Without Pena and Garza, Rays still fight Goliath

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Without Pena and Garza, Rays still fight Goliath

Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011Posted: 12:05 a.m.

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com Cubs Insider Follow @CSNMooney
The other day, Carlos Pena looked up at the TV screen and stopped in the middle of the clubhouse. He stood there transfixed, watching highlights from the Red Sox-Rays game at Fenway Park.

Pena doesnt seem to have any regrets about coming to Chicago. In fact, hed be very interested if the Cubs offered him another pillow contract. But part of him still belongs in Tampa Bay.

The Rays are at it again, chasing the Yankees and making the Red Sox sweat. They were nine games out of a playoff spot on Sept. 2. They entered the wild-card race on Tuesday one game behind the Red Sox in the loss column.

To see the David and Goliath story unfold and materialize in real life is cool, Pena said. I get a kick out of that, seeing the underdog triumph over the mighty empire. You sit there and you want it to happen. I lived through that. I experienced it. I know how incredible it feels.

How can you not pull for the underdog?

The Rays are doing it with a 41 million payroll thats second-to-last in the majors, according to the USA Today salary database. Thats a fraction of what the superpowers spend in New York (203 million) and Boston (162 million).

The Cubs will spend around 135 million for another fifth-place finish. Thats why chairman Tom Ricketts is looking for a new general manager and will almost certainly study what the Rays have done.

Everything that were watching right now was laid a brick at a time, Pena said.

Changes are coming. The Cubs announced Tuesday that Gary Hughes a special assistant to fired general manager Jim Hendry and one of Baseball Americas top 10 scouts of the 20th century will not return next season.

Andrew Friedman graduated from Tulane University and worked on Wall Street before rising to be the Rays executive vice president of baseball operations. But his front office certainly isnt all about statistical analysis.

The Rays have used a starting pitcher under the age of 30 for 754 straight games, a major-league record. All 153 games this season have been started by a pitcher drafted and developed by the organization.

The Rays rotation began Tuesday with 1000.1 innings pitched, the second-most in the majors. They led the American League with a 3.49 ERA, 780 strikeouts and 15 complete games. They havent missed Matt Garza, who was shipped to the North Side in an eight-player deal last winter.

They harp on pitching and defense, Garza said. Its kind of ridiculous over there. (Its) unbelievable how they just keep funneling through.

Thats the vision Ricketts has laid out as the Cubs try to rebuild.

Speculation has Friedman as a person of interest in this search, though he has such a good relationship with his bosses that he works without a contract. Hes also said to have strong roots in Houston that could make him more interested in one day running the Astros.

Pena whos been suspected of writing inspirational messages on the erase board in the Cubs clubhouse remembers one saying in particular that manager Joe Maddon once put up for the Rays: Fortune favors the bold.

That sums it up, Pena said. This team is so unconventional, so unafraid to be themselves. Theyre not consumed by following rules. (So) Joe will be the guy who will bring six guys in the infield and (its like): What is he doing? And he doesnt care if it doesnt work.

The other day they stole like seven bases. Theres some freedom there.

That could be the major difference between Tampa Bay and Chicago. There wont be a blank canvas at Clark and Addison. The next general manager will inherit several key employees in the front office, as well as the bad contracts already on the books.

When Ricketts looks at an executives track record of success, hell have to take into account the limiting factors and decide how it will translate. It helped that the Rays had so many consecutive years at the top of the draft.

When building a roster, the Rays dont necessarily have to worry about selling tickets, because almost no one goes to their games anyway. The media spotlight isnt nearly as bright in Tampa Bay. A franchise that began play in 1998 doesnt feel the weight of history.

Thats extremely helpful for them because they dont have to deal with that, Pena said. (Absolutely) its a (bigger) challenge to keep that type of attitude and mentality when you have outside influences.

But you look at the end (and) it almost seems like its a bunch of kids going out there playing the game of baseball with absolutely no attachment to it.

Pena means doing it the right way, without being overwhelmed by the pressure. He hopes to change the Cubs culture, where everyone wants to talk about what went wrong in the past and guess whats going to happen in the future.

The Rays lost 96 games in 2007 and went to the World Series the next year. They won 96 games last season. They sharpen their focus because they live in a world where players leave to get rich somewhere else.

Its always live in the moment, Garza said, because next years team is not going to be the same.

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

Cubs, White Sox react to tragic deaths of Yordano Ventura and Andy Marte

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AP

Cubs, White Sox react to tragic deaths of Yordano Ventura and Andy Marte

The sports world woke up to some tragic news on Sunday morning.

Former major leaguer Andy Marte and Kansas City Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura were both killed in separate car accidents in the Dominican Republic within an hour of each other, according to multiple reports. A Royals representative confirmed the death of 25-year-old Ventura.

The Cubs and White Sox took to Twitter to give their condolences:

Ventura was a member of the Royals from 2013-16 and won a World Series title in 2015 with Ben Zobrist and Wade Davis, who the Cubs acquired this offseason for Jorge Soler. Ventura also played with White Sox pitcher James Shields in 2013-14.

Marte, 33, played a majority of his seven-year career with the Cleveland Indians. He was teammates with Todd Hollandsworth (Atlanta 2005), Kerry Wood (Cleveland 2009-10), and Miguel Montero (Arizona 2014).

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."