The Cubs, Konerko and the game of expectations

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The Cubs, Konerko and the game of expectations

MESA, Ariz. Paul Konerko is a cerebral player who speaks in full paragraphs, but one line stood out: This could be a very successful year without making the playoffs.

It doesnt really matter if the White Sox are All In or not, but the captains words went out into the echo chamber. Just like in political primaries, its all about managing expectations.

After a winter spent looking toward the future, the Cubs have changed the narrative in Arizona. New president Theo Epstein, first-year manager Dale Sveum and Pacific Coast League MVP Bryan LaHair have essentially said the same thing: This is a team that can win the World Series.

Perhaps the Cubs could be looked at in a different light with Wednesdays reports that Major League Baseball and the players union are getting close to adding an extra wild card in each league.

But in listening to people around the team the past two weeks, you get the sense that things could immediately get better in 2012, not just in some hazy distant future where theyre selling The Cubs Way books and Theo-logy T-shirts out of the Triangle buildingMcDonalds lot on Clark Street.

Privately, one player admitted that the Cubs are in a great position, simply because they can play loose and surprise everyone. If theyre bad, well, no one expected them to do anything anyway.

Several have said this is a team that will play for each other, that a clubhouse without Carlos Zambrano will be a better place and a distraction-free zone.

They point to how the Tampa Bay Rays have shocked the world. They remind you that no one expected the Cincinnati Reds to win the division in 2010, or the Arizona Diamondbacks to go from worst-to-first last season.

Rebuilding is one of those terms that the media uses, but every year you come to play to win, new outfielder David DeJesus said. Baseballs one of those things that if everyone comes together (and) fights for the same thing, it makes for a fun year. Who knows what can happen out there?

To be clear, Mike Quade promised to drive home fundamentals last year. And Lou Piniella didnt enter the Hall of Fame discussion by stressing sloppy, careless play.

But maybe some of the details stick this time. Between Sveum and his new coaches Jamie Quirk (bench), Chris Bosio (pitching) and Dave McKay (first base) they have 101 combined seasons of experience as a major-league player or coach.

The Cubs also feel like they will have a credible starting pitcher on the mound every night, no matter who grabs the final two spots, and even if injuries hit the rotation again.

Jeff Samardzija who believes he belongs in the rotation understands how the hype can get out of control, as both a Chicago guy and a former Notre Dame football star. Hes probably in the minority, but he actually thought the Epstein coverage wasnt over-the-top.

I feel like everybody had their heads on straight, Samardzija said. We need to understand as Cubs players and Cubs fans (what) we need to set our sights on. Saying that were going to win the World Series thats cool and thats all fun. But we need to look at having a strong start the first month of the season. (We) need to be clean early.

That way the summer rolls around and were in position to be battling to get an opportunity to make the playoffs and go on from there. We (definitely have) the guys (and) the personalities to do it. We just need to take it one step at a time.

You can wonder how some of these sensible, incremental moves would have been received on Chicagos airwaves if Jim Hendry had made them, and just how patient the fans will really be with Epsteins team after a couple of losing streaks.

The track record these guys have is proven, so theyll have some patience if there are some growing pains, utility man Jeff Baker said. (But) I dont think that learning curve or that window of having to be patient is going to be as big as people think. I know a lot of people are writing us off for this year.

I dont want to say not giving us respect, because we have to earn it. But you never know what can happen. I played on some teams in Colorado where we werent expected to do anything but finish dead last. Its amazing what happens when you get 25 guys pulling on the same end of the rope, whether youre the best (or) the worst player on the team.

A lot of things can happen from doing the little things, running the balls out. I know its a clich and everyone says that, but it really can change.

There is a lot of time to kill here, with media personalities taking pictures of other media personalities taking pictures of spring training, and then posting it on Twitter.

Its all just noise now, something to fill the air space until April 5 at Wrigley Field. Its a brutal schedule, 162 games in 182 days, with the blur of constant travel. This game will find you out.

Whats the point of playing if people are just going to decide where you finish? pitcher Ryan Dempster said. We can talk about everything in the world, but at the end of the day we got to do it out on the field.

How Cubs are setting the expectations for winter meetings

How Cubs are setting the expectations for winter meetings

The billionaire owners and millionaire athletes wisely decided to not stop all that momentum after a World Series that beat the NFL’s “Sunday Night Football” in head-to-head TV ratings, attracted more than 40 million viewers for Game 7 and turned the 2016 Cubs into legends.

The owners and the players’ union avoided a foolish labor war, crafting a new five-year collective bargaining agreement that should unleash teams that had been waiting to see the rules of engagement, spur the free-agent market, accelerate trade talks and ignite Major League Baseball’s signature offseason event.

The Cubs can go viral seemingly anywhere now – “Saturday Night Live,” Disney World, “The Tonight Show,” the Latin Grammys, an Indiana-North Carolina basketball game, “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” – but don’t expect them to own the winter meetings this time.

As a $10 billion industry begins to descend upon National Harbor in Maryland on Sunday, Cubs officials won’t feel any of the urgency that fueled the spending spree that nearly totaled $290 million and helped end the 108-year drought.

“We said at the time that we did two offseasons worth of shopping in one offseason last year,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “We really liked the talent available to us last offseason. It was a very good free-agent market. We felt like building upon a 97-win team that got to the NLCS but was swept. We wanted to improve some of the deficiencies on that club and really push forward.

“We were really aggressive with what we did last offseason. We told everyone at the time that we felt like we were kind of shopping for two offseasons.

“So with that in mind, I don’t expect nearly the activity we had a year ago.”

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Sensing the pitching market might erupt at that point, the Cubs pushed to close John Lackey’s two-year, $32 million deal in early December, before the winter meetings in Nashville, Tennessee, and Zack Greinke’s anticipated decision between the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants. Hours after the Lackey news broke, the Arizona Diamondbacks shocked the baseball world when word leaked out that Greinke had agreed to a six-year, $206 million megadeal.

The perfect storm brought Ben Zobrist to Chicago, once the Cubs finally engineered a Starlin Castro trade at the winter meetings, with the New York Yankees being the only team willing to absorb $38 million, give up a useful pitcher (Adam Warren) and take a chance on the former All-Star shortstop. Zobrist turned down $60 million guaranteed from the Giants and New York Mets, taking a four-year, $56 million deal and delivering a World Series MVP performance.

The opt-out clauses within Jason Heyward’s eight-year, $184 million contract don’t seem so inviting anymore – and he said those weren’t important to him anyway – but he provided Gold Glove defense in right field, called that pivotal team meeting during the Game 7 rain delay in Cleveland and should rebound after the worst offensive season of his career.

The Cubs have no expectations that Dexter Fowler’s market will again crater to the point that he will accept a $13 million guarantee in spring training, moving on with a center-field timeshare between Jon Jay and Albert Almora Jr.

“The bulk of our heavy lifting is done,” Hoyer said. “But I think that was done 12 months ago. It will be a quieter winter than last offseason.

“We’re always listening. If good ideas come to us – or we come up with good ideas – we’ll share them with other teams. But fans shouldn’t expect a flurry of things, because they got that 12 months ago.” 

Fans also won’t be getting crash courses on labor relations and lockout implications. A game that can be slow, boring and stuck in its ways can’t waste the energy and excitement that created crossover moments like LeBron James showing up at the United Center in a Cubs uniform.

“There’s no doubt that it was an amazing postseason all around,” Hoyer said. “Baseball really showed itself in the best possible light, ending with a Game 7 that we happened to win. But win or lose, that was one of the greatest games ever played. Baseball is certainly going to be on a high going into spring training.

“Baseball is definitely in a great place right now.”  

For Cubs, winter meetings will be all about the hunt for pitching 

For Cubs, winter meetings will be all about the hunt for pitching 

As the Cubs prepare for the winter meetings outside Washington, D.C., their messaging might as well be: It’s the pitching, stupid.

This is an arms race that will never end, the Cubs trying to defend their first World Series title in 108 years, build out a bullpen that looked pretty thin by November and target the kind of young starter who could help anchor their rotation for years to come, ensuring Wrigleyville remains baseball’s biggest party.

The Cubs signed Brian Duensing to a one-year, $2 million contract on Friday, placing a small bet on a lefty specialist who spent parts of last season on the Triple-A level but made a good enough impression during his 13-plus innings with the Baltimore Orioles.

As executives, scouts, agents and reporters begin to flood into National Harbor on Sunday, the Cubs will intensify their search for pitching, everything from headliners to insurance policies to prospects.

“That’s been the significant bulk of our efforts,” general manager Jed Hoyer said, “It’s definitely not going to be through lack of trying on our part to make that kind of deal. That’s now. That’s at the deadline.”  

The Cubs are preparing for Opening Day 2018, when Jake Arrieta will probably be in a different uniform after signing his megadeal, John Lackey might be kicking back in Texas and enjoying retirement and Jon Lester will be 34 years old with maybe 2,300 innings on his odometer. 

The Cubs have unwavering faith in their pitching infrastructure at the major-league level, from the scouting and analytic perspectives that identified the right sign-and-flip deals during the rebuilding years to the coaching staff that helped mold Kyle Hendricks into a Cy Young Award finalist and a World Series Game 7 starter.

Mike Montgomery notched the final out against the Cleveland Indians and the Cubs see him as their next big project. The lefty checks so many of their boxes, from age (27) to size (6-foot-5) to pedigree (former first-round pick/top prospect) to the change-of-scenery confidence boost/mental reset.

Forget about the White Sox trading Chris Sale to the North Side and don’t just think about obvious names or trade partners. Maybe it’s making a deal for a guy you never heard of before and sifting through the non-tender bin. (As expected, the Cubs offered contracts to arbitration-eligible pitchers Arrieta, Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop and Justin Grimm before Friday’s deadline. Their 40-man roster stands at 35 after non-tendering lefties Gerardo Concepcion and Zac Rosscup, right-hander Conor Mullee and infielder Christian Villanueva.)

Remember how team president Theo Epstein framed the Montgomery trade with the Seattle Mariners this summer – comparing him to All-Star reliever Andrew Miller – and that gives you an idea of how they can address their pitching deficit this winter. 

“If your scouts do a good job of identifying the guys who are trending in the right direction – and you’re willing to take a shot – sometimes there’s a big payoff at the end,” Epstein said.   

While the Cubs did Jason Hammel a favor by cutting him loose and allowing him to explore the market as one of the best pitchers in an extremely weak class of free agents, Montgomery has only 23 big-league starts on his resume. 

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The Cubs had five starters make at least 29 starts this year, while four starters accounted for 30-plus starts in 2015, a remarkable run that led to 200 wins.

“As we’ve talked about so many times,” Hoyer said, “we do have an imbalance in our organization – hitting vs. pitching – and we’re trying to make sure we can accumulate as much pitching depth as possible. 

“We were very healthy this year, which was wonderful and a big part of why we won the World Series. I don’t think you can always count on that kind of health every single year. Building up a reservoir of depth – preferably guys you can option (to the minors) – is something (we’re trying) to accomplish.”  

The Cubs have Jorge Soler stuck in a crowded outfield plus the types of interesting prospects who appear to be blocked – catcher Victor Caratini, third baseman Jeimer Candelario, infielder/outfielder Ian Happ – to make relatively painless trades for pitching (if not the kind of blockbuster deal that dominates coverage of the winter meetings).

Lefty reliever Brett Cecil getting a four-year, $30.5 million deal and no-trade protection from the St. Louis Cardinals became another sign of how shallow this free-agent pool is for starting pitchers and a reflection of a postseason where the bullpen became a major storyline.

The idea of Kenley Jansen intrigues the Cubs – and Aroldis Chapman made a favorable impression during his three-plus months with the team – but Epstein’s front office already made the major upgrades for 2017 by spending nearly $290 million on free agents after the 2015 playoff run. Philosophically, the Cubs also see smarter long-term investments than trying to win a bidding war for a guy who might throw 70 innings a year. 

With that in mind, the Cubs could get creative and have looked at free agent Greg Holland, a two-time All-Star closer with the Kansas City Royals who didn’t pitch this year after having Tommy John surgery on his right elbow.  

Remember that Chapman left the New York Yankees and joined a team that had a 56-1 record when leading entering the ninth inning. If Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop and Carl Edwards Jr. can’t handle the late shifts, then the Cubs could always go out and trade for another closer in the middle of a pennant race.    

The Cubs have the luxuries of time, zero pressure from ownership, their fan base or the Chicago media and a stacked, American League-style lineup. 

“Right now, we could go play from an offensive standpoint and feel very good about our group,” Hoyer said. “We’re going to still continue to look to improve the depth in our bullpen, improve the depth in our starting rotation. Those are things that probably never go away. You probably never stop trying to build that depth.”