Cubs

Cubs: Ian Stewart, Starlin Castro and the price of going young

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Cubs: Ian Stewart, Starlin Castro and the price of going young

Updated: 6:45 p.m.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. You can only use youth as an excuse for so long.

That wont make any Baseball is Better billboards trying to sell tickets to Wrigley Field. But that was the message from manager Dale Sveum, and it says everything about how the clock is ticking on young players and the front office the fans are staring at it toward when the Cubs will actually go hunting for big game at the winter meetings.

Believe it or not, many pieces of the puzzle are already in place. The Cubs certainly arent done, but by agreeing to a one-year, 2 million deal (plus incentives) with third baseman Ian Stewart before leaving Nashville, they have a pretty good idea of their 2013 Opening Day lineup.

The soaring price for free agents only highlighted how much the Cubs have to be right on these young players, how much they need Starlin Castro, who wants to be the face of the franchise. Or else its getting over the sticker shock and behaving the way a big-market teams supposed to at the Opryland Hotel.

Team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer checked out of this sprawling biodome, leaving behind the gigantic Christmas trees and indoor gardens and waterfalls, for the United flight back to Chicago. They will be at a Wrigley Field news conference on Friday to introduce Kyuji Fujikawa and give a nuanced explanation for their closer non-controversy.

Otherwise, everything else can be divided into core players and short-term complementary pieces, like Nate Schierholtz, who turned down multi-year offers elsewhere for the opportunity to play more here in right field and prove himself on a one-year, 2.25 million contract.

Theres a long way to go until we get to Mesa, Hoyer said, and their resources and willingness to walk away and wait it out tell you that the Cubs could be in on anything right up until pitchers and catchers report to Arizona.

In 2013, Castro will be at the center of it all, whether the All-Star shortstops anchoring the defense while Scott Baker and Scott Feldman try to pitch to the game plan and get groundballs, or putting up bigger numbers as he develops more power.

Cole Hamels and Matt Cain never made it to the open market this winter, and neither will Joey Votto and Ryan Zimmerman next year. Just look at how the Cubs locked up Castro with a seven-year, 60 million extension.

The free agents are getting older and more expensive, and teams will be bankrolled by new television money.

Unprompted, one National League scout said how he couldnt believe Shane Victorino got a three-year, 39 million deal from the Red Sox. And even on a broken leg (which should heal), the Cubs really wanted utility guy Jeff Keppinger, who instead got a three-year, 12 million deal from the White Sox.

The Cubs actually tried to sign Keppinger last winter for 1 million-plus, before he agreed to a deal with the Tampa Bay Rays. This is the rate of inflation.

There simply isnt an ideal solution at third base. As Epstein suggested, it would be a good time to be Mike Schmidt 2.0.

The market is such that the Cubs non-tendered Stewart and had to beat out several teams with significant interest just to re-sign him coming off a season in which he hit .201 with a .627 OPS and had wrist surgery.

The Cubs werent looking to buy a brand name. They will take a chance on Stewarts age (28 next year), athleticism and plus defense, even though they got burned last season.

Also remember that as the Cubs build the left side of their infield, they still have Castro, who will turn 23 during spring training and generated 14 homers and 78 RBI last season at a premium position.

This is roughly when he should start to break out, Hoyer said. Hes going to start making that jump. The contract situation certainly was something that was on his mind last year. He now knows how we feel about him. He knows hes got security.

All those financial issues (he) doesnt have to worry about those things anymore. While last year that might have distracted him, I think this year that should be something hes relaxed about.

He can just go out and play. I would be disappointed, candidly, if he didnt take a step forward next year and I think he feels the same way.

Epstein says the Cubs dont want cookie-cutter hitters, but manager Dale Sveum has essentially called those 200 hits empty calories. Meaning Castro will have to show more discipline at the plate and become a more dangerous hitter.

What I want to see out of him is just keep progressing mentally, Sveum said, and understand the process of becoming a winning player and not a hit seeker. (Its) becoming more of a winning hitter in situations, by driving runs in, understanding the situations defensively.

This will be Year 4 in the big leagues for Castro, who for all his natural gifts and inner confidence can drift at times on the field.

He came a long way, but still has to even concentrate more, Sveum said. Weve got him probably just throwing a number out there really focused 80 to 85 percent of the time. We got to get that to 95 percent of the time. I dont think anybody ever really focuses 100 percent. I think youd be lying if you said that with 300-plus pitches per game. He took a lot of pride in it and did get much better for a 22-year-old kid.

Yes, that team-friendly contract could become easy to move at some point, but the Cubs are years away from seriously considering that and want to build around Castro. They have created a land of opportunity for 20-something kids, pitchers coming off Tommy John surgery and players who want to prove themselves.

Four nights in Nashville only reinforced what Epstein and the Cubs already knew: The good young players they want dont exist here. Theyve gone down a different road and cant turn back now.

Cubs adding catching depth that may help them out in the Yu Darvish sweepstakes

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AP

Cubs adding catching depth that may help them out in the Yu Darvish sweepstakes

Chris Gimenez, come on down.

The 35-year-old catcher isn't exactly a household name, but he's been signed by the Cubs to add backstop depth, according to Chris Cotillo and Ken Rosenthal:

The Cubs didn't have much depth in the catching department beyond Willson Contreras and inexperienced rookie Victor Caratini and while Gimenez doesn't light up the stat column, he's a link to Yu Darvish that could give the Cubs a unique advantage in that domain:

Darvish and Gimenez played together with the Texas Rangers in 2014-15 (though Darvish was hurt in 2015) and Gimenez has been shedding some light on what the free-agent pitcher may be thinking this winter. Is this Part II of a David Ross-Jon Lester personal catcher situation?

That may be reading a bit too much into things, as the Cubs were always going to sign a veteran catcher to provide depth beyond the unproven Caratini. They saw how important that was in 2017 when Alex Avila spent roughly a month as the starter when Contreras was hurt.

The link between Gimenez and Darvish is real, but the frontline starter has also made 48 starts over the last two seasons while throwing to a catcher not named Gimenez. And the free agent catching market is pretty thin beyond Avila and Jonathan Lucroy, both of whom should earn starter's money or close to it.

Gimenez has played 361 games in the big leagues over the last nine seasons as a journeyman, with stops in Cleveland, Seattle, Tampa Bay, Oakland, Texas, Cleveland (again), Texas (again), Cleveland (again) and then Minnesota last year. He played for Cubs manager Joe Maddon and new pitching coach Jim Hickey while in Tampa Bay.

Gimenez turned in a career season in 2017 with the Twins, notching new highs in games played (74), at-bats (186), runs (28), hits (41), homers (7), RBI (16) and walks (33).

He has a career .218 batting average with a .309 on-base percentage, .345 slugging and .654 OPS. 

But Gimenez isn't just a catcher. He's made nine appearances as a pitcher over the last few years, including six in 2017, where he allowed four runs on seven hits in five innings.

Gimenez will probably compete with Caratini for the backup catcher role in Chicago and can lend a veteran presence. He's also the best bet to take for first position player to pitch in a game in 2018.

The Brewers have emerged as a darkhorse in the race for top starting pitchers

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USA TODAY

The Brewers have emerged as a darkhorse in the race for top starting pitchers

The Milwaukee Brewers are making sure nobody forgets about them in the National League Central.

While the St. Louis Cardinals continue to make trades and the Cubs remain linked to the top starting pitchers on the market even after signing three pitchers, the Brewers have been rather quiet. All winter, the only noteworthy moves from Milwaukee came in the form of under-the-radar pitcher signings — starters Jhoulys Chacin and Yovani Gallardo plus reliever Boone Logan.

Beyond that, the Brewers have added a bunch of other low-leverage players — catcher Christian Bethancourt and relievers J.J. Hoover, Ernesto Frieri, Michael Brady and Erik Davis. (Nobody would blame you if you haven't heard of any of those players before.)

But maybe the Brewers have just been saving their cash for one of the big guys, with Ken Rosenthal confirming a report Sunday night Milwaukee is not only one of the teams in on Yu Darvish, but they've even made a formal offer:

The Brewers securing Darvish or one of the other top pitchers — Jake Arrieta or Alex Cobb — would be a huge development in their effort to keep pace with the Cubs and Cardinals in the division.

Milwaukee was a surprise contender in 2017 before they faded down the stretch. The main reason they hung around the top of the NL Central all year was a shockingly-effective pitching staff.

However, the Brewers have some serious pitching questions long-term that need to be addressed. Beyond Chase Anderson and Zach Davies in the rotation, there are no sure things. 

Jimmy Nelson underwent shoulder surgery last fall and it's currently unknown when he can be counted on again, though things are progressing ahead of schedule. Junior Guerra — the 33-year-old right-hander formerly of the White Sox — went 9-3 with a 2.81 ERA in 20 starts in 2016 but followed that up with some serious struggles in 2017 (5.12 ERA, 1.48 WHIP).

Chacin, 30, was good in 2017 (13-10, 3.89 ERA, 1.27 WHIP), but struggled with health and inconsistent performance in the five seasons prior. Gallardo, 31, has a 5.57 ERA and 1.55 WHIP over the last two seasons. 

All that adds up to a staff that doesn't inspire much confidence behind a high-powered offense led by Ryan Braun, Travis Shaw, Domingo Santana, Eric Thames plus up-and-comers Lewis Brinson and Orlando Arcia.

Adding Arrieta or Darvish would certainly go quite far in improving the Brewers' biggest weakness and even Cobb could be a serious game-changer in Milwaukee.

As an interesting footnote to the whole Darvish rumor, the minute after Rosenthal confirmed the report, the Brewers official Twitter account took a shot at the Cubs:

Cubs Twitter — never one to back down from a good-natured social media spat — responded Monday morning with a sick comeback: