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.

Why Cubs are excited for pitching prospect Dylan Cease: He's 'throwing lightning bolts'

Why Cubs are excited for pitching prospect Dylan Cease: He's 'throwing lightning bolts'

Theo Epstein's front office is heading into Year 6 with the Cubs and they're finally talking about a pitcher as one of the organization's most exciting prospects.

That's how senior vice president of scouting and player development Jason McLeod framed his Dylan Cease report to fans at the Cubs Convention at the Sheraton Grand Chicago last weekend.

It was a tongue-in-cheek summation from McLeod after he spent the previous few minutes fawning over Cease, the Cubs' sixth round pick in 2014.

Of course, McLeod and the Cubs can poke fun at the lack of impact pitching the farm system has developed when the homegrown position players like Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber just helped lead the franchise to its first World Series championship in over a century.

Cease, however, has been one of the more intriguing Cubs prospects for years — a right-handed pitcher capable of touching 101 mph on the radar gun.

"This guy is throwing lightning bolts out of his arm," McLeod said. "It's really exciting. But we also understaned he's only in Low-A this year, so he's far away."

The Cubs expect Cease to pitch for Class-A South Bend in 2017 after spending last season pitching for short-season Eugene and the 2015 campaign working in the rookie league in Arizona.

Cease — who just turned 21 in late December — put up some impressive numbers at both stops in the Cubs system, posting a 2.36 ERA and 1.165 WHIP to go along with a whopping 91 strikeouts in 68.2 innings. He also only surrendered one homer and walked more batters (41) than reached via a basehit (39).

Control is obviously an issue for Cease, but the upside is evident.

"He's so far away," McLeod said. "He's gonna go into 2017 as a starter. As with a lot of young guys, it's gonna come down to command and depend on that third pitch and the ability to land them for strikes.

"It's a special arm. He can pitch 95-100 mph with a big power curveball. He's unlike anyone else we have in our system since we've been here in terms of pure stuff."

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One fan compared Cease to Carl Edwards Jr. in terms of their lanky build and high velocity, setting McLeod up for a layup joke.

"Well, Dylan is much stronger physically than CJ is...as is everybody in this room," McLeod said as the ballroom filled with laugher. "Don't tell [CJ] I said that. 

"They have different body types, obviously. Carl is long and lanky and Dylan has probably put on 20 pounds since we drafted him, so he's more like 6-foot-2, 190."

By comparison, Edwards — who goes by "The String Bean Slinger" for his slight build — is listed at 6-foot-3, 170 pounds.

Edwards was drafted in the 48th round in 2011 and spent his whole minor-league career as a starting pitcher until the Cubs converted him to a reliever in 2015.

Cease may eventually go down the same path, but the Cubs are going to give him every opportunity to make it as a starter first.

Cease was one of the top pitchers available in the 2014 draft, but his stock took a hit when he was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery on his pitching elbow while at Milton High School in Georgia.

That scared off a lot of teams — as did the potential signability issues with college offers looming — but the Cubs took a chance and have now watched Cease soar to a top prospect in the system (No. 4 by Baseball America; No. 7 by FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus) despite the cautious approach and lack of innings in professional ball.

"We have to thank Kyle Schwarber, actually, as one of the main reasons we got to sign Dylan Cease," McLeod said. "Because we took Kyle fourth overall, we were able to save money on the selection with him, which gave us the resources to go get Dylan Cease.

"He was a Top 10 pick in the draft — a high school arm that got hurt, fell down to the fifth round and he had a commitment to Vanderbilt, I think it was, and we were able to use the money we saved from Kyle.

"Just another reason to love Kyle Schwarber."

Joe Maddon’s messaging to Cubs before the 2017 campaign

Joe Maddon’s messaging to Cubs before the 2017 campaign

Joe Maddon's Washington itinerary didn't include an hour-long sit-down with Chuck Todd for NBC's "Meet the Press." There would be no rehashing the manager's Game 7 decisions as he stood outside the West Wing, though the second question during the media stakeout involved "last year's team" and how the 2017 Cubs are prepared to defend a World Series title.

"You're already there, huh?" Maddon said to a CNN reporter, minutes after President Barack Obama's final official White House event ended on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. 

But last year's team is gone — preserved now in highlight films and the hearts and minds of generations of Cub fans — even if so many familiar faces will be in Mesa when pitchers and catchers officially report to Arizona on Valentine's Day.

It would be impossible to replicate everything that made the 2016 Cubs so special. Baseball has its own relentless pace and the dynamics are constantly shifting. (Remember when players were passive-aggressively complaining about Maddon's spring-training approach during the final week of a 103-win regular season?) The clubhouse chemistry will inevitably feel different after climbing a Mount Everest of professional sports.

"A mind once stretched has a very difficult time going back to its original form," Maddon said. "We're motivated by it. We want to do it again, of course. There's no question we're trying to do that.

"I'm really leaning on the phrase or the thought of being uncomfortable. I want us to be uncomfortable. I think the moment you get into your comfort zone after having such a significant moment in your life like that, the threat is that you're going to stop growing.

"So I really want us to be uncomfortable. I really want to continue (to see) a pattern of growth and really try to get at them very quickly again."

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Can Jason Heyward recover from one of the worst offensive seasons in the majors last year? Is Willson Contreras ready to be a frontline catcher? Will Javier Baez have to adjust back to being a role player after becoming a playoff superstar? Does Kyle Schwarber in the leadoff spot and Albert Almora Jr. and Jon Jay in a center-field timeshare represent an upgrade over Dexter Fowler?

If healthy, Wade Davis should be a trusted, lower-maintenance closer than Aroldis Chapman, with an advanced approach to pitching and more clubhouse presence. As a staff, the Cubs will have to bounce back from pitching into early November (or not, in the case of the relievers Maddon didn't trust during the playoffs).

As it stands, Jon Lester (33) and John Lackey (38) have already combined to throw almost 5,000 innings in The Show (including the postseason). Jake Arrieta will have to deal with the pressure of playing for his megadeal in his final season before becoming a free agent.

The drop-off after Mike Montgomery — and it's still mostly projected potential with the No. 5 starter — appears to be very steep in an organization that doesn't have any high-end pitching prospects in the upper levels of the farm system.

After painting the bull's-eye on the chest and turning "Embrace The Target" and "Try Not To Suck" into viral T-shirts, a guy who hates meetings is still working on his themes for this campaign.

"I'm really rotating around the thought of authenticity," Maddon said. "I talked about it a lot last year, the fact that I think authenticity has a chance to repeat itself without even trying. It's part of who you are. It's not fabricated. It's real.

"I've talked about our guys a lot the last couple years. I think one of our strongest qualities is the authentic component of our players. So I'm really focusing on that word right now. Again, that's a great word to bring an entire message from (when) you get in front of the group that first day in spring training.

"I kind of just think like authenticity happens. And let's work it from there."

The costumes should be in midseason form with Maddon planning a house party around Tampa's Gasparilla Pirate Festival before driving his RV from Florida to Arizona.

Maddon will turn 63 on Feb. 8 and have to keep evolving, just like his players, who might outgrow some of those gimmicks. But the Cubs are still a reflection of their future Hall of Fame manager.

Amid all the uncertainty in Washington, Maddon wouldn't touch a question about what advice he would give Donald Trump before Friday's inauguration.

"I'm not even going to go anywhere close to that," Maddon said. "I will say this: I have a lot of respect of the office.

"At the end of the day, just have a lot of respect for the office, regardless of your political persuasion. My point would be to encourage people to really respect the office and let's see what we get done here over the next four years."