With Luis Valbuena headed to Houston, that leaves an void at third base but Cubs GM Jed Hoyer says it’s too early to write Kris Bryant’s name in the lineup for Opening Day. Cubs fans are giddy at the prospect of Bryant, 23, the Minor League Player of the Year, playing at Wrigley Field. In his second season as a pro in 2014, Bryant batted .325 with 43 home runs and 110 RBIs at Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa. Hoyer said they didn’t deal Valbuena to make room for Bryant.
“It’s totally independent,” Hoyer said. “Kris’ development is independent of any move we made today. We have a number of guys who will be working at third [this spring].”
The list includes Mike Olt, Tommy La Stella, and possibly Arismendy Alcantara. Javier Baez also could get some playing time there, although he’s projected to start at second base for the Cubs. Baez was currently playing winter ball in Puerto Rico.
Bryant has moved up quickly in the Cubs system.
“When Kris is ready, when we think he’s ready to come up to the big leagues, we’ll make that decision but certainly trading Valbuena will not speed up that clock at all,” Hoyer said. “It’s all dependent on Kris.”
— Carrie Muskat
The Cubs’ offseason goals were to upgrade their roster by finding players, preferably left-handed hitters, who can get on base, and they most likely completed the makeover on Monday with the addition of Dexter Fowler. The Cubs dealt infielder Luis Valbuena and right-handed pitcher Dan Straily to the Astros for Fowler, 28, expected to fill the leadoff spot. The switch-hitter has a career .366 on-base percentage over seven seasons, primarily with the Rockies. He was traded to the Astros on Dec. 3 with a player to be named later for Brandon Barnes and Jordan Lyles.
Fowler will be reunited with hitting coach John Mallee, who was with the Astros last season, and now has that job with the Cubs. Mallee recommended the outfielder.
“The biggest thing John kept saying to us is, ‘This guy really puts on an at-bat … he sees pitches, he gets on base,'” Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said Monday.
That’s something the Cubs haven’t had. They ranked 13th in the National League in on-base percentage. Fowler, Miguel Montero and Tommy La Stella are three left-handed hitters the Cubs added who they hope will get on base and extend the lineup.
Arismendy Alcantara played the most center field last season but had to learn about the outfield on the job after coming up in the Cubs system as an infielder. He may become manager Joe Maddon’s Cubs version of Ben Zobrist — a versatile player who can fill in everywhere.
“Joe’s been a part of a lot of our meetings about the team, and Alcantara, for one, brings a smile to his face every time because he’s exactly the kind of player he loves,” Hoyer said of the 23-year-old switch-hitter. “He can play all over the field, he can run the bases, he’s a good defender, he’s got good power. He’s an exciting piece who you can move around.”
— Carrie Muskat
Some highlights from the Cubs Convention seminars:
* Javier Baez is headed back to Puerto Rico to continue to play for Santurce, most likely through the playoffs. GM Jed Hoyer says Baez is well aware he has to make adjustments.
“He has to earn his playing time,” Hoyer said of the 21-year-old infielder. “He knows he has to make more contact to stay in the big leagues.”
* The Cubs pitching staff actually did well last season but the offense struggled. The Cubs ranked 12th in the National League in runs scored, ahead of only the Reds, Braves and Padres; 13th in on-base percentage; and 14th in batting average with runners in scoring position (.223). Where will the runs come from in 2015? Theo Epstein says he’s counting on better performances from Jorge Soler, Arismendy Alcantara and Luis Valbuena, plus feels they will get more production from the catching position with the addition of Miguel Montero. What about Kris Bryant? Epstein said Bryant definitely is expected to be in the lineup in 2015.
“When it’s the right time for Kris’ development and the right time for the team, he’ll be on the roster,” Epstein said.
* The Cubs may open the season with three catchers: Montero, David Ross and Welington Castillo. The Cubs added Ross because they felt he was too good a player and person in the clubhouse to pass on, Hoyer said.
* Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts was asked about Sammy Sosa and whether the team can reconcile with the former right fielder.
“I don’t want to get into Sammy,” Ricketts said. “There will be a time and a place for it, and we’ll wait for that time and place.”
* Jon Lester’s ability to pitch at Fenway Park will help him at Wrigley Field, Epstein said. Lester would pitch at Fenway in ways that were counter to the type of pitcher he is, and that was because of the way the ballpark is built.
“We all know Wrigley plays two different ways,” Epstein said. “When the wind is howling in and it’s April, and it’s really hard to hit the ball out of the ballpark, he’ll go right at guys and be extremely efficient. He has the power and the mix to be able to do that. On the days when [the wind] is howling out, he can change things up and work his two-seamer a little more, change speeds a little more often and keep hitters off balance. For a left-handed pitcher having gone through your whole career basically at Fenway Park, that’s a gauntlet and it forces you to get creative.”
* Someone asked Epstein how he was able to lure Lester to the Cubs.
“Well, $155 million,” Epstein quipped.
— Carrie Muskat
Was this a week that will be remembered as a turning point in Cubs history? GM Jed Hoyer won’t have an answer for that until possibly October.
The Cubs front office headed back to Chicago Thursday with several items checked off their offseason wish list, although the addition of free agents Jon Lester and Jason Hammel weren’t made official by the team, unless you count manager Joe Maddon’s impromptu hotel lobby news conference late Tuesday.
“You spend a lot of time planning and trying to figure out who we’ll target and we’ve followed a plan, and we hope this week was a big step in executing that plan,” Hoyer said.
There are still holes to fill on the roster and Hoyer admits “we’re far from a finished product.”
Hammel was expected to be introduced on Friday and Lester will likely be in Chicago on Monday. Then, it’s back to work. The Cubs still have a young roster, and several players, including Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, Kyle Hendricks and Arismendy Alcantara, have some growing up to do.
“We haven’t accomplished anything,” Hoyer said. “We’re trying to build an organization and get back to prominence and do that for a long time. That’s the reality of where we are. If we’re ever looking back happily, it’s because we won. There’s no other goal.”
— Carrie Muskat
Jon Lester’s imminent decision of where he will take his talents remained a dominant topic of conversation during Day 2 of the Winter Meetings, and the Red Sox and Cubs could be emerging as the two finalists. This, after Giants assistant GM Bobby Evans pointed a more pessimistic picture of where his club stands with regard to Lester.
“I feel we’re probably in the back seat of this deal right now,” Evans said. “I feel like there are some other guys driving this, and probably we’re staying in it but I’m not sure how strongly we’re a consideration considering the other options.”
Evans felt that “heart strings” might pull the lefty to another franchise despite the fact the Giants have won the World Series three times in the last five years.
That line of thinking would point to the Red Sox and Cubs, given their personal connections to Lester.
According to FOXsports.com, Lester has multiple offers in the six-year, $150-million range, and perhaps one offer of seven years. The Dodgers are another suitor that has been mentioned, but they haven’t confirmed their level of interest.
“I think that ultimately Jon has a tough decision to make,” said Evans. “You have a player who’s very passionate about his teammates in Boston, he’s very passionate about the relationships he has with maybe two clubs, including the Cubs, so therefore I think it makes it a harder decision. We at some level may be in the back seat right now. That’s understandable because there are some good options for him.”
It was originally believed that Lester would make a decision by Tuesday. But it could stretch into Wednesday, as ownership from some of the respective clubs are in the process of approving final bids.
Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod – three top executives for the Cubs – were in Boston’s front office during the majority of Lester’s time there. Lester won the World Series with the Red Sox in 2007 and ’13. Though winning a third ring in Boston would be a thrill, Lester could be part of something historic if he could be part of the Cubs winning it all for the first time since 1908.
The past two offseasons, the Cubs have pursued pitchers with the intention of flipping them at the Trade Deadline for young prospects. They’ve taken a different approach this winter, which began with the hiring of Joe Maddon as manager. The goal is to add multiple starting pitchers in hopes of being competitive in the National League Central.
“We played well at the end of the year,” Hoyer said Monday. “Our young talent has gotten a lot of publicity, for better or worse. I don’t think it’s hard to talk about, ‘Hey, we think we’re about to be very good and good for a long time.’”
Even before Joe Maddon was hired as manager, the Cubs were rumored to be on the verge of signing nearly every free agent on the market. They do have money to spend but that doesn’t mean they’re going on a shopping spree this winter.
“One of the challenges we have right now is that we’re literally linked to every single free agent,” GM Jed Hoyer said Friday. “Some of that is agent driven to try to connect us to everyone because they realize we have some payroll flexibility. We’ve said all along if the right things line up, we could have an active offseason. We’re not going to force it.
“A lot of the reports we read make it seem we’re going to have some kind of a super-charged offseason and I think that’s over-stated,” he said.
The Cubs are in the market for starting pitching and are interested in upgrading other positions, including catcher. But Hoyer would neither confirm or deny reports that they had met with free agent catcher Russell Martin. Welington Castillo did well behind the plate in his second full season as the regular catcher but he struggled offensively, batting .237, which has prompted the Martin-to-Cubs talk.
“We want veteran leadership on the team, whether that’s one person or three or four people, so if we can find that combination of attributes that’s something that would be appealing,” Hoyer said. “All of that said, I don’t think ‘Welly’ had his best year last year, but I think he’s a good Major League catcher and showed in the second half of 2013 what he can do. Certainly we like ‘Welly’ as a catcher and as a person and as a potential leader down the road.”
Hoyer will be in Arizona on Monday for the GM meetings, and the chance to not only go over issues such as pace of game but also see if anyone matches up trade-wise.
“It’s always a really delicate balancing process,” Hoyer said regarding acquiring players through free agency compared to making deals. “Sometimes there might be a better fit in trade than free agency but you have to balance what you give up in talent and on your team to get that player you have to trade for.
“Sometimes that player you’re trading for is much cheaper than the player in free agency, and that helps you justify it,” he said in a conference call with beat writers. “But, candidly, if both of those players are exactly the same cost, and you have to give up talent to get one, and you don’t have to give up talent to sign the free agent, I think that often tips the scales over the course of the winter.”
The Cubs also feel the free agent market isn’t as deep in terms of overall talent and it’s tough to address a lot of holes on the roster that way. That could prompt more trades.
Despite another last place finish in the Central, Hoyer said the Cubs feel good heading into the offseason.
“We finished the season strong,” Hoyer said. “Our farm system and young talent has gotten a lot of recognition. We had good momentum going into the offseason anyway and people were starting to take notice. With Joe coming on board, it underscored that we had momentum, and that we’re a team that while possibly not fully formed, is moving in the right direction and has a bright future. I think Joe’s presence here underscores and illuminates that more than anything else.
* Maddon has yet to finalize his coaching staff, although pitching coach Chris Bosio and hitting coach John Mallee are expected back. The staff was announced early last month, but that was before Rick Renteria was dismissed and Maddon was hired.
— Carrie Muskat
Cubs fans eager to see Kris Bryant in the same lineup as Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro will have to wait. GM manager Jed Hoyer repeated that Bryant, the No. 1 prospect on MLB.com’s top 20 list, will finish his season at Triple-A Iowa and not be one of the players added when big league rosters expand on Monday.
Hoyer would not say which players will be called up. Iowa has four regular season games remaining and has a chance to make the playoffs.
Bryant, 22, batted .355 with 22 home runs and 20 doubles at Double-A Tennessee, and was batting .300 with 21 homers and 14 doubles in 66 games at Iowa. The second player taken overall in the 2013 First-Year Player Draft, he is not on the Cubs’ 40-man roster.
“He’s not on the roster, so right away [if he was called up] that would knock off another player off the roster,” Hoyer said Friday. “We’re going to be really tight with the roster, and we know that. We feel in his first full season, he’s going to get 140 plus games, he’s played exceptionally well — nothing has changed on that front [as far as calling him up].”
The fact that Bryant has done so well in his first year of professional baseball has made Cubs fans giddy about the prospect of seeing the third baseman at Wrigley Field.
“The most impressive thing about his season has been the consistency,” Hoyer said. “The slumps have been really quick. He deserves a lot of credit for being able to make adjustments quickly. I think he’s very level-headed as a person. He doesn’t get too down.
“We’ve never waivered on [the decision to leave him in the Minors],” Hoyer said. “We feel it’s the right thing for him — first full season, not on the roster, and we’ll enjoy the guys we have up here now.”
Are the Cubs hesitating to avoid starting the clock on Bryant’s service time? Hoyer said that wasn’t a factor.
“That’s not the reason or a concern,” he said.
— Carrie Muskat
* GM Jed Hoyer said the front office is currently debating September call-ups and who will play in the Arizona Fall League. Triple-A Iowa outfielder Jorge Soler is one player being considered for both. Soler, ranked No. 6 on MLB.com’s list of top 20 Cubs prospects, was injured much of the first half of the season but has been getting regular at-bats, and was batting .300 in 20 games.
“[Soler] has been playing great, and is locked in now, and great at-bats, great attitude, playing good defense,” Hoyer said. “We have to decide if he’s had enough at-bats or not.”
C.J. Edwards, ranked No. 7 on the Cubs’ top 20 list, was expected to pitch in the AFL, which starts Oct. 7.
As for September call-ups, Hoyer said who gets promoted may depend on whether Iowa makes the Pacific Coast League playoffs.
“They worked hard down there,” Hoyer said. “We don’t want to raid them and leave them with nothing if they do make the playoffs.”
* The Cubs were encouraged by Felix Doubront’s first rehab start with Triple-A Iowa. Doubront threw 80 pitches over four plus innings on Tuesday night against Las Vegas. He has been on the disabled list since July 31 with a left calf strain. The left-hander will make at least one more start for Iowa.
* Outfielder Justin Ruggiano did not start Wednesday because of some soreness in his right groin, but he was available to pinch-hit. Ruggiano was pulled from Tuesday’s game after seven innings.
* Outfielder Nate Schierholtz was released, and will be a free agent by Friday. Schierholtz was designated for assignment on Aug. 6 after batting .192 in 99 games with six home runs, 10 doubles and 33 RBIs.
— Carrie Muskat
Cubs GM Jed Hoyer has had plenty of conversations with other teams prior to Thursday’s Trade Deadline but said they may not make another deal.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if we made no moves,” Hoyer said Tuesday. “I expect to be active, we’re having a lot of conversations. It’s still early. [Wednesday] is sort of moving day. I expect things will get more serious as we move into tomorrow. People have some reluctance on the last day.
“[Wednesday] evening is when a lot of people hone in on the deals they want to make,” he said.
The Cubs made their blockbuster move on July 4, trading starting pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to the Athletics for four players, including highly touted shortstop Addison Russell and outfielder Billy McKinney.
Other teams are still trying to find the right match.
“People try to find a dance partner on the 30th and 31st,” Hoyer said. “As you get to [Wednesday] evening, people want to make deals and they’re more willing to pair up, and I expect that to be the same thing.”
There has been some interest in the Cubs’ left-handed relievers, James Russell and Wesley Wright.
— Carrie Muskat