," Anderson said, "(with) young guys that are exciting and happy to be here. And then obviously the mix of veterans, too, that are here with intentions of winning another World Series."

To make that happen, the pitching staff will have to again stay unbelievably healthy. Anderson rolled with a general question about how he physically feels now compared to where he's usually at by this time of year.

"Obviously better than last year, because I was walking with a gimp and all that stuff," said Anderson, who underwent arthroscopic surgery to repair a bulging disk in his lower back last March. "No, my body feels good, my arm feels good and you're getting into the dog days of spring training where you're itching to get to the real thing."

Joe Maddon breaks down the Matt Szczur vs. Tommy La Stella decision for Cubs

Joe Maddon breaks down the Matt Szczur vs. Tommy La Stella decision for Cubs

MESA, Ariz. – Matt Szczur vs. Tommy La Stella appears to be the final decision as the Cubs shape their Opening Night roster.

That's assuming good health – manager Joe Maddon sounded unconcerned about Ben Zobrist (stiff neck), Addison Russell (stiff back) and Albert Almora Jr. (stiff neck) – and the Cubs carrying an eight-man bullpen.

Maddon appeared to eliminate one variable, confirming that La Stella has signaled a willingness to go to Triple-A Iowa if necessary, which would normally be an obvious statement, except for last summer's "Where's Tommy?" episode.

"I haven't even thought about it," Maddon said during Saturday's media session at the Sloan Park complex. "It's not an issue. I thought we handled it pretty openly last year and there's been no blowback whatsoever from the players."

Beyond this – La Stella initially refused to report to the minors last July, moved back home to New Jersey and talked briefly about retirement – an American League scout and a National League scout tracking the Cubs in Arizona both agreed that Szczur looks like the superior player.

Plus Szczur – and not La Stella – is out of minor-league options now.

"When you get this kind of a talent, depth-wise, it's a wonderful problem to have," Maddon said. "And then, of course, the rules start creeping in. The rules in this situation would benefit Matt, which is a good thing, because he's a big-league guy that's been riding the shuttle. He's done it in a very stoic manner, and he's been great for us."

La Stella has allies in the clubhouse – Jake Arrieta got a Coastal Carolina tattoo on his right butt cheek after losing a College World Series bet – and goes about his routine in a quiet, diligent manner.

La Stella is not a distraction at all and can hit left-handed and play the infield – two attributes that Szczur can't bring to Maddon's bench.

"Matt Szczur, to me, is a Major League Baseball player," Maddon said. "You're seeing what Tommy can do from the left side of the plate right now. And then it's just a matter of balancing things out. We've already mentioned that some guys on the infield can play the outfield within this group, thus it presents differently regarding what you need."

[MORE CUBS: Javier Baez won’t change his style around Cubs after World Baseball Classic: ‘We’re not showing anybody up’]

Szczur is hitting .361 with a .994 OPS through 14 Cactus League games and can play all over the outfield. But that skill is diminished when the Cubs already have four established outfielders plus Zobrist and Kris Bryant able to shift from the infield.

Then again, defensive wizard Javier Baez should have the Cubs covered all across the infield in case of an emergency. With the defending World Series champs a week out from facing the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium, we're about to find out if Maddon made his recommendation or had a possible trade scenario or disabled-list situation in mind.

"I love Matt Szczur," Maddon said. "This guy as a teammate – you're not going to get a better one. Nobody's going to get a better one on any team for any reason.

"We haven't decided everything or anything yet. Stuff happens in a very short period of time. He is a major-league baseball player. So we'll just wait a couple more days, see how it plays out. But he's a benefit to any group that has him."