Ramirez in, Sandberg out as Cubs plan for 2011

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Ramirez in, Sandberg out as Cubs plan for 2011

Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2010
Updated 7:39 PM

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

In your mind, it will be impossible to divorce Ryne Sandberg and the Cubs. His retired No. 23 flies at Wrigley Field. Fans still wear his jersey. A generation of prospects loved playing for him.

But after four years managing in the minors, preparing for a job he ultimately didnt get, Sandberg has left the organization and is free to explore opportunities elsewhere. Cubs general manager Jim Hendry confirmed Wednesday that the Hall of Famer decided not to return to Triple-A Iowa next season.

I dont think that was ever in his plans to be in the minor leagues after this year, Hendry said on a teleconference. Hell always be welcome here. He knows that for the future. If he chooses he wants to come to spring training, it would be great.

A coaching job on a major-league staff would be the logical next step in Sandbergs career, but Hendry thought it would be unfair for Mike Quade to have to deal with the shadows of a franchise icon in his own dugout.

Hell always be a beloved Cub and hopefully well hook up in the capacity that he feels appropriate in the near future, Hendry said. Well treat him with the respect that he deserves. If another club wanted to pursue him, we certainly would do nothing to ever stand in his way.

As Day 2 of their organizational meetings unfolded in Mesa, Ariz., the Cubs finalized their staff, making official the hire of Pat Listach as bench coach and promoting Dave Keller from minor-league hitting instructor to major-league assistant.

These are some of the first dominos falling as the Cubs prepare for next season:

Hendry has not sat down yet with chairman Tom Ricketts to discuss the final payroll number for 2011. But the Cubs have already budgeted 14.6 million for Aramis Ramirez. The third baseman, as well as his agent, Paul Kinzer, gave several indications that the player option will be exercised. The front office is just waiting on the paperwork.

It was just kind of a general understanding, Hendry said. We never even gave it a thought. There was never a discussion from his camp that he was considering not coming back.

Without knowing how much the Cubs will have to spend this offseason, or what the free-agent market will look like, its difficult to set priorities or project what sort of other offers might be out there for Kerry Wood. But its obvious that the Cubs could use a veteran reliever, and Wood still maintains strong connections to Chicago.

Everyone knows I have a wonderful relationship with Kerry and that will be a life-lasting one, Hendry said, but to get into specifics now before weve ever (looked) into what direction were going to would be quite foolish.

All these decisions are related, especially if the Cubs have the flexibility to sign only one high-impact player. Tyler Colvin is 25, left-handed and athletic. He needs to be in the lineup every day. Exactly where depends on if the Cubs are accounting for Adam Dunns 40 homers next season, or invest in a cheaper option with more defensive range.

Everybody was kind of anxious (at the end of last year with Colvin): Are we going to give him a shot to play first base? Quade said. But hes an excellent outfielder, making progress with the bat and hes going to play somewhere. (The front office) will put the roster together and well see.

Outfielder Brett Jackson another first-round pick by scouting director Tim Wilken withdrew from the Arizona Fall League with an infection in his leg, which is said to be different from the heel injury that limited his playing time during last months Pan-Am Games qualifying tournament in Puerto Rico.

The Cubs are optimistic that Jackson along with Team USA teammate Chris Archer could be contributors on the major-league level sometime in 2011.

Ricketts has stressed player development, which should empower scouts and minor-league staffers. The baseball operations department welcomed the news that the Cubs will likely remain based in Arizona at a gleaming new complex with initial starting costs around 100 million.

As Hendry said after Proposition 420 passed by a huge margin late Tuesday night, Nobody from our end (ever) wanted to leave.

In a statement released Wednesday, Ricketts thanked voters for a show of tremendous support in a particularly difficult economy and indicated that the Cubs will work with the city of Mesa to finalize an agreement and begin the design and construction of the new facilities and the Wrigleyville West retail center.

The Cubs would have been isolated training in Naples, Fla., wasting time on long bus rides and alienating a core group of fans.

We dont know if Ricketts would have really moved the team and ended an almost continuous presence in Arizona since 1952. But as Sandberg discovered, there is only so much room for sentiment right now within this organization.

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

Jon Lester thinks Cubs have a special player in Willson Contreras: ‘It’s about time we got an offensive catcher’

Jon Lester thinks Cubs have a special player in Willson Contreras: ‘It’s about time we got an offensive catcher’

MESA, Ariz. – Jon Lester couldn't resist when a reporter mentioned the two home runs Willson Contreras launched off Danny Salazar, an All-Star talent who might have changed last year's World Series if he had been at full strength.

"It's about time we got an offensive catcher," Lester said.

Zing! Lester had already seen David Ross on "Dancing with the Stars" by the time he finished up against the Cleveland Indians and met with reporters on Monday night at Goodyear Ballpark. While Lester knew Grandpa Rossy would appreciate that one-liner, there is also some truth behind it.

Yes, Ross became the security blanket for a $155 million pitcher, helped push and encourage young players like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant and got carried off the field after delivering his own Game 7 homer. But whatever Contreras may lack now in game-calling experience and pitcher psychology, he can make up for it with his rocket arm, smooth swing and willingness to learn.

A camp that began with questions about how Lester would work with Contreras ended with a sincere endorsement.

"Willie's obviously very special, to be serious about it," Lester said. "He's definitely going to add a presence to that lineup as far as protecting ‘Rizz' and ‘KB' to where they're not going to be able to just pitch around those guys. We're going to have some other guys to do some damage in the middle to the bottom of that order.

"He's a special kid, just like anybody else on this team. He's (24), so he'll only get better as time goes on and (he gets) the at-bats and the innings and all that stuff. So I'm excited to see him for a full season and how well he can do back there."

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That's another reason why the defending World Series champs might actually look better on paper than the unforgettable 2016 Cubs. Ross did a "Dancing with the Stars" routine based off Young MC's "Bust a Move," a song released in 1989, or years before Bryant, Contreras, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell, Javier Baez and Albert Almora Jr. were born.

Before the Cubs packed up and left Arizona, Ross made a promotional appearance in Mesa this week and caught up with some old friends like John Lackey.

"We got rid of Rossy," Lackey told reporters as the Cubs finished their Cactus League schedule with Wednesday's 15-11 win over the Oakland A's at Sloan Park. "He stinks. And we should be better. Actually, I was just inside talking to Rossy and he said that, so that's from him."

On paper, have Cubs put together a better roster than last year's World Series team?

On paper, have Cubs put together a better roster than last year's World Series team?

MESA, Ariz. – One minute into the media scrum outside the West Wing, a Washington reporter asked Theo Epstein if this season would be considered a disappointment if the Cubs don't win the World Series.

"Oof, I hadn't thought too much about 2017 yet today," Epstein said after President Barack Obama's final official White House event. "But, yeah, I mean, that's our goal. I think the organization has come such a long way and we have this talented young core. We're clearly in a very competitive phase where I think if we do our jobs, we could be as good, if not better, than any team in baseball.

"So if you're going to compete, you set your sights for the world championship. It doesn't always work out that way. But we see it as our jobs to do everything we can to be back at the White House next year."

Whether or not Epstein would actually go through with a Donald Trump photo op is a different story. But with the Cubs signaling their Opening Night roster – keeping outfielder Matt Szczur and infielder Tommy La Stella while lefty reliever Brian Duensing begins the season on the disabled list – you could make the case that the team breaking camp on Wednesday looks better on paper than last year's World Series winner.

"This is a crazy talented group," All-Star closer Wade Davis said. "There's 10 or 12 players on this team that are some of the best players in baseball."

That doesn't mean the Cubs will develop the same chemistry or sense of purpose, but this team is completely used to the national spotlight, hanging out with celebrity fans and being followed around like rock stars on the road. 

Epstein compared this camp in Arizona with what the Boston Red Sox faced after ending the 86-year drought. 

"I will never forget in '05 spring training, we had 5,000 people the first day, 3,000 fans every day," Epstein said. "I was expecting it to be as nuts. But it's been refreshingly normal, reflecting the personality of our players, taking everything in stride."   

This doesn't mean the Cubs will stay as healthy as they did last year, when the projected rotation made 152 starts combined. But four-fifths of that group returns with Brett Anderson – given his natural ability, pitching IQ and extensive medical file – appearing to have a higher ceiling and lower floor than Jason Hammel.

As Anderson said: "It's not too often that you have a salty veteran with multiple rings (John Lackey) in front of you and a guy (Kyle Hendricks) that led the league in ERA behind you."

The 2016 Cubs won 103 games and scored 800-plus runs: without Kyle Schwarber contributing a single hit during the regular season; and with Jason Heyward finishing with a .631 OPS (or 103 points below the league average).

Manager Joe Maddon said Geek Department projections have this lineup generating even more offense with Schwarber as the new leadoff guy (even with a brace on his left leg), continued growth from young players like Addison Russell and Willson Contreras and Heyward not being one of the worst hitters in the majors.

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The Cubs are also counting on a full season from Davis, instead of a half-season rental like Aroldis Chapman. Where last year's Opening Night bullpen featured three guys who would get DFA'd or traded by midseason (Neil Ramirez, Clayton Richard, Adam Warren), this version features three guys who've already notched the final out in a World Series (Davis, Koji Uehara, Mike Montgomery).

"All the additions are wonderful complements to what this team was already," Schwarber said. "Upgrades. It's going to be really cool to see how it all plays out this season with more guys getting another year of experience under their belt."

Ian Happ raising his profile and hitting around .400 in the Cactus League should help his trade value if the Cubs need to deal for pitching at the trade deadline. The combination of Albert Almora Jr. and Jon Jay in center field should be an improvement over Dexter Fowler for a team that led the majors in defensive efficiency last year.

As someone with fresh eyes – and the perspective from being on Los Angeles Dodgers teams that won back-to-back National League West titles – Anderson hasn't see any signs of complacency.

"Not at all," Anderson said. "The young guys are still hungry. And the handful of guys that weren't here last year makes you that much more hungry and itchy to get back where they were last year.

"It's a really good mix – if not a perfect mix – of young guys, veteran guys and a couple fresh faces that are eager to get back to what these guys accomplished last year."