Jackson aiming to bring winning tradition to Cubs

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Jackson aiming to bring winning tradition to Cubs

At a charity event in December, Cubs Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins said he thinks he would earn 30 million a year if he was in his prime during today's crazy free agent market.

Edwin Jackson isn't quite worth that -- 52 million over four years, to be exact -- but he was still one of the main draws at the 2013 Cubs Convention.

As Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer look to build the Cubs into a serial contender, they settled for making incremental moves in free agency to help improve the club. But then Jackson came along and the front office felt he was the right player at the right time.

For Jackson, a guy who has put on six different uniforms in the last five seasons, the appeal of a four-year contract was too much to pass up.

"It's always a pleasure knowing you have a chance to have stability," Jackson said Saturday at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers. "You don't have to worry about moving around, and also, you get to gel with guys for a long period of time. That definitely helps you guys learn each other and it's imperative to a winning team. It helps you play better."

Jackson, who doesn't turn 30 until September, has already been traded six times in his career and granted free agency twice.

He's been on so many different teams in such a short time that in a Saturday panel with fans, new Cubs TV broadcaster Jim Deshaies actually likened Jackson to "the Kevin Bacon of baseball. But instead of six degrees of separation, you only need three to find a guy who played with a teammate of Jackson's."

Jackson says he has a "collage of jerseys," but may have finally found a home here in the Windy City.

"Chicago is a great city," Jackson said. "For us to be able to come out and try to change the tradition around the Cubs organization, I think it could be a lot of fun.

"My family and I, we love Chicago. Being on the North Side, playing at Wrigley, I can definitely picture myself being here for a long time, having a lot of success and helping bring this organization up to a winning tradition."

Of course, most baseball fans know Jackson has already spent parts of two season in Chicago, pitching for the White Sox at the end of 2010 and beginning of 2011, sandwiched in between a pair of trades.

But there's no question as to where Jackson's loyalty lies.

"I'm definitely looking forward to pitching on the good side," Jackson said Saturday, much to the delight of the fans. "I'm coming from the bad side -- the dark side -- and now I'm on the North Side. This is one of the greatest fan bases in the game and you see the turnout this weekend.

"It's been one of the greatest fan fests that I've been to...I feel great. There's a lot of energy. I'm excited to get the season started and experience it from the home side of things, instead of the visiting side where everybody is heckling me."

Jackson made the All-Star team in 2009 and already has one no-hitter to his name -- which he called the best and worst game of his career, as he also walked eight batters in the process. He carries a 70-71 lifetime record with a 4.40 ERA and 1.44 WHIP over more than 1,200 innings.

He brings gritty playoff experience to a team in the midst of rebuilding, having already won one World Series with the Cardinals in 2011 and appearing in another with the Rays in '08. Jackson was also a key part of last year's Washington Nationals team that led Major League Baseball with 98 wins in the regular season.

But that doesn't mean Jackson's going to be giving any rah-rah speeches in the locker room anytime soon.

"I'm not coming into a situation assuming I have to be a leader," he said. "You don't necessarily have to be vocal to be a leader. You can lead by actions and I'm definitely one of those guys. I'm not necessarily the most outspoken guy, unless I need to be.

"When there comes a situation to provide information, I can definitely fulfill that role. I'm just coming to play and have a lot of fun with these guys and try to win a lot of ballgames."

Cubs: Ben Zobrist's path back to October and a possible three-peat

Cubs: Ben Zobrist's path back to October and a possible three-peat

MESA, Ariz. – Ben Zobrist is focused on a personal three-peat, not worrying about a changing of the guard or any awkward moments with Javier Baez. Cubs manager Joe Maddon has repeatedly said that Zobrist will be the primary second baseman and another "Javy Being Javy" highlight reel from the World Baseball Classic won't change that thinking right now.

Zobrist sees the big picture better than almost anyone else in the clubhouse after going undrafted out of Eureka High School in downstate Illinois, perfecting the super-utility role Maddon envisioned with the Tampa Bay Rays and helping transform the 2015 Kansas City Royals into World Series champions.

While Baez started all 17 playoff games at second base last year, bursting onto the scene as the National League Championship co-MVP, Zobrist became the World Series MVP with his clutch hitting and still has three seasons left on his $56 million contract.

Maddon didn't spare anyone's feelings during the playoffs, turning $184 million outfielder Jason Heyward into a part-time player, giving a quick hook to major-league ERA leader Kyle Hendricks and shunning relievers not named Aroldis Chapman.

"We haven't had an extended conversation about it," Zobrist said. "But at the beginning of spring, we talked about it. I think his words were: ‘I really think rest is the next improvement in player performance.' Learning what rest means, what good rest is for players and what kind of rest certain players need versus others.

"That doesn't necessarily mean just because you're 35. It could mean you're 25 and you still got to take care of yourself and make sure you're getting the proper rest. Because we have such a deep team, he's able to do that at any given point in time and still feel confident about the team we have on the field.

"It's a good problem to have when you have really good players not playing and sitting on the bench. We had that all last year and we had guys accept their role and just buy into the team concept.

"The makeup of this team is the same, basically. We've got a few new guys and they've got the same mindset, so I anticipate more of the same."

Injuries are one variable that prevents Maddon from getting too stressed out about dividing the playing time over 162 games while the NCAA tournament is still going. Zobrist's stiff neck felt good enough to hit leadoff and play right field in Tuesday afternoon's 10-7 loss to the San Francisco Giants, seeing his first Cactus League action since March 19.

Zobrist plans to play again on Wednesday in Mesa and catch up with more at-bats on the minor-league side of the complex. Assuming Zobrist and All-Star shortstop Addison Russell (stiff back) are ready for Opening Night, Baez will be an NLCS MVP, all-WBC talent waiting for the right matchup or break in the schedule or to sub in as a defensive replacement.

"It's pretty impressive, looking around at the young talent in this clubhouse," Zobrist said. "All throughout spring training, we've seen there's definitely other talent coming, so this team is poised to have a good, long run of success. If everybody stays healthy and we stay together, this is a very good team.

"The biggest thing that I go into the season with this year is we have to be healthy and we have to make sure that we don't relax too much. That's the temptation for teams that just won, to go: OK, well, we're tired, because we had a long season last year and you kind of just assume things are going to go as well as they did.

"You can't assume anything. No matter how good this team is, we have to still go out and execute and perform – and that's going to determine where we are in the standings."

In real time, as the Cubs experienced their lowest moments during last year's regular season, Zobrist correctly pointed out the exhaustion factor while the team played 24 days in a row, losing 15 of their last 21 games before the All-Star break.

What looks like overwhelming depth on paper should help the 2017 Cubs survive and advance into October.

"It's huge," Zobrist said. "It's up and down the lineup on offense. It's all throughout the pitching staff and on the defensive side. It's so deep that you can absorb a little bit of injury here and there.

"With that being said, there are certain guys that you just don't want to lose. So we got to protect everybody. We got to protect our horses – both on the mound and in the lineup – and just make sure that we have our key cogs in there. And if we do, we're as good, if not better, than anybody out there."

Cubs return Rule 5 lefty Caleb Smith to Yankees as roster comes into focus

Cubs return Rule 5 lefty Caleb Smith to Yankees as roster comes into focus

MESA, Ariz. - Matt Szczur vs. Tommy La Stella - and a combination of right/left, outfield/infield and contractual considerations - appears to be the final decision as the Cubs shape their Opening Night roster.

The Cubs returned Rule 5 lefty Caleb Smith to the New York Yankees on Tuesday and assigned injured non-roster players Jemile Weeks and Chris Dominguez to minor-league camp. That left 27 players still technically in the mix, though depth catcher Carlos Corporan isn't really part of that conversation.

The projected eight-man bullpen would look like this: Wade Davis; Koji Uehara; Pedro Strop; Hector Rondon; Carl Edwards Jr.; Justin Grimm; and lefties Mike Montgomery and Brian Duensing.

Szczur, who is out of minor-league options, could be a good fourth outfielder on a team that didn't have so much depth and World Series expectations, making him a potential trade chip for pitching. La Stella offers infield insurance and a left-handed bat off the bench.