Cubs

Is Rafael Soriano an answer for Cubs bullpen?

rafael-soriano-0521.png

Is Rafael Soriano an answer for Cubs bullpen?

WASHINGTON – Rafael Soriano understands the clock is ticking.   

It’s early June and the 35-year-old reliever with 207 saves on his resume still remains out there as a free agent. Soriano recently dropped super-agent Scott Boras and switched to Octagon Baseball, whose managing director, Alan Nero, represents Cubs manager Joe Maddon and keeps an office in downtown Chicago.   

The Cubs have shown interest in Soriano, who saved 32 games for the Washington Nationals last season but performed dramatically different before (0.97 ERA) and after (6.48 ERA) the All-Star break.

[MORE CUBS: Cubs getting their money's worth with Anthony Rizzo]

Soriano enjoyed his best individual season playing for Maddon on the 2010 Tampa Bay Rays team that won 96 games. The right-hander put up a 1.73 ERA and notched 45 saves for the American League East champs. 

“Me and ‘Rafi’ have a really good relationship,” Maddon said Friday at Nationals Park. “I had a great time with him in Tampa Bay. He had a great season down there. I haven’t spoken to him. I don’t know where we’re at with all that. But I like the guy. He’s very good.”

The Boston Globe and CBSSports.com identified the St. Louis Cardinals and Toronto Blue Jays as the two other teams seriously pursuing Soriano.

Soriano’s coming off a two-year, $28 million contract with Washington, but it’s a completely different market after Boras played a game of chicken this winter.

[NBC SPORTS SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

“As a closer, he was a guy that didn’t just throw the ball 100 miles an hour,” Maddon said. “He knows how to pitch. He and I used to have a lot of conversations about how he attacks certain hitters in the game, because he really sees things.

“He’s got definite ideas on how to get hitters out. And he’ll make choices where he won’t pitch to you, but he’s going to pitch to him. I’ve always appreciated his pitch-ability.”

The Cubs have blown eight saves and already played 25 one-run games (15-10). This bullpen features two former All-Star starters who couldn’t stick in the rotation (Travis Wood and Edwin Jackson) and a closer who’s looked dominant and shaky at times (Hector Rondon).

Do you think you need another arm out there?

“You’re always looking to get better,” Maddon said diplomatically. “Every team is, not just the Cubs.”

Can Cubs keep Báez and Bryant? Tom Ricketts says that's "on Theo and Jed"

Can Cubs keep Báez and Bryant? Tom Ricketts says that's "on Theo and Jed"

It's a pretty simple question with a pretty simple answer. Can the Cubs, one of baseball's wealthiest organizations, afford to keep both Kris Bryand and Javy Baez? Is there room in the infamous budget to make both of the team's homegrown stars Cubs for life?

“There’s certainly money out there. It’s a very, very profitable game," Bryant said, in regards to keep the core together. "It’s just a matter of if they want to. I don’t know, I really don’t. But it would certainly be cool.”

“It’s up to them,” Báez added. “I hope we both stay here. Obviously, we want to keep everyone here because we pretty much have the team that we want." 

Then, on Monday, "they" – being Cubs' owner Tom Ricketts – finally talked. So, Tom? You sign their checks, what do you think?

"Well, where we place our resources is a baseball decision," Ricketts said. "That’s Jed and Theo. But I mean, ultimately, we have to look at it from a bigger perspective."

It's been a week since Theo Epstein, David Ross, and Jed Hoyer (he was there too!) addressed the media for the first time this spring, and no one seems to be able to get a straight answer on the team's most-pressing long term concern. It's almost certainly by design, as the Cubs are adamant that speaking on finances publicly creates some sort of competitive disadvantage when it comes to negotiating with players and agents. KB and Báez say it's up to ownership, ownership says it's up to the front office (?), and the front office isn't going to speculate. Terrific! If you're to believe the rumor mill, the team seems marginally closer to an extension with Báez than they are with Bryant, and are maybe – according to some – more focused on moving the latter.

Epstein said Bryant was given no assurances about what the time between now and Opening Day holds, and regardless of Bryant's wishes to be in the loop, Ricketts also doesn't feel that an explicit guarantee is totally necessary. 

"I imagine there’s communication between Theo and Kris at some point," Ricketts said. "I think they met yesterday. But a lot of the stuff, what – do you communicate to say that the stuff you saw is a rumor? I mean, I don’t know. Like I said, we love KB. I think he’s ready to go and a full season of a healthy Kris Bryant is something we could really use." 

Put aside for a moment the fact that, yeah, that's exactly what you'd communicate. Compare the apparent transparency of an owner who said that the CBT "won’t define the situation" and "won’t determine the actual player moves" vs. what he said when pressed about all of the offseason turbulence surrounding Bryant and the Cubs. 

"Well obviously we love KB, he’s a great player and he’s a great teammate," he said. "He’s just a great part of the team. Most of the things that are out there are just rumors and noise. A lot of it is just not true. But with respect to all player decisions, if anything was going down that path, it’d obviously be a baseball decision."

Most of the things out there are just rumors and noise. A lot of it is not true. Can the Cubs' afford to keep Bryant and Báez? Yes. Will the Cubs' make that choice? 

"Once again, that’s in Theo’s camp. That’s his decision," Ricketts said. "We’d have to take a look at what that means for us all financially." 

Competitive Balance Taxes are looming, but the Cubs are still willing to bend the budget

Competitive Balance Taxes are looming, but the Cubs are still willing to bend the budget

Tom Ricketts met with the media on Monday morning to give his usual spring State of the Cubs press conference, and the state of the Cubs is … sorta the same? The Cubs look almost identical to the 84-win, third place team of 2019, but Ricketts’ expectations are far above that. 

“I think we have the best team in our division,” the Cubs’ owner said. “I think we have a really dynamic, exciting new manager. I think the players are going to play very, very hard for David Ross. Barring some kind of crazy injuries, I think we should win our division and get back in the playoffs.”

Considering there’s not a whole lot of on-field news to discuss, much of the 20-minute press conference was focused on the team’s finances, their (lack of) headway towards a television deal with Comcast, and what to expect as teams ramp up for the oncoming round of CBA negotiations. Ricketts talked at length about the club’s perceived battles – or lack thereof, he claims – with baseball’s Competitive Balance Tax (CBT). 

“I think the CBT is a factor that every large market GM has to put into their calculus when they create their teams,” Ricketts said. “I don’t know how much fans know, but it’s not just a financial penalty. It’s a financial penalty that grows over time, for a number of years you’re above the threshold. And then it gets into a player penalty, which you have to be careful to avoid. So like I said, it’s a factor – I don’t think it’s a defining factor – but it’s definitely a factor that every team has to deal with, at least every large market team.” 

Ricketts mentioned that some of this offseason’s planned budget was fronted when the Cubs signed closer Craig Kimbrel to a three-year, $43 million deal towards the end of last summer. He was also adamant that payrolls don’t correlate directly to winning, which is certainly not unfair to claim but also not entirely accurate. He pointed to the Cubs’ baseball budget in 2019, which was, according to him, the highest in the league as to say that the team wasn’t exactly sitting on their hands. While the front office’s inactivity surprised many of the Cubs’ players, Ricketts shot down the idea that something needed to happen for the sake of something happening. 

“I’m not disappointed,” he said. “The fact is that we have a great team, we have guys that are proven winners and verteran players. We have the talent to win our division and go deep into the playoffs. So that’s a good starting place. In terms of big changes, it’s hard. You guys follow the game, it’s not like there’s a lot of player for player swaps anymore. Trades don’t happen like they used to.” 

And while many view the Red Sox-Dodgers player swap that took place literally last week as a concerning sign of baseball’s current economic market heading into the next round of CBA discussions, Ricketts chose not to comment on what he thinks the owners are going to try and bargain for. Instead, he left the door open for activity – even if it means swallowing the rather costly CBT pill. The Cubs were over the CBT last year, and are open to the notion of a second-straight violation if it means making the right move. Penalties for third-time offenders are particularly harsh, though, and Ricketts conceded that it’s that point when spending begins to give ownership pause. 

“Obviously paying large taxes on CBT is really inefficient and not a great use of team resources, so if there’s a way to put a great team on the field and not pay that, then they will,” he said. “But I leave it up to Theo and Jed. 

“Like I said, the CBT thresholds are a piece of the puzzle. They’re something that we’re always mindful of, but they won’t define the situation and they won’t determine the actual player moves.” 

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Chicago