Cubs’ Top Five Free Agent Targets

10-171460575-smallThe Cubs just finished up what will go down as one of the more memorable seasons in recent franchise history. Yes, it ended at the hands of the hated New York Mets (again), but don’t let that take anything away from what this team did this year. Did anyone honestly expect the Cubs to make the playoffs? Maybe, maybe not. Did anyone think they’d win 97 games? Absolutely not. Yet they did, and they went on to win the NL Wild Card game and then the NLDS. There’s no way that this season can be viewed as anything less than encouraging and a sign of what may lay ahead of us down the road.

Looking down that road, it’s pretty clear that the Cubs need to add to their current roster if they truly want to contend for a World Series championship. And lucky for them, this offseason’s free agent class is pretty jam packed with star players.

Without being completely unreasonable, here’s a look at the top five players the Cubs may target this winter in order of importance.

  1. David Price: Price is one of the game’s best left-handed starting pitchers, and if it wasn’t for Clayton Kershaw, he’d likely be the best. While his career postseason numbers are less than ideal, his talent and ability to dominate any and every game make him possibly the number one free agent pitcher this offseason. The Cubs, without any doubt, must add another quality starter to their rotation. Their lack of starting depth is one reason why they were swept by the Mets. Having a 1-2-3 punch of Arrieta, Price, and Lester would be huge and scary. Add in that Price has made some comments in the past about possibly wanting to join the Cubs and reunite with Joe Maddon, and this scenario is far from unlikely.
  2. Zack Greinke: No one was expecting Greinke to be a free agent this winter, but he is after opting out of the remainder of his contract with the Dodgers. You may be asking why he isn’t ahead of Price on this list, and the reason for that is his age (Price is two years younger) and money. Greinke is likely to sign for a higher dollar amount than Price given what he just did this season, and the Cubs aren’t going to want to pay that amount if Price is still a possibility. Otherwise, they’d likely go for Greinke first. One thing is certain, however, and that is that the Cubs will not sign both Price and Greinke. If they lose out on one, they’ll pursue the other. If they sign one, they’ll give up on the other. The Cubs will go after a starting pitcher, likely one of these two, before anyone else.
  3. Dexter Fowler: Fowler is set to become a UFA, and many believe he played himself into a big contract this season. Depending on what the market becomes for Fowler and the numbers of years and dollar amounts being thrown around are, the Cubs may or may not try to re-sign him. They’ll need to sign a center fielder one way or another, whether it’s Fowler or not. They would like to bring him back, but won’t overpay him to do so.
  4. Jason Heyward: This is a tricky situation. Odds are that Heyward will get more money than Fowler, but Heyward brings a bit more to the table too. He’s not a natural center fielder, but can play the position. Whether the Cubs choose to go this route before the Fowler route remains unknown. Like Fowler though, the Cubs will not overpay for Heyward. If he’s asking for a ridiculous contract, you can count the Cubs out. It all depends on whether or not Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer believe Heyward can be a full time center fielder, and an effective one. Another thing to think about with Heyward is if the Cubs go after him over Fowler, they are now without a lead off hitter. There’s positives and negatives to Heyward.
  5. Washington Nationals starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann (27)Jordan Zimmerman: It isn’t out of the question that the Cubs could potentially sign Price or Greinke, as well as Zimmerman. He likely pitched himself out of a huge deal this year (3.66 ERA and a career high WHIP), so his price may be more affordable now than say a year ago. Signing him along with one of the two previously mentioned pitchers would give the Cubs a formidable rotation and one that could be deadly in the playoffs. If the Cubs can sign Price or Greinke, a potential Zimmerman signing could be the key offseason acquisition.

Starting pitching is one hundred percent the first area the Cubs will address this offseason. Once they sign a quality starter, they’ll likely shift their focus to a center fielder, and then back to another starting pitcher. If the Cubs are able to sign any of the three guys I listed above, that will be big. If they can sign two or even three of them, that’ll be massive. I wouldn’t rule out signing three of them either as long as the money involved isn’t an astronomical amount. Epstein, Hoyer, and Ricketts are determined to bring a World Series championship to the franchise, and they’ll go to extreme, but reasonable, measures to do so.

This should be another fun offseason for the Cubs, and it’s only the beginning.

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It’s here: Cubs’ future is now

10-171460575-smallAs is the case every so often, I’ll take a quick break from writing about hockey on here and shift the focus to baseball. Particularly, Cubs baseball. After promoting baseball’s top prospect, Kris Bryant, to the big league’s last Thursday, the Cubs made another big announcement late Monday night by recalling the game’s number four prospect: Addison Russell. It was widely known or assumed that Bryant would be on the Cubs’ roster by May, but things didn’t seem to be as sure for Russell.

With Mike Olt getting injured just a few games into the season, the Cubs were all of a sudden left with a gaping hole at the third base position. They got by for a handful of games with what they already had on the big league roster until enough games had passed where they could bring up Bryant without losing a year off his contract. So that problem was quickly and not surprisingly solved.

The other glaring problem with the Cubs’ lineup has been second base. Arismendy Alcantara was supposed to be the guy to hold down that position for the time being, but his early season struggles have led the Cubs to their next big call-up. Addison Russell, who figures to be a shortstop in the long run, had started putting some work in at second base recently, which raised some eyebrows and some questions regarding his immediate future with the organization. Are the Cubs just trying to get him used to another position, or do they want him coming up to Chicago sometime soon to play second base? As it turns out, the front office wants him starting tonight at second base for the big league club.

I think most people, myself included, expected Russell to see his first big league action somewhere between June and July. However, most people weren’t really expecting the Cubs to have such a dire need at second base either.

Everyone knew Kris Bryant would be making his first start for the Cubs somewhere around the 10-12 game mark of the season. As I already hinted at, not many expected Russell to be doing the same. What his promotion tells me is two things:

  1. The Cubs feel he is ready to make the leap from Triple A to the big leagues. In eleven games with Iowa this year, he hit .318 with 1 home run, 9 runs batted in, and an .803 OPS. His fielding has never been a concern.
  2. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer are going for it and feel that this team and its young players are ready to compete for a playoff spot. If they didn’t believe that the playoffs were a real possibility, my guess is Russell would still be in Iowa.

The Cubs have gotten off to a 7-5 start to the season, which is by far their best start in many years. Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro have proven that they are good MLB players, with Rizzo looking like a perennial All Star and a cornerstone piece of the franchise, and Castro continuing to hit while improving defensively. Jorge Soler, who debuted with the Cubs last summer, has adjusted extremely well to the big league game and is off to a great start to the year. Many “experts” have him pegged as this year’s NL 10-171460575-smallRookie of the Year. Then you have recent addition Kris Bryant, labeled by many as the savior of the Cubs franchise. He has played in four games with the Cubs while hitting .429 with 2 doubles and 4 runs batted in. Oh, and his early OPS is 1.150.

Now that you add Addison Russell into the equation and take into account his potential, the Cubs’ lineup is suddenly loaded, and all with young talent. The average age of their infield is just 23 years old.

And don’t forget about the Cubs’ pitching staff. Jon Lester, while off to a forgettable start to the season, is a true ace and figures to turn his game around sooner than later. Jake Arrieta is coming off his best season a a pro in 2014, and is already 2-1 with a 1.74 ERA this year. Then you have Jason Hammel, Travis Wood, and Kyle Hendricks who have all pitched well and provided reason for optimism. Also, the Cubs’ bullpen is no pushover. Prior to Neil Ramirez getting hurt, they had the best bullpen ERA in the National League. I see no reason for their ‘pen to become a weakness.

Most people would say that this team’s weakness is their inexperience and starting rotation. Well I have a response to each.

The Cubs may be young, but they don’t play like it, and they don’t think like it. Epstein, Hoyer, and Jason McLeod draft players who not only possess great talent, but possess great maturity for their age. It doesn’t take a fool to see that while watching the likes of Rizzo, Soler, and Bryant, just to name a few. Secondly, the starting pitching of the Cubs wasn’t bad last year, and only got better this year. If the team continues winning games and is in a competitive position in the standings at the trade deadline, I would expect Epstein to deal for another top of the line starter in exchange for any combination of current (available) Cubs prospects. Starlin Castro and Javier Baez could be potential pieces to any such trade.

Obviously there is still A LOT of season left, but there is more reason for optimism with this team than we’ve seen in a long, long time. If the first twelve games are any indication as to how the rest of the season will play out, it’s going to be one hell of a fun summer on Chicago’s north side.

Joe Maddon to the Cubs?

940-couture-loganLet’s take a break from hockey for a minute and focus on another Chicago team: the Cubs. Jon Heyman of CBS Sports just reported that Joe Maddon has agreed to become the next manager of the Cubs, which if true, is huge. Maddon is a 2-time AL Manager of the Year winner with the Tampa Bay Rays, and is known for really creating a good clubhouse atmosphere and for knowing how to handle young players.

Before we get any further, let me just say that there are numerous reports out there right now that are saying no deal is in place between Maddon and the Cubs, but that there is still a very good chance Maddon ends up in Chicago. During the World Series, Major League Baseball enforces a “news blackout” which prevents any teams, players, etc. from announcing anything that might take focus away from the World Series, which might be why some reporters are denying that a Maddon deal is done. There is a very solid chance that the two sides have in fact agreed to a contract, but they won’t make anything official until Thursday or Friday (once the World Series is over).

So now let’s look at what this would mean to the Cubs if Maddon is next year’s skipper.

Like I already said, he’s a 2-time Manager of the Year recipient while in Tampa, he’s been to the World Series once (and lost), and he’s somehow kept the Rays in the thick of things in the AL East for the past 6-7 years despite having a low payroll. He knows how to manage young players, which the Cubs are stocked with, and he creates a very good atmosphere in the clubhouse. He’s been known to dye his hair after win streaks and have his players dress up in weird costumes on travel days. Aside from being a smart manager, he’s a player’s manager, and that is a good thing.

What this potential signing does is send a message to all of baseball that the Cubs are getting real serious about winning in the very near future. It’s no secret that they’ll be in the market for at least one, if not two high end pitchers this winter, and signing Joe Maddon will only increase a free agent’s desire to join the team. Look for the Cubs to target guys like Jon Lester and now James Shields, who both have connections (potentially) to the Cubs. Lester played with the Red Sox in Boston while Epstein was still in control there, and the two sides won the 2007 World Series together. James Shields played with the Rays from 2008-2012 and had Joe Maddon as his manager each of those years. If the Cubs could sign both of those guys to go along with Jake Arrieta, they would have a very potent top 3 in their starting rotation to go along with what should be a dangerous offense. If you really think about it, there aren’t too many players in the Major League’s that won’t want to be a part of the Cubs over the next few years. Everyone is going to want their name to be on the Cubs’ roster that one day wins the World Series, and it’s looking like the possibility of that actually happening is better now than ever before.

Clearly the Joe Maddon signing is not official, but in all likelihood he’ll be the Cubs manager come Opening Day. It kind of makes you feel bad for Rick Renteria who gained a lot of confidence from the Cubs’ front office this past year. He’ll be out of a job if Maddon comes to town, but it’s a move that the Cubs essentially have to make in this situation. It’s not every day that you get the chance to sign one of the game’s best managers.

Cubs’ managerial options

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                          Theo Epstein

After managing the Cubs for just two seasons, Dale Sveum was fired by the team a few weeks back for his lack of player development. While that was an issue with Sveum, I don’t know that I totally agree with the Cubs’ decision to fire him after just two seasons in which he was given two crap teams to work with. I guess in the minds of Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer, the regression shown by Castro and Rizzo this season was enough to let Sveum go. So that leaves the Cubs without a manager right now, and many, myself included, are speculating as to who might be the team’s next skipper.

It was no secret that if Epstein had his way, he was going to hire Joe Girardi to manage the Cubs. Unfortunately, Giriardi decided to re-sign with the Yankees for four more years due to family reasons. With that, we can take him off the list of potential managers. The candidates left on that list are, and in my opinion should be (in no particular order):

  • A.J. Hinch
  • Manny Acta
  • Rick Renteria
  • Tony Pena
  • Dave Martinez
  • Mike Maddux
  • Brad Ausmus

Personally, I would like to see either Tony Pena, Mike Maddux, or Manny Acta hired as the Cubs’ new manager. Dave Martinez, currently the Rays bench coach, is not a bad option either, but honestly I don’t know enough about him.

Some may be surprised by the name Tony Pena. Here’s why I like him:

  • He has managerial experience. From 2002-2005, he was the manager in Kansas City. He won the 2003 AL Manager of the Year award.
  • He has been Joe Girardi’s bench coach in New York since 2009 (Yankees won the World Series that year).
  • He is a former catcher.
  • He is Dominican/Hispanic.

The Cubs want someone who has experience managing at the Major League level. If they hire a rookie manager, then they’d be going down the same road they went with Dale Sveum and his firing would seem pointless. Pena has that experience, and while his tony-pena-540x362record in Kansas City wasn’t great, he proved he can do the job by turning that team around in 2003 and winning AL Manager of the Year. I think being on Girardi’s staff in New York and winning the World Series there is a good credential as well. Also, the fact that he is a former Major League catcher (and a very good one) is a bonus in my eyes. Catchers have always been looked at as being the smartest baseball players because of their responsibilities behind the plate every single game. Add in the fact that Pena won four Gold Gloves as a catcher, and you have yourself a premier catcher who knows the game inside and out. My point about him being Hispanic is a very valid point. The Cubs are developing a number of top baseball prospects at the moment. Two of their top minor league prospects, Albert Almora and Jorge Soler, as well as current Major Leaguer Starlin Castro, are all Hispanic (granted, Almora was born here in the U.S., but he is still Hispanic). Plus the fact that more and more Hispanic players are entering the MLB and are becoming the league’s best players gives even more reason to hire a Hispanic manager. I feel Pena might be able to connect better with Hispanic players and prospects more than some other managers.

1306350614Manny Acta is another candidate that I wouldn’t mind seeing hired as the Cubs’ manager. He has managed the Nationals and Indians in the past, and won the 2007 NL Manager of the Year award, as well as the 2011 AL Manager of the Year Award. Like Tony Pena, Acta is from the Dominican Republic and would have that instant connection with Hispanic players.

A wild card shot here, and a very intriguing candidate is Mike Maddux, the current pitching coach of the Texas Rangers. Maddux was a candidate back mike-madduxbefore the 2012 season after the Cubs fired Mike Quade as well. He is a former pitcher and has ties to the Cubs organization as his younger brother, Greg, was a pretty good pitcher for the North Siders back in the early 90’s and then again from 2004-2006. Some believe that if Mike is hired as the Cubs’ manager, he may bring on Greg to be part of his coaching staff. I would be perfectly fine with that scenario. The one major drawback to hiring Mike Maddux would be the fact that he has zero managing experience at any professional level.

Clearly, there are a number of ways the Cubs could go here in addition to the possibilities that I just mentioned. One question I have, however, is this: Are the Cubs looking to hire the manager that will be here when they “go for it” and try to win the World Series, or are they looking for another temporary manager like Dale Sveum who will run the team until they feel they can compete? The answer to that question lies within the amount of confidence Epstein and Hoyer have in their current prospects. If they feel it may be another three years before the top dogs are ready to be brought up to the Major League level, then they may go the “Dale Sveum route.” If Epstein and Hoyer believe the Cubs are just another year or two away from competing, then we’ll see them hire a more proven manager.

I’m looking forward to this decision.

Stay optimistic about the Cubs’ future

While this has not been a good year for the Cubs in terms of their record, there is no reason to believe that things won’t change in the next few years or so. Just look at Anthony Rizzo.

Prior to being called up to the big leagues this season, Anthony Rizzo was being called “the next Babe Ruth,” “a future Hall of Famer,” “the second coming,” and so on. I’m not saying that he didn’t deserve those praises, but those are some tough expectations to try and live up to. As tough as it is to succeed at the Major League level, Anthony Rizzo is doing just that. In the 29 games since being called up, Rizzo is hitting .321, with 8 home runs and 20 RBI, including this past Sunday’s walk-off home run against the Cardinals. Not many players could have lived up to the hype that surrounded Anthony Rizzo prior to his Cubs debut, but Rizzo has done that and more.

Aside from Rizzo, the Cubs have guys like Starlin Castro and Darwin Barney already producing at the Major League level. In the minor leagues they have players such as Brett Jackson, Josh Vitters, Jorge Soler (a recently signed Cuban outfielder), and Albert Almora (their number 1 pick in this year’s draft). While those guys still have yet to prove themselves at the Major League level, their futures look pretty bright.

Jed Hoyer and Theo Epstein went into this season’s trade deadline with a sole purpose of acquiring young talent, especially in the form of pitchers. Monday night, Reed Johnson and Paul Maholm were dealt to the Atlanta Braves for 2 minor league pitchers, one of which was rated the Braves number 3 prospect last season. Also on Monday night, they traded Geovany Soto to the Texas Rangers for another young pitcher. Today, Ryan Dempster was traded to the Rangers as well, but the details involving the trade have not fully come out yet.

As I have stated before in previous blogs, I have total confidence in Epstein and Hoyer. They know what they are doing when they trade for, sign, and develop young prospects. Just look at what they did in Boston if you need proof. Odds are that the Cubs will not be too good next season, or the next season, or maybe even the next season. But if you give Epstein and Hoyer time, there is no reason to believe that they won’t fulfill their promise of putting a winning team on the field. In the mean time, we can all sit back and watch the whole future develop right before our eyes in players such as Rizzo and Castro.

Stay optimistic Cubs fans.