Chicago Cubs

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.

Fuming over ninth-inning call, Joe Maddon is done with playing nice in MLB sandbox: ‘That’s asinine’

Fuming over ninth-inning call, Joe Maddon is done with playing nice in MLB sandbox: ‘That’s asinine’

A walk-off win in the middle of a pennant race didn’t dull the edge in Joe Maddon’s voice, the Cubs manager blasting Major League Baseball and expecting to be fined for his rant in the Wrigley Field interview room.    

“That’s asinine,” Maddon said after Wednesday night’s 7-6 victory over the Cincinnati Reds, fuming over the ninth-inning at-bat where Ben Zobrist showed bunt and got drilled by Wandy Peralta’s 96-mph fastball. Home plate umpire Ryan Blakney signaled for Zobrist to jog to first base, only to have first base umpire Chris Conroy call strike two.

“Listen, I don’t even know what to say about that call,” said Maddon, who stormed onto the field and got ejected for the second time this season. “We’ve had different things happen, and I’ve been playing really good in the sandbox. Really good. And I’m not right now. That call cannot be made under those circumstances.

“I can understand if the guy’s actually swinging, and all of a sudden you get like a check swing. But he’s bunting – and then trying to get out of the way – and you’re going to call a bunt?

“There’s no way any hitter under those circumstances – with the ball coming at his thigh – is going to bunt through it and then get hit in the thigh.

“That really almost did cost us the game. Fortunately, we came back, they made their wild pitch. But I’ve been playing good in the sandbox. That was wrong.”

Zobrist – who called for an electronic strike zone after watching a controversial strike three end Saturday’s loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field – still managed to put the ball in play, move up Javier Baez and Jon Jay and keep the pressure on the last-place Reds.  

“I tried to pull the bat back, but there was nowhere for me to go,” Zobrist said. “It started right at me, and was going down towards my ankle, and I could not physically pull it back and still pull my ankle up at the same time. I tried to pull my ankle up and (Conroy) thought I was offering at it, apparently.”

Imagine the reaction if the Cubs hadn’t regrouped and maintained a 1.5-game lead on the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central.

“I know that instant replay is not perfect,” Maddon said. “But all this little minutia needs to be looked at as we move this along, because that impacted the game. That’s bases loaded, nobody out. It’s a different at-bat for (Albert) Almora. It’s a different thought for their pitcher. Everything’s different. The world rotates differently at that point.

“To influence a game like that is wrong. And, listen, the guy’s a good guy. I think he’s a good umpire. But I’m not going to concede consistently to these guys. You can’t make that mistake.”

The evolution of Kris Bryant and why Joey Votto became his favorite player

The evolution of Kris Bryant and why Joey Votto became his favorite player

Kris Bryant already has a bromance with Anthony Rizzo, their Bryzzo Souvenir Co. brand and a joint appearance at a downtown Chicago hotel this weekend where Cubs fans can pay $699 for their autographs.

Bryant also has a friendly rivalry with Bryce Harper, the Washington Nationals superstar who loves trolling on social media and teasing where he might land as a free agent after the 2018 season. Even their wives had fun with it on Instagram earlier this month when the Nationals came to Wrigley Field for a potential playoff preview.

But the player Bryant patterns himself after now – the one who lives up to “The Science of Hitting” and the principles his father absorbed from Ted Williams and passed down in the family’s batting cage in Las Vegas – is Joey Votto.

“He’s the best player ever,” Bryant said before Wednesday night’s 7-6 walk-off win over the Cincinnati Reds. “He’s my favorite player. I love watching him. I love talking to him, just picking his brain.

“He gets a lot of (heat) about his walks and working at-bats and some people want him to swing at more pitches. But, gosh, I mean, he does an unbelievable job. You know that he’s going to give you a great at-bat every time he goes up there. It’s definitely a guy that I look up to and I can learn from.”

Favorite player? Really?

“Besides, you know, people on my team,” Bryant said with a laugh.

The Cubs contained Votto on a night where their bullpen nearly imploded, holding him to a 1-for-4 that stopped him from tying the major-league record Williams set in 1948 by getting on base at least twice in 21 straight games with the Boston Red Sox.

Through Votto, Bryant sees where he can grow after becoming a National League Rookie of the Year and MVP and World Series champion before his 25th birthday.    

“He’s not just doing it this year – he’s doing it his whole career,” Bryant said. “He’s a future Hall of Famer, that’s for sure.”

Bryant – who has reached base safely in his last 13 games and put up a 1.035 OPS in August – is heating up at a time when the Cubs are trying to fend off the Milwaukee Brewers (1.5 games back) and St. Louis Cardinals (2.5 games back) in a tight division race.

Where Votto famously dismissed old questions about whether or not he was being too selective, Bryant blocks out any talk about an All-Star snub, his batting average with runners in scoring position (.227) or RBI total (54). Bryant is getting on base more than 40 percent of the time and also leads the team in doubles (25), runs scored (78) and OPS (.936).  

“Sometimes it’s almost like you can kind of go up there and force the pitcher to throw the pitch that you want, just by taking pitches,” Bryant said. “My first year, I was kind of just up there swinging at everything. I still felt the approach was good and it could work in the big leagues. And it did. But I think there’s ways to have a better approach up there.

“(Votto’s) a different guy with that. I feel like he’s aggressive, but he’s not going to swing at a pitch until he wants it. And he mentioned that to me, too, when I got to first (on Monday night). He said: ‘Your approach looks a lot better this year.’”

Bryant sincerely thanked Votto, but the reigning MVP isn’t trying to put together a package deal with Harper and turn the Cubs into Major League Baseball’s version of the Golden State Warriors.  

“I already told him before: ‘We already have a pretty good first baseman. He’s not going anywhere,’” Bryant said. “Joey can switch positions if he wants to play for the Cubs.”