Does Fielder signing affect Cubs-Tigers trade rumors?

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Does Fielder signing affect Cubs-Tigers trade rumors?

Now that Prince Fielder has inked a megadeal with the Tigers, what does that mean for the Cubs?

For one, it just assures the NL Central will be without the slugger until at least the end of his prime (barring a trade or opt-out clause in the contract). It's great for the Cubs that they won't have to face Albert Pujols or Fielder in 60 or so at-bats each season. Maybe that will be enough to bring Cubs pitchers back down a more respectable level in 2012 after a less-than-stellar '11 season.

The Fielder deal also affects the trade market for certain Cubs.

For one, the Tigers were one of the teams allegedly in big on Matt Garza. It hasn't worked out that way so far and with all the money thrown at Fielder, Detroit needs cheap pitching. The Tigers currently don't have a surefire No. 5 starter without turning to a rookie -- like Jacob Turner, whom the Cubs wanted as the centerpiece of a deal for Garza.

Garza will earn at least 7.95 million in arbitration for 2012, which is awfully expensive to a team that will pay three separate guys at least 20 million in 2012 as well as Victor Martinez 13 million to sit on the disabled list all year. If Garza wins arbitration and his '12 contract is 12.5 million, that may count out the Tigers completely.

Detroit GM Dave Dombrowski vehemently denied any interest in trading for Garza before, but he also denied any interest in Fielder and look what happened there. It's possible Garza is still on the table, but maybe not for Turner, according to Dan Dickerson, the radio voice of the Tigers. Check out the video on the right for more from Dickerson.

The Fielder signing also probably puts the Tigers out on possible Alfonso Soriano or Marlon Byrd trades. There really haven't been any rumors here -- only speculation -- but there's no way the Tigers would want to take on either of these guys' contracts, even if the Cubs eat some money.

If Detroit moves Miguel Cabrera to third base and plays Prince Fielder at first, they would still have an opening at DH, but Byrd or Soriano probably aren't good fits, if only for their price.

Mets hammer Jason Hammel, picking up where they left off against Cubs last October

Mets hammer Jason Hammel, picking up where they left off against Cubs last October

NEW YORK — Cubs fans created a happy-to-be-here vibe during last year’s surprising playoff ride — and also booed Jason Hammel at Wrigley Field in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series.

While this didn’t fit John Lackey’s classic definition of a “Big Boy Game,” the New York Mets again crushed Hammel and dominated the Cubs during Friday night’s 10-2 blowout at Citi Field, reopening questions about that breakdown last October.

Hammel gave up 10 runs across four-plus innings in a game that technically ended on Saturday morning and didn’t have any flow with three separate rain delays that lasted one hour and 59 minutes combined. While Cubs Twitter wondered about the possibility of another second-half fade, Hammel shrugged his shoulders after his ERA soared from 2.58 to 3.45 on July 1.

“Where do you start?” Hammel said at his locker. “Always try to get to new levels in your career, you know, set career highs, so got a couple of those taken care of.

“I’m just going to let this one disappear. I’m almost lost for words just because of how bad it was.

“Tomorrow’s a new day, and this game always has a way of basically humoring you and also humbling you at the same time. I’m not even going to sweat it. Obviously, not happy that we lost. But I’m not going to let it beat me up.”

[MORE CUBS TALK: With lineup trending in wrong direction, Cubs see issues Mets exposed in NLCS]

Hammel wouldn’t use the weather as an excuse for his lack of rhythm — “Mother Nature is Mother Nature” — and pointed out it didn’t disrupt Jacob deGrom (4-4, 2.62 ERA), who allowed one run across five innings and finally got enough offensive support to earn his first win since April 30.

The Mets blasted five homers off Hammel, including back-to-back shots from James Loney (an injury replacement who had been with the San Diego Padres’ Triple-A affiliate in late May) and Asdrubal Cabrera in the second inning, Brandon Nimmo’s first in The Show and another lightning-quick swing from Yoenis Cespedes.

Against a team desperate for offense, Hammel matched a franchise record — this was only the sixth time in club history that a single Cubs pitcher gave up five home runs in a game.

After an offseason reboot, the Cubs hoped Hammel 2.0 would be a more sustainable model. The sign-and-flip guy had gone 8-5 with a 2.98 ERA through 17 starts in 2014 before getting packaged with Jeff Samardzija in the Addison Russell trade with the Oakland A’s (where he went 2-6 with a 4.26 ERA).

The punctuation to that NLCS sweep — getting four outs in an 8-3 elimination loss to the Mets — seemingly began with a leg injury that messed with Hammel’s mechanics and confidence and divided his season into before (2.86 ERA in 103-plus innings) and after (5.10 ERA in 67 innings) the All-Star break.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Everyone has off nights, Hammel has performed at an All-Star level for long stretches throughout his career and the Cubs (51-28) still have the best record in baseball and a 10-game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals in the division.

But with all these young power pitchers, Cespedes in the middle of their lineup, lights-out closer Jeurys Familia and a resourceful front office, the Mets (42-37) aren’t going to concede the pennant just because the Cubs won the offseason, lead the league in T-shirts and have an awesome run differential.

“Over the course of 162 games, you’re going to have your ups and downs,” Hammel said. “You try to make those few and far between, but they’re going to happen.

“As long as you don’t take it with you for the next day, it’s not going to effect us at all.”

With lineup trending in wrong direction, Cubs seeing issues Mets exposed in NLCS

With lineup trending in wrong direction, Cubs seeing issues Mets exposed in NLCS

NEW YORK — For all of Joe Maddon’s present-tense happy talk, the Cubs manager had a flashback in Citi Field’s visiting dugout, thinking about how the New York Mets dominated his team during that National League Championship Series sweep.

“The primary pitfall last year was just the lack of contact when it mattered,” Maddon said. “I was standing in that corner last year when it was freezing. To see (Matt) Harvey command his changeup in the first inning with 30-degree weather and the wind howling — I took that as a bad sign.”

Even Maddon didn’t put a completely positive spin on a lineup that’s trending in the wrong direction on July 1 (though the Cubs still have a double-digit lead in the division and probably wouldn’t trade their overall group of hitters with any other franchise in the game).

Since dropping a series against the Washington Nationals in the middle of June, the Cubs have swept the Pittsburgh Pirates, got swept by the St. Louis Cardinals and lost another series to the Miami Marlins. Those swing-and-miss issues resurfaced in Thursday’s 4-3 loss to the Mets, giving the Cubs seven defeats in their last eight games against playoff contenders (excluding this week’s sweep of the Cincinnati Reds, who are playing for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 draft).

[MORE CUBS TALK: Willson Contreras showing why he belongs as big part of Cubs' plans]

The Cubs clearly miss leadoff guy Dexter Fowler — who might not return from a hamstring injury until after the All-Star break — and giving at-bats to rookies Willson Contreras and Albert Almora Jr. against New York’s power pitching could pay dividends in October.

“That was the one thing last year that bummed me out — their pitching was so on point at that time of the year,” Maddon said. “That’s really why they beat us. And they had one hitter (Daniel Murphy) that was unworldly. That’s what happened.

“Our primary problem last year was the inability to make contact against a group of pitchers that really were on top of their game.

“For the most part, we were really good this April at making contact and not striking out as much. May was not as kind. June — we’re falling backwards.

“We got to get back to where we were in April. That’s my biggest concern, if I had one. That and just keeping the bullpen right.”

The bullpen is a different story and probably a bigger issue, because the Cubs have already built their lineup and aren’t waiting on Triple-A Iowa guys and hoping for Tommy John recoveries. Beyond Fowler’s absence and the youth movement, the Cubs look like a different team when Ben Zobrist cools off in June (.707 OPS) after a red-hot May (1.136 OPS).

A new-and-improved lineup led the majors in walks (121) in April, ranking second in on-base percentage (.364) and 26th in strikeouts (167). The Cubs crept up to seventh in strikeouts (214) in May, while remaining second in on-base percentage (.349) and ranking third in walks (113). In June, the Cubs dropped to 10th in on-base percentage (.336) while rising to second in strikeouts (267) and staying at third in walks (107).

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

The Cubs responded to that playoff disappointment by spending almost $290 million on free agents, swooping in to sign Zobrist (who handled New York’s power pitching and helped the Kansas City Royals win the World Series), stealing Jason Heyward away from the Cardinals and bringing back Fowler in spring training, reinforcing their lineup with veterans who had career on-base percentages between .353 and .363.

“NLCS alone (had) very little (to do with it),” president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. “But some of the priorities we laid out this winter were a reaction to some areas of concern on the team last year. Some of those were exploited in the playoffs and to a certain extent in the NLCS.

“We wanted to add a couple more professional hitters, guys with high-contact rate (against) good pitching. We did that and wanted to improve our outfield defense, because we saw it becoming a concern throughout the year, not just during the NLCS.

“I don’t think it’s possible to make good decisions if you’re reacting to a four-game sample. But (it’s) to the extent that four games can underscore larger trends that reveal themselves (over time).”

The Cubs will leave New York on Sunday night at the halfway point of their schedule, 81 games to go before we find out if this team is as good as advertised, or if the Mets already exposed some of the issues covered up by such a fast start and all this star power.

Willson Contreras showing why he belongs as big part of Cubs' plans

Willson Contreras showing why he belongs as big part of Cubs' plans

NEW YORK — Jeurys Familia schooled Willson Contreras, the New York Mets closer blowing the Cubs rookie away in the ninth inning on Thursday night at Citi Field with five pitches clocked between 96 and 98 mph.

Contreras fouled off one pitch in the middle of that at-bat but whiffed three times, striking out swinging with the bases loaded after Familia intentionally walked Anthony Rizzo, trying to protect a one-run lead.

“He learned a lesson,” manager Joe Maddon said of Contreras, replaying the end of that 4-3 loss against a closer who’s 27-for-27 in save chances this season. “Familia didn’t even throw one strike, I don’t think, among all those hitters, but his stuff moves that harshly. It’s really that good. I would like to believe the next time they see him, they might have a different approach.”

[MORE CUBS TALK: Cubs aren’t sweating loss to Mets or NLCS flashbacks]

That’s yet another reason why the Cubs don’t plan to send Contreras back to Triple-A Iowa, understanding how valuable he could become in October and beyond.

“He’s shown that he belongs here,” Maddon said. “He’s definitely shown that he can do this. (He’s saying): ‘I’m staying here. I’m not going anywhere.’”

There are looming roster decisions, with Adam Warren scheduled to make a spot start against the Cincinnati Reds next week at Wrigley Field after getting stretched out at Triple-A Iowa. Tommy La Stella (hamstring) could be activated from the disabled list as soon as this weekend. Dexter Fowler (hamstring) might not return to the lineup until after the All-Star break. The Cubs haven’t really given a timeline on Jorge Soler (hamstring).

But Contreras has already proven his versatility, moving to left field and first base while living up to his catcher-of-the-future label and hitting .325 (13-for-40) with three homers and 10 RBIs through his first 13 games in The Show.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

As long as Contreras continues to absorb the team’s game-planning system — and learn all the different personalities on this pitching staff — his rocket arm might also help the Cubs control the running game better than they did during last year’s National League Championship Series loss to the Mets.

“That was like the floor — to bring him up as a third catcher and get his feet wet, see how it goes,” president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said, “knowing that we could easily send him back down. But we always were transparent about leaving open the possibility that he might take off and hit the ground running. And he certainly has.

“No pun intended, he’s willed himself into this position. No decrees about this formally, but he’s obviously played himself into a position to take on real responsibility and help the team win. He’s earned his spot on the team.”