Cubs trying to protect their farm system from Red Sox

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Cubs trying to protect their farm system from Red Sox

Tom Ricketts told Jim Hendry he would be fired on July 22. They buried the secret and the chairman kept his general manager on the job for almost a month, right up to and through the trade deadline.

The Cubs left their roster mostly intact, sending only Kosuke Fukudome and almost 4 million to the Cleveland Indians for two prospects. Several players had no-trade rights, and there wasnt a blockbuster deal to make, but fans wanted to see some change.

At the news conference on Aug. 19, Ricketts was asked why Hendry was the one working the phones.

Nothing was all that compelling, Ricketts said that day. If you look at the trade deadline stuff, I think a lot of people have this perception that its a great chance to retool your organization. But teams are careful with their prospects these days.

People are a little more thoughtful about giving up a high-end prospect for an existing star. There wasnt anything out there that we thought was best for the organization.

The Cubs feel like theyre getting a rock star in Theo Epstein, and the Boston Red Sox know that. There really arent many high-end prospects to be had in this negotiation, and thats why the Cubs desperately want to hang onto them.

Industry sources have said how Ricketts and team president Crane Kenney did this deal backwards, that they should have completed the compensation part first, before coming to terms with Epstein.

The White Sox already had a compensation agreement in place with the Florida Marlins when Ozzie Guillen was released from his contract last month.

By Wednesday, there was some optimism that the talks had progressed. The feeling is that it will take two prospects the Marlins set that precedent in the Guillen deal to free Epstein from the final year of his contract in Boston.

All indications are that the new head of baseball operations will be coming to Chicago within the next few days. Commissioner Bud Selig would have to green light any formal announcement during the World Series.

As much as Major League Baseball doesnt want to distract from the St. Louis Cardinals and Texas Rangers, thats already happened with the protracted Epstein talks.

The next windows to unveil Epstein at a stadium club press conference could be the World Series off-days scheduled for Friday and Tuesday. A potential Game 7 would take place on Oct. 27.

The Cubs a franchise that has essentially been in a holding pattern for almost three months, since the moment Ricketts told Hendry he was fired wont want to have it drag out that long. Their calendar year for employee contracts runs through the end of October. They also have organizational meetings tentatively scheduled for the middle of November.

Thats a time for Epstein to get a deeper understanding of whats coming next. In trying to place a value on their general manager, the Red Sox wont be overwhelmed by what the Cubs can realistically offer.

The Tampa Bay Rays raided the system last winter in the Matt Garza deal, grabbing five players, including three Baseball America judged to be among the top 10 prospects in the organization. That haul included pitcher Chris Archer (No. 1), plus shortstop Hak-Ju Lee (No. 4) and outfielder Brandon Guyer (No. 10).

There may not be any future All-Stars that are easy to identify in this organization. The Cubs certainly havent set the industry standard, but the player-development system isnt quite as bad as its been portrayed in the Boston media.

There is the sense that Brett Jackson is a five-tool player who does everything well, though there may not be an exceptional part to his game. He still could be roaming the Wrigley Field outfield next summer.

If Trey McNutt had put together a stronger season, he might have been included in the rotation plans for 2012. But given that there are so few impact arms at the highest levels of the system and that the rotation should be the No. 1 priority this winter its difficult to see the Cubs giving up their top pitching prospect.

Cubs people will remind you that Josh Vitters just turned 22, and can still show everyone why he was the third overall pick in the 2007 draft. They think that by 2014, the athleticism that made Matt Szczur an NFL prospect could turn him into the leadoff hitter theyve been searching for all these years.

Double-A Tennessee featured 12 Southern League All-Stars and advanced to the championship playoff round for the third consecutive season.

No one at the bargaining table truly knows how good these players are going to be. Theyre all just guessing, though Epstein has a good track record of putting the right people in place, which is why the Red Sox should make demands.

But its about time to let Epstein get to work and start building around Garza and Starlin Castro.

After playoff bullpen issues, Cubs again see Pedro Strop as a late-game force

After playoff bullpen issues, Cubs again see Pedro Strop as a late-game force

MESA, Ariz. – Inside Wrigley Field’s state-of-the-art clubhouse, the Cubs posted a blown-up image of the 2015 Sports Illustrated cover where Pedro Strop is high-stepping next to Kris Bryant down the third-base line, the mosh pit awaiting at home plate.

Between his tilted-hat look, chest-pounding celebrations and overall joy for the game, Strop sets an example for the younger guys in the bullpen and the Latin players in the clubhouse. Strop has been so valuable that Jake Arrieta could have never thrown a pitch in a Cubs uniform and Theo Epstein’s front office still would have considered the Scott Feldman trade with the Baltimore Orioles an absolute success.  

Yet when the long rebuild reached its apex – and manager Joe Maddon searched for World Series answers – Strop had already been marginalized in the bullpen. A freak injury – Strop heard a pop and tore the meniscus in his left knee while trying to slide and field a groundball in August – bumped him from his role as the seventh- or eighth-inning stopper.  

“It was a little difficult,” Strop said. “After I came back from my surgery, it was a different situation. But it’s something that you got to get used to and understand the situation, understand how deep our bullpen is and just go and fight whenever they ask you to.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a big deal.”  

During Sunday’s media session, Maddon dismissed any issues with Strop (2.85 ERA) or Hector Rondon, the former 30-save closer who strained his right triceps last summer and didn’t quite get his timing down for the playoffs. Down 3-1 in the World Series, Maddon summoned Aroldis Chapman to throw 97 pitches combined in Games 5, 6 and 7 against the Cleveland Indians.

“Listen, it’s not a lack of trust,” Maddon said. “(Strop) just got hurt. And when you get hurt like that at that time of the year, it’s hard to play catch-up. When guys get injured in-season and you get to the moment where you’re trying to win a championship, you got to put like personal feelings aside on both sides of it, whether you’re managing it or playing.

“I have nothing but trust. My God, the threat is when you have him, you want to use him too much, always. And the same thing with Ronnie. I talked to Ronnie about that – I don’t want to put him in a position. I think Rondon got hurt last year because part of it was my greediness on using him too much in the early part of the season.

“You really have to battle against that when you get guys that good. You want to use them all the time. (I have) a tremendous amount of trust in both of those guys. It’s just a matter of utilizing them properly and keeping them healthy.”

[MORE: What Joe Maddon wants to see next from Javier Baez]

Since the middle of the 2013 season, Strop has notched 84 holds for the Cubs, putting up a 2.68 ERA and a 0.984 WHIP to go with 254 strikeouts in 211-plus innings. At a time when a $10 billion industry is reassessing the value of high-leverage relievers, Strop will make $5.5 million this year before hitting the open market.

“You never know,” Strop said. “I would love to repeat the championship season and win another one here before I hit free agency. Hopefully, they want to bring me back. I really like the city of Chicago. I love the fans and I love my team and the coaches.

“After this season, it’s going to become business, so hopefully we can put something together.”  

What Joe Maddon wants to see next from Javier Baez

What Joe Maddon wants to see next from Javier Baez

MESA, Ariz. – In an alternate universe, Javier Baez might have become the goat after committing two errors in a World Series Game 7. But the young Cubs played without a sense of panic and wanted to write their own history.

Baez shrugged it off in Cleveland and homered off Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber that night. Baez will be remembered as a breakout star from those playoffs, a game-changing defensive force with his mixture of lateral range, rocket-arm strength and instincts for tagging.

But there have also been times where manager Joe Maddon would like Baez to be a little more boring. The next stage of Javy Being Javy would be showing more of the consistency that made Addison Russell an All-Star shortstop at the age of 22. It may also partially explain why Maddon for now still sees Ben Zobrist as his primary second baseman, even after Baez started all 17 postseason games at that position.  

“You definitely continually speak about (how) you want guys to make the routine play routinely,” Maddon said Sunday at the Sloan Park complex. “I’ve often talked about lack of chrome. Gary DiSarcina (with the Angels) was the guy that really embedded that thought in my head, because he was so chrome-less and he was so good at the routine play. I used to always yell that at my infielders in instructional league: ‘No chrome!’

“Having said all that, Javy comes from a different background, and he has a flair about his game, so I don’t necessarily want to subtract that. But just have him understand the routine stuff has to be made routinely well.

“He’s very capable of that. I think as his game continues to develop and mature, you’ll see him make less mistakes, whether it’s that or sometimes even on the bases. He’ll make a spectacular play on the bases and then again do something that you don’t like. But I think that’s just part of his nature and his game.” 

Zobrist delivered a World Series MVP performance after signing a four-year, $56 million contract last winter with the idea that focusing on one position – instead of moving around as a super-utility guy – would help him age better.

“Last year, I played 147 games,” said Zobrist, who will turn 36 in May. “I don’t know what that number’s going to look like. You got to stay healthy. There were probably only a few games that I missed because there was physically something that was keeping me from playing.

“We’ll play it by ear. Some of those will have to do with if I’m a little tired and the matchup is right, maybe they’ll choose to give me an off day on certain days. But I know that there’s other times last year where – whether you’re tired or not – you got to be in there because that’s the matchup that works best for the club. So just make adjustments as the weeks and series go on.”

[MORE: After playoff bullpen issues, Cubs again see Pedro Strop as late-game force]

Maddon is already thinking of ways to rest Zobrist – who played into early November after helping the 2015 Royals win the World Series – on a team with so many versatile athletes. The Cubs could also try to go back to last year’s model, putting Baez wherever their scouting-and-data projections predicted the ball would be hit most that night.

“We have to balance a lot of different things out,” Maddon said. “(Javy’s) going to play some second, of course, and so will Zo. Zo’s going to be out there primarily, and then we’ll work Javy in there. But Zo can also do what he’s done in the past and play some outfield.

“What happens – and I hate to say it like (this) – but baseball has a very cruel way of determining things. I don’t want it to be any injuries. I’d rather have to figure all of this stuff out on a daily basis. Javy was so significant to the conclusion of last season. He’s going to be very significant again this year and years to come.

“It’s all in theory right now. Of course, he’s going to play. Of course, he’s going to play a lot. How it’s going to balance out? We’re not 100 percent sure yet. But he’s pretty darned good.”