The long shadow cast by Pujols and Fielder

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The long shadow cast by Pujols and Fielder

MESA, Ariz. Before the Cubs played their final home game last September, Rodrigo Lopez asked a stadium worker to take his picture. Lopez stood at home plate with Wrigley Field as the backdrop.

Lopez began last season pitching for the Atlanta Braves Triple-A affiliate. The Cubs traded for him almost two months in as emergency depth. He didnt know what was going to happen no one did, really so he wanted a memento.

If Lopez became a symbol for an organization that was scrambling, he also emerged as a bit player in baseballs biggest offseason story, which through all the misdirection still pointed the way the Cubs were heading.

The lobby was buzzing at the Hilton Anatole in Dallas during the winter meetings. Twitter was spinning constantly. Here was a great nugget for the 247 news cycle: Theo Epstein met with the agent for Albert Pujols.

Well, we met with Danny Lozano, Epstein said that night up in his hotel suite last December. He also represents Rodrigo Lopez, among other players, soits not always that youre there to talk about The Big Kahuna.

The national perception was that the Cubs had to make a big splash, while almost everyone who read between the lines with Epstein thought they werent looking for the quick fix.

The Los Angeles Angels shocked the world by giving Pujols a 10-year megadeal worth around 250 million. The Cubs arent putting Lopez on any billboards, but they are giving him the ball to start Sundays Cactus League opener against the Oakland As at HoHoKam Stadium.

I dont like to watch MLB Network or ESPN or stuff like that, Lopez said. Its too much information. Im trying to take a break when Im in the offseason. Some of the guys saw it on the Internet.

I got friends who were telling me, Hey, your name came out with the Cubs. It was funny for me, too. Im like, Yeah, cool.

Across his career, the 36-year-old Lopez has been represented by Scott Boras, Beverly Hills Sports Council and Lozano, who got him a minor-league deal with a set salary number if he breaks camp with the Cubs.

Epstein needed credible starting pitching, and as a swingman Lopez did a nice job for the Cubs last season, going 6-6 with a 4.42 ERA in almost 100 innings. The president of baseball operations spent the winter searching for value, buying low on players and offering opportunity.

With Pujols off the board, Boras kept dangling Prince Fielder, but the Cubs continued to reassure Bryan LaHair that he would get a very good shot at first base. Even with manager Dale Sveum being tight with Fielder from their time together with the Milwaukee Brewers.

They had great communication with me from Day 1, LaHair said. Even when they traded for (prospect Anthony) Rizzo, they contacted me right away. I think I knew before it was even out in the press. Thats all you can ask for just good communication and the truth and the honesty. Thats all theyve done for me since theyve been on board.

LaHair doesnt have age (29) or pedigree (39th-round pick) on his side. But the Pacific Coast League MVP generated 38 homers and 109 RBI last season at Triple-A Iowa.

The bottom line is the kid deserves a chance, Sveum said. We didnt have an incumbent or anybody making 15 million in front of him. What he did in winter ball is just as impressive. To hit 15 home runs in (Venezuela)? Nobody does that.

We never even offered Prince anything. That was more (speculation), whether it was my connection with Prince or just the media jumping the gun a little bit. But we had our guy and all along it was LaHair.

So the Cubs wont have to worry about how some new star will acclimate to Wrigley Fields cramped clubhouse. Lopez said his young boys who enjoyed running around the place complained a little bit about small family room. So their father had to explain that its an old stadium filled with history and tradition.

Thats why five months ago, with so much uncertainty at Clark and Addison, Lopez got his picture taken. The Cubs have shown patience and restraint and will be playing this season without the weight of expectations. Who could have seen this coming?

You never know whats going to happen, Lopez said. Hopefully, I get a chance to take more shots.

Jason Heyward surprised Cubs fans didn’t boo Rajai Davis more

Jason Heyward surprised Cubs fans didn’t boo Rajai Davis more

MESA, Ariz. – The Cactus League crowds are different than the ones packed into Wrigley Field. It was only a meaningless split-squad game on a Saturday afternoon in the Arizona sunshine. Finally winning the World Series must have somewhat dulled the edge.

But Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward still thought Rajai Davis would hear it from the sellout crowd of 14,929 at Sloan Park, the what-could-have-been anxiety bubbling up when seeing the Oakland A's leadoff guy who nearly changed the course of baseball history.

"I was surprised he didn't get booed more, but that's just how our fans are," Heyward said. "They're fun like that. They have fun with the game. They acknowledge it. That's pretty cool for Cubs fans to boo you. If anybody boos you from last year, that's kind of an honor, I would say. To be on that side of things, it means you did something great."

As Alfonso Soriano liked to say, they don't boo nobodies. With one big swing, Davis almost unleashed a miserable winter for the Cubs and ended the Cleveland Indians' 68-year drought.

Manager Joe Maddon kept pushing closer Aroldis Chapman, who fired 97 pitches in Games 5, 6, and 7 combined. Davis timed seven straight fastballs in the eighth inning – the last one at 97.1 mph – and drove a Game 7-tying two-run homer just inside the foul pole and onto the left-field patio. In a now-famous rain-delay speech, Heyward gathered his teammates in a Progressive Field weight room as the Cubs regained their composure.

"They booed him, but only the first at-bat," Heyward said. "The second at-bat and the third, I was like: ‘Eh, they kind of just let him off the hook.' They let him be."

The fans who stuck around until the end got to hear "Go Cubs Go" after a 4-3 win. Davis parlayed that big moment into a one-year, $6 million contract with the A's. The Cubs will see the Indians again on Sunday afternoon in Mesa.

"As players, we're all onto the season and enjoying this ride and a new journey," said Heyward, who went 0-for-3 with an RBI as he worked on his new swing. "All the teams that we played in the playoffs are obviously out here in spring training, so it's just really fun and it's good for the makeup of your team when you compete that way.

"You're thrown right back into the fire when you talk about the competition and remembering things that happened in the postseason. But we don't dwell on it too much."

Cubs envisioning ‘hybrid' roles for Mike Montgomery and Brett Anderson

Cubs envisioning ‘hybrid' roles for Mike Montgomery and Brett Anderson

MESA, Ariz. – The Cubs believe Mike Montgomery will be so much more than just the answer to a trivia question or a cameo appearance in the highlight film.

The symmetry became impossible to miss on Saturday at Sloan Park, where the Cubs put the World Series trophy on display behind home plate and set off fireworks at 1:06 p.m. Three minutes later, the guy who threw the last pitch of 2016 threw the first pitch 2017 pitch in Mesa.

That it came against Rajai Davis added to the moment. Scattered boos greeted Davis when the Oakland A's leadoff guy walked toward the batter's box, a reminder of how he almost turned a dream season into a nightmare when he slammed Aroldis Chapman's 97.1 mph fastball onto Progressive Field's left-field patio just inside the foul pole for a Game 7-tying two-run homer for the Cleveland Indians.

A year that began with Montgomery thinking he might be playing in Japan ended in that mosh pit. A lefty who had been viewed as a low-leverage swingman for the Seattle Mariners notched the final out of the World Series for a franchise that hadn't won one since 1908.

"Be ready for anything," Montgomery said when asked about the "hybrid" job description manager Joe Maddon laid out for him and Brett Anderson, the other lefty in the mix for the fifth-starter job.

"The big thing with both of them (is) neither one has really been stretched out anywhere close to 200 innings over the last couple years," Maddon said before a 4-3 split-squad win over Oakland. "So we're thinking it's almost like a hybrid moment. Maybe fold one back into the bullpen while the other one starts. And vice versa. Or just jump a sixth guy in there now and then to keep the other guys from being overworked too early.

"It's in theory right now. We haven't actually laid it down on paper. We feel pretty fortunate. If everybody stays healthy, you got six guys that you like right there. It's hard for anybody to say that. That's the point. These guys have not been really satisfactorily stretched out over the last couple years.

"How do we keep them both active and helping us? That's going to be our challenge early and through the beginning part of the season."

Anderson (29) is older and more experienced and working on a one-year, $3.5 million deal that could max out at $10 million if he rips off the injury-prone label and makes 29 starts. Montgomery (27) is the more raw talent (23 career big-league starts) the Cubs now control through the 2021 season.

"There's a lot of different possibilities that they could go with," Montgomery said. "For me, it's just continuing to build up my arm strength and getting my timing down, my mechanics down and that way I'm ready to go and do whatever it is that they need me to."

Pitching in front of 14,929 and an All-Star infield, Montgomery walked Davis and Matt Joyce and notched two strikeouts in a scoreless first inning. Montgomery felt the adrenaline rush, but nothing in Arizona can compare to the 10th inning of a Game 7.

"The sky's the limit," Maddon said. "He's like a 10-plus game winner on an annual basis as a starter. I think he definitely has that within his abilities. I've told him that (winning) 10 to 15 games is within his abilities, no doubt. That comes with fastball command and then knowing what to do with his breaking pitches. He's got really high-quality stuff.

"I'd like to think that moment will increase his confidence. But then again, it's a new year. And you have to go out there and pitch."