In this division, next Cubs GM will have a chance

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In this division, next Cubs GM will have a chance

Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2011Posted: 8:45 p.m.

By PatrickMooney
CSNChicago.com CubsInsider Follow@CSNMooney
CINCINNATI - The Cubs don't have to compete with the Red Sox or Yankees, and that might make this job appealing to the next general manager.

The Cubs only have to be as good as the National League Central demands. That meant 83 wins for the 2006 Cardinals, enough to sneak into the playoffs and ultimately win a World Series title.

That also happens to be the last time an NL Central team won a postseason series. Since then, the last four division winners have been swept out of the playoffs in three games. (The 2008 Brewers, a wild-card team, managed to win one first-round game.)

Assuming the Brewers are spraying champagne sometime during the next several days, that means four different teams will have won the division in the past four years. There are no dynasties here.

The window closed hard and fast on the Cubs after that summer of 2008. They are paying the price for those big-money contracts, years of ownership instability and the perfect storm of injuries this season.

During the interviews, this will not be the time to highlight your background in statistical analysis. But if you take this job, you will believe that you will be the one to defy more than a century worth of history.

Fans are right to be skeptical. The Ricketts family hasn't built up much equity yet, and none of these projects are really beyond the planning phase.

But if you have enough imagination - or are willing to suspend disbelief - then you see new player-development facilities in Arizona and the Dominican Republic, a renovated Wrigley Field and a Cubs television network in the future.

Theo Epstein or not, this organization is obsessed with the Red Sox business model and could be positioned to be the next economic superpower. They should have more resources than anyone else in the Midwest.

Cubs pitcher Randy Wells glanced at the American League East standings. The Blue Jays are having a pretty good year, building toward something. They still woke up on Tuesday at 74-73 - in fourth place, 15.5 games out in a brutal division.

"You never know what kind of moves are going to impact you and which way (they're going to go)," Wells said. "It's kind of a crapshoot. Whoever the new GM is (will) be determined to put together the best team possible.

"(But) the Giants proved last year (that) no matter what you got on paper, it's just the right team (that) gets hot at the right time. (When) guys pull together, I think any team can win it. ... I don't see why we can't be one of those teams."

When Wells talks about adding a few pieces and getting guys on the same page, he echoes what the clubhouse thinks, the plan Jim Hendry probably would have followed this winter.

"(It's) the right state of mind, the right mentality we want to play (with)," Matt Garza said. "It's getting there. (It's) gonna turn. It might not turn this year, but if we can finish strong and finish on a high note, it's always a great step toward spring, especially for the young guys."

Garza, who will be a huge building block on the North Side, was part of the Tampa Bay team that went to the 2008 World Series a year after losing 96 games. If you needed a reminder of how quickly things change, you could look around Tuesday night at all the empty seats at Great American Ball Park.

The Reds were last year's feel-good story. Now the defending division champs are just another sub-.500 team playing out the string.

Mike Quade got a lot of bad publicity for his "I'm not a lunatic" declaration this summer that the Cubs were still in the race. Even some in the organization snickered. But the manager still believes this will be a winnable division in 2012.

"Yeah, absolutely it is," Quade said. "(The Reds) still got good young talent. ... St. Louis is still hanging around and people better not put them away yet. But I think right now if everything stays intact, (it's) the Milwaukee club, because they've added the pitching, (which) has made a huge impression. And where were they a year or two ago?

"So there's always reason to believe (that) if you put the right things together, improve in the areas you need to, (then) you can compete."

With Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder poised to become free agents, and the Cubs hoping to land some hotshot executive, the Central landscape could change dramatically.

But if Tom Ricketts gets this hire wrong, then the scouting and player-development infrastructure Hendry built could crumble. This organization could be set back for years to come, and starting all over again later this decade.

It's a risk the chairman's willing to take. The rest of the division will be rooting against the Cubs.

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

Cubs: The next steps for Kyle Schwarber

Cubs: The next steps for Kyle Schwarber

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – Kyle Schwarber might have been the most dangerous hitter in a World Series lineup that featured the National League MVP plus four more All-Stars. After spending more than six months recovering from major knee surgery. Against Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber and a dominant Cleveland Indians bullpen.

“He’s not going to play winter ball,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said with a perfect deadpan delivery. “We felt like he proved he can hit major-league pitching.”

The Cubs spent Monday at the winter meetings inside the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center, continuing their search for pitching on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. The Cubs are so stacked with hitters that manager Joe Maddon could write out a 2017 Opening Day lineup tomorrow and Theo Epstein’s front office would still have Jorge Soler left over as trade bait.

Schwarber could hit second for the defending World Series champs, and his presence would mean more than any player the Cubs could sign as a free agent. The Cubs expect him to be at full strength by spring training, though it’s unclear how much work, if any, he’ll get as a catcher.

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“That’s the hurdle we haven’t really gone over yet,” Hoyer said. “Can he do it? There’s no question he’s going to want to do it. I think he can do it. I think that we have to have discussions about how heavy a workload we put on him in that regard.

“One of the things we talked about even last year before he got hurt was (how) he’s doing full catching drills, running around the outfield, doing stuff hitting. That’s a lot to put on a guy, sort of like playing two ways in football.”

Schwarber, an all-Ohio linebacker in high school, has a run-through-a-brick-wall mentality and doesn’t like to hear about what he can’t do. He wrecked his left knee in an outfield collision in early April and needed a procedure that reconstructed his ACL and repaired his LCL.

It took only two warm-up games in the Arizona Fall League before Schwarber made his dramatic return as the designated hitter at Progressive Field, batting .412 (7-for-17) with a .971 OPS during the World Series. 

The Cubs appear to be set with Willson Contreras and Miguel Montero behind the plate, but Schwarber is the type of baseball gym rat who enjoys breaking down video, giving input for scouting reports and being involved in every pitch.  

“We have to talk through all that stuff,” Hoyer said. “We know what his position’s going to be, so we have to figure out what our position’s going to be. I know he’s going to want to catch.

“But he knows he’s coming in as a left fielder next year. And we have to decide how much of the catching drills (he does).”

Kenley Jansen? Wade Davis? Cubs keeping an open mind for the ninth inning

Kenley Jansen? Wade Davis? Cubs keeping an open mind for the ninth inning

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – The San Francisco Giants had been three outs away from forcing an elimination game that Johnny Cueto would have started at Wrigley Field – and five different relievers couldn’t protect a three-run lead against a Cubs team that made a stunning comeback.

That October crash reverberated throughout the winter meetings as a $10 billion industry gathered outside Washington, D.C. The Giants bought peace of mind for the ninth inning on Monday and finalized a four-year, $62 million deal with Mark Melancon. For the moment, that will be the biggest contract ever for a closer, at least until Kenley Jansen and Aroldis Chapman shatter that record.

The Cubs have been in contact with Jansen’s camp, sources said, monitoring his market to see if there might be a match as the World Series champs try to upgrade the bullpen this week at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center.

Theo Epstein’s front office doesn’t necessarily have a singular focus – believe the reports linking the Cubs to Kansas City Royals closer Wade Davis – or the appetite to win a Jansen bidding war that will include the Los Angeles Dodgers and Miami Marlins and perhaps the New York Yankees and Washington Nationals.

But after telling everyone that they did two offseasons in one last winter – and spending almost $290 million on free agents – this is where the Cubs could make a splash.

“It’s safe to say we’re kicking the tires on any pitching that’s available,” general manager Jed Hoyer said during his briefing with the Chicago media. “We’re not spending a lot of time on bats. We’re spending a lot of times on arms. Anyone that’s available, we’re going to sort of be in on and talking about.”

Cubs manager Joe Maddon watched Jansen’s cutter up close and gave this endorsement during the National League Championship Series: “He’s like a 100-pound heavier version of Mariano Rivera.”

Jansen, a homegrown Dodger, converted from catcher and developed into an elite closer, saving 189 games while putting up a 2.20 career ERA and 13.9 strikeouts per nine innings.

Jansen just turned 29 and already showed a willingness to pitch outside the ninth inning and go for more than three outs, something that didn’t come easily for Chapman in an October where former Yankee teammate Andrew Miller became an American League Championship Series MVP for the Cleveland Indians.

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“The postseason was reliever-centric,” Hoyer said. “Bullpens have always been really valuable, but I think the way they were used and talked about – really, not even this postseason, but the last two or three postseasons – people are definitely putting a lot of financial importance on having a good bullpen.”

Kansas City’s blueprint for winning back-to-back pennants and the 2015 World Series featured Davis, who posted a 0.94 ERA during that championship season. But Davis dealt with a strained right forearm this year and will make $10 million in his final season before free agency, at a time when the Royals can begin to see their window to contend closing.

The Cubs haven’t made Chapman a priority – and Epstein’s group has been philosophically opposed to the idea of investing big money in a closer – but they also know they probably don’t get that parade down Lake Shore Drive and Michigan Avenue without that blockbuster deal with the Yankees.

“We see the value of it,” Hoyer said. “Look, we traded a great young prospect in Gleyber Torres to get Chapman, because we felt like that was an area that we were a little bit short. We felt like in order to win the World Series, we had to have that kind of guy at the end of the game. It proved to be right.

“In order to get those really difficult final outs in the postseason, having an elite guy is certainly a huge advantage.”

So if the White Sox become the Chicago team that makes most of the headlines here – and in-house options like Hector Rondon, Carl Edwards Jr. and Pedro Strop disappoint – the Cubs can always reassess at the trade deadline.

“We’ll bolster our bullpen,” Hoyer said. “Whether you do that by adding just a number of good relievers – or whether we do it by adding a guy that’s sort of a known closer – I’m not sure. But we’ll definitely add to our bullpen.”