Cubs

Brewers strike back by signing Aramis Ramirez

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Brewers strike back by signing Aramis Ramirez

Aramis Ramirez was positioned as the Plan B option for any team that missed out on Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder and still wanted some presence in the middle of their lineup.

Ramirez says whats on his mind. He knows exactly who he is. He wont be bothered by the comparisons to Fielder, or the criticism if he doesnt live up to that. Hes simply a professional hitter.

It was always just business for Ramirez, who got what he wanted in this deal a three-year contract reportedly worth around 36 million money, security and the chance to play for a contender. He cant replace Fielder, but it would be wrong to process Mondays news and completely dismiss the Milwaukee Brewers.

The Brewers are still a team built to win now, even with Fielder chasing a 200 million megadeal in free agency and Ryan Braun facing a potential 50-game suspension for a failed drug test. They have an aggressive owner in Mark Attanasio, and a creative front office that built a 96-game division winner last season. They act bigger than their small market.

The Brewers still have their five starters under club control for 2012: Zack Greinke, Shaun Marcum, Yovani Gallardo, Randy Wolf and Chris Narveson. Each made at least 28 starts and won 11 or more games last season.

The Cubs dont have that kind of rotation, which is one reason why Ramirez, who will turn 34 next season, no longer fit into their plans. The third baseman declined his end of a 16 million option, and an arbitration offer, which means the Cubs will receive draft-pick compensation.

Last week at the winter meetings before the Los Angeles Angels emerged as the mystery team Theo Epstein was asked about the potential landscape of the National League Central without Fielder or Pujols. The answer made it clear that the Cubs first have to get their house in order.

Theres a lot of work to do here, Epstein said. Theres a pretty big gap between where we are now and where we want to go, both at the major-league level and as an organization more broadly.

If we start tracking whether an opposing team might be a 91-win team or a 96-win team, (then) thats probably not the best use of our time. We need to try to build our operation up to a point where we feel pretty good about consistently delivering a team thats going to be a strong playoff contender.

There will always be good teams in this division. I think its an underrated division, whether or not these impact bats stay or go. If they go, those teams are going to have more draft picks and more resources available to them to improve the rest of their club.

If they stay, those guys are tough to get out. Either way, I dont think its going to impact what were trying to do.

The Cubs will try to rebuild without Ramirez, who has six 100-plus RBI seasons on his resume and showed more leadership than you would have thought behind the scenes.

Among Cubs third basemen all-time, only Ron Santo (337) has more home runs than Ramirez (239), who won a Silver Slugger award last season.

There was also the body language, which often came up on sports radio and talk shows and seemed to distance Ramirez from Cubs fans.

To fight that perception, Ramirez spoke extensively with Angels manager Mike Scioscia before the Pujols deal went down, and impressed Hall of Fame executive Pat Gillick when the Philadelphia Phillies made a recent scouting trip to the Dominican Republic.

Ramirez should enjoy hitting at Miller Park, where hes generated 15 homers and 62 RBI in 78 career games. It will be weird for Brewers fans to see Fielder in another uniform, and someone other than Braun playing left field. But this was a move to try to stay in the playoff picture.

Cubs acquire righty reliever Travis Lakins from Red Sox as bullpen stockpiling continues

Cubs acquire righty reliever Travis Lakins from Red Sox as bullpen stockpiling continues

The Cubs continued their stockpiling of relievers on Tuesday, acquiring right-hander Travis Lakins from the Red Sox. The North Siders will send a player to be named later or cash considerations to Boston in return.

Lakins is a former sixth-round pick by the Red Sox who made his big-league debut last season. The 25-year-old sported a 3.86 ERA in 16 appearances, three of which he started the game as an "opener." He pitched 23 1/3 innings in the big leagues season, striking out 18 while walking 10. He holds a 4.45 ERA in parts of five minor-league seasons.

Lakins' fastball ranks in the 70th percentile for spin rate, averaging 93.7 mph with his four-seamer last season with Boston. 

The Cubs have acquired a plethora of low-key relievers this winter, including Dan Winkler, Ryan Tepera, Jason Adam and now Lakins. The club lost stalwart Steve Cishek to the White Sox and haven't been connected to the reliable Brandon Kintzler this offseason.  Pedro Strop is also a free agent, and the Cubs are reportedly interested in a reunion.

As of now, the only locks for the 2020 bullpen are closer Craig Kimbrel, Rowan Wick, Kyle Ryan and Brad Wieck. Thus, the Cubs have been gathering as many relief options as possible with the hope some will emerge as viable relief candidates this season. At the least, they'll have plenty of depth in case any injuries occur or if any arms underperform.

"You realize to get through a season, it's not a matter of going up on a whiteboard and writing up your eight relievers," Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said at Cubs Convention Saturday. "It's a matter of [needing] 15, 20, 25 good relievers over the course of the summer to really get through it.

"When you guys see a lot of these transactions of relievers, often times they're going to be coming off down years. For the most part, I bet you when we acquire a guy, you can look back and you can see a year in the not-too-distant past when they had a really good year.

"That's the kind of shot we have to take, and that's the kind of shot every team has to take on capturing that lightning in a bottle. Buying really high on relievers and signing them after they have a breakout year is really expensive and really difficult and doesn't have a great success rate. We try to find those guys that we can catch lightning in a bottle, and that's been a big part of our strategy."

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Theo Epstein and the ‘three masters’ Cubs are trying to serve this offseason

Theo Epstein and the ‘three masters’ Cubs are trying to serve this offseason

One of the best parts of Cubs Convention is the access fans have to the organization’s biggest figures. Whether in passing in the convention’s hotel lobby or during hour-long panels, fans have opportunities to meet members of the Cubs and ask legitimate questions on the state of the team.

An example occurred Saturday, when a fan had his two minutes of fame during the baseball operations panel.

“The fact that it has been a slower offseason and the fact that it’s pretty obvious we don’t want to increase payroll,” the fan said to team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer. “I know we have a high payroll already, so it’s not like the money hasn’t been spent. Has the slow offseason, [has] it just been attributable to the luxury tax, or are there more factors in play, or at least factors that you can talk about?"

For the second straight year, the Cubs arrived at their fan festival having made little moves to upgrade a roster that ended the previous season on a disappointing note. As the fan said, MLB’s luxury tax threshold clearly is an issue. If the Cubs exceed the threshold ($208 million) again, they’ll be taxed 30 percent on their overages and see their 2021 draft pick drop 10 spots, should they eclipse the threshold by $40 million.

For a team that hasn’t had the most success in the draft in recent years, all while not winning in or even making the postseason — despite holding one of MLB’s biggest payrolls (projected just over $209 million in 2020) — those potential penalties are enough to give pause.

“Your question, the way you asked it, is perfect,” Epstein said to the fan. “It outlines the challenges we have. Transparency is very, very important to us. We do the best we can to always tell the truth and always be as open and candid as we can. We think you guys deserve that.”

The Cubs have been knocked in recent years for a lack of transparency. That matters, but there are some areas where they won’t show their hand. Budgets and player payrolls are examples, as revealing too much would hurt them when negotiating deals with agents and opposing clubs.

“But obviously I’m not going to insult you guys,” Epstein added. “Clearly, how we’ve positioned ourselves relative to the collective bargaining tax and the impact of going over multiple years in a row and the effects of that long-term is a factor in the offseason. It’s one of those obstacles that we’ve talked about that we have to find a way to navigate around.”

Fans frustrated by the Cubs sitting idly this offseason and last are quick to point out the luxury tax is merely a de facto salary cap. The financial consequences aren’t overbearing — the Cubs paid $7.6 million in overages in 2019, a small cost for a big market team.

The Cubs aren’t rebuilding and intend to compete in 2020, but their farm system has grown barren from years of win-now moves and struggling to develop impactful homegrown talent. And, on top of all that, many of their core players — Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber — are projected to hit free agency after 2021.

Add that all up, and the Cubs find themselves in a purgatory of sorts as spring training nears.

“I’m going to be honest and self-critical. If we had done our jobs a lot better the last couple years, those same obstacles might be there, but they wouldn’t be as pressing,” Epstein said. “We would have a little bit more flexibility. Any outside factor, like how you position yourself relative to the tax or budgets, is important, but there’s always a way to anticipate that and do your jobs in such a manner that you can get around it.”

Between the desire to compete in 2020, remain competitive long-term and gain financial flexibility, members of the Cubs core have been fixtures of trade rumors all offseason. Dealing Bryant, for example, would give the Cubs payroll relief ($18.6 million salary in 2020) and net the team young, controllable players/prospects. It also would cost the Cubs one of their best players.

At his end-of-season press conference in 2018, Epstein threatened roster changes could occur, though the Cubs largely brought back the same group for 2019. After the club underperformed, winning 84 games, he again hinted changes could be coming.

The Cubs have overhauled their baseball operations up-and-down the organization, but it’s beginning to look like status quo will reign king once again. Bryant’s unresolved grievance case is a factor here, but the club ultimately is struggling to make the right moves to help the team now and moving forward.

“Right now, we’ve been struggling to find the types of transactions that can thread that needle, that can make us better in 2020 and improve our chances of winning the World Series in 2020,” Epstein said, “that at the same time position us so that we don’t run the risk of falling off a cliff after 2021, when a lot of our best players are scheduled to leave and also can get us where we should be relative to the CBT and relative to budgets to ensure a little bit healthier financial picture going forward in the future.

“It’s difficult, it’s not impossible. Probably most of the moves we’re going to make are not going to be able to serve all three of those masters. You might see a move that makes us a lot healthier for the long-term future, which is important to us and we should be doing those types of things, but might create a little more risk for 2020, where you might see a move that…a move that makes us better for 2020, and that’s important.

“We really need to try to improve and take risk away from the roster, but that’s gonna hurt us a little bit down the line after 2021. This is one of those winters where it’s really hard to thread the needle and we’re doing the best we can. I would say to hang with us, and hopefully by the time Opening Day rolls around, we’ve improved the 2020 team, we’ve done some things that maybe don’t improve the ’20 team but ensure a better future and then to our bosses and for our future, we’ve also done a responsible job financially to set us up for long-term fiscal health.”

With Opening Day nine weeks away, there's still time for the Cubs to make a significant move to their roster. Making one that checks all three of Epstein's boxes, however, is a much greater — potentially impossible — task.

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