The long shadow cast by Pujols and Fielder

646552.png

The long shadow cast by Pujols and Fielder

MESA, Ariz. Before the Cubs played their final home game last September, Rodrigo Lopez asked a stadium worker to take his picture. Lopez stood at home plate with Wrigley Field as the backdrop.

Lopez began last season pitching for the Atlanta Braves Triple-A affiliate. The Cubs traded for him almost two months in as emergency depth. He didnt know what was going to happen no one did, really so he wanted a memento.

If Lopez became a symbol for an organization that was scrambling, he also emerged as a bit player in baseballs biggest offseason story, which through all the misdirection still pointed the way the Cubs were heading.

The lobby was buzzing at the Hilton Anatole in Dallas during the winter meetings. Twitter was spinning constantly. Here was a great nugget for the 247 news cycle: Theo Epstein met with the agent for Albert Pujols.

Well, we met with Danny Lozano, Epstein said that night up in his hotel suite last December. He also represents Rodrigo Lopez, among other players, soits not always that youre there to talk about The Big Kahuna.

The national perception was that the Cubs had to make a big splash, while almost everyone who read between the lines with Epstein thought they werent looking for the quick fix.

The Los Angeles Angels shocked the world by giving Pujols a 10-year megadeal worth around 250 million. The Cubs arent putting Lopez on any billboards, but they are giving him the ball to start Sundays Cactus League opener against the Oakland As at HoHoKam Stadium.

I dont like to watch MLB Network or ESPN or stuff like that, Lopez said. Its too much information. Im trying to take a break when Im in the offseason. Some of the guys saw it on the Internet.

I got friends who were telling me, Hey, your name came out with the Cubs. It was funny for me, too. Im like, Yeah, cool.

Across his career, the 36-year-old Lopez has been represented by Scott Boras, Beverly Hills Sports Council and Lozano, who got him a minor-league deal with a set salary number if he breaks camp with the Cubs.

Epstein needed credible starting pitching, and as a swingman Lopez did a nice job for the Cubs last season, going 6-6 with a 4.42 ERA in almost 100 innings. The president of baseball operations spent the winter searching for value, buying low on players and offering opportunity.

With Pujols off the board, Boras kept dangling Prince Fielder, but the Cubs continued to reassure Bryan LaHair that he would get a very good shot at first base. Even with manager Dale Sveum being tight with Fielder from their time together with the Milwaukee Brewers.

They had great communication with me from Day 1, LaHair said. Even when they traded for (prospect Anthony) Rizzo, they contacted me right away. I think I knew before it was even out in the press. Thats all you can ask for just good communication and the truth and the honesty. Thats all theyve done for me since theyve been on board.

LaHair doesnt have age (29) or pedigree (39th-round pick) on his side. But the Pacific Coast League MVP generated 38 homers and 109 RBI last season at Triple-A Iowa.

The bottom line is the kid deserves a chance, Sveum said. We didnt have an incumbent or anybody making 15 million in front of him. What he did in winter ball is just as impressive. To hit 15 home runs in (Venezuela)? Nobody does that.

We never even offered Prince anything. That was more (speculation), whether it was my connection with Prince or just the media jumping the gun a little bit. But we had our guy and all along it was LaHair.

So the Cubs wont have to worry about how some new star will acclimate to Wrigley Fields cramped clubhouse. Lopez said his young boys who enjoyed running around the place complained a little bit about small family room. So their father had to explain that its an old stadium filled with history and tradition.

Thats why five months ago, with so much uncertainty at Clark and Addison, Lopez got his picture taken. The Cubs have shown patience and restraint and will be playing this season without the weight of expectations. Who could have seen this coming?

You never know whats going to happen, Lopez said. Hopefully, I get a chance to take more shots.

Why Cubs are excited for pitching prospect Dylan Cease: He's 'throwing lightning bolts'

Why Cubs are excited for pitching prospect Dylan Cease: He's 'throwing lightning bolts'

Theo Epstein's front office is heading into Year 6 with the Cubs and they're finally talking about a pitcher as one of the organization's most exciting prospects.

That's how senior vice president of scouting and player development Jason McLeod framed his Dylan Cease report to fans at the Cubs Convention at the Sheraton Grand Chicago last weekend.

It was a tongue-in-cheek summation from McLeod after he spent the previous few minutes fawning over Cease, the Cubs' sixth round pick in 2014.

Of course, McLeod and the Cubs can poke fun at the lack of impact pitching the farm system has developed when the homegrown position players like Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber just helped lead the franchise to its first World Series championship in over a century.

Cease, however, has been one of the more intriguing Cubs prospects for years — a right-handed pitcher capable of touching 101 mph on the radar gun.

"This guy is throwing lightning bolts out of his arm," McLeod said. "It's really exciting. But we also understaned he's only in Low-A this year, so he's far away."

The Cubs expect Cease to pitch for Class-A South Bend in 2017 after spending last season pitching for short-season Eugene and the 2015 campaign working in the rookie league in Arizona.

Cease — who just turned 21 in late December — put up some impressive numbers at both stops in the Cubs system, posting a 2.36 ERA and 1.165 WHIP to go along with a whopping 91 strikeouts in 68.2 innings. He also only surrendered one homer and walked more batters (41) than reached via a basehit (39).

Control is obviously an issue for Cease, but the upside is evident.

"He's so far away," McLeod said. "He's gonna go into 2017 as a starter. As with a lot of young guys, it's gonna come down to command and depend on that third pitch and the ability to land them for strikes.

"It's a special arm. He can pitch 95-100 mph with a big power curveball. He's unlike anyone else we have in our system since we've been here in terms of pure stuff."

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

One fan compared Cease to Carl Edwards Jr. in terms of their lanky build and high velocity, setting McLeod up for a layup joke.

"Well, Dylan is much stronger physically than CJ is...as is everybody in this room," McLeod said as the ballroom filled with laugher. "Don't tell [CJ] I said that. 

"They have different body types, obviously. Carl is long and lanky and Dylan has probably put on 20 pounds since we drafted him, so he's more like 6-foot-2, 190."

By comparison, Edwards — who goes by "The String Bean Slinger" for his slight build — is listed at 6-foot-3, 170 pounds.

Edwards was drafted in the 48th round in 2011 and spent his whole minor-league career as a starting pitcher until the Cubs converted him to a reliever in 2015.

Cease may eventually go down the same path, but the Cubs are going to give him every opportunity to make it as a starter first.

Cease was one of the top pitchers available in the 2014 draft, but his stock took a hit when he was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery on his pitching elbow while at Milton High School in Georgia.

That scared off a lot of teams — as did the potential signability issues with college offers looming — but the Cubs took a chance and have now watched Cease soar to a top prospect in the system (No. 4 by Baseball America; No. 7 by FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus) despite the cautious approach and lack of innings in professional ball.

"We have to thank Kyle Schwarber, actually, as one of the main reasons we got to sign Dylan Cease," McLeod said. "Because we took Kyle fourth overall, we were able to save money on the selection with him, which gave us the resources to go get Dylan Cease.

"He was a Top 10 pick in the draft — a high school arm that got hurt, fell down to the fifth round and he had a commitment to Vanderbilt, I think it was, and we were able to use the money we saved from Kyle.

"Just another reason to love Kyle Schwarber."

Joe Maddon’s messaging to Cubs before the 2017 campaign

Joe Maddon’s messaging to Cubs before the 2017 campaign

Joe Maddon's Washington itinerary didn't include an hour-long sit-down with Chuck Todd for NBC's "Meet the Press." There would be no rehashing the manager's Game 7 decisions as he stood outside the West Wing, though the second question during the media stakeout involved "last year's team" and how the 2017 Cubs are prepared to defend a World Series title.

"You're already there, huh?" Maddon said to a CNN reporter, minutes after President Barack Obama's final official White House event ended on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. 

But last year's team is gone — preserved now in highlight films and the hearts and minds of generations of Cub fans — even if so many familiar faces will be in Mesa when pitchers and catchers officially report to Arizona on Valentine's Day.

It would be impossible to replicate everything that made the 2016 Cubs so special. Baseball has its own relentless pace and the dynamics are constantly shifting. (Remember when players were passive-aggressively complaining about Maddon's spring-training approach during the final week of a 103-win regular season?) The clubhouse chemistry will inevitably feel different after climbing a Mount Everest of professional sports.

"A mind once stretched has a very difficult time going back to its original form," Maddon said. "We're motivated by it. We want to do it again, of course. There's no question we're trying to do that.

"I'm really leaning on the phrase or the thought of being uncomfortable. I want us to be uncomfortable. I think the moment you get into your comfort zone after having such a significant moment in your life like that, the threat is that you're going to stop growing.

"So I really want us to be uncomfortable. I really want to continue (to see) a pattern of growth and really try to get at them very quickly again."

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

Can Jason Heyward recover from one of the worst offensive seasons in the majors last year? Is Willson Contreras ready to be a frontline catcher? Will Javier Baez have to adjust back to being a role player after becoming a playoff superstar? Does Kyle Schwarber in the leadoff spot and Albert Almora Jr. and Jon Jay in a center-field timeshare represent an upgrade over Dexter Fowler?

If healthy, Wade Davis should be a trusted, lower-maintenance closer than Aroldis Chapman, with an advanced approach to pitching and more clubhouse presence. As a staff, the Cubs will have to bounce back from pitching into early November (or not, in the case of the relievers Maddon didn't trust during the playoffs).

As it stands, Jon Lester (33) and John Lackey (38) have already combined to throw almost 5,000 innings in The Show (including the postseason). Jake Arrieta will have to deal with the pressure of playing for his megadeal in his final season before becoming a free agent.

The drop-off after Mike Montgomery — and it's still mostly projected potential with the No. 5 starter — appears to be very steep in an organization that doesn't have any high-end pitching prospects in the upper levels of the farm system.

After painting the bull's-eye on the chest and turning "Embrace The Target" and "Try Not To Suck" into viral T-shirts, a guy who hates meetings is still working on his themes for this campaign.

"I'm really rotating around the thought of authenticity," Maddon said. "I talked about it a lot last year, the fact that I think authenticity has a chance to repeat itself without even trying. It's part of who you are. It's not fabricated. It's real.

"I've talked about our guys a lot the last couple years. I think one of our strongest qualities is the authentic component of our players. So I'm really focusing on that word right now. Again, that's a great word to bring an entire message from (when) you get in front of the group that first day in spring training.

"I kind of just think like authenticity happens. And let's work it from there."

The costumes should be in midseason form with Maddon planning a house party around Tampa's Gasparilla Pirate Festival before driving his RV from Florida to Arizona.

Maddon will turn 63 on Feb. 8 and have to keep evolving, just like his players, who might outgrow some of those gimmicks. But the Cubs are still a reflection of their future Hall of Fame manager.

Amid all the uncertainty in Washington, Maddon wouldn't touch a question about what advice he would give Donald Trump before Friday's inauguration.

"I'm not even going to go anywhere close to that," Maddon said. "I will say this: I have a lot of respect of the office.

"At the end of the day, just have a lot of respect for the office, regardless of your political persuasion. My point would be to encourage people to really respect the office and let's see what we get done here over the next four years."