For Cubs, Prince was the right player at the wrong time

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For Cubs, Prince was the right player at the wrong time

At some point, Theo Epstein will have to go all-in and gamble on the piece that could put the Cubs over-the-top. But it wasnt going to happen this winter. Prince Fielder wasnt the right player at the right time.

The Detroit Tigers shocked the baseball world on Tuesday with the news that Fielder had agreed to a reported nine-year deal worth 214 million. Life in the National League Central will be a lot different without the star power of Fielder or Albert Pujols.

Fielder is only 27 years old, with a left-handed swing that would be perfect for Wrigley Field. He plays hard every day and should be good for 35 homers and 100-plus RBI every year through 2016.

But there is so much work to be done at Clark and Addison that it didnt make sense to pour so much money into one player (especially one who looks like a designated hitter).

The Ricketts family plans to control the Cubs for generations. They are still learning the business and dont yet have the same urgency Tigers owner Mike Ilitch showed in trying to win a World Series right now.

They also dont have to worry about capturing a market the way Los Angeles Angels owner Arte Moreno did in giving Pujols a 10-year, 254 million megadeal.

Epstein had just left a Boston Red Sox team burned by the wrong bets in free agency for a five-year commitment to an organization that had been crippled by bad long-term contracts.

For the moment, the Cubs have removed emotion from the equation. Even franchise icon Kerry Wood had to wait until the middle of January to sign a one-year, 3 million deal with a club option for 2013.

Epstein has acknowledged that the Cubs arent at a point where they will make countermoves against the division, the way the New York Yankees roll in their rivalry with the Red Sox. They werent going to make an impulse buy with Fielder or Pujols.

You could hear the ambivalence in Epsteins voice one night last month at the winter meetings in Dallas. The next morning word spread throughout the lobby of the Hilton Anatole that Pujols was heading to Southern California.

Its like that moment after you sign a free agent, Epstein said up in his hotel suite. By definition, you overpaid, because you were the high team, right? The high bidder usually gets the player, so theres a winners curse associated with that sometimes.

That moment when youre at the press conference and youre holding up the jersey, youre sitting there thinking this could be a great moment in franchise history. And then theres a big voice in the back of your head saying: I might be regretting this for the next six years.

You cant get away from it. And that voice is louder than the one that says: This could be a great thing for the team going forward. Because just look at the history of long-term free agent contracts. They tend not to work out.

Thats why it would be a mistake to completely write off the St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers. These front offices are resourceful and have assembled enough high-end pitching to keep their teams competitive.

And if they had given in and stretched their budgets for their franchise players, it could have paralyzed those organizations for years to come.

The Cardinals squeezed 11 great years out of Pujols and finished under .500 only once during that window, making the playoffs seven times and winning two titles.

The Brewers formed their identity around Fielder, playing with a hard edge that almost got them to the World Series last season. Thats the way this Scott Boras client approached free agency. A good relationship with new Cubs manager Dale Sveum wasnt going to matter much.

The Cubs are prepared to let 29-year-old Bryan LaHair a former 39th-round pick and last seasons Pacific Coast League MVP play first base. Waiting at Triple-A Iowa will be Anthony Rizzo, the top prospect acquired from the San Diego Padres in the Andrew Cashner deal.

Cubs executives Jason McLeod and Jed Hoyer watched Rizzo beat Hodgkins lymphoma as a Red Sox minor-leaguer, and thought he might one day replace Adrian Gonzalez in San Diego. Rizzo is supposed to eventually become a force in the middle of the order and the clubhouse.

For a 22-year-old kid, hes got a lot of leadership ability, Epstein said. (Hes) mature beyond his years. Hes already overcome adversity in his life with the cancer that he beat. I think thats important. Baseballs all about overcoming adversity. Failures inherent in this game, so if youre looking for one characteristic in a player, you want to (see how he handles) adversity.

Even in the minor leagues, he put the team first. He wasnt all about his statistics. Because of his imposing size and his character and the fact that he cared about his team and his teammates, he was kind of magnetic. His teammates even those who were older than him kind of rallied around him.

So Epstein will build around Rizzo and try to collect as many young players as possible, with an eye toward the future. Ownership resisted the urge to make a splash with a box-office draw who would sell tickets.

This doesnt have to be The Year. Maybe, in their own slow, steady way, the Cubs just shocked the baseball world, too.

Now what? Jon Lester driven to deliver more World Series titles to Chicago

Now what? Jon Lester driven to deliver more World Series titles to Chicago

MESA, Ariz. — Now what? Ryan Dempster believes these Cubs are young enough, hungry enough and talented enough to become the first group to win back-to-back World Series since the three-peat New York Yankees built a dynasty with titles in 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000.

But Dempster already understands the expectations at Wrigley Field this season, especially after pitching on disappointing Cubs teams that got swept out of the playoffs and working as a special assistant in Theo Epstein's front office.

"Nothing can top it," Dempster said. "You can win 162 games and sweep everybody in the playoffs and it won't be as exciting for people, other than maybe the guys playing it."

That's why Jon Lester isn't putting up the "Mission Accomplished" banner at his locker, even though the Cubs had the parade down Michigan Avenue in mind when they gave him the biggest contract in franchise history at the time. Dempster — who also earned a World Series ring with the 2013 Boston Red Sox — had given Lester a scouting report as the Cubs went all-out in their pursuit of the big-game lefty.

There are still four years left on Lester's $155 million megadeal. It has been less than five months since the Cubs finally won the World Series and unleashed an epic celebration.

"Now the hard part is you don't get complacent," Lester said Wednesday after throwing six innings against an Oakland A's minor-league squad at the Sloan Park complex. "I talk about these young guys — that's where that helps. Even though you've accomplished things personally, you still want these guys to accomplish things.

"That's where that drive still gets you. You don't want to let your teammates down. You still want to be accountable for what you do. And that means showing up and doing your work in between starts and in the offseason."

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Lester believed so much in Epstein's vision, the pipeline of talent about to burst and the lure of Chicago that he signed with a last-place team. The Cubs needed a symbol to show they were serious about winning, a clubhouse tone-setter and an anchor for their rotation.

A new comfort level in Year 2 of that contract helped explain how Lester performed as an All Star, a Cy Young Award finalist and the National League Championship Series co-MVP. But Lester wants to make sure that the Cubs don't get too comfortable — or feel like they're playing with house money.

"You enjoy that, you learn from it," Lester said. "The biggest thing is not getting complacent with yourself and with your teammates. That's what drives me, making sure I'm prepared to pitch.

"I'm called upon every five days, and I have to be there. That's where that goal of 30 starts and 200 innings comes into play. I feel like if I do that, then I've done my job, for my teammates and this organization.

"The championships and the World Series — that's stuff you can't predict. It's stuff you strive to do every single year. So that's all we're going to focus on again. Our team goal again is to win a World Series."

Cubs remember Dallas Green's impact on Wrigley Field

Cubs remember Dallas Green's impact on Wrigley Field

MESA, Ariz. — Dallas Green pictured what the Cubs have now become, striking gold in the draft, swinging big deals and pushing to modernize Wrigley Field. The Plan, The Foundation for Sustained Success, all those buzzwords had parallels to the 1980s franchise built in Green's image.

Green — a larger-than-life presence in some of baseball's most intense markets — died Wednesday at the age of 82 after a colorful career and a battle with kidney disease.

Green spent 46 years with the Philadelphia Phillies, guiding them to the 1980 World Series title and working at virtually every level of the organization. Green also pitched eight seasons in the big leagues and managed both the New York Mets and Yankees. But Green clearly raised expectations in Chicago, where he drew up the rough blueprint the Theo Epstein regime would follow 30 years later.

"Absolutely, there's no question," bench coach Dave Martinez said. "He had a vision. He was trying to build an organization from within."

Green took over baseball operations on the North Side and made a franchise-altering trade in 1982, using his Philadelphia connections to steal future Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg and Larry Bowa for Ivan de Jesus.

Green's scouting department would draft Greg Maddux, Rafael Palmeiro, Mark Grace and Shawon Dunston. Trading for Rick Sutcliffe in the middle of the 1984 season led to the club's first playoff appearance since the 1945 World Series. Signing Andre Dawson to the blank-check contract helped fuel a 93-win season in 1989.

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Green had already been fired after repeated clashes with Tribune Co. bosses and a last-place finish in 1987. The force of Green's personality also helped the Cubs finally install lights at Wrigley Field in 1988.

"What a good baseball man," said Martinez, who got drafted by the Cubs in 1983 and lasted 16 seasons in the big leagues. "He could be hard, at times, but you respected that from him. He gave me and a bunch of other players I came up with the chance to play. And I can honestly say he really loved all of us kids. He thought at one point that we were going to be something special — if we would have stayed together.

"We thought we would be there together for a long time. It didn't work out that way, but he knew talent."

Even before this generation of Cubs executives traded for Jake Arrieta and Addison Russell — and drafted Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber — general manager Jed Hoyer understood the challenge Green undertook.

"When we first got to Chicago," Hoyer said, "you look back and think about what other times in the history of the Cubs did people try to do something similar to what we were doing. Really, him taking over in the 80s and building the '84 team is probably the most similar when you look at it. Some of those great trades that he made — those gutsy trades that he made — are pretty similar in a lot of ways.

"Were it not for a couple big breaks, they might have been able to end the curse a lot earlier."