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Draft rules make Cubs' problems worse

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Ken Rosenthal

Ken Rosenthal has been the FOXSports.com's Senior MLB Writer since August 2005. He appears weekly on MLB on FOX, FOX Sports Radio and MLB Network. He's a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Follow him on Twitter.

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I’ve got bad news for Cubs fans, more disturbing even than the horrors they witnessed from “relievers” Kerry Wood and Carlos Marmol in the opening series.

The team is years away from contention.

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Savvy fans probably knew that already, but both the amateur draft and free-agent market are becoming more difficult for high-revenue teams to exploit, complicating the Cubs’ rebuilding efforts.

The new restrictions on draft spending, combined with the smaller number of stars reaching free agency, amount to a double whammy for Theo Epstein and his new front office.

Epstein, the team’s president of baseball operations, planned to invest heavily in the draft, just as he did as general manager of the Red Sox. The formula certainly worked in Boston, where the Red Sox pounded the draft for the most Wins Above Replacement (WAR) of any club in the last 10 years.

The Sox under Epstein routinely spent above slot, drafting not only core pieces such as second baseman Dustin Pedroia, closer Jonathan Papelbon, center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury and right-hander Clay Buchholz, but also youngsters that they traded for major stars such as first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, left fielder Jason Bay and catcher Victor Martinez.

The new collective-bargaining agreement, however, assigns teams an aggregate signing bonus pool for their picks in the first 10 rounds of the draft — and assesses severe penalties for clubs that exceed their prescribed ceilings. Similar limits also will take effect on international amateurs in 2012.

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Scout well, spend big on the draft — that was Epstein’s plan with the Cubs.

Only now, it’s not going to happen.

The Cubs will be allowed to spend $7.9 million on their 12 picks in the first 10 rounds of the upcoming June draft, according to Baseball America. Epstein’s Red Sox, by contrast, averaged $8.8 million in draft spending from 2007 to ’11, fourth highest in the majors.

In theory, the Cubs could reallocate money to free agents, but such a decision only would lead to inefficiency. The sport is flush with cash, and teams are signing top players such as right-hander Matt Cain and first baseman Joey Votto to lucrative contract extensions. Free agency, one executive says, now consists only of “older leftovers hitting the market at insane prices” — a dangerous game.

The bubble of new local TV money eventually could burst, shifting the economic landscape yet again, but the current trend is still only a recent development. For a team like the Cubs — a team largely devoid of stars in their primes — the only real option for now is to build through current prospects and future draft picks.

Lots of luck: The Cubs’ farm system features hardly any impact pitching and ranks 14th in the majors according to Baseball America. The only reason they are that high is because they spent $12 million under previous GM Jim Hendry on the 2011 draft. And those picks likely will not produce returns for several years.

Short-term, the Cubs need emerging talents such as right-hander Jeff Samardzija, first baseman Anthony Rizzo and center fielder Brett Jackson to reach their ceilings. They also need to secure Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler, who can be signed for any amount before the new international restrictions take effect on July 2, but is not yet a free agent.

Trading right-hander Matt Garza for prospects also would bolster the long-range plan; signing Garza to an extension is another possibility. The point is, the entire process will take time. Events are conspiring against the Cubs. Just as they have for, oh, the past 103 years.

A brewing issue in Milwaukee

 

There is no reason to expect that the Brewers will fall out of contention, but if it happens the Crew could be a rather interesting seller at the July 31 non-waiver deadline.

The team’s potential free agents include three right-handed pitchers who likely would be in demand — starters Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum and reliever Francisco Rodriguez.

Yet, even if the Brewers contend, they must answer a larger question before deciding whether to commit monster dollars to Greinke or anyone else.

Now that first baseman Prince Fielder is gone, how long will the team’s window of opportunity remain open?

The Brewers’ farm system, depleted by the Greinke trade and other deals, ranks 26th in the majors, according to Baseball America. At some point the team will need to restock or face the possibility of a crash.

Right fielder Corey Hart is an example of a player whose long-term future in Milwaukee is uncertain, even though he is signed through 2013.

Hart is statistically comparable to the PhilliesHunter Pence, who is eligible for free agency the same year. If the Phillies sign Pence to an extension for say, $16 million per season, it could force the Brewers to move on from Hart.

Jose Bautista’s 97 homers in 2010-11 were the most among players who appeared in 50 percent of their games in right field, according to Baseball-Reference.com.

Hart and Jay Bruce were tied for second at 57. Pence was ninth with 47.

Dodgers' Gordon: The next Reyes?

 

During spring training, Dodgers infielder Adam Kennedy told me that shortstop Dee Gordon could be “the next guy to steal 100 bases” — and the first to reach that plateau since Vince Coleman stole 109 in 1987.

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“His dad’s nickname was 'Flash,'" added another Dodgers veteran, infielder Jerry Hairston Jr., referring to Gordon’s father, former major-league pitcher Tom Gordon. “But (Dee) is the real flash.”

Gordon, the Dodgers’ leadoff man, was on base six times and went 3-for-4 in stolen-base attempts in his first three games. Teammate Matt Kemp, for one, was impressed.

“He’s got the potential to be one of the most exciting players in the game,” Kemp told FOXSports.com’s Jon Paul Morosi. “He reminds you a lot of a guy like Jose Reyes, somebody that can just get on base and do a lot.”

Gordon, listed at 5-foot-11 and 150 pounds, looks like Prince Fielder could swallow him whole. But Dodgers manager Don Mattingly told me in spring training that he believes Gordon one day will hit .300.

“He can hit. That’s the one thing that people really don’t talk about — this kid can hit,” Mattingly said. “He’s not just going to bunt. And any ball that he hits where you have to take an extra step or you bobble at all, he’s safe.

“As he gets a little stronger, he’s going to hit. I think he’s going to be a .300-type guy. He’s going to be a line-drive hitter.”

But .300? Really?

“No question,” Mattingly said. “No question.”

Angels' Aybar: Extend him now!

 

Speaking of shortstops, the Angels’ Erick Aybar routinely gets overlooked when talking about candidates for contract extensions.

Aybar, a potential free agent, would be the best shortstop on the market next offseason. He could do quite well, given the shortage of quality players at the position. But the Angels can ill afford to lose him.

HOW THE WEST WAS WON

Will the Angels or Rangers finish first in the AL West chase?

Shortstop Jean Segura, the team’s No. 2 prospect according to Baseball America, will play above Class A for the first time this season. He appeared in only 44 games last season due to a torn hamstring and also missed significant time in 2009 with a broken ankle and broken finger.

Manager Mike Scioscia told MLB.com this spring that Segura had “incredible tools” and “as much upside as anyone in that room.” But would the Angels trust Segura to play shortstop for a contending team with an expensive starting rotation? One day perhaps, but to project Segura in that role next season would be a stretch.

The Angels, who signed second baseman Howie Kendrick to a four-year, $33.5 million extension in January, have yet to strike a deal with Aybar.

McGwire: Holliday can reach 'another level'

 

Cardinals left fielder Matt Holliday got off to a 1-for-14 start before going 2-for-4 with a double Sunday, but never mind the early results.

Hitting coach Mark McGwire is convinced that Holliday, 32, is on the verge of a major breakthrough.

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“I don’t think Matt has reached his true potential,” McGwire said of Holliday, whose .927 career OPS isn’t exactly shabby. “I think there’s another level for him to be at.

“This is his team now. When he was at Colorado, he was a young player. There were some other players there. (Todd) Helton — that was his team. Then he comes over here, and it’s Albert's (Pujols) team.

“Now it’s Mark’s team. It’s a different thing. He just finished his eighth year. He’s got at least another 8 to 10. He’s right in the middle of his career, almost like a good bottle of wine, getting better with age.

“There’s something I see in him. He’s a great hitter, so knowledgeable. And he wants to get better every year.”

The Padres: A team on the rise?

 

One scout following the Padres views them as a 100-loss club waiting to happen, but another who saw them often in spring training raves about the team’s future.

The second scout, in fact, says he would have traded right-hander Mat Latos straight-up for first baseman Yonder Alonso — and Padres GM Josh Byrnes, of course, got much more for Latos, also acquiring right-hander Edinson Volquez, catcher Yasmani Grandal and right-handed reliever Brad Boxberger.

Volquez, the Padres’ Opening Day starter, might outperform Latos this season, if only because Volquez will work at pitcher-friendly Petco Park while Latos will be at hitter-friendly Great American.

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Alonso isn’t another Votto, but the Padres believe he will be a highly productive hitter, perhaps similar to what Tino Martinez was with the Mariners before he became more of a home-run threat thanks in part to the short right-field porch at the old Yankee Stadium.

Both Grandal and Boxberger figure to be in the majors this season after opening at Triple-A, and three starting-pitching prospects obtained by former GM Jed Hoyer — Triple-A righties Casey Kelly and Joe Weiland and Double-A lefty Robbie Erlin — also could surface in San Diego soon.

Kelly, acquired in the Adrian Gonzalez deal, tweaked his delivery and took a step forward this spring. He is such a good athlete, one rival executive describes him as “a ball of clay” for Padres manager Bud Black, a former major-league pitcher and pitching coach.

Weiland and Erlin, the Padres’ return for Mike Adams, have less upside than Kelly, but project as mid-rotation starters. Weiland could become a better version of Jon Garland, regularly pitching 200 innings. Erlin is a touch-and-feel lefty similar to Randy Wolf.

Boxberger and another Byrnes acquisition, righty Andrew Cashner, eventually could form the Padres’ late-inning relief tandem, and other prospects are coming — third baseman Jedd Gyorko, outfielder Jaff Decker, righty Miles Mikolas, etc.

The Latos trade jumped the Padres from eighth to third in Baseball America’s revised organization talent rankings, but the rap on the Pads is that their system lacks future stars.

The team is unlikely to sign free agents to plug the gaps, but eventually could pull off a Latos trade in reverse, using its wealth of prospects to acquire young impact players. Volquez, earning $2.2375 million, could have immediate value at the July 31 non-waiver deadline.

Just sayin' ...

 

The last time the Red Sox and Yankees both started 0-3, the Red Sox finished ninth and the Yankees 10th in a 10-team American League.

The Orioles won the AL and the World Series — and, ahem, now they’re off to a 3-0 start.

GREAT AMERICAN RACE

The Junior Circuit is poised for epic AL pennant chases this season.

No one should count on history to repeat, but in the interest of throwing a bone to all those perennially depressed Orioles fans, let’s point out some other connections.

Harry Dalton was the Orioles’ new GM in ’66. Like Dan Duquette, the present GM, he replaced a MacPhail — Hall of Famer Lee MacPhail, the father of Duquette’s predecessor, Andy MacPhail.

And who gave Duquette his start in baseball?

Dalton, his fellow Amherst alumnus, who later became the Brewers’ GM and hired Duquette as a scouting assistant in 1980.

Oh, and one other thing:

The Orioles this season are wearing new caps with an updated version of their classic cartoon bird.

The first year they wore the original?

1966.

Around the horn

 

• Maybe Cardinals manager Mike Matheny motivated shortstop Rafael Furcal by moving him out of the leadoff spot during the last week of spring training.

Furcal, who looked awful in the spring, went 10-for-19 with three doubles and a walk in the Cardinals’ first four games. The trick now is for him to stay healthy.

Mark Trumbo’s slow adjustment to third base could leave the Angels with two players displaced by the re-emergence of Kendrys Morales: Trumbo and Bobby Abreu.

Trumbo made three errors in his first three games, and the Angels have no other place for him if Pujols is at first and Morales is the full-time DH.

Abreu started in left field in game 2, but Scioscia won’t want to try that too often.

• A final observation: Blue Jays third baseman Brett Lawrie plays with such hair-raising intensity, he is the closest thing to Pete Rose in today’s game.

Tagged: Orioles, Red Sox, Angels, Indians, Tigers, Brewers, Rangers, Blue Jays, Cubs, Reds, Dodgers, Phillies, Cardinals, Padres, Giants, Marlins, Jon Garland, Adrian Gonzalez, Jose Reyes, Zack Greinke, Matt Holliday, Mike Adams, Corey Hart, Matt Cain, Prince Fielder, Edinson Volquez, Erick Aybar, Matt Kemp, Matt Garza, Hunter Pence, Mat Latos, Mark Trumbo

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