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Report: Cubs meet with Russell Martin

Cubs president Theo Epstein said it when they signed manager Joe Maddon to a five-year contract: Their first free agent acquisition (Maddon) might help them recruit others in their quest to contend next year.

MLB.com’s Cubs beat reporter Carrie Muskat quoted Epstein on that topic in Chicago’s Hot Stove preview, and a few paragraphs later mentioned veteran catcher Russell Martin as a potential target.

It appears the Cubs are getting to work quickly.

Bruce Levine of CBS Chicago reported Friday morning that the Cubs “rolled out the red carpet” as they met with Martin on Thursday.

Martin would obviously be a huge acquisition for the Cubs, but Levine writes that he and his agent will also meet with the Pirates, Martin’s former team, as well as the Dodgers (another one of his former employers) and Blue Jays.

Martin hit .290/.402/.430 with 11 homers and 67 RBIs in 111 games for Pittsburgh last season. The 31-year-old backstop also provides a valuable presence behind the plate, as the advanced defensive metrics suggest he saved 28 runs over the past two seasons.

Martin likely will come with a high price tag. Catcher Brian McCann signed a five-year, $85 million deal with the Yankees entering his age-30 season, if you’re looking for a potential comparison.

The Cubs are definitely in the market for another starting pitcher this offseason, and they’ll be connected to high-profile names like Jon Lester and Max Scherzer. Will that pitcher take the mound at Wrigley Field with Martin behind the plate?

-Adam Berry

Giants focused on Sandoval as offseason begins

Now that the celebration of the Giants’ third World Series championship in five years is dying down, it’s time for general manager Brian Sabean and his staff to turn their attention toward making another postseason run.

For starters, that means deciding whether they will — or can — hang on to third baseman Pablo Sandoval.

MLB.com Giants beat reporter Chris Haft has a great rundown of the situation after speaking to Sabean, manager Bruce Bochy and team president Larry Baer at San Francisco’s annual end-of-season news conference.

It’s telling that Haft writes the majority of the questions Thursday had to do with Sandoval and his future with the Giants. It’s an extremely important issue for the Giants this winter, one that will need to be dealt with before San Francisco can continue down its to-do list.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Sandoval’s agent said the third baseman is looking for a six-year deal, and CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman has reported Sandoval wants a nine-figure contract. So, you do the math and you figure the Panda is looking for six years and at least $17 million per year, if not more.

An important disclaimer: Players rarely wind up getting what they enter the offseason hoping for. Teams fill their holes, demand calms down and the prices tend to drop a bit with them. Most of the time, anyway.

But as this story notes, Sandoval is one of just five third basemen to produce at least two Wins Above Replacement in five of the past six seasons. For all the concerns about his weight and conditioning, he’s 28 years old and coming off a three-season run in which he hit .280/.335/.424 with an average of 14 homers and 72 RBIs per year. (We can probably consider Sandoval’s 2011 season — .315/.357/.552 with 23 homers — a very impressive outlier at this point.)

Yes, Sandoval will be in demand. Among the teams reportedly in need of a third baseman are the Red Sox (most often linked to Sandoval in various reports), White Sox, Marlins and Yankees (more likely to first pursue Chase Headley). He could also ease into a designated hitter role in the latter years of his deal with any American League team.

But keep in mind, as Haft’s story notes, the Giants don’t have an in-house alternative if Sandoval leaves San Francisco. And the Giants are also famously loyal to their players, particularly those who have led them to postseason success in each of their last three World Series runs.

Sandoval turned down a three-year, $40 million offer from the Giants this spring. Will they be able to work out something this offseason?

- Adam Berry

White Sox reportedly drawing interest in Ramirez

The White Sox are receiving plenty of interest regarding shortstop Alexei Ramirez, according to Bruce Levine of CBS Chicago, with three big-market teams in need of a shortstop — the Mets, Yankees and Dodgers — chief among them.

The Mets and White Sox would line up particularly well in a deal involving Ramirez, as Levine writes. The White Sox need right-handed starting pitching, and the Mets have young right-handed starters in abundance, including Noah Syndergaard and Rafael Montero.

In MLB.com’s Hot Stove preview, Mets beat writer Anthony DiComo mentioned that the Mets might give Wilmer Flores the job as everyday shortstop next season and seem hesitant to part with young pitchers like Syndergaard, Montero, Zack Wheeler and Jacob deGrom.

Ramirez, 33, is an intriguing target for all three of those teams, including the Mets, in part because of his affordable contract. He’s owed $10 million in 2015 with a $10 million option (or $1 million buyout) for 2016.

Ramirez has played exactly 158 games in each of the past four seasons. He hit .273/.305/.408 with 15 homers, 74 RBIs and 21 steals while making the AL All-Star team last year. He’s a career .277/.314/.405 hitter in seven years with the White Sox.

Of course, there are potential alternatives on the trade market (Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro, possibly) and a couple free agents, Hanley Ramirez and Asdrubal Cabrera, with questions about whether they can continue to man the position.

Ramirez likely would bring back a good package of talent for the White Sox, but they don’t necessarily have an in-house replacement in line until 2013 Draft pick Tim Anderson is ready.

MLB.com’s Scott Merkin ran through Chicago’s options with Ramirez at length last month.

-Adam Berry

Rays announce managerial candidates

The Rays announced a preliminary list of eight managerial candidates to interview on Thursday afternoon, an interesting mix of expected candidates with a few surprises thrown in. They hope to have a manager in place by the Winter Meetings. The full list:

Rays bench coach Dave Martinez
Triple-A Durham manager Charlie Montoyo
Former Nationals and Indians manager Manny Acta
Indians bullpen coach Kevin Cash
Former player Craig Counsell, currently a special assistant in the Brewers’ front office
Current/former player Raul Ibanez
Royals bench coach Don Wakamatsu
Giants bench coach Ron Wotus

“This is a preliminary list of candidates, and we expect it will grow as we continue through this process,” Rays president of baseball operations Matt Silverman said in a statement. “With a talented core of players and a strong clubhouse culture, our next manager will step into an enviable position. We will look for him to build upon that and take us to the next level.”

Martinez is the most obvious choice, given the time he spent alongside former Rays manager Joe Maddon. He knows the players, the front office and the other coaches. If Tampa Bay is going for continuity, he makes the most sense.

Montoyo, who’s worked in Tampa Bay’s farm system since 1997, was deservedly rewarded with an interview for the big-league job. He’s dealt with just about every player who’s come up with the Rays, won 633 games at the Triple-A level and captured seven division titles in eight years.

Wakamatsu is an interesting option. He managed the Mariners in 2009-10, coached for the Blue Jays and scouted for the Yankees before signing on as the American League champion Royals’ bench coach. Cash, a finalist for the Rangers job, is a Tampa native who spent some time with Tampa Bay during his playing career.

Acta and Wotus present different kinds of experience — Acta having managed in the Majors and Wotus having been on the Giants’ coaching staff since 1998 and their bench coach since 1999. Before that, he managed in San Francisco’s farm system from 1991-97. Wotus has been Bruce Bochy’s bench coach as the Giants won three of the last five World Series.

Counsell and Ibanez are perhaps the most surprising names on the list. Counsell retired in 2012 and is now a special assistant to Brewers GM Doug Melvin. Ibanez, reportedly being considered for the Yankees’ hitting coach job, is technically still an active player — he spent last season with the Angels and Royals.

-Adam Berry

Blue Jays reportedly interested in Angels’ Kendrick

The Blue Jays are desperate for infield help, and the Angels have plenty of depth at second base to deal from. Could that result in a deal?

According to Sportsnet Canada, the Blue Jays “have placed multiple calls” to inquire about the availability of Angels second baseman Howie Kendrick, who would answer a major question for Toronto heading into next season.

An important disclaimer: A team asking about a player doesn’t signify anything more than its interest. This time of year, teams aren’t doing their jobs if they don’t call to inquire about potential targets.

Kendrick, 31, is set to make $9.5 million in the final year of his contract with the Angels. He hit .293/.347/.397 with seven homers and 75 RBIs last season and totaled seven Defensive Runs Saved at second base.

Overall, according to Fangraphs.com, Kendrick was worth 4.6 Wins Above Replacement, tied with the Twins’ Brian Dozier for fifth among all Major League second basemen.

Second base has been a revolving door for Toronto lately, with Ryan Goins and Maicer Izturis taking their turns most recently. The Jays could use Brett Lawrie there, an experiment they’ve tried in the past, but then they’d have a hole at third base.

It remains to be seen what the Jays would be willing to give up in such a trade. MLB.com’s Gregor Chisolm reported recently that Toronto doesn’t want to move any of its young starters, obvious targets for the Angels. The Jays would be more likely to part with someone like lefty J.A. Happ, due $6.7 million, or veteran Mark Buehrle, due $19 million next season.

As MLB.com’s Alden Gonzalez wrote, the Angels could use an upgrade on their bench. With Gordon Beckham and Grant Green on board, the Angels have potential replacements in line for Kendrick.

-Adam Berry

Report: Rockies willing to listen on Tulo, CarGo

The Rockies might finally be willing to part ways with their two biggest stars, shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and outfielder Carlos Gonzalez.

Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports reported Wednesday night that the Rockies are “keeping their ‘eyes and ears open'” regarding trades involving Tulowitzki and Gonzalez. While that’s not a declaration that the Rockies are absolutely going to sell one or both players, it’s a change in tone for the club.

MLB.com’s Rockies reporter Thomas Harding indicated earlier this week that ownership is hesitant to move the two cornerstones, but according to Rosenthal, “team officials finally seem to have persuaded owner Dick Monfort to consider all possibilities.”

Both players are coming off season-ending surgeries, which presents an obvious challenge for the Rockies. Is this the best time to trade them — when their trade value is presumably less than what it could be — or should they wait until they’re obviously healthy? Not to mention the fact that their recent injuries make it a daunting task for any interested teams: How do you put together an offer without knowing exactly what you’re getting back in return?

With Tulo, are we talking about the best shortstop in baseball, or the injury-prone player who hasn’t played more than 126 games since 2011? Same goes for Gonzalez, who has only played 180 games over the last two seasons combined.

Their contracts could prove to be another obstacle. Gonzalez, 29, is owed $16 million in 2015, $17 million in ’16 and $20 million in ’17. Tulowitzki, who just turned 30, is still owed $20 million per year until 2019, with another $14 million in 2020 and a $15 million option (or $4 million buyout) in 2021.

Their injury histories and prohibitive contracts and the Rockies’ assumedly high asking price will limit the market of interested buyers. But both players are enormously talented, and for the first time, it seems like they might be a realistic option for interested teams.

-Adam Berry

Cardinals exercise option to keep Lackey

As expected, the Cardinals exercised their club option Thursday on right-hander John Lackey, keeping him on board for the 2015 season.

Lackey’s unique contract structure was one of the reasons St. Louis acquired Lackey at the Trade Deadline. With Lackey, the Cardinals inherited a deal with a stipulation that locked in Lackey at the Major League minimum salary for 2015 if he missed significant time due to injury during the five-year, $82.5 million pact he signed with the Red Sox.

Lackey sat out all of the 2012 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery, so that provision came into effect.

Lackey acknowledged that he would honor the last year of his contract after being dealt to St. Louis, meaning he is slated to play for a team-friendly salary of just more than $500,000 next year.

Lackey went 4-3 with a 4.15 ERA over 10 regular-season starts and two postseason starts for the Cardinals. The 36-year-old came to St. Louis in the deal that sent Allen Craig and Joe Kelly to Boston.

Red Sox sign Uehara to two-year deal

The Red Sox wasted little time in locking up closer Koji Uehara, announcing on Thursday that they have signed the right-handed reliever to a two-year contract through the 2016 season. Sources told MLB.com the deal is worth $18 million.

Uehara went 6-5 with a 2.52 ERA and 26 saves in 64 appearances last season. He didn’t allow a run in 53 of his outings on the year.

The 39-year-old right-hander struck out 80 batters, walked eight and served up 10 homers over 64 1/3 innings. He also was named to the American League All-Star team for the first time in his six-year career.

Boston signed Uehara to a two-year, $9.25 million contract in December 2012. He’s put together a 1.75 ERA in the two seasons since then, the best mark in club history with a minimum of 75 innings pitched.

In other Red Sox news, outfielder Rusney Castillo (right thumb contusion) will be held out for the remainder of the Arizona Fall League schedule and will not participate in any baseball activities for the time being. The club will determine a plan for Castillo to continue winter ball in the next few weeks.

Also, catcher David Ross and reliever Burke Badehop have elected free agency.

Reports continue to link Maddon, Cubs

It’s been exactly one week since Joe Maddon informed the Rays he was opting out of the final year of his contract, and it seems he’s close to finding a new home.

Rumors swirled before Game 7 of the World Series on Wednesday night that Maddon, who managed the Rays for nine seasons, was on the verge of agreeing to a deal to become the Cubs’ new manager. CBS Sports first broke the news, which was also reported by the New York Post.

Maddon’s agent, Alan Nero, denied that a deal was in place Wednesday night. The Cubs have not publicly commented on the reports. At the moment, Rick Renteria is still the Cubs’ manager.

“We don’t have a done deal,” Nero told MLB.com. “We continue to talk to several clubs. It’s not to say we won’t have a deal done in the next few days, and if we do, it will be announced.”

But given the amount of speculation that linked Maddon to the Cubs almost immediately after he invoked the opt-out clause in his contract with the Rays, it seems like it’s only a matter of time until Maddon joins the North Siders.

In fact, Fox Sports and MLB Network insider Ken Rosenthal tweeted Thursday evening that an official announcement could come as early as Friday.

Maddon had been signed to a three-year deal with the Rays that ran through the 2015 season. Former executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman left the Rays to join the Dodgers on Oct. 14, triggering an opt-out clause in Maddon’s contract.

Maddon invoked that opt-out clause, although principal owner Stuart Sternberg said the Rays attempted “diligently and aggressively” to sign Maddon to another contract extension. President of baseball operations Matt Silverman said last week the Rays made several “very generous” offers to try to keep Maddon on board, “and it became clear from his responses it was not an exercise that was going to lead to an outcome.”

Renteria released the following statement Monday afternoon: “I was hired nearly a year ago to be the Chicago Cubs manager. Notwithstanding all the speculation, I continue to focus my offseason preparation on achieving the goal we established from the start: bringing a championship to Chicago.”

The Rays, meanwhile, will continue to look for their next manager. They could have a list of candidates in place next week.

Rays’ Zobrist ‘can’t imagine anything being broke up’

ST. PETERSBURG — With David Price standing in the local and national spotlight prior to Thursday’s non-waiver Trade Deadline, Ben Zobrist has almost flown under the radar.

But he’s been the subject of many trade rumors, and he’s shown lately why he’s such an interesting target.

Zobrist hit a game-tying homer and a go-ahead double in the Rays’ 5-1 win over the Brewers on Tuesday, improving Tampa Bay’s record to 53-54. The Rays were 24-42 through June 10, and they’re a win Wednesday away from being the fourth team in Major League history to fall to 18 games below .500 and return to that mark.

Nobody’s ever overcome that deficit and reached the postseason. The Rays believe they can. While everyone’s been talking about how the Rays are playing to keep Price, manager Joe Maddon insists their goal is even loftier.

“Yeah, we’re playing for the World Series. That’s our objective. It’s been from Day 1. For me, it’s to get to the playoffs and to win the World Series,” Maddon said. “I’m telling you, we’re one of the best teams in the American League. Our record is not reflecting it yet, but if we keep playing like this, it soon shall. There’s a lot of time left.”

But is there a lot of time left for players like Price and Zobrist? Price is slated to start Wednesday’s 12:10 p.m. ET game, unsure where he’ll make the start after that but ready for an answer.

CBSSports.com’s Jon Heyman reported Tuesday that the Rays are “talking and willing” to deal Price despite the Rays winning 11 of their last 12 and 29 of 41 since June 11. It makes sense: If Tampa Bay was willing to consider trading Price this offseason — when they were zero games out of any race — why not do so now when the odds aren’t as favorable?

“This is the team we are. We knew that this was the team we could be in Spring Training. It just took a long time for it to show up,” Zobrist said. “I don’t think we’re ever going to return to the way we were playing prior to June 11.”

Back to Zobrist. He’s hitting .344/.440/.563 (33-for-96) with four homers and 15 RBIs since June 28. He’s drawn 15 walks and only struck out six times this month. He’s dealt with fewer questions from reporters about his future than Price has, but he’s also performing like someone who wants to talk Andrew Friedman’s front office out of a sell-off.

The Rays likely will continue to assess their chances right up to the Deadline. But Price, Zobrist and Co. have made a compelling argument to stay.

“We’ve been playing so well that I haven’t been worrying about it too much. I think right now, it’s just so much fun to play with this club that it’s like, I can’t imagine anything being broke up at this point,” Zobrist said. “We seem to be a very, very good team in August and September. If history dictates anything, we’re going to continue to play the way that we can play for the last two months of the season.”

-Adam Berry

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