Unlike last season, when he took nearly three weeks to accept a summer demotion to Triple-A, Cubs infielder Tommy La Stella would be willing to head to the minors without incident this year, according to manager Joe Maddon (via Patrick Mooney of CSN Chicago). A season-opening role with Triple-A Iowa is a possibility for La Stella, who’s battling outfielder Matt Szczur for the Cubs’ final bench spot. Szczur is the only one of the two who’s out of options, which could bode poorly for La Stella. The Cubs “haven’t decided everything or anything yet,” per Maddon, but he believes Szczur is a major league-caliber player and an ideal teammate.
The Cubs have tabbed left-hander Brett Anderson to open the season as their fifth starter, tweets Patrick Mooney of CSN Chicago. Consequently, fellow southpaw Mike Montgomery, whom Anderson beat out, will head to the bullpen. At $3.5MM, Anderson received one of the biggest contracts the Cubs handed out during an offseason devoid of free agent splashes for the reigning World Series champions. Given the 29-year-old Anderson’s well-known injury history, though, it stands to reason Montgomery could end up in the rotation this season. “I could see him starting,” manager Joe Maddon told Jesse Rogers of ESPN.com. “Long relief, short relief. All of it.”
Henderson had an opt-out opportunity coming up next Wednesday, but the club had obviously already made up its mind. He struggled through 4 2/3 innings this spring, allowing five runs on seven hits and five walks while recording three strikeouts.
The veteran reliever had shown renewed signs of life last year, when he pitched 35 innings for the Mets. While he ended up with a 4.11 ERA, he showed a 93 mph+ fastball and notched 10.3 K/9 to go with 3.6 BB/9. Henderson also coughed up too many dingers and missed significant time with a biceps injury, though, which helps to explain why he wasn’t able to secure a 40-man spot over the offseason.
Chicago pared back its bullpen group rather significantly today. Other hurlers moved out of MLB camp were righties Jake Buchanan and Alec Mills, who were optioned, as well as non-roster invitees Williams Perez, Dylan Floro, and David Rollins.
“You were part of it,” my former boss said with a laugh, “watching me roll around in agony for a couple days in the hotel room and not doing anything about it.”
“We were angling for a palace coup,” I joked, “but the reality is … the doctor gave me warning signs to be looking for, and we all know you weren’t being truthful with us.”
To which he quickly replied: “Well, we had to get Lilly done.”
– – –
It was a Tuesday night in December 2006, and baseball’s annual Winter Meetings were taking place at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort in Orlando, Fla.
Cubs general manager Jim Hendry hadn’t been feeling well all day. He really hadn’t felt right since arriving in Orlando over the weekend. He talked periodically about feeling a little bit of discomfort in his abdominal area, but never let on how much he was hurting.
Mostly, he sat subdued in the Cubs’ suite – which wasn’t like him – chomping antacid tablets like they were M&M’s. Typically, he was animated, lively, tugging at his shirt collar as he worked the room. On this day, he was pale and quiet but determined to do his job.
And I knew he wasn’t his normal self, as I was a member of Hendry’s baseball operations staff.
Leading up to Orlando, the previous couple of months had been an offseason like no other in Cubs history – as Hendry was literally ordered to spend money by his bosses. Tribune Company executives more-or-less gave him a mandate: We want a winner now. We need TV ratings to go up now. We need to be relevant immediately.
- The Braves have Cubs outfielder Matt Szczur on their list of possible trade candidates, FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal reports (via Twitter). Szczur is out of options and the Cubs intend to keep him, though a 25-man roster spot could be hard to manage given Chicago’s multitude of depth options. Szczur has a career .245/.297/.376 slash line over 346 PA since debuting with the Cubs in 2014, and he is a right-handed hitter who can play all three outfield positions, which fits Atlanta’s known need. MLB.com’s Mark Bowman recently opined that since the Braves have several out-of-options players, they could deal one such player for another on a rival team.
Check out all the published entries in our Offseason in Review series here.
Fresh off their first World Championship since 1908, the Cubs acquired a top-shelf closer and spent modestly in free agency.
Major League Signings
- Jon Jay, CF: one year, $8MM
- Koji Uehara, RP: one year, $6MM
- Brett Anderson, SP: one year, $3.5MM. Includes performance bonuses based on starts.
- Brian Duensing, RP: one year, $2MM
- Total spend: $19.5MM.
Trades And Claims
- Claimed RP Conor Mullee off waivers from Yankees (later non-tendered and re-signed to minor league deal)
- Acquired RP Wade Davis from Royals for OF Jorge Soler
- Acquired P Caleb Smith from Brewers for a player to be named later or cash. Smith had been taken by the Brewers from the Yankees in the Major League Rule 5 draft and remains subject to those rules.
- Claimed RP David Rollins off waivers from Rangers (later outrighted and cleared waivers)
- Claimed RP Dylan Floro off waivers from Rays (later outrighted and cleared waivers)
- Acquired SP Eddie Butler from Rockies for RP James Farris and an international bonus slot
- Acquired SP Alec Mills from Royals for CF Donnie Dewees
Notable Minor League Signings
- Jemile Weeks, Jim Henderson, Munenori Kawasaki, Williams Perez, Andury Acevedo, Gerardo Concepcion, Casey Kelly, Manny Parra, Zac Rosscup, Carlos Corporan, Fernando Rodriguez
- Pedro Strop, RP: Two years, $11.85MM. Replaced one-year, $5.5MM arbitration deal for 2017. Includes $6.25MM club option for 2019 with a $500K buyout.
- Dexter Fowler, Aroldis Chapman, Jorge Soler, David Ross, Jason Hammel, Trevor Cahill, Travis Wood, Clayton Richard, Joe Smith, Chris Coghlan, James Farris, Donnie Dewees, Armando Rivero, Spencer Patton
An MLB front office never rests. Before the buzz wore off from the Cubs’ epic World Series parade, Theo Epstein and company met with starting pitcher Jason Hammel regarding his 2017 club option, according to Patrick Mooney of CSN Chicago. Earlier this month, Hammel explained to reporters, “I love how people were saying it was a choice, because it really wasn’t. It was either basically pitch out of the bullpen or not have a job.” Hammel told the Cubs to cut him loose, and the team set off searching for rotation depth to complement Mike Montgomery.
It appeared the Cubs’ top priority was Tyson Ross, the 29-year-old righty who was non-tendered by the Padres in December. Ross’ lost 2016 culminated in thoracic outlet surgery in mid-October, and the arbitration system would have required the Padres to pay him $7.68MM or more this year. The Cubs ended up finishing second for Ross, who received a $6MM guarantee from the Rangers in mid-January.
Enter Plan B: 29-year-old southpaw Brett Anderson. The oft-injured lefty had finally returned to the 30-start milestone with the 2015 Dodgers, and accepted that club’s $15.8MM qualifying offer for 2016. Things quickly went sour for him, as Anderson was diagnosed with a bulging disk in his back that required surgery in March. Anderson made his 2016 Dodgers debut on August 14th, but then dealt with a wrist sprain and a blister. Unlike Ross, Anderson is at least MLB-ready at this moment. Whether he makes five or 25 starts for the Cubs this year, the Cubs haven’t risked much. Manager Joe Maddon has indicated Montgomery and Anderson may share the fifth starter job, or the team could occasionally go to a six-man rotation.
Soon after the Anderson signing, the Cubs added two more depth pieces in Eddie Butler and Alec Mills. Both had been designated for assignment by their former teams and have an option remaining, meaning they’ll likely open the season at Triple-A Iowa. Butler remains somewhat intriguing, as outlined by Eno Sarris of FanGraphs.
The bottom line: with a returning rotation of Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, and John Lackey, the Cubs did not feel the need to go big for their self-created rotation vacancy. They expressed no reported interest in free agents such as Rich Hill, Ivan Nova, or Charlie Morton, and seemingly were not involved in trade talks for Taijuan Walker, Drew Smyly, Dan Straily, or Jose De Leon. The assumption is that Chris Sale wasn’t a consideration, given the White Sox’ likely reluctance to send their ace across town.
The Cubs also took a measured approach toward center field. Even with the luxury tax threshold in sight, the Cubs could have afforded to re-sign Dexter Fowler at the $82.5MM he ultimately received from the Cardinals. But this is a disciplined front office, one that didn’t seem interested in giving Fowler a three-year deal during his previous free agency. So, gone is the two or three-win player Fowler might be this year, replaced by incumbent Albert Almora and free agent signing Jon Jay (pictured). The Cubs struck quickly to add Jay, a 32-year-old veteran who can hit for average and play an acceptable center field. Jay will serve as a safety net for Almora, who turns 23 in April and was drafted sixth overall by the Cubs in 2012. Baseball America describes Almora as “a potential Gold Glove winner in center.” If he can show a tolerable bat at the bottom of the Cubs’ order, Almora will have the center field job for years. Rather than give Fowler a risky long-term deal, the Cubs elected to accept a short-term downgrade and increased risk with center field for 2017.
You may be sensing a trend toward conservatism in the Cubs’ offseason. Indeed, all four free agents they signed received one-year deals. During the summer, Epstein and company actually did mortgage a piece of the team’s future, sending potential star infielder Gleyber Torres to the Yankees to rent flamethrowing reliever Aroldis Chapman.
Shortly after the Cubs became World Champions, though, prudence set in. Record-shattering five-year deals for Chapman or Kenley Jansen didn’t interest the Cubs, who instead made a Winter Meetings deal to acquire Wade Davis (pictured) from the Royals for Jorge Soler. The deal carries its own kind of risk, just not financial. In Soler, the Cubs traded away four years of control of a 25-year-old with a potential All-Star bat. However, Soler had no role in the Cubs’ crowded outfield, hadn’t impressed much in his 765 plate appearances with the team, and had battled injuries throughout his tenure. His loss has little effect on the 2017 club. Davis, who the Cubs control for just one year, was among the game’s best relievers from 2014-15. However, he missed 52 days in 2016 with elbow problems. The Cubs have said they feel confident about Davis’ health.
The Cubs also added Koji Uehara, who turns 42 in April. Uehara is about as dominant as a reliever can be with an 87-MPH fastball, though he is an extreme flyball pitcher. Like Davis, he’s an obvious health risk. There’s a good chance the Cubs’ bullpen depth will be tested this year, with righties Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., and Justin Grimm expected to have roles. Strop, who has a 2.65 ERA over the last three years with the Cubs, signed a team-friendly extension that added only $6.35MM in guaranteed money.
The Cubs entered the offseason without much left-handed relief depth. After reportedly showing interest in top free agent lefty Brett Cecil in November, the club settled on Brian Duensing as their lone Major League signing for this vacancy. Duensing, 34, spent the first two months of the 2016 season in Triple-A and later missed over two months to elbow surgery. His effectiveness against lefties has come and gone over the last few seasons. The Cubs added more lefty relief depth with Rule 5er Caleb Smith, but he’s barely pitched above Double-A and is a long shot to stick in a Major League bullpen all year. Montgomery may eventually be needed to shore up the Cubs’ left-handed relief, if Anderson is able to handle the fifth starter job.
More analysis after the break …Read more
As of now, 38-year-old Cubs right-hander John Lackey doesn’t expect the 2017 season to be his last. “At this point, I think I’m more likely to pitch next year than not pitch,” Lackey told Patrick Mooney of CSN Chicago. “But we’ll see at the end of the season.” Lackey will be a free agent next winter, and while the Cubs unsurprisingly aren’t ready to commit to bringing him back as a 39-year-old, they’re keeping the door open. “It’s not a decision that you make right now,” said general manager Jed Hoyer. “But certainly we love having him. I think his edge, his swagger is fantastic for our team. And we’re certainly glad that we signed him last winter.” In 2016, the first season of a two-year, $32MM deal, Lackey recorded a 3.35 ERA, 8.6 K/9 and 2.53 BB/9 over 188 1/3 frames for the World Series champions.
The latest on four other National League teams:
- All three of the Mets’ fifth starter candidates – Robert Gsellman, Zack Wheeler and Seth Lugo – have fared well this spring, leaving the team with “a pleasant puzzle to solve” by Opening Day, writes Mike Puma of the New York Post. “It’s a great problem to have,” manager Terry Collins said. “We came into this camp knowing we have depth in the rotation. We didn’t know where Zack was going to be, but we felt with the other four guys and Robert and Seth, we had some depth here. And they have stepped up and shown us we weren’t wrong.” Wheeler hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2014 because of March 2015 Tommy John surgery, but he ran his fastball up to 97 mph on Wednesday. That “certainly” got the Mets’ attention, Collins noted. It’s possible Wheeler will open the season in extended spring training or the bullpen, though, as the Mets try to limit his workload. Lugo, meanwhile, is “a strong candidate” to begin the year in the bullpen, sources told Puma.
- Pirates third baseman Jung Ho Kang remains in South Korea, where’s waiting to obtain his United States visa, per Stephen J. Nesbitt of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Kang, who received an eight-month suspended prison sentence on March 3 stemming from an offseason DUI in South Korea, is working out on his own, but he hasn’t faced live pitching. “He’s going to need some work, some game at-bats,” GM Neal Huntington told Nesbitt. “We can set up some sim games, we can set up a lot of at-bats for him in a short period of time. But it’s hard to say until we get him here.” Because the Pirates placed Kang on the restricted list last week, he’s not currently occupying a roster spot; further, he won’t receive pay for any regular-season action he might miss.
- Marlins third baseman Martin Prado suffered a Grade 1 hamstring strain during Venezuela’s loss to Team USA in the World Baseball Classic on Wednesday and is likely to miss some regular-season time, per Joe Frisaro of MLB.com. While that’s disappointing, Prado is relieved that he didn’t receive a far worse diagnosis. “I was not sleeping,” he informed Frisaro. “I was like, so worried about myself, worried about the team, worried about the future and everything. After I talked to the doctors, it was a big relief for me.” Until Prado comes back, Miami will turn to Derek Dietrich and Miguel Rojas at the hot corner.
- The Giants entered the spring without a clear No. 1 option in left field, but Jarrett Parker has separated himself from Mac Williamson in the battle for the role, observes Andrew Baggarly of the Mercury News. “Coming into this spring, he knew what was at stake and he’s doing the job,” manager Bruce Bochy said of the 28-year-old Parker, who the skipper believes is “maturing as a hitter” and “playing well on defense, too.” Last season was Parker’s first extensive action in the majors, and he batted an above-average .236/.358/.394 in 151 plate appearances.
Some rumblings out of Tampa Bay…
- Alex Cobb is drawing “potential interest” from the Cubs, Dodgers, and other teams as a trade target, The Tampa Bay Times’ Marc Topkin writes. The determining factor, as Topkin notes, is how Cobb performs in his first full season back after undergoing Tommy John surgery in May 2015. The righty returned late last season to make five starts (and post an 8.59 ERA in 22 IP), and still drew some offseason trade buzz as teams likely were looking to buy low. The Cubs and Dodgers, of course, both have past connections to Cobb and the Rays in the form of Joe Maddon and Andrew Friedman. If Cobb returns to his 2012-14 form and Tampa is out of contention, he’ll be a prime trade chip at the deadline.
- Cobb is entering his last year before free agency, and he tells Topkin that he is being realistic about the possibility that he’ll be dealt since the Rays rarely retain top players hitting the open market. “It’s just the way things unfold here. If you were a betting man, [a trade] probably would be the way to go,” Cobb said. The fact that 2017 could be his last year in a Rays uniform has been weighing on Cobb due to the “life-changing stuff” that has taken place over his 13 years with the franchise. “Then you go into the clubhouse and you see all the faces, people that I’ve seen since I was 18, that really have been your family since then….You think about it, and it’s sad. It’s sad that it’s a possibility I could no longer be around here,” Cobb said.
- Rickie Weeks’ minor league deal with the Rays will pay him $1.5MM if he makes the big league roster, Topkin reports in another item, with $600K more available to the veteran in incentives. In that same piece, Topkin looks through some of the roster decisions facing the Rays during the spring, as the club’s choices are complicated by several out-of-options players. Nick Franklin, for instance, could lose his utility job to Daniel Robertson, or Erasmo Ramirez could be dealt to a team in need of starting depth.
- Chase Whitley, who also underwent Tommy John surgery in May 2015, pitched four scoreless innings in Spring Training action on Saturday. Manager Kevin Cash told reporters, including Roger Mooney of the Tampa Bay Times, that while Whitley is slated for a relief job, “we’re not ruling out him starting, either. It depends on how the numbers and how the injuries pan out, but right now, we saw last year what he can do coming out of the bullpen. There’s a lot of value to that.” The pen (specifically a long relief role) is still Whitley’s best bet to make the roster, and a spot could open up should Brad Boxberger start the year on the DL. Boxberger has been sidelined all spring with a bad back, but expects to pitch in a minor league game on Tuesday.
While there’s no evidence of progress between the Cubs and Jake Arrieta on a new contract, the righty provided some interesting thoughts on his outlook to Jon Heyman of Fan Rag. Arrieta says he believes he may be able to land “a six- or seven-year deal” when he does sign, whether that’s with Chicago or another organization via free agency. And the 31-year-old adds that he’s looking ahead to a lengthy career, saying: “I feel very confident I can pitch until I’m 40. I do everything possible to make sure I’m healthy and durable.” Arrieta isn’t putting any time restrictions on talks with his current team, telling Heyman he’d consider offers at any time while also noting that he doesn’t want his contract situation to distract from the season to come.
- The Cubs announced that they’ve granted right-hander Maikel Cleto his release. The hard-throwing 27-year-old hasn’t appeared in the Majors since tossing 29 1/3 innings for the 2014 White Sox. Since that time, Cleto has had some Triple-A success in both the White Sox and Braves organizations, logging a combined 2.75 ERA with 11.5 K/9 against 4.6 BB/9. Cleto has never had much of an issue missing bats, but his control has always been problematic for years. He owns a 6.60 ERA and a 58-to-30 K/BB ratio in 45 Major League innings.