The Chicago Cubs aren’t messing around. If that wasn’t clear already, the first day of Major League Baseball’s winter meetings in San Diego brought it into sharp, undeniable focus. 

Chicago kicked things off by signing free-agent starter Jason Hammel to a two-year, $18 million deal, per Jon Morosi of Fox Sports.

That’d be the same Jason Hammel the Cubs inked last offseason, then traded to the Oakland Athletics as part of a deadline deal that also sent Jeff Samardzija to the East Bay in exchange for a package of prospects including 2012 first-rounder Addison Russell. 

Hammel went 8-5 with a 2.98 ERA for the Cubs in 2014 but faltered after the trade, posting a 2-6 record and 4.26 ERA with the A’s. Chicago is certainly hoping the 32-year-old right-hander will benefit from a change to familiar scenery.

Hammel, though, was merely an appetizer. The main dish remains Jon Lester, Hammel’s teammate in Oakland last season after he came over in a trade from the Boston Red Sox.

The 30-year-old southpaw is arguably the most coveted arm on the market and is reportedly close to signing with one of several suitors, including the Cubs.

In fact, according to Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal, Lester is “choosing between” Chicago and the San Francisco Giants. Lester’s agent, Seth Levinson, later shot down that report, per Rob Bradford of

Either way, the Cubs are unequivocally in the mix.

Even if they miss out on Lester, Chicago’s aim is obvious: The club that finished dead last in its division with a 73-89 record last season intends to finish first next year.

That’s not mere speculation; Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein said as much.

“Our goal in 2015 is to win the National League Central,” Epstein announced on Oct. 11, per‘s Carrie Muskat. “It felt good to say that.”

Saying it is one thing, doing it is another. 

But Epstein is committed, if you believe Rosenthal:

Oh, right, Montero. As in Miguel Montero, the veteran Arizona Diamondbacks catcher. Morosi reported that the Cubs and D-Backs were “discussing” a Montero trade, though’s Jerry Crasnick later added that the swap wasn’t “close to fruition.”

Montero, who posted a .243/.329/.370 slash line with 13 home runs last year, would certainly provide a steadying influence in the young Chicago locker room. Think of him as a poor man’s Russell Martin, another seasoned backstop for whom the Cubs “rolled out the red carpet,” according to Bruce Levine of CBS Chicago

Martin, of course, ultimately signed with the Toronto Blue Jays, which would make Montero a decent consolation prize.

But let’s talk about the other part of Rosenthal’s tweet, the bit about pursuing a “big bat.”

Many of the big bats are already off the market. Pablo Sandoval, Victor Martinez, Hanley Ramirez, Nelson Cruz—they’ve all been snatched up.

The best available offense at this point is on the trading block, guys like Matt Kemp of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Justin Upton of the Atlanta Braves. Neither has been linked to the Cubs, but Chicago, with its deep farm system, certainly has the chips to swing a deal.

Upton and Kemp are both outfielders, and as CSN Chicago‘s Tony Andracki noted Oct. 17, “on paper, it looks like the Cubs could have their starting outfield set for 2015″ with youngsters like Jorge Soler, Chris Coghlan and Arismendy Alcantara. 

But, Andracki adds, “that doesn’t mean Theo Epstein’s front office will stop looking for upgrades.”

That’s maybe the biggest takeaway from Day 1 of the winter meetings. Three years after he took the helm of the Cubs—the most historically hapless franchise in professional sports—Epstein is making his move.

He sent the message early in the offseason, nabbing manager Joe Maddon after the highly regarded skipper opted out of his deal with the Tampa Bay Rays. Now he seems determined to solidify it in San Diego.

The players Chicago lands (and the ones it misses out on) don’t matter as much as the overriding message: The Cubs have their eyes on the 2015 postseason. They refuse to accept defeat, let alone mediocrity. 


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