May 23, 2013
Pittsburgh Pirates' Andrew McCutchen (22) is greeted by teammate Neil Walker (18) while returning to the dugout after scoring on a single by Pirates' Garrett Jones during the first inning of a baseball game against the Chicago Cubs in Pittsburgh, Wednesday, May 22, 2013. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Last winter, the Cubs made an aggressive run at the best closer in the National League right now.
“It was a tough choice,” Jason Grilli said.
But Grilli turned down “a little bit more money” to re-sign with the Pittsburgh Pirates instead of Theo Epstein’s Cubs.
The best center fielder in the league also is a guy Cubs’ brass identified as a possible long-term target once he reached free agency in a couple of years — until Andrew McCutchen signed a six-year extension with the Pirates before last season.
“I didn’t want to be anywhere else,” McCutchen said Wednesday, before doubling twice and scoring the only run against Cubs ace Jeff Samardzija in the Pirates’ 1-0 victory at PNC Park.
What in the name of Honus Wagner is going on around here?
Since when do the Cubs routinely lose players — free agents or otherwise — to the Pirates? Wasn’t it only 10 years ago that Jim Hendry fleeced the Pirates to acquire a young Aramis Ramirez for marginal prospects because the Pirates needed to shed payroll?
Now exciting young players such as McCutchen — who was in kindergarten the last time the Pirates had a winning season — don’t want to go anywhere else?
“I’ve seen us moving in the right direction and getting better every day,” McCutchen said. “That’s something I wanted to be a part of.”
As if it weren’t bad enough that the Cubs stare up in the NL Central standings when they looked across the field at the Pirates this week.
Welcome to the new, upside-down age of baseball economics — in which new revenues across the game have fueled the trend of locking up young players long before their free-agency years.
The Cubs’ economic advantages have been wiped out in part by the industry-wide growth and in larger part by the MLB-high debt that new ownership assumed with its 2009 purchase.
The Cubs’ spending power has decreased just as most teams’ spending power has increased. And premium free agents in their 20s aren’t reaching the market anyway.
Go ahead, Branch Rickey, try to rebuild a ballclub now, before losing your fan base.
The result is playing out this week in Pittsburgh, where the Cubs’ $1.35-million free agent reliever Shawn Camp gave up a decisive grand slam Tuesday — about an hour before Grilli converted his 18th save in as many chances to beat the Cubs.
Grilli said he “definitely” considered the Cubs last winter and sounded impressed with Epstein’s pitch and vision.
But after spending last season in Pittsburgh, playing for manager Clint Hurdle, in spectacular PNC Park and coming close to ending that streak of losing seasons, Grilli couldn’t see leaving — not even for Chicago, not even for more money, no matter how smart all those guys in the Cubs’ front office are.
“There’s a lot going on here in this organization that I wanted to continue to be a part of,” he said.
“I don’t want to have to face Andrew McCutchen for God’s sake,” he added. “There’s a lot of good players and a lot of talent in this organization. It really excited me because I got to see it with my own eyes. A lot of teams that used to look at this organization and team as a doormat can’t do that anymore.
“I want to win. I want to do something special. I was part of Detroit winning [in 2006]. And I can’t imagine, if we can pull of the magic that once was here in Pittsburgh, I think people will be swinging from the Clemente Bridge and all kinds of stuff.”
Didn’t players used to say that about the Cubs?