Cubs lose out to Tigers in Anibal Sanchez sweepstakes

963231.png

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.

As Cubs search for answers, Scott Boras doesn’t believe Jake Arrieta is feeling the pressure of free agency

As Cubs search for answers, Scott Boras doesn’t believe Jake Arrieta is feeling the pressure of free agency

LOS ANGELES – It’s harder to find perspective when the lights are flashing all around Dodger Stadium and the techno music is thumping and Adrian Gonzalez just launched a two-run homer 429 feet to straightaway center. 

But that’s why Jake Arrieta pays Scott Boras. The super-agent sat in a front-row seat behind home plate on Friday night, watching his client go through another up-and-down start for a Cubs team that needs Arrieta to pitch more like an ace.

It’s easy to lose sight of this during a 4-0 loss where the Dodgers looked more like the team on a mission after getting eliminated from last year’s National League Championship Series.

But Arrieta is someone who has already experienced the low points that made him think about quitting baseball as he shuttled back and forth between the Orioles and Triple-A – and the intoxicating high from ending the 108-year drought and creating so much joy for generations of Cubs fans.

So Boras isn’t buying the idea that Arrieta might be feeling the weight of his upcoming free agency.

“Coming from Baltimore to here and establishing himself in the big leagues was the major arc of his career,” Boras said, “the most difficult moment of illustrating that he is an everyday major-leaguer. The fact that he has the skills, and what he has up here (in his head), the dynamic of winning two World Series games and things like that, I’d say he’s (been) measured. When you win World Series games, that’s the most important thing.

“If you want me to measure pressure, I’d say that’s World Series cojones.”

To get back into October, the Cubs will need more consistency from Arrieta (5-4, 4.92 ERA), who’s still fine-tuning his delivery and not always getting that extra burst of velocity that made him a Cy Young Award winner and unhittable one night at Dodger Stadium.

Two aging Dodgers crushed Arrieta fastballs. Chase Utley – who began the game hitting .204 – drove one over the center-field wall in the third inning. Gonzalez had gone 131 plate appearances this season before notching his first home run with two outs in the sixth inning.

“I understand how difficult this game is,” Arrieta said. “It’s a work in progress. I’m still not exactly where I would like to be. But it’s close. It really is.”

Even as Arrieta worked through command/mechanical issues last season, he still wound up winning 18 games and limiting opponents to a .583 OPS that ranked second in the majors. It took until the middle of last August before he gave up his 10th home run, or where he’s already at through 10 starts this season. 

[MORE CUBS: The ‘friendly rivalry’ between Theo Epstein and Andrew Friedman with Cubs, Dodgers becoming NL superpowers]

“The one that Utley hit out was on the corner – that’s a good piece of hitting,” Arrieta said. “The one to Gonzalez was too much plate in a 3-1 count. It was elevated. Willson (Contreras) called a changeup. I shook to the fastball. I expected to locate a little bit better than I did. But I feel like if I continue on this progression, I think I’ll be OK.

“I don’t intend to continue to give up as much hard contact, especially balls over the fence. It’s been a little bit of tough luck, but they just flat out beat us.”

There’s some truth to that – Arrieta continued to pile up the strikeouts (nine) and limit the walks (one) – while Dodger lefty Alex Wood extended his scoreless streak to 25.1 innings before handing the game over to a dominant bullpen. But whether it’s an underperforming offense, a defense not playing at the same historic level or those velocity questions, Arrieta doesn’t appear to have the same margin for error anymore.

All those elements could come roaring back, but the Cubs are now a 25-22 team that could be looking to replace 60 percent of the rotation by Opening Day 2018.

“You don’t really think about (it),” Boras said. “When the Cubs come to town, I look at the standings: OK, where are they at? They’re trying to win again. This club’s a good club and you think about what moves they’re going to make to make it better.

“Jake’s total focus has always been about putting himself in a position that few players get to be in – and that is being on a club where you can win more.”

Whatever happens over the next several months, this will be the reservoir of confidence Arrieta draws from, and ultimately his legacy as a Cub.

“When the postseason hits, it’s Jake’s greatest measurement,” Boras said. “I don’t know, I heard winning a World Series in Chicago was difficult.”

Cubs: Is Joe Maddon turning Kyle Schwarber into a platoon player?

Cubs: Is Joe Maddon turning Kyle Schwarber into a platoon player?

LOS ANGELES – Joe Maddon doesn’t want to put the platoon label on a young hitter who became a World Series legend before his 24th birthday. But the Cubs manager also isn’t planning to start Kyle Schwarber against left-handers anytime soon. 

“If people want to say that, I can’t avoid it,” Maddon said Friday at Dodger Stadium, where Schwarber sat against lefty Alex Wood, who took a 20.1-inning scoreless streak into this National League Championship Series rematch. “I’m going to do that until I feel good about him, because I don’t want to lay too many at-bats on him in a negative situation.

“If he’s not swinging the bat well against righties, it’s a bad assumption that I’m going to think he’s going to swing it well against lefties. Then I’m just putting him in a deeper hole by throwing him out there, just based on really bad logic.

“I’m just trying to pick his spots right now to get him going. Once he goes, he can play against anybody.”

[MORE CUBS: The 'friendly rivalry' between Theo Epstein and Andrew Friedman]

Schwarber – who’s hitting .181 with a .656 OPS and 55 strikeouts in less than 200 plate appearances this season – will start Saturday against Dodger right-hander Brandon McCarthy. But even with Clayton Kershaw looming on Sunday, Maddon didn’t want to give Schwarber the entire weekend off, the way Jason Heyward mentally reset last August at Coors Field.

“I don’t think it’s there yet,” Maddon said. “I’ve had good conversations with him. I think it’s a different set of circumstances.”

For the Cubs, this doesn’t really change their overall evaluation of Schwarber as a core player and potentially one of the most dangerous left-handed sluggers in the game. But Maddon has been backing away from the idea of Schwarber as a leadoff hitter, trying to reboot the player who had been such an intimidating postseason presence.

“My concern when the guy is struggling a little bit is you don’t want him to get him too many at-bats,” Maddon said. “It’s really hard to get yourself out of that mental, physical and numerical hole. By not getting him as many at-bats, it will be easy to get back to a number he’s more comfortable with.

“I don’t care about that – I really don’t. I’m looking at his past, process, what he’s doing for the team in regards to on-base, everything else. But for the guy himself, he looks up at the scoreboard and he sees numbers everywhere and they evaluate themselves based on numbers.

“I don’t want him to do that. I just want him to get back into the process of having good at-bats.”