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.

Preview: Cubs-Marlins Sunday on CSN

Preview: Cubs-Marlins Sunday on CSN

The Cubs take on the Miami Marlins on Sunday, and you can catch all the action on CSN and streaming live on CSNChicago.com and the NBC Sports App.

Coverage begins with Cubs Pregame Live at 11:30 a.m., followed by first pitch with Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies on the call. Be sure to stick around after the final out to get analysis and player reaction on Cubs Postgame Live.

Starting pitching matchup: Mike Montgomery (1-3, 2.26 ERA) vs. Edinson Volquez (3-8, 4.19 ERA)

Click here for more stats to make sure you’re ready for the action.

— Channel finder: Make sure you know where to watch.

— Latest on the Cubs: All of the most recent news and notes.

Jon Lester: It’s go time for Cubs

Jon Lester: It’s go time for Cubs

MIAMI – Jon Lester dropped his head and wiped the sweat from his face. The Cubs ace didn’t jerk his neck and twist his body, hoping the swing and the sound somehow fooled him. The slow turnaround revealed the obvious – the 75-mph curveball out of his left hand flew over the left-field wall and nearly into the Clevelander bar billed as an adult playground. 

Lester gripped the next ball, stared out into the visual noise at Marlins Park and went to work late Saturday afternoon after J.T. Realmuto’s two-out, three-run homer in the first inning. This is the bulldog determination and tunnel vision that’s been the antidote to the big-market pressures at Fenway Park and Wrigley Field and made Lester such a big-game pitcher.

“You really just have to lock it down,” Lester said after doing just that in a 5-3 win. “You have to try to figure out a way to pitch innings. That was one thing I learned at an early age in Boston with ‘Schill’ (Curt Schilling) and Josh (Beckett). It doesn’t matter. Now we start over. You have to take that mindset of ‘It’s back to zero’ and not keep looking at the scoreboard.”

From that Realmuto moment, Lester retired the next 13 hitters he faced, 15 of the next 16 and 18 of his last 20 at a time when the Cubs needed that performance to buy time for their young hitters, weather a series of injuries and survive a brutal schedule.

Lester believed enough in the coming waves of talent to sign with a last-place team after the 2014 season, and got rewarded with his third World Series ring, continually impressed with this group’s poise and maturity.

The day after getting shut out for the sixth time this season, Addison Russell, Ian Happ, Javier Baez and Albert Almora Jr. – four 24-and-under players – combined to go 7-for-15 with five RBI and four runs scored.

“It’s a test for everybody,” Lester said. “These guys are kind of getting broken in early. They’re going to figure it out and we’re going to go. Now it seems like our guys are really feeling comfortable at the plate. We’re having good at-bats, normal at-bats.

“The results will come. This is, obviously, a results-driven industry. But the plans – as far as on the mound and in the batter’s box – just look a lot smoother right now, a lot cleaner and hopefully we can just keep playing good baseball.”

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The Cubs are 38-36, a half-game behind the first-place Milwaukee Brewers and in position to win three consecutive series for the first time since April. Whether or not Lester (5-4, 3.83 ERA) returns to Little Havana for the All-Star Game, he is the bellwether for this rotation.  

“Jonny’s just got this thing going on right now,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He knows where the ball is going and he gets the high-number velocity when he wants to. He’s not just pitching at 92, 93, 94 (mph). It’s in his back pocket when he needs it. And he gets it with command when he wants it.

“As well as I’ve seen him pitch – I know he had a great run last year also – from a stuff perspective, command perspective, it’s as good as he can pitch.”

This $155 million investment will at some point become a sunk cost. The Cubs understand the history of nine-figure contracts for pitchers and how desperately they need reinforcements. But almost 100 innings into this title defense, Lester feels like he’s just getting started. 

“I feel better now than I did in April and May, for sure,” Lester said. “I think bigger bodies just take a while sometimes. Some years are different than others. Some years you come out like gangbusters and you’re ready to go and the body feels fine. And other years it takes a while to get into that rhythm of pitching every five days again. This was one of those years.”