Cubs know the best free agents are already off the board

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Cubs know the best free agents are already off the board

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. Imagine if the Cubs were staring at Cole Hamels and Matt Cain and wondering which one to build their rotation around.

Maybe Theo Epsteins front office would wait until after the 2013 season to grab the finishing piece to their lineup, a Joey Votto or a Ryan Zimmerman.

But when Cubs executives check into a resort here outside Palm Springs, Calif., for the general manager meetings that formally begin on Wednesday, they will know that the best players are already off the board.

The biggest challenge in free agency today is that all these guys are signing these contracts to lock them up, general manager Jed Hoyer said recently. You look at the free-agent list and so many of those guys are already in their 30s and thats the thing that we want to be really aware of not ending up with a bunch of decline years on our books because we were sort of eager to do something right now. The prime years usually start with a 2.

The Philadelphia Phillies have become another Northeast superpower, right there with the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. With two World Series titles in the past three years, the San Francisco Giants are thinking dynasty.

Hamels and Cain never made it to free agency this winter. Combined, the Phillies and Giants committed some 270 million to two pitchers taken eight picks apart in the first round of the 2002 draft.

Seven months ago, the Cincinnati Reds found a way to give Votto a 10-year, 225 million extension, rewarding the National Leagues MVP in 2010. Back in spring training, the Washington Nationals made sure Zimmerman the face of the franchise will remain under club control through 2020.

Ryan Braun has already signed two extensions with the Milwaukee Brewers. The Pittsburgh Pirates control Andrew McCutchen through 2018. Epstein recognized this trend in Boston and extended Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz.

There are no signs of slowing down: Beginning in 2014, each team will receive an extra 25 million a year from the new national television deals.

When you look at the free-agent market, Hoyer said, theres a lot of teams that formerly were probably smaller markets that wouldnt have been able to sign their guys long-term that now have cable money or other sources of revenue that (enable them) to keep their guys.

We always do the exercise: You have your free-agent market going three, four years out. And its amazing to watch how that market sort of gets eroded as these guys get picked off on these long-term deals. It makes (it) more shallow this time of year.

Which makes you wonder how much will still be there by the time the Cubs cash in with a new television contract after their WGN deal expires at the end of the 2014 season.

The macroeconomics of baseball right now are interesting with some of these cable deals, Hoyer said. Its created some very big markets from what used to be just kind of large markets and its propped up some teams that used to flood the trade market and the free-agent market. Those teams are now holding onto their own players.

The macroeconomics of baseball are at an interesting point. Its hard to predict exactly what were going to be staring at in 2015.

By then, will the Cubs just be grabbing leftovers? This is a primary reason why the front office talks about building The Foundation for Sustained Success.

Executives here this week will have a chance to meet face-to-face and discuss potential trades. Agents will try to sell their clients to general managers and begin laying the groundwork for deals.

For 2013, the Cubs have around 40 million committed to just four players Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Marmol, Starlin Castro and David DeJesus plus arbitration raises for Matt Garza and Jeff Samardzija.

Thats close to a blank canvas, but as the Cubs evaluate their needs two starting pitchers, a third baseman, an outfielder, bullpen help they likely wont go beyond two or three years. They want to keep their options open.

We have pretty significant flexibility, Hoyer said. Were going to be aggressive in free agency, but we arent going to do things that we feel (will) limit us going forward where we feel were hindered by a certain contract.

Willson Contreras is playing his butt off right now for first-place Cubs

Willson Contreras is playing his butt off right now for first-place Cubs

This really is becoming Willson Contreras' team.

The dude is absolutely on fire right now and has almost singlehandedly lifted the Cubs back into first place.

Since the All-Star Break, Contreras has crushed four homers and three doubles while driving in 11 runs in just eight games. 

The Cubs have won seven of those games, including Sunday night when Contreras' two-run shot in the sixth inning turned out to be the game-winner that pushed the Cubs into a first-place tie with the Milwaukee Brewers. (The Cubs also won the only game Contreras hasn't started since the Break.)

In the span of nine games, the Cubs have already erased the 5.5 game deficit they had in the National League Central entering the midseason break.

"He's just playing his butt off, literally, right now," Joe Maddon said. "Everything he's doing is pretty darn good. He plays with enthusiasm, also. You gotta feel that in the stands.

"There's some times he might get over-enthusiastic. I prefer toning people down as opposed to pumping them up all the time. He's doing everything. He's hitting fourth, he's catching, he's handling a really good pitching staff, he's throwing people out, he's blocking the ball really well and he's hitting homers, so God bless him."

Contreras' offense has been amazing, but Maddon credits the young catcher's block on a Wade Davis pitch in the dirt last week in Atlanta with helping to save the season. That play helped ensure a victory by not permitting the tying run to score from third base as the Cubs rattled off six straight wins to start the second half of 2017.

It's at the point now where Maddon cannot rationally find ways to get Contreras out of the lineup, even though the veteran manager is a huge proponent of rest and wants nothing more than to keep his players healthy and playing at a high level late in the season and into the playoffs.

Contreras is like the Energizer Bunny out there, hopping all around behind the plate to block balls, throwing guys out, pumping his chest, screaming obscenities at his first base coach after home runs. He even plays long toss (from the warning track in left-centerfield to about the spot the second baseman normally plays) before games with catching coach Mike Borzello.

The 25-year-old just does not turn down for anything when he's at the ballpark.

So does he ever get weary?

"I do get tired, but when I get home," he said. "When I'm here, I'm never tired. This is my job, this is what I love and you're gonna see me like that all throughout my career."

Contreras credits the Cubs coaching staff with helping him make the mental adjustments that has him in the conversation as one of the best catchers in baseball.

"He's growing up," Anthony Rizzo said. "He's really taking control behind the plate, which is nice. His at-bats just keep getting better and better and it's really fun to watch."

Contreras is on pace for 25 homers and 87 RBI, second only to Kansas City's Salvador Perez in both categories among catchers.

"He definitely has the abilities to be one of the elite catchers," Maddon said. "You gotta consider him one of the elite catchers in the National League already. Because he just does everything so well.

"The biggest next hurdle is just — without pulling him in too much — controlling his emotions a tad more without losing that enthusiasm that he has. Really understanding the game and calling the game and working his pitchers. 

"Mike Borzello does a great job with him. He started out this year and wasn't so good — missing his pitches, missing fastballs, fouling stuff off. But he stayed with it and now you see what he's capable of doing. He is really good right now and he's gonna get better."

Jose Quintana reveling in first place vibes after 'overexcited' home Cubs debut

Jose Quintana reveling in first place vibes after 'overexcited' home Cubs debut

Jose Quintana is grateful for his defense and offense picking him up.

That's not something he's used to feeling after years of borderline-laughable run support from the White Sox in games he started.

But as he made his Wrigley Field debut in a Cubs uniform Sunday night, Quintana served up three rockets in a row to the heart of the Cardinals order and all three wound up as outs.

First it was a lineout to Jason Heyward in right field where the Gold Glover leapt in the air and did something of a karate kick while catching the ball.

Another hard liner at Heyward followed before Jedd Gyorko laced a double into the left-centerfield gap. But Kyle Schwarber retrieved it quickly, made a perfect throw to Addison Russell who spun and made a quick throw to Willson Contreras at the plate to nab Matt Carpenter by a mile.

Thus endeth the first top of the first inning for Quintana at "The Friendly Confines."

"At the beginning of the game, he might've been a little overexcited," Joe Maddon said. "He was too quick with all of his actions. The pitches weren't going where he wanted them to go.

"And then I thought he settled in very well. He wasn't as sharp as in Baltimore, but he was good. He was very good."

Quintana allowed three runs on five hits and a pair of walks in six innings, recording the bare minimum requirements for a quality start. He also picked up his second win in as many outings with the Cubs when batterymate Willson Contreras hit a game-winning two-run homer in the bottom of the sixth.

Quintana agreed with Maddon that he was a little over-exuberant in this one.

"Too many emotions for me," he said. "It was one I enjoyed a lot. I was just trying to focus on inning by inning."

This is the first time Quintana has been on a team in the playoff hunt since his rookie season in 2012 when the Sox went 85-77 and missed the playoffs.

With Sunday's win, the Cubs have moved back into a share of first place and Quintana is all about the success.

"That's awesome," he said. "First time. To come into a team like this one and get to first place, that's amazing. I want to keep doing my job."

Now Quintana will have four days to sit back, relax, strap it down and watch the Crosstown Series knowing he won't have to go in and face a bunch of guys who he called teammates just two weeks ago. 

Quintana's next start will come Friday in Milwaukee.

"He's as advertised," Anthony Rizzo said. "Really didn't enjoy facing him. When we played the White Sox, he was the guy I always hoped to miss. To have him here and his demeanor on the mound is awesome."