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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How Ian Happ helped the 2017 Cubs find their identity

How Ian Happ helped the 2017 Cubs find their identity

How Ian Happ helped the 2017 Cubs find their identity

In the span of just over a week, Ian Happ has gone from arguably the Cubs' biggest trade piece to the 2017 savior.

OK, "savior" is extreme, but Happ has been an unlikely stabilizing force for the defending world champions.

In a week's worth of big-league action (seven games), Happ has smacked six extra base-hits, scored seven runs and posted a 1.182 OPS. But his impact has been so much more than just the numbers on the back of his Topps card.

Happ's presence has helped the Cubs reinvent themselves.

The plan heading into the 2017 season was to have Kyle Schwarber lead off and Ben Zobrist reprise his 2016 role as lineup protection for Anthony Rizzo.

But with Schwarber struggling atop the order, Happ's presence has freed up the ever-patient Zobrist to become the team's new leadoff as the week-old rookie is now protecting a perennial MVP candidate in Rizzo.

"It's all based on Ian Happ," Joe Maddon said. "I'm still very aware of protecting Rizzo. And that's where Zobrist came in handy. Now to this point, I'm looking at last month's numbers, Zo's really ascending and Schwarbs has come back a little bit regarding just getting on base.

"So Zo's the most likely candidate among all the groups to try to get on base more often and Rizzo's still protected with Ian. Just moving everybody down one slot with Ian there taking the role of Zobrist, I kinda wanted to give it a try."

It's only one game, but the refurbished lineup scored 13 runs Sunday, collecting 10 extra-base hits and scoring in seven of eight offensive innings.

Happ was right there in the middle of it all, smoking a 108 mph double off the right field wall in the first inning and doubling again later in the game. 

Zobrist homered. Rizzo homered. Bryant — who said hitting third is where he's most comfortable in the lineup — crushed a pair of homers and reached base five times. Schwarber went 1-for-3 with an RBI and a walk.

With Happ's presence bumping Schwarber down in the order, Maddon also has moved back to hitting the pitcher last.

"In my mind's eye, I'm more able or wanting to hit the pitcher ninth again because Schwarber is moved back," Maddon said. "Part of the method was to try to feed Schwarber with a nine-hole hitter."

With Happ in the lineup, the Cubs are averaging 6.3 runs per game. 

Again, it's a small sample size and the Cubs were due for an offensive explosion after a slow start to the season, but Happ has been a central figure.

"Nothing surprises me [with him]," Bryant said. "We all saw what he can do in spring. It's not surprising at all. He's definitely provided a spark for us since he's been up.

"He's just been great out there, moving all over the field. I don't even know what his main position is, but if it's center field, he's out there doing a good job, too."

Willson Contreras helped provide the 2016 Cubs with a jolt of energy when he made his debut in mid-June. Happ is doing the same thing this season, though his arrival has come a month earlier in the 2017 campaign.

Happ has only played one full season of professional baseball and appeared in just 91 games above A-ball before making his big-league debut.

But he's looked like he belongs from the outset, blending into a clubhouse that has welcomed so many young position players over the last few years.

Maddon's message to Happ upon arriving was simple: Why don't you stay a while?

It's not as catchy as "try not to suck," but it has helped Happ relax.

"Sometimes, we underestimate the impact we have on anybody," Maddon said. "In my situation, as a manager to the player, so you say something like that just trying to get somebody to relax and who knows?

"Like Javy with 'try not to suck' a couple years ago, who knows how it's processed and how it permits the player to process the day? I knew how good [Happ] was in spring training, I knew how good he's been this season and I just know how he is.

"So there was no reason for him not to approach it like, 'I want to stay a while.'"

Happ spent most of his time in the minors as a second baseman, but with Baez and Zobrist around, Maddon doesn't see a way to work the rookie in the infield at this time.

But then again, two weeks ago, nobody could fathom how the Cubs could possibly work another position player into the lineup on a consistent basis, but that's worked itself out. Right now, it's Albert Almora Jr. being relegated to the bench as Happ has taken over in center field.

Of course, there's still more than four months left in the season and things will undoubtedly change again. 

But for now, Happ has forced the issue and altered the entire identity of the 2017 Cubs.