The winter meetings, Fujikawa and where the Cubs go from here

932703.png

The winter meetings, Fujikawa and where the Cubs go from here

The Cubs arent going to overreact to the empty green seats at Wrigley Field. The business of baseball is booming. The bailout money will be coming soon enough with the new national and local television deals.
And of course nobody is untouchable. The Cubs can lose 101 games with or without them. But that doesnt mean theyre about to trade Starlin Castro.
It almost certainly wont stop the rumors from bouncing around the lobby of the Gaylord Opryland and getting recycled in cyberspace. Castro for Giancarlo Stanton? Justin Upton? Mystery Player X? What about Josh Hamilton on a short-term deal? But the Cubs have a very clear idea of what they want to accomplish at next weeks winter meetings in Nashville, Tenn.
Nothings changed philosophically, general manager Jed Hoyer said Friday. Were still trying to build to a point where we have a ton of young talent and a lot of available money to spend to really have that team (with) sustained success.
How the Cubs find the middle ground for 2013 will be the big question. Kyuji Fujikawa recently visited Wrigley Field, and the Japanese closer was believed to be most interested in the Cubs and Los Angeles Angels (with the free-spending Los Angeles Dodgers lurking as a wild card).
The Angels just signed Ryan Madson, which could eliminate the opportunity to close in Anaheim. Hoyer confirmed a meeting with Fujikawa we came away very impressed but wouldnt comment on the state of negotiations or an anticipated timetable for the decision.
Before Friday nights deadline, the Cubs non-tendered third baseman Ian Stewart, who could still return as a free agent. Four arbitration-eligible players were tendered contracts: pitchers Matt Garza, Jeff Samardzija and James Russell; and infielder Luis Valbuena.
Pitchers Zach Putnam and Jaye Chapman who were not eligible for arbitration were not tendered contracts while Casey Coleman has cleared waivers and been assigned outright to Triple-A Iowa, leaving the 40-man roster at 37.
Some pitchers cut loose elsewhere Jair Jurrjens, Mike Pelfrey and John Lannan could be intriguing options for the rotation. But the front office also wants to impact the endgame.
Fujikawa is 32 years old and has notched 220 saves during his time with the Hanshin Tigers. The right-hander has posted a career 1.77 ERA, with 914 strikeouts against 207 walks, the kind of ratio you wont get with Carlos Marmol.
Fujikawa has competed in the World Baseball Classic, as well as the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Marmol was nearly traded to the Angels four weeks ago until the Cubs had concerns about Dan Harens medicals. Assuming Marmol makes it to camp, the Cubs would like to see someone push him.
Whenever you build a bullpen, you want as many guys that have a chance to pitch late in the game as possible, Hoyer said. Carlos had a great second half (1.52 ERA). He struggled in April. He lost the job and to his credit he worked really hard to get it back and pitched really well. If we bring in someone that has closing experience or a number of guys that have that kind of experience thats no knock on Carlos.
Every team in baseball wants to have an assortment of guys back there that if the need arises can pitch in the ninth inning. Hopefully, we can do that. Our bullpen put too much pressure last year on (Shawn) Camp and Russell and Marmol and we have to avoid that. We need to bring in a really good number of arms to make that goal a reality.
Team president Theo Epstein has said that the Cubs have very narrow fits for possible trades. They will listen to just about anything, and would have no problem moving a short-term asset like Marmol, but they are planning to stockpile core players like Castro, Samardzija and Anthony Rizzo.
We lost 101 games last year, Hoyer said. I dont think were in a position to say we have enough talent or to say that any one player on the rosters untouchable. We certainly have several players that we would have a hard time parting with, and it would take a heck of a package to make it happen.
So far, the Cubs have been largely quiet, signing pitchers Scott Baker and Scott Feldman to one-year deals while continuing to look for possible rotation pieces. But most of the big names are still on the board.
Hoyer talked about the cascading effect once a certain player signs. With the entire industry gathering in the Music City, all it could take is one powerful agent or one bold front office to get everything flowing.
The Cubs wont be setting the market, but they realize they need a veteran outfielder. Brett Jackson is already ticketed for Des Moines. Junior Lake has gone to the outfield in winter ball, and the Cubs think his superior athleticism could play well there, but hes far from a finished product. Albert Almora and Jorge Soler are nice prospects, but they will probably start next season at Class-A Kane County.
It is always a balancing act when you have prospects you like a lot and theyre (that) far away, Hoyer said. You cant really think too much about those guys. You have to think about your team now. The idea of blocking when a guy is in the low minors is kind of ridiculous.
Well look to improve our outfield. We know thats an area we need to improve upon and theres a number of players that well be talking to across the next few weeks.
The Cubs will keep selling their vision for the future, but they still need something for the here and now.

Why the Cubs skipped Tim Tebow's showcase

Why the Cubs skipped Tim Tebow's showcase

The Cubs have built the scouting-and-player-development machine Theo Epstein promised when he took over baseball operations at Wrigley Field, assembling the game’s best team with homegrown talent, shrewd trades and big-money free agents.

The Cubs will kick the tires on just about any idea that might make the organization incrementally better, which makes their absence from Tim Tebow’s showcase on Tuesday so telling.

The Cubs skipped Tebow’s workout on the University of Southern California campus, sources said, viewing it as a promotional stunt for the former NFL quarterback and 2007 Heisman Trophy winner. With all due respect, as Joe Maddon might say, whenever the manager quotes Will Ferrell’s Ricky Bobby character in “Talladega Nights.”

Tebow’s name recognition and high-powered representation (Creative Artists Agency) helped him reportedly draw scouts from 27 major-league clubs to watch him run the 60-yard dash, react in the outfield and take batting practice.

Tebow — who won two national championships at the University of Florida, works as an ESPN analyst and stays involved with faith-based charities — hasn’t played baseball since high school.

“I saw his swing on the video — it was a decent hack,” Maddon said. “At 29 years old, it’s not easy to pull off, but good for him. If he wants to give it a run, go for it.”

Never say die: Cubs battle back for wild walk-off win over Pirates

Never say die: Cubs battle back for wild walk-off win over Pirates

It would have been so easy for the Cubs to just chalk this one up as a loss and head home.

But this 2016 Cubs team isn't built that way.

They showed what they're made of again Monday, walking off the Pirates, 8-7, in front of 38,951 fans at Wrigley Field.

The Cubs had plenty of chances to score all game, including in extra innings as Javy Baez was thrown out at home plate to end both the 10th and 12th innings.

In the top of the 13th, the Pirates finally broke through, loading the bases with nobody out against Rob Zastryzny and scoring a run — but only one run.

In the bottom of the 13th, the Cubs got their offense going again as Dexter Fowler and Kris Bryant led the inning off with singles to put runners at the corners. Anthony Rizzo then singled through the infield to tie the game and drive home Fowler.

Ben Zobrist was intentionally walked to load the bases with nobody out, setting the stage for Miguel Montero's walk-off single to start the Cubs' homestand off on a positive note and send Zastryzny home with his first MLB victory.

It capped off a game in which almost 465 pitches were thrown and took more than five hours to complete.

"We got in late last night," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "I got back about 3 a.m. So these guys — they're coming off West Coast to the Central Time Zone, they're tired, we had to show up today early for a picture — that happens sometimes — and they came out and played until Midnight.

"Of course you want to win that game. That's a tough game to lose. But understand the effort that you saw tonight based on a lot of fatigue. And that's probably what I'm most proud of."

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

The Cubs opened up a 3-0 lead on Pirates rookie starter Steven Brault early, but they could have easily had more, narrowly missing home runs in the first (Zobrist) and third innings (Jorge Soler).

The Pirates, meanwhile, came roaring back against Jake Arrieta. 

First, Josh Bell hit a solo homer just over the basket in left field in the fourth inning. Then Gregory Polanco deposited a three-run shot down the left-field line in the sixth inning, two batters after it appeared the Cubs had gotten a strike-'em-out, throw-'em-out double play. Home plate umpire Tripp Gibson disagreed, calling the pitch Ball 4 to Bell and putting two runners on with nobody out instead of two outs and nobody on. Arrieta was irate, staring down the umpire and prompting a visit from Maddon, who proceeded to get in Gibson's face at the base of the mound after calming down Arrieta.

"That's an entirely different baseball game right there that occurred on that particular pitch," Maddon said. "Everything turned on that particluar pitch.

"But I'm not gonna denigrate the umpire. We had plenty of opportunities — PLENTY — to win that game in a normal fashion or earlier. We had so many great at-bats to set it up and then we could not seal the deal."

Arrieta was also saddled with a pair of runs in the seventh inning, with Travis Wood letting two inherited runners score on Josh Harrison's two-out double to make it a 6-3 Pirates lead.

The reigning NL Cy Young winner finished with a tough-luck line that flashed six earned runs in 6 1/3 innings on five hits and three walks.

Then the Cubs began their comeback.

In the eighth, Jason Heyward doubled and Willson Contreras homered to straightaway center.

With one out in the ninth, Soler sent a charge into Tony Watson's offering to tie the game with a blast to center.

That set up Montero for the storybook ending.

"The resiliency of our team is incredible," Arrieta said. "That's what you need down the stretch. ... Just a crazy ballgame all the way around."

Cubs: Theo Epstein believes Kris Bryant can follow in Dustin Pedroia's MVP footsteps

Cubs: Theo Epstein believes Kris Bryant can follow in Dustin Pedroia's MVP footsteps

Joe Maddon has been trying to find a chance to give Kris Bryant a day off.

But how do you sit the hottest hitter on the planet?

Bryant just finished a torrid road trip in which he staked his claim to the National League MVP Award by hitting .417 with a 1.365 OPS, five homers, 11 RBIs and 11 runs in nine games. 

That pushed his season line to .305/.398/.588 (.986 OPS) with a league-leading 35 homers and 107 runs plus 89 RBIs.

So is he the Most Valuable Player in just his second season in "The Show"?

"I don't want to get too wrapped up in individual awards," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. "He's an outstanding player having a great year. It's never too early.

"(Red Sox second baseman) Dustin Pedroia is another guy we drafted over a decade ago and he did the same thing — Rookie of the Year in the first year and then MVP the next year. It can be done.

"(Bryant is) helping us win in so many different ways. Obviously coming up big of late, which is great to see. He deserves all the accolades that are coming his way and that may eventually come his way.

"But I think he'd probably be the first one to tell you he wants the team awards; he wants the team recognition in the end. The only one that really counts is winning your last game and the parade. Everything else is nice to fill the trophy case, but that's what everyone here is all about."

Bryant will undoubtedly split some MVP votes with teammate Anthony Rizzo (.946 OPS, 25 home runs, 89 RBIs), but the Cubs third baseman/outfielder woke up Monday morning leading all of baseball in WAR on FanGraphs' page.

[SHOP CUBS: Get a Kris Bryant jersey right here]

Even the Cubs admit Bryant has progressed beyond their realistic expectations.

"I would never have held him to this standard," Epstein said. "I wouldn't say, 'This is his development path. He's gotta go be maybe the Most Valuable Player in the league in the second year.' But at the same time, it doesn't surprise me.

"He's always been outstanding at making adjustments. Very cerebral player. Makes great use of his down time, whether it's the winter where he can work on swing adjustments or even the time between at-bats or pitch-to-pitch. He's just really, really good at making adjustments and thinks about his own game at a really high level.

"He's such a good athlete, he's able to take it right out on the field."

Bryant has also surprised Epstein and the Cubs with how he's evolved as a player.

"In some ways, surprising," Epstein said. "I thought he would always hit five to 10 opposite field home runs a year at a minimum, and he hasn't this year — that was his first one of the year the other day at Dodger Stadium.

"But he's added the ability to turn on the inside pitch and hit it in the air and keep it fair, so he's hitting more home runs as a result. So I never saw that coming.

"It's interesting the way his swing and his game have evolved."

In discussing the difference between 2016 Bryant and the rookie model, Maddon pointed to a decrease in strikeouts (from 30.6 percent in 2015 to 22 percent) and a smoother product on defense.

"The biggest for me is consistently shorter swing. More contact," Maddon said. "He's had smaller windows of chasing pitches out of the strike zone compared to last year when he did it more often.

"But recently, he's been using the outfield gap, which is really impressive. So offensively, that's what I'm seeing. Defensively, better feet on the infield.

"You'd see a lot of the patting of the glove as the feet were moving. I see it on occasion now, but not to the extent I saw it last year. He's still a great baserunner.

"So primarily — shorter hack, greater contact, less chase, right central is coming back into play right now and better feet on defense. That's what I'm seeing."

Put it all together and you have an MVP frontrunner entering September.