Maholm looking forward to bigger stage with Cubs

685776.png

Maholm looking forward to bigger stage with Cubs

MESA, Ariz. Paul Maholm shrugged his shoulders several times. He described himself as a quiet guy from a small town, who plans to go home to Mississippi when its all done. He came across as thoughtful and secure in his identity.

Maholm did not seem to be on edge, even after a bad flu case, or easily rattled. That should help him in going from the low-pressure environment around the Pittsburgh Pirates to Wrigley Field.

The Cubs have Matt Garza, who always seems to be making noise, and Ryan Dempster at the top of their rotation. The final two spots are up for grabs, with Chris Volstad, Randy Wells, Jeff Samardzija and Travis Wood among the contenders.

In the middle sits Maholm, the No. 3 starter who signed a free-agent contract that qualified as a splash for the Cubs this winter (4.25 million this season, with a 6.5 million club option for 2013).

Maholm, 29, never played for a Pirates team that won more than 72 games in a season. He had shown enough at Mississippi State University to become the eighth overall pick in the 2003 draft. His career record is 53-73 with a 4.36 ERA.

Have I thought I pitched better than that? Maholm said Tuesday. Yeah, but its there. Its in the books. Im not going to worry about what my record is. Were starting with a clean slate and I want to take the ball every fifth day and expect to win.

Im going to do everything I can (and) Im going to have every bit of confidence in the guys to put up runs and make the plays (behind me because) Im not a strikeout guy.

Manager Dale Sveum pointed to Maholms 3.66 ERA last year. The left-hander has also accounted for more than 1,100 innings in the majors. Thats a rotation lock.

He knows what hes doing out there, Sveum said, and anyone who saw what the lack of rotation depth did to the Cubs in 2011 knows what the manager is talking about.

Hes got four pitches that he can command and when hes keeping his sinker down in the strike zone, hes very, very effective in (using it) to get quick outs.

Maholm broke the news of his signing on Twitter, where he has almost 20,000 followers. The Roberto Clemente Award winner has used social media to reveal parts of his life, and from here its sometimes hard to understand why a professional athlete would open up like that in a gotcha culture.

I think Im pretty smart about trying to do the right thing, Maholm said. Im a Christian and Id like to hopefully have a platform to help others and with that comes charity work and other things that me and my wife have done in Pittsburgh.

Thats part of Twitter. Thats part of me. Im not going to shy away from it. Im not going to blast the team or any of that through my Twitter account. Its a way for fans to get to know me and interact with them and (let them) see the type of person and husband that I strive to be.

Maholm got into it with some Pittsburgh fans several weeks ago on Twitter after the Steelers lost an NFL playoff game to Tim Tebows Denver Broncos.

I thought it was a great story, he said. I dont think all athletes are necessarily role models, or they shouldnt be, but if youre going to put (up) a guy whos got the right values and the right work ethic, (Tebows) the guy right now.

I dont think you see him asking for interviews, holding press conferences on his own. Hes open. Hes going to talk. He comes off as one of the nicest guys (around). Sure, theres some overkill, but I think that comes with (todays) technology.

That last line might as well describe life around the Cubs and inside the cramped clubhouse at Wrigley Field. Maholm says hes looking forward to having 40,000 fans right on top of him.

Thats what you want, Maholm said. Thats what you play for.

Cubs Talk Podcast: Patrick Mooney goes one-on-one with Jed Hoyer

hoyer.jpg
USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Patrick Mooney goes one-on-one with Jed Hoyer

On the latest edition of the Cubs Talk Podcast, Kelly Crull and Luke Stuckmeyer talk about the first week of spring training. 

The two discuss ace contracts, leadoff intimidation and give their thoughts on the Sammy Sosa saga. 

Plus CSNChicago.com Cubs Insider Patrick Mooney goes one-on-one with general manager Jed Hoyer. 

Listen to the Cubs Talk Podcast below. 

Cubs eager to see the Jason Heyward relaunch in Cactus League

Cubs eager to see the Jason Heyward relaunch in Cactus League

MESA, Ariz. — Cactus League stats are supposed to be irrelevant, especially for the guy with the biggest contract in franchise history. Jason Heyward already built up a reservoir of goodwill as a former All Star, three-time Gold Glove defender and World Series champion. The intangibles got Heyward $184 million guaranteed, and the Cubs are hoping a new comfort level will lead to a Jon Lester effect in Year 2 of that megadeal.

But Heyward will still be one of the most scrutinized players in Mesa after an offseason overhaul that tried to recapture the rhythm and timing he felt with the 2012 Braves (27 homers) and break some of the bad habits that had slowly crept into his high-maintenance left-handed swing.

"If there's ever any doubt," Heyward said, "then you probably shouldn't be here."

Heyward will be batting leadoff and starting in right field on Saturday afternoon when the Cubs open their exhibition schedule with a split-squad game against the A's at Sloan Park. If Heyward has anything to prove this spring, it's "probably to himself, not to us," general manager Jed Hoyer said, backing a player who does the little things so well and commands respect throughout the clubhouse.

"There's going to be growing pains with making adjustments," Hoyer said. "He'll probably have some good days and some bad days. But I think the most important thing is that he feels comfortable and uses these five weeks to lock in and get ready for the Cardinals."

The Cubs are betting on Heyward's age (27), track record (three seasons where he showed up in the National League MVP voting), understanding of the strike zone (.346 career on-base percentage) and willingness to break down his swing this winter at the team's Arizona complex.

At the same time, Heyward realizes "it's just the offseason" and "a never-ending process in baseball." There are no sweeping conclusions to be made when the opposing starting pitcher showers, talks to the media and leaves the stadium before the game ends.

"I'm not sitting here telling you: 'Oh, I know for sure what's going to happen,'" Heyward said. "I don't know how it's going to go. But I know I did a damn good job of preparing for it."

[MORE CUBS: No hard feelings: Cubs and Pedro Strop look to future with contract extension]

Manager Joe Maddon — who gave Heyward nearly 600 plate appearances to figure it out during the regular season (.631 OPS) before turning him into a part-time outfielder in the playoffs (5-for-48) — usually thinks batting practice is overrated or a waste of time. But at 6-foot-5 — and with so much riding on an offensive resurgence — Heyward is hard to miss.

"I can see it's a lot freer and the ball's coming off hotter," Maddon said. "But it's all about game. I'm really eager for him, because everybody just talks about all the work he's done all winter.

"Conversationally with him, I sense or feel like he feels good about it and that he's kind of at a nice peaceful moment with himself. So it will be really fun to watch."

A 103-win season, an American League-style lineup that scored 808 runs, a new appreciation for defensive metrics and a professional attitude helped provide cover for Heyward, who largely escaped the wrath of Cubs fans with little patience for big-ticket free agents.

"Baseball is a game that's going to humble you every day," Heyward said. "You're going to fail more times than you succeed, so it's all about how you handle it, as an individual and as a group. We handled it the best out of anyone last year as a team. And that's why we were able to win the World Series.

"There's always things you feel like you need to work on. You can ask guys who had the best years — there's always something they're trying to improve on and something they don't feel great about at a certain point in time during the year.

"I just happened to have a little bit more breaking down to do. A lot of things allowed me to just kind of pause (and) look forward and not really think about trying to compete and win a game. Let's just get some work done."