Cubs agree to deal with Villanueva, close in on Jackson

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Cubs agree to deal with Villanueva, close in on Jackson

The Cubs entered the 2012 offseason knowing that they had to improve their rotation by leaps and bounds. After finishing a horrific 2012 season with the likes of Justin Germano, Jason Berken and Brooks Raley in their rotation, the Cubs appear poised to enter spring training in 2013 with eight legitimate candidates to start games.

Jeff Samardzija, Matt Garza, Scott Feldman, Scott Baker, Travis Wood and Arodys Vizcaino all will go to camp as potential starters and the Cubs are waiting on results of a physical from Carlos Villanueva as they finalize a deal for the former Toronto Blue Jays right-hander. The contract is expected to be finalized in the next 24 hours and is worth 10 million over two years.

In addition, sources have confirmed to me that the Cubs are in prime position to land right-handed starter Edwin Jackson who is close to agreeing to a 4-year deal worth 52 million.

The Christmas holiday could delay an official announcement for a few days. However, Jackson loved playing in the city of Chicago when he pitched for the White Sox and he is very open to signing a long term deal with the Cubs.

Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer spoke with me last week regarding the Cubs thoughts as they look to improve on a 61-101 record in 2012 and he was very clear on the Cubs' plan going forward.

It is very difficult to improve a team dramatically through free agency in one off season no matter how much money you have to spend," Hoyer said. "The supply of talented players isnt always there, you have significant competition to beat to land the player or players that you want, and in todays game most teams are locking up their young stars with long-term deals so they dont get to free agency.

We are looking to improve our team incrementally and strengthening our pitching staff is one area we are focused on."

It appears that with an agreement in place for Villanueva and a deal with Jackson close, the Cubs' pitching staff just got a whole lot stronger. However, their offense looks to be a long way away which will keep them from taking a big a leap in the standings in 2013.

Cubs don’t see Cardinals as ‘big brother’ in rivalry anymore

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Cubs don’t see Cardinals as ‘big brother’ in rivalry anymore

ST. LOUIS – Jake Arrieta’s breakdown of his performance sounded like something out of the maybe pile for Joe Maddon’s next T-shirt idea: “I picked a good day to be sh---y.”

The Cubs ace then messed with a reporter who asked a follow-up question after Wednesday’s 9-8 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium, wondering if Arrieta would study anything in particular after giving up four runs in a regular-season start for the first time in 11-plus months…or stick with the same routine.

“Well,” Arrieta said, “I’ll probably, maybe, throw left-handed or underhand.”

Arrieta may have some underlying issues with his timing and command, but the National League’s reigning Cy Young Award winner is still 9-0 with a 1.72 ERA. By Year 5 of the Theo Epstein administration, and Maddon’s second season in the dugout, the Cubs now have first-division problems. 

Whatever turbulence the team with the best record in baseball may have experienced during a 4-5 road trip through Milwaukee, San Francisco and St. Louis, the Cardinals scored eight runs on Arrieta Day and still lost. While the Cubs have already won two series this season at Busch Stadium before Memorial Day weekend, after eliminating the Cardinals from the playoffs last October.    

“For the first three-and-a-half years when we were in Chicago, it just felt like they were the big brother,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “They controlled the game. They controlled what was going on, the tempo of the game. They were the more talented team, the more experienced team. 

“Now we’re two very good teams playing. And whoever plays better that night is going to win the game. I think there’s something really refreshing about that when you come in here. We know we’re good. We know they’re good.

“We know that there’s a lot of good teams in the National League and we match up well with them.”

The Cubs ambushed St. Louis starter Carlos Martinez for six runs in the second inning, getting the kind of bounces the Cardinals are used to seeing here.

Jason Heyward’s two-out, two-run double hit first base and bounced up the right-field line, and maybe luck will change for the $184 million player who turned down the St. Louis core. Ben Zobrist is still on fire, getting two hits that inning, including a bases-loaded, two-run single that skipped in between diving first baseman Matt Adams and diving second baseman Kolten Wong.

“I wouldn’t say (things) are shifting,” said Kris Bryant, who blasted what turned out to be the game-winning homer, a three-run shot off Seung Hwan Oh in the sixth inning. “It’s just really competitive baseball. Lately, we’ve come out on top. They play us hard every game. It’s going to make for a lot of fun games in the future.”

When it looked like the Cardinals might stage one of their last at-bat comebacks, Hector Rondon didn’t buckle in front of a sellout crowd (45,465). The Cubs closer roared back after allowing back-to-back singles to begin the ninth inning, striking out Yadier Molina and Randal Grichuk swinging and knocking down the ball pinch-hitter Jedd Gyorko hit back to the mound for the final out and his eighth save. The Cardinals are now a third-place team that’s one game over .500 at 24-23.

“Of course, I totally think they’re going to be there at the end,” Maddon said. “They’re really good. They have a very good offensive club. They need to get their pitching straightened out. They have a good bullpen. And they just play hard. They play hard every second of the game.

“You can never walk away from that. They have some really good players in skill positions. They’re going to get (shortstop Jhonny) Peralta back, I think, at some point, and that’s going to make a big difference for them. And then the problem’s going to be: Where do you put (Aledmys) Diaz?

“They have some nice problems on the horizon.”  

The Cubs (31-14) now have an eight-game lead over the Cardinals in the division and a 9-3 combined record against St. Louis and the Pittsburgh Pirates, the other two heavyweights in the Central.  

“It’s going to be close to the end,” Arrieta said. “The Pirates and the Cardinals – these guys are going to continue to win games, in and out of our division. We just have to do our job to try and separate that gap when we have the ability to do so, because we know they’ll be close on our heels to the very end.”

How Cubs have transformed their defensive identity

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How Cubs have transformed their defensive identity

ST. LOUIS – The San Francisco Giants used a pitching-and-defense formula to win World Series titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014. The St. Louis Cardinals have their own Way to reinforce fundamentals and teach generations of prospects how to play the game. It’s been a good seven weeks, but the Cubs want to be known as that type of franchise on an annual basis. 

While looking at the metrics – and using the eye test more than 25 percent through the schedule – it becomes clear that the 2016 Cubs are built on a much stronger defensive foundation than last season’s 97-win team.

“Rock solid,” manager Joe Maddon said.

Here’s how the Cubs lead the majors in defensive efficiency and have the best record in baseball (31-14): Just look back at a pivot point during Wednesday’s 9-8 win over the Cardinals at Busch Stadium. Third baseman Tommy La Stella bailed out Jake Arrieta with two outs and the bases loaded in the fifth inning, making a diving stop to his right and the throw to second base.

Another lasting image from this road trip will be ex-Cardinal Jason Heyward crashing into AT&T Park’s right-center field wall to make a highlight-reel catch, walking off the field with a bruised right side and returning to the lineup four nights later in St. Louis. 

The Cubs gave Heyward the biggest contract in franchise history, investing eight years and $184 million in a three-time Gold Glove winner who’s not a middle-of-the-order hitter.

Instead of Starlin Castro pressing to prove he could still play shortstop and taking some of his offensive frustrations onto the field, the Cubs are now getting a full season of Addison Russell.

Instead of Russell making his big-league debut and trying to learn a new position on the fly, the Cubs have second baseman Ben Zobrist, who will turn 35 on Thursday and is still playing at an All-Star level.

There’s so much talent that Maddon can call Javier Baez one of the National League’s best defensive infielders and still not find an everyday spot in the lineup for him.

“This guy’s literally been a human highlight reel in single games, making four or five plays,” pitching coach Chris Bosio said. “But that’s the kind of ability that these guys have as young players. That’s the exciting (part). And it’s kind of the dangerous thing for the rest of the league: ‘Goddamn, these guys are so young.’”

When Baez (age 23) bumps All-Star third baseman Kris Bryant (age 24) to left field, the Cubs can align three defenders with the athleticism to play center, including Dexter Fowler and Heyward, who got paid because of his youth (26) and the data crunch that has rated him as one of the most valuable players in the game.

“Whether it’s WAR or runs saved or whatever the other stats are, I have no idea what they are,” Heyward said. “(It’s) paying attention to who’s hitting and where they hit the ball, who’s pitching and how they’re attacking guys. Play the count. Play the scoreboard. Play the game.

“That stuff does matter. It does win games. It does cut down innings. It does set up your pitchers.”

That’s the cascading effect for a rotation trying to stay fresh for a deep playoff run and a bullpen in danger of getting overexposed. There’s the emotional lift when double-play balls aren’t wasted and the momentum shift when Heyward makes a diving catch or throws out a runner at home plate.

What looks like an extra-base hit suddenly disappears, a high-anxiety moment becoming a low-stress situation. It helps explain why the Cubs began Wednesday with the lowest rotation ERA (2.51) in the majors and 31 quality starts through 44 games.

“Strikeouts are cool and everything,” said Arrieta, who threw almost 250 innings last year, combining his Cy Young Award season with three playoff starts. “But when you got guys like we have in the field, use ‘em. If I can get one- and two-pitch outs, that’s what I’m going to try and do. I want to put up as many zeroes as possible.

“Get the strikeouts when you need ‘em. Guys in scoring position with less than two outs – I’ll get ‘em then. But if I got guys like that behind me, I’m going to use ‘em. Let them put it in play.”

Signing Fowler in late February created insurance against injuries (Kyle Schwarber) and allowed Heyward to move back to his more natural position in right field. Playing next to Heyward has also helped Fowler put up a 4.6 Ultimate Zone Rating, a major improvement from last year (-1.7) and his 2014 season with the Houston Astros (-21.8).

“Defensively, I think it’s just an adjustment of depth,” Maddon said. “He’s getting rave reviews, not because he’s any different. Not because his routes are different. Not because his angles are better. Nothing (like that). It’s just because he’s deeper. That’s it. That’s what it really comes down to.

“A lot of the metrics that are involved in defense and zone ratings and things (like that) would be the ball that gets over his head and turns into an extra-base hit. So he was considered not as good basically because he played so shallow. So just by playing deeper – without changing any part of your skill set – you’re considered better. It’s pretty incredible.”

Fowler waited out the free-agent market so long primarily because of the draft-pick compensation attached to the qualifying offer he declined. But he also didn’t have a great defensive reputation after spending years roaming Coors Field for the Colorado Rockies. The geeks should also get credit for that subtle positioning shift.

“It’s something that came to light when I was in Tampa Bay,” Maddon said. “I was always of the opinion I liked a shallow outfielder in center just to take away a lot of cheap stuff. And I thought if a guy made a bad pitch, it’s almost like he’s earned the right for the ball to be hit over the outfielder’s head.

“But as it turned out, just going through the numbers, apparently you save more runs by being a little bit softer on defense in center field by getting deeper.”

The Cubs now have strength up the middle and so many options for a manager who loves versatile players and believes in run prevention.

“‘Zo’ and ‘KB’ and Javy permit us to do so many different things right now,” Maddon said, “because wherever you put them, I don’t feel like we’re losing anything at all.

“I really don’t like to start a game with a team on the field where I thought the defense was substandard. That really bothers me a lot. And we don’t do that. We start a game with people’s names in different positions. But you still feel like you have an above-average defense.” 

Road Ahead: Cubs return home after tough road trip

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Road Ahead: Cubs return home after tough road trip

CSN's Kelly Crull and Patrick Mooney talk about the Cubs returning home after a long, tough road trip in this week's edition of the Honda Road Ahead, presented by Chicagoland & Northwest Indiana Honda dealers.

Although the Cubs have strung together two straight victories in St. Louis, wins have not come easy for the team in recent memory. Chicago is 4-6 in its last 10 outings, and dropped five of those games during its nine-game road trip that wrapped up on Wednesday.

The Cubs' resilience against the Cardinals has impressed CSN Chicago Cubs Insider Patrick Mooney.

"Coming back to St. Louis, I think you see how much this team has grown," Mooney said. "Last summer, (the Cubs) get swept, Joe Maddon decides to have Simon the magician meet them in New York, and the Cubs are really beyond those types of gimmicks at this point. They don't need mariachi bands to loosen up. They're a team that kind of knows who they are."

Along with that knowledge and sense of identity, Mooney believes the Cubs and fans alike were fully aware that a tough stretch like this would come sooner rather than later. Chicago was going to have to go through teams like the San Francisco Giants at some point.

"It's been fun to watch, to see how they would respond to that adversity we all knew was kind of around the corner," Mooney added.

Individual player struggles often come with a team slump, and Jason Heyward is no exception to that. He hopes to turn things around soon, as the Cubs have done, but it remains to be seen if the extra rest due to his recent injury will impact his game in a positive or negative way. Despite his slow start (.217 AVG on the year), Mooney says the Cubs still see great value in their right fielder.

"He did hit a ball to the right side of the infield to move Dexter Fowler over to third base, and that's what the Cubs like about Jason Heyward, that he does all the little things," Mooney said. "Obviously he plays spectacular defense in right field."

Cubs players are now looking forward to returning home for a 10-game stand that features the Phillies, Dodgers and Diamondbacks over a holiday weekend in Chicago.

"The Phillies are really interesting," Mooney said. "They're not tanking like the Sixers were, although they were kind of built that the way the Cubs were a couple of years ago. They kind of got old fast and their window slammed shut, and now they're trying to start over."

Mooney noted that Philadelphia has been really good in one-run games, which will be hard to sustain going forward.

"(Philadelphia manager Pete Mackanin) clearly got them playing with effort," Mooney said. "They've got a lot of interesting young players, they've got the No. 1 overall pick coming up, they've got a huge TV deal on the horizon. While I do think, probably not this year, they can get real good in a hurry.

"If you look at the Cubs next couple of years, the Phillies are gonna be there among the National League heavyweights sooner rather than later." 

Jon Lester (4-3) will take the bump to start off the series on Friday against Adam Morgan (1-2).