Cubs in the market for pitching, but Dempsters a long shot


Cubs in the market for pitching, but Dempsters a long shot

The Cubs have already targeted free agents and contacted their representatives to express interest. Jed Hoyer believes they will have spoken with executives from every other team before general managers check into an Indian Wells, Calif., resort for their meetings next week. They are getting ready for some action.

The Cubs are in the market for at least two starting pitchers they can plug into their 2013 Opening Day rotation, and they havent yet ruled out Ryan Dempster, who still looks like a long shot to return to the North Side.

I wouldnt over-characterize it and have it be the lead story, Hoyer said Thursday. But listen, he pitched well here for a long time. People in Chicago really respect what hes done here, and they should. Obviously, theres mutual respect there.

The two sides have made preliminary contact and apparently dont have bitter feelings about how it all ended. After a potential deal with the Atlanta Braves collapsed, Dempster waived his no-trade rights minutes before the July 31 deadline and approved a deal to the Texas Rangers.

Not at all, Hoyer said. That was an interesting week in the history of the Cubs and the life of Ryan Dempster, for sure. But at the same time, theres no hard feelings at all. That wouldnt preclude us from bringing him back at all.

There are many other reasons why Dempster probably wont be coming back. He will turn 36 next year and made 14 million last season, when he had his heart set on the Los Angeles Dodgers at the deadline. We probably dont need to start another Dempster Watch.

The Cubs are believed to have an interest in Shaun Marcum, whos coming off an injury-plagued season with the Milwaukee Brewers. But he proved himself before pitching in the brutal American League East and knows the coaching staff here.

Hoyer wouldnt comment on Dan Haren as the Los Angeles Angels explore potential trades other than to say it is an alternative avenue for teams looking for a starter. The Angels have until Friday to decide on a 15.5 million option (with a 3.5 million buyout) on the 32-year-old pitcher.

Philosophically, the Cubs arent opposed to a rental pitcher. They flipped Paul Maholm near the deadline for Arodys Vizcaino, a potential future rotation piece who was one of the top prospects in Atlantas system before Tommy John surgery. As they did with Maholm last winter, they can offer opportunity to a free agent looking to revive his career.

Hoyer said its unlikely the Cubs would wind up settling at four years on a contract this winter. The front office may value a player at those terms, but if thats the case, he may find a more desperate team to make a bigger commitment and drive the price higher.

That pretty much eliminates the top tier of free agents in whats already regarded as a weak class. Anibal Sanchez whos made 30-plus starts in each of the past three seasons and will be only 29 next year probably pushed himself toward the front with a strong playoff performance for the Detroit Tigers.

Were not against long-term deals, Hoyer said. Were not opposed to spending a lot on a player. Its just given where we are, we want to make sure that when we have all our young talent at the major-league level (and) were really ready to go on what we think is going to be an extended run, we dont want to have a bunch of guys that are past-prime that we signed in the past sort of hindering what we want to do.

Were not against committing to a player. We committed a lot of years to Starlin Castro (and) Jorge Soler. We just want to be smart with contract length because so many times you see these players (at) 32, 33 years old and (teams) buying ages 35 and 36.

If youre about to win a title or youre one or two players away at those first couple years of that deal that makes a lot of sense. But if you think your window might be more like those back two years, it does give you a little bit of pause.

The Cubs believe Jeff Samardzija can evolve into a No. 1 starter for October. Theyre optimistic Matt Garza whose right elbow will be examined again later this month will be ready to go by spring training. Theyll also be searching for a third baseman and an outfielder, but whether this winter is a success or a failure will depend on what else they do with the pitching.

Theories on why Cubs haven’t played up to their defensive potential yet

Theories on why Cubs haven’t played up to their defensive potential yet

“That’s what we’re supposed to look like,” Joe Maddon said Monday night after a 6-4 loss where the San Francisco Giants scored the first six runs and Wrigley Field got loudest for the David Ross “Dancing with the Stars” look-in on the big video board, at least until a late flurry from the Cubs.

But for a manager always looking for the silver linings, Maddon could replay Addison Russell’s diving stop to his right and strong throw from deep in the hole at shortstop to take a hit away from Christian Arroyo. Or Albert Almora’s spectacular flying catch near the warning track in center field. Or Anthony Rizzo stealing another hit from Brandon Belt with a diving backhanded play near the first-base line.

The highlight reel became a reminder of how the Cubs won 103 games and the World Series last year – and made you wonder why the 2017 team hasn’t played the same consistently excellent defense with largely the same group of personnel.

“Concentration?” Jason Heyward said, quickly dismissing the theory a defensive decline could boil down to focus or effort. “No shot. No shot. It is what it is when it comes to people asking questions about last year having effects, this and that. But this is a new season.

“The standard is still high. What’s our excuse? We played later than anybody? That may buy you some time, but then what?

“The goals stay the same. We just got to find new ways to do it when you have a different team.”, Nate Silver’s statistical website, framed the question this way after the Cubs allowed the lowest batting average on balls in play ever last season, an analysis that goes all the way back to 1871: “Have the Cubs Forgotten How to Field?”

Even if the Cubs don’t set records and make history, they should still be better than 23rd in the majors in defensive efficiency, with 37 errors through 43 games. The Cubs have already allowed 28 unearned runs after giving up 45 all last season.

“We just got to stay on it and keep focusing and not let the miscues go to our head,” Ben Zobrist said. “We just have to keep working hard and staying focused in the field. A lot of that’s the rhythm of the game. I blame a lot of that on the early parts of the season and the weather and a lot of difficult things that we’ve been going through.

“If we’re not hitting the ball well, too, we’re a young team still, and you can carry that into the field. You don’t want to let that happen, but it’s part of the game. You got to learn to move beyond miscues and just focus on the next play.”

Heyward, a four-time Gold Glove winner, missed two weeks with a sprained right finger and has already started nine times in center field (after doing that 21 times all last season). Zobrist has morphed back into a super-utility guy, starting 16 games at second base and 15 in two different outfield spots.

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Maddon has tried to drill the idea of making the routine play into Javier Baez’s head, so that the uber-talented second baseman can allow his natural athleticism and instincts to take over during those dazzling moments.

The Cubs are basically hoping Kyle Schwarber keeps the ball in front of him in left and setting the bar at: Don’t crash into your center fielder. Like Schwarber and Almora, catcher Willson Contreras hasn’t played a full season in The Show yet, and the Cubs are now hoping rookie Ian Happ can become a Zobrist-type defender all over the field.

“I’m seeing our guys playing in a lot of different places,” Heyward said. “It’s not just been penciling in every day who’s going to center field or right field or left field. We did shake things up some last year, but we did it kind of later in the season. We had guys settle in, playing every day. This year, I feel like we’re having guys in different spots.

“It’s May whatever, (but) it seems like we haven’t really had a chance to settle in yet. Not that we’re procrastinating by any means, but it’s just been a lot of moving pieces.”

The Giants won World Series titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014 with a formula that incorporated lights-out pitching, airtight defense and just enough clutch hitting. The Cubs are now a 22-21 team trying to figure it out again.

“Defense comes and goes, just like pitching,” said Kris Bryant, the reigning National League MVP, in part, because of his defensive versatility. “I feel like if you look at last year, it’s kind of hard to compare, just because it was so good. We spoiled everybody last year. Now we’re a complete letdown this year.”

Bryant paused and said: “Just kidding. Different years, things regress, things progress, and that’s just how it goes sometimes.”

For Joe Maddon, Cubs winning World Series came down to Giant comeback in SF and avoiding Johnny Cueto in elimination game

For Joe Maddon, Cubs winning World Series came down to Giant comeback in SF and avoiding Johnny Cueto in elimination game

Jon Lester vs. Johnny Cueto at Wrigley Field – the playoff matchup the Cubs dreaded in an elimination game – will happen more than seven months later under far different circumstances.

The Cubs have a 2016 championship banner flying next to the iconic center-field scoreboard – the ultimate response to any questions about their slow start to this season. The San Francisco Giants can’t have Madison Bumgarner saunter out of the bullpen when he’s recovering from a dirt-bike accident, another reason why an odd-year team is much closer to last place than first in an improved National League West.

The Giants don’t have the same aura, because the Cubs staged an epic comeback to end a best-of-five division series last October, scoring four runs again five different relievers in the ninth inning at AT&T Park.

“I’m telling you, man, Game 4 pretty much won the World Series,” Joe Maddon said. “I did not want to see Mr. Cueto pitching back here again. I’ll get to see him (Tuesday night), but that’s OK, compared to whatever that day would’ve been.”

Maddon has admitted this already, but it is still telling from a manager who always tries to stay in the moment and ignore the negativity. It says something about a Giant franchise that had won 10 straight postseason elimination games and World Series titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014 – and a fan base that used to expect things to go wrong in Wrigleyville after more than a century of losing.

“That whole Game 4 in San Francisco, I did focus on that a lot,” Maddon said. “Just trying to understand Game 5 back at home – how this is going to play out – and do whatever we possibly can to win that game there that night in San Francisco.

“That was the game for me – out of the entire postseason. To have to play the Giants where they were battle-tested – Game 5, back here with (Cueto) pitching – I did not like that at all. I thought that pretty much the postseason hinged on that one game in San Francisco.”

Even though the Cubs still had to survive a 21-inning scoreless streak against the Los Angeles Dodgers before winning their first NL pennant in 71 years. And come back from a 3-1 deficit in the World Series and beat the Cleveland Indians on the road in a 10-inning Game 7 for the ages.

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“That’s what good teams do,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. “They’re a very talented club, very solid all around. You don’t win the World Series unless you are.

“Look back at our success, how many times were we looking at elimination? No, you’re never surprised in the postseason. Anything those teams do, it’s because they’re there for a reason. They’re very good.”

Lester beat Cueto in a 1-0 instant classic when Javier Baez lifted a 3-2 quick pitch into the basket beneath the video ribbon in the left-field bleachers. Cueto kept the Cubs so off-balance in Game 1 that Baez actually walked up to home plate in the eighth inning thinking bunt.

The Giants reacted to that Game 4 meltdown by giving All-Star closer Mark Melancon a four-year, $62 million contract at the winter meetings, trying to fix a bullpen that led the majors with 30 blown saves last season.

“It was close,” Bochy said. “Three outs from taking it to Game 5 with a pretty good pitcher going. We can speculate all we want. There’s no point in that. It didn’t happen.

“But, sure, you look back. That’s how tight that series was. Unfortunately, we couldn’t hold on. Give them credit – great job coming back. We’re a team that plays very well under pressure, and we did there. Just couldn’t hold on to that ninth inning.”