The Cubs, Prince Fielder and the art of the megadeal


The Cubs, Prince Fielder and the art of the megadeal

MINNEAPOLIS The Cubs have felt confident and optimistic in their pursuit of Jorge Soler. But wherever the Cuban defector signs, he doesnt figure to make an impact at the big-league level for a few more years.

Theo Epstein has said that the Cubs will be built from the ground up by stockpiling young players who will grow up together and form the core of an annual contender.

The architect of this rebuilding project at Clark and Addison envisions free agency for finishing touches. In Epsteins mind, it has to be the right player at the right time.

In an alternate universe, Prince Fielder might have been that guy to put up on billboards. He just turned 28 and has that left-handed swing. He enjoys a close relationship with manager Dale Sveum from their time together with the Milwaukee Brewers. He plays the game with passion and intensity.

But Fielder who waited out the market with super-agent Scott Boras last winter and got a nine-year, 214 contract will be wearing a Detroit Tigers uniform on Tuesday at Wrigley Field.

This season is 37 percent over, and the Cubs are buried in last place, looking forward to being sellers at the trade deadline.

When will be the right time for a megadeal? Sveum doesnt expect the front office to run a Four Corners offense, stalling until 2015.

You could say right now, because you dont know whats going to happen in the next three months, Sveum said Sunday. You dont know whats going to happen next year with personnel. Obviously, we need a lot of things. Were losing a lot of games.

But to spend that kind of money, when the right time is and how many years you give a guy youre talking about a whole lot (that) goes into that process, what position, how long and whos available.

But theres obviously going to be some guys available this winter and you got to sit down and decide what the plan is. Its not like we have a lot of guys coming, besides the (Anthony) Rizzos and Brett Jacksons and the Junior Lakes, the guys with tons of upside. But we have to obviously fix some things.

Rizzo is hitting .363 with 20 homers and a 1.143 OPS through 58 games at Triple-A Iowa. The 22-year-old first baseman could be called up by the end of the month but not for the White Sox series on the South Side June 18-20.

Jackson, a 2009 first-round pick, is still making adjustments at Iowa (79 strikeouts through 226 at-bats), but is the type of athletic, well-rounded outfielder Epstein looks to build around.

The 22-year-old Lake, an infielder with room to grow at Double-A Tennessee, played with Starlin Castro on the same summer league team in the Dominican Republic, and they roomed together in Arizona for rookie ball. Lake is waiting for his huge leap forward. Castro thinks it will happen soon.

If those players come together potentially along with Soler and first-round picks Javier Baez (2011) and Albert Almora (2012) the Cubs will be looking to supplement.

Whenever that happens, the Cubs will understand that your best players have to be leaders. Fielder wasnt just a guy looking to cash in.

Hes one of my favorite guys Ive ever been around, Sveum said. (Its) not even his numbers. (Its) just the way he plays the game and he comes to play every single day. He comes to win. He cares as much as anybody Ive ever been around. He was always just a phenomenal guy.

But the front office felt the Cubs werent close enough to contention, the budget is still feeling the weight of Alfonso Sorianos contract and Epstein had just left a Boston Red Sox team that had made the wrong bets in free agency.

Will it be 2014 or 2015? Sveum said theres no magic number for when the Cubs will be contenders again.

The Cubs are 6-16 in one-run games. More than half of their games have been decided by two runs or less (theyre 10-21). Sveums time in Boston (David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez) and Milwaukee (Fielder, Ryan Braun) reminded him that you need threats in the middle of the order.

Those guys produce 200 runs a season, Sveum said. Thats 600 runs sometimes by 3-4-5 hitters, so youre talking about one run a night, 1.3 runs a night from three different guys. That wins one-run ballgames. You have to have the ability to put numbers up constantly in the 3-4-5 spots.

Theres a formula to winning. When you have dominating bullpens, average starting pitching and then a really nice 3-4-5 with a leadoff guy, youre going to be ahead of the scale where you win all these kind of games instead of coming up a little short.

The Cubs targeted power arms in the draft, and picked up their most reliable reliever near the end of spring training, after the Seattle Mariners released Shawn Camp.

There are several ways to build a bullpen, where surprises (good or bad) happen because relievers are so hard to project from one year to the next. The Cubs could have a pretty good rotation fronted by Matt Garza and Jeff Samardzija in 2013.

The Cubs will have a lot of financial flexibility next winter, but its hard to see a megadeal then. When Jed Hoyer was introduced as general manager last fall, he talked about the true danger of free agency and paying for someones resume.

Relying on external solutions to build a winning baseball team is a bad idea, Hoyer said, and something that we need to get past.

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Medium

Decisions to be made on: Mitch Unrein (free agent), John Jenkins (free agent)

Possible free agent targets: Jared Crick, Frostee Rucker, Dominique Easley

This unit was consistently the Bears’ best in 2017, with Akiem Hicks playing at a Pro Bowl level (don’t let his exclusion from the game fool you on that) and Eddie Goldman putting together a rock-solid, healthy year. 

Hicks signed a four-year contract extension just before the season began and rewarded the Bears with a dominant year, racking up 8 ½ sacks and 15 tackles for a loss. Goldman played in and started 15 games and was a key reason why the Bears limited opposing rushers to four yards per carry, tied for the 10th-best average in the league. 

But while the Bears’ defensive line was certainly good, it wasn’t as good as it could’ve been. These words from Vic Fangio ring true for Hicks and Goldman:

“I think they all have a lot more to give to us than we’ve seen,” Fangio said. “And it’s our job to get them to improve and become even better players. That will be more important to us than anybody we can acquire between now and whenever our first game is. So, and I know it’s always sexy to talk between now and the first game, you know, who are you going to draft, who’s in free agency, etc., but we’ve got to get our so-called good players playing even better. And that will be critical.”

Hicks will enter Year 3 in Fangio’s scheme, while 2018 will be Goldman’s fourth. It’ll also be a critical year for Jonathan Bullard and Roy Robertson-Harris, who’ve flashed potential at times but haven’t been able to turn that into consistent success on the field. 

And that’s where we begin to look ahead to free agency and the draft. Is the Bears’ evaluation of Bullard -- their 2016 third-round pick -- positive enough to hand him a bigger role in 2018? That’s question No. 1 to answer, with No. 2 then being if the team should try to re-sign Mitch Unrein. 

It may be a bit risky to move forward with Bullard, given how popular Unrein was among the Bears’ defensive coaching staff. 

“He’s one of the glue guys on the defense and the team,” Fangio said last November. “Every team needs a few of those guys who are going to do everything right, full speed, hard and tough all the time, and that’s Mitch.”

Defensive line coach Jay Rodgers offered this up about Unrein back in October: “He allows those guys to play fast,” with “those guys” being Hicks and Goldman. 

Statistically, the 30-year-old Unrein doesn’t  jump off the page, but he did record a career high 2 ½ sacks in 2017. Perhaps there would be some benefits to continuity in the Bears’ base 3-4 defensive line.

Worth noting too is this position isn’t a huge need, given Unrein usually played between 40 and 55 percent of the Bears’ defensive snaps on a per-game basis last year. Keeping Unrein for a relatively low cap hit would make some sense, as opposed to testing free agency to replace him.

Jared Crick is coming off back surgery and an ineffective 2016; Dominique Easley is coming off his third torn ACL this decade; Frostee Rucker is in his mid-30’s. The Bears could look to pick a 3-4 defensive end in April, but that would be a pretty quick re-draft of the position and would be an indication they don’t think much of Bullard. This seems like a position where keeping the status quo is likely, save maybe for replacing John Jenkins with a different backup behind Goldman. 

Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment


Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment

There were no Lakers or Clippers in the 2018 All-Star Game, but Los Angeles was well-represented with plenty of homegrown talent, plenty of historians with Los Angeles ties and all the pageantry L.A. can provide.

Russell Westbrook, Paul George and James Harden are among the All-Stars who came home to put on the biggest show of entertainment the league has to offer, and the new format featuring captains LeBron James and Stephen Curry produced one of the most competitive finishes in recent All-Star history as the spectacle wasn’t lost on DeRozan, who plays for the conference-leading Toronto Raptors.

“It was a dream come true,” DeRozan said. “I’ll forever be a part of this, and to come out and be a starter in my hometown, it was a dream come true.”

With Chicago hosting the event in 2020, one wonders if the city or the Bulls will be as represented.

“What better time to do it than in Chicago?” Bulls rookie Lauri Markkanen said about his aspirations of being an All-Star sooner rather than later.

New Orleans’ Anthony Davis, to this point, is the only Chicagoan carrying the torch as an All-Star. For years, Chicago could claim their homegrown talent rivaled the likes of Los Angeles and New York, the self-proclaimed “Mecca”.

But now they’ve fallen behind in the way of star power, as Derrick Rose has gone from MVP to one of the biggest “what if” stories in modern-day sports. Jabari Parker was expected to be next in line but his future as a star is murky due to the same dreaded injury bug.

“I didn’t know that. But there’s a lot of great players (from Chicago),” Davis said Saturday during media availability. “Jabari is just coming back, Derrick is going through what he’s going through. That’s fine. D-Wade is getting older. We have a lot of great guys. Guys have been hurt, in D-Wade’s case he’s just getting up there in age now (laughs).”

Davis is arguably the league’s most versatile big man, keeping the New Orleans Pelicans afloat while DeMarcus Cousins is out with an Achilles injury. He’s had to watch the likes of George deal with free agent questions about the prospect of coming home to L.A., even after he was traded from Indiana to Oklahoma City in the offseason.

It still hasn’t stopped the chants from Lakers fans, panting after George in the hope he’ll be a savior of sorts. And even though his contract isn’t up for another few seasons, teams are lining up in the hope they can acquire him through free agency or trade.

It could very well be him getting the chants when the All-Star party comes to Chicago and he could be joined by the likes of Markkanen and Zach LaVine in the big game.

LaVine was in Los Angeles for the weekend and Markkanen opened eyes around the league with his showing in the rising stars game as well as the skills challenge.

Davis could wind up being the object of everyone’s affection and could find himself being recruited by the likes of LaVine.

Even though 2021 is a long way away, a guy can dream, right?

“I mean, I’m cool with a lot of dudes in the NBA. I feel like I’m a likeable guy,” LaVine told about recruiting star players to the Bulls franchise. “I can talk about situations like that, it would be my first time being put in a position. It would be a little bit different but I think I can handle it.”

LaVine has his own contract situation to take care of this summer, being a restricted free agent but understands the Bulls’ salary cap position and their long-term goals.

“Yeah I think once the offseason comes and everybody settles down, and I’m comfortable, and I know the position I’ll be in,” LaVine said to

“I think we’ll start having those conversations because we want to get the franchise back to where it was, on that high plateau. That’s what it’s supposed to be.”

“I’m trying to solidify myself in the league to a certain degree. Once you start reaching those points you can talk to anybody to get to where you want to get to.”

LaVine attended several events over the weekend and shared the same space as several All-Stars in non-media settings. It’s easy to see why he would think he could have that affect with his peers.

Being careful about the rules on tampering, he said about a potential sit-down with Davis, “I would bring some Harold’s chicken to the meeting and we’ll be all good.”