Alfonso Soriano

Anthony Rizzo on track to return to the Cubs’ lineup on Monday

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Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo took ground balls today and is expected to be activated on Monday, per a report from’s Carrie Muskat. Rizzo has been sidelined since August 26 with a mild lower back strain. Manager Rick Renteria has been cautious with Rizzo and it even appeared as if the first baseman wouldn’t return, but he has progressed well in recent days.

Rizzo, 25, is in the process of a breakout season for the Cubs, hitting .278/.375/.514 with 30 home runs and 71 RBI. Before Rizzo, Alfonso Soriano and Derrek Lee were the only Cubs to hit 30 homers in a season dating back to 2007. Lee was the last Cub to post a .275/.375/.500 line or better as well. Rizzo joined the Cubs in January 2012 in the Andrew Cashner trade with the Padres.

Cubs will be in position to make a splash with Jon Lester


No matter what happens with the Wrigley Field renovations and the next TV contract, the Cubs will be in position to make a splash and sign Jon Lester to a megadeal.

Multiple industry sources say the Cubs are targeting Lester and will make a run at him this winter, trying to set a foundation piece in the rebuild at Clark and Addison.

That doesn’t mean the Cubs will win a bidding war with the New York Yankees – remember the Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes? – and Lester is said to be on pretty good terms with the Boston Red Sox brass after the July 31 deadline trade that shipped him to the Oakland A’s.

But Lester is believed to be open-minded about his future, and the connections to Chicago are obvious. Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, the former Red Sox general manager, watched Lester develop into an All-Star, beating cancer and winning the clinching game in the 2007 World Series.

Lester again showed why he will be in demand on Tuesday night at U.S. Cellular Field, going eight innings and beating the White Sox 11-2. That stopped the bleeding for an Oakland team that had been 28 games over .500 on Aug. 9 and began Sept. 9 barely clinging onto a wild card.

Lester (14-10, 2.52 ERA) has put together his best season, even after coming down from the World Series high. Even with the contract talks leaking out in Boston and all the speculation about his next destination. Even in getting traded from the only team he’d ever known and being dropped into a completely different environment.

“I just try to do my job,” Lester said. “Year in and year out, I just try to do my job. I only get to do it every five days, so I take a lot of pride in that fifth day, regardless of the circumstance, whether it’s playoffs, whether it’s contract year, whether it’s anything else. If I do my job, all that stuff will take care of itself.”

[THE PLAN: Jorge Soler knows this is his time for the Cubs]

Either this winter or next, the Cubs are expected to acquire one or two big names to anchor their rotation. Even if it didn’t lead to a blockbuster trade with the Philadelphia Phillies, claiming Cole Hamels on waivers last month showed how the Cubs are thinking.

Epstein’s baseball operations department already built a war chest with leftover money from a losing bid for Tanaka (six years, $120 million). The Alfonso Soriano megadeal finally falls off the books after this season.

The Cubs have less than $30 million committed to Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo, Jorge Soler, Edwin Jackson and Ryan Sweeney next season, a projection that doesn’t include arbitration cases.

“Because we have so many young players who are going to be cost-controlled over the next several seasons,” Epstein said, “we have tremendous flexibility built into our roster as it is. We’re going to field a pretty good nucleus with a very low payroll associated with that.

“That in and of itself – and some of the savings that we’ve made over the last offseason for example – will allow us the flexibility we need to be very aggressive should the right player or players present themselves to us.”

That doesn’t solve all the big-picture issues for the Ricketts family and Crane Kenney’s business operations department. It won’t automatically spike the payroll back to where it was during the final years of Tribune Co. ownership. But the Cubs are getting to a place where they can overpay for pitching and absorb decline seasons when someone like Lester reaches his mid-30s.

“On a longer-term look,” Epstein said, “as we get closer to a new TV deal, and as we start to realize some of the revenues associated with the renovated Wrigley Field, I believe that will only enhance our flexibility and our aggressiveness.

“That’s down the road. I’m very confident in our business side, that the right TV deal will be struck at the right time and we’re going to realize revenues from Wrigley Field.

“But those two things combined – the flexibility that we have and the potential for increased payroll down the road with increased revenues – has got to make Cubs fans excited.”

[RELATED: Jeff Samardzija has no second thoughts about time with Cubs]

Lester will be 31 next season and has already won two World Series rings, which might make him a little more patient – as long as the money’s right – while the Cubs try to piece together a perennial contender.

Max Scherzer is not believed to be interested in a rebuilding situation, and the Scott Boras client already turned down a reported six-year, $144 million offer from the Detroit Tigers in spring training.

Lester checks all the boxes. He’s durable, on track to make 30-plus starts for the seventh straight season. He’s a good teammate who knows all about the pressures of playing in a big market.

“I love Jon,” said Oakland pitcher Jason Hammel, an ex-Cub who grew up near Lester in Washington. “He’s a Tacoma boy. I played against him in summer ball. We came up against each other. We played against each other in tournaments all the time. He’s a great guy. I can see why he’s successful and also why he’s very likeable. (He’s a) good family guy and a hard worker.”

“You always feel like you have a great chance to win the game,” Oakland manager Bob Melvin said. “You feel like he’s going to keep you in the game, regardless, and he’s done that for us.

“As far as confidence as a team goes, it always starts with the starting pitcher that you run out there on that particular day. Whatever team he’s on, you’re going to feel good about your chances to win that day.”

The Cubs understand they need someone to set the tone for their pitching staff, help establish a clubhouse culture and take the ball for Game 1 of a playoff series. That’s what Lester could do on the North Side.

Money, money, money (and Bud Selig’s nirvana)


You probably know that one of Bud Selig’s big objectives as commissioner of baseball was to even the playing field – that is, to give the small-market teams a chance to contend. A luxury tax was instituted. Wildcards were added to the playoffs. The amateur draft had numerous rules changed. Sure, many people thought it was all a ploy to take money from the players and give it to the owners – and let’s not be naïve, I’m sure some of it WAS a money grab – but I always thought that competitive balance really was an issue close to his heart. Selig had been a small-market owner. He had grown up a small-market baseball fan. He will talk passionately and often about how every fan should have hope on Opening Day – he borrowed that from me, by the way — and I feel sure he believes that.

Funny thing: Here at the end of his tenure, baseball is closer to Selig’s nirvana than perhaps ever before. As Brian McPherson writes in the Providence Journal, the correlation between money spent and winning is at its lowest point in a long, long time. McPherson writes that the correlation right now between wins and money is actually smaller than the correlation between wins and alphabetical order.

Why is this a funny thing?

Because, I believe the reason for whatever actual effect we are seeing is pretty directly tied to the steroid years that Selig has been running away from for more than a decade.

Before we get to that, let’s look quickly at the playoff picture. As it stands right now:

American League

East: Baltimore (15th in Opening Day payroll)

Central: Kansas City (19th)

West: Oakland (25th) and Los Angeles Angels (6th)

Wildcard No. 1: Oakland or LA

Wildcard No. 2: Seattle (18th)

National League

East: Washington (9th in Opening Day payroll)

Central: Milwaukee (16th)

West: Los Angeles Dodgers (1st)

Wildcard No. 1: St. Louis (13th)

Wildcard No. 2: San Francisco (7th)

So, as you can see, the game is not being dominated by the highest-payroll teams anymore – of the Top 5 payrolls, only the Dodgers are in the playoffs in the season ended today. This, however, is at least a bit deceiving. Detroit has a Top 5 payroll and is just 1 1/2 games behind Kansas City – I suspect most people suspect the Tigers will catch the Royals before it’s all done. And those vampire Yankees, the team Michael Schur will tell you cannot be killed, linger two-and-a-half games behind the Mariners for the second wildcard spot. If just those two things switch, suddenly six of the ten playoff teams will have Top 10 payrolls. So it’s possible to get carried away by the moment.

Still, something is happening. Philadelphia is in shambles with a huge payroll. The Red Sox are again in last place with a huge payroll. The vampire Yankees have been hot lately but I’m still not buying them and they have flashed a whole lot more mediocrity than promise this year. The Rangers have a huge payroll and are the worst team in baseball. The Blue Jays and Diamondbacks and Reds and even the Twins are trying to spend money but seem to be spinning their wheels or are in screaming descent.

So, why is this happening? I have a theory – one that directly relates to my belief that many baseball teams are doing something that is monumentally stupid. I’m referring to the huge, long-term deals that they are giving players – deals that last until the players are in their mid-to-late 30s, and sometimes even carries them into their 40s. These contracts are a death trap, a suicide rap, and while there are exceptions to every rule, there are never more than a few exceptions. Giving huge, long-term contracts to players in their late 20s or early 30s is self-destructive. Period.

Let’s look at those big payroll teams that are struggling.

No. 2 in payroll: Yankees. Even with Alex Rodriguez mostly off the books for a year, the Yankees have these suffocating long term deals with Mark Teixeira, C.C. Sabathia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, heck, they just scooped up the next two years of Martin Prado for some reason.

No. 3 in payroll: Philadelphia. Covered this one. Almost 70% of their payroll is going to big deal guys — Ryan Howard, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Chase Utley, Jonathan Papelbon, A.J. Burnett and Jimmy Rollins. Throw another $16 million in the pot for Carlos Ruiz and Marlon Byrd. What the heck could Ruben Amaro have been thinking?

No. 4 in payroll: Boston. The Red Sox salary structure is a bit different from the Yankees or Phillies… but they are still putting an old team on the field. Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Mike Napoli, Daniel Nava, all in their 30s. You can see them trying desperately to get younger now.

No. 8 in payroll: Texas. Lots of terrible contracts here – Prince Fielder for another six years, Shin Soo Choo for another six years, some big money about to kick in on Elvis Andrus. The Rangers have had terrible luck this year with health but this is a team staring into the barrels of some serious financial pain anyway.

So … what does this have to do with the Selig Era?

Well, there were two things that happened during the late 1990s and early 2000s that were unusual. One, of course, was the crazy proliferation of home runs. But the second was the way players aged. For a long time before the 1994 strike, players tended to age at more or less the same rate. There are countless ways to quantify this – I did a simple spreadsheet looking at players with 3.0 WAR or better. A player with 3.0 WAR is a good player (but not necessarily a great one) and there are usually 25 to 30 of them in any given season, sometimes a few more, sometimes a few less.

For decades before the late 1990s, about 72% of those good 3.0 players were younger than 30. Almost all the rest were between 30 and 34. Very few were older than 35 –  from 1972-1997 only 16 of the 594 players with 3.0 WAR were 35 or older. This seemed the natural aging pattern of players.

Here, for your information, is an incomplete list of Hall of Famers and all-time greats who never had even a 3.0 WAR season after age 35: Rickey Henderson, Rogers Hornsby, Mickey Mantle, Cal Ripken, Johnny Bench, Robbie Alomar and Yogi Berra.

It changed in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In 1998, for instant, HALF the 3.0 WAR players were 30 or older. It was similar in the the surrounding years. If you include all the years from 1996 to 2004, more than 40% of all the 3.0 WAR players were at least 30 years old.

Beyond that, we suddenly started seeing 35-year olds performing at very high levels. People will immediately say that this was because of the popularization of PED use, and that was certainly a factor. It’s also possible there were other factors – smaller strike zones, smaller parks, better bats, many others. But whatever the reasons, there were a few years there where the idea of a player performing well until his mid-to-late 30s suddenly seemed reasonable.

My guess is that this seemingly reasonable conclusion that baseball players had started to beat the aging process was, in fact, quite unreasonable and it is probably the biggest factor in these massive, sprawling and utterly doomed long-term contracts. Teams started trying to lock up player’s last year for huge dough. Best I can tell, there are 22 players who are signed for big money for at least five seasons after this one. They are:

Atlanta: Freddie Freeman.

Boston: Dustin Pedroia.

Cincinnati: Shin-Soo Choo; Joey Votto.

Colorado: Troy Tulowitzki.

Detroit: Justin Verlander; Miguel Cabrera.

Los Angeles Angels: Albert Pujols; Mike Trout.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Matt Kemp; Clayton Kershaw.

Milwaukee: Ryan Braun.

New York Mets: David Wright.

New York Yankees: Jacoby Ellsbury; Masahiro Tanaka.

San Francisco: Buster Posey.

Seattle: Robinson Cano; Felix Hernandez.

Texas: Elvis Andrus; Prince Fielder.

Washington: Ryan Zimmerman.

How many of those contracts would you want? Before you answer, consider that these are mostly newer contracts – we don’t have any perspective on them yet. But we do have perspective on the LAST batch of big-money contracts – here are the big money contracts running out the next three years: Vernon Wells; Alfonso Soriano; Cliff Lee; C.C. Sabathia; Matt Holliday; Ryan Howard; Mark Teixeira; Josh Hamilton, Jayson Werth; Matt Cain; Carl Crawford; Alex Rodriguez; Jose Reyes.

How many of THOSE contracts would you want?

Baseball owners’ and GM’s madness for big money contracts to aging players has, in its own way, evened the game more than anything else Selig or any other commissioner has done. The Yankees stopped developing their own players and bought their way into a pit. The Red Sox had a couple of only moderate seasons, went on a shopping spree, and bought their way to their two worst seasons in the last half century or so. The Phillies spent a crazy fortune in a hopelessly misguided effort to keep a good team together well past its expiration date.

Even the high-spending teams that are doing well this year – the Angels and Dodgers in particular – are basically tiptoeing around some calamitous contracts.

There’s a great line in The Office where the HR representative Toby – who knows that the boss Michael despises him – finds himself stuck in the back with the impossibly annoying Kelly and Ryan, who spend all hours fighting and making up and fighting more. “I don’t think Michael meant to punish me by putting me here with them,” he said. “But if he did – genius.”

That’s what I see here too. I don’t think Bud Selig meant to even up the game by getting the big teams to wasted their huge money advantages on old and rapidly declining players. But hey, if he did – genius.