Cubs rotation picture coming into focus

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Cubs rotation picture coming into focus

MESA, Ariz. You cant do instant analysis here, not when some regulars are showered and out the door before the game ends.

But if you listen closely and observe, you can slowly see the picture coming into focus. The Cubs have two spots open in their rotation, and thats the biggest roster story still to be written this spring.

Staring down at the clubhouse carpet, Travis Wood was definitely feeling a sense of urgency after getting one out in Wednesdays 10-2 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers in front of 11,682 fans at HoHoKam Stadium.

Its typical to say its early, working out all the kinks, but its time to go, Wood said. I had two outings so far and neither one went as planned. So now its just time to get after it.

Wood is the promising 25-year-old left-hander acquired from the Cincinnati Reds in the Sean Marshall trade. He gave up six runs five earned on three hits and two walks. He didnt look particularly sharp in an intra-squad scrimmage (six runs) or a start against the White Sox.

These are absurdly small sample sizes, but its the middle of March and significant cuts will be coming after this weekends trip to Las Vegas. Major decisions will have to be made.

Randy Wells helped his cause by throwing three scoreless innings against the Brewers. He had also bailed Wood out of a bases-loaded jam against the White Sox last week by getting Paul Konerko to ground into an inning-ending double play.

You guys keep asking the same question, Wells said. For every guy, you cant really think about it. If you do, its going to eat at you and one bad outings going to get in your head. I dont think you can worry about that.

For the most part, these guys are pretty good talent evaluators. Thats why theyre in (this) position. If guys can go out and work on things and get better each day, then its going to be a tough decision on them. You cant sit here and really try to play a managerial game behind the scenes.

(When) its our turn to pitch, we pitch and see what happens.

Wells is used to having to fight for a spot in the rotation. There is a reasonable expectation of knowing what youd get as long as he stays healthy. Hes 27-30 with a 4.01 ERA in 500-plus innings in the big leagues, a very capable fifth starter whos probably been overlooked.

Deep down, the Cubs see so much upside in Chris Volstad (32-39, 4.59 ERA), whos 25 years old, 6-foot-8 and a former first-round pick. Hes already thrown six scoreless innings in the Cactus League. The South Florida native is viewed as a classic change-of-scenery guy after being traded from the Miami Marlins in the Carlos Zambrano deal.

Its also hard to ignore the glowing praise manager Dale Sveum has repeatedly used to describe Jeff Samardzijas game. At 6-foot-5, 225 pounds, the Cubs feel like his bodys designed to handle 200 innings. He has swing-and-miss stuff and team officials think he can use last season (8-4, 2.97 ERA) as a springboard.

Quietly, Rodrigo Lopez has thrown four scoreless innings and worked on the slider that made him a 15-game winner with the Baltimore Orioles. The 36-year-old right-hander wound up being good insurance last season (6-6, 4.42 ERA) and the new front office made pitching depth a priority.

Outside of Samardzija who seems likely to be ticketed for the rotation Sveum has said that he doesnt think any of the starting candidates would fit at the back end of the bullpen as the second setup man.

That power-arm void isnt going to be used against Samardzija he will be given every opportunity to earn a job in the rotation.

Needs not going to dictate the decision, Sveum said. Anybodys need is always starting pitching.

Cubs: Jason Heyward ready to put wrist issue behind him

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Cubs: Jason Heyward ready to put wrist issue behind him

Jason Heyward's name wasn't in the starting lineup Thursday, but he said he was preparing for the game as if he were playing, testing his injured right wrist with batting practice and cage work.

Apparently batting practice went well.

Heyward entered Thursday's game before the fourth inning, taking over in center field after Dexter Fowler was thrown out of the game for arguing balls and strikes with home-plate umpire Vic Carapazza.

Joe Maddon said the Cubs' plan was to see how batting practice went and evaluate from there, but all parties were planning on a return to the lineup in Friday's game before extenuating circumstances precipated a change Thursday evening.

Heyward missed the entire three-game series in Pittsburgh, but watched his teammates dominate the second-place Pirates without their Opening Day right fielder, left fielder (Kyle Schwarber) and catcher (Miguel Montero).

"When we lose guys, having other people come up and still do that, that's awesome," Heyward said. "I feel like those are building blocks for what can make a very special season — when people go down and other guys get reps when they're not expecting to get reps. They don't take 'em for granted. Getting everybody involved is a good thing."

Heyward said he initially hurt his wrist while doing tee work in spring training and had just been dealing with it since then.

The 26-year-old outfielder entered play Thursday hitting just .211 with a .573 OPS, but refused to use his wrist as an excuse.

"I don't like to not play," Heyward said. "It just got to a point where I was like, 'Hey, I should say something and get some extra help.' Now it's good because I can come in and get treated for it."

Heyward is playing under the biggest contract in Cubs history (eight years, $184 million) and undoubtedly wanted to prove himself to a new team and new city.

He missed just 21 games across the last two seasons, hitting .281 with a .766 OPS in the process.

Heyward had been hitting better of late, going 10-for-20 with two doubles and five RBI in the last five games of the Cubs' road trip in late April. 

But then he went hitless in the rain-shortened homestand against the Milwaukee Brewers and Atlanta Braves, going 0-for-17 with two walks. However, he did have a bunch of hard-hit balls, just right at defenders.

Still, he and the Cubs deemed it time to get some rest.

"It's tough [to know when to take a couple days off]," Heyward admitted. "But I know it's not a ligament [issue]. You know your body. The way I did it — it wasn't running into a wall or anything like that. It was just working hard in the cage.

"I want to play. I know I needed to play, especially at that time — it was so early. I know it's still early, but at that time, we weren't 20-6.

"It was just a matter of — is it going to help the team? Is it going to help me to get it calmed down sooner? I think it was a good time to do so."

Cubs ring in Cinco de Mayo with a mariachi band in the clubhouse

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Cubs ring in Cinco de Mayo with a mariachi band in the clubhouse

You could hear the Cubs clubhouse well before walking into the new state-of-the-art facility.

On Cinco de Mayo, of course Joe Maddon's Cubs would have a live mariachi band - complete with a Cubs jersey - performing as players geared up for a showdown with the NL East-leading Washington Nationals.

What were you expecting - Maddon wearing a sombrero?

"I can confirm I won't be wearing a sombrero in the dugout," Maddon joked before Thursday's game.

Fresh off their "Minimalist Zany" suit trip that included a sweep of the second-place Pittsburgh Pirates, the Cubs are feeling themselves quite a bit, so the mariachi band actually fit right in.

Plus, it made for a pregame moment Maddon said he'll remember forever.

"I was partially serenaded in the video room," Maddon said. "They were really good. My favorite moment was their solid rendition of 'Tequila' that was resonating throughout the entire clubhouse. 

"It's something I'll probably never forget - hearing a mariachi band playing 'Tequila' and your boys really participating pregame. That was kinda fun."

Maybe if the Cubs win Thursday, they'll celebrate with shots of Patrón.

Here's to hoping they dump the contents of a margarita machine onto a players' head during the CSN postgame interview. It'll be just like the "slime" on Nickelodeon.

White Sox say farewell to David Ortiz: 'There will never be another one like him'

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White Sox say farewell to David Ortiz: 'There will never be another one like him'

He has been described as a pain in the ass, one of a kind, a great hitter and RBI man and a dynamic player, one they’d love to never face again.

Yet you’d be hard pressed to find anyone in the White Sox clubhouse who thinks baseball will be better off without David Ortiz, who is playing in his final regular season at U.S. Cellular Field on Thursday night.

Ortiz, who homered for the Boston Red Sox and drove in three runs in a Wednesday night victory, announced before the season that 2016 would be his final one. Prior to Thursday’s contest, the White Sox presented Ortiz with cigars and a humidor as a retirement gift.

“I personally believe there will never be another one like him,” White Sox catcher Dioner Navarro said. “He was literally out of baseball and then he figured stuff out, he did it and he’s been nothing but wonderful to the game.”

Ortiz has been one of the sport’s most popular figures for nearly a decade — unless you’re an opposing pitcher. Carlos Rodon learned on Wednesday night what Ortiz, 40, can do to mistake fastballs, a lesson previously learned by 508 pitching victims.

Somehow, White Sox closer David Robertson has never surrendered a homer to Ortiz despite facing him 15 times in his career. Robertson has got the best of a majority of their meetings, holding Ortiz to a .214/.267/.286 slash line with only three hits in 14 at-bats. But it doesn’t make it easier when they do battle, Robertson said.

“He’s been a pain in the ass,” Robertson said. “He’s been that powerful left-handed bat that you just don’t want to see late in the game. He’s been an exceptional hitter who’s smart in the box. He’s just a deadly threat every time he comes to the plate.

“I just feel like it’s a dog fight every time I face him. He knows everything I’ve got and I know where he can hit it. I hope I come out on top.”

White Sox reliever Zach Duke has only faced Ortiz three times. But he knows the book on Ortiz and has even more respect after “Big Papi” dribbled a run-scoring single through a vacated hole in the White Sox shift on Wednesday night for an insurance run. Duke could see that Ortiz wanted to hit the ball to the left side earlier in the at-bat. So the left-hander tried to get a fastball inside on Ortiz’s quick hands and the slugger still managed to get inside of the pitch enough to bounce it into left field.

“He’s going to take what you give him in those situations because he wants the RBI,” Duke said. “He’s got that kind of ability to exploit whatever defenses give him. I could tell he was trying to do it on the breaking ball before it, he was even trying to shoot that the other way. I’m like ‘All right, I need to give him the heater’ and he got inside of that still. Tip my hat.”

But the bat is only part of Ortiz’s lure.

He’s not just a great player, one who has helped the Red Sox win three World Series titles. Players think Ortiz is a fantastic spokesperson and ambassador for baseball because he clearly enjoys the game and it shows.

White Sox manager Robin Ventura agreed with that assessment, noting baseball is better off in part because of Ortiz.

“He’s been a dynamic player, another case for a (designated hitter) who’s going to make it into the Hall of Fame because he’s had such an impact on every game he’s been in, in the lineup, where he’s at, playoff games, clutch moments,” Ventura said. “All those things and the Boston Strong thing. He can speak, too. He’s had a lot of important moments in Boston. It transcends a lot of things in our game.

“He means a lot of things to a lot of people.”