December 2012

12/4 Jackson making strides

Brett Jackson will be back in the Cubs’ starting outfield. The only question is when. Jackson spent a few days in Mesa, Ariz., with Cubs manager Dale Sveum, who said Tuesday the young outfielder has made “huge, huge strides” and completely overhauled his swing. Jackson, who batted .175 in 44 games with the Cubs after he was called up in early August, was projected to open the 2013 season at Triple-A Iowa.

“There’s no doubt that Brett Jackson could be part of the Cubs big league team next year,” Sveum said. “These kind of things are obviously all up to the individual now. We brought him up last season hoping he was going to do well but knowing we get to see him first-hand, where a week ago, he went out to Arizona, we were able to fix the things and be hands on,” Sveum said. “I think he’ll tell you it was a huge learning experience. Things obviously didn’t go well but he knows now that sometimes you have to hit that wall to know, ‘wow, I really have to make some huge adjustments to play at this level.'”

The Cubs are in the market for another outfielder, and would prefer a left-handed bat. Jackson could be that guy but needs to show he’s ready.

“I think he’s got a good base to work with the rest of the winter and going into Spring Training to understand the art of hitting, so to speak,” Sveum said. “Sometimes it gets lost and taught the wrong way.”

– Carrie Muskat

12/4 Cubs consider Betancourt

One option the Cubs are considering for third base is free agent Yuniesky Betancourt. Former Cubs shortstop Alex Gonzalez now represents Betancourt, and met with Theo Epstein about the infielder. Betancourt, 30, batted .228 in 57 games last season for the Royals, getting limited playing time. He has hit .266 overall in eight seasons. He’s primarily played shortstop with only eight games at third, all last season with the Royals. Betancourt was currently playing for Mexicali in the Mexican Winter League, and batting .261 in 12 games. The Cubs have had scouts watching him. The infielder would be willing to move to third base. Betancourt does have some power, hitting 16 homers in 2010 and 13 in 2011 with the Brewers.

– Carrie Muskat

12/4 Rumor mill

Who will play third for the Cubs? There are reports that the Cubs are interested in Marlins shortstop Yunel Escobar. Why would the team add another shortstop? The Cubs want a third baseman and Escobar is a possibility, although he has not done so on a regular basis since 2007, his rookie season with the Braves. Escobar, 30, has a .282 batting average in six seasons. He made headlines last season in a negative way when he was suspended after writing a gay slur on his eye-black.

MLB.com’s T.R. Sullivan reports Rangers GM Jon Daniels is getting inquiries about third baseman Mike Olt but isn’t motivated to trade him. The Rangers feel Olt could be important to them because Nelson Cruz, Michael Young and David Murphy are all free agents after the 2013 season.

USA Today’s Bob Nightengale reports Ian Stewart is drawing interest from teams looking for a third baseman. Expect the Yankees to check on Stewart.

The Cubs also are talking to teams as they search for a right fielder. The Indians are reportedly shopping Shin-Soo Choo, who batted .283 last season with 16 home runs, 43 doubles, and posted an OPS of .815. Choo is arbitration eligible, and earned $4.9 million last season.

What about pitching? The Cubs also are believed to be interested in free agent Brandon McCarthy. They’re not alone. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the Red Sox, White Sox, Royals, Diamondbacks and Twins also are talking to the right-hander. McCarthy, 29, began his career with the White Sox, and has also pitched for the Rangers. He was 8-6 with a 3.24 ERA in 18 starts last season with the A’s before getting hit in the head with a line drive.

– Carrie Muskat

12/3 Winter meetings Day 2

* Teams are inquiring about Alfonso Soriano, and how much the Cubs might be willing to pay. Soriano is owed $38 million over the next two years. Theo Epstein wouldn’t comment on the rumors out of respect to Soriano.

“One of the things that comes with being a veteran is obviously, there’s going to be speculation, but veteran players appreciate when clubs don’t sort of fuel those fires,” Epstein said Monday in Nashville. “It’s the Winter Meetings and there will be lots of rumors, but they don’t need to come from the club. We really value what he’s done here and we’ve been open with him about the fact that ‘Hey, we’ll listen, and if there’s something that makes sense for everyone, we’ll come to you.”

* The Cubs are in the market for a right fielder. Epstein says they have been “really active” meeting with teams about possible trades and also were keeping an eye on the free agent outfielders available. One thing Epstein hasn’t had to worry about is selling a free agent on the possibility of playing in Chicago.

“Dale [Sveum] is making a name for himself as a manager,” Epstein said. “Players recognize we had a good clubhouse last year despite a difficult season. Free agents believe in the positive direction we’re going. Elite baseball players are really competitive and I think they like the thought of being part of the solution here and being a member of the team that finally wins a World Series with the Cubs. I’ve had a number of players tell that to me directly. We have not had to sell our situation much at all. Players, when we express interest, we’re hearing back, ‘Oh, that’s a place we’ve had our eye on.’ You don’t hear that often after a 101-loss season.”

* One free agent whom the Cubs were expected to add to the mix is Japanese pitcher Kyuji Fujikawa, who has reportedly agreed to a two-year, $9.5 million contract. Fujikawa needs to pass a physical before the deal can be completed, which could happen next week.

* Expect the Cubs to add a player on Thursday during the Rule 5 Draft. Chicago has the second pick overall, and Epstein said they have been checking the names available as well as getting interest from other teams trying to acquire their spot in the order.

– Carrie Muskat

12/3 Looking for Mike Schmidt

It’s good to be a free agent third baseman right now. The Yankees joined the crowded market Monday with the news that Alex Rodriguez needed hip surgery. The Cubs also are in line, and Theo Epstein says they may “have to be creative” to fill the spot.

“[We might have to] rely on players who haven’t held down that position over 150 games in a the big leagues or rely on a platoon or rely on someone who is more of a middle of the field player who can provide plus defense over at third,” Epstein said Monday at the Winter Meetings in Nashville. “There are not a lot of obvious fits of every day third basemen in trade or free agents available right now. When that happens, you don’t throw in the white towel but try to be creative to piece it together.”

The Cubs are still talking to Ian Stewart, who was non-tendered on Friday. Now a free agent, Stewart is considering his options. Stewart batted .201 in 55 games last season, and missed most of the year because of left wrist surgery. Luis Valbuena filled in, and is another option for the Cubs for 2013, possessing all the right attributes, Epstein said. Valbuena batted .219, but was faring better in the Venezuelan Winter League, batting .325. The Cubs also could consider a platoon at third base, which is something Epstein favors. Having two players who can start at third helps the team’s bench, plus gives the manager more versatility. The Cubs also are considering other infielders who might not have been full-time third basemen because the free agent market is a little thin there.

“It’d be good to be Mike Schmidt right about now,” Epstein said.

They could use the Hall of Famer. Cubs third basemen combined to bat .201 last season, worst in the National League.

– Carrie Muskat

12/3 Deshaies new Cubs TV analyst

The Cubs added a new voice to the television broadcasts, reportedly hiring long-time Astros analyst Jim Deshaies to join Len Kasper in the booth and fill the opening created by Bob Brenly’s departure. Brenly, 58, left after eight seasons with the Cubs to join the Diamondbacks broadcast team.

Deshaies, 52, reportedly accepted a four-year offer from WGN. MLB.com has confirmed the deal. Deshaies had been a part of the Astros broadcast team since 1997, and was considered a longshot because it was assumed WGN preferred to have a former Cubs player as the color commentator. Dan Plesac, Todd Hollandsworth, Rick Sutcliffe and Eric Karros, who all played for the team, were mentioned as possible analysts. However, Brenly never played for the Cubs.

Deshaies pitched for six teams over a 12-year Major League career and established himself as a rookie with the 1986 NL West champion Astros. As a broadcaster, he is well-respected for his extensive knowledge and keen insights, but it was his quick wit that won Astros fans. He’s an easy conversationalist and is known to keep things entertaining during tough stretches. Brenly, popular with the Cubs fanbase, had a similar reputation. The parallels between the two broadcasters may have been a big selling point as WGN searched for a new color man.

Kasper is entering his ninth season as the Cubs’ television play by play broadcaster.

Deshaies does know Wrigley Field. His last game as a pitcher came against the Cubs on July 30, 1995, at Wrigley. Brian McRae doubled to leadoff and one out later, scored on Mark Grace’s RBI single. One out later, Todd Zeile hit a two-run homer off a 3-2 pitch to go ahead, 3-0. Jose Hernandez led off the Chicago second with a home run to left, and one out later, Deshaies walked Jim Bullinger and then McRae singled to left. Deshaies was pulled and that was it.

– Carrie Muskat

12/3 Former Cubs manager Hank O’Day in Hall

Chicago-born umpire and former Cubs manager Hank O’Day was elected into the Hall of Fame on Monday by the pre-integration committee. O’Day was the only man in history to play, umpire, and manage in the National League. He was born in Chicago on July 8, 1862, and began his baseball career as a right-handed pitcher in the American Association in 1884-85. He spent the next four years in the NL with Washington and New York before winding up his pitching career in the Players League with a 22-win season in 1890.

He was hired as a full-time NL umpire in 1895, and became known for having the courage to make the right call, no matter how unpopular. He’s best remembered for a game Sept. 23, 1908. Remember the Merkle play? O’Day was behind the plate for the Cubs and New York Giants game at the Polo Grounds. With the score tied in the ninth, Al Bridwell singled with Moose McCormick on third and Fred Merkle on first. Seeing McCormick score the apparent winning run, Merkle immediately ran for the Giants’ clubhouse. Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers yelled for the ball fielded by teammate Artie Hofman. Before Evers could get the ball, Giants pitcher Joe McGinnity intercepted it and threw into the crowd. According to a SABR story, Evers found another ball, tagged second, and appealed to Emslie to call Merkle out. Emslie didn’t make a call because he didn’t see anything. Evers then appealed to O’Day, who made the call, negating an apparent Giants victory. Because of the chaos on the field, O’Day ruled the game a tie and left.

O’Day’s career includes two tours of duty as a manager, first with the 1912 Cincinnati Reds and later with the 1914 Cubs. He was an umpire for 35 years and worked 10 World Series.

12/3 Third base options

The market for third basemen just got more interesting. The Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez will have surgery on his left hip, and was expected to miss three to six months. The Cubs join a long list of teams looking for a third baseman unless they decide to re-sign Ian Stewart. The risk with Stewart is that he’s coming off left wrist surgery. Stewart batted .201 in 55 games last season before he was shut down and recently began doing baseball activities. Could he return to his 2009 form when he hit 25 home runs for the Rockies?

Stewart was non-tendered by the Cubs on Friday and is a free agent. Among the other free agent third basemen on the market are Garrett Atkins, Jeff Baker, Josh Bell, Geoff Blum, Sean Burroughs, Eric Chavez, Mark DeRosa, Chone Figgins, Jack Hannahan, Wes Helms, Brandon Inge, Mike Lamb, Jose Lopez, Casey McGehee, Placido Polanco, Cody Ransom, Mark Reynolds, Brandon Snyder, Ty Wigginton, and Kevin Youkilis.

– Carrie Muskat

12/3 Winter league roundup

Michael Bowden gave up one run on five hits and two walks over seven innings, striking out five, as Aguilas beat Licey in the Dominican Republic on Sunday. Bowden is 3-2 with a 3.25 ERA in six starts so far with 17 strikeouts over 27 2/3 innings.

Junior Lake went 1-for-4 on Sunday to raise his batting average to .333 overall for Estrellas de Oriente. On Saturday, Lake was 1-for-3, hitting his fourth home run and driving in three runs.

Alberto Cabrera gave up one run on two hits over 1 1/3 innings in relief for Toros del Este, his fourth appearance in the Dominican.

Tony Campana was 1-for-3, drew two walks, scored a run and stole two bases Sunday for Leones del Caracas in Venezuelan Winter League play. He’s batting .148 in 10 games with five steals.

Luis Valbuena was 2-for-4 with one RBI on Sunday and was batting .325 in 34 games with Cardenales de Lara in Venezuela. He’s played second and third.

Dave Sappelt was 3-for-4 with four RBIs and missed hitting for the cycle by a triple on Saturday, playing for Bravos de Margarita in Venezuela.

– Carrie Muskat

12/2 Day 1 at Nashville

Early arriving scouts at the Gaylord Opryland resort, gathering for baseball’s Winter Meetings, have the same questions as Cubs fans. Has the team signed free agent pitcher Kyuji Fujikawa or not?
The Cubs continue to keep quiet about Fujikawa, who they have reportedly inked to a two-year, $9.5 million contract. Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports and MLB Network reported the deal on Saturday, saying Fujikawa would receive a signing bonus of $1 million and $4 million in salaries in 2013 and ’14. There also was a vesting option valued at $5.5 million or $6 million, to be determined by games finished. Cubs officials would neither confirm nor comment on the report.

Japanese media in Nashville for the Winter Meetings also were curious and had not heard anything further about Fujikawa, but did speculate the right-hander may be headed back to the U.S. A large contingent of Japanese media lingered in the lobby at the hotel to try to get a comment from Hoyer. There was a report that all that was needed was for Fujikawa to take a physical before the deal was finalized. We’ll keep you posted.

– Carrie Muskat

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