Cubs: What we learned at the winter meetings

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Cubs: What we learned at the winter meetings

Thursday, Dec. 9, 2010
1:02 PM

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla.- Rolling suitcases in hand, the baseball industry escaped to sunlight Thursday morning, getting out of the bubble. And not a moment too soon for the executives sequestered for days in their hotel suites.

Reporters scrambled around the lobby of the Swan and Dolphin resort late Wednesday night when word spread that Carl Crawford had agreed to a deal with the Red Sox. Instantly heads dropped down to BlackBerry devices to check the terms of the contract - seven years and 142 million.

At least that was real news ( props to The Boston Globe for breaking it) about an impact player. Most of the roughly 96 hours inside the Walt Disney World complex were filled with nonstop Twitter updates on fringe guys. It made you want to order room service.

"A lot of guys aren't going to the lobby and having some social hour late in the evening," Cubs general manager Jim Hendry said. "Guys are going to their rooms because every time you talk to somebody it's on a blog. We all read stuff that we're on this guy or that guy, half the time we're not but I understand (the media) profession's changed, too.

"It's a very aggressive world (and) everyone wants to get in on some stories and sometimes we kind of smile up here. We have a social conversation with somebody or (we're) talking about something not even related to baseball, and by the time we get back to the room we're trading for so-and-so."

So before refreshing MLBTradeRumors.com one more time on your laptop, this is what we learned about the Cubs as they leave the winter meetings and head home to pay tribute to Ron Santo's extraordinary life.

Carlos Pena became the No. 1 target. Multiple sources indicated that the Dodgers had no intention of trading James Loney to Chicago, and the Cubs weren't very high on Adam LaRoche. They wanted a middle-of-the-order presence and a Gold Glove defender and found it in Pena (nevermind his .196 average and 158 strikeouts last season).

As Pena said, "Maybe they overlooked some things because they believe in my strengths, not my weaknesses."

The Cubs and Pena are using each other for a year. After the 2011 season, the Cubs are free to pursue another first baseman (Albert Pujols?) and Pena could be in line for a monster contract if he generates 30 homers and 90 RBI.
Scott Boras is the most interesting man in the world. The powerful agent isn't a Dos Equis spokesman, but he has his own unique language of 'pillow contracts' and 'platform years.' The outlines of Pena's one-year, 10 million agreement were formed with Greg Maddux, Hendry's special assistant, sitting across from his long-time agent.

"It's just very special that a man can do things on his own terms in the game of baseball," Boras said, "because the game itself is the tiger, it's the force, it's the thing that removes you in many situations from the game."

Hendry, who enjoys a good working relationship with Boras, has simply said that Maddux can have any job that he wants in baseball. Boras would never leave it at that. Imagine the conversations when he's selling his clients behind closed doors.

"Greg has so many abilities and so many aptitudes," Boras said. "Every time he is in any facet of the game, teaching, working with the team, growing the game, it allows the game to be its optimum."

Mike Quade is cool with Starlin Castro. The Cubs manager plans to travel to the Dominican Republic in January to visit with the young shortstop. Still months away from his 21st birthday, Castro is playing for Moises Alou's winter-ball team.

The media framed Quade benching Castro for two games as a turning point in his six-week job interview, but looking back the manager doesn't see it that way.

"I felt like a much bigger deal was made out of it than it should have been, but I get it," Quade said. "It had nothing to do with Mike Quade, believe me. I thought it was the right thing to do for Starlin Castro and for the organization. I believed it would benefit him and I just thought it was a good time to try and get his attention.

"You move on. It's the kind of stuff that you do on a regular basis. And you guys never hear about when you're down in Des Moines, when you're in Huntsville, Alabama, or wherever the heck else I've been. But he handled it marvelously."

There's still some money left, just not enough for Zack Greinke. Fans should lower their sights, the lobby buzz made Matt Garza sound unrealistic, as well as their expectations for Brandon Webb. The Cubs remain intrigued about the Cy Young Award winner's potential, and concerned about the health of his right shoulder.

New pitching coach Mark Riggins said he thinks there are already seven or eight rotation options to take to Arizona (the more the better) and the organization continues to discuss the possibility of making Andrew Cashner a starter.

Whether or not Cashner remains in the bullpen, the 24-year-old is a prism through which you can view the entire team. The Cubs aren't writing checks to solve their problems. They're banking on this wave of prospects.

"It's a theme that you just can't get away from, he needs to get better," Quade said. "Hopefully he's had a great winter and comes into spring training just (saying): 'Give me the ball.' That's what I expect from a young guy with that kind of talent."

Patrick Mooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. Follow Patrick on Twitter @CSNMooney for up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

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."