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.

Why Cubs are excited for pitching prospect Dylan Cease: He's 'throwing lightning bolts'

Why Cubs are excited for pitching prospect Dylan Cease: He's 'throwing lightning bolts'

Theo Epstein's front office is heading into Year 6 with the Cubs and they're finally talking about a pitcher as one of the organization's most exciting prospects.

That's how senior vice president of scouting and player development Jason McLeod framed his Dylan Cease report to fans at the Cubs Convention at the Sheraton Grand Chicago last weekend.

It was a tongue-in-cheek summation from McLeod after he spent the previous few minutes fawning over Cease, the Cubs' sixth round pick in 2014.

Of course, McLeod and the Cubs can poke fun at the lack of impact pitching the farm system has developed when the homegrown position players like Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber just helped lead the franchise to its first World Series championship in over a century.

Cease, however, has been one of the more intriguing Cubs prospects for years — a right-handed pitcher capable of touching 101 mph on the radar gun.

"This guy is throwing lightning bolts out of his arm," McLeod said. "It's really exciting. But we also understaned he's only in Low-A this year, so he's far away."

The Cubs expect Cease to pitch for Class-A South Bend in 2017 after spending last season pitching for short-season Eugene and the 2015 campaign working in the rookie league in Arizona.

Cease — who just turned 21 in late December — put up some impressive numbers at both stops in the Cubs system, posting a 2.36 ERA and 1.165 WHIP to go along with a whopping 91 strikeouts in 68.2 innings. He also only surrendered one homer and walked more batters (41) than reached via a basehit (39).

Control is obviously an issue for Cease, but the upside is evident.

"He's so far away," McLeod said. "He's gonna go into 2017 as a starter. As with a lot of young guys, it's gonna come down to command and depend on that third pitch and the ability to land them for strikes.

"It's a special arm. He can pitch 95-100 mph with a big power curveball. He's unlike anyone else we have in our system since we've been here in terms of pure stuff."

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One fan compared Cease to Carl Edwards Jr. in terms of their lanky build and high velocity, setting McLeod up for a layup joke.

"Well, Dylan is much stronger physically than CJ is...as is everybody in this room," McLeod said as the ballroom filled with laugher. "Don't tell [CJ] I said that. 

"They have different body types, obviously. Carl is long and lanky and Dylan has probably put on 20 pounds since we drafted him, so he's more like 6-foot-2, 190."

By comparison, Edwards — who goes by "The String Bean Slinger" for his slight build — is listed at 6-foot-3, 170 pounds.

Edwards was drafted in the 48th round in 2011 and spent his whole minor-league career as a starting pitcher until the Cubs converted him to a reliever in 2015.

Cease may eventually go down the same path, but the Cubs are going to give him every opportunity to make it as a starter first.

Cease was one of the top pitchers available in the 2014 draft, but his stock took a hit when he was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery on his pitching elbow while at Milton High School in Georgia.

That scared off a lot of teams — as did the potential signability issues with college offers looming — but the Cubs took a chance and have now watched Cease soar to a top prospect in the system (No. 4 by Baseball America; No. 7 by FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus) despite the cautious approach and lack of innings in professional ball.

"We have to thank Kyle Schwarber, actually, as one of the main reasons we got to sign Dylan Cease," McLeod said. "Because we took Kyle fourth overall, we were able to save money on the selection with him, which gave us the resources to go get Dylan Cease.

"He was a Top 10 pick in the draft — a high school arm that got hurt, fell down to the fifth round and he had a commitment to Vanderbilt, I think it was, and we were able to use the money we saved from Kyle.

"Just another reason to love Kyle Schwarber."

Joe Maddon’s messaging to Cubs before the 2017 campaign

Joe Maddon’s messaging to Cubs before the 2017 campaign

Joe Maddon's Washington itinerary didn't include an hour-long sit-down with Chuck Todd for NBC's "Meet the Press." There would be no rehashing the manager's Game 7 decisions as he stood outside the West Wing, though the second question during the media stakeout involved "last year's team" and how the 2017 Cubs are prepared to defend a World Series title.

"You're already there, huh?" Maddon said to a CNN reporter, minutes after President Barack Obama's final official White House event ended on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. 

But last year's team is gone — preserved now in highlight films and the hearts and minds of generations of Cub fans — even if so many familiar faces will be in Mesa when pitchers and catchers officially report to Arizona on Valentine's Day.

It would be impossible to replicate everything that made the 2016 Cubs so special. Baseball has its own relentless pace and the dynamics are constantly shifting. (Remember when players were passive-aggressively complaining about Maddon's spring-training approach during the final week of a 103-win regular season?) The clubhouse chemistry will inevitably feel different after climbing a Mount Everest of professional sports.

"A mind once stretched has a very difficult time going back to its original form," Maddon said. "We're motivated by it. We want to do it again, of course. There's no question we're trying to do that.

"I'm really leaning on the phrase or the thought of being uncomfortable. I want us to be uncomfortable. I think the moment you get into your comfort zone after having such a significant moment in your life like that, the threat is that you're going to stop growing.

"So I really want us to be uncomfortable. I really want to continue (to see) a pattern of growth and really try to get at them very quickly again."

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Can Jason Heyward recover from one of the worst offensive seasons in the majors last year? Is Willson Contreras ready to be a frontline catcher? Will Javier Baez have to adjust back to being a role player after becoming a playoff superstar? Does Kyle Schwarber in the leadoff spot and Albert Almora Jr. and Jon Jay in a center-field timeshare represent an upgrade over Dexter Fowler?

If healthy, Wade Davis should be a trusted, lower-maintenance closer than Aroldis Chapman, with an advanced approach to pitching and more clubhouse presence. As a staff, the Cubs will have to bounce back from pitching into early November (or not, in the case of the relievers Maddon didn't trust during the playoffs).

As it stands, Jon Lester (33) and John Lackey (38) have already combined to throw almost 5,000 innings in The Show (including the postseason). Jake Arrieta will have to deal with the pressure of playing for his megadeal in his final season before becoming a free agent.

The drop-off after Mike Montgomery — and it's still mostly projected potential with the No. 5 starter — appears to be very steep in an organization that doesn't have any high-end pitching prospects in the upper levels of the farm system.

After painting the bull's-eye on the chest and turning "Embrace The Target" and "Try Not To Suck" into viral T-shirts, a guy who hates meetings is still working on his themes for this campaign.

"I'm really rotating around the thought of authenticity," Maddon said. "I talked about it a lot last year, the fact that I think authenticity has a chance to repeat itself without even trying. It's part of who you are. It's not fabricated. It's real.

"I've talked about our guys a lot the last couple years. I think one of our strongest qualities is the authentic component of our players. So I'm really focusing on that word right now. Again, that's a great word to bring an entire message from (when) you get in front of the group that first day in spring training.

"I kind of just think like authenticity happens. And let's work it from there."

The costumes should be in midseason form with Maddon planning a house party around Tampa's Gasparilla Pirate Festival before driving his RV from Florida to Arizona.

Maddon will turn 63 on Feb. 8 and have to keep evolving, just like his players, who might outgrow some of those gimmicks. But the Cubs are still a reflection of their future Hall of Fame manager.

Amid all the uncertainty in Washington, Maddon wouldn't touch a question about what advice he would give Donald Trump before Friday's inauguration.

"I'm not even going to go anywhere close to that," Maddon said. "I will say this: I have a lot of respect of the office.

"At the end of the day, just have a lot of respect for the office, regardless of your political persuasion. My point would be to encourage people to really respect the office and let's see what we get done here over the next four years."