Ryan Sweeney

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Cubs release outfielder Ryan Sweeney, eat $1.5 million


Unable to find a taker for Ryan Sweeney after designating him for assignment, the Cubs have released the veteran outfielder.

Sweeney was a relatively productive semi-regular for the A’s and Cubs from 2008-2013, but he hit just .251 with a .642 OPS in 77 games last season and was pushed out of Chicago’s outfield mix.

However, as part of a multi-year contract signed in October of 2013 he’s owed $1.5 million for this season and a $500,000 buyout for 2016. Chicago is on the hook for that money and Sweeney is now free to sign anywhere for whatever he can get.

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

Jon Lester Getty

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.

Cubs place Emilio Bonifacio on the disabled list

Emilio Bonifacio

Emilio Bonifacio injured his rib cage Thursday night and the Cubs have placed him on the disabled list, activating outfielder Ryan Sweeney from DL to take his spot on the roster.

Bonifacio got off to a red-hot start this season, collecting 11 hits in his first three games and hitting .500 through his first eight games, but he came back down to earth and is hitting just .266 with one homer and a .656 OPS in 61 games overall (which is actually five points below his career OPS).

Bonifacio can play basically anywhere defensively, but the Cubs have mostly used him in center field and at second base this season.

The Cubs finally scored a run for Jeff Samardzija

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Ryan Sweeney’s game-tying RBI single in the top of the seventh inning against the Cardinals on Friday night may have seemed innocent, but it ended a rather embarrassing stretch devoid of any run support for starter Jeff Samardzija. The Cubs were shut out with Samardzija on the bump in his first two starts of the 2014 season and entering the seventh inning Friday night (a span of 20 innings). They were also shut out in his final start of the 2013 season, and did not score with him as the pitcher of record in his second to last start either.

The last time they had scored for him entering tonight’s start was on September 17, 2013 when they put up a three-spot in the seventh inning against Brewers starter Marco Estrada. Samardzija put up a zero in the bottom half of the inning and exited.

As for Friday’s start, Samardzija held the Cardinals to one run over seven innings, allowing six hits and striking out four without issuing a walk. He was the pitcher of record when the Cubs scored two more runs in the eighth inning to take a 3-1 lead. Samardzija has pitched well through his first three starts of the 2014 season, currently sitting with a 1.29 ERA.

2014 Preview: Chicago Cubs

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2014 season. Next up: The Chicago Cubs.

The Big Question: Is the wait almost over?

It has been 105 long years since the north side of Chicago last celebrated a World Series title and in seven months that number will be pushed to 106.

Let’s get it out of the way: this 2014 edition of the Cubs is hopeless. There’s not enough firepower in the lineup, not enough shutdown stuff on the pitching staff, and they’ll play in a five-team division that features four much better squads. Bovada pegs the Cubs’ over-under win total for the 2014 season at 69.5 — same as the Marlins and well below the Brewers (79.5), Pirates (83.5), Reds (84.5), and Cardinals (90.5).

And it doesn’t take a casino odds-maker to figure out what’s wrong with the Northsiders’ roster.

The four-year, $52 million commitment made last winter to right-handed starter Edwin Jackson already looks like a bust. Travis Wood is very good but far from a typical ace, and Jeff Samardzija took a step back in 2013 after flashing front-line numbers in 2012. Some combination of Jason Hammel, Jake Arrieta, Chris Rusin, and James McDonald will fill out the final two spots of a thoroughly-unintimidating starting rotation.

The lineup isn’t any more formidable. Anthony Rizzo has promising upside at first base, but his park-adjusted batting numbers were nearly league-average for that premium offensive position during the 2013 season. Fifth-year shortstop Starlin Castro was a complete disaster last summer, hitting .245/.284/.347 for an OPS+ of just 72. Luis Valbuena (3B), Nate Schierholtz (RF), Junior Lake (LF), Ryan Sweeney (CF), Welington Castillo (C), and Darwin Barney (2B) make up the rest of the Cubs’ starting position player group.

So, is the wait almost over? It depends on whether you have a gracious definition of “almost.”

What else is going on?

  • A total of seven Cubs prospects appeared in last month’s Baseball America Top 100, tied for the second-most of any organization. Javier Baez looks like a star in the making and will likely work his way into the major league infield mix by the end of this summer. He batted .282/.341/.578 with 37 home runs, 111 RBI, and 20 stolen bases in 130 games last year between High-A Daytona and Double-A Tennessee. Kris Bryant, the second overall pick in the 2013 MLB Amateur Draft, could also become a starter — at third base — by the end of 2014. He tallied nine homers and 32 RBI in just 36 minor league games last season. Right-handed starter C.J. Edwards and Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler were among the other Cubs prospects named to Baseball America‘s list. Team president Theo Epstein is building a legitimate nucleus.
  • Something to keep an eye on with this rising class of elite-level prospects: Javier Baez was drafted as a shortstop in 2011 (ninth overall) and has played nothing but shortstop in the Cubs’ minor league system. Starlin Castro signed a seven-year, $60 million contract extension with the Cubs in August 2012, but he might not finish out that deal in Chicago. Castro is young enough and has enough raw talent that he will presumably attract interest from other clubs even if he doesn’t bounce back right away in 2014.
  • Darwin Barney won a Gold Glove for his outstanding defensive play at second base in 2012 and probably should have won it again in 2013, but he owns a hideous .246/.293/.336 career slash line in 1,799 plate appearances at the major league level and the situation only worsened last season. Emilio Bonifacio can probably steal that starting second base job away from Barney by early-to-mid summer.
  • The Cubs fired Dale Sveum last September after just two years in the managerial post and officially selected Rick Renteria in early November to be his replacement. Renteria was the Padres’ bench coach when current Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer worked in the San Diego front office and is well-respected around the baseball world. Renteria is the 53rd manager in Cubs franchise history.

Predicton: A rough start but slightly-brighter finish yields 72 wins. Last place, NL Central.