Locked out of high-roller room, Cubs play penny slots at Vegas winter meetings

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LAS VEGAS — On the final day of the winter meetings Thursday, the Cubs finally landed three pitchers and a catcher.

Good luck recognizing any of the names — or seeing them at Wrigley Field anytime soon.

They came in the forms of three minor-leaguers selected in the Class AAA portion of the Rule 5 draft Thursday and minor-league left-handed reliever Conor Lillis-White, who was acquired from the Angels to complete the Tommy La Stella trade.

Just like that, the Cubs finished what might have been their least-active winter meetings since players were locked out in 1994.

Not that they promised much going into the weeklong event at the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Resort with budget limitations for a payroll that already figures to exceed $200 million for the first time in franchise history before adding any players.

Blame the unproductive free-agent contracts given out last year to Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood and Brandon Morrow. Or blame an ownership family that has produced staggering revenue and franchise-value increases in recent years but stopped short of putting its financial boot on the necks of rivals this winter.

Either way, the Cubs go into the final eight weeks of the offseason with their roster looking no better than it did during the last eight weeks.

Meanwhile, two division rivals that finished behind them each of the last three years are pushing hard to catch up, with the Cardinals trading for Paul Goldschmidt and the Reds trading for starting pitcher Tanner Roark — and both still looking to add.

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Meanwhile, a Cubs team that has averaged 97 wins the last four years and seeks desperately to bounce back from a quick playoff exit waits out the second-tier reliever market and looks for bench help on a budget.

Solutions are limited, with some of the biggest contracts on the books all but impossible to move (Darvish, Jason Heyward) and some of the more appealing players (Javy Baez, Kris Bryant) too valuable to realistically consider trading.

“I guess a move like that only makes sense in concert with other things that make us better,” general manager Jed Hoyer said this week. “In general, we feel like we had a 95-win team last year and didn’t feel like things clicked, and we know we have a lot of guys that can perform better.

“So for us to start moving pieces around the board, it has to make a lot of sense, whether that helps us financially or not.”

So say hello to Lillis-White, 26, who produced a 3.50 ERA and 12.3 strikeouts per nine innings between Class AAA and AA last year.

And to the players the Cubs selected in the minor-league phase of the Rule 5 draft: left-hander Luis Lugo, 24, from the Indians; catcher Rafelin Lorenzo, 21, from the Pirates, and right-hander Alexander Vargas, 21, from the Yankees.

The Cubs also lost two in the minor-league phase: Class AA-AAA right-hander David Garner, 26, to the Blue Jays, and Class A left-hander Yapson Gomez, 25, to the Indians.

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