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Chicago Cubs Rumors
“It’s not every day the best free agent goes to a team that finished in last place,” Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein said today at the press conference announcing starting pitcher Jon Lester‘s new six-year contract. Epstein later explained, “We knew early on that if we signed Jon Lester, it would be about belief. It was because he would believe in us, believe in our future, and believe that winning a World Series with the Cubs was a unique opportunity.”
According to Epstein, the ability to contend for Lester’s services was a culmination of “a pretty quick rebuild” due to the hard work of the Cubs’ scouting and player development people. The Cubs now possess a trove of young position player talent, including Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, Jorge Soler, Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Addison Russell, and Kyle Schwarber. Epstein considers the Lester signing a transition to a point where the team is “clearly very serious about winning a World Series.” Lester agreed, telling the crowd,“I can tell you honestly, I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think they were going to win in 2015.”
Lester said the chance of winning a World Series with a team that hasn’t done so since 1908 “just adds that little extra for me.” Questioned on the topic later, Epstein admitted the team’s long history of losing actually helped them sign Lester. “We’re not hiding the ball. The fact that we haven’t won in so long helps define who we are. It adds meaning and resonance to what we’re trying to accomplish here, and I think it attracts players who aren’t afraid of that challenge and want to be here for the right reasons and it definitely attracted Jon Lester.”
The Cubs’ front office and ownership gave Lester the largest contract in franchise history, a reported $155MM deal with a seventh-year vesting option and a full no-trade clause. It didn’t take long for Epstein to concede to the no-trade clause, a rarity for him. “I don’t usually like those, but when you’re talking about a free agent of this caliber who had just gotten traded to Oakland as a result of having a team that relied on some young players and ended up with a disappointing performance, it would have been really hard to sign him without a no-trade given the unique circumstances involved here. In the spirit of the negotiation, it was something that we initially objected to but didn’t keep the fight up too long because it was outside the spirit of the connection that we were trying to make.”
Epstein went up against his and Lester’s former employer, the Red Sox, in negotiations that went down to the wire at the Winter Meetings in San Diego. The Red Sox topped out at a reported $135MM offer, though they didn’t help their cause four months earlier by trading Lester, Jonny Gomes, and cash to the Athletics for Yoenis Cespedes and a competitive balance pick. When Bob Nightengale of USA Today asked Lester whether it would have been a lot harder to leave Boston had he not been traded, the lefty replied, “Yeah, I think so. I think there’s always that unknown when you are traded. Obviously that’s the unknown of going to a whole different coast, a whole different organization, a whole different philosophy. I think going there prepared us for this time. I think if you finish out the year in Boston and you get down to this decision, I think it would be a lot harder. Not to say it wasn’t hard as it was. But I feel like that broke that barrier of, ‘Well, I wonder if I can play for another team.’ And I think we answered those questions.”
Though Lester’s deal with the Cubs was consummated at last week’s Winter Meetings, it was the product of more than a month’s worth of courting. The Cubs sent Lester a 15-minute video on the first day of free agency, talking about the team’s future. Epstein and company experienced a turning point in a mid-November meeting, after which they felt “unmistakable momentum.” That momentum never waned, even through tense late night negotiations with Lester’s agents at ACES.
For his part, Lester said he enjoyed initial meetings with teams, but the second phase of actually making a decision was not fun. Much has been made of Lester’s long relationship with Epstein and Cubs GM Jed Hoyer, dating back to the pitcher being drafted out of high school in ’02. Both sides agreed that the comfort level and trust helped.
Does the Lester signing mean the Cubs are all-in for 2015? As Epstein described it, “We’re very much all-in for our future, and the future starts in 2015.” Asked whether the team is interested in trade targets with only one year of remaining control, Epstein answered, “Yeah, if they were priced accordingly. Obviously those players carry less value in our minds than players you can control going forward.”
The Cubs have already spent almost $180MM on free agents Lester, Jason Hammel, Jason Motte, and Tsuyoshi Wada, and they also traded for Tommy La Stella and well-paid catcher Miguel Montero. I talked to Hoyer about remaining potential areas for upgrade, and he said the Cubs may attempt to add an outfield bat, given the youth of the team’s current group. Asked if there’s room for another starting pitcher, Hoyer replied, “Potentially. We’re not going to sit here and say we’re done. I think we’re very comfortable going forward right now with what we have, but obviously the winter’s not over yet, there’s a lot of guys out there and we’ll certainly be engaged on some of those guys.”
The Epstein rebuild has taken three years to reach this point, and the team’s president said today that the Cubs’ “incredibly patient” fans “truly deserve a pitcher and a person of this caliber to call their own.” Lofty expectations have been set for Lester, who appears ready for the challenge.
6:44pm: The deal comes with $2.5MM in achievable bonuses, Levine tweets.
Motte had a nice run with the Cardinals as one of the game’s better back-end relievers. Over 2010-12, he tossed 192 1/3 innings of 2.43 ERA ball with 9.5 K/9 against 2.4 BB/9. He moved into the team’s closer role in 2012, locking down a league-leading 42 games.
But things took a turn when Motte was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery. A long recovery period kept him out until the 2014 season, when he also missed time with a lower back issue. All said, Motte only appeared for 25 innings last year, struggling to a 4.68 ERA with 6.1 K/9 and 3.2 BB/9.
More troublingly, perhaps, ERA estimators were down on Motte’s work last season: FIP (6.49), xFIP (4.58), and SIERA (4.25) all saw Motte as a below-average contributor. He was hurt significantly by the long ball, giving up a 20.0% HR/FB rate and a whopping 2.52 HR/9 that ranked second-to-worst in all of baseball among relievers who threw at least 20 frames.
He will look for a rebound in the same division, moving to a Cubs team that has some live young arms at the back of the pen. Motte should slot in as a setup option, but perhaps his experience in the closer’s role provides some measure of protection if Hector Rondon cannot repeat his strong effort from a season ago.
Hernandez, 22, played last year at the High-A level, slashing .270/.315/.351 over 486 plate appearances with 22 stolen bases (against eight times being caught on the basepaths). He has been with the Cubs organization since signing as an amateur out of the Dominican Republic as a teenager.
The 27-year-old Doubront ultimately made four solid starts for the Cubs after heading over in the mid-season swap. He is expected to work from the pen next year while providing rotation depth.
The latest salvo in Bryce Harper‘s grievance against the Nationals over his arbitration eligibility was fired yesterday when Harper failed to appear at NatsFest, the team’s annual fan convention. Nationals GM Mike Rizzo told reporters, including James Wagner of the Washington Post, “We’re disappointed he’s not here, but he chose not to be here because of the grievance.” Harper responded with a statement provided by his representatives and quoted by Wagner, “I have attended NatsFest each year and always enjoy my experience with the fans, but was unable to attend this year’s event due to matters out of my control. I look forward to next year’s NatsFest.” The grievance hearing is scheduled for Tuesday in New York. If Harper wins his grievance, MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz projects a $2.5MM arbitration award for the outfielder (as opposed to the $1.5MM base his contract stipulates for 2015), which will create a larger platform for future arbitration earnings.
In other news and notes involving the National League:
- Jordan Zimmermann reiterated his desire to sign an extension with the Nationals, but only at the right price, reports CSNWashington.com’s Chase Hughes. “If it’s a fair value, like I have said all along, I would gladly sign,” said Zimmermann. “But at the end of the day, it’s gotta be something that’s fair and if it’s not, then I’ll be moving on.“
- The Marlins are not willing to trade either Henderson Alvarez or Jarred Cosart for a first baseman, tweets Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald. Jackson also reports the Marlins have had more talks with Michael Morse in recent days and he represents the best realistic option to upgrade the position.
- The Marlins are listening to offers for right-hander Nathan Eovaldi; but, while the Pirates view him as a “terrific young pitcher” and “someone we’ll keep looking at,” club president Frank Coonelly says they are not close to bringing him to Pittsburgh, tweets MLB.com’s Tom Singer.
- In a separate Singer tweet, Coonelly also downplays the return of Edinson Volquez. “Two years for $20MM not far off for Volquez,” Coonelly said. “He could get that. It probably won’t be here.“
- The Cubs have met recently with Colby Rasmus and are one of several teams to show interest in him, reports Sportsnet’s Shi Davidi. MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes identified the Cubs as a potential landing spot for Rasmus back in September while the Orioles and Royals have also been linked to the free agent center fielder.
- With the elevation of Jeff Bridich to general manager, Rockies manager Walt Weiss has more independence in running the team with the front office no longer maintaining an offfice in the clubhouse and is more involved in player personnel decisions, writes Patrick Saunders of The Denver Post.
Jason Hammel and Jeff Samardzija both helped their former Athletics teammate Jon Lester in his decision to sign with the Cubs, MLB.com’s Carrie Muskat writes. Of course, Lester was already familiar with Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein from their time in Boston. “I think the Theo-Jon bromance was going to happen anyways,” says Hammel. “But [Lester] was definitely interested, and he was picking our brains all the time.” Here are more quick notes from the Central divisions.
- The Reds didn’t attract much attention this week, but they quietly traded two starters (Alfredo Simon and Mat Latos) who didn’t project as well as one might think in 2015 for talent that could help them immediately, Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs writes in a piece for FOX Sports. Shortstop Eugenio Suarez (acquired in the Simon deal) projects to be as good an offensive player as Didi Gregorius next year, and pitcher Anthony DeSclafani (acquired in the Latos deal) might turn out to be almost as good next year as Latos anyway.
- Simon could move to the Tigers‘ bullpen if they re-sign Max Scherzer, Anthony Fenech of the Detroit Free Press suggests. Publicly, the Tigers won’t say that, Fenech writes, because they would look like they lost if Scherzer signed elsewhere. But it seems possible that the Tigers could be thinking of Simon primarily as a backup plan for their rotation.
- The Indians‘ trade for Brandon Moss was a deal worth making, Terry Pluto of the Plain Dealer writes. Moss is expected to fully recover from offseason surgery, and the cost to get him (minor league second baseman Joey Wendle) wasn’t steep. With Moss in the fold, Pluto writes, the Indians will likely work to trade fellow lefty outfielder David Murphy, who has one year remaining before free agency.
- Pluto also writes that the Indians dodged a bullet when Justin Masterson didn’t accept their three-year, $45MM extension offer last offseason. Masterson, of course, suffered through a year of injury and poor mechanics, and with him under contract, the Indians would have had about half their payroll committed to three players: Masterson, Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher. Masterson agreed to a one-year deal with the Red Sox this week.
While we wait to learn about the finalization of the deal sending Jimmy Rollins to the Dodgers, let’s check in on the latest out of Philadelphia:
- The Phillies have asked the Cubs about lefty Travis Wood, Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times reports in a broader piece about the Cubs. Philadelphia could be a match for displaced starting backstop Welington Castillo, Wittenmyer also mentions. It seems to me that Philadelphia would probably look to move Carlos Ruiz if it added a player such as Castillo, though that is pure speculation on my part and may not be a necessity.
- Connecting the dots on the Phillies and second baseman Chase Utley, Matt Gelb of the Philadelphia Inquirer wonders whether the veteran might okay a trade now that the club has begun to follow up on its public declaration of a pushed-back contention timeline. Gelb recalls that Utley — who has full no-trade protection — said at last year’s All-Star game that he was “told we were going to continue to try to contend” before he inked his extension. Ultimately, Gelb calls a deal unlikely but possible, explaining several barriers including the Phillies’ disinclination to undergo a full teardown.
- The Phillies seem inclined to give Miguel Gonzalez a chance to build up as a starter next spring, Gelb also reports. Though he is far from a sure thing to join the rotation, it will be interesting to see to what extent the team’s offseason plans are impacted at all by the possibility. As things stand, it would seem that the Phils will need to add at least one starter to the books for 2015, all the more so if Cole Hamels is traded.
After a brief stop with the A’s, Jason Hammel is headed back to the Cubs on a two-year deal with a club option for a third season, the team announced. Hammel’s contract is reportedly worth $20MM, and the club option is valued at $10MM.
Hammel will earn an even $9MM in each of the guaranteed years, and his option comes with a $2MM buyout. However, the option becomes mutual if Hammel reaches 200 innings in 2016 or if he is traded.
Hammel signed a one-year deal with the Cubs last February, then enjoyed a strong half-season in Chicago before heading to Oakland in the Jeff Samardzija deal. Now, the Octagon client will return to the place where he re-launched his career.
Hammel significantly improved his strikeout rate (8.1 K/9, to go with a 3.47 ERA and 2.2 BB/9) in 2014 following a down season with the Orioles, and he pitched 176 1/3 innings, his highest total since 2010. The 32-year-old seems therefore likely to land a much more significant deal this time around than the $6MM he got from the Cubs in 2014. In October, MLBTR’s Jeff Todd predicted Hammel would get three years and $30MM. This offseason, Hammel had been connected to the Marlins, Royals and Astros, along with the Cubs and other teams.
This winter’s market for free agent starting pitching had been at a near-standstill (with A.J. Burnett, who was only interested in signing with the Pirates, being the only significant signee so far), and it appeared that many second-tier free agents might wait for a top pitcher like Jon Lester to sign to see how their own markets would develop. It appears, however, that Hammel and his agent Alan Nero might be on the verge of getting a deal they like anyway.
The Cubs were, of course, widely known to be looking for top pitching this offseason. Signing Hammel would help them stabilize the middle of their rotation, but presumably would not preclude them from continuing to pursue an ace like Lester.
The reported terms make for an attractive price for Chicago. MLBTR’s Jeff Todd predicted before the offseason that Hammel would land a deal matching Scott Feldman‘s three-year, $30MM guarantee, noting that Hammel had a better case but more difficult market setting than did Feldman last year. The Cubs appear to have taken advantage of that fact to add Hammel without promising a third year.
For the rest of the supply side of the market, this deal sets a fairly low target. But it also removes a competitor from the field and perhaps keeps more overall money in play, and in that respect the contract should only benefit the large group of mid-tier starters who remain available.
Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com first reported that a deal was near on Twitter. Joel Sherman of the New York Post tweeted that the deal was done. Chris Cotillo of SB Nation (via Twitter), Jon Morosi of FOX Sports (links to Twitter), and Heyman (via Twitter) reported the financial terms.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
The trust that Jon Lester has in Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer from their days together in Boston is singled out by Yahoo Sports’ Jeff Passan as the key reason why the lefty chose Wrigley Field as his next home. Here’s some news from around the NL Central…
- The Pirates were one of the finalists for Brandon McCarthy, MLB.com’s Tom Singer writes. The Bucs weren’t known to be connected to McCarthy in the offseason rumor mill, though they fit as a logical contender for his services. Even with Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett signed, Singer thinks the Pirates could still look to add starting pitching, such as re-signing Edinson Volquez.
- Other teams feel that the Reds will look to trade Zack Cozart now that they’ve acquired Eugenio Suarez, ESPN’s Jayson Stark reports (Twitter link).
- With Mat Latos and Alfredo Simon respectively traded to the Marlins and Tigers, Reds GM Walt Jocketty told reporters (including MLB.com’s Mark Sheldon) that the team can start to explore other upgrades now that they’ve addressed their payroll concerns. “We’re in a better position to start looking at some other possibilities to improve our club — the hitter we’re looking for and some bullpen depth,” Jocketty said. “We’re close to where we need to be, [payroll-wise]. Now we can concentrate on filling some of the needs.”
- In an Insider-only post, ESPN’s Keith Law looks at the Reds‘ two pitching trades and feels the team got more from Detroit than they did from Miami. Law thinks Suarez is an improvement over Cozart and Jonathon Crawford could potentially be the Reds’ closer of the future.
- Kyle Lohse and Yovani Gallardo are two of several prominent Brewers entering the last year of their contracts, and MLB.com’s Adam McCalvy opines that the Crew could explore trading the two starters if they think Mike Fiers or Jimmy Nelson can be viable rotation options.
Here’s the latest on the Astros from Evan Drellich of the Houston Chronicle…
- The Astros met with agent Scott Boras to discuss shortstop Stephen Drew and relief pitching, says a source familiar with the conversation. Boras confirmed the meeting took place without naming any particular names, saying “We’ve had meetings and talked and we have bullpen guys and the infield and outfield guys, so we’ve had some general conversations. They’re kind of in a fluid state on their position players, but…we have some guys that may be some fits there.” This is just my speculation, but it’s possible Houston could’ve been looking into Rafael Soriano or Francisco Rodriguez, Boras’ two most high-profile bullpen clients.
- Boras said that Takashi Toritani is drawing interest from MLB teams mostly as a second baseman rather than his natural shortstop position. As Drellich notes, this would seem to eliminate the Astros from contention since Jose Altuve is already entrenched at second.
- Unsurprisingly, Drellich’s source said that the Astros’ chat with Boras didn’t involve Max Scherzer.
- The Cubs showed some interest in Jason Castro earlier this offseason, prior to Chicago’s acquisition of Miguel Montero from the Diamondbacks.
Here are some minor moves from around baseball…
- Nyjer Morgan has signed a contract with the Hanwha Eagles of the Korean Baseball Organization, as per a report from Naver Sports (hat tip to Dan Kurtz of MyKBO.net). Morgan played in Japan in 2013 before signing a minor league deal with the Indians last offseason. He was only able to play in 15 games for the Tribe due to injury, however, and was released in August.
- The Angels signed left-hander Scott Snodgress to a minor league deal with an invite to Spring Training, SB Nation’s Chris Cotillo reports. Snodgress was non-tendered by the White Sox last week. The 25-year-old lefty made his Major League debut in 2014, pitching 2 1/3 innings over four games for Chicago.
- On Thursday, the Cubs, Red Sox and Athletics will complete some business left over from two trades from last summer, ESPN Chicago’s Jesse Rogers tweets. The A’s will send a player to be named later to the Cubs to complete the deal that sent Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to Oakland. The Cubs will then send another PTBNL to the Sox to complete the two clubs’ deal for Felix Doubront.