* Besides looking for bullpen help and another starting pitcher, the Cubs are searching for players who will be good role models for the current youngsters on the roster.
“I think people forget how young guys like [Anthony] Rizzo and [Starlin] Castro are,” GM Jed Hoyer said Monday at the Winter Meetings. “They need some positive examples.”
The Cubs are hoping new first base coach Eric Hinske can fill that role as well.
“He did a great job as a bench player and being a team leader,” Hoyer said of Hinske, who played last season for the Diamondbacks. “It was always about having different influences on the coaching staff for our players. You want to have different avenues. [Players] might gravitate toward the guy who has been teaching for a long time, or they might gravitate toward the guy who just came off the field.”
* Luis Valbuena, who led the Cubs with 94 starts at third base last season, has been playing strictly second base in the Venezuelan Winter League. That’s by design.
“We want him to be versatile and he is versatile,” Hoyer said. “[Darwin] Barney can play shortstop, Valbuena can play some shortstop, Donnie Murphy can play some shortstop. We have a really versatile infield and that’s a great thing. We may not have to carry a standard utility guy and can mix and match in different ways.”
Speaking of Barney, Hoyer said he expects the second baseman to have a much better season than he did in 2013.
“It’s a big year for him, no matter what,” Hoyer said of Barney, who batted .208 this season. “He had a down year offensively and he’d be the first person to say that. I don’t think it has anything to do with competition among young players. He wants to bounce back and get back to where he was.
“With him, mechanically and approach-wise, he got caught with some things last year,” Hoyer said. “A lot of things with him isn’t the hard work or the swing, it’s the approach.”
The team does have a promising second baseman in Arismendy Alcantara, ranked No. 8 among MLB.com’s top 20 Cubs prospects, but he will open the season at Triple-A Iowa, Hoyer said.
* Andy MacPhail, who was the Cubs’ president and CEO from 1994-2006, including a two-year stint as the general manager (2000-01), is keeping an eye on how the current Chicago front office is trying to rebuild the organization.
“They have to do it the way they’re comfortable with and the way they think most guarantees their success, and I know that’s what that group is doing,” MacPhail said Monday at the Winter Meetings.
“I have a lot of confidence in that group that they’re going to do it the way they think will most assuredly get them the end goal because that’s the prize, winning the whole thing,” MacPhail said. “We got close [in 2003]. You ultimately aren’t successful until you at least get to the World Series.”
* Outfielder Ryan Sweeney hoped to begin work this week with Hall of Famer Rod Carew. The two worked together last season, and Sweeney said he benefitted from the sessions. Sweeney batted .266 in 70 games with the Cubs, and signed a two-year contract extension on Oct. 8.
* New manager Rick Renteria will get together with his coaches in Mesa, Ariz., this weekend to get a tour of the new facility and start preparations for Spring Training. Pitchers and catchers report Feb. 13.
* Kyle Hendricks, the Cubs’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year, recently completed his studies at Dartmouth and graduated with a major in economics. Hendricks was a combined 13-4 with 2.00 ERA in 27 starts between Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa.
* Junior Lake is done playing in the Dominican Republic winter league, and those who saw him raved about his outfield play.
– Carrie Muskat
The Cubs are making sure shortstop Starlin Castro reports to Spring Training in better shape. The team assigned strength and conditioning coach Tim Buss to the Dominican Republic to work with Castro for three weeks in November. In January, Castro will start workouts at the Cubs’ facility in the Dominican. The shortstop is coming off his worst year, batting .245 this past season. GM Jed Hoyer said other teams have expressed interest in Castro, knowing the team has shortstop Javier Baez coming up in the organization.
“We’ve always gotten hits on [Castro],” Hoyer said Monday during his media briefing at the Winter Meetings. “I think people see him as a guy who was one of the best young players in the game a couple years ago.”
In 2011, Castro totaled 207 hits and batted .307, and followed that in 2012 with a .283 season. He asked the Cubs to help him as far as an offseason workout.
“I think he was frustrated by his season,” Hoyer said. “I would be very surprised if he didn’t show up at Spring Training in great shape, ready to go. I hope we look back on [the 2013 season] four, five years from now as a good learning experience for him and a wakeup call, if you will.”
Castro did play 161 games this year but Hoyer said to do that, a player needs to be “in really unbelievable shape.” The Cubs are banking on Castro, which is why they gave him a seven-year, $60 million contract in 2012.
“I think we felt like there’s no reason he can’t be a little faster and he can’t have more range than he does,” Hoyer said. “He’s at that age — he’s going to be 24 years old [in March]– where he’s going to start to put on a little bit of htat man strength.
“He was a college-age kid when he came up and I think he can start to put on that muscle mass now and maybe that does improve his speed, his range, his power,” Hoyer said. “It’s something he wanted to do and we certainly encouraged it.”
– Carrie Muskat
The Cubs feel they can fit both Jeff Samardzija and Masahiro Tanaka in their budget if the Japanese pitcher becomes available. It also could depend on what it will take to get Samardzija to stay. Samardzija, 28, the Cubs’ Opening Day starter who racked up 200 innings and 200 strikeouts this season, has been talking to the team about a long-term extension. He made $2.64 million this year.
“I think we’ve made it really clear that he’s a guy we’d like to keep,” GM Jed Hoyer said Monday at the Winter Meetings in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. “We love the way he competes and he’s continued to improve as a pitcher. Certainly having him as a Cub is a desirable outcome.”
Tanaka’s status has yet to be determined as Major League Baseball and Japanese baseball officials try to update the posting system. The Cubs expect to be part of the process regarding Tanaka, 25, who was 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA in 28 regular season games with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.
Neither Samardzija nor Tanaka will be cheap. Samardzija will be a free agent after the 2015 season. All he has to do is look at recent contracts for starting pitchers to know he could cash in. Phil Hughes, 27, recently got a three-year, $24 million deal from the Twins.
“They’re not attached at all — it’s not an either, or type thing,” Hoyer said about being able to afford the two pitchers. “We obviously like Samardzija a lot and Tanaka is a talented pitcher. We’re not looking at them joined or not joined. There’s no influence on each other.”
– Carrie Muskat
The Cubs are looking for bullpen help and one name they are believed to be interested in is Nationals’ right-hander Drew Storen. In four seasons with the Nats, the right-hander has a 3.40 ERA in 232 games. Last season, he appeared in 68 games, finished 20, and averaged 8.5 strikeouts per nine innings. Storen, 26, was a first-round pick in 2009, and is arbitration eligible for the first time. His best season was 2011 when he totaled 43 saves and posted a 2.75 ERA over 75 1/3 innings. The Nationals are interested in finding some help for the bench and looking for a young, versatile player in return.
The Cubs are looking for a closer. So far this season, they’ve added lefty Wesley Wright to the bullpen, although that deal has not been officially announced. Wright still needed to take a physical to complete the deal.
– Carrie Muskat
* There have been a lot of inquiries about Jeff Samardzija from other beat writers curious as to whether the Cubs will part with the right-hander. The Cubs would like to sign Samardzija to a long-term contract but also are listening to offers. The price tag is high.
* Ryan Sweeney will begin work this week with Hall of Famer Rod Carew. Sweeney said he benfitted from sessions with Carew last year. The outfielder batted .266 in 70 games with the Cubs, hitting six home runs and 13 doubles. Sweeney, who missed time because of a fractured left rib injured in early July, signed a two-year contract extension on Oct. 8.
* Want to see the Cubs TV and radio crews in action on a game day? Check out Cubs.com for the Stand Up 2 Cancer items being auctioned off. Also available is a pitching lesson from Chris Bosio.
Todd Hollandsworth doesn’t know yet about whether or not he will get the WGN Radio analyst job to do Cubs broadcasts but he is keeping busy. Hollandsworth hosts a show called “First Pitch” on MLB Radio from 6-9 a.m. five days a week, and has been doing so for two years. He has moved his show to Lake Buena Vista, Fla., at the Winter Meetings hotel, so you can tune in. Hollandsworth, 40, who played for the Cubs from 2004-05 and also does Cubs pre and post game shows on Comcast SportsNet Chicago, is believed to be one of two finalists to partner with Pat Hughes. The other finalist is Ron Coomer, 47, who played for the Cubs in 2001.
– Carrie Muskat
President Barack Obama announced plans to nominate Laura Ricketts to the board of trustees of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Ricketts has been a key fundraiser for Obama. The announcement was made in Washington, and comes as the center prepares for its annual honors gala Sunday, when five artists will be celebrated for contributions to American culture through the performing arts. Ricketts is chairman of the board of Chicago Cubs Charities and a member of the Democratic National Committee’s executive board.
The Cubs are still hoping to lock up Jeff Samardzija to a long-term contract. You’ll hear Samardzija’s name mentioned a lot next week during the Winter Meetings as teams seeking a starting pitcher try to pry the right-hander away from the Cubs. Where does the team stand in talks with Samardzija?
“I’m not going to provide a running play by play,” Theo Epstein said Thursday. “It’s in the same place it’s been. There’s mutual interest [to get something done]. The situation sometimes makes things tough.”
Samardzija has made it clear he wants to stay with the Cubs, but is under team control for two more seasons and will be a free agent after 2015. Considering the salaries starting pitchers are getting these days, he may decide to wait. He’s coming off his first 200-inning, 200-strikeout season.
– Carrie Muskat
* Luis Valbuena 2-for-4 with a walk and scored two runs in Lara’s 10-5 win over Margarita in Venezuela. Valbuena, who has been playing second base, was batting .284.
* Darnell McDonald, who recently signed a Minor League contract with the Cubs, is playing for Yaquis de Obregon in Mexico, and was 1-for-4 on Thursday in a 6-3 win over Guasave. In three games, he’s 2-for-10 with one RBI.
* One of the first players new Cubs manager Rick Renteria called after he got the job Nov. 7 was to Starlin Castro.
“People ask me about Starlin, and I watched him from the other side and I think, what a tremendously gifted athlete,” Renteria said. “I have to get to know him as a person. I have to figure out what moves him.”
Castro is coming off a season in which he batted a career-low .245, struck out a career-high 129 times, and finished with a sub .400 slugging percentage for the first time (.347).
“He’s willing to do anything we ask him to do,” Renteria said. “I know people talk about him losing focus and having bad at-bats, and I think we have to address those things. Sometimes you don’t have conversations thinking we don’t want to have confrontations or maybe we don’t like the answer we’re going to get, but the reality is you have to have dialogue.”
The emphasis on Renteria’s coaching staff was to find people who could be “teachers” and who can communicate.
“I think it takes a special personality as well as experience and having the technical knowledge,” Theo Epstein said about the coaches. “It takes a certain personality to be able to actually reach the modern player and to dig deep and engage and relate to them and not relate to a player on a perfunctory level but find out what makes him tick and impact him on and off the field in a positive way. That’s what we were looking for.”
(Note: For more on Renteria’s day at Wrigley Field, please see the story on Cubs.com)
* Renteria was formally introduced on Thursday at Wrigley Field. He’ll wear No. 16, which he says was his number in high school.
* Renteria is known for his even-keel demeanor. He was asked if he had a temper.
“I can get hot,” Renteria said Thursday. “I think any competitor can get hot. I think you’ve got to pick your spots. I don’t think players appreciate people just losing it for the sake of losing it.
“Will I do it for the sake of people watching me do it? No,” he said. “You probably won’t see me doing it at all, but I can’t guarantee that. When it happens, it’s got to be the right time, and I think those things have to take care of themselves.
“If you’re a guy who is even-keeled and you end up losing it, I think [the players] understand you mean business and it means a little bit more. For the most part, I think conversations need to be had behind closed doors.”
* The Cubs got encouraging reports about right-hander Arodys Vizcaino, who is coming back from Tommy John surgery in March 2012. Vizcaino made about six appearances in the Dominican instructional league, his fastball hit 98 mph and he showed good command. The pitcher, acquired from the Braves in July 2012, could be in the Cubs’ bullpen mix in 2014.
* Cubs pitchers and catchers will report Feb. 13 to Mesa, Ariz., for the start of Spring Training.
– Carrie Muskat