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.

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Clubhouse frustration bubbling up for Cubs and Jake Arrieta

Clubhouse frustration bubbling up for Cubs and Jake Arrieta

PITTSBURGH — We interrupt your regularly scheduled coverage of The Plan and that wacky, fun-loving Cubs team to bring you a snapshot of clubhouse frustration.

Jake Arrieta sounded defensive while talking to reporters after Wednesday night’s 8-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park, standing in front of his locker and second-guessing manager Joe Maddon. On the other side of the room, veteran catcher Miguel Montero questioned the way the Cubs are preparing for the playoffs with Cactus League scripts.

The postgame questions started with Arrieta’s first-inning issues with umpire Chris Guccione’s strike zone. When reporters mentioned Maddon’s positive spin on a seven-run outing, Arrieta dismissed those happy-talk answers about his stuff — “it just wasn’t crisp” — and then wondered why he went from throwing to Montero to rookie Willson Contreras.

“The feeling of the game, from the first pitch, just wasn’t there,” Arrieta said. “Switching catchers just felt like we were trying to do a little too much instead of win a ballgame. But I didn’t throw well, no way around it.”

Montero went with a similar passive-aggressive tone, riffing on how the Cubs will maintain their edge almost two weeks after clinching the National League Central title and nine days before their first playoff game at Wrigley Field.

“Did it feel like spring training?” Montero said. “I do believe that. And that’s not a good feeling for a pitcher, for a player, to go into a game knowing that you’re going to play just four innings or five innings or whatever it is.

“This game is still important for all the players. It’s still important for every single guy. I don’t want to go out there not caring about winning or losing. That’s not my mentality. My mentality is going out there because I want to win, regardless.

“We have to trick our mind. Because if that’s how we’re going to go the rest of the way, I guess we need to trick ourselves.”

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Unprompted, Montero brought up the Pirates scoring three runs in the ninth inning on Tuesday night before the Cubs hung on for a 6-4 victory — without using Aroldis Chapman — as Maddon tries to keep the bullpen fresh for the playoffs.

“We didn’t have our closer warming up,” Montero said. “That’s something I take personally because I’m catching and I want to win.

“It’s hard. I understand (Joe’s) point. And I understand the organization’s point. I respect it. I can only control what I can control. It is what it is.”

OK then, the Cubs are still a 101-win team and the NL’s No. 1 seed. But this became a sharp contrast to all the backslapping after the pregame announcement of Theo Epstein’s monster contract extension. And Arrieta didn’t look like a reigning Cy Young Award winner, giving up 10 hits while John Jaso — who does look like a Pirate — lined a curveball into the right-field seats for a three-run homer in the fourth inning and hit for the cycle.

“We’re moving on,” Arrieta said. “We’ll prepare for the next one. I don’t like giving up seven runs. I’m pissed about that. But moving forward, everything’s fine.”

With Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks lined up at the front of the playoff rotation, Arrieta’s next start is almost two weeks away.

“It doesn’t matter,” Arrieta said. “I’ll throw sides. I’ll prepare. And whoever I face first round — they’re going to be in trouble.”

After burning through 103 pitches in five innings, Arrieta’s regular-season odometer is now at 197 1/3 innings, but he has zero interest in a gimmick that would get him to 200 this weekend against the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park.

“Listen, I want to pitch on a schedule,” Arrieta said. “I don’t want to throw an inning in a game. I’m not trying to do anything different. Let’s just prepare like we normally do and go out and try to win games. I’m not trying to throw a bullpen in a game.”

Look, if this isn’t trouble in paradise, then it’s obvious that the Cubs are a hyper-competitive group that knows what’s at stake in October and has some independent thinkers and strong personalities. And that Arrieta’s unreal 2015 season created impossible standards for this year that couldn’t be met with an 18-8 record and a 3.10 ERA, the type of numbers that still get pitchers $200 million contracts.

“I don’t think you know how hard this game is unless you play it,” Arrieta said. “I feel I can have another season like that. People have done it before. Why can’t I do it? I can do it again. So, yeah, I appreciate it. But at the same time, that’s what you strive for. That’s why you work hard. You go out and you try to perform that way.”