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
Javier Baez, the Cubs’ first-round pick in the June 2011 First-Year Player Draft, is creating a lot of buzz as he gets closer to the big leagues. However, he’s a shortstop, and the Cubs already have a talented shortstop in Starlin Castro. Do the Cubs move Baez? Not now, Theo Epstein said.
“At some point, creating options and creating versatility is a good thing,” Epstein said Thursday. “In Javy’s case, he’s got a tremendous combination of instincts and athleticism which makes us think he’ll be a natural at playing other positions.”
Epstein said amateur scouting reports say Baez could play every position, including catcher.
“I think it’ll be an easy transition for him if and when that time comes,” Epstein said. “He hasn’t even reached Triple-A yet. There’s plenty of time to do it. You don’t want to take shortstop away from a kid. Once you move off shortstop, it’s really hard to move back.
“There may be a time in the future when he moves on a permanent basis, and there may be time when we move just to give him versatility,” he said. “In Spring Training, he’ll play plenty of shortstop and that might be a time to move him around as well.”
Baez, 21, was named the Cubs’ Minor League player of the year after batting .282 with 37 home runs and 111 RBIs at Class A Daytona and Double-A Tennessee.
– Carrie Muskat
The Cubs did not plan on taking a player in next week’s Rule 5 Draft but have apparently lost that selection because of a grievance filed by the Phillies. In December 2011, the Cubs selected right-hander Lendy Castillo from the Phillies’ organization. Castillo spent most of the 2012 season on the disabled list with a groin injury, and appeared in 13 games for the Cubs. Any player selected in the Rule 5 Draft must stay on a team’s active roster for the entire season. To prevent abuse of the draft, the player selected must be active for at least 90 days. That keeps teams from selecting players and placing them on the disabled list for the majority of the season. Castillo missed 91 days in 2012, and spent all of the 2013 season in the Minor Leagues. The Phillies will have the Cubs’ selection in the Rule 5 Draft as compensation.
– Carrie Muskat
Junior Lake hit a RBI triple and scored a run but it wasn’t enough as Estrellas lost, 13-4, to Aguilas in Dominican Winter League play. Lake was ranked among the leaders in batting .357 in the Dominican, and has been inserted in the No. 3 or 4 spot this winter. Frank Batista pitched in relief for Aguilas, and has not given up a run in 5 1/3 innings over five games. He’s given up four hits, walked one, and struck out three. Batista posted a 2.60 ERA in 48 games in relief at Double-A Tennessee.
– Carrie Muskat
The bidding may start soon on Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka. According to various media reports, Major League Baseball and Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball have reached a basic agreement on a new posting system. The Japan Times reports the new system will have a maximum posting fee of $20 million. Final details are still being worked out but FOX Sports and MLB Network’s Ken Rosenthal says if multiple teams submit the same bid, the player will be allowed to negotiate with all of those teams. Only the signing club would be required to pay the posting fee, which would not count against MLB’s luxury tax. Tanaka’s team, the Rakuten Golden Eagles, opposed the $20 million max posting fee but the other 11 Japanese teams approved it.
During an interview on Comcast SportsNet Chicago Wednesday night, Theo Epstein said the Cubs were looking for “impact” pitching, and Tanaka would fit that. The 25-year-old was 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA in 28 regular season games with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.
– Carrie Muskat
The Cubs added another left-handed reliever to the bullpen mix on Wednesday, signing free agent Wesley Wright to a one-year deal. Wright, 28, was non-tendered by the Rays on Monday. He posted a combined 3.69 ERA in 70 games for the Rays and Astros this past season, striking out 55 over 53 2/3 innings pitched.
USA Today’s Bob Nightengale reported the deal was believed to be $1.425 million for Wright. Major League sources confirmed the signing.
In his career, Wright has held left-handed hitters to a .231 average compared to .266 by right-handed batters.
Wright announced the signing himself by changing his Twitter profile @realweswright to say he’s now a relief pitcher for the Cubs.
Wright picked up his first career win on April 4, 2008, pitching in relief at Wrigley for the Astros. He entered the game with a man on first and two outs in the seventh, and the two teams tied at 2. He got Felix Pie to ground out and end the inning, and the Astros scored two in the eighth. Wright was the pitcher of record and picked up the win.
According to a story from that game, he planned on giving the game ball to his parents, who were expected in Houston for the home opener that year. It was special to get the first win at Wrigley Field. Growing up in Gosham, Ala., he watched Major League games on cable television. His father was a Braves fan but his brother, Derrick, watched the Cubs.
“You do what your older brother does,” Wright said at the time. “I was a big fan of Andre Dawson and Ryne Sandberg, Shawon Dunston, Sammy Sosa … all the guys that played here in the past.”
Needless to say, the young lefty, who was 23 at the time and pitching in his second career big league game, was excited.
“It was surreal for me to be out there on the mound and 30-some thousand people at Wrigley,” he said. “It was crazy. I wish my brother could have been here to share it with me because I know it would mean just as much to him.”
The Cubs were looking for bullpen help, and especially another left-hander to help southpaw James Russell, who ranked 10th in the National League in games (74). Chicago is still shopping for a closer to replace Kevin Gregg, who is a free agent.
– Carrie Muskat
During an interview Wednesday night on Chicago Sports Talk Live, Theo Epstein said the chances of Jeff Samardzija being in the Cubs Opening Day rotation are “pretty good.”
Samardzija has been the subject of trade rumors since July, and ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick wrote Wednesday that the Cubs will do some “serious listening” at the Winter Meetings to teams interested in trading for the right-hander.
In the show Wednesday night on Comcast SportsNet Chicago, Epstein repeated that the Cubs are hoping to sign Samardzija to a long-term deal. The pitcher is arbitration eligible.
“He’s our best pitcher and I’m really bullish on his future,” Epstein said on the Comcast SportsNet Chicago show. “He’s a guy who is a difference making starting pitcher for a long time.”
Epstein did say they want to get the most out of their assets, and although one way is a contract extension, another way is to trade that player for “mulitiple young impact assets.”
“With Jeff, I still have the belief that he can be the guy, he has the exact makeup we’re looking for,” Epstein said.
Samardzija is under team control for two more seasons, has shown that he’s durable, he’s a power pitcher, and he’s only 28 years old. The Cubs would have to be blown away by a package to deal Samardzija, who is arbitration eligible and projected to get a $4.9 million in 2014. Many teams looking for starting pitching consider him to be a better alternative than the free agent pitchers still on the market.
What could influence the Cubs decision on whether to part with Samardzija is if they can fill that spot in the rotation with Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka. According to a report on Wednesday, Japanese baseball officials are willing to accept the $20 million maximum bid, which would be part of the new posting rules. Tanaka was 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA for Rakuten this season.
Stay tuned. The Winter Meetings get underway Monday in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
– Carrie Muskat