Cubs

Jon Lester sounds the alarm baseball's lack of free-agent spending this winter

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USA TODAY

Jon Lester sounds the alarm baseball's lack of free-agent spending this winter

MESA, Ariz. — Spring training is no longer some upcoming deadline. Spring training is here.

And still there are dozens of free agents without jobs, including some of the bigger names in the game, guys like Jake Arrieta, J.D. Martinez, Eric Hosmer and plenty of others.

The reasons behind this inactive offseason have been written about ad nauseam. But to the players themselves, as Jon Lester put it, it’s just alarming.

“It’s crazy,” Lester said, talking at length about the situation Friday at Cubs camp. “I kind of thought once February hit, it would be kind of a mass signing, that guys would sign in that first week and we really wouldn’t talk about it anymore. But obviously that’s not the case.

“I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t know behind closed doors what’s being said, what’s been said. It’s just alarming, that’s kind of how I look at it. We’re not talking about middle relievers with 5.00 ERAs. We’re talking about big guys. We’re talking about guys that need to be playing. It’s alarming. Hopefully we can get this thing figured out and get these guys a team relatively soon.”

The Cubs have made plenty of moves this offseason, making the league-wide situation seem like it might not apply to the North Siders. After all, the Cubs have been the ones to hand out the two biggest pitching contracts of the winter, first to Tyler Chatwood and then to Yu Darvish earlier this week.

But the affected parties are closer to home than it might seem, with Arrieta being perhaps the biggest unsigned name out there. It would be completely unforeseen if Arrieta returned to the Cubs after the Darvish signing locked the rotation into place for the foreseeable future. But the topic of where one of the biggest parts of the team’s three-year playoff stretch might land continues to be a big one in Cub World. Tommy La Stella spoke about it earlier Friday. Then it was Lester’s turn.

“I would imagine (Arrieta is frustrated), yeah. He doesn’t have a job,” Lester said. “This is what we do. So I can only imagine what those guys are going through probably emotionally and physically, too. If they do a free-agent camp, if they don’t, whatever, you’re physically behind the 8-ball when you come back. You’ve got to get to know your new teammates or even just settle into a team that you were with. It’s alarming. I don’t understand it. Selfishly, I’m glad I’m not in that situation. But for those guys, it’s got to be hard.”

Lester continued to hit home that he had no insider information, but he came to the same conclusions many have, that next winter’s free-agent bonanza starring Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, potentially Clayton Kershaw and a host of other All-Star caliber players is having a big effect this winter. And he also made an understated finger-point at the owners, talking about teams’ unwillingness to spend on free agents like they have in every offseason prior.

The caveat with that, of course, is that it’s Lester’s team that has potentially set the trend that player agents have been complaining about. Not the one of refusing to spend — Lester, Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and Darvish have big paychecks from the Ricketts family — but the trend of a total teardown rebuild. Theo Epstein’s front office committed to multiple years of losing in order to produce this current team, one of the best in baseball for the past three seasons with no sign of slowing down, using top draft picks to build the core.

“There’s too many good players out there that don’t have teams, you’re kind of scratching your head on why,” Lester said. “I think each individual year is different, it’s just like the season. I know people have kind of downplayed it, but you’ve got next year, as well. Big class that’s coming out. I would imagine that has something to do with it, teams trying to set themselves up to be able to spend next year on those guys. But at the same time, it screws the guys that are going through it now.

“There’s no reason why Jake Arrieta or J.D. Martinez or any of these guys should have to sign a one-year deal. That’s ridiculous. There’s too much money in the game. It’s going up, our game’s not suffering at all. There’s money there to be spent, and for whatever reason it’s not being spent.

“The money that’s being made on the other side in this game, absolutely (I could foresee a $400 million contract next winter). I think people are forgetting where a lot of that money is actually going to. It’s there to be spent, and it’s not being spent right now.”

The unpredictability of the offseason signals that the upcoming months will be unpredictable, as well. Who knows when Arrieta and the other jobless players will sign? As Lester mentioned, those guys are already behind schedule. And while they’re surely working out and keeping their bodies in shape, it’s tough to sign a contract in March or April or May or June and instantly hit the ground running with a new team.

So while baseball season is indeed underway in Arizona and Florida, there’s still a lot of uncertainty about how the season will play out — because some of its main characters have yet to receive their roles.

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 31st homer in 1998

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 31st homer in 1998

It's the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Sammy, when Sosa and Mark McGwire went toe-to-toe in one of the most exciting seasons in American sports history chasing after Roger Maris' home run record. All year, we're going to go homer-by-homer on Sosa's 66 longballs, with highlights and info about each. Enjoy.

Sosa's 18th homer of June and 31st of the season came off the Tigers in the Cubs' brief 2-game Interleague series in Detroit. 

Sosa connected in the first inning off Tigers starter Seth Greisinger, going back-to-back with Mickey Morandini. 

The Cubs wound up getting out to a 5-0 start in the game but still lost 7-6 on a Gabe Alvarez single in the bottom of the 11th.

The aforementioned Morandini homer was only the 3rd of the season for the Cubs second baseman. He finished with 8 homers on the year and 224 total bases on 172 hits in what was a very good offensive season. Yet it paled in comparison to Sosa, who had nearly 200 more total bases (416) and a slugging percentage nearly 200 points above Morandini's (.647 to .471), a testament to how truly incredible Sosa's season was.

Fun fact: Tony Clark was the Tigers' cleanup hitter that day. Clark is now the head of the MLB Players Union.

Fun fact No. 2: Paul Bako was the Detroit catcher in the game. He later became the Cubs backup catcher in 2003 and 2004, when he posted a .611 OPS in 119 games over the two years.

Maddon gets funky with bullpen, calls catcher Chris Gimenez to mound

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USA TODAY

Maddon gets funky with bullpen, calls catcher Chris Gimenez to mound

The Cubs continued their recent struggles, suffering their third straight loss to the Cincinnati Reds. 

But the game was not without its fair share of drama. The matchup was a back-and-forth affair, up until the Reds blew the game wide-open in the bottom of the third inning. This included a grand slam by Reds pitcher Anthony DeSclafani, the first home run of his career.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon turned to the bullpen following Cincinnati's third inning explosion, and things did not get much better from there.

With the Cubs down six runs in the bottom of the eight inning, Maddon brought in catcher Chris Gimenez to pitch. 

This was not new territory for Gimenez, who despite being a catcher, now has 10 MLB pitching appearances to his name. 

Down six runs, Gimenez didn't have a lot to lose. But Reds first basemen Joey Votto hammered a fastball in the zone for his eighth homer of the year.

Gimenez had a career ERA of 8.00 before Saturday's appearance, and he certainly didn't do much to help lower that figure.

According to ESPN's Jesse Rogers: "Including one today, Cubs relievers have allowed 41.1 percent of inherited runners to score in June, sixth most in the NL." 

A tired bullpen is certainly cause for concern for the Cubs, who are locked into a battle in the NL Central with the Brewers and Cardinals. Maddon was surely hoping to keep his bullpen arms fresh with the move, seeing as the game was already out of reach. 

So yes, the game did end in a 11-2 win for the Reds. But with a grand-slam by a pitcher—on his first career HR no less—and four-seam fastballs from a catcher, Cubs baseball always keep things interesting.