The long shadow cast by Pujols and Fielder

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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.

Morning Update: Cubs pick up win No. 101, Sale leads White Sox past Rays

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Morning Update: Cubs pick up win No. 101, Sale leads White Sox past Rays

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John Lackey sees Cubs lining up for World Series run: ‘It’s all here’

John Lackey sees Cubs lining up for World Series run: ‘It’s all here’

PITTSBURGH — The Cubs have so much going for them, all this blue-chip talent, a clubhouse mix of young players and grizzled veterans, arguably the best manager in the game, an impactful coaching staff and a front office that blends scouting and analytics as well as anyone.

So, no, John Lackey is not at all surprised by the way this clicked into place, 101 wins and counting for the machine built with October in mind.

“Not really,” Lackey said after Tuesday night’s 6-4 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates. “I had some pretty good offers from other people, and I chose this one for a reason. It’s all here.”

But to win the World Series — and get the jewelry Lackey talks about — you still need some luck, good health and the guts to perform in those Big Boy Games. That reality of randomness and matchups made a pregame announcement some 250 miles away from PNC Park so telling.

Washington Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos tore the ACL in his right knee, ending his MVP-caliber season. The National League East champions will lose a .307 hitter with 22-homer power from the middle of their lineup and a veteran presence for a playoff rotation that will likely be without injured ace Stephen Strasburg (right elbow) in the first round.

“That’s a tough one when you lose your catcher, a guy who’s that significant for the pitching staff,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “Think about the pitching staff — it’s so different when you know the guy back there is your guy and he knows what’s going on. The communication’s different. The trust factor, all that stuff is different.”

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Within that big-picture context, the Cubs survived as Lackey limited the checked-out Pirates (77-80) to one run across five innings in his fifth start since recovering from a strained right shoulder and coming off the disabled list. Maddon then used six different relievers — staying away from Pedro Strop, Hector Rondon and Aroldis Chapman — during a three-hour, 49-minute game that felt more like the Cactus League.

After defecting from the 100-win St. Louis Cardinals team the Cubs bounced out of last year’s playoffs, Lackey finished the regular season at 11-8 with a 3.35 ERA and 188 1/3 innings.

“I’m going to get to 200,” Lackey said.

Beyond wins and losses, Lackey called this season his career best in terms of “those numbers that they’ve made up in the last few years” like WHIP (1.04) and opponents’ OPS (.646) and whatever. And, no, he doesn’t know his WAR, either: “Not even close.”

Yes, the Cubs got the old-school attitude they wanted when they signed Lackey to a two-year, $32 million deal before the winter meetings. For all the talk about the pitching deficit and the New York Mets after their young guns swept the Cubs out of last year’s NL Championship Series, the Cubs are getting their money’s worth with a guy who will turn 38 in October.

The amazing Mets have lost three of those frontline starters — Matt Harvey (thoracic outlet syndrome), Jacob deGrom (nerve damage in his right elbow) and Steven Matz (bone spur in his left elbow) — and are still holding onto the first wild-card spot, which says something about this playoff field.

This doesn’t guarantee anything in October, but the Cubs are just about as close to full strength as they could reasonably hope now. Instead of the silence that would have come with losing an irreplaceable player like Ramos, the sound system in the postgame clubhouse blasted Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre and Notorious B.I.G. after their 101st win.

“Yeah, we lost Dexter (Fowler) for a bit,” Maddon said. “We lost (Kyle) Schwarber all year. Otherwise, when a couple pitchers got banged up, whether you’re talking about Rondon or Strop, I don’t think that our injuries have been as magnified because we’ve covered them pretty well.

“We still had our moments, like everybody else has. But when you get to right now, we’re getting well, and hopefully that trend continues. But to lose somebody of that magnitude for them, that’s got to be difficult.”