Chicago Cubs

Mooney: Pujols shadow doesn't bother Pena

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Mooney: Pujols shadow doesn't bother Pena

Thursday, Feb. 17, 2011
Posted 5:08 p.m. Updated 6:06 p.m.

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

MESA, Ariz. Carlos Pena made direct eye contact and thoughtfully considered each question. He speaks in full paragraphs and certainly doesnt sound like a mercenary.

But this is business. Scott Boras, baseballs most powerful agent, described it as a pillow contract, the one-year, 10 million deal that could give Pena the platform to command three times that as a free agent.

In return, the Cubs receive a left-handed power hitter and a Gold Glove first baseman without having to make a long-term financial commitment.

I dont know if that was a technical term, Pena said Thursday with a laugh. But I dont even care what they called it. It was more just (being) happy to come to this city. When I put this uniform on, Im like, Hey man, Im here. This is my ballclub. This is my team. This is where I belong.

Before Pena had even arrived for his first day of work at Fitch Park, this arrangement led to wild speculation that Albert Pujols will be the Cubs first baseman in 2012. Some 2,300 miles away in Jupiter, Fla., Pujols reported to Cardinals camp on Thursday and reaffirmed that he wont discuss a contract extension until seasons end.

I havent even given it enough attention for it to be amusing to me, Pena said. Im here, Im a Cub today and Im just going to embrace that.

Pena will turn 33 in May and averaged 36 homers and 102 RBI across the past four seasons in Tampa Bay. But fans will look at his .196 batting average last year and wonder how far hes regressed.

Thats not me, he said. It wouldnt be intelligent on my part to carry that piece of luggage on my back (and) let it be the number that identifies me. Its not even an issue. Thats in the past. (I) know the type of player I am, so I pretty much erased that out of my mind.

Pena, who studied engineering at Northeastern University, is an analytical type. He traveled to Dallas last month to spend a week with hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo, who broke down his swing and encouraged him to keep it simple.

The Cubs are in trouble if Pena, who dealt with plantar fascia last season, doesnt stay healthy. On Thursday he worked out at first base with Tyler Colvin and Jeff Baker, two players with limited experience at the position. He should be a resource to anyone in the clubhouse.

Hes one of the best around, (both) on and off the field, said new Cubs pitcher Matt Garza, who played with Pena in Tampa Bay. Hes always open and very, very positive. Hes just a guy who lights up the room.

The Cubs do not have a long-term option at first base, unless they fully commit to converting Colvin. You can look at Penas one-year contract as motivation or distraction, but he gets rave reviews as a teammate.

Thats a character issue, manager Mike Quade said. Whether he had a one-year, a one-week, a 10-year (deal), I think you get the same guy.

Pena dodged a question about whether he would sign another contract with the Cubs if everything broke right, saying its foolish to look too far into the future, that it will only hurt the team. Hes found a place in Chicago, but good advice would be to rent, not buy.

Still, Pena came across as genuinely excited about this opportunity. Hes looking forward to seeing 40,000 fans on Opening Day at Wrigley Field, even if its a one-time deal.

Thats going to be intense, Pena said. I cant wait to feel that type of energy, man. I keep on hearing (about) it. (But) until I experience it, I wont know exactly what (they) mean. I read about it (and) players tell me about it. But when I feel those chills myself, thats when Ill understand what being a Cub really means.

PatrickMooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. FollowPatrick on Twitter @CSNMooneyfor up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

Once again, Javier Baez will be a huge X-factor for Cubs down the stretch

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USA TODAY

Once again, Javier Baez will be a huge X-factor for Cubs down the stretch

Javier Baez flicked his bat and watched the ball rocket in the direction of Waveland Avenue, the last of the back-to-back-to-back homers against Cincinnati Reds starter/Cubs trivia answer Scott Feldman.

That quick strike came during a four-homer fourth inning on Thursday afternoon at Wrigley Field, where the offense looked explosive and the pitching looked combustible in a 13-10 loss that left the Milwaukee Brewers one game out of first place, the St. Louis Cardinals right behind them and the Cubs awaiting a diagnosis on Jon Lester’s lat injury.

“I know the talent we got,” Baez said. “When they come to play a team like us, we know they’re going to come play hard and obviously play good baseball. They’re going to come to compete, and that’s what we got to do.”

Whatever happens from here – the Cubs are 2-2 so far during a 13-game stretch against last-place teams – you know Baez will be in the middle of the action as the No. 8 hitter with 19 homers this season and a power source with Willson Contreras (strained right hamstring) injured.

This is the starting shortstop until Addison Russell (strained right foot/plantar fasciitis) comes off the disabled list and the unique talent you couldn’t take your eyes off during last year’s playoffs.

“He’s not afraid of anything,” manager Joe Maddon said. “So I don’t care how big or small the game is, he’s going to play the same way. He’s going to do everything pretty much full gorilla all the time.

“Sometimes, he’s going to make a mistake. And that’s OK, because with certain people – with all of us – you got to take the bad with the good. Everybody wants perfection. He’s going to make some mistakes. But most of the time, he’s going to pull off events.”

The night before against the Reds, Baez led off the ninth inning with a line-drive double and scored the game-winning run on a wild pitch. Last week, Statcast clocked him at 16.11 seconds for his inside-the-park homer off the San Francisco Giants at AT&T Park. Over the weekend, he launched another home-run ball 463 feet against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field.

There are so many different ways Baez can help the Cubs win a game at a time when they don’t have anywhere close to the same margin for error that they did during last season’s joyride into the playoffs.

“I know we often talk about the strikeouts or the big swings,” Maddon said. “But look at his two-strike numbers. Look at his OPS (.808). Look at the run production in general (his 55 RBI match Kris Bryant). It’s been outstanding. And you combine that with first-rate defense.

“Now he’s going to make some mistakes. I’ve talked about that. That’s going to go away with just experience. As he gets older, plays more often, he’s going to make less of those routine mistakes. And the game’s going to get really clean and sharp.”

Until then, Baez will keep taking huge swings, making spectacular plays and trying to cut down on the errors (10 in 334 innings at shortstop, or one less than Russell through 729 innings), because he knows what he means to this team.  

“Javy’s very important,” pitcher Jake Arrieta said. “He’s one of our best defensive players, one of our most athletic players on the team.

“Javy’s got a really big swing, but he’s got a great eye and he handles the bat really well. For as big as his swing is, he still manages to make really good contact. I don’t want him to approach the game any other way than he does right now.”

Should the Cubs pursue Justin Verlander after Jon Lester's injury, and what would they have to give up?

Should the Cubs pursue Justin Verlander after Jon Lester's injury, and what would they have to give up?

The Cubs may be in some trouble, with the injury bug hitting them at an inopportune time.

First it was Addison Russell (strained right foot), then it was Willson Contreras, arguably the best catcher in baseball and one of the hottest hitters on the planet before going down with a hamstring injury, and now it's Jon Lester who may be on his way to the disabled list after suffering a strained left lat muscle in Thursday's 13-10 loss to Cincinnati.

All of this occurring during a time Joe Maddon's club is looking to pull away from the pack in the National League Central and capture their second straight division crown, which appears to be the only way the North Siders can control their own destiny.

So what should the Cubs do if Lester is sidelined for an extended period of time?

One option could be re-opening trade discussions surrounding Justin Verlander, who cleared revocable waivers in early August. But what would it take to get him, and how much salary would they have to take on for it to happen?

The SportsTalk Live panel weighed in on that possibility in the video above.