Cubs GM Hoyer putting pieces of the puzzle together

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Cubs GM Hoyer putting pieces of the puzzle together

Its getting harder to see the Cubs making any made-for-TV moments or generating much controversy this winter, which is exactly how this front office likes to operate.

For all the marketing and image-making that will take place when the Cubs Convention opens on Friday at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers, general manager Jed Hoyer is going to stick with the disciplined plan.

It really doesnt sound like the Cubs are going to pull out a surprise and sign outfielder Michael Bourn, who would cost them their second-round draft pick and part of their signing-bonus pool. Nor are they actively looking to add another closer-type into the ninth-inning mix.

One year ago, the Cubs were locked in a standoff with a franchise icon, while their All-Star shortstop had to deny sexual assault allegations. The new executives who had generated so much buzz were still feeling out the fans, the media and the leftover employees in the front office.

No one knew if Anthony Rizzo was going to be a total bust or a superstar, or if Jeff Samardzija could back up all that talk about being a starter. Even if there are no definitive answers yet, the Cubs are in a different place now: Year 2 of their rebuilding project.

Kerry Wood is not walking through that door.

Roughly 90 minutes after team president Theo Epstein said that you cant make baseball decisions based on public relations, the Cubs announced their new deal with Wood, who magically appeared on the balcony at last years convention and soaked in all the cheers inside a hotel ballroom.

Starlin Castro who was wanted for questioning last January now has generational wealth and the security of a contract that could keep him on the North Side through 2020.

The Cubs showed they were willing to spend money on the right players. They certainly had their reasons for pursuing Anibal Sanchez who turned down a five-year, 77.5 million offer and returned to the Detroit Tigers and signing Edwin Jackson to a four-year, 52 million deal.

But it also didnt hurt that those upside pitchers on the right side of 30 werent attached to the one-year, 13.3 million qualifying offers made under the new collective bargaining agreement. That was central to the offseason plan of attack.

We talked about all the free agents, Hoyer said on Chicago Baseball Hot Stove on Tuesday. Where we are as an organization, we want as many draft picks as possible. We want as much money in the draft as possible. So we would have given up a pick, theoretically, for the right player, the right fit.

And we will going forward. But right now, I think holding onto our picks is something that makes sense and were looking to build as much talent in the minor leagues as possible. We need a lot going forward.

While Bourn and pitcher Kyle Lohse sit on the market, super-agent Scott Boras sold the Washington Nationals on another one of his high-profile clients. Rafael Soriano got a reported two-year, 28 million deal on Tuesday to close for a team with World Series ambitions.

There are still interesting names left Brian Wilson, Jose Valverde, Francisco Rodriguez and Matt Capps to name a few though Hoyer said its unlikely the Cubs would add another late-inning reliever with experience as a closer to compete with Carlos Marmol and Kyuji Fujikawa.

Well probably go forward with what we have now, Hoyer said. Of course, if theres just a bargain or a player that we feel like is at an incredible price we might add him. But at this point, we feel really good. There also is a point at which were full on the roster were taking a spot away from somebody. We really do like the way our bullpen and our rotation fit together now.

That puzzle should include Matt Garza, who wished Marmol good luck in November when it looked like the closer would be traded to the Los Angeles Angels before the Dan Haren deal fell apart. Garza whos recovering from a stress reaction in his right elbow is throwing from about 150 feet out and progressing toward working off the mound.

Right now, hes following the normal pitching progression, Hoyer said. He feels really good and we dont see any reason hes going to be restricted going into spring training. At this point, hes gotten over some of those early hurdles in the rehab and we feel like hes just going to be a normal pitcher, a healthy guy in spring training ready to go. Hes excited. I always joke: You can see how hes doing. He talks about it on Twitter all the time.

Like Garza, Alfonso Soriano will have to answer questions about the trade rumors this weekend, though only one player has the power to accept or reject any potential deal. The Cubs were said to be in tire-kicking mode at the winter meetings, and the Philadelphia Phillies were rumored to be one team that might be a fit, given their need for a power bat in the outfield.

Soriano who once considered Philadelphia before signing his 136 million megadeal with the Cubs likes the idea of playing in a big market for a contender on the East Coast and has no-trade rights. Hes scheduled to attend the convention and should get an audience with the front office.

No one was more different than his reputation than Sori, Hoyer said. I know the fans were frustrated with him and we wondered what we were walking into. He was the ultimate professional in the clubhouse. He really has taken Castro under his wing.

His preparation is off the charts. I think a dozen players in baseball went 30 homers and 100 RBI (last season). What we got in our first year was terrific. He knows how we feel about him. Weve had communication with him over the course of the winter. Well keep having that communication.

But all of our thoughts on Sori are positive. He was so good for us last year, both on (and) off the field. (It) wasnt necessarily exactly what we expected going in. (It) was just a wonderful revelation for us.

The work on the 2013 team isnt done yet. Garza, Samardzija and reliever James Russell have filed for arbitration. CBSSports.com reported that the Cubs have been in contact with outfielder Scott Hairston, and theyre quite good at going into stealth mode, so maybe there will be a surprise or two this weekend.

But after a 101-loss season, this group is getting ready for their close-up, and maybe well begin to see if this city will have the patience for another one.

Brett Anderson’s main takeaway from Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio

Brett Anderson’s main takeaway from Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio

MESA, Ariz. – The pitching section of The Cubs Way manual might not be spelled out this way, but it can be summed up in five words: Have 'em work with Boz.

Or at least that's how it sounds whenever the Cubs add another fading prospect or injury case, rolling the dice on raw stuff, change-of-scenery psychology and the wizardry of pitching coach Chris Bosio.

While the Theo Epstein administration is still waiting on the drafted-and-developed pitchers to put around the Wrigley Field marquee next to the images of sluggers Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber, the Cubs already have the infrastructure in place that helped turn Jake Arrieta into a Cy Young Award winner and transform Kyle Hendricks into an ERA leader.

One of Bosio's ongoing projects is Brett Anderson, who underwent surgery to repair a bulging disc in his lower back last March, yet another injury in a career that hasn't lived up to his own expectations.

"It's one of those things where he's not trying to reinvent the wheel," Anderson said. "It's more trying to limit the pressure on my back and mild mechanical adjustments where I don't land on my heel as much and kind land on the ball of my foot or my toes, so it's not such a whiplash effect.

"He's had a good track record with health, especially the last couple years, and hopefully I can fall in line there, too."

Anderson made it through his first Cactus League outing, throwing a scoreless first inning during Monday's 4-4 tie with the White Sox in front of another sellout crowd at Sloan Park in Mesa. The Cubs are taking a calculated risk here with a one-year, $3.5 million that could max out with $6.5 million more in incentives if Anderson makes 29 starts this season.

[MORE CUBS: How Ryan Dempster wound up on Team Canada for World Baseball Classic]

The Cubs can put the best defensive unit in the majors behind a lefty groundball pitcher and don't need to make a dramatic overhaul with a guy who grew up around the game. Anderson's father, Frank, is an assistant at the University of Houston and the former head coach at Oklahoma State University.

"I've been going to the field since I could walk and talk and annoy college kids," Anderson said. "I could take that one of two ways: I could get burnt out quick and kind of shy away from baseball. Or I could eat it up. Fortunately for me, I've eaten it up all the way through."

The entire question with Anderson revolves around health. He won 11 games for the Oakland A's in 2009 – finishing sixth in the American League Rookie of the Year voting – and hasn't topped that number since. There's been a Tommy John surgery and disabled-list time for a stress fracture in his right foot, a broken left index finger and a separate surgery on his lower back.

"If you dwell on the negative, you're going to worry yourself sick," Anderson said. "Pitching's fun – good, bad or indifferent – (so) you have to have a positive outlook, because otherwise you just walk around with a black cloud over your head."

The only other time Anderson hit the 30-start mark would be 2015, when he threw a career-high 180.1 innings, put up a 3.69 ERA and led the majors with a 66.7 groundball percentage. He couldn't repeat that performance with the Los Angeles Dodgers, accounting for 11.1 innings last year and not making the roster in either playoff round.

The "hybrid" fifth/sixth starter idea manager Joe Maddon floated sounds good in theory and we'll see how it works with Anderson and Mike Montgomery and a veteran rotation with strong opinions and clear ideas about routines. But the Dodgers needed 15 different starting pitchers to survive the 162-game marathon last year and seemed to run out of gas by the time the National League Championship Series returned to Wrigley Field.

"You can't have too much depth coming from where I was last year in L.A.," Anderson said. "We used so many starters. Obviously, that wasn't really the case here, which you can't really bank on year in and year out. But if I'm healthy, everything else will work itself out and I'll take my chances.”

Cubs: How Ryan Dempster wound up on Team Canada for World Baseball Classic

Cubs: How Ryan Dempster wound up on Team Canada for World Baseball Classic

MESA, Ariz. – During an escalating prank war, Ryan Dempster once arranged for a camera crew to shadow Will Ohman in spring training and sell the journeyman reliever on being the star in a TV special.

But Dempster isn't trying to punk anyone by playing for Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic – even though he's almost 40 years old and hasn't pitched in a competitive environment since Game 1 of the 2013 World Series at Fenway Park.

Don't let the Harry Caray/Will Ferrell impersonations fool you. Dempster always had a different side to his personality, an edge that allowed him to recover from Tommy John surgery, transition from 30-save closer back to All-Star starter and throw nearly 2,400 innings in The Show.

Still, it sort of felt like a reality show or a time machine or a spin-off from a Kris Bryant Red Bull ad on Monday at Field 1, the most secluded spot to throw live batting practice at the Sloan Park complex. On a cool, gray day, Dempster looked the same with his reddish beard, glove waggle, white pinstriped pants and blue Nike cleats.

Before stepping into the batter's box, Cubs president Theo Epstein tried to talk a little trash with Dempster: "I know I can't hit big-league pitching, but I'll see if I can hit you."

Besides Epstein, the eclectic group of hitters included Tommy La Stella and minor-leaguer Todd Glaesmann. Dempster threw roughly 50 pitches to Lance Rymel, a former farm-system catcher who will manage a Dominican summer league team this year. The audience included one reporter, six fans, a group of curious Cubs staffers and reliever Jim Henderson, who is in camp on a minor-league deal and will also pitch for Team Canada.

"I'm not going to be disrespectful to the whole process," Dempster said. "I'm not just like playing in a beer league and then decide: 'Eh, I'll throw against the Dominican team. The U.S. looks like they're pretty stacked, but I'll be all right.' I know what it entails going into this.

"At the end of the day, I'm not so worried about velocity. I'm worried about command and my ability to change speeds. It has been pretty funny to see the reactions, and I can understand why people would see it as far-fetched. But I always liked a good challenge."

Dempster first hatched this idea during a Fourth of July vacation, somewhere around Sequoia National Park in California. The group included Ted Lilly – another pitcher who got by with guts and became a special assistant in Epstein's front office – and former bullpen catcher Corey Miller.

"I just said: 'For old times' sake, why don't I throw a side?'" Dempster recalled. "I thought for sure when I woke up the next day I wouldn't be able to lift my arm up. And it felt really good."

Dempster continued with a throwing program – even through a trip to Hawaii after the World Series – and contacted Greg Hamilton, the head coach and director of Baseball Canada. As a Cub, Dempster had been the one leading runs up Camelback Mountain and showing younger pitchers like Jeff Samardzija how to train for 200 innings.

"I wasn't sure if he was serious or not," said Epstein, who did make contact against Dempster. "And then when I figured out he meant it and had a plan, I knew he'd be fine, because he's such a hard worker and he's really smart. If he's going to put the time in to get ready, I knew he'd be fine. He'll be competitive, for sure."

Dempster understood how to put together his own program with a focus on his legs, strengthening his core and shoulder exercises. To be clear, this isn't setting the stage for a comeback, the way game-over closer Eric Gagne is hoping to use Team Canada as a launching pad (after not pitching in the big leagues since 2008).

"This is just a chance to represent my country," said Dempster, who grew up in British Columbia and played on junior national teams in the 1990s. "Sometimes – I'm not bored – but a challenge in life or an opportunity presents itself. (And) it's a good lesson to teach my kids: If you work hard at something, you can do (it) and hopefully it pays off."

Dempster went out on top as a World Series champion, walking away from $13.25 million rather than pitch for the Boston Red Sox in 2014. He signed on with MLB Network and rejoined the Cubs as a special assistant in baseball operations. If he had to pick a lane, it would probably be entertainment and building off his Cubs Convention late-night format and sketches like "The Newlywed Game" with Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer.

But Dempster still needs a fix. The star-studded cast from the Dominican Republic – Robinson Cano, Manny Machado, Adrian Beltre, Jose Bautista, Nelson Cruz – will be waiting on March 9 at Marlins Park.

"Major League Baseball, professional sports aren't a normal job," Dempster said. "How do you go from that extreme high, the adrenaline rush of going out there and pitching in front of 40-grand every day to…now what do you do that satisfies you? I'm trying to find that, make my way towards that. I feel like I will eventually get there."