Cubs: Ian Stewart, Starlin Castro and the price of going young

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Cubs: Ian Stewart, Starlin Castro and the price of going young

Updated: 6:45 p.m.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. You can only use youth as an excuse for so long.

That wont make any Baseball is Better billboards trying to sell tickets to Wrigley Field. But that was the message from manager Dale Sveum, and it says everything about how the clock is ticking on young players and the front office the fans are staring at it toward when the Cubs will actually go hunting for big game at the winter meetings.

Believe it or not, many pieces of the puzzle are already in place. The Cubs certainly arent done, but by agreeing to a one-year, 2 million deal (plus incentives) with third baseman Ian Stewart before leaving Nashville, they have a pretty good idea of their 2013 Opening Day lineup.

The soaring price for free agents only highlighted how much the Cubs have to be right on these young players, how much they need Starlin Castro, who wants to be the face of the franchise. Or else its getting over the sticker shock and behaving the way a big-market teams supposed to at the Opryland Hotel.

Team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer checked out of this sprawling biodome, leaving behind the gigantic Christmas trees and indoor gardens and waterfalls, for the United flight back to Chicago. They will be at a Wrigley Field news conference on Friday to introduce Kyuji Fujikawa and give a nuanced explanation for their closer non-controversy.

Otherwise, everything else can be divided into core players and short-term complementary pieces, like Nate Schierholtz, who turned down multi-year offers elsewhere for the opportunity to play more here in right field and prove himself on a one-year, 2.25 million contract.

Theres a long way to go until we get to Mesa, Hoyer said, and their resources and willingness to walk away and wait it out tell you that the Cubs could be in on anything right up until pitchers and catchers report to Arizona.

In 2013, Castro will be at the center of it all, whether the All-Star shortstops anchoring the defense while Scott Baker and Scott Feldman try to pitch to the game plan and get groundballs, or putting up bigger numbers as he develops more power.

Cole Hamels and Matt Cain never made it to the open market this winter, and neither will Joey Votto and Ryan Zimmerman next year. Just look at how the Cubs locked up Castro with a seven-year, 60 million extension.

The free agents are getting older and more expensive, and teams will be bankrolled by new television money.

Unprompted, one National League scout said how he couldnt believe Shane Victorino got a three-year, 39 million deal from the Red Sox. And even on a broken leg (which should heal), the Cubs really wanted utility guy Jeff Keppinger, who instead got a three-year, 12 million deal from the White Sox.

The Cubs actually tried to sign Keppinger last winter for 1 million-plus, before he agreed to a deal with the Tampa Bay Rays. This is the rate of inflation.

There simply isnt an ideal solution at third base. As Epstein suggested, it would be a good time to be Mike Schmidt 2.0.

The market is such that the Cubs non-tendered Stewart and had to beat out several teams with significant interest just to re-sign him coming off a season in which he hit .201 with a .627 OPS and had wrist surgery.

The Cubs werent looking to buy a brand name. They will take a chance on Stewarts age (28 next year), athleticism and plus defense, even though they got burned last season.

Also remember that as the Cubs build the left side of their infield, they still have Castro, who will turn 23 during spring training and generated 14 homers and 78 RBI last season at a premium position.

This is roughly when he should start to break out, Hoyer said. Hes going to start making that jump. The contract situation certainly was something that was on his mind last year. He now knows how we feel about him. He knows hes got security.

All those financial issues (he) doesnt have to worry about those things anymore. While last year that might have distracted him, I think this year that should be something hes relaxed about.

He can just go out and play. I would be disappointed, candidly, if he didnt take a step forward next year and I think he feels the same way.

Epstein says the Cubs dont want cookie-cutter hitters, but manager Dale Sveum has essentially called those 200 hits empty calories. Meaning Castro will have to show more discipline at the plate and become a more dangerous hitter.

What I want to see out of him is just keep progressing mentally, Sveum said, and understand the process of becoming a winning player and not a hit seeker. (Its) becoming more of a winning hitter in situations, by driving runs in, understanding the situations defensively.

This will be Year 4 in the big leagues for Castro, who for all his natural gifts and inner confidence can drift at times on the field.

He came a long way, but still has to even concentrate more, Sveum said. Weve got him probably just throwing a number out there really focused 80 to 85 percent of the time. We got to get that to 95 percent of the time. I dont think anybody ever really focuses 100 percent. I think youd be lying if you said that with 300-plus pitches per game. He took a lot of pride in it and did get much better for a 22-year-old kid.

Yes, that team-friendly contract could become easy to move at some point, but the Cubs are years away from seriously considering that and want to build around Castro. They have created a land of opportunity for 20-something kids, pitchers coming off Tommy John surgery and players who want to prove themselves.

Four nights in Nashville only reinforced what Epstein and the Cubs already knew: The good young players they want dont exist here. Theyve gone down a different road and cant turn back now.

Report: Aroldis Chapman returns to Yankees on five-year deal

Report: Aroldis Chapman returns to Yankees on five-year deal

After helping bring a World Series title back to the North Side, Aroldis Chapman is headed back to New York.

The former Cubs closer signed a five-year, $86 million deal with the Yankees, according to FOX's Ken Rosenthal.

He was acquired by the Cubs in July in exchange for pitcher Adam Warren and prospects Rashad Crawford, Billy McKinney and Gleyber Torres.

Chapman notched 36 saves and owned a 1.01 ERA, 0.86 WHIP and recorded 90 strikeouts across 26 2/3 innings with the Cubs during the regular season.

He appeared in 13 postseason contests, where he registered a 3.45 ERA,1.09 WHIP and 21 strikeouts in 15 2/3 innings. 

Why Cubs felt like they had to trade Jorge Soler now

Why Cubs felt like they had to trade Jorge Soler now

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – Before making the blockbuster Aroldis Chapman trade with the New York Yankees, the Cubs checked in with the Kansas City Royals about Wade Davis and found the asking price to be Kyle Schwarber. 

The psychology and the supply-and-demand dynamics are different in July. Schwarber had been damaged goods, still recovering from major knee surgery and months away from his dramatic return in the World Series. Davis also could have impacted two pennants races for his new team instead of one.
 
By the time a $10 billion industry reconvened this week outside Washington, D.C., for the winter meetings, the small-market Royals could compromise with Jorge Soler, betting on his long-term upside and facing the reality that their World Series closer could have been part of a mass exodus of free agents after the 2017 season.

The Cubs also checked into the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center knowing that Soler is a diminishing asset for a loaded team at a time when his best attribute – right-handed power – could be found on the free-agent market in sluggers like Edwin Encarnacion and Mark Trumbo.  
     
“I think there’s some great baseball ahead for him,” team president Theo Epstein said Wednesday night after the Cubs finalized the Soler-for-Davis trade. “I think it’s more likely that he reaches his ceiling now than it was 24 hours ago, because he’s got a chance to play every day.” 

Soler became a top priority within the first weeks of the Epstein administration as Cubs officials scouted the Cuban defector in the Dominican Republic before Thanksgiving 2011, picturing him as a building block for future playoff teams at a renovated Wrigley Field. 

Even chairman Tom Ricketts met with Soler’s camp during a trip to the Dominican Republic before the Cubs won the bidding war and the prospect signed a nine-year, $30 million major-league contract in the summer of 2012. 

Years later, manager Joe Maddon would describe Soler as Vladimir Guerrero with plate discipline, the kind of talent who would be drafted No. 1 overall if he had been born in South Florida. 

Soler showed flashes of superstar potential. He absolutely crushed the St. Louis Cardinals during the 2015 playoffs (2.341 OPS) and will get a well-deserved World Series ring. But he didn’t look like a complete player or an athlete the Cubs could count on to stay healthy, profiling more like a designated hitter in the American League.

“When George was playing sporadically, he became a little bit more of an all-or-nothing power threat,” Epstein said, “because it’s hard to get into a good rhythm and you’re not seeing pitches as much. You’re not recognizing spin the same way. 

“When he’s locked in, he can work really good at-bats. And he’s a hitter – not just a power hitter. So I think it’s more likely now that his potential gets unleashed at some point. We’re rooting for him.”

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Maybe Soler – who still hasn’t turned 25 yet – can avoid some of the leg injuries as a part-time DH and put it all together in Kansas City as the Royals try to balance the present, the future and their financial realities. But the Cubs are a win-now team that believes Davis could get them the final out of the 2017 World Series. 

An October legend (Schwarber) and a $184 million Gold Glove defender (Jason Heyward) would keep blocking Soler at the corner spots in Wrigley Field, where a National League MVP (Kris Bryant) and a World Series MVP (Ben Zobrist) can move away from the infield. Javier Baez is another versatile, well-rounded player who would continue to marginalize Soler. 

“It became tough for us,” Epstein said, “with Schwarber looking like he’s destined to play quite a bit of left field. Not ruling catching out as an option to some extent, but he’s going to play a lot of left field. 

“And with Javy’s emergence – and what that means for Zobrist’s possible role in the outfield as well at times – it just became tougher and tougher to see George getting regular at-bats with us. 

“We felt like he needed to play – and it would have been a tough fit.”

It would have been even tougher to trade a spare outfielder during his fourth season in the big leagues. Stashing Soler – who has 27 career homers in less than 700 big-league at-bats – at Triple-A Iowa wouldn’t have been the answer. 

The Cubs saw this day coming. Schwarber wrecked his knee in early April and Soler injured his hamstring two months later and wound up missing two months.

“He just couldn’t quite stay healthy enough,” Epstein said, “and kind of slumped at the wrong time and started to get hot right before he got hurt.

“That was kind of how we envisioned it: ‘Hey, if there’s an opportunity, this guy can take the job and run with it – and then we have an even more valuable trade chip – or we’ve got an everyday leftfielder/middle-of the-order bat.’ It just didn’t quite come together. 

“But I think this trade – despite that – recouped a lot of his value. It made sense for him, for us and for the Royals.”