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.

Morning Update: Cubs pick up win No. 101, Sale leads White Sox past Rays

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Morning Update: Cubs pick up win No. 101, Sale leads White Sox past Rays

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John Lackey sees Cubs lining up for World Series run: ‘It’s all here’

John Lackey sees Cubs lining up for World Series run: ‘It’s all here’

PITTSBURGH — The Cubs have so much going for them, all this blue-chip talent, a clubhouse mix of young players and grizzled veterans, arguably the best manager in the game, an impactful coaching staff and a front office that blends scouting and analytics as well as anyone.

So, no, John Lackey is not at all surprised by the way this clicked into place, 101 wins and counting for the machine built with October in mind.

“Not really,” Lackey said after Tuesday night’s 6-4 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates. “I had some pretty good offers from other people, and I chose this one for a reason. It’s all here.”

But to win the World Series — and get the jewelry Lackey talks about — you still need some luck, good health and the guts to perform in those Big Boy Games. That reality of randomness and matchups made a pregame announcement some 250 miles away from PNC Park so telling.

Washington Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos tore the ACL in his right knee, ending his MVP-caliber season. The National League East champions will lose a .307 hitter with 22-homer power from the middle of their lineup and a veteran presence for a playoff rotation that will likely be without injured ace Stephen Strasburg (right elbow) in the first round.

“That’s a tough one when you lose your catcher, a guy who’s that significant for the pitching staff,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “Think about the pitching staff — it’s so different when you know the guy back there is your guy and he knows what’s going on. The communication’s different. The trust factor, all that stuff is different.”

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Within that big-picture context, the Cubs survived as Lackey limited the checked-out Pirates (77-80) to one run across five innings in his fifth start since recovering from a strained right shoulder and coming off the disabled list. Maddon then used six different relievers — staying away from Pedro Strop, Hector Rondon and Aroldis Chapman — during a three-hour, 49-minute game that felt more like the Cactus League.

After defecting from the 100-win St. Louis Cardinals team the Cubs bounced out of last year’s playoffs, Lackey finished the regular season at 11-8 with a 3.35 ERA and 188 1/3 innings.

“I’m going to get to 200,” Lackey said.

Beyond wins and losses, Lackey called this season his career best in terms of “those numbers that they’ve made up in the last few years” like WHIP (1.04) and opponents’ OPS (.646) and whatever. And, no, he doesn’t know his WAR, either: “Not even close.”

Yes, the Cubs got the old-school attitude they wanted when they signed Lackey to a two-year, $32 million deal before the winter meetings. For all the talk about the pitching deficit and the New York Mets after their young guns swept the Cubs out of last year’s NL Championship Series, the Cubs are getting their money’s worth with a guy who will turn 38 in October.

The amazing Mets have lost three of those frontline starters — Matt Harvey (thoracic outlet syndrome), Jacob deGrom (nerve damage in his right elbow) and Steven Matz (bone spur in his left elbow) — and are still holding onto the first wild-card spot, which says something about this playoff field.

This doesn’t guarantee anything in October, but the Cubs are just about as close to full strength as they could reasonably hope now. Instead of the silence that would have come with losing an irreplaceable player like Ramos, the sound system in the postgame clubhouse blasted Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre and Notorious B.I.G. after their 101st win.

“Yeah, we lost Dexter (Fowler) for a bit,” Maddon said. “We lost (Kyle) Schwarber all year. Otherwise, when a couple pitchers got banged up, whether you’re talking about Rondon or Strop, I don’t think that our injuries have been as magnified because we’ve covered them pretty well.

“We still had our moments, like everybody else has. But when you get to right now, we’re getting well, and hopefully that trend continues. But to lose somebody of that magnitude for them, that’s got to be difficult.”