Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 11, 2014

The Windy City Wins December

They held the Rule 5 draft at baseball’s Winter Meetings on Thursday, a non-event that marks the end of the Great Game’s annual December gathering of general managers. By the time teams decide whether or not to take the opportunity to pluck a player from another franchise on the condition that the draftee must remain on his new team’s 25-man major league roster for all of next season or be returned to his old club, suitcases are usually packed and limos lined up, ready to take GMs, field managers, scouts and other assorted team officials to the airport for the trip home. But this week in San Diego there was so much activity that it’s not certain whether anyone wanted, or for that matter, dared to leave.

Several rosters were remade in just a few days time, with a total of 79 players changing uniforms by trade, free agency, the waiver wire or even that meeting ending draft. For sheer volume no teams were busier than the Dodgers and the A’s. The revamped front office at Chavez Ravine, where team president Stan Kasten has been joined by new head of baseball operations Andrew Friedman and new GM Farhan Zaidi, acquired a total of ten players while moving seven, including one of the newly acquired ones. Friedman comes to Los Angeles from Tampa Bay, while Zaidi was assistant to Billy Beane in Oakland. After years in those low-budget locations both must have felt like Christmas came early this week. For his part the Athletics’ Beane, who went all-in last season at the trading deadline only to be rewarded with nothing more than a losing appearance in the AL Wild Card game, traded or lost to free agency a total of ten players while adding six new bodies to his roster in three deals with Cleveland, Chicago and Colorado.

But as fans know the hot stove season is ultimately about quality, not quantity; and as team officials head home the offseason pastime of grading each franchise’s moves, or lack of them, now starts in earnest. This year two teams that are on most lists of Winter Meeting winners share the same home town. Whether followers of the South Side White Sox or the North Side Cubs, fans in Chicago should be feeling pretty good, at least for the moment.

When the new season opens next April it will have been a decade since the White Sox won the World Series. Since then they’ve made just one other trip to the postseason, losing to the Rays in the 2008 ALDS. Three of the last four seasons Chicago has finished with a losing record. Apparently not content with a slow rebuilding process (the White Sox improved by ten games over 2013 this past season), on Wednesday GM Rick Hahn lured David Robertson away from the Bronx, signing the free agent closer to a four-year $46 million deal. Chicago’s bullpen was a major weakness last year, while Robertson capably filled Mariano Rivera’s shoes for the Yankees, saving 39 games in 44 chances. Prior to stepping into the closer role Robertson was a strikeout machine as New York’s setup man; over the last three seasons only seven relief pitchers have posted a higher WAR.

The news of the Robertson signing was barely out before Chicago completed a trade with Oakland that brought Jeff Samardzija back to the Windy City. The 29-year old right hander started last year as a hard luck hurler with the cross-town Cubs, going winless in his first ten starts despite a sparkling 1.46 ERA. Traded to Oakland in July, Samardzija finished the season with a deceptive record of 7-13, but a fine ERA of 2.99 and an excellent WHIP of 1.065. A workhorse with more than 210 innings two seasons in a row, he should slot into Chicago’s rotation right behind Chris Sale, who finished third in voting for the AL Cy Young Award. Before the Winter Meetings even began the White Sox signed free agent slugger Adam LaRoche to complement All-Star and unanimous Rookie of the Year Jose Abreu at the plate. At the very least the moves by the White Sox should make the AL Central race more interesting.

Cubs fans would gladly take the ten year World Series drought that their South Side counterparts have endured. Next season will mark seven decades since Wrigley Field hosted a Fall Classic contest, and of course it’s been more than a century since the Cubs claimed a championship. Now after several years of stockpiling young players and trading away stars in the making every July, Theo Epstein looks like he’s finally ready to actually execute his plan to return glory to Wrigley. The one-time wunderkind of Fenway Park gave the Cubs instant credibility earlier this offseason when he inked veteran manager Joe Maddon to a five-year contract. Then this week he signed right-handed pitcher Jason Hammel and traded for catcher Miguel Montero.

Hammel was an effective pitcher for the Cubs during his first stint with them; less so in Oakland during the second half of last season. But back in the designated hitter free National League, there’s a good chance he’ll be an effective back of the rotation starter. Montero is a significant upgrade at his position for the Cubs, both behind the plate defensively and at it while on offense.

Those two deals were but side dishes to Epstein’s major move, the signing of free agent left hander Jon Lester. Coming off a career-best 2.46 ERA Lester was the prize of the Winter Meetings. He played the role of hardball Hamlet this week, dithering between offers from the Cubs, Red Sox, Dodgers and Giants before finally deciding to rejoin Epstein, the former Boston GM. Given that Lester will soon turn 31, Cubs fans may rue this $155 million deal in year six, and even more so in its $25 million option year seven. But with Lester’s recent performance and his impeccable postseason resume, clearly this long-term contract is really all about right now.

In Chicago there is already talk of a World Series played entirely within the city limits. Except of course the World Series is played in October; no team ever won it in December, much less in some hotel ballroom where the action at the Great Game’s Winter Meetings plays out. Leave it to Cubs manager Maddon to inject some reality into the Second City giddiness. Upon learning of the Lester signing, Maddon told reporters “It’s not often you get to win the lottery, and we won the baseball lottery so far this year; but now it’s up to us to put it into effect. It’s all theory right now. We’ve got to make it real.” The Cubs and White Sox are winners in theory. But sports’ longest season still stretches between December theory and October reality.  Don’t plan that parade through the Chicago Loop just yet.

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Responses

  1. Nice twist to it-I thought sure you were going to predict a Cubs, White Sox series.Sent from my Veriz

    • Thanks Don, glad you enjoyed it. The truth is December delight more often than not fails to turn into October glory. But, as some blogger once (or 1000 times) said, that’s why they play the games.

      Mike


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