Chicago Cubs

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.

Kris Bryant knocks out Brewers and knows what big-game experience means for Cubs

Kris Bryant knocks out Brewers and knows what big-game experience means for Cubs

MILWAUKEE – Teammates swarmed Kris Bryant in Miller Park’s visiting dugout late Thursday night, flinging sunflower seeds and forming a mosh pit around the National League’s reigning MVP.

Are you not entertained? The Cubs haven’t always played with this urgency or made it easy while nursing a World Series hangover. But they can feel it now, how close they are to October and how much they learned last year while making history.

It’s too early to pop champagne bottles, but the Cubs won a huge swing game in the NL Central race, beating the Milwaukee Brewers in the 10th inning when Bryant blasted Oliver Drake’s 92-mph fastball off a beam underneath the gigantic video board.

The Cubs watched it ricochet back onto the right-center field grass for a go-ahead two-run homer, bumping up the division lead to 4.5 games while cutting the magic number to clinch the division down to six.

After a head-spinning 5-3 victory that lasted 3 hours and 57 minutes and ended at 11:08 p.m., Bryant didn’t sound surprised or overexcited, the same way he didn’t overreact when the Cubs struggled to gain traction before the All-Star break and the Brewers swept the defending World Series champs two weekends ago at Wrigley Field.       

“We’ve done that so many times,” Bryant said. “We’ve had a nice run with that. I guess it is experience. The heartbeats aren’t going too fast when the game’s on the line there. It kind of plays to our advantage.”

So did the Brewers pushing their bullpen so hard this week trying to catch up that Cubs manager Joe Maddon would have to admit “their A-listers were not available,” meaning Corey Knebel, Anthony Swarzak and Josh Hader. Classic response from Bryant, who has 28 homers and likes to think of pitchers as nameless, faceless opponents: “I didn’t find out their top three guys were down until after the game was over.”

Maybe that changes the ninth-inning rally against Jeremy Jeffress where Ian Happ sprinted for a “Respect 90” single and scored the game-tying run when Javier Baez delivered a two-out, two-strike single up the middle. But the Cubs are in their element now, playing games that matter, not what-if.

“I just think we like loud,” Maddon said. “I think we’re a little bit like adrenaline junkies with the fact we’re used to 40,000 people a night.”

Just look at the stone face Wade Davis made in the ninth inning, escaping a bases-loaded jam by striking out Domingo Santana swinging at an elevated 95-mph fastball and forcing Orlando Arcia to chop a 3-2 pitch back to the mound. The All-Star closer who’s 32-for-32 in save chances went back out for the 10th inning and struck out the side to notch the win. That is a five-out playbook Maddon can use in October.

“You definitely feel it,” Davis said of the playoff atmosphere in a road stadium filled with Cubs fans. “It’s a lot easier to get up for the moment itself instead of having to create it yourself. You feel that.”

As Cubs move closer to division title, Jake Arrieta looks ready for October

As Cubs move closer to division title, Jake Arrieta looks ready for October

MILWAUKEE – This was the type of game Jake Arrieta visualizes, a loud atmosphere with 35,114 fans on their feet and an opponent that really doesn’t like the Cubs at all.

This one would ultimately be out of his hands, lasting 10 innings and almost 4 hours on Thursday night at Miller Park, but Arrieta looked like a Game 1 starter as the Cubs roared back for a 5-3 win over the Milwaukee Brewers.

Those playoff plans are coming into focus, the magic number to win the National League Central title down to six and Arrieta managing the Grade 1 right hamstring strain that has been one of the biggest question marks hanging over the defending World Series champs.

“It’s just good to be back out there,” Arrieta said. “These are big games, and I want to be a part of as many as I can, especially to try and clinch the division as quick as possible and then kind of line things up for us in October. But we got to get there first.”

Arrieta threw his first real pitch in 18 days at 7:16 p.m., firing a 92-mph fastball toward Brewers leadoff guy Eric Sogard and giving the Cubs a shot of adrenaline. That always wears off, but the Cubs are a different team when Arrieta sticks his chest out and triggers his perfect posture into a crossfire delivery.

Arrieta looked sharp in his first real action since Labor Day, even as his five-inning, 71-pitch limit exposed how fragile this pitching staff might be right now. If it’s not Jon Lester laboring at the top of the rotation, it’s the softer spots in the middle of the bullpen, or questions about how much wear and tear the Cubs can take after a deep playoff run in 2015 and last year’s World Series madness stretched into early November. 

But Arrieta basically picked up where he left off as the NL pitcher of the month for August, realigning his unique mechanics and generating enough power from his right leg, restarting the momentum in a second half where he’s shown the flashes of dominance you saw during his 2015 Cy Young Award season. 

Arrieta exited this game with a 2-1 lead – before it spun out of control – and passed one test by hustling to cover first base to complete an inning-ending 3-6-1 double play in the fifth. He walked just one of the 20 hitters he faced and could really only regret one pitch in the fourth inning, the 92-mph fastball Domingo Santana drilled off the batter’s eye in center field.

“I felt OK,” Arrieta said. “I can tell that something happened. I think it’s just the residual feeling of something like a hamstring strain. But no pain, really no discomfort. That’s a good sign.

“Tomorrow is the biggest indicator moving forward of how we’ll be able to approach this. I don’t see any reason that I won’t feel good tomorrow.”

Arrieta is scheduled to make two more regular-season starts, but this dramatic comeback means the Cubs might be able to treat those as controlled experiments instead of must-win situations.

“Just an incredible baseball game,” Arrieta said. “This is a really awesome time to be in an organization like this, in a division like the NL Central, where there’s a couple teams that have playoff aspirations in mind. If we take care of business here over the next few days, we get a couple steps closer.”