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Look for Cubs to target pitching at Winter Meetings

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Look for Cubs to target pitching at Winter Meetings

Sunday, Dec. 5, 2010
5:00 PM

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. During what could have been his last night on the job, the media found Mike Quade to be in a particularly good mood.

Sitting behind a desk after Game 161, Quade defused any tension around Carlos Zambrano. If Zambrano glared at teammate Bobby Scales for his defensive mistakes, or sulked when pulled for a reliever, the manager said he didnt see anything.

Quade speaks in rapid bursts and his defense of Zambrano came quickly. He had already set the press conferences tone by teasing one reporter who always asked about the upcoming starting pitchers.

Whats the rotation look like for the rest of the way? Quade said, laughing. The rotation is Dempster and Ill see you guys next year maybe.

Yes, Ryan Dempster did start the final game of last season and should get the assignment for Opening Day 2011. And Quade eventually earned two guaranteed years on his new deal.

But as executives, scouts and agents gather inside the Walt Disney World complex this week for Major League Baseballs annual winter meetings, some of those same questions linger.

The Cubs' rotation has volume, but not definition, and the bullpen could use a right-handed piece. Those will be areas to monitor when the market officially opens Monday at the Swan and Dolphin resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

Four years ago, Jim Hendry was rushed from the meetings to an Orlando-area hospital with chest pains, but that didnt stop the general manager from signing Ted Lilly for 40 million.

That worked out for everyone, as Lilly delivered 47 wins and more than 700 innings in three-plus seasons. It wont be easy to replace that sort of production, much less Lillys accountability and refusal to make excuses.

Budget constraints likely wont allow Hendry to make a huge splash in free agency. Forget Cliff Lee and the nine-figure contract a bidding war with the New York Yankees will generate.

From there, the drop-off is steep toward back-of-the-rotation types not unlike Tom Gorzelanny, Randy Wells, Carlos Silva and Casey Coleman. It will force the Cubs to ask themselves: At what price are any of these pitchers better than the ones we already have?

Some linked to the Cubs Jake Westbrook (St. Louis Cardinals), Jon Garland (Los Angeles Dodgers), Javier Vazquez (Florida Marlins) have already found riches elsewhere. The same thing has happened to a shrinking market for first basemen.

Adrian Gonzalez trade talk has dominated the run-up to the meetings. Lance Berkman is heading to St. Louis and Aubrey Huff will remain a World Series hero in San Francisco. It would be shocking if Paul Konerko doesnt re-sign with the White Sox and join Adam Dunn on the South Side.

All that could drive demand for Carlos Pena a Scott Boras client even higher.

The Cubs have a reported interest in Brandon Webb and the one-time Cy Young Award winner seems to fit the profile of what theyre looking for value and upside though theres inherent risk with someone whose right shoulder hasnt allowed him to pitch since April 6, 2009.

However, when the 2011 staff takes shape, it will not be listening to Larry Rothschild anymore. Look for the Cubs to announce the hiring of their new pitching coach this week. Theres a sense that an internal candidate such as Mark Riggins or Lester Strode will be promoted.

Maybe a new voice can help Gorzelanny and Wells gain focus and confidence. Quades presence helped young pitchers like Coleman and Andrew Cashner relax during the final six weeks of last season. Even Zambrano seemed to benefit from a fresh start.

(Quade) did a good job he deserved it, Zambrano said. Hes very professional (and) very respectful and hopefully we can do a lot of good things for him next year.

No one knows if Zambrano has figured it out yet. Internal improvement isnt guaranteed, though its also not unreasonable to think it could happen. It wont help sell tickets this winter, but the man in the dugout will be more convinced than the fan base. He owes a lot to those players.

This has been all about the pitching, Quade said that night in Houston, near the end of his 37-game audition. Those guys on the bump have been special this entire time. Im day to day.

Patrick Mooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. Follow Patrick on Twitter @CSNMooney for up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

Why Cubs GM Jed Hoyer thinks a playoff bubble could be in MLB's 'best interest'

Why Cubs GM Jed Hoyer thinks a playoff bubble could be in MLB's 'best interest'

Instituting an MLB “bubble” for the postseason would make sense to Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer.

“The first round this year, you would just travel once,” he said Monday. “But once you get into later rounds and sometimes, you're traveling multiple times a week. And I think what we've learned so far is that travel is a difficult part of this.”

Less than three weeks into the regular season, MLB has dealt with outbreaks on two different teams. The first positive COVID-19 tests in both the Marlins’ and Cardinals’ outbreaks were taken on the road. MLB has already committed to an expanded 16-team postseason. So, the question becomes, if Major League Baseball can make it to the postseason, how can it increase its chances of finishing the playoffs?

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Other leagues have had success with quarantined bubbles. Last week, the NHL announced zero positive COVID-19 tests since its teams reported to the league's two hub cities. 

Both the National Women's Soccer League and Major League Soccer had teams drop out of their tournaments before competition began, due to team outbreaks. But the NWSL completed a month-long tournament without a COVID-19 case in its Utah bubble, and MLS' participating teams have produced all negative tests since July 10. 

The WNBA has not had a positive COVID-19 test since the initial round of testing, as players arrived at the clean site. Last week, the NBA reported its third consecutive batch of weekly tests without a new positive.

"We're only as good as our weakest link," Hoyer said. "And this thing spreads."

Even just this weekend there were examples of players and teams violating health and safety protocols.

Cleveland pitcher Zach Plesac  left the team hotel to go out in Chicago during the team’s series against the White Sox.

The A’s and Astros had a benches-clearing brawl after Houston pitcher Humberto Castellanos hit Oakland’s Roman Laureano with a pitch. It was the third time that Laureano had been hit in the series and second time in that game.

From the Astros dugout, hitting coach Alex Cintrón began jawing back and forth with Laureano, until Laureano charged. The benches cleared.

“Frustrations are going to boil over,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “… As a coach, we have to contain our emotions, a little more than probably the players. Players do the best they can, but as coaches we have to stay professional in every aspect.”

Both incidents happened after Major League Baseball tightened health and safety protocols and postponed the Cubs’ weekend series at St. Louis in response to more positive COVID-19 tests from the Cardinals. The Cardinals have played an MLB-low five games due to their coronavirus outbreak. At least 16 St. Louis players and staff members have tested positive.

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he believed there was still time for the Cardinals to play enough games to be considered a “credible competitor.” Whether they can fit a whole 60-game schedule in remains in question.

“I think there's going to be real decisions about how to reschedule those games and what to do,” Hoyer said. “But at this point I think that the focus is on making sure that those guys are all healthy, the staff and players, and stopping the spread. And who knows how long it’s going to take.

“I think we all expected to play this weekend, and now, I don't know if they'll be able to play Thursday, Friday or until after the weekend. So, at this point there's no point in speculating (on if the league would shut down a team) because we just don't know when they're going to be able to take the field.”

A few hours later, MLB announced that the Cardinals' Thursday doubleheader against the Tigers had been postponed.

The regular season hurdles continue, even without the kind of back-and forth travel that comes with the playoffs.

“With buses and planes and hotel rooms and smaller club houses, things like that,” Hoyer said of travel, “I think it's that that's been a challenge. And a challenge the league is trying to address, but still a challenge nonetheless. And so I think a bubble situation for the playoffs could be in the best interest to make sure that those games are played and that the right players are on the field deciding it.”

 

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Cubs’ Ian Happ claimed center field after AAA detour: 'He's the real deal'

Cubs’ Ian Happ claimed center field after AAA detour: 'He's the real deal'

Ian Happ paused before answering, the moment of silence punctuating his matter-of-fact response.

“No,” he said. “I don’t feel that way.”

Looking back, he doesn’t feel like he rose to the Major Leagues too quickly.

Happ has had to field that question since spending 2/3 of last season in Triple-A. But already this year, Happ has hit three home runs, tied for the most on the team, while also maintain a top-three batting average (.297). Not only is he performing on the field, Happ has also embraced a leadership role and taken over for Kris Bryant as the team’s MLBPA representative.

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“He’s the real deal,” Ross said Sunday, after Happ went 3-for-3 with two doubles in the Cubs’ intrasquad scrimmage.

The club’s decision to send Happ to Triple-A Iowa at the beginning of last season came as a surprise. Much of Happ’s conviction that he was ready for the major leagues when he debuted came from his standout rookie season.

Happ hit 24 home runs as a rookie – still his career high – and finished eighth in rookie of the year voting in 2017. His batting average regressed the next year (from .253 to .233), and his strikeout number rose (from 129 to 167). But he joined the .350 club in on-base percentage.

“We believed then and we believe now that he’s going to be a really good player,” Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said this week. “We thought it was the right move and something that was necessary even though it was really unpleasant to send him back there. To his credit, he made the absolute most of it, took personal responsibility.”

When Happ returned to the big leagues, his progress showed. He won NL player of the week in the final week of the season. But he’s made even more of a splash this year, from Spring Training through the first two weeks of the regular season.

Entering the year, center field was one of the main position battles to monitor for first-time manager Ross.

“Right now, the job is Ian Happ’s,” Ross said Sunday.

Ross’ lineup choices had suggested as much already. Happ has appeared in all 13 of the Cubs games, at least pinch hitting in the three he didn’t start.

“It’s hard to take Ian Happ out of the lineup,” Ross said of the switch-hitter. “The guy’s swinging the bat really well, and his right-handed at-bats have gotten tremendously better. He’s been a staple.”

Happ started his season off with a two-run home run in his first plate appearance. He was batting ninth, and through all of Ross’ reshuffling of the bottom third of the batting order, Happ has been the Cubs’ most frequent nine-hole hitter.

With the Cubs’ No. 7 and 8 hitters consistently getting on base, in the nine-hole has showcased Happ’s ability to drive in runs (he’s tied for second on the team with six RBI) or set the table for the Cubs’ unconventional top of the order.

“I feel great about where I'm at right now,” Happ said, “my ability to help the team and get on base for those guys that are hitting behind me.”

Just as he set the tone in the batter’s box early, with an Opening Day home run, Happ flashed some leather in the opening series against the Brewers. Three days into the season, Happ tracked a long fly ball back to the wall. He leaped and caught it just before his back slammed into the ivy, which barely cushioned the brick behind it.

Happ slid down the wall into a crouch, his body no doubt feeling the results of the impact. But it wasn’t long before he stood back up.

“I think he absolutely took advantage of his time down (in Iowa),” Epstein said, “and is in a different and better phase in his career now because of what he went through.”

 

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