Cubs will have to pay the price for pitching

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Cubs will have to pay the price for pitching

Scott Baker missed the entire 2012 season and wont throw from a mound again until the middle of December at the earliest. He couldnt even showcase himself with a bullpen session.

The Cubs still acted fast on Tuesday, guaranteeing Baker 5.5 million with a one-year deal that contains incentives that could yield an extra 1.5 million. That speaks to his reputation with the Minnesota Twins (63-48, 4.15 ERA) before a right elbow injury, the advancements in Tommy John surgery and the rising cost of pitching across an industry juiced by television money.

Baker was too polite to name names or get into other contract offers left on the table. The Cubs are simply going to have to pay this price.

There was definitely some serious interest from some other ballclubs, Baker said. We all know pitching is at a premium and I think youre going to see its going to be a very active offseason for a lot of teams. Im just excited to be here. I think this is an unbelievable opportunity for me and my family.

The Cubs are hoping for more good news after Matt Garza undergoes another scan on his right elbow this week to see how the stress reaction is healing. They still need to sign at least one more starter they can plug into their Opening Day rotation alongside Garza, Baker, Jeff Samardzija and Travis Wood.

Whos on deck for another Wrigley Field news conference? It appears Theo Epsteins front office could go bigger with their next move.

Were pursuing pitchers across the spectrum, Epstein said, some guys who would be classified as buy-low, others that might even be buy-high guys, or hopefully buy-high and stay there. Some one-year deals, some multi-year deals, some trades were looking for pitchers who can step in and improve our rotation.

If there are sound investments out there, whether theyre big or small, well pursue them and try to sign them.

Medical concerns recently helped convince the Cubs to pull the plug on the Carlos Marmol-for-Dan Haren trade with the Los Angeles Angels. The reality is they will likely wind up with another flawed pitcher with upside potential, whether its a Brandon McCarthy, a Shaun Marcum or a Francisco Liriano.

Obviously, youd love to sign pitchers who are 100 percent healthy and have never been hurt, but those animals dont really exist, Epstein said. The medical assessment on every pitcher is important, and if you have to sign a pitcher whos coming off surgery, Tommy John is the one you want, (because) its a very predictable rehab with a very strong success rate upwards of 95 percent.

Baker grew up in Shreveport, La., and went to Oklahoma State University, where he overlapped during the 2001 season with future Boston Red Sox pitching coach (and current manager) John Farrell, at the time an assistant coachpitching and recruiting coordinator for the Cowboys.

The Los Angeles Dodgers just bid 25.7 million for the right to negotiate with South Korean left-hander Ryu Hyun-jin. Zack Greinke and Anibal Sanchez could wind up with nine-figure deals. By the time teams start throwing money around at next months winter meetings in Nashville, Tenn., this could seem even more reasonable.

The reality is its not exactly a buyers market for pitching out there right now, so you have to take your risks, Epstein said. Do you want to take a risk on the guy with bad makeup? Do you want to take a risk on the guy with bad command? Or do you want to take a risk on a guy you really believe in whos coming off Tommy John at an appropriate value point? Were very comfortable placing our bet on Scott Baker.

Looking at Casey Kelly and where Cubs are placing next bets on pitching

Looking at Casey Kelly and where Cubs are placing next bets on pitching

MESA, Ariz. – The headliner prospect from the blockbuster Adrian Gonzalez trade between the Boston Red Sox and San Diego Padres has a locker next to Anthony Rizzo.  
 
On one end of the clubhouse inside the Under Armour Performance Center, Rizzo has his personal space, where he chats with national reporters and changes in and out of Cubs gear, depending on the workout, photo shoot or commercial to film.   
 
On the other side of that open entrance to the bathrooms and showers sits Casey Kelly, Rizzo's good friend who entered 2010 as Baseball America's No. 24 overall prospect and ended it as a centerpiece to the Gonzalez deal. 
 
Even as the complementary player, Rizzo didn't live up to the hype at Petco Park, either. But Rizzo matured into an All-Star/Gold Glove first baseman after the architects involved in the Gonzalez trade – Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod – targeted him for the Wrigley Field rebuild.
 
The next phase revolves entirely around pitching, providing insurance for the defending World Series champs and finding some answers for a rotation that might be looking at a 60-percent turnover rate by Opening Day 2018. 
 
The volume strategy – and the confidence from coaching up Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks – led to minor-league deals for pitchers like Kelly and Williams Perez and smaller trades for Alec Mills and Eddie Butler.  
 
"I don't know if we'll know the guy's a diamond in the rough here," Hoyer said. "But we hope this is the start of it and those guys can go to Iowa and really get a chance to continue to refine what they do well. 
 
"And then hopefully we'll see them in the big leagues. But we're excited about the pitching depth. We haven't brought that guy from the draft all the way up to the big leagues yet. But I think we've done a good job of finding some guys that are buy-lows. And hopefully those guys are in that category."   
 
Mills – who got designated for assignment in early February when the Kansas City Royals signed ex-Cub Jason Hammel to a two-year, $16 million contract – threw two scoreless innings in Tuesday's 7-5 loss to the Los Angeles Angels at Sloan Park in Mesa.
 
Butler – Baseball America's No. 24 overall prospect heading into the 2014 season – can re-acclimate after his Coors Field experience and will start Wednesday against the Royals at Surprise Stadium.       
 
As a quarterback committed to the University of Tennessee, Kelly had enough leverage coming out of Sarasota High School in Florida to command a $3 million bonus in 2008. The 30th overall pick also had enough athleticism to negotiate an agreement where he would split time between pitching and shortstop at Boston's lower levels before choosing the perceived fastest path through the farm system.  
 
"It all comes full circle," Kelly said.  
 
Now 27, Kelly missed the entire 2013 season and most of the 2014 season after Dr. James Andrews performed Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. Kelly made 10 appearances (5.82 ERA) with the Atlanta Braves last year and needed a fresh start.  
 
"I wanted to go with a team that had a good medical staff, good training staff," Kelly said. "I obviously have people in the organization that know me from before, which obviously helps. And I want to be with the team that just won the World Series. You know that they're doing it the right way." 
 
Kelly's father, Pat, played 13 professional seasons and overlapped as a minor-league instructor in the Cincinnati Reds organization with Chris Bosio. Kelly wanted the chance to work directly with the Cubs pitching coach: "I thought it was going to be a great thing for me and my career."
 
Through six draft classes, the Epstein administration has so far produced only one pitcher who has made it to the big-league team. Promising lefty Rob Zastryzny debuted last summer and figures to be one phone call away at Triple-A. Manager Joe Maddon is also hyping Pierce Johnson's starter-to-reliever transition as a Wade Davis situation.
 
But at the major-league level, the Cubs have overseen a remarkable run of good health with their rotation. Four pitchers made between 31 and 33 starts in 2015, while five pitchers accounted for at least 29 starts last season. Even the people who brought you The Foundation for Sustained Success know that's not sustainable.
 
"Our training staff does a great job and our guys are really diligent," Hoyer said. "But we know there's some luck involved in that. Teams have injuries and we've been fortunate to avoid big injuries for the last two years. 
 
"We've got a great infrastructure. We game-plan really well. I think we put our guys in a position where they can succeed, with our defense and our game-planning. But we also don't pretend we have the answers and we know we can do it over and over."

March Madness: Projecting Opening Day roster for Cubs

March Madness: Projecting Opening Day roster for Cubs

MESA, Ariz. – The Cubs have already decided who should face Dexter Fowler and the St. Louis Cardinals in front of a sellout crowd at Busch Stadium and a national audience on ESPN's "Sunday Night Baseball."  
 
"Of course," manager Joe Maddon said Tuesday at the Sloan Park complex. "But I just got to talk to the people. And I just can't say it without talking to them first."
 
Jon Lester – who started Game 1 in all three playoff rounds last year – would be the obvious choice for the Opening Night assignment on April 2. But the Cubs also have a Cy Young Award winner (Jake Arrieta), an ERA titleholder (Kyle Hendricks) and another three-time World Series champion (John Lackey) in their rotation. 
 
Recognizing the wear and tear from back-to-back playoff runs – and anticipating another stressful October – The Big Four is being held back until at least the second weekend of Cactus League play and slowly ramping up again. 
 
It's another sign March Madness isn't happening at a camp where maybe 23 or 24 spots on the 25-man roster had been secured before pitchers and catchers even reported to Arizona and the franchise no longer has to deal with the 1908 baggage. 
 
A look at where things now stand for the defending World Series champs, with injuries being the biggest X-factor between Mesa and St. Louis:  
 
• Whether or not Brett Anderson has the inside track to the fifth-starter job, it's still extremely difficult to see the Cubs stashing him in the bullpen, given his extensive medical file, inexperience as a reliever and Mike Montgomery's comfort level as a swingman.     
 
Why mess with Anderson's routine if he can click with pitching coach Chris Bosio and resemble the groundball pitcher who made 31 starts and put up a 3.69 ERA for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2015? 
 
"He's really baseball bright," Maddon said. "He knows what he's doing out there. I love his stuff. I know him and 'Boz' are working on different thoughts mechanically to help prevent injury. But I like it a lot – not a little bit. This guy is really good. The big thing is just health with him. You keep this fellow healthy – he can throw some significant numbers up there."
 
There's an element of luck involved – and some came into the organization with durability on their resumes – but the Cubs had five pitchers make at least 29 starts last season and hope that infrastructure will help Anderson.
 
"We've addressed it with him," Maddon said. "We've given him different thoughts. I'm sure every team that he's played with has had the same kind of thoughts. But maybe just the mechanical tweak, maybe a different method of work within a clubhouse, strength and conditioning, trainers, etc., maybe that'll help."

[RELATED: Brett Anderson’s main takeaway from Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio]
 
There are a lot of maybes with Anderson, a Tommy John survivor who underwent surgical procedures on his lower back in 2014 and 2016. But the Cubs also see a lot of upside and motivation in a lefty working on a one-year, $3.5 million incentive-laden deal.  
 
"I would be curious to see this guy with a full season of good health," Maddon said, "because it might even be better than a lot of teams' third and second starters. This guy is that good. With health, there's no telling.
     
"If we could get him out there for like 160-175 (innings), if he could do something like that, my God, it would be like outstanding."
 
• Working backwards from All-Star closer Wade Davis and Maddon's "hybrid moment" for Anderson or Montgomery, the Cubs appear to have six relievers for six slots on what figures to be a 13-man pitching staff: Koji Uehara; Pedro Strop; Hector Rondon; Carl Edwards Jr.; Justin Grimm; and lefty Brian Duensing. 
 
"The pitching's really gotten significantly better," Maddon said. "With good health, it's going to be very difficult (making those decisions). These guys have been impressive. I'm not all about the spring-training evaluation. Going off their track records and maybe projecting a little bit, we have a lot of interesting pitching candidates. It's gotten a lot thicker."
 
• One wild card is Rule 5 lefty Caleb Smith – who spent last season with the New York Yankees' Double-A affiliate – and how creative the Cubs get with the roster sleight of hand. (Remember how Major League Baseball took away a Cubs' pick in the 2013 Rule 5 draft and gave it to the Philadelphia Phillies to settle the Lendy Castillo grievance.)  
 
"We're going to be forced to try to look under the hood a little bit more," Maddon said. "If you're overwhelmed, then you're going to probably try to manipulate it to the point where you can keep a guy like that."
 
• The Cubs have 11 locks among the position players, a group of versatile defenders who give Maddon so much flexibility with lineup decisions and in-game moves: Willson Contreras; Miguel Montero; Anthony Rizzo; Ben Zobrist; Addison Russell; Kris Bryant; Javier Baez; Kyle Schwarber; Jason Heyward; Jon Jay; and Albert Almora Jr.     
 
That means the last bench spot could come down to outfielder Matt Szczur (no minor-league options left) or the whims of infielder Tommy La Stella (who initially refused to report to Triple-A Iowa last summer and talked about considering retirement).
 
"That's probably a fairer question on March 25," general manager Jed Hoyer said. "So many things can happen between now and then, as far as injuries and things like that. We're going to have some hard decisions at the end of camp. We have a lot of talent here. 
 
"People know what the bones of our team are, but we definitely have to make some tough decisions as far as the construction of the pitching staff and the bench."