Cubs wont be starstruck anymore

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Cubs wont be starstruck anymore

Perhaps this all ends Friday night, with everyone holding up a No. 34 jersey and flashbulbs popping inside a Hilton Chicago ballroom.

But its the middle of January and Kerry Wood is still a free agent. The 34-year-old reliever is being linked to contenders like the Philadelphia Phillies, Detroit Tigers and Los Angeles Angels. Maybe its time to chase a ring.

This is an iconic player who came back at a discount and will always be identified with this city. Hes also someone who, by his very nature, is proud and competitive and likes to keep score.

Whatever happens, Wood remaining unsigned past Christmas and well into the New Year shows that Theo Epstein isnt going to be starstruck. A deadline of sorts appears to be this weekends Cubs Convention.

We continue to want Kerry back in Chicago, general manager Jed Hoyer said Tuesday. Weve offered him a substantial raise and we certainly hope it gets done.

These executives are not worried about external pressure from the fans or media. They are not pretending that the team is one Prince Fielder megadeal away from the World Series. They are interested in value and walled off from sentiment, not particularly attached to this group of players.

This front office is playing the long game, which is why the Matt Garza trade rumors arent going away anytime soon. The signing of Paul Maholm became official on Tuesday and that represents another incremental move that wasnt made to sell tickets.

Maholm went 6-14 with a 3.66 ERA for a bad Pittsburgh Pirates team last year. He will receive 4.25 million this season, with a 6.5 million club option for 2013 (or a 500,000 buyout).

Maholm was shut down with shoulder soreness late last season, but described it as a pulled muscle, nothing major. He has been working with the training staff for Dr. James Andrews and expects to be good to go in spring training.

The Cubs now have six starters on paper: Garza, Maholm, Ryan Dempster, Randy Wells, Chris Volstad and Travis Wood. Hoyer wouldnt comment on the Garza reports, but said that the Maholm deal is not a precursor to anything.

Garza and Wood are two big names that would fit in on any team built to win now. The Cubs are looking to make a splash in 2014 and beyond.

Thirteen months ago, Wood attended Ron Santos funeral and felt a pull back toward the Cubs and a place that felt like home.

Wood took a below-market deal one year at 1.5 million that was negotiated by Jim Hendry, the general manager at the time. Their relationship went back to the 1995 draft, when the Cubs took the kid out of Grand Prairie High School (Texas) with the fourth overall pick.

There was also an understanding with chairman Tom Ricketts that Wood would have a role within the organization after his playing career was over.

Near the end of last season, Wood said he would probably retire if he couldnt pitch for the Cubs in 2012. The reliever laughed when it was suggested that he just gave away all his leverage.

Wood and his family live in Chicago during the offseason. His wife, Sarah, grew up in the citys suburbs and together theyve launched a charitable foundation that will hold a fundraiser on Friday night at Harry Carays Tavern on Navy Pier.

Several Cubs players are scheduled to attend the event, along with Ricketts and Epstein, who has called re-signing Wood a priority. A new administration might have a different idea of what Wood is worth.

We come in with somewhat of a fresh set of eyes, Hoyer said. That doesnt diminish what people have done long before were here. We both understand the history of the organization and we understand which players mean a lot to the fans. Kerry is one of them (and) were aware of (that).

Fresh eyes are one thing, but that doesnt mean you sort of ignore the rich past that the Cubs have.

Late Monday night Maholm announced the deal on his personal Twitter account. The next morning he told the media on the conference call: I wasnt trying to scoop any of you guys. Decision time is coming again soon, so you might want to follow @KerryWood.

Cubs preparing to hire new translator after Aroldis Chapman’s rocky start in Chicago

Cubs preparing to hire new translator after Aroldis Chapman’s rocky start in Chicago

The Cubs are in the process of hiring a new translator for Aroldis Chapman, sources said, trying to smooth things over after a rocky introduction to Chicago that left the superstar closer feeling frustrated by his portrayal in the media.

Chapman told Comcast SportsNet Chicago’s Siera Santos that he requested a new translator on Thursday, while a Cubs official said the team had made the offer earlier this week, responding to all the negative coverage from a press conference that made a bad first impression and national headlines for the wrong reasons.

The Cubs understood trading for Chapman – who began this season serving a 30-game suspension under Major League Baseball’s domestic violence policy – would immediately spark controversy.

But the Cubs still didn’t seem completely prepared for the moment, or quite as thorough as advertised, watching Chapman look disengaged on Tuesday, not remembering anything specific about what chairman Tom Ricketts had told him over the phone about off-the-field conduct – a precondition that president of baseball operations Theo Epstein sold as an essential part of the deal with the New York Yankees.

With a large group of reporters gathered before a Cubs-White Sox game, Chapman sat in U.S. Cellular Field’s visiting dugout next to Henry Blanco, the quality-assurance coach and former big-league catcher who’s approved under the new joint program between Major League Baseball and the players’ union that requires every team to have a full-time, Spanish-speaking translator this year.

Blanco has built-in credibility and communication skills after playing for 11 different teams across 16 big-league seasons, but he found himself in a difficult position, given the sensitive nature of the questions and what’s at stake for a World Series favorite and an image-conscious organization.

Chapman later did a one-on-one interview in Spanish with ESPN’s Pedro Gomez. The team’s public-relations department circulated that transcript, with Epstein saying Chapman had been nervous and something got lost in translation.

But the damage had been done, with a visibly upset Chapman initially refusing to speak to the media on Wednesday night after making a spectacular debut in a Cubs uniform, unleashing 13 pitches from his left arm that registered at least 100 mph on the big Wrigley Field video board.

It became an awkward scene after what was supposed to be a feel-good 8-1 victory over the White Sox, creating a new tension in a laid-back clubhouse. Chapman showered, listened to his associates and ultimately agreed to two minutes of questions, with catcher Miguel Montero becoming his translator.

“What I’m trying to do right now is to really build a relationship with this guy so he starts trusting me,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I believe once that occurs, I’m really going to be able to understand exactly what he’s about and what he’s thinking.

“I know there’s been some reticence or pushback regarding him to this point. However, understand where he’s coming from right now. We don’t know him. He doesn’t know us. And he really doesn’t even know the language.”

Chapman – who grew up in Cuba and is now in his seventh season in the big leagues – should be motivated to acclimate given the possibility of a World Series ring and a big free-agent contract this winter.

“I’ve spoken to him only once, at length, just trying to get him to relax,” Maddon said, “(and) have him understand me and what we’re all about here.

“As we all develop better relationships with him, the conversation’s going to flow a lot more easily and you’re going to maybe get the kind of information you’re looking for. But to put myself in his shoes, coming into a new venue, a new city, new everything, it’s a pretty heavy moment to immediately be scrutinized that way. I can almost understand why it’s been difficult for him.”

With Aroldis Chapman in the fold, do Cubs now have a bullpen that rivals world champion Royals?

With Aroldis Chapman in the fold, do Cubs now have a bullpen that rivals world champion Royals?

Aroldis Chapman firing 103 mph fastballs past hitters is going to send the sellout crowds at Wrigley into a frenzy on a nightly basis in the season's final few months.

It also gives the Cubs bullpen a completely different look, something Joe Maddon has referenced several times since Theo Epstein's front office pulled off the blockbuster for the most dominant closer in the game.

With Chapman slamming the door in the ninth, Hector Rondon and his 1.89 ERA now move up to the eighth inning. Pedro Strop — who is having arguably the best season of his career with a 2.79 ERA, 0.82 WHIP and 11.4 K/9 — now slots in as a seventh-inning guy.

It has the look of a trio of relievers that could rival the dominant Kansas City Royals bullpen over the last two World Series runs.

Cubs second baseman/outfielder Ben Zobrist got a firsthand look at the back end of the Royals' bullpen last fall, watching Kelvin Herrera, Ryan Madson and Wade Davis combine for only one unearned run against the New York Mets in 12 World Series innings.

Zobrist isn't ready to crown the Cubs' bullpen in the same category, but he could see how the comparisons could be made.

"I don't know; it just started," Zobrist said before Thursday's Crosstown finale. "I'm not gonna say it's exactly like it. It's different. It's different guys, but it's the same type of makeup.

"You got really hard-throwing guys that know how to spot their pitches and they're really tough pitchers. That's the way it felt last year in Kansas City. 

"When you get a guy like Strop or a Kelvin Herrera or whatever that's coming in in like the seventh, you're going, 'This guy can be a closer on just about any other team and yet he's coming in this early in the game.'

"That spells doom for other teams. It's tough to overcome that later in the game."

[RELATED - The Aroldis Chapman Show comes to Wrigley]

With all the days off built into the posteseason, teams can roll with their best relievers on a nightly basis. 

Maddon likes to play matchups and ride the hot hand, but come October, he will have three very good options, as Chapman's presence has a domino effect on the rest of the relievers.

"That shortens the game," Zobrist said. "For the other team, when they're going up against that, they know that they only have so much time before the game is over in their minds mentally. 

"If we have a lead going into the sixth, seventh inning, they're in trouble because they're going to have to face some of the best relievers in the game the last few innings.

"What [Chapman] does to our bullpen is just takes it to that next level where the game is at least an inning shorter."

Cubs fans got to see that play out in front of them at Wrigley Field Wednesday night as Rondon came in to throw a perfect eighth before Chapman blew the Sox away in the ninth.

"They just know that it's hard to come back from a game when you're winning late in the game like that," Zobrist said. "Even if it's 3-1 like it was last night [before the Cubs tacked on five insurance runs], it seems like an insurmountable lead when you got a couple guys at the back end of the bullpen like that."

Cubs: The Aroldis Chapman Show begins at Wrigley Field

Cubs: The Aroldis Chapman Show begins at Wrigley Field

Rage Against the Machine’s “Wake Up” blasted from the Wrigley Field sound system at 9:51 p.m. on Wednesday as Aroldis Chapman trotted toward the mound. Nothing would get lost in translation as the Cubs unleashed their new closer on the White Sox.

Chapman didn’t feel the full rush of adrenaline, because a revived offense scored five runs in the eighth inning, ending the save situation and any real suspense for the crowd of 41,166. The game within the game became looking up at the 3,990-square-foot LED video board in left field for the velocity reading after each pitch and listening to the oohs and aahs.

Chapman made it look easy against the middle of the White Sox lineup, with 13 of his 15 pitches clocked between 100 and 103 mph in the ninth inning of an 8-1 victory. That triple-digit default setting, fluid left-handed delivery and intimidating presence showed why the Cubs made a game-changing trade with the New York Yankees.

The first impressions from Tuesday’s press conference apparently bothered Chapman enough that he initially refused to speak to the reporters waiting around his locker after his debut. There had been questions about his 30-game suspension under Major League Baseball’s domestic violence policy, the off-the-field expectations from chairman Tom Ricketts and where the wires got crossed with coach/translator Henry Blanco.

After taking a shower – and listening to a few associates inside the clubhouse – Chapman agreed to two minutes of questions with catcher Miguel Montero acting as his translator.

“It happened,” Chapman said when asked about his portrayal in the Chicago media. “Don’t want to go further with it.”

The controversy will begin to fade after Chapman struck out Jose Abreu swinging at a 91-mph slider that almost scraped the dirt, forced Todd Frazier into a routine groundball and struck out pinch-hitter Avisail Garcia looking at a 103-mph fastball.

“It’s just entertaining to watch the gun, beyond everything else,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He’s a different kind of a pitcher. You don’t see that every 100 years or so. He’s just that good. Everybody talks about the fastball. How good is the slider? The slider is devastating.

“He was very calm in the moment. He was able to get through the last couple days to go out there. It was almost good it wasn’t a save situation just to get his feet on the ground.”

Picture the drama and the excitement when Chapman isn’t throwing with a seven-run lead and has to get the final three outs in a playoff game at Wrigley Field.

“I’m not impressed – I thought we were getting a guy that threw 105,” winning pitcher Jason Hammel joked. “I’ve never seen anything like it.

“It’s jaw-dropping. To see that type of velocity and command, it’s almost unfair to have a slider and offspeed pitches after that, too.”

This is what the Cubs envisioned when they decided to weather the media storms and absorb the PR hits, how Maddon could reimagine the entire bullpen and the whole team would sense the game-over feeling when the ball is in Chapman’s left hand.

“That’s a confidence-booster for us and it’s a morale kick for anybody out there,” Hammel said. “For the other side, it’s got to be black clouds: ‘Oh man, we can’t let the bullpen get in there.’”