Waiting on Edwin Jackson, Cubs close in on Carlos Villanueva

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Waiting on Edwin Jackson, Cubs close in on Carlos Villanueva

The Cubs did not simply have money leftover after losing the Anibal Sanchez sweepstakes.

Those were unique circumstances for the right player. The Cubs just didnt feel the same sense of urgency as the Detroit Tigers, who were willing to go to 80 million on a five-year deal.

As the Cubs remake their rotation, they will continue with the lower-risk investments. An industry source confirmed on Wednesday night that they were finalizing an agreement with Carlos Villanueva, to add depth and create some competition.

The financial details werent immediately known, but this will almost certainly fit into the sensible, cautious approach team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer have taken this winter. It was harder to gauge their true interest in what would be a bigger catch: Edwin Jackson.

The Cubs acted decisively in November before the market accelerated and signed Scott Baker and Scott Feldman to one-year deals that combined included only 11.5 million in guarantees.

Villanueva figures to at least get a shot in the rotation, considering Baker is still recovering from Tommy John surgery and Matt Garza will have to answer questions about his right elbow.

But versatility has to be part of the appeal. Villanueva is only 29 years old and has made 56 starts and 245 appearances out of the bullpen during his big-league career with the Milwaukee Brewers and Toronto Blue Jays (33-35, 4.26 ERA).

In the Milwaukee organization, Villanueva overlapped with Cubs manager Dale Sveum and pitching coach Chris Bosio. Perhaps they can tap into the starter who appeared to be rolling last season in July (4-0, 1.93 ERA) and August (1-4, 3.41 ERA) before fading in September (0-3, 8.10 ERA) with the Blue Jays.

If you were a swingman looking for the chance to prove yourself as a starter, would you sign with the Cubs if they were about to add Jackson?

Baker and Feldman were sold on the opportunity to showcase themselves on the North Side. The uncertainty surrounding Garzas health would seem to eliminate the possibility of an offseason trade.

Jeff Samardzija could be the Opening Day starter. Travis Wood is an option as a No. 5 starter. Arodys Vizcaino will be taking it slow after Tommy John surgery, but team officials are hoping that he can join the big-league rotation at some point in 2013 and show why he was once one of the top prospects in the Atlanta Braves system.

You can only sell so many spots in the rotation, right?

Of course all together now you can never have enough pitching. And there are enough red flags within this group not to mention the general rate of attrition to make you think the Cubs will never quite feel like theyre done.

Jackson turned 29 in September, which makes him almost six months older than Sanchez. Jackson has made at least 31 starts in each of the last six seasons, proving hes durable. That begins to fit the profile for Epstein and Hoyer, who didnt sign Jackson when he was a free agent last winter.

Jackson took a one-year, 11 million deal with the Washington Nationals the seventh team hes played for in the big leagues and went 10-11 with a 4.03 ERA. That just about falls in line with his career numbers (70-71, 4.40 ERA) as a talented, mid-rotation guy who hasnt quite put it all together yet.

Jackson was involved in the three-way trade that sent Curtis Granderson to the New York Yankees, Ian Kennedy to the Arizona Diamondbacks and Max Scherzer to the Tigers (December 2009).

The White Sox got Jackson from Arizona in the Daniel Hudson trade (July 2010). And the St. Louis Cardinals fortified their bullpen for a run to the World Series title by packaging Jackson in a deal with the Blue Jays (July 2011).

Its worth noting that people whove known Jackson say hes a good guy in the clubhouse, that moving around so much shouldnt be viewed as a mark against his personality.

The Cubs, Texas Rangers and Cleveland Indians are among the teams rumored to be in on Jackson, who could be looking for a home after pitching for six teams in the past five seasons.

Jackson would have to take a leap of faith with this front office, which refuses to give out no-trade clauses, views no one as untouchable and wont be afraid to sell off pieces at the deadline if it fits their long-term vision.

The Cubs have no doubt analyzed the numbers and decided how Jackson could provide value and where it no longer makes sense. They wont feel desperate or be forced into doing something. The Sanchez negotiations last week again showed they know how to walk away.

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

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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."