Cubs

Not close enough: Cubs dont see big fixes in free agency yet

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Not close enough: Cubs dont see big fixes in free agency yet

The Cubs are a flawed, but interesting team, with enough pieces and big-market resources to make you wonder just how far they are away from contention. This is a brand-name front office that was hired to bring October baseball to Wrigley Field every year.

The Cubs got a bounce from Anthony Rizzo, and the starting pitching has been solid, though no one knows just how long Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza will be around, or if it will last.

But there was Starlin Castro driving a ball into the left-field bleachers, Darwin Barney making plays all over the field and Jeff Samardzija keeping up with his learning curve.

At least until the thunder and lightning and pouring rain covered the North Side on Wednesday night. After a 77-minute rain delay, the game was called in the eighth inning and the Cubs took a 5-1 victory over the Miami Marlins.

The Cubs (37-53) have now won 13 of their last 18 games. But whatever happens the rest of this season, it doesnt sound like it will be enough to convince Theo Epstein to make a splash for 2013.

Sometimes that works out for you, Epstein said, and more often than not it doesnt. Theres a price to pay for that kind of thing. So if you get tempted and you get impatient and you try to solve your problems through free agency, theres always a price to pay, and it usually happens pretty soon thereafter or towards the end of those deals.

Free agencys definitely a nice way to add talent to an organization without giving up talent. But you cannot make an organization that way. And we have a lot of steps ahead of us that we need to take care of before were in a position to add a finishing piece or two through free agency.

Chairman Tom Ricketts inherited several bad contracts, showed an interest in player development and will defer on baseball matters. Epstein left Boston after an epic collapse last September. Red Sox Nation enjoys picking apart his mistakes in free agency. The credit for those two World Series titles seems to be grudging.

Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder werent the right players at the right time last winter, though the Cubs found them useful for misdirection. The franchise is still waiting to tap into a renovated Wrigley Field and the big television contracts that have juiced the baseball economy.

But even with a scaled-down major-league payroll, more money coming off the books and the caps the new collective bargaining agreement put on the draft and international signings, you could be waiting to see a megadeal.

Well always look to free agency, Epstein said. Well always be on every free agent and see if theres the right player or the right value. But if we sat around and drew up a plan and had free agency as the answer to most of our problems, wed be on a fools errand there.

We need to build the foundation. We need to have scouting we believe in, player development we believe in, a steady flow of prospects, a core of young players. And then you can look to free agency. If the right deal is there ahead of schedule, great, but were not going to count on it. Lets put it that way.

Jorge Soler is supposed to be the designated hitter and appear in his first game on Thursday in the Arizona rookie league. But the 30 million Cuban defector is years away from the majors.

Right now, the focus will be on the development of players like Samardzija (4.57 ERA), who made it through five innings against the Marlins (44-47), giving up one run and striking out nine.

As manager Dale Sveum said: Hes going to be that guy that hopefully we can build around and be the No. 1, the No. 2 guy.

That time could be rapidly approaching, with Dempster expected to be dealt to a contender and a Garza decision potentially coming by the July 31 deadline.

You just kind of got to stay on your toes and understand that tomorrow might be a little different, Samardzija said. But I understand what my role is on this team, and what its going to be in the future. Im really trying to do everything I can today, so down the road, when you are relied upon, you are ready to take the reins and do what you got to do.

Obviously, I want to be the guy, but it also wouldnt hurt to have Dempster and Garza throwing in front of you or behind you. So you just dont know whats going to happen. You dont know what kind of offers they have and what theyre looking for or if anyones willing to give that up.

What if Samardzija and Garza were throwing behind someone like Cole Hamels next season? As Sveum has said, starting pitching is everything. At the very least, the Cubs have changed the subject, from breaking the franchise record for losses, to looking for missing pieces.

We hope were very competitive very soon, Epstein said. But just sitting there and wanting it to be so doesnt make it so. You have to build an organization. I know you get sick of me saying this, but there are no shortcuts.

Cubs' World Series expectations are no surprise, but they show how radical transformation from Lovable Losers has been

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USA TODAY

Cubs' World Series expectations are no surprise, but they show how radical transformation from Lovable Losers has been

MESA, Ariz. — Tom Ricketts sure doesn’t sound like the guy who met his wife in the bleachers during the century-long tenure of the Lovable Losers.

“Everyone knows that this is a team that has the capability to win the World Series, and everyone will be disappointed if we don’t live up to that capability.”

Yeah, the Cubs have been among baseball’s best teams for three seasons now. That curse-smashing World Series win in 2016 was the high point of a three-year stretch of winning that’s seen three straight trips to the National League Championship Series and a combined 310 wins between the regular season and postseason.

But it’s still got to come as a strange sound to those who remember the Cubs as the longtime butt of so many baseball jokes. This team has one expectation, to win the World Series. The players have said it for a week leading up to Monday’s first full-squad workout. The front office said it when it introduced big-time free-agent signing Yu Darvish a week ago. And the chairman said it Monday.

“We very much expect to win,” Ricketts said. “We have the ability to win. Our division got a lot tougher, and the playoff opponents that we faced last year are likely to be there waiting for us again.

“I think at this point with this team, obviously that’s our goal. I won’t say a season’s a failure because you don’t win the World Series, but it is our goal.”

The confidence is not lacking. But more importantly, success drives expectations. And if the Cubs are going to be one of the best teams in baseball, they better keep winning, or they’ll fail to meet those expectations, expectations that can sometimes spin a little bit out of control.

During last year’s follow-up campaign to 2016’s championship run, a rocky start to the season that had the Cubs out of first place at the All-Star break was enough to make some fans feel like the sky was falling — as if one year without a World Series win would be unacceptable to a fan base that had just gone 108 without one.

After a grueling NLDS against the Washington Nationals, the Cubs looked well overmatched in the NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers, and that sparked plenty of outside criticism, as well as plenty of offseason activity to upgrade the club in the midst of baseball’s never-ending arms race.

“I think people forget we’ve won more games over the last three years than any other team. We’ve won more playoff games than any other team the last three years. And we’ve been to the NLCS three years in a row,” Ricketts said. “I think fans understand that this is a team that if we stay healthy and play up to our capability can be in that position, be in the World Series. I don’t blame them. We should have high expectations, we have a great team.”

On paper, there are plenty of reasons for high expectations. Certainly the team’s stated goals don’t seem outlandish or anything but expected. The addition of Darvish to a rotation that already boasted Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana makes the Cubs’ starting staff the best in the NL, maybe the best in the game. There were additions to the bullpen, and the team’s fleet of young star position players went untouched despite fears it might be broken up to acquire pitching.

“I think this is, on paper, the strongest rotation that we’ve ever had,” Ricketts said. “I think that being able to bring in a player of (Darvish’s) caliber reminds everyone that we’re intending to win our division and go all the way.

“We’ve kept a good core of players together for several years, and this year I think our offseason moves have really set us up to be one of the best teams in baseball.

“Just coming out of our team meeting, the vibe feels a lot like two years ago. Everybody’s in a really good place. I think everyone’s really hungry and really wants to get this season off to a great start and make this a memorable year.”

There should be no surprise that the team and its players and its executives and its owners feel the way they do. The Cubs are now expected winners, even if that’s still yet to sink in for the longtime fans and observers of the team they once called the Lovable Losers.

Blackhawks deal Michael Kempny to Capitals for conditional third-round pick

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USA TODAY

Blackhawks deal Michael Kempny to Capitals for conditional third-round pick

The Blackhawks dealt defenseman Michael Kempny to the Washington Capitals for a third-round pick. Kempny had seven points in 31 games this season.

Kempny, 27, recorded 15 points in 81 career games for the Blackhawks. He tallied an assist in Saturday's 7-1 victory over the Capitals.

Kempny signed a one-year extension through the end of this season back in May.