Cubs sold on Edwin Jackson as a building block

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Cubs sold on Edwin Jackson as a building block

Cubs executives have used parallel tracks as a talking point so often that it began to lose meaning.

But on the same day team president Theo Epstein and chairman Tom Ricketts made a presentation to Anibal Sanchez at a Miami restaurant, general manager Jed Hoyer and manager Dale Sveum were meeting with Edwin Jackson in Newport Beach, Calif.

It wasnt completely by design, though both players will be 29 years old on Opening Day and could help the Cubs win now and win later. Thats just how everyones schedules happened to fall into place last month.

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Zack Greinke, the top pitcher on the board, kept others waiting and didnt sign his six-year, 147 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers until after the winter meetings. Jacksons getting married on Saturday and had been busy with wedding preparation. Theres also the natural momentum for free agents who want to be settled before Christmas. Hoyer admitted that the Cubs probably wouldnt have signed both Jackson and Sanchez.

After Jackson buttoned up a white, pinstripe No. 36 jersey during Wednesdays news conference inside the Wrigley Field clubhouse, Hoyer laughed and said: We did a better job hiding.

Jackson heard the recruiting pitch from Hoyer and Sveum on Dec. 13 inside The Legacy Agencys Orange County offices. It didnt bother Jackson when word leaked out that the Cubs were making a strong push to sign Sanchez, and he has to understand that this is a business after being traded six times and pitching for seven teams across the past eight seasons.

I figured if they were taking the time to fly out and talk to me regardless of what happened they definitely had a strong interest, Jackson said. The only thing I could control was that conversation we were having at the time. Thats all I was worried about.

A national writer incorrectly tweeted that the Cubs had reached an agreement with Sanchez, though it certainly forced the Detroit Tigers to pay attention. The Cubs knew it was a long shot and set their limit at five years and 77.5 million. They werent surprised when the Tigers stepped up with a five-year, 80 million offer and a chance to win a World Series ring in 2013.

Jackson didnt want to get into why he left super-agent Scott Boras last year, only saying there were no hard feelings. But this must have been what he was looking for when he chose Greg Genske as his new representative.

The Cubs were attracted to Jacksons age and durability. He has made at least 31 starts in each of the last six seasons. Hes thrown 180-plus innings and notched double digits in wins in each of the past five seasons.

Jackson and his fiance, Erika Zanders, loved the city after spending parts of two seasons with the White Sox (2010 and 2011). He was born in West Germany and used to moving around because his father, Edwin Sr., is a retired U.S. Army Sergeant First Class. He bought into the rebuilding plans and agreed to a four-year, 52 million deal on Dec. 20, one week after the meeting in Newport Beach.

From what I was told, Dale was Dale, Jackson said. He definitely had an influence on my fiance. She knows a little about baseball, but shes learning. She was like: I like him, even though he didnt say much. We had a good aura with those guys and it was a pretty good feeling walking out of the room.

The Cubs did background checks with former coaches and ex-teammates, including Matt Garza, who played with Jackson on the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays team that made a shocking run to the World Series.

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We did all the digging we could do, Hoyer said. The reasons for him moving around certainly werent (because) he wasnt a good teammate or didnt work hard. It was kind of more contractual.

As Jackson said with a smile: Everyone likes me.

Jackson might not be slamming shaving cream pies into teammates faces during postgame interviews. But Hoyer got a scouting report on someone who can get loud and bring energy: No ones quite Matt Garza on the bench, but I guess he does a close imitation.

Hoyer said Garzas been making good progress as he begins throwing again and continues to recover from the stress reaction in his right elbow. If Garza and Scott Baker are healthy, and Jeff Samardzija takes another next step, the Cubs should have an interesting rotation, especially with Scott Feldman, Carlos Villanueva, Travis Wood and Arodys Vizcaino creating depth.

Convinced Jackson would be a good clubhouse guy, and a big part of a team that could truly contend in 2015, the Cubs made their biggest investment in a free agent since Epstein and Hoyer came to the North Side.

You cant really go out and just like snap your fingers: OK, now were ready. Now were going to spend money, Hoyer said. You have to look at it as a gradual process with each offseason. Looking at the free-agent markets going forward for starting pitching, it was really attractive. There (arent) many (proven) guys that come out (at) 29 years old.

After helping the St. Louis Cardinals win the World Series in 2011, Jackson signed a one-year, 11 million pillow contract with a Washington Nationals team that would win 98 games last season. Those experiences made the Cubs comfortable with the commitment.

We have no concerns whatsoever about him living up to the contract, Hoyer said. Hes seen and hes been part of building efforts that worked out very well. We feel like he can do the exact same thing here. His best years are ahead of him.

Jackson didnt get a no-trade clause, per club policy, but that doesnt mean hes an asset to be flipped. The Cubs view him as a building block, an investment that might even outperform Sanchez.

Its an organization that has upside, Jackson said. Its just a matter of getting the right pieces in order and having everyone play on the same page. Its definitely a team that can go out and win a lot of ballgames, regardless of what anyone says.

After winter of taking heat, Cubs still have Joe Maddon's back

After winter of taking heat, Cubs still have Joe Maddon's back

MESA, Ariz. — It only took 21 minutes into spring training — or the first press conference on the day pitchers and catchers officially reported to Arizona — before Joe Maddon listened to another question about all the heat he took for his World Series Game 7 decisions.

More than 2,000 miles away at Yankee camp in Florida last week, Aroldis Chapman told the Chicago Sun-Times that he "was just being truthful" when he used the conference call to announce the biggest contract ever for a closer — five years and $86 million — to inform the New York media that Maddon misused him during the playoffs. Nothing lost in translation there.

Miguel Montero finally declared a ceasefire on Monday night, getting the sit-down meeting the Cubs felt should go longer than the standard meet and greet after the veteran catcher's jarringly critical comments on WMVP-AM 1000 (if only because it happened on the same day as the championship parade and Grant Park rally).

"It's such an unusual situation," general manager Jed Hoyer said, "because we won the World Series, and theoretically you think that people would be really happy."

As ex-Cub manager Dale Sveum might say: "Ya think?"

Ending the 108-year drought might lead Maddon's Hall of Fame plaque someday, but it also led to waves and waves of second-guessing and speculation about how it might impact his clubhouse credibility. But with Maddon and Montero declaring their Andreoli Italian Grocer summit a success, gonzo strength and conditioning coordinator Tim Buss cruising onto the field in a Ferrari for the first wacky stunt of 2017 and Cactus League games beginning on Saturday, it's time to remember that the Cubs still have their manager's back.

"Everyone says they don't see or read anything," pitcher Jake Arrieta said. "We see and hear a lot of the stuff. But I just think that critics are going to find holes in something always.

"Joe was our leader all year last year. He obviously set the tone in spring training and gives us all these freedoms that help us play the way we played. So the people that matter — and know what Joe's about — are on the same page with his philosophies.

"The way he expresses himself to us is the most important thing. And we stand behind him. We trust that he's going to do what's in our best interest. And we know that any decision he makes is geared towards trying to help us win."

Within the last two seasons, the Cubs have won 200 games, five playoff rounds and their first World Series title since the Theodore Roosevelt administration. Maddon readily admits that the scouting and development wings of Theo Epstein's front office did most of the heavy lifting and credits the strong coaching staff he largely inherited. Spending more than $475 million on free agents like Jon Lester and Ben Zobrist certainly helped.

But all this doesn't happen without Maddon and the environment he created. The Cubs Way absolutely needed a ringmaster for this circus.

Arrieta developed into a Cy Young Award winner. Kyle Hendricks transformed into an ERA leader. Kris Bryant burst onto the scene as a Rookie of the Year and the National League MVP. Addison Russell became an All-Star shortstop by the age of 22. Maddon didn't prejudge Javier Baez, immediately appreciating the dazzling array of skills and super-utility possibilities.

Surprised by the Maddon backlash?

"Yes and no," All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. "Because there needs to be a story. But what he did — people who are real involved know that since Day 1, he came in and he set the tone.

"He completely flipped the way people think, the way we believe, and everyone has bought into it. The credit he deserves — he gets a lot of it — but I don't think he gets enough of it. Because he lets me be me. He lets Javy be Javy.

"Willson (Contreras), Kris and Addie — everyone has their different personalities. He understands that. And it's not easy to do."

It's such an impossible job, at times, that even Cubs officials and players have acknowledged their frustrations with some of Maddon's in-game decisions and communication gaps. This can't just be written off as a media creation. But imagine the grumbling if the Cubs didn't have a leader with seven 90-win seasons and three Manager of the Year awards on his resume.

"We have a competitive group of guys," Hoyer said. "Every guy wants to be on the field at the right time. Every guy wants to be on the roster. Every guy wants to pitch in winning games.

"That's not realistic sometimes. It comes from a great place. It doesn't come from a place of selfishness. It comes from a place of: 'I want to contribute to winning.'

"The meetings we've had have been awesome. Our camp is unbelievably focused. We are just as focused as last year. I really don't look at it as a negative."

The last word from Maddon, who turned 63 this month and has a $25 million contract, a wide range of off-the-field interests and the championship ring that will make him a legend in Chicago forever, no matter what kind of heat he took this winter.

"Stuff like that doesn't bother me at all," Maddon said. "Regardless of what people may have thought — like any other game that I worked all year long — I had it planned out like that before the game began. So it wasn't anything I tried to do differently game in progress. Had I not done what I thought I was supposed to do — then I would have second-guessed myself.

"So, no, I have no problem with that. I really don't mind the second-guessing from anybody. I kind of encourage it. Please go ahead and do it, because I'll take that kind of second-guessing after winning a World Series on an annual basis. Thank you very much."

Kris Bryant: Major League Baseball could be going down 'slippery slope' with rules changes

Kris Bryant: Major League Baseball could be going down 'slippery slope' with rules changes

MESA, Ariz. – Kris Bryant has led a charmed baseball life – Golden Spikes Award winner, Arizona Fall League MVP, consensus minor league player of the year, two-time All-Star, Hank Aaron Award winner, National League Rookie of the Year and MVP and World Series champion – all before his 25th birthday last month.

So, no, the Cubs superstar doesn't see the need for any dramatic overhaul to a sport that's desperately trying to connect with Bryant's demographic and keep up at a time when iPhones are killing everyone's attention spans and the entertainment options are endless.            

"I love the way it is," Bryant before Wednesday's workout at the Sloan Park complex.

Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred essentially fired a warning shot during Tuesday's Cactus League media event at the Arizona Biltmore, threatening to unilaterally impose pace-of-play changes – think pitch clock, limited mound visits, new strike zone – for the 2018 season if the players' union doesn't cooperate.

The first reported difference is the traditional four-pitch intentional walk turning into a dugout signal, which seems to be more of a cosmetic change than an actual efficiency measure.

"You're in the box, you want to force someone to make a pitch," said Bryant, who remembered Anthony Rizzo’s 10th-inning matchup against Cleveland Indians reliever Bryan Shaw. "Just the World Series, for example, when 'Rizz' got intentionally walked. There were a couple that were low. What if the ball got away? That's huge. Especially in that type of situation – Game 7 of the World Series – you want to put pressure on the pitcher any way you can.

"It seems like it's not stressful at all, but any time you're not throwing at full effort for a pitcher, it seems like there's a chance that we could do damage on that."

That's actually Manfred's agenda in an age of grinding at-bats, specialized bullpens and defensive shifts – trying to create more action and eliminating some of the dead air more than simply cutting the length of games by a few minutes.

"The game's been the same to me since I was young, so I don't think there's anything wrong with it," Bryant said. "I think that's what makes our game great. It is a long game and we play 162 games a year and there's more strategy involved with it. I think it could be a slippery slope once you start changing all these things. 

"The people you really need to ask are the fans. The diehard fans are going to be the ones who oppose more changes. They're the ones who pay to watch us play. Those are the opinions that you need."

In using this power in the new collective bargaining agreement as leverage, Manfred is looking at the future of a $10 billion industry, insisting the game isn't broken when more than 75 million people visited major-league stadiums last season.

But even Cubs manager Joe Maddon – who’s usually open-minded and in tune with these kind of big-picture ideas – doesn’t get the pace-of-play focus.

"I'm not privy to all the reasons why it's so important," Maddon said. "It just appears to be important for the people in New York. My job is not to make those decisions. My job is to ultimately make the Cubs play well again, etc., so there are certain things that I don’t quite understand.

"If I had more interior information maybe you could be more supportive of it. On the surface – I've talked about it in the past – I don't really understand the pace-of-game issues because I don't really pay attention to that. I'm just locked into managing the game. The nine innings go 2 hours and 15 minutes, or 3 hours and 20, as long as you win, I don’t care.

"That's where I come from, but there's something obviously larger than that that's really causing a lot of these discussions. Again, from my office, I don't necessarily know what that is. But I do know new normals may occur."