2009 MLB Preview: #4 Chicago Cubs

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Offseason Movement: The Cubs were seemingly hosed by the Indians in a trade that sent ultra-utility player Mark DeRosa to Cleveland in exchange for minor league pitching prospects Jeff Stevens, Chris Archer and John Gaub, none of which were viewed as top 10 prospects in the Tribe’s organization. But maybe one of those youngsters will emerge as a quality arm down the road and DeRosa’s contract does expire at the end of the season so at least the Cubs got something for him. Chicago also added volatile outfielder Milton Bradley, reliever Kevin Gregg and pitcher Aaron Heilman, who will move to the bullpen after losing out to Sean Marshall this spring for the Cubs’ fifth spot in the rotation.

Top Prospect: Josh Vitters, 3B
This club is loaded with quality prospects, including reliever Jeff Samardzija, shortstop Ryan Flaherty and outfielder Tyler Colvin. But Vitters appears to be the best of group, with his excellent plate approach, outstanding hand-eye coordination and natural swing. Thus far in Single-A, Vitters is hitting .357 and slugging .529 in 70 at bats. At only 19, he still has a ways to go before he’ll make his big league debut, but Vitters appears to have quite a future ahead of him.

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Mets Solidify Bullpen Further With Putz; Yanks and Braves Chasing Burnett

Well, it turns out Mets’ GM Omar Minaya wasn’t messing around when it came to fixing his team’s biggest problem–the bullpen. A day after agreeing to terms with record breaking closer Francisco “K-Rod” Rodriguez, Minaya pulled the trigger on a blockbuster trade involving two other teams, Seattle and Cleveland. The Mets acquired Mariners’ closer JJ Putz and RHP Sean Green from Seattle and OF Jeremy Reed from Cleveland; they sent OF Endy Chavez, RHP Aaron Heilman, and minor leaguers Maikel Cleto, Ezequiel Carrera, Jason Vargas, and Mike Carp to Seattle and RHP Joe Smith to Cleveland; Cleveland sent IF Franklin Gutierrez to Seattle; and Seattle sent Luis Valbuena to Cleveland.

Essentially what this means for the Mets is that they traded Heilman and Smith for Putz, while swapping marginal outfielders. The move is good for Seattle, who received a ton of young players, and for Cleveland, who now have a reliable sinker ball pitcher to put in front of new closer Kerry Wood. But it’s huge for the Mets, who will put Putz in the set-up role in front of K-Rod. Putz will earn just $5.5 million in 2009 and has a team option in 2010 for $9.1 million, and K-Rod’s contract also features a lot of money on the back end of his contract. That means Minaya and the Mets will have decisions to make in 2010 and beyond, but for 2009 in shiny new Citi Field, they have given themselves possibly the best one-two bullpen punch in the majors, and any lead after the seventh inning will almost certainly result in a win. Things still have to play out on the field, but that’s already a far cry from the two epic collapses of 2006 and 2007.

Meanwhile, the Braves and Yankees appear to be in a bidding war for RHP A.J. Burnett. The Yankees were not satisfied with just C.C. Sabathia, and are looking to fortify their rotation with Burnett, and/or Ben Sheets, Andy Pettitte or Derek Lowe. The Braves offered four years with a fifth year option, all totaling $80 million, to Burnett; and since then, reports surfaced that the Yanks upped their offer to $91 million, but that was incorrect, and it’s said to be more in the same $80 to $85 million range the Braves are offering, but with five years guaranteed. It’s unclear if the Braves can win a real bidding war with New York, but with the numbers close, this one will surely be more a matter of where Burnett wants to live and work for the next few years.

Hot Stove League: Mets Appear to Covet Everyone

The New York Mets covet _________. Those words have been uttered in every Hot Stove rumor out there, because they are more than just rumors. The Mets, who had a second straight free fall from first place in 2008, are apparently looking to fix more than their horrendous bullpen as they move into Citi Field in 2009. In no particular order, here are the players GM Omar Minaya has been talking to or about: Manny Ramirez, Francisco “K-Rod” Rodriguez, Huston Street, Kerry Wood, Brian Fuentes, Orlando Hudson, Jon Garland, Freddy Garcia (a reported shoulder injury may stall that one), Raul Ibanez, Kevin Millwood, Jermaine Dye, Rafael Furcal, Juan Cruz, Derek Lowe, Edwin Jackson, Juan Rivera and Javier Vazquez. The only one right now that appears close to reality is Furcal, as reports have filtered in that the Mets are offering a nice incentive-based deal. And Wood, who was not offered a contract by Arizona as expected, is at the bottom of the Mets’ wish list due to his injury history. Meanwhile, the Mets also do not think they can pay what Oliver Perez’ agent is asking, and there is a possibility the animated lefty could be headed to division rival Atlanta.

Jake Peavy’s on-again, off-again relationship with the Hot Stove League has continued, but now there is talk that the Cubs might make a move, along with a third team. That’s because the Cubs do not have the pitching prospect that Padres’ GM Kevin Towers is asking for.

Jason Varitek is not likely to accept salary arbitration by the Red Sox and could be headed somewhere else, possibly Detroit. Meanwhile, every team under the sun has been offering mediocre catchers to the Sox.

Andy Pettitte, who was rumored to be talking to former manager Joe Torre about pitching for the Dodgers, is talking now like he wants to stay in New York and play in the Yankees’ new stadium. Speaking of the Dodgers, they are also talking to free agents Trevor Hoffman and Randy Johnson, both on the far side of 40 years old, but both still effective.

While Aaron Heilman was as much of a disaster as a pitcher can be in New York, why is it that both the Rays and Rockies are looking to trade for him? The guy has good movement on his pitches, but proved last season that he can’t get anyone out, especially with a game on the line.

With rumors flying around (and let’s face it, they are true) that Lebron James will be traded to the Knicks or leave Cleveland as a free agent in a couple of years, there has been talk that James’ buddy CC Sabathia may take the Yanks’ offer a bit more seriously if that all happens. Hmmmm.

No big signings, but a few rumbles of thunder

It’s been over a week since the period of free agency officially began, and yet we have no big signings just yet. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been talks, or even money offered. But it does mean that certain players and their agents just aren’t ready to make hasty decisions without weighing multiple options, and perhaps driving prices up into the stratosphere.

Brewers’ GM Doug Melvin was miffed that the Yankees made the kind of offer they knew the Brewers couldn’t match–$130 or $140 million over six years, where the Brewers were hoping for more in the $100 million range. The Dodgers reportedly are getting set to offer CC between $110 to $120 million, plus the comforts of living on the west coast and getting the chance to swing a bat every five days. The Dodgers are also interested in trading for Toronto’s Roy Halladay, who suddenly is being mentioned in trade rumors. If the Dodgers are not able to sign CC or trade for Halladay, word is they will put their resources into re-signing one Manny Ramirez. Oh, and the Giants are also talking about making CC an offer. Imagine CC and NL MVP Tim Lincecum at the top of the rotation, something that could shift the balance of power in the NL West.

There is likely to be a bidding war between the Red Sox, Jays, Yankees, Orioles, Braves and Phillies for righty AJ Burnett, the most coveted pitcher in the free agent pool not named CC.

If you saw the Mets’ bullpen blow about a quarter of their losses last season (okay, maybe more), you know that GM Omar Minaya has made the pen a priority in the off-season. So not only are the Mets looking to sign a free agent stud like Francisco “K-Rod” Rodriguez or Brian Fuentes, they are also looking to trade for Seattle’s JJ Putz or newly acquired Rockies’ pitcher Huston Street. The terribly ineffective Aaron Heilman is being dangled as trade bait, but for the names they’re looking at, the Mets would probably have to offer up a lot more than that.

Talks seem to keep breaking down about the Padres trading Jake Peavy…first with the Braves, then with the Cubs (after they re-signed Ryan Dempster)….and now the Yankees are being mentioned. Hmmm.

And Mark Teixeira is being mentioned in the same breath as the words “Washington Nationals.” Raise your hand if you saw that coming…..

Hot Stove: Shaking Things Up

This is when the baseball season is really interesting—while no games are happening and speculation flies around about who will be changing uniforms and shifting the balance of the sport’s power. It sure beats watching a nine-inning game that goes on for four hours or more.

So the two big names that are free agents and will be courted heavily are CC Sabathia and Manny Ramirez. Forget the fact that commissioner Bud Selig cautioned teams about forking over too much money in a slow economy. Those two guys are going to rake in the cabbage either way, because teams will bid for them at ridiculous numbers. So far, the Brewers, Yankees and Angels seem to be the first in line to make a run at CC, and Manny’s agent, Scott Boras, had a 90 minute conversation with Dodgers’ GM Ned Colletti on Tuesday, but that pretty much means nothing. Still, the Dodgers owe their fans an offer to Ramirez, even if Boras is looking for a 5-6 year offer.

On the trading block, would you believe Tigers’ slugger Magglio Ordonez? The Tigers reportedly have enough holes to fill that they are willing to part with one of the game’s premier hitters to do so. That kind of deal has Yankees written all over it.

Two players whose team option was not picked up were the Yankees’ Jason Giambi and Dodgers’ Brad Penny. For all the talk about Giambi and steroids, the guy did hit 32 homers in 2008 and still has some pop as well as the penchant for bad mustaches.

Though the Mets need bullpen help more than anything, they are talking trade with Tampa Bay for starter Andy Sonnenstine. The Mets are also talking like they will not be bringing back Aaron Heilman, which is about as good a move as any trade to acquire a player.

Finally, free agent Ken Griffey may be heading back to Seattle, and pitcher Derek Lowe may be headed back to Boston. Stay tuned…..

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