Cubs lose out to Tigers in Anibal Sanchez sweepstakes

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Cubs lose out to Tigers in Anibal Sanchez sweepstakes

Updated: 10:45 p.m.

The Cubs identified Anibal Sanchez as the game-changer, the rare free agent they thought could help them win now and win later and wouldnt make them regret the long-term investment.

Quietly, the Cubs pursued Sanchez for about a month, and they were willing to buy high. Team president Theo Epstein and chairman Tom Ricketts met with Sanchez, his wife and his agent at a Miami restaurant on Thursday, trying to sell them on the teams baseball and business plans for the next several years.

Sanchez wanted to play for a winner, and felt comfortable with the Detroit Tigers, who had reportedly opened with a four-year, 48 million offer. The Cubs appealed to the ego, saying this was the chance to be the main building block, and not just another pitcher after Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer.

That night, the Cubs reached their ceiling: Five years, 77.5 million.

That certainly grabbed Detroits attention. By Friday morning, Cubs executives heard the answer: Sanchez agreed to a five-year, 80 million contract with the Tigers.

The decision came after Thursdays wave of conflicting reports on Twitter, which had the Cubs closing in on Sanchez, then securing a five-year, 75 million deal (which never happened), then waiting to see how the Tigers would counter. The Cubs expected Sanchezs agent, Gene Mato, to go back to the Tigers, though they probably didnt expect the negotiations to play out so publicly across cyberspace.

Whats clear is that a pitcher with a losing record in the big leagues (48-51) and a career 3.75 ERA has just made a fortune.

But the Cubs went after Sanchez thinking hed take a leap forward, because hed only be 29 years old next season and could still perform at a high level when Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro reach their prime. By then, the next wave of talent Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, Albert Almora could be crashing into Wrigley Field.

A difference-maker like Sanchez could have accelerated the rebuilding process, making 2013 an interesting summer on the North Side and setting up high expectations for 2014. But this was really about 2015 and beyond.

At one point, the Cubs sensed Sanchez and his wife were coming around to the idea and envisioning themselves in Chicago. Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer surely must have thought Sanchez could handle the weight of the contract and the pressure inside this market. They once knew him as a prospect in the Boston Red Sox system.

That was before Hoyer acting as Bostons co-general manager with Ben Cherington around Thanksgiving 2005 when Epstein briefly left the organization packaged Sanchez and Hanley Ramirez in a megadeal with the Florida Marlins to get Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell.

All those factors mean its very unlikely the Cubs would just shift that kind of 75 million investment to the next pitchers on the board. Kyle Lohse, for example, is 34 years old, making it harder to put him on the same timeline. They dont see any other big-tickets items worth that kind of money still on the market. But clearly theyve shown they can surprise with these stealth operations.

If the Cubs really wanted a pitcher, they probably would have already signed him by now. They filled out their rotation with two modest signings last month Scott Baker and Scott Feldman on one-year deals worth 11.5 million combined in guarantees. They were checking in on Brandon McCarthy last week before he accepted a two-year, 15.5 million offer from the Arizona Diamondbacks. They figure to be tracking players who had been non-tendered, or free agents falling to their price range and willing to take one-year deals.

At last weeks winter meetings, Epstein sequestered himself in a suite at Nashvilles Opryland Hotel and talked about the 2013 rotation in these terms: We can kind of relax and pick our spots and dont necessarily have to be desperate.

The Tigers felt that sense of urgency.

Sanchez proved he could pitch in the American League by posting a 3.74 ERA in 12 starts after last summers trade with the Marlins. The price only went higher after he looked like a big-game pitcher, going 1-2 with a 1.77 ERA in three postseason starts and helping the Tigers get to the World Series.

Tigers owner Mike Ilitch, who is 83 years old, desperately wants to get back there and win a title for his city. Those impulses drove Ilitch toward Prince Fielder last winter, and any team built around Verlander and Miguel Cabrera will be thinking about October.

After nearly coming to Chicago and trying to dig out of a 101-loss season Sanchez appears to be a big part of those plans.

This figures to be an interesting reference point for Matt Garza as he recovers from an elbow injury and enters the final year of his contract. Hes 29 years old and playoff-tested with similar career numbers (57-61, 3.84 ERA).

The Garza question has hung over the organization since Epstein took over at Clark and Addison some 14 months ago. The entire philosophy there is turning short-term commodities into long-term assets. It cant be answered until Garza who recently began throwing again proves hes healthy.

Garza was fired up on Thursday night, just like last month, when word spread across Twitter that Carlos Marmol had agreed to a trade to the Los Angeles Angels and it looked like the Cubs were adding Dan Haren to their rotation. That deal fell apart, while this one went in another direction.

Heres how Garza put it on his Twitter account: I'm not welcoming anyone, anymore to the cubs organization! puzzled.

Perhaps the Cubs walked away from the Sanchez deal breathing a sigh of relief, because they know all the data behind long-term contracts and what the completely unnatural act of throwing a baseball 90-plus mph over and over again can do to the human body. But this clandestine pursuit showed players, agents and rival executives that they are willing to get serious about big-time free agents, even if theyre going to have to wait until next winter to find the right player at the right time.

Preview: Cubs-Dodgers Sunday on CSN

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Preview: Cubs-Dodgers Sunday on CSN

The Cubs take on the Los Angeles Dodgers on Sunday, and you can catch all the action on CSN. Coverage begins with Cubs Pregame Live at 2:30 p.m. Then catch first pitch with Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies. Be sure to stick around after the final out to get analysis and player reaction on Cubs Postgame Live.

CSN will also carry the live audio call of Los Angeles Dodgers broadcasting legend Vin Scully during Sunday's game as the SportsNet LA audio feed will be featured during the third inning.

Sunday’s starting pitching matchup: Jon Lester vs. Kenta Maeda

Click here for a game preview to make sure you’re ready for the action.  

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— Channel finder: Make sure you know where to watch.

— Latest on the Cubs: All of the most recent news and notes.

— See what fans are talking about before, during and after the game with Cubs Pulse.

Cubs: Jason Hammel still fuming after Joe Maddon’s quick hook at Dodger Stadium

Cubs: Jason Hammel still fuming after Joe Maddon’s quick hook at Dodger Stadium

LOS ANGELES – Even from the upper levels of Dodger Stadium, inside the Vin Scully Press Box, you didn’t need binoculars or a lip reader to tell that Jason Hammel wanted nothing to do with Joe Maddon. 

Not this early on Saturday afternoon, not when the Cubs pitcher came into a possible playoff preview with a 13-6 record and a 3.07 ERA. An animated Hammel gestured toward home plate and walked off the mound in the middle of the third inning, continuing a sometimes awkward/usually productive relationship with the star manager that dates back to their time together as Tampa Bay Rays.    

The media waited several extra minutes outside the visiting clubhouse after a 3-2 loss to the Dodgers while Hammel met with Maddon in his office. Maddon’s postgame press conference then lasted almost eight minutes, giving Hammel time to shower and change into his street clothes. Hammel was still fuming by the time reporters wandered over to his locker.

“That’s between me and Joe,” Hammel said. 

Hammel – who normally enjoys the back-and-forth exchanges and gives insightful answers, even to uncomfortable questions – declined to get specific about the meeting, the decision-making process or how to work with Maddon.  

“That’s a conversation for me and him,” Hammel said. “There’s no reason for that to be in the papers. It’s a professional way of working through it. We’ll leave it there.” 

No, Hammel doesn’t get much latitude, even during his 11th year in the big leagues and a strong individual season that had so far answered questions about a second-half fade. But Maddon didn’t like what he saw against a stacked left-handed Los Angeles lineup.

Maddon walked out from the dugout with two runners on and one out in the third inning. Adrian Gonzalez loomed next, trying to extend a 3-1 lead with one big swing. Maddon summoned Rob Zastryzny from the bullpen and watched the rookie lefty get two groundball outs.  

“I didn’t even pitch today in my mind,” Hammel said. “I barely threw 40 pitches, so this is a side day for me.”

Zastryzny looked extremely impressive, retiring 11 of the 12 batters he faced, eight days after getting called up from Triple-A Iowa and making his big-league debut, showing that he could become an X-factor for October.

“He was not happy with me taking him out that early,” Maddon said of his conversations with Hammel. “I can understand why, because it’s happened in the past. But I just didn’t see the game straightening out.

“Watching them one time through, it looked like they were on him a little bit. And I thought that was a great lineup for ‘Rob Z.’ One of the things with bullpen arms – I want to put them in a meaningful spot. 

“I didn’t see it happening for ‘Hammer’ today, and that’s cool, because he didn’t throw that many pitches. He’s going to be very well-rested for his next start. But it also illustrates ‘Rob Z’ and what he can do for us in the future.” 

No, Hammel didn’t look all that sharp, giving up five hits to the 12 batters he faced, including a first-inning homer to Corey Seager and three consecutive hits to begin the third. But Hammel is also a respected veteran teammate who helped the Cubs transform into a playoff team last year and build baseball’s top-performing rotation this season. 

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Who cares? The Cubs are still 36 games over .500 and began the day with huge leads over the St. Louis Cardinals (14) and Pittsburgh Pirates (16.5) in a watered-down division. 

Well, Hammel is a guy who feeds off confidence and positive reinforcement. The Cubs might need him in October, especially if John Lackey (shoulder) experiences a setback before coming off the disabled list or another starter gets hurt down the stretch.  

“It is what it is,” Hammel said. “The guys fought hard. ‘Z’ did a hell of a job coming out of the ‘pen.”

Then again, the Cubs already think Mike Montgomery could develop into a good big-league starter – the lefty swingman got a longer leash given this particular Los Angeles matchup on Friday night – and thought enough of Zastryzny to make him a second-round pick out of the University of Missouri in 2013.

But for now, Maddon allowed Hammel to take advantage of his open-door policy and vent.

“I want them to be able to do that,” Maddon said. “I have a reason why I did it. I’m not going to hide about anything. It’s not like I just picked that out of the hat and chose to do it today. 

“You just got to shoot them straight back. And hopefully they can deal with it. There’s a great line: ‘Honesty without compassion equals cruelty.’ So at some point, you got to understand your audience, too.”

Joe Maddon defends bunt decision after Cubs can’t knock out Dodgers phenom Julio Urias

Joe Maddon defends bunt decision after Cubs can’t knock out Dodgers phenom Julio Urias

LOS ANGELES – The Cubs had Julio Urias and the Los Angeles Dodgers on the ropes, but couldn’t knock out the young lefty from Mexico who’s drawn comparisons to franchise icon Fernando Valenzuela and could be the next star to burst from this pitching-rich pipeline.  

The Cubs created their “you go, we go” sense of momentum on Saturday afternoon at Dodger Stadium with Dexter Fowler drawing a leadoff walk and MVP candidates Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo hitting back-to-back singles into right field to generate the game’s first run.

Urias had already thrown 17 pitches in the first inning when manager Joe Maddon instructed cleanup hitter Ben Zobrist to try to bunt for a hit. It became an easy out for Urias, who then struck out Addison Russell and Jorge Soler looking and began to find his rhythm during a 3-2 victory in front of 49,522 at Chavez Ravine. 

“Second and third was kind of a nice spot to be,” Maddon said. “(Zobrist) could have hit into a double play. He’s the one guy who’s heavy groundball against that particular pitcher. 

“I actually like the bunt for the hit right there, (because) we had (already) scored (and) Addison’s been a pretty good RBI dude. I thought it was a nice move right there (to) at least get one (run) out of that. 

“You got him and Soler coming up versus a left-hander who’s a little bit shaky right there – I kind of liked it.”

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The Cubs had roughed up Urias during his second career big-league start on June 2 – or two-plus months before his 20th birthday – by hitting three homers and scoring six runs off him in five innings at Wrigley Field.   

But Urias – who pitched at four different minor-league levels last season – clearly has an accelerated learning curve. He managed to last six innings this time and didn’t allow another run after that early flurry, finishing with eight strikeouts against two walks.  

Urias has gone 4-0 with a 2.03 ERA in his last six games (four starts), helping bail out a $250 million team and a fragile rotation that’s used 14 different starting pitchers. If the Dodgers (72-57) can get Clayton Kershaw back to full strength, keep Rich Hill healthy and continue to bring along Urias, then the Cubs might have some matchup nightmares in October. 

“(Urias is) all of what they think he is,” Maddon said. “The kid was outstanding. He knows how to elevate against the guy you’re supposed to elevate against. He knows how to throw the ball down against the guy you’re supposed to throw the ball down to. He’s got a nice move to first base. He handled himself well at the plate. And he’s 20 years old. That’s pretty good.”