How the Cubs are going to make their free agency pitch

How the Cubs are going to make their free agency pitch
November 5, 2012, 5:21 pm
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Going after Dan Haren shows that the Cubs will look into everything. They have money to burn, but dont want to commit long-term, and arent opposed to rental players.
With Haren now a free agent, the Cubs are going to have to reboot their search for the (at least) two pitchers they need to plug into their rotation. That will be the focus when general managers begin gathering on Tuesday for their meetings at an Indian Wells, Calif., resort.
Cubs executives declined to comment on why talks with the Los Angeles Angels broke down late Friday night and the Haren-for-Carlos Marmol trade collapsed. But it did make you wonder: Why would a free agent want to sign with the Cubs?
"Ive heard this over and over again -- players want to be part of the solution here, team president Theo Epstein said the day after a 101-loss season ended. They want to be part of the club that ultimately wins the World Series here."
OK, but every indication is that the Cubs dont want to pay retail and will wind up with more placeholders than future core players.
And the clubhouse is going to feel a real sense of urgency in April and May next season, because the players know that if they dont get off to a good start, the front office is going to start selling off pieces in July and bracing for a last-place finish.
As a blueprint, Epstein uses Paul Maholm, a former first-round pick with health questions looking for a change of scenery. Last winter, Maholm agreed to a 4.25 million salary, with a 6.5 million club option for 2013. By the time Maholm was flipped to the Atlanta Braves at the trade deadline, the left-hander was one of the hottest pitchers in baseball, going 5-0 with a 1.00 ERA in his final seven starts for the Cubs.
We can sell opportunity, Epstein said. I think Paul Maholm would tell people hes really glad he signed here, that he got a little bit of help. He got an opportunity and his career took the next step here. Even though he was traded, I think he feels good about his Cubs experience and would come back here in a second if he had the opportunity.
Across the industry, demand will outpace supply, but several pitchers fit that profile: Brandon McCarthy; Scott Baker; Shaun Marcum; Francisco Liriano; Jeremy Guthrie.
Epstein also believes the word gets out quick among players. They text each other all the time. Theyre part of the same union. They share the same agents. They give each other man hugs during batting practice. They want to play for certain managers.
So even after 101 losses, Epstein thinks free agents will know that Dale Sveum is a players manager, someone whos been there before and runs a good, professional clubhouse.
Ryan Dempster got stuck going to the Texas Rangers at the deadline and left on bad terms (even though general manager Jed Hoyer wouldnt automatically dismiss the possibility of a return if several things broke right this winter).
But it was telling -- when asked on July 31 if Epstein and Sveum have what it takes to build a winner here -- that Dempster praised the manager: Hes going to eventually lead this team to a World Series.
Dempster embraced the game plans and worked well with pitching coach Chris Bosio, putting together a scoreless streak that lasted 33 innings and posting a 2.25 ERA in 16 starts with the Cubs.
So did Maholm, who grew up a Braves fan in the South, went to Mississippi State University and wound up in an ideal spot.
But when the Cubs are negotiating against players with more leverage, how do they recruit someone who could have more attractive options, or at least a better sense that another team wont become sellers at the deadline?
Its really expressing interest early, Hoyer said, and being sincere and telling the players why you have interest and what you hope to be like as an organization while theyre here.
Paul was at a point in his career where he was looking for the best situation for him to have success -- and he found that. We have to be able to convince them that this is a place they can come in and have success and -- in Pauls case -- sort of re-establish himself as a really good major-league pitcher. Hopefully, there will be other guys we go after that already are established.
But its nice to be in a place like Chicago, with an organization like the Cubs. Playing at Wrigley Field, living here -- theres a lot of huge positives. We need to do a really good job convincing them of our direction as a baseball team, but a lot of the other things certainly sell themselves.
No doubt, its good being a Cub: Just look at the hometown discount Kerry Wood once gave the team, or how closely players (Dempster, Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano) guarded no-trade clauses during lost seasons.
Theres shopping on Michigan Avenue, getting wined and dined in River North and hanging out in Wrigleyville. Plus, all the day games free up your nights.
Money talks, but a free agent is going to have to trust Epsteins vision (and those two World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox). Hoyer mentioned McCarthy in this context: The Oakland As have done a good job landing this type of free agent.
McCarthy didnt reach an agreement with the As (1 million plus incentives) until the middle of December 2010, after spending time on the disabled list in each of the previous four seasons.
When McCarthy signed there, he probably felt like: OK, this is a good organization. They like me as a pitcher. I can pitch well here, Hoyer said. But Im sure part of why he went there, too, was: Hey, listen, this is a good front office. This is a good organization and I think theyre doing the right things.
McCarthy went 17-15 with a 3.29 ERA in 43 starts for Oakland before getting hit in the head with a line drive during a scary moment in September.
Hoyer wouldnt confirm that the Cubs have interest, only saying that McCarthy (age 29) has done a remarkable job the past two seasons, helping the As win the American League West at a time when the Angels and Rangers act like economic superpowers.
Hoyers takeaway on McCarthys decision: Very quickly hes pitching in a pennant race.
If the Cubs are going to experience that kind of turnaround, they will have to be right on two pitchers who will be taking a leap of faith.