The annual Major League Baseball winter meetings are well under way and, as of this writing, the Chicago White Sox have made some waves while the Chicago Cubs have largely tread water. There's still most of a week ahead, though, so all of the stories have yet to be written, if even begun.
Therefore, instead of trying to cover every development and rumor that pours out of Twitter -- we have a StoryStream for that -- I thought I'd break out my jazz saxophone and riff on the Top Five Chicago-related story lines coming out of this year's meetings:
1. Pena & Paulie
As of this morning, Cubs GM Jim Hendry had spoken to uber-agent Scott Boras about acquiring the services of former Tampa Bay Rays first baseman Carlos Pena. The secret weapon in Hendry's back pocket (no, not literally): Special assistant to the GM, Greg Maddux (also a Boras client back in the day). My gut says Jimbo will go hard after Pena, with few other decent options on the table. Adam LaRoche is still a distinct possibility, though he's already expressed an open an interest in the Washington Nationals. Indeed, as of Wednesday morning, it appears as though Hendry has gotten his man.
Update: Oh, he got him!
Beyond that, you're looking at perhaps Lyle Overbay -- an older, unexciting yet defensively sound choice of whom I've read nothing other than fan discussion -- or maybe Nick Johnson, who was the subject of a brief rumor a week or two back but has also gotten little to no press. If Hendry loses out on Pena, he's going to have to get real creative and should expect a restless and frustrated fanbase to only get edgier and angrier heading into next month's Cubs Convention.
Kenny Williams, GM of the White Sox, ostensibly solved his first base dilemma by signing Adam Dunn. But sometimes things aren't what they appear. Immediately after the signing, Dunn told the press that he would be quite happy playing as the designated hitter as long as the Sox were a winning team. So, assuming manager Ozzie Guillen has any respect for the sanctity of defense, he will put and keep The Big Donkey in that role.
No, when it comes to first base, the Sox want Paul Konerko back. And that's the big story of the day. For a while there, it looked like the Arizona Diamondbacks might be big bidders for the right-handed-hitting first baseman. But Jon Morosi of Fox Sports this morning tweeted that the 'Zona doesn't have the cash, which would appear to leave no one but the White Sox. But not so fast -- word on the Twitterverse (Twittersphere?) is that Konerko is asking for as much as $15 million a year. Signing him for that amount would keep the Sox from being effective bidders in the relief pitcher market. Plus, Morosi tweets, they're not the only team making a multi-year offer after all -- the Texas Rangers could well be that mystery club.
Update: KW messed with Texas and Paulie shall return.
2. Coaches & Captains
For many Cubs fans, the exit of nine-year veteran pitching coach Larry Rothschild came as a surprise. His move from the Chi to the Big Apple came about rather quickly and brought a mixed reaction. There have been some notable pitching success stories on the North Side during his tenure, some failures, plenty of injuries and a lot of nibbling around the plate. The New York Yankees probably wouldn't have hired him to work with a somewhat trouble staff (A.J. Burnett, Joba Chamberlain) if he hadn't maintained his reputation as one of the big league's best.
This week the Cubs announced his replacement: Mark Riggins, former Cubs minor league pitching coordinator as well as a former pitching coach for the St. Louis Cardinals (asked to vacate the spot when Dave "The Miracle Worker" Duncan was hired). Yes, that's the state of the winter meetings for the Cubs. Naming their pitching coach is, thus far (and no disrespect to the recently re-signed utility player Jeff Baker), the most notable thing to actually happen. Now fans are left to wonder whether Riggins will help or hurt a starting staff that threw fairly well last season under Rothschild as well as a bullpen that, slowly but surely, turned things around as well. With the departure of Lou Piniella, Alan Trammell and Rothschild, the Cubs' coaching staff has truly gone from tenured veterans to gritty organizational fellows.
For the White Sox, the coaching staff is well-ensconced. The only leadership-related story to come out of the meetings so far is manager Ozzie Guillen's announcement that, if Konerko isn't re-signed, he won't name a new team captain because there's no one worthy. It seems like A.J. Pierzynski, proud owner of a new two-year deal, would be the ideal candidate. But maybe A.J. is too much of a rebel at heart to be a team captain.
3. Putz & the 'Pens
He gone! J.J. Putz has signed a two-year deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks, which includes a club option for a third year. This hurts the Sox in a couple of ways: It obviously weakens the pen, as Putz was one of the better right-handed set-up guys in baseball in 2010. Also, as noted above, it puts more pressure on them to keep payroll costs in check while negotiating with Paul Konerko. On the plus side, the Sox do get a compensation draft pick.
There was a rumor that Kenny Williams had shifted his gaze to -- gasp! -- former Cubs starter/closer Kerry Wood as a bullpen option. If Woody were to don a Sox uniform, it would create quite a kerfuffle in the intracity rivalry. But those rumors were being shot down as this post went to press. Naturally, there have been other rumors that the Cubs are also considering him -- Wood and Hendry reportedly remain friends.
From there, it's anyone's guess what sort of pen additions either team makes. One interesting option for either team would be former Washington Nationals reliever Joel Peralta. Granted, he'll be 35 on opening day, but the right-hander seemed to inexplicably figure something out in 2010, putting up stellar numbers out of the pen. A season-long luck streak may have been a factor, but he was nontendered and is presumably free for the taking. The oft-injured strikeout specialist and former Cub Rich Harden is also available. I can't help wonder whether, at this point in his career, he make the effort to convert himself to a reliever and put those Ks (and more limited innings) to best use.
4. The Return of Lou
Admittedly, this is a Cubs-centric storyline. But an interesting one nonetheless. Former North Side manager Lou Piniella officially resurfaced today. Taking questions at a press conference and looking slimmer and better rested than in his managerial days. In a Sun-Times article from yesterday (Monday), Piniella refuted the notion that he quit on the Cubs and cited the recent deaths of his uncle and Yankees owner George Steinbrenner as blows to his psyche. He, of course, was already closely involved with the care of his ailing mother, which Piniella eventually pointed to as the chief cause of his early retirement from baseball.
It sounds to me like Lou's contract with the Cubs simply went one year too long. And that's neither his nor the organization's fault. In 2010, Piniella was suddenly confronted and overwhelmed by his own mortality and could no longer focus on my job. So he stepped down. Sure, some fans will probably always pose the hypothetical: What if the Cubs had been in contention? But, for better or worse, that was never really a concern. Many still expect Lou to wind up as a consultant for the Yankees but, as of yet, no such arrangement has been formally announced. "I'm enjoying what I'm doing," Piniella said today. "Which is nothing."
5. Money, money, money
A last storyline to come out of this year's Winter Meetings is money. Although the economy is showing some signs of improving, the jury is still out on whether we're actually in a full-blown recovery. Nonetheless, MLB teams came out
swinging spending for the fences this off-season. Victor Martinez got the first really big deal. Earlier this week, Jason Werth got a monster contract from the Nationals. Derek Jeter, of course, got his next boatload of Yankees cash. And Cliff Lee will almost certainly break someone's bank. Whether it's real or not, boom times are back in baseball.
For the Sox, as mentioned, the booming market could hamper their efforts to bring Paulie back into the fold. But they've still got the young Dayan Viciedo as a low-cost option at first base. (And even Adam Dunn if they want to go that route.) They could also give a veteran such as Lyle Overbay a one-year deal while Viciedo gets another year of (presumably) big league experience. And the team's payroll flexibility allowed it to strike early in snagging one of the biggest names of the off-season in Dunn as well as resolving their backstop uncertainty with the Pierzynski deal. The unloading of the disappointing Scott Linebrink (which helped pay for A.J.) was also a strong, decisive and beneficial move.
For the Cubs, it could well turn out to be yet another instance of bad timing. The team, still hamstrung by several high-cost deals and run by an ownership still heavily in debt from the purchase of the club, simply may not have the ready cash to swing the big deals that the market is demanding right now. So it's going to require quite a bit of creativity from Jim Hendry to do anything truly earth-shaking.