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.

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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.