Inside the pursuit of Russell Martin

November, 23, 2014
Nov 23
7:22
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
CHICAGO -- Though the Chicago Cubs lost out on their bid for free-agent catcher Russell Martin early last week, it doesn’t mean they weren’t in the hunt until the end. Martin’s Chicago-based agent, Matt Colleran, says it was neck-and-neck between the Cubs and the team Martin eventually signed with, the Toronto Blue Jays.

"There were times throughout the process where it was Toronto and the Cubs, 1 and 2," Colleran recalled this past weekend. "They probably flipped spots in that process. One day the Cubs [were] going a little ahead, and the next Toronto was ahead. When we got into the [last] weekend the dollars started to come into play, and Toronto was just super aggressive with their approach."

[+] EnlargeRussell Martin
Andrew Francis Wallace/Toronto Star/Getty ImagesFree-agent catcher Russell Martin was deciding between the Cubs and Blue Jays, according to his agent. He ultimately chose Toronto.
Colleran actually indicated the Blue Jays were the most aggressive team from the start of free agency, as he received a call from them at "9:01 a.m. on the very first day." But the Cubs were nearly as aggressive, and their face-to-face meeting couldn't have gone better, according to the agent.

"Those guys are incredibly professional," Colleran said of the Cubs' front office. "The presentation was professional and on point … Russ came away super impressed."

The presentation highlighted the Cubs' future and featured both current and former players, but at the end of the day the Blue Jays simply wouldn't be denied. Last Sunday morning is when Toronto's general manager Alex Anthopoulos basically told Colleran the Blue Jays were getting his client one way or another.

"He flat-out said that [in the] morning," Colleran stated. "He said it in a way that he was determined and that he was going to be in it until the end. He was aggressive throughout the entire process, so that statement didn't surprise me."

By that evening, Martin had agreed to a 5-year, $82 million deal. The price tag was simply too steep for the Cubs, who were of the mindset that a four-year deal was their limit. At some point in the process, it became clear to Colleran that Martin's former team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, couldn't afford to have him back, and GM Neal Huntington intimated as much in interviews late in the final week before his former catcher signed. But just days before the agreement with the Blue Jays, the Cubs sounded like a team that had hopes of landing him -- without mentioning Martin by name -- while discussing the development of 2014 first-round pick, Kyle Schwarber.

"Catchers take a little bit longer to develop in the minor leagues, and when they break in, they break in gradually and it's important for them to have good mentors," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said at the general manager meetings in Arizona. "He could very much be in our plans, and it would still make sense to sign a catcher if it's the right catcher out there."

Martin was that right guy, but not at Brian McCann-type money. McCann's 5-year contract for $85 million with the New York Yankees last offseason was the deal Martin's camp used for comparison, according to Colleran. He was the only comparable catcher who actually made it to free agency, though McCann is one year younger.

"We wanted to get close," Colleran said.

And the Blue Jays were a willing participant. Colleran indicated having the best free-agent catcher is a little different from other positions. It's why a deal was able to get done so early in the offseason.

"I sensed that things were going to move because each team involved in it was not waiting for something else to happen to get to Russell," Colleran explained.

In other words, going after Martin wasn't contingent on anything else the Cubs were doing. They wanted him, as did the Los Angeles Dodgers and Pirates, but only the Blue Jays "stepped up to the plate."

"They took the lead in everything," Colleran said.

And what if the offers by the Cubs and Blue Jays were equal?

"He never had to answer the question because of where it [the money] went," Colleran said.

Cubs hire Blanco; Martinez doubtful

November, 22, 2014
Nov 22
12:43
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
CHICAGO -- The Chicago Cubs hired former catcher Henry Blanco as their Quality Assurance Coach, replacing Jose Castro who bolted for the Atlanta Braves earlier this offseason, the team announced Saturday.

Blanco’s return means there’s one less potential job opening for former Cub Dave Martinez. Martinez was eliminated for consideration for the managerial position in Tampa Bay on Friday and a source close to the situation said it was doubtful he would join the Cubs as Joe Maddon’s bench coach, the same position he held with the Rays.

The Cubs have been in a tricky spot with their coaching staff since hiring Maddon to replace Rick Renteria at the end of October. At the time, they had already hired two new hitting coaches as well as a new first base coach and said all others on the staff were returning, including bench coach Brandon Hyde. Traditionally, a manager gets to choose at least a few people to join his coaching staff, but with the timing of Maddon’s hiring, he’s not going to be able to overhaul things. Recently, he indicated he was fine with that.

“They’ve done the heavy lifting,” Maddon said. “Now I get to jump in.”

Blanco, 43, played for the Cubs from 2005-2008 and was part of two division winning teams in ’07 and ’08. Most recently, he was part of the Arizona Diamondbacks coaching staff.

He could turn into a key hiring as his personality will lend itself to the Cubs' young players. Additionally, he’s bi-lingual, which was a major concern last offseason as the Cubs wanted coaches who could speak to and relate with their young core of Latin-American players. Renteria was able to do that, but with his firing, the Cubs could have been lacking that piece to the coaching puzzle. Blanco will also undoubtedly help Welington Castillo as he’s the incumbent starter behind the plate after the team missed on free agent Russell Martin. Castillo is still growing in both the offensive and defensive parts of his game.

Cubs add exhibition games: The Cubs will take on the Oakland Athletics on March 13 and 14 in Las Vegas, the team announced Friday. Traditionally, the Cubs have played in Las Vegas every March with a split squad staying behind for Cactus League games in Arizona. Game times for the contests against the Athletics will be announced at a later date.

Raul Ibanez finalist to manage Rays

November, 21, 2014
Nov 21
4:45
PM CT
video

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Raul Ibanez, Kevin Cash and Don Wakamatsu are the finalists to replace Joe Maddon as manager of the Tampa Bay Rays.

Dave Martinez, the Rays' bench coach for the past seven seasons, was among seven candidates dropped Friday. Also cut were Barry Larkin, Doug Glanville, Manny Acta, Craig Counsell, Charlie Montoyo and Ron Wotus.

Tampa Bay said interviews with the finalists will be scheduled for the week of Dec. 1. Maddon left the Rays after nine seasons to manage the Chicago Cubs.

"The decision on Dave Martinez was especially difficult," Rays president of baseball operations Matt Silverman said in a statement. "He's played a key role in our organization's evolution, and he's done all he can to put himself in position to be a manager. In the end, we determined that our clubhouse would best benefit from a new voice that will add to our already strong and cohesive culture."

Ibanez, 42, has spent 19 seasons in the major leagues with Seattle, Kansas City, Philadelphia, the Yankees and the Los Angeles Angels and has 305 homers and 2,034 hits. He helped the Royals win this year's AL pennant.

The 36-year-old Cash played for Tampa Northside in the 1989 Little League World Series and was a big league catcher for eight seasons with Toronto, Tampa Bay, Boston, the New York Yankees and Houston from 2002 to 2010. He was a major league advance scout for Toronto in 2012 and Cleveland's bullpen coach in 2013-14.


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Regardless of additions, Rizzo likes what Cubs have

November, 21, 2014
Nov 21
12:52
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
Theo Epstein, Anthony RizzoDavid Banks/Getty ImagesAnthony Rizzo is confident that no matter what moves Theo Epstein and the Cubs make, Chicago will have a talented and exciting team on the field this season.
CHICAGO -- Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo hasn’t talked to pitcher Jon Lester or any other potential free agents but he has a simple message for them:

“The best sales pitch I have is: This is an exciting team and this is Chicago,” Rizzo told reporters Friday.

In town to promote his charity “Laugh Off for Cancer” event Jan. 15, Rizzo isn’t paying real close attention to the Cubs offseason because he thinks there’s plenty of talent already on the team.

“Regardless, if we bring the team back that we had last year, I’m confident we can win a lot more games than we did last year, he said. “I think we have impact players that can step up and emerge, but bringing in outside talent can never hurt.”

Rizzo believes the available free agents will make their decisions based on more than money considering all will be well taken care of.

“That comes down to so much more than baseball,” Rizzo stated. “Most of these guys [who] are flown around and getting shown the city are going to be making a good amount of money, so it’s going to be about the best decision for them.”

That might be a little different take then his boss, Theo Epstein, has stated in the past. He’s noted that most of the time it does comes down to the contract, but maybe both are right. Once the money is in place, Lester or anyone else is going to base his decision on where’s he’s most comfortable and probably where he can win. It still might make Boston the potential front-runner but doesn’t mean the Cubs are out of the picture.

Whomever the team brings in, Rizzo thinks they’ll enjoy new manager Joe Maddon as much as he thinks he will. Rizzo said he doesn’t know Maddon well but after talking to him, they couldn’t be on the same page more.

(Read full post)

Edwards added to 40-man roster as search for pitching continues

November, 20, 2014
Nov 20
11:15
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
CHICAGO -- As the Chicago Cubs search for starting pitching, they made sure they wouldn't lose one of their own as they added top prospect C.J. Edwards to their 40-man roster Thursday.

It was an important formality as Thursday was a deadline in advance of the Rule 5 draft at next month's winter meetings. It means another team can't take Edwards, though others within the organization will be available as he was the lone addition to the roster, which stands at 39.

None of the Cubs' other well-known prospects are available for the draft, though some -- like Kris Bryant -- aren't on the 40-man roster yet. Bryant doesn't need to be protected because of his relatively short service time as a professional. It was one reason the Cubs resisted bringing up Bryant last season, as they would have had to use a 40-man roster spot.

The Cubs will need some roster spots for any offseason additions. They already added pitcher Donn Roach and infielder Tommy La Stella while subtracting Arodys Vizcaino.

Is one of those spots being saved for free agent Jon Lester? Or will the Cubs revisit a deal for Cole Hamels? Or will they simply let the Boston Red Sox spend big this year on Lester, while the New York Yankees lie in the weeds for Max Scherzer? Think about it. If Boston and New York -- or another team -- spend well over $100 million for players now, they're less likely to do it again next winter when the free agent class is deeper and better. If the Cubs are driving up the price for Lester, it may benefit them later. There might be some doubts the Cubs are willing to spend big this winter, but there should be no doubt they will by next offseason.

"We are in a position, perhaps as soon as this offseason and certainly over the next 15 months, we're going to be adding some talent from outside the organization," said Theo Epstein, the Cubs' president of baseball operations, not long after last season ended. "We hope it will be impact talent."

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Random thoughts and notes: NL Central

November, 20, 2014
Nov 20
7:04
PM CT
Schoenfield By David Schoenfield
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
St. Louis Cardinals: With the trade of Shelby Miller, will they go after another starting pitcher? Right now, they're relying on Adam Wainwright, who will be coming off minor elbow surgery; Michael Wacha, coming off an injury; Lance Lynn; veteran John Lackey; Jaime Garcia, who hasn't made it through a full season since 2011; plus youngsters Marco Gonzalez and perhaps Carlos Martinez, who made some spot starts in the rotation but may be best suited for relief work. ... Basically, outside of Lynn, all come with potential question marks. ... They've been rumored to be in on Jon Lester. ... Right now, their estimated payroll is right at 2011-2014 levels, so maybe there's room for to add him to the payroll, especially if it's backloaded past 2017 after Matt Holliday comes off the payroll. ... Will be interesting to see how Mike Matheny views the lineup; there's been talk of moving Matt Carpenter out of the leadoff spot. Maybe Jason Heyward goes there, or maybe Kolten Wong, but he'll have to improve that .292 OBP. ... Steamer projects Wong at .263/.312/.387. I like his chances to do a little better than that. ... Did Lynn have one of the most under-appreciated 2014 seasons? He was the same 15-10 as in 2013, but with an ERA more than a run lower. ... Heyward doesn't necessarily solve the team's power issues (last in the NL in home runs), but the Cardinals being the Cardinals, it wouldn't be a surprise if they unlock that 27-homer season he had in 2012.

Pittsburgh Pirates: Losing Russell Martin is a huge blow, but the Pirates will at least be strong defensively behind the plate with some combination of Francisco Cervelli, Chris Stewart and Tony Sanchez. ... Still, Martin's .404 OBP was a major reason the Pirates scored 48 more runs than in 2013. ... Is it just me, or is the Pirates' rotation rather unimpressive right now? Gerrit Cole, A.J. Burnett, Vance Worley and Jeff Locke? Charlie Morton will miss some portion of the regular season after hip surgery in late September. ... The Pirates' rotation ranked last in FanGraphs WAR in 2014, and Burnett is really just a replacement for Francisco Liriano or Edinson Volquez, not an upgrade. ... Josh Harrison is listed as an outfielder on the Pirates' website, but I'll guess he ends up starting at third base with Pedro Alvarez moving to first base. ... Can't wait for a full season of that Starling Marte-Andrew McCutchen-Gregory Polanco outfield. ... Let's be honest: Marte probably should be the center fielder. ... Can Mark Melancon, Tony Watson and Jared Hughes all post ERAs under 2.00 again? ... McCutchen, early favorite for 2015 MVP? I'd say yes.

Milwaukee Brewers: Jonathan Lucroy versus Buster Posey versus Yadier Molina: Who ya got? ... Even lacking a No. 1 or even No. 2-type starter, Brewers aren't that far away; need much bigger seasons from Ryan Braun and Jean Segura. ... Bullpen is now down Zach Duke, who was terrific and signed with the White Sox, and possibly Francisco Rodriguez. ... Hard to know whether Jonathan Broxton would be a reliable closer; good ERA in 2014, but pitched just 58 innings and his K rate is nowhere what it once was with the Dodgers. ... Braun still has at least six more years on his contract; wonder how that's going to look in a few years? He was valued at 1.0 WAR in 2014. ... Scooter Gennett, the new Jim Gantner. ... Adam Lind should be a solid addition, and the Brewers definitely needed another left-handed bat in the lineup. ... Brewers fans, are you going to miss Marco Estrada's home runs? ... No idea if Mike Fiers is for real, but he's defied predictions all along. ... Braun's Steamer prediction for 2015: .278/.345/.480, 21 home runs. OK, but a 150 points of OPS lower than his 2011-12 MVP peak.

Cincinnati Reds: Reports out of Cincinnati say Reds owner Bob Castellini is not going to have a fire sale, even though starters Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Alfredo Simon and Mike Leake are all free agents after the season. ... And why should he? Try to win. Imagine that. ... Anyway, if you get bounce-back seasons from Jay Bruce and Joey Votto, both reasonable expectations, the Reds will score more runs. Add in improvement from Billy Hamilton and a new left fielder (Marlon Byrd?) and the Reds should get back in the playoff hunt in what could be a wide-open division. ... Of course, potentially replacing four-fifths of a rotation doesn't sound like much fun. ... J.J. Hoover went 1-10 in relief. I was surprised to find that 23 pitchers since 1980 have lost at least 10 games while wining one or fewer. Only Hoover, Bobby Ayala (1998 Mariners) and Gary Lucas (1982 Padres) spent the entire season in relief, however. ... That's a long way of saying Hoover won't go 1-10 again. ... I'll take the over on Votto.

Chicago Cubs: Does Anthony Rizzo have more growth in him after hitting .286/.386/.527 with 32 home runs? I think he does, which would make him an MVP candidate on a contending team. ... I'll still predict that Starlin Castro doesn't get traded this offseason. ... MLB Trade Rumors lists Travis Wood as a possible non-tender (deadline is Dec. 2), but with a projected salary of $5.5 and an otherwise low payroll, I think the Cubs bring him back and hope for a happy medium between that 3.11 ERA of 2013 and 2014's 5.03. ... Steamer projection for Javier Baez is a fun one: .226/.280/.420, 29 home runs, 1.7 WAR. ... It has him cutting his strikeout rate from 41.5 percent to 29.3 percent, which puts him in B.J. Upton territory, still near the worst in the league (although not quite at the Chris Davis/Chris Carter level). ... Definitely believe Jake Arrieta is the real deal; next step is simply to see if he can handle 200 innings. ... Jorge Soler will be a beast if he stays healthy. ... Here's a question: Who would you rather have, Soler or Baez? Tough call in my book. ... Everybody seems to think the Cubs will get Jon Lester or Max Scherzer, but I'm not so sure. ... Could just save their money for David Price next offseason. ... Can't wait to see Kris Bryant get 500 at-bats.
video

Buster Olney discusses Russell Martin signing with the Blue Jays and, in light of this, whether the Cubs will still prioritize signing a catcher in the offseason.

Cubs make pitch to Jon Lester

November, 19, 2014
Nov 19
8:00
AM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
CHICAGO -- After a day and night of courting by the Chicago Cubs, free-agent hurler Jon Lester is moving on, presumably to talk with the Atlanta Braves and possibly the St. Louis Cardinals, according to various reports.

The Cubs made their big pitch to the lefty pitcher on Tuesday, according to a source familiar with the situation. It was probably similar to the one they made last week to catcher Russell Martin that involved a tour of Wrigley Field under renovation, a presentation expressing the potential of the team’s future and then, dinner. The Cubs lost out on Martin to the Toronto Blue Jays and could lose out on Lester for similar reasons: They aren’t desperate enough to get into a bidding war.

[+] EnlargeJon Lester
Bob Stanton/USA TODAY SportsSeveral teams are in the running to sign Jon Lester, but the pitcher's ties to Theo Epstein could give the Cubs an edge.
Teams such as the Boston Red Sox and Cardinals are in a win-now mode, and if Lester wants to be assured of a return to the postseason in 2015, he’ll choose St. Louis or Boston before picking the Cubs, while the Braves might have a shot because Lester lives in the Atlanta area and reportedly purchased a $3.4 million home there last April. But the Braves are in a retooling mode and aren’t looking to spend big money, though they’ve stated they’re looking for pitching wherever they can find it.

The Red Sox and Cubs are considered front-runners because of their ties to Lester, who was drafted by Theo Epstein in Boston and matured as a player under then-pitching coach John Farrell. Farrell is the Red Sox's manager now, and the two helped Boston to a World Series title in 2013, as Epstein did with Lester in 2007. Farrell was there that year, as well.

It might simply come down to the better contract, as it usually does “99 percent” of the time, according to Epstein. The Cubs smartly got out of the Martin bidding when it went too high, and they could easily do the same with Lester.

The Red Sox could be entering the end of a competitive window that has seen them go from last to first and back to last again over the past three seasons. Presumably, the window closes when David Ortiz retires and Dustin Pedroia starts to slow down. By most metrics, the latter had his worst year as a full-time starter in 2014, as he’s on the other side of 30 after spending just under a decade with the Red Sox.

So Lester can take a last stab or two with Boston, where he’s beloved and probably comfortable, or he can go “home” to Atlanta and live in his mansion during the season. Or he can buy what the Cubs were selling him on Tuesday: something new, something on the upswing, something historic. And probably about $120 million to $130 million on top of it.

It has to be enticing for Lester to take his talents to the National League, as many a career American League pitcher has had success going over to face lighter hitting lineups. One prominent agent recently said Lester could produce a “Kershaw-type season” if he pitched in the NL. That might be stretching it, as 2014 might have been his best year of his career, especially since he was pitching for an awful team in Boston until his trade to Oakland. Can he repeat that? He’ll have a better chance to improve on it in the NL -- undoubtedly a selling point for the Cubs' front office.

Dinner in Chicago probably isn’t going to impress a veteran as much as the chance to break the longest championship drought in professional sports, but will Lester buy in? And will the Cubs pay up a year or two sooner than they’re ready to really contend? Of course, the addition of Lester moves them that much closer, but a team like the Cardinals can say, “We’re already there.” And they’d be right.

The Lester tour continues. Where it ends is still a mystery.

Jon Lester, Braves to meet

November, 18, 2014
Nov 18
10:15
AM CT
video

The Atlanta Braves will meet with free-agent left-hander Jon Lester this week, sources told ESPN's Buster Olney, and multiple reports say the meeting will take place Thursday.

Lester also met with the Chicago Cubs on Tuesday, according to multiple reports.

Lester, 30, went 6-4 with a 2.35 ERA for the Oakland Athletics after he was acquired in a trade deadline deal with the Boston Red Sox in exchange for outfielder Yoenis Cespedes. Overall, Lester was 16-11 with a career-best 2.46 ERA in 2014.

He started for the A's in the American League wild-card game against the Kansas City Royals and left in the eighth inning with runners on first and second with one out and his team leading 7-4. The Royals won 9-8 in 12 innings.

Lester, who has an offseason home in the Atlanta area, is 6-4 and 2.57 ERA in 14 playoff appearances. He's been dominant in the World Series, where he is 3-0 with a 0.43 ERA in three starts, helping the Red Sox win two championships.

Lester, who has a career mark of 116-67 with a 3.58 ERA in nine seasons, rejected a four-year, $70 million contract extension offer from the Red Sox in the spring. He was paid $13 million last season.


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Cubs miss on Martin; time to move on

November, 17, 2014
Nov 17
1:38
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
CHICAGO -- Don’t say Chicago Cubs boss Theo Epstein didn’t warn you. It was the day after the season ended and Epstein was discussing his plans for adding talent to the big league club over the next two winters.

“Like most teams, we’ll always miss out on more free agents than we’ll sign,” he said. “That’s just the nature of it. Free agency is not for the faint of heart. You have to go in knowing that you might look silly by pursing the player and not landing him and that’s OK. We’re prepared for that.”

[+] EnlargePittsburgh Pirates
AP Photo/Al BehrmanRussell Martin agreed to a five-year, $82 million deal with his hometown Toronto Blue Jays on Monday.
But do the Cubs really look silly by not acquiring catcher Russell Martin, who reportedly signed with the Toronto Blue Jays for five years and $82 million on Monday? ESPN.com’s Jim Bowden reports the Blue Jays were the only team willing to give a fifth year to Martin right now. Other industry sources confirm that as well. Combine that with the fact that Martin is from Canada and you have the reasons for the signing right there.

“The key to thriving in free agency is acknowledging all the risks, acknowledging all the variables, staying true to some attatchment to value,” Epstein said.

The key to “staying true” is not being desperate. Think of it this way, was Martin a player that the Cubs had to have? Was he even on anyone’s radar outside the organization a few months ago?

By plenty of metrics the Cubs have an average starting catcher in the league, as Welington Castillo ranked 12th in WAR at the position. But the Cubs saw a unique chance to grab a player that could touch many parts of their game and in turn provide much-needed leadership. There’s where the Cubs are kind of desperate: for leadership. It’s probably why they were willing to even entertain a four-year deal for a soon-to-be-32-year-old catcher in the first place. Epstein acknowledged what adding a catcher would mean, for example, for 2014 first-round pick, Kyle Schwarber.

“He (Schwarber) could very much be in our plans and it would still make sense to sign a catcher if it’s the right catcher out there,” Epstein said last week at the general manager meetings in Arizona. “Catchers take a little bit longer to develop in the minor leagues, and when they break in they break in gradually and it’s important for them to have good mentors.”

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Half-full, half-empty: Jon Lester

November, 17, 2014
Nov 17
12:31
PM CT
Schoenfield By David Schoenfield
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
video

Last year, we looked at some of the offseason's top free agents from a "half-full, half-empty" perspective. Let's do that again this year and start with Jon Lester, who is expected to meet this week with the both the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox, the early leaders in the rumor mill to sign Lester. With the Cubs, Lester would reunite with Theo Epstein, his former general manager in Boston. With the Red Sox, he would return to the franchise where he played nine-plus seasons before his trade deadline deal to Oakland in 2014.

MLB Free Agency: Half-Full, Half-Empty Logo


As Gordon Edes wrote last week, the Red Sox will have to make a big increase over what they offered Lester last spring,
[A] quick deal with the Red Sox cannot be ruled out altogether. The Sox have never made an offer beyond the four-year, $70 million one they made in mid-March last spring, but sources with direct knowledge of the Sox offseason plans say that Boston may be prepared to offer as many as six years for Lester, with one source speculating the bid could reach the $132 million threshold.


That's about what Jim Bowden projected for Lester in his free-agent signing predictions: Six years and $138 million, an annual average value of $23 million.

Is the left-hander, who turns 31 before the start of the the 2015 season, worth that kind of money? Let's take a look.

HALF-FULL

In Edes' story, he mentions a 221-page portfolio that's Lester agents, Seth and Sam Levinson, have prepared. One item in there compares Lester's record through age 30 to other great left-handers of the past. It's true that many of the game’s best lefties had more value in their 30s than in their 20s, including guys such as Carl Hubbell, Warren Spahn, Steve Carlton and Randy Johnson. Recent lefties or current lefties such as Tom Glavine, Jamie Moyer, Andy Pettitte and Mark Buehrle also remained successful well into their late 30s.

That doesn't guarantee anything, but it ties into two important factors when considering Lester. First, he's coming off perhaps the best year of his career, going 16-11 with a 2.46 ERA, numbers that included a career-low walk rate and his best strikeout rate since 2010. Lester changed his style of pitching in 2014, throwing more cutters and essentially dumping his changeup. His percentage of cutters increased from 21 percent in 2012-13 to nearly 30 percent in 2014 and his percentage of changeups declined from 12 to 3.

Unlike many cutters, Lester's works as a true strikeout weapon, as he registered 72 strikeouts on the pitch while limiting hitters to a .234/.290/.367 batting line. The cutter is one reason Lester actually had a reverse platoon split in 2014; right-handers just don't do a lot of damage against it. You can see from the heat map why, as the pitch really rides in on them:

Lester heat map ESPN Stats & Info


The other reason to bet on Lester is this guy is one of the most durable starters in the game. He's made 30-plus starts seven seasons in a row and has topped 200 innings in six of those seven years. Lester had non-Hodgkin lymphoma in his rookie season but he's never had any issues with his arm. He's also been terrific in the postseason in his career, with a 2.57 ERA in 84 innings. He's pitched in big games and won big games, something that general managers and managers like to have on their staff. (Yes, his start against the Royals in the wild-card game wasn't terrific, but Bob Melvin left him a little too long and he got dinged and blooped a bit to some extent.)

With a six-year deal, you're getting Lester from ages 31 to 36. If we estimate the average cost per win above replacement on the free-agent market going at about $7 million, Lester would have to earn about 20 wins above replacement over the life of the contract to be "worth" that $138 million price tag. That's 3.5 WAR per season; since 2008, Lester has averaged 4.3 WAR per season. He seems like about as safe a bet as you can have for $138 million.

HALF-EMPTY

To buy into Lester, you really have to buy into his 2014 season -- a season, by the way, which wasn't quite as good as that glossy 2.46 ERA would suggest considering he allowed 16 unearned runs.

Anyway, Lester was a better pitcher in 2014; but in 2012-2013, he went 24-22 with a 4.28 ERA. There's always the risk you're getting that pitcher instead of the 2014 version. Even including 2014, over the past three seasons among pitchers with at least 500 innings, he ranks 31st in ERA, 29th in WAR, 23rd in strikeout rate and 19th in FIP. He's good, but he's really been more of a No. 2 starter in his career than a No. 1. At that estimated AAV of $23 million, he'd be priced right below Clayton Kershaw ($30.7 million), Justin Verlander ($25.7 million) and Felix Hernandez ($25.0). Is Lester really on that top tier of starters? He's received Cy Young votes just twice in his career.

Plus, just look at the Verlander contract as a reminder of the risks in signing any pitcher to a long-term deal, especially when valued at over $100 million. Or CC Sabathia, another lefty who had been durable and had no arm issues when the Yankees gave him a $122 million extension that covered ages 31-35. (He has a 4.21 ERA in the three years since signing that contract and pitched just 46 innings in 2014.) The point: Pitchers are always risky no matter their health history.

There's also this. Lester's fastball velocity has slowly declined through the years:

2009: 93.5 mph
2010: 93.0 mph
2011: 92.7 mph
2012: 92.5 mph
2013: 92.6 mph
2014: 91.7 mph

Yes, the increased use of the cutter helped in 2014, and a lefty who throws 91-93 still has plus velocity for a major league left-hander. But you have to wonder what the long-term outlook will be if he keeps losing a bit off his fastball.

What do you think? Half-full or half-empty on Jon Lester?

Cubs trade for Braves IF La Stella

November, 16, 2014
Nov 16
4:29
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
CHICAGO -- The Chicago Cubs acquired left-handed hitting infielder Tommy La Stella from the Atlanta Braves for pitcher Arodys Vizcaino, the team announced on Sunday. Additionally, the Cubs received the Braves' No. 4 international signing bonus slot while Atlanta acquired slots 2, 3, and 4 from the Cubs.

“We tried to trade for him several times in the past,” general manager Jed Hoyer said after the deal was complete. “He’s left-handed, gets on base, and doesn’t strike out a lot. Those are three things we need.”

La Stella, 25, appeared in 93 games as a rookie for the Braves in 2014, starting 86 at second base. He hit .251 with a home run and two steals. He led all National League rookies in walks (36) and on-base percentage (.328). He had a career .407 on-base percentage in four seasons in the minors after being drafted by the Braves in the eighth round in 2011. The Cubs ranked 28th in baseball with a .300 on-base percentage last season.

Hoyer admits the Cubs have a lot of middle infielders as La Stella joins Javier Baez and Starlin Castro on the big league club while top prospect Addison Russell is expected to start 2015 at Triple-A Iowa. The Cubs already converted infielder Arismendy Alcantara to outfield, as well, but the team believes the need for a contact type of hitter outweighed any concerns about who will play where, or if La Stella is a starter or bench player.

“How they fit may not be clear but that was the case with Chris Coghlan last year and he worked his way into the lineup,” Hoyer said.

Coghlan signed a minor-league deal but eventually became the starter in left field. The Cubs have said that Baez is their starter at second base so La Stella will have to do the same as Coghlan: Find playing time. This could also lead to another trade later this offseason.

“This wasn’t a precursor to anything,” Hoyer stated. “Sometimes you have to acquire guys that can get on-base. It’s something we needed.”

Vizcaino, 23, pitched in five games for the Cubs after spending the majority of the season in the minors. He was acquired after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2012 as a member of the Braves. He missed all of 2012 and 2013 in recovery.

“We have some depth back there,” Hoyer said. “A bunch of arms stepped forward to allow us to do this deal.”

Cubs-Cards to open '15 season

November, 14, 2014
Nov 14
10:24
AM CT

CHICAGO -- The Chicago Cubs will host the St. Louis Cardinals in the Sunday night major league opener on April 5.

Originally scheduled for April 6, the game was moved up to become ESPN's opening national telecast of the season.

Chicago said Friday the remainder of the three-game series will be played on April 7 and 8, with April 9 as an off day. The Cubs originally had April 7 off, with games against the Cardinals the following two days.


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Cubs pitching prospect Edwards ready for next step

November, 14, 2014
Nov 14
9:00
AM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
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C.J. EdwardsChristian Petersen/Getty ImagesAfter a season interrupted by injury, right-hander C.J. Edwards wants "a clean year" in 2015.

MESA, Ariz. — Chicago Cubs pitching prospect C.J. Edwards is ready to go home. That’s where his girlfriend -- whom he said he talks to “almost all day” when he’s not playing baseball -- is waiting for him, as is a “cool” welcome-home party. It’s been a long summer and fall for the 23-year-old. A sore shoulder kept the right-hander off the mound for much of his 2014 minor league season, so the Cubs sent him to the Arizona Fall League, which concluded Thursday.

The results? Edwards thinks he’s back on track after being limited to 12 starts this year.

“I accomplished what I wanted to accomplish,” the South Carolina native said after throwing 15 innings and producing a 1.80 ERA this fall. “I hated missing two to three months. It happens.”

The main thing Edwards wants people to know is that he’s healthy now. The next thing is that he feels he’s finally getting closer to making it to Wrigley Field -- though there’s a good chance he’ll start next season at Double-A Tennessee.

“You never know,” Edwards said with a smile. “I could do real well in the spring and I might get a shot.”

To refresh your memory, Edwards was a key piece in the lopsided trade that sent Matt Garza to the Texas Rangers in 2013. He came with a lot of hype and a question: Can his 160-pound frame make it in the big leagues? It’s still a valid query.

With all the talk about the Cubs needing top-of-the-rotation pitching, Edwards believes he could be one of those guys. Yes, he knows he needs to get through an entire season unscathed while also proving his body can handle the grind. He thinks he can do it.

“That’s my main goal,” Edwards said. "I just need a clean year."

Edwards said he’s not only healthy now but is also a better pitcher. Any starter needs multiple pitches, and he feels a good changeup can reduce wear and tear on his arm. He thinks he has one.

“Now I feel like it’s a big-time third pitch,” Edwards said. “Fastball and curveball is still sharp, too.”

It’s hard not to root for Edwards, because his personality is infectious. It’ll play well in Chicago, where Joe Maddon is ready to take over as manager.

“Yeah, he seems cool,” Edwards said. “He’s a winner.”

For now, Edwards is looking for some “home cooking” and wants to get a haircut, but still has the future on his mind. He has a message for Cubs fans.

“I’m excited about this upcoming year for you guys,” he said. “I love the fans.”

Someday, the fans might love Edwards, too, but first things first: He has a party to get to.

Japan triumphs over MLB All-Stars

November, 14, 2014
Nov 14
7:34
AM CT

TOKYO -- Leadoff hitter Yuki Yanagita drove in four runs to lead Japan to an 8-4 win over the Major League Baseball All-Stars on Friday in the second game of the five-match series.

Yanagita singled, doubled, and tripled at Tokyo Dome.

"Yanagita has a lot of bat speed," MLB manager John Farrell said. "He's aggressive and whether it is against a left-handed pitcher or a right-handed pitcher he has swung the bat very well, so he's an impressive offensive player."

Yanagita's two-run triple to center in the second inning put Japan 3-0 up.

The All-Stars cut the deficit to 3-2 in the bottom of the second when National League batting champion Justin Morneau connected for a two-run homer off Japanese starter Chihiro Kaneko.

Ben Zobrist tripled down the right field line and scored on Jose Altuve's grounder to third to tie the game at 3-3 in the third.

Yanagita's RBI single in the fourth made it 4-3.

Nobuhiro Matsuda led off the eighth with a solo homer off former teammate Tsuyoshi Wada, to give Japan a 7-3 lead. Yanagita added a run when his double to center scored Hikaru Itoh.

The All-Stars, who lost the first game 2-0, got a run back in the bottom of the inning when Zobrist doubled to left and scored on Robinson Cano's single, but Tomomi Takahashi retired the side in the ninth to seal the win.

Kaneko earned the win after giving up three runs on three hits over five innings.

MLB starter Hisashi Iwakuma took the loss after allowing five runs on 10 hits in four innings, striking out four.


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TEAM LEADERS

WINS LEADER
Jake Arrieta
WINS ERA SO IP
10 2.53 167 156
OTHER LEADERS
BAS. Castro .292
HRA. Rizzo 32
RBIA. Rizzo 78
RA. Rizzo 89
OPSA. Rizzo .913
ERAT. Wood 5.03
SOJ. Arrieta 167