Connecting the dots between Shane Victorino, Brett Jackson

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Connecting the dots between Shane Victorino, Brett Jackson

NASHVILLE, Tenn. What if the Cubs could do what they did on the pitching side and give an outfielder a pillow contract?

Thats what super-agent Scott Boras called the deal the Cubs made with first baseman Carlos Pena two years ago at the winter meetings: 10 million paid out over 13 months, a move to a big city and the chance to jump back into the market.

A new front office has now taken a similar approach with starting pitchers, already landing Scott Baker and Scott Feldman on one-year deals. There was a sense around the Cubs on Tuesday that they were one of several teams in the mix for Brandon McCarthy, though theyre not nearly as desperate for rotation help as they were a few weeks ago.

But a reality check seemed to come when word started spreading around the Gaylord Opryland that the Boston Red Sox were giving Shane Victorino a three-year contract worth around 39 million.

General manager Jed Hoyer wouldnt comment directly on the Victorino deal, but spoke broadly about the going rates as the Cubs shop for someone to play right or center field.

Sometimes you circle players and think: Hey, that guy might be a really good fit for us, Hoyer said. Someone else views them differently and thats why free agency can be difficult. Sometimes the guys you target another team is just a lot more aggressive on him and you lose him.

Thats why you have to value the player, put a number on him and be aggressive and go after him. But you also always have to have your walkaway point because some other team might have a totally different set of numbers.

Again, Hoyer wasnt talking specifically about Victorino or even acknowledging that the 32-year-old outfielder was a real target. Victorino won a Gold Glove and a World Series ring in 2008, and has been an All-Star twice since then. But hes also coming off a season in which he hit .255 with 11 homers and 55 RBI.

That gives you a sense of the market. The Cubs will certainly listen to offers for Alfonso Soriano and are said to be kicking the tires to see if there happens to be a match with a team that could convince him to waive his no-trade rights.

There also appears to be an opening for Brett Jackson at some point in 2013, which may color how the Cubs look at their outfield options.

Jackson recently visited the teams complex in Arizona to work with manager Dale Sveum and hitting coach James Rowson. Sveum said Jackson has made huge, huge strides and completely overhauled his a swing after striking out 217 times last season.

Nobody can sit here and predict anything, Sveum said. But I think hes got a good base to work with going the rest of the winter and in spring training, to understand the art of hitting, so to speak, that sometimes gets lost or sometimes gets taught the wrong way.

Jackson is already ticketed for Triple-A Iowa when the Cubs get to Opening Day. They want him to gain more experience, make the adjustments and come back to the big leagues a more complete player, the way Anthony Rizzo did last summer.

We havent soured on Brett at all, Hoyer said.

The Cubs pressed the issue last August and promoted Jackson, wanting him to see what it takes at the highest level and force him to make changes to his approach. Even though he struck out 59 times in 120 at-bats, he still has an intriguing blend of skills.

Theres no doubt that Brett Jackson could be part of the Cubs big-league team next year, Sveum said. Hell even tell you that it was a huge learning experience. Things obviously didnt go well, but he knows now that sometimes you have to hit that wall to understand: Wow, I really got to make some huge adjustments to play at this level.

The Cubs want to get faster and more athletic in the outfield and have seen Jackson make those highlight-reel catches. At these prices, sooner or later it will be time to give their 2009 first-round pick out of Cal-Berkeley a chance.

After playoff bullpen issues, Cubs again see Pedro Strop as a late-game force

After playoff bullpen issues, Cubs again see Pedro Strop as a late-game force

MESA, Ariz. – Inside Wrigley Field’s state-of-the-art clubhouse, the Cubs posted a blown-up image of the 2015 Sports Illustrated cover where Pedro Strop is high-stepping next to Kris Bryant down the third-base line, the mosh pit awaiting at home plate.

Between his tilted-hat look, chest-pounding celebrations and overall joy for the game, Strop sets an example for the younger guys in the bullpen and the Latin players in the clubhouse. Strop has been so valuable that Jake Arrieta could have never thrown a pitch in a Cubs uniform and Theo Epstein’s front office still would have considered the Scott Feldman trade with the Baltimore Orioles an absolute success.  

Yet when the long rebuild reached its apex – and manager Joe Maddon searched for World Series answers – Strop had already been marginalized in the bullpen. A freak injury – Strop heard a pop and tore the meniscus in his left knee while trying to slide and field a groundball in August – bumped him from his role as the seventh- or eighth-inning stopper.  

“It was a little difficult,” Strop said. “After I came back from my surgery, it was a different situation. But it’s something that you got to get used to and understand the situation, understand how deep our bullpen is and just go and fight whenever they ask you to.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a big deal.”  

During Sunday’s media session, Maddon dismissed any issues with Strop (2.85 ERA) or Hector Rondon, the former 30-save closer who strained his right triceps last summer and didn’t quite get his timing down for the playoffs. Down 3-1 in the World Series, Maddon summoned Aroldis Chapman to throw 97 pitches combined in Games 5, 6 and 7 against the Cleveland Indians.

“Listen, it’s not a lack of trust,” Maddon said. “(Strop) just got hurt. And when you get hurt like that at that time of the year, it’s hard to play catch-up. When guys get injured in-season and you get to the moment where you’re trying to win a championship, you got to put like personal feelings aside on both sides of it, whether you’re managing it or playing.

“I have nothing but trust. My God, the threat is when you have him, you want to use him too much, always. And the same thing with Ronnie. I talked to Ronnie about that – I don’t want to put him in a position. I think Rondon got hurt last year because part of it was my greediness on using him too much in the early part of the season.

“You really have to battle against that when you get guys that good. You want to use them all the time. (I have) a tremendous amount of trust in both of those guys. It’s just a matter of utilizing them properly and keeping them healthy.”

[MORE: What Joe Maddon wants to see next from Javier Baez]

Since the middle of the 2013 season, Strop has notched 84 holds for the Cubs, putting up a 2.68 ERA and a 0.984 WHIP to go with 254 strikeouts in 211-plus innings. At a time when a $10 billion industry is reassessing the value of high-leverage relievers, Strop will make $5.5 million this year before hitting the open market.

“You never know,” Strop said. “I would love to repeat the championship season and win another one here before I hit free agency. Hopefully, they want to bring me back. I really like the city of Chicago. I love the fans and I love my team and the coaches.

“After this season, it’s going to become business, so hopefully we can put something together.”  

What Joe Maddon wants to see next from Javier Baez

What Joe Maddon wants to see next from Javier Baez

MESA, Ariz. – In an alternate universe, Javier Baez might have become the goat after committing two errors in a World Series Game 7. But the young Cubs played without a sense of panic and wanted to write their own history.

Baez shrugged it off in Cleveland and homered off Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber that night. Baez will be remembered as a breakout star from those playoffs, a game-changing defensive force with his mixture of lateral range, rocket-arm strength and instincts for tagging.

But there have also been times where manager Joe Maddon would like Baez to be a little more boring. The next stage of Javy Being Javy would be showing more of the consistency that made Addison Russell an All-Star shortstop at the age of 22. It may also partially explain why Maddon for now still sees Ben Zobrist as his primary second baseman, even after Baez started all 17 postseason games at that position.  

“You definitely continually speak about (how) you want guys to make the routine play routinely,” Maddon said Sunday at the Sloan Park complex. “I’ve often talked about lack of chrome. Gary DiSarcina (with the Angels) was the guy that really embedded that thought in my head, because he was so chrome-less and he was so good at the routine play. I used to always yell that at my infielders in instructional league: ‘No chrome!’

“Having said all that, Javy comes from a different background, and he has a flair about his game, so I don’t necessarily want to subtract that. But just have him understand the routine stuff has to be made routinely well.

“He’s very capable of that. I think as his game continues to develop and mature, you’ll see him make less mistakes, whether it’s that or sometimes even on the bases. He’ll make a spectacular play on the bases and then again do something that you don’t like. But I think that’s just part of his nature and his game.” 

Zobrist delivered a World Series MVP performance after signing a four-year, $56 million contract last winter with the idea that focusing on one position – instead of moving around as a super-utility guy – would help him age better.

“Last year, I played 147 games,” said Zobrist, who will turn 36 in May. “I don’t know what that number’s going to look like. You got to stay healthy. There were probably only a few games that I missed because there was physically something that was keeping me from playing.

“We’ll play it by ear. Some of those will have to do with if I’m a little tired and the matchup is right, maybe they’ll choose to give me an off day on certain days. But I know that there’s other times last year where – whether you’re tired or not – you got to be in there because that’s the matchup that works best for the club. So just make adjustments as the weeks and series go on.”

[MORE: After playoff bullpen issues, Cubs again see Pedro Strop as late-game force]

Maddon is already thinking of ways to rest Zobrist – who played into early November after helping the 2015 Royals win the World Series – on a team with so many versatile athletes. The Cubs could also try to go back to last year’s model, putting Baez wherever their scouting-and-data projections predicted the ball would be hit most that night.

“We have to balance a lot of different things out,” Maddon said. “(Javy’s) going to play some second, of course, and so will Zo. Zo’s going to be out there primarily, and then we’ll work Javy in there. But Zo can also do what he’s done in the past and play some outfield.

“What happens – and I hate to say it like (this) – but baseball has a very cruel way of determining things. I don’t want it to be any injuries. I’d rather have to figure all of this stuff out on a daily basis. Javy was so significant to the conclusion of last season. He’s going to be very significant again this year and years to come.

“It’s all in theory right now. Of course, he’s going to play. Of course, he’s going to play a lot. How it’s going to balance out? We’re not 100 percent sure yet. But he’s pretty darned good.”