Cubs waiting for the chance to strike it big


Cubs waiting for the chance to strike it big

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. Step outside the Hyatt Regency and there are palm trees and sweeping views of the mountains set against a blue sky.

Executives rolled their suitcases through the lobby and checked out of the hotel on Friday, ending the general manager meetings. There were taxis and SUVs waiting to take them through the California desert and toward the airport for their flights home.

This luxury resort and spa surrounded by championship golf courses seemed like the perfect symbol for what the Cubs are trying to do this winter. President of baseball operations Theo Epstein views this as a cleansing.

Less than two weeks after the World Series, everyone appeared to be relaxed. But some teams are going to go wild next month at the winter meetings in Nashville, Tenn. Maybe theyll wake up one morning with a pounding headache wondering: What were we thinking?

This is all leading up to the moment when the Cubs will be in on every big free agent. Arizona Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers who had the same job with the San Diego Padres when Epstein was just out of Yale University working in his department sees it coming.

Hes methodical in the way that hes smart enough to realize where youre at, and when his opportune time will be to win, when he thinks hes got a chance to strike, Towers said. Knowing Theo, hes reviewed his competition within the Central, contracts, where guys are at, when players will be free agents and when hes going to have his chance to attack (and say): This will be the year we go for it.

Sure, the Cubs tried to lay the groundwork for offseason deals by meeting face-to-face with agents and talking to other general managers this week, but they are really looking at a much bigger picture. Even the national media has seemed to pick up the hints, not even bothering to throw out Cubs? in the Josh Hamilton and Zack Greinke rumors.

Were looking to get healthier as an organization, and I dont just mean physical health on the medical side, Epstein said. I think healthier means players whose contributions on the field exceed or at least match the contracts that theyre owed.

It means having players who now look like contributors under control for years to come. It means having more assets that you can choose from to decide who you want to end up playing on the field for you and whos a possible trade chip.

It means forget Justin Upton they probably wont swing any blockbuster trades. It means seeing if Jeff Samardzija is willing to sign a long-term contract. It means taking a chance on pitchers like Shaun Marcum, Brandon McCarthy and Francisco Liriano.

Epsteins front office of the future could have some kind of healthcare wing that tries to find an edge by predicting which players wont break down, keeping pitchers off the disabled list. The Cubs have hired P.J. Mainville away from the Diamondbacks to be their new athletic trainer, moving Mark ONeal up to a new position director of medical administration.

The Cubs could take on another reclamation project or two in their bullpen. One week after killing the Carlos Marmol-for-Dan Haren trade with the Los Angeles Angels, general manager Jed Hoyer acknowledged that they could sign someone else with a track record as a closer.

Carlos did a great job (with a 1.52 ERA) in the second half and threw really well, so he certainly comes into camp as our closer, Hoyer said. But, yeah, having depth back there is a great thing. I think a lot of times people are willing to sign with a team if they feel like they have an opportunity.

So some guys might be looking for a very clear, obvious road to the closers role. And some guys might be willing to if the moneys the same (take) a role maybe setting up and close in the future.

Surrounded by reporters, Scott Boras held court in the lobby on Thursday night, drawing a crowd probably bigger than any general manager got here. The super-agent praised the Los Angeles Dodgers and their free-spending ownership group with Magic Johnson the new smiling face of the franchise for understanding Hollywood and the superstar culture there.

Boras talked up the Washington Nationals, which are stocked with his clients, saying the franchise has bloomed: Theres a diamond full of cherry blossoms. He mentioned how each team will pocket an extra 25 million or so from the new national television deals beginning in 2014, so there should be no excuses.

The macroeconomics will drive some deals that could leave you shaking your head, but certain teams will get over the sticker shock.

White Sox general manager Rick Hahn put it this way: I dont think any of us should be surprised given the sort of lack of real impact free agents out there that the prices for the top tier of free agents are going to be a little higher than what were used to.

Its not the best time to be a buyer in the free-agent market, so the more needs youre able to fill internally, or via trade, the more efficient youre going to be.

That being said, sometimes the best option is out there in free agency and you got to pay the going rate to get something done.

Anibal Sanchez is a nice pitcher who went on a strong postseason run with the Detroit Tigers. But his career record is 48-51 with a 3.75 ERA. Hes never been selected to an All-Star Game, nor has he received a single Cy Young vote. His asking price reported on Twitter: Six years at 90 million.

Epstein wasnt bluffing when he took over almost 13 months ago and laid out his rebuilding plan. It wont happen this winter, but one day he will be looking around the room during a stadium club news conference at Wrigley Field. Standing next to a 100 million player, maybe hell be wondering: What did we just get ourselves into?

You want to get healthier as an organization to have a better future, both short-term and long-term, Epstein said. Sure, were in talent-acquisition mode more so than we are putting the finishing touches on our club for next year. But all that means is were trying to get healthier and healthier as an organization, so every year when we get to this offseason, there are more opportunities for a big strike in free agency.

Anthony Rizzo/Javier Baez antics show how this Cubs team doesn’t feel the same weight of history

Anthony Rizzo/Javier Baez antics show how this Cubs team doesn’t feel the same weight of history

LOS ANGELES – Within minutes of the last out on Thursday night at Dodger Stadium, ESPN’s @SportsCenter account sent out a photo of Moises Alou at the Wrigley Field wall to more than 30 million Twitter followers: “The last time the Cubs were up 3-2 in an NLCS was Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS vs. the Marlins. Most remember it as ‘the Bartman Game.’”

As Kerry Wood once said: “Irrelevant, dude.”
Look, the Cubs still need to find a way to beat either Clayton Kershaw or Rich Hill this weekend, with Kenley Jansen resting and waiting for the multiple-inning saves. The obligatory description for Kershaw is “the best pitcher on the planet.” Hill’s lefty curveball – and “the perceptual velocity” of his fastball – freezes hitters. Jansen has a mystical cutter reminiscent of the great Mariano Rivera. The top-heavy part of this Los Angeles playoff pitching staff has held the Cubs to zero runs in 16.1 innings.

But until proven otherwise, forget about this idea of a Cubs team weighed down by the history of a franchise that hasn’t played in the World Series since 1945.

Just look at Javier Baez getting in Anthony Rizzo’s airspace during Game 5, the human-highlight-film second baseman standing right next to the All-Star first baseman as he caught a Kike Hernandez pop-up for the second out of the third inning.

It didn’t matter that this was a 1-0 game and MVP-ballot players Justin Turner and Corey Seager were coming up. This is what the 2016 Cubs do. Rizzo caught the ball, quickly flipped it underhand and it bounced off Baez’s chest – in front of a sellout crowd of 54,449 and a national Fox Sports 1 audience.

“We always mess around,” Rizzo said at his locker inside a tight clubhouse jammed with media after an 8-4 win. “So I’m screaming: ‘Javy! Javy! I got it! I got it, Javy, I got it!’

“And usually he’ll yell at me: ‘Don’t miss it!’ Or I’ll yell at him: ‘Don’t miss it!’

“We do that a lot. If it’s a pop-up to him, I’ll go right behind him. It’s just little ways of slowing the game down and having fun, too.”

Rizzo is a Gold Glove-caliber first baseman for a team that led the majors in defensive efficiency this year. As a super-utility guy, Baez got credit for 11 defensive runs saved in 383 innings at second base, or one less than co-leaders Dustin Pedroia and Ian Kinsler, who each did it in almost 1,300 innings.

“Sometimes when I call (Rizzo) off to get a fly ball, he starts talking to me,” Baez said. “I tell him: ‘Hey, you can do whatever you want. Just don’t move my head. You can touch me if you want. Just don’t move my head.’

“And I told him to be ready for it, because I was going to do the same thing. You just got to be focused on the fly ball. No matter what’s happening around you, you just got to catch it.”

[SHOP: Buy a "Try Not to Suck" shirt with proceeds benefiting Joe Maddon's Respect 90 Foundation & other Cubs Charities]

This isn’t about Bartman. It’s about a group of young, confident players who are growing up together and absolutely expect to be in this position. It’s manager Joe Maddon designing “Embrace The Target” T-shirts and telling them to show up to the ballpark whenever they want and then blow off batting practice.

“For sure, we’re relaxed,” said Baez, who’s gone viral during these playoffs, the rest of the country witnessing his amazing instincts and flashy personality. “I’m relaxed when I play defense.”

The thing is, Rizzo and Baez could be playing next to each other for the next five years, the same way Kris Bryant and Addison Russell will be anchoring the left side of the infield.

This is how Rizzo introduced Russell to The Show when a natural shortstop tried to learn second base on the fly last year and track pop-ups in front of 40,000 people: “Hey, watch out for that skateboard behind you! Don’t trip!”

“Oh yeah, we yell at each other all the time,” Rizzo said. “It’s just one of those things where you got to stay loose.”

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