Chicago Cubs

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.

Are Cubs lining up Jake Arrieta to start Game 1 vs. Nationals?

Are Cubs lining up Jake Arrieta to start Game 1 vs. Nationals?

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Are the Cubs lining up Jake Arrieta to start Game 1 against the Washington Nationals?

“I’m not even anywhere near that,” manager Joe Maddon said during Tuesday’s pregame media session with the Chicago media, immediately shifting his focus back to the decisions he would have to make that night – how hard to push catcher Willson Contreras coming off the disabled list, what the Cubs would get out of lefty Mike Montgomery, how the bullpen sets up – against the Tampa Bay Rays.

“Players can do that kind of stuff. I don’t think managers can. Honestly, I don’t want to say I don’t care about that. I just don’t worry about that, because there’s nothing to worry about yet. Because first of all, he’s got to be well when he pitches, too.”

Arrieta had just completed a throwing session at Tropicana Field and declared himself ready to face the Milwaukee Brewers on Thursday at Miller Park. That would be the Cy Young Award winner’s first start since suffering a Grade 1 right hamstring strain on Labor Day. It would set him up to face the St. Louis Cardinals next week at Busch Stadium and start Game 162 against the Cincinnati Reds at Wrigley Field.

“The plan is to be out there Thursday,” said Arrieta, who would be limited to 75-80 pitches against the Brewers and build from there, trying to recapture what made him the National League pitcher of the month for August. “The good thing is the arm strength is there – it’s remained there – and I actually feel better for maybe having a little bit of time off.

“The idea is to be able to be out there the last game against Cincinnati – pretty much at full pitch count – and to be ready for the playoffs.”

Five days after that would be the beginning of the NL divisional round and what could be a classic playoff series between the defending champs and Dusty Baker’s Nationals. The Cubs started Jon Lester in Game 1 for all three playoff rounds during last year’s World Series run and their $155 million ace could open a Washington series with an extra day of rest.

“It’s inappropriate to talk about that now,” team president Theo Epstein said. “We have a lot of work to do, and those would be the guys that would help get us there in the first place. If you’re lucky enough to get into that situation, you’d just use all the factors. You guys all know – who’s going the best, who matches up the best, the most experienced – and we figure it out and go from there. But we’re still a good ways away from figuring that one out.”

Untouchable: Javier Baez showed why Cubs built around him during takeover at shortstop

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AP

Untouchable: Javier Baez showed why Cubs built around him during takeover at shortstop

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Imagine Javier Baez wearing a New York Mets uniform or playing in an empty Tropicana Field and where the Cubs would be without their backup shortstop.

The trade speculation still lingered into this season, even after Baez blossomed into a National League Championship Series co-MVP and a World Series champion. Maybe it was just out of habit since Theo Epstein’s front office spent years collecting hitters and planning to deal for pitching, or a perception issue for a prospect who wasn’t drafted by this regime and has a “flashiness” to his game that recently got this unfair, narrow-minded label from a Pittsburgh Pirates broadcaster: “A difficult player for me to root for.”

But the Cubs never traded Baez to the Tampa Bay Rays for one of those starters who usually seems to be on the rumor mill – Chris Archer, Alex Cobb, Jake Odorizzi, Matt Moore – and that decision continues to look better and better in hindsight.   

Baez again showed why he is essentially untouchable while Addison Russell slowly recovered from a strained right foot and plantar fasciitis, starting 41 of 42 games at shortstop between Aug. 3 and Sept. 16 and hitting .282 with eight homers and 27 RBI during that stretch.  

Deep down, Baez still views himself as a shortstop – “yeah, for sure, if I get the (chance)” – while deferring to Russell (who was activated over the weekend) and understanding that the Cubs can again have an elite defensive unit when he moves back to second base.

“When I play short every day, obviously, I’m going to be ready for it and making all the adjustments to be there,” Baez said. “I do my best to help the team. Addie’s a big part of the team.”

Remember how shaky the defense looked up the middle when Russell missed the 2015 NLCS with a hamstring injury and the Mets swept the Cubs out of the playoffs?  

The Cubs created enough depth – and room to grow – to stash an All-Star shortstop on the disabled list on Aug. 4 and go from being a 57-50 team with a 1.5-game lead in the division to running a season-high 17 games over .500 heading into Tuesday night at The Trop.  

Even though Joe Maddon lobbied for Baez to make the Opening Day roster during his first post-Rays spring training in 2015, the manager also made a point to say he didn’t run an entitlement program.

Maddon would not anoint Baez as an everyday player heading into this season, even after he started all 17 games at second base during last year’s playoffs and starred for Team Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic.

“If you had done that with him two years ago, he would have buried himself,” Maddon said. “Absolutely. I don’t think he would have made the same adjustments at the plate. You would have seen a lot more mistakes on defense. You would have seen a lot more routine plays not handled routinely. You would not have seen the same base running. Even though he had it in his back pocket, I just think that he’s learned how to really pick his moments there, too. He wasn’t ready for all that.”

There is something to the idea of taking the good with the bad with Baez. Except there are no perfect players and so few have his mind-blowing combination of skills, love for the game and sixth sense for highlight-reel moments.    

“You don’t teach those things – that’s just God-given talent,” catcher Alex Avila said. “He’s been able to put it together. You see those plays. But the work that goes into it – as far as being in the right spot, having the right first step, anticipating the ball, things like that – all that kind of gets you the result.

“(It’s not only) making sure he’s making the routine plays, but he has the athleticism and the wherewithal to be able to make the spectacular plays as well.”

Instead of focusing on the tattoos or the hairstyles or a swing that can get out of control at times, remember that this is someone who already has 22 homers and 70 RBI in the middle of September – and a .791 OPS in his age-24 season that represents a 54-point jump from the year before – for an iconic team with World Series expectations.

“You could see there was a lot of stuff for Javy to iron out,” Maddon said. “He’s worked them out. It’s a lot of repetition. It’s a lot of good coaching. But it’s about the player himself, being able to make those adjustments. I honestly think his path has been a good one. And I think the way we did it last year was perfect.

“Everything’s happened as it should organically for him."