Since leaving the Red Sox after the 2011 season, this is the place Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein wanted to get to, where his young talent is ready for prime time and where he now can spend some of the Ricketts family fortune on free agents.
Epstein and sidekicks Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod have revamped the team they inherited from deposed general manager Jim Hendry, whose last draft did produce Javier Baez, an impressive, power-hitting infielder.
So, where does Epstein take it from here?
There are signs he’s about to spend on front-line pitching. There were reports that he claimed Phillies lefthander Cole Hamels on waivers earlier this month but was unable to come up with a trade that made sense for both sides.
There’s talk that Jon Lester could be an offseason target, given Epstein’s familiarity with him. And add Max Scherzer to the list. But Epstein sounded iffy on whether he’ll make a high-end pitching purchase.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say we would or we wouldn’t in the offseason. I think it’s going to be a gradual process between now and next year’s trading deadline and into 2016,” Epstein said. “We don’t want to force anything. If we come across something we feel makes sense for us, there’s no doubt we’ll do it.”
“Everyone is starting to predict that we’ll be the team to watch, but we’re going to go through our period of development at the major league level with our young guys, which is why we’ve got Baez and [Jorge] Soler up here now, to get them used to major league at-bats. We know there’s going to be a period of adjustment for these guys. We’re really heavily invested in our positional players, but now we need to focus our resources on pitching, and if something makes sense to us positionally, we’ll consider it as well.”
Epstein has built his team around Anthony Rizzo, the former Red Sox farmhand that Epstein sent to San Diego in the Adrian Gonzalez deal, then reacquired when he took the Cubs job. Rizzo got to 30 home runs this season before back issues sidelined him.
Baez, who hit 23 homers at Triple A Iowa this season, crediting, among others, coach Manny Ramirez, is playing second base for the moment, and All-Star Starlin Castro will likely stay at shortstop for the time being. It appears slugger Kris Bryant, who was taken No. 2 overall in last year’s draft and who has hit 43 homers between Double A and Triple A this year, will likely play third base or a corner outfield position when he comes up next season.
Soler has missed time this season with hamstring issues but appears to be a superstar in the making. He has power, speed, and a plus arm from the outfield. His first at-bat in the majors last week resulted in a home run. The Cubs stayed out of the Rusney Castillo sweepstakes after he had a poor individual workout with them not long ago.
And we haven’t even mentioned shortstop Addison Russell, acquired in the Jeff Samardzija deal with Oakland. Russell also has power, and he may end up playing a different position.
There’s also infielder Arismendy Alcantara and catcher/left fielder Kyle Schwarber (18 homers in Single A) to consider. Also, former first-round pick Albert Almora, a center fielder, is hitting close to .300 between Single A and Double A.
“There’s enough versatility there where we can move guys to different positions off of shortstop,” Epstein said.
Epstein has been pleased with the work done by his staff with regard to trades, the draft, and in the international market. The Cubs have used 125 players in the two-plus years since Epstein took over. They haven’t always gotten their man, but have had a lot more hits than misses. Epstein knew he had to tear it all down, and he did so by deleting veterans such as Alfonso Soriano, Ryan Dempster, Aramis Ramirez, Samardzija, and Jason Hammel to get to this point.
It’s been painful — 197 losses in the first two years — but Epstein sold his bosses that this is the way it had to be. And now the Cubs are a trendy pick to become a powerhouse if Epstein can find veteran pitchers to go along with Jake Arrieta, his big find when he traded Scott Feldman to the Orioles last season, Kyle Hendricks, and Felix Doubront.
Epstein can remember plenty of examples of the patience he’s exhibited. He recalled Dustin Pedroia’s struggles when he first came up. “All of a sudden in May of 2007, there was one pitch — a high, inside fastball against Johan Santana — that he hit, and he never looked back and became rookie of the year,” Epstein said. “Everyone’s different. Everyone is going to react differently when they come up. It would be unusual if they didn’t struggle at first.”
The Cubs have a lot of controllable players 25 and under. Rizzo, at 25, is essentially the elder statesman of the young guns.
As the Red Sox have found out with their young players, there’s no guarantee they will all blossom into All-Stars. Epstein is aware of that, which is why he keeps the door ajar for a big free agent positional player or two.
But it’s clear the Cubs went the positional route rather than the pitcher route in acquiring prospects. The hitters seem to be tougher to get. Sometime, somewhere, whether it’s this offseason, the trade deadline next season, or next offseason, Epstein will strike.
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Teams keeping an eye on Japan’s Maeda
Kenta Maeda has yet to draw the attention Masahiro Tanaka did at this time a year ago, and that’s probably because most scouts don’t believe Maeda is as good. But if you’re a team like the Red Sox, Yankees, Rangers, or Cubs, and you’re looking for a starting pitcher in the market, Maeda’s name will be front and center in free agency.
The scouts who pegged Tanaka as a middle-of-the-rotation pitcher were wrong. When he was healthy, he was a No. 1. Now Maeda, who pitches for the Hiroshima Carp of the Japanese Central League, is being pegged for the middle or end of a rotation. Not sure I buy that, either.
The fact is, the 26-year-old righthander, who is 10-7 with a 2.73 ERA and 1.141 WHIP in 142 innings this season, has pitched 200 or more innings three times. The rap against Maeda will likely be the same one Tanaka faced, that there’s too much wear and tear on his elbow and shoulder. After an incredible start, Tanaka was shut down because of elbow soreness, avoided Tommy John surgery, and is on the comeback trail.
One of the biggest adjustments for Japanese pitchers is getting used to the schedule, going from pitching once every seven days to once every five. But everybody’s different.
One National League pitching evaluator who has seen him pitch this season and in past years, said Maeda, who is listed at 6 feet, 154 pounds, is a “very sound guy, nothing flashy, has four or five pitches he can throw for strikes.”
Maeda is considered a smaller version of Tanaka, but his split-finger isn’t the same caliber. Yet he still can throw in the mid-90s and has five pitches, which sounds impressive until they get to the big leagues and that number is reduced.
Japanese pitchers usually draw interest from the same teams. With the Yankees employing Tanaka and Hiroki Kuroda, you wonder if they would venture into the Japanese market for pitching again, or has Tanaka’s injury scared them off? The Dodgers, Angels, Cubs, Orioles, Blue Jays, and Red Sox will likely be involved.
Apropos of nothing
1. Being early apparently is not Colby Rasmus’s strong suit. Constantly the last Blue Jay to arrive, I’m told by a Toronto source.
2. Sounds like Ryne Sandberg has his hands full managing the Phillies. Sandberg is a tough, proud guy, a Hall of Fame player, but apparently he’s a little too tough and is receiving backlash from his players. As Bobby Valentine learned in Boston, you can’t be tough on players. You have to pat them on the back and treat them with kid gloves. Sandberg has had issues this season with Cole Hamels, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Domonic Brown, and others. Not that any of them, with the exception of Hamels and Rollins, should have anything to say given their poor performances.
3. Since 2010, the year he came up, Allen Craig leads the majors with a .363 average with runners in scoring position. Miguel Cabrera is second at .362, followed by Adrian Gonzalez (.356), Joey Votto (.342), Manny Machado (.338), Willie Bloomquist (.336), and Matt Carpenter (.333).
4. Both Red Sox lefthander Tommy Layne and Blue Jays manager John Gibbons told the story last week of how Layne became a reliever when he asked Gibbons, who managed him in the San Diego system, to move him to the bullpen. Layne said it was the best thing he ever did.
5. Entering Friday, the Indians had the lowest ERA in the majors in August at 2.54. Over the last 16 games, their starters had a 2.23 ERA. Only Corey Kluber has been in their rotation all season. This is a team that traded its supposed ace, Justin Masterson, who was not having a good season, at the deadline. One of the biggest contributors has been Carlos Carrasco, who was 0-3 with a 6.95 ERA before being banished to the bullpen in late April. In his first four starts in August he was 3-0 with a 0.73 ERA, with opponents hitting .131.
6. Please, please adopt Red Sox chairman Tom Werner’s pace of game suggestions. And let’s add one more: limit shifts. They’re limiting offense when the game needs it.
7. It seems to me it’s going to be more difficult for the Red Sox to sign a front-end starting pitcher because of the competition they’ll receive from other teams and the willingness of those teams to offer five- and six-year deals to the likes of Max Scherzer, Jon Lester, and James Shields. The Red Sox may have to go the trade route, and if the Phillies take Hamels out of the equation, then what?
Updates on nine
1. Melky Cabrera, LF, Blue Jays — Cabrera is going to make a lot of money this offseason, but it may not come from the Blue Jays. Among the league leaders in hitting and an excellent defensive outfielder, Cabrera is likely to land a four- or five-year deal. Rogers, which has more money than Canada, just won’t extend itself for its baseball team. Look for a team such as the Orioles to have interest.
2. Casey Janssen, RHP, Blue Jays — Janssen is a free agent the Jays expect to lose, but they aren’t fretting about it. Janssen has California roots and would like to move to a team out West. The Jays will likely devote their resources to different areas.
3. James Shields, RHP, Royals — Shields is expected to be a strong Red Sox target, according to a team source. The Sox love that he’s battle-tested in the American League East and also tough. One emerging issue, however, is Shields may not be the bargain, second-tier guy many teams thought he would be. He’s behind only Max Scherzer and Jon Lester among free agent starters and there’s a growing feeling he won’t be confined to the four-year contract at which the Sox would like to snatch him. Why won’t the Royals bid for him? Who knows? Didn’t know WalMart was bleeding money.
4. Aramis Ramirez, 3B, Brewers — There’s a mutual option on Ramirez’s contract and it’s interesting from both ends. There’s a $4 million buyout, so is it in Ramirez’s best interest to sign elsewhere for another $15 million or so, or just stay put at age 36? From the Brewers’ point of view, they probably don’t want to pay Ramirez $14 million, but free agent options Chase Headley, Hanley Ramirez, and Pablo Sandoval might be as costly. Aramis Ramirez continues to have a good season — .301, 14 homers, 61 RBIs, and an .803 OPS in 395 at-bats.
5. Brandon Morrow, RHP, Blue Jays — Morrow will be a free agent and it doesn’t appear the Blue Jays will re-sign him given his long injury history. But he won’t be without suitors. John Farrell loves his stuff. It wouldn’t be a long shot to see the Red Sox have some interest in Morrow as a secondary starter.
6. Jose Bautista, RF, Blue Jays — While there’s been speculation for a couple of years surrounding Bautista and a possible deal out of Toronto, this offseason might be when it happens. The Blue Jays need to do something dramatic to replenish their team and trading Bautista would bring back a good haul. There would be a few teams lined up to acquire a righthanded bat with power.
7. Miguel Cabrera, 1B, Tigers — It’s bad enough the Tigers are losing Anibal Sanchez for the rest of the season, but they may be faced once again with entering the playoffs (if they make it) with an injured Cabrera, and we saw how tough that was on them last season. Cabrera’s right ankle injury has reared its ugly head and is likely responsible for the longest home run drought of his great career (25 games heading into Saturday).
8. Jesus Montero, C/DH, Mariners — Montero has been one of the biggest busts in recent major league history after being dealt by the Yankees for Michael Pineda in January 2012. Pineda went through injuries but has salvaged something. Anyway, Montero made the news again last week on a rehab assignment in Tacoma. According to MILB.com’s Tyler Maun, Montero was coaching first base when a cross-checking scout yelled at Montero to hustle off the field, and then ordered an ice cream sandwich and had it delivered to the heavy-set Montero in the dugout. Montero emerged from the dugout with a bat and screamed profanities and threw the ice cream sandwich at the cross-checker, identified as Butch Baccala. Montero had to be restrained. Baccala would appear to be in some trouble.
9. A.J. Pierzynski, C, Cardinals — The Cardinals kept Pierzynski and optioned backup Tony Cruz to Double A when Yadier Molina was activated off the disabled list on Friday. The Cardinals feel Pierzynski did a good job handling the pitching staff in Molina’s 50-day absence and will now use him to rest Molina and as a pinch hitter. Pierzynski also has fit in well in the clubhouse, according to a major league source, a far cry from what was perceived in his time with the Red Sox.
From the Bill Chuck files — “David Ortiz leads the majors in slugging since the All-Star break at .634, followed by Chris Carter at .624.” . . . Also, “Adrian Beltre has the lowest strikeout rate (5.8 percent) since the All-Star break. Chris Davis is at 38.8 percent, the worst in the majors.” . . . Happy birthday, Tracy Stallard (77), Jeff Frye (48), Stan Royer (47), Hideo Nomo (46), Nate Minchey (45), and Ramon Ramirez (33).
firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.