Without Ramirez'Z', Cubs turn to CastroGarza

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Without Ramirez'Z', Cubs turn to CastroGarza

Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011Posted: 5:45 p.m. Updated: 7:38 p.m.

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com Cubs Insider Follow @CSNMooney
Box Score Photo Gallery
READ: Quade acts like he doesn't feel the heat
READ: Without Pena and Garza, Rays still fight Goliath
READWATCH: It's "probably" the end for Cubs, Ramirez
WATCH: Garza was set on finishing the game
WATCH: Castro really hoping to get his 200th hit at home
WATCH: Pena likes the talent in Cubs clubhouse
The Cubs packed duffle bags and taped up boxes to ship back home. It was the perfect image for a franchise in transition. No one knows what's going to happen next.

As promised, the Cubs passed the three-million mark in attendance during the final home game of 2011. Who's going to make you buy tickets to Wrigley Field next season?

What you watched during Wednesday's 7-1 win over the Brewers was a changing of the guard. Starlin Castro received a standing ovation as he reached 199 hits, while Matt Garza threw a complete game that showed why he could be your Opening Day starter.

Around the same time, interim general manager Randy Bush met with Paul Kinzer, the agent for Aramis Ramirez. The third baseman hadn't heard anything to this point about how the Cubs would approach a 16 million option for 2012. The expectation is that Ramirez would void it anyway and become a free agent seeking at least a three-year deal.

"The chances to come back here don't look pretty good right now," Ramirez said.

It looks even worse for Carlos Zambrano, who had already cleared out his locker weeks ago. It became a storage area for footballs and an equipment bag, then a locker split by two minor-league staffers before Triple-A Iowa pitching coach Mike Mason took it over.

Tom Ricketts is already on record saying that he'd have a hard time picturing Zambrano pitching for this team again. The chairman will have to sit down with the next general manager to figure out what to do about the 18 million Zambrano is owed next season.

"That's well out of my hands and the least of my worries," manager Mike Quade said. "I'd like his arm back if he fit into the mix. But it would be tough for him to come back - for me. If he did, then I deal with it."

Carlos Pena - who's also positioned to become a free agent but would prefer to stay in Chicago - said he felt a sinking feeling in his stomach knowing this could potentially be his final game at Wrigley Field in a Cubs uniform.

Ramirez isn't wired that way, calling the day different, not sad. He didn't make an emotional connection with the fans. But he quietly showed leadership behind the scenes, particularly among the Latin players.

"Big time," said Castro, an All-Star at 21. "He (taught) me how you want to play the game."

Garza seemed offended by Quade's idea of competition in the eighth inning. The manager told his pitcher not to swing, so that he wouldn't hit into a double play, and rob Castro of another chance to get his 200th hit at home. Garza grounded out before Castro walked.

"I'm trying to hit, too," Garza said afterward. "Shoot, I want 20 wins. I want 200 innings. I want 200-plus strikeouts. It is what it is, man. (I'm) going to go out there and compete. I'm not just going to give up.

"I know (Castro) has six more games to get it and I'm pretty sure he's going to do it. That's all I got to say about that. Anything else?"

There's no doubt that Garza has an edge, but he's pretty much answered all the questions about how he would handle a bigger market, the Wrigley Field fishbowl. He gave up one unearned run and struck out 10, improving to 9-10 and lowering his ERA to 3.35.

"His record doesn't show the reality of how good he has performed," Pena said. "Imagine what would happen if (things) were to click and go his way? The possibilities are just endless. In my mind, he's a Cy Young pitcher waiting to happen."

Ramirez - who also doesn't care what the media thinks - probably won't be around to see it. Even if he wasn't embraced by the fans, he put up six seasons of at least 25 homers and 30 doubles, just like Hall of Famer Billy Williams.

"My dad always told me that the worst mistake you can ever make is trying to make everybody happy," Ramirez said.

The Cubs will have to make a series of hard decisions across the next several weeks that will impact every level of the organization. They can't keep everyone. They can't worry about winning the press conference. They can't appease every faction of a skeptical fan base.

It could mean writing several huge checks to get rid of Zambrano. Ramirez seems resigned to finding money and happiness elsewhere.

"I can't be here for a rebuilding process," he said. "I'm not that kind of player anymore."

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

For Cubs, winter meetings will be all about the hunt for pitching 

For Cubs, winter meetings will be all about the hunt for pitching 

As the Cubs prepare for the winter meetings outside Washington, D.C., their messaging might as well be: It’s the pitching, stupid.

This is an arms race that will never end, the Cubs trying to defend their first World Series title in 108 years, build out a bullpen that looked pretty thin by November and target the kind of young starter who could help anchor their rotation for years to come, ensuring Wrigleyville remains baseball’s biggest party.

Major League Baseball’s owners and the players’ union avoided a foolish labor war by crafting a new five-year collective bargaining agreement that should spur some action next week. As executives, scouts, agents and reporters begin to flood into National Harbor on Sunday, the Cubs will intensify their search for pitching, everything from headliners to insurance policies to prospects.

“That’s been the significant bulk of our efforts,” general manager Jed Hoyer said, “trying to identify those kind of starting pitchers and those kind of relief pitchers and how to match up with them. It’s definitely not going to be through lack of trying on our part to make that kind of deal. That’s now. That’s at the deadline.”  

That’s all-consuming. The Cubs are preparing for Opening Day 2018, when Jake Arrieta will probably be in a different uniform after signing his megadeal, John Lackey might be kicking back in Texas and enjoying retirement and Jon Lester will be 34 years old with maybe 2,300 innings on his odometer. 

The Cubs have unwavering faith in their pitching infrastructure at the major-league level, from the scouting and analytic perspectives that identified the right sign-and-flip deals during the rebuilding years to the coaching staff that helped mold Kyle Hendricks into a Cy Young Award finalist and a World Series Game 7 starter.

Mike Montgomery notched the final out against the Cleveland Indians and the Cubs see him as their next big project. The lefty checks so many of their boxes, from age (27) to size (6-foot-5) to pedigree (former first-round pick/top prospect) to the change-of-scenery confidence boost/mental reset.

Forget about the White Sox trading Chris Sale to the North Side and don’t just think about obvious names or trade partners. Maybe it’s making a deal for a guy you never heard of before and sifting through the non-tender bin. 

Remember how team president Theo Epstein framed the Montgomery trade with the Seattle Mariners this summer – comparing him to All-Star reliever Andrew Miller – and that gives you an idea of how they can address their pitching deficit this winter. 

“If your scouts do a good job of identifying the guys who are trending in the right direction – and you’re willing to take a shot – sometimes there’s a big payoff at the end,” Epstein said.   

While the Cubs did Jason Hammel a favor by cutting him loose and allowing him to explore the market as one of the best pitchers in an extremely weak class of free agents, Montgomery has only 23 big-league starts on his resume. 

[SHOP CUBS: Get your World Series champions gear right here]

The Cubs had five starters make at least 29 starts this year, while four starters accounted for 30-plus starts in 2015, a remarkable run that led to 200 wins.

“As we’ve talked about so many times,” Hoyer said, “we do have an imbalance in our organization – hitting vs. pitching – and we’re trying to make sure we can accumulate as much pitching depth as possible. 

“We were very healthy this year, which was wonderful and a big part of why we won the World Series. I don’t think you can always count on that kind of health every single year. Building up a reservoir of depth – preferably guys you can option (to the minors) – is something (we’re trying) to accomplish.”  

The Cubs have Jorge Soler stuck in a crowded outfield plus the types of interesting prospects who appear to be blocked – catcher Victor Caratini, third baseman Jeimer Candelario, infielder/outfielder Ian Happ – to make relatively painless trades for pitching (if not the kind of blockbuster deal that dominates coverage of the winter meetings).

The Cubs figure to add a lefty reliever, someone like Boone Logan or Jerry Blevins. The New York Post reported the Cubs were among the teams in pursuit of Brett Cecil, who got a four-year, $30.5 million deal and no-trade protection from the St. Louis Cardinals, another sign of how shallow this free-agent pool is for starting pitchers and a reflection of a postseason where the bullpen became a major storyline. 

The idea of Kenley Jansen intrigues the Cubs – and Aroldis Chapman made a favorable impression during his three-plus months with the team – but Epstein’s front office already made the major upgrades for 2017 by spending nearly $290 million on free agents after the 2015 playoff run. Philosophically, the Cubs also see smarter long-term investments than trying to win a bidding war for a guy who might throw 70 innings a year. 

With that in mind, the Cubs could get creative and have looked at free agent Greg Holland, a two-time All-Star closer with the Kansas City Royals who didn’t pitch this year after having Tommy John surgery on his right elbow.  

Remember that Chapman left the New York Yankees and joined a team that had a 56-1 record when leading entering the ninth inning. If Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop and Carl Edwards Jr. can’t handle the late shifts, then the Cubs could always go out and trade for another closer in the middle of a pennant race.    

The Cubs have the luxuries of time, zero pressure from ownership, their fan base or the Chicago media and a stacked, American League-style lineup. 

“Right now, we could go play from an offensive standpoint and feel very good about our group,” Hoyer said. “We’re going to still continue to look to improve the depth in our bullpen, improve the depth in our starting rotation. Those are things that probably never go away. You probably never stop trying to build that depth.” 

What will LeBron James wear to pay up on Cubs World Series bet with Dwyane Wade?

What will LeBron James wear to pay up on Cubs World Series bet with Dwyane Wade?

LeBron James is coming to town, and he will be all decked out in Cubs gear.

The Cavs are in Chicago to take on the Bulls Friday night at the United Center and it's time for LeBron to pay up on his World Series bet with Dwyane Wade.

The two former teammates made the wager during the World Series as LeBron's hometown Indians took on Wade's hometown Cubs, with the loser wearing the winning baseball team's gear when they showed up in the opposing city. This is LeBron's first trip to Chicago this season.

Wade and LeBron already acknowledged they're having fun with this and have a whole spectacle planned with a national TV audience.

LeBron told the Akron Beacon Journal he's not going to try to take the easy way out and just toss on a Cubs jersey. He is planning socks, hat, pants and possibly more. But he won't wear cleats or bring a glove with him.

[SHOP CUBS: Get your World Series champions gear right here]

When the Cubs won it all a month ago Friday, Wade posted an Instagram photo of LeBron wearing a Cubs uniform:

And ESPN had a cutout of LeBron sporting a No. 23 Cubs road gray jersey outside the United Center Friday morning:

CSN Bulls Insider Vincent Goodwill wonders whether LeBron will don signature Joe Maddon glasses, too.

This is gonna be fun, you guys.