Cubs

Around the NL Central: St. Louis Cardinals offseason in review

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Around the NL Central: St. Louis Cardinals offseason in review

The Cubs have a target on their back.

They enter 2016 as the odds-on favorite to win the World Series and manager Joe Maddon will have them embracing the expectations.

The Cubs committed more than $275 million to free agents this winter, taking the baseball world by storm with the Jason Heyward signing while also bolstering the pitching staff by bringing Trevor Cahill back and acquiring John Lackey and Adam Warren.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

The Cubs also said goodbye to former franchise icon Starlin Castro to make room for free agent Ben Zobrist, shipping the 25-year-old shortstop to the New York Yankees.

With another month-and-a-half until pitchers and catchers report to spring training, there is still plenty of time for the Cubs to make more moves, with trade rumors swirling around Jorge Soler and the possibility of the Cubs adding another top-of-the-rotation arm.

But as it stands right now, the Cubs already look like an improved team entering 2016.

With the new year upon us, let's take a look how the rest of the National League Central is shaping up.

Manager: Mike Matheny (Record w/Cardinals: 375-273)
2015 record: 100-62
New additions: SP Mike Leake, IF Jedd Gyorko, C Brayan Pena, RP Matt Bowman
Key losses: OF Jason Heyward, SP John Lackey, 1B/3B Mark Reynolds, IF Pete Kozma, RP Steve Cishek, RP Carlos Villanueva, RP Randy Choate, OF Peter Bourjos, C Tony Cruz, OF Jon Jay
X-Factor: Matt Holliday
Biggest question: Can they continue to rise above injuries and age and stave off the Cubs?
Projected lineup:

1. Matt Carpenter - 3B
2. Stephen Piscotty - RF
3. Matt Holliday - LF
4. Jhonny Peralta - SS
5. Matt Adams - 1B
6. Randal Grichuk - CF
7. Yadier Molina - C
8. Kolten Wong - 2B

Projected rotation:

1. Adam Wainwright
2. Carlos Martinez
3. Michael Wacha
4. Mike Leake
5. Jaime Garcia
DL: Lance Lynn

Outlook:

The Cardinals may be coming off a 100-win season, but the Cubs have all the momentum right now. Apart from beating them in the NLDS, the Cubs also stole the top position player (Heyward), and pitcher (Lackey) from the Cardinals' 2015 squad in free agency and look poised to compete for years.

Losing Heyward, Lackey and other key role players - plus Lynn's Tommy John surgery - will be hard to get past, but the Cardinals are essentially acquiring Wainwright, Holliday and Adams, given all three players missed most of 2015 with injury.

Molina - who hurt his thumb when Anthony Rizzo slid into it at home plate late in the regular season - is already starting the season banged up and he will be 33. He's taken a pounding behind home plate in his career, and he took a step back offensively last season (.660 OPS, his lowest since 2006).

[RELATED - Around the NL Central: Pittsburgh Pirates offseason in review]

Holliday is 36, Peralta is 33, Carpenter is 30 and Wainwright is 34. Like Heyward said when he signed with the Cubs - age is catching up to this St. Louis core.

However, in defense of the Cardinals, the new wave has arrived. Piscotty looks like a star, while Grichuk looks promising and Wong is still only 25 and has plenty of breakout potential. Martinez and Wacha are only 24 and the key pieces in the bullpen (closer Trevor Rosenthal, setup men Kevin Siegrist and Jordan Walden, plus Seth Maness and Tyler Lyons are all 28 or under). Lyons and 23-year-old former top prospect Marco Gonzales provide depth for the starting rotation.

The Cardinals lost out in the David Price sweepstakes, but opted to hand Leake a five-year, $80-million deal to help bolster the starting staff after Lackey's departure. That's a hefty price tag for a guy who has never been more than a mid-rotation arm, but then again, the Cardinals have a knack for getting the most out of pitchers.

Keep in mind: There is stll plenty of an offseason left, with top free agents like Chris Davis, Justin Upton, Yoenis Cespedes and Alex Gordon still available. The Cardinals very well may have another move or two up their sleeves.

The Cardinals are still the Cardinals. Count them out at your own risk.

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

MESA, Ariz. — “That’s last year, don’t want to talk about that.”

In other words, Addison Russell is so over 2017.

The Cubs shortstop went through a lot last year. He dealt with injuries that affected his foot and shoulder. He had a well-documented off-the-field issue involving an accusation of domestic abuse, which sparked an investigation by Major League Baseball. And then came the trade speculation.

The hot stove season rarely leaves any player completely out of online trade discussion. But after Theo Epstein admitted there was a possibility the Cubs could trade away one or more young position players to bolster the starting rotation, well, Russell’s name came up.

And he saw it.

“There was a lot of trade talk,” Russell said Saturday. “My initial thoughts were, I hope it doesn’t happen, but wherever I go, I’m going to try to bring what I bring to the table here. It’s a good thing that it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m happy being in a Cubs uniform, I want to be in a Cubs uniform, for sure. But there was some talk out there. If I got traded, then I got traded, but that’s not the case.”

No, it’s not, as the Cubs solved those pitching questions with free-agent spending, bringing in Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood to replace the departed Jake Arrieta and John Lackey. It means Russell, along with oft-discussed names like Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Javy Baez, are all still Cubs.

While the outside world might have expected one of those guys to be moved in some sort of blockbuster trade for Chris Archer or some other All-Star arm, the Cubs’ young core remains intact, another reason why they’re as much a favorite to win the World Series as any team out there.

“I’m really not surprised. The core is still here. Who would want to break that up? It’s a beautiful thing,” Russell said. “Javy and I in the middle. Schwarber, sometimes playing catcher but mainly outfield. And then (Kris Bryant) over there in the hot corner, and of course (Anthony) Rizzo at first. You’ve got a Gold Glover in right field (Jason Heyward). It’s really hard to break that up.

“When you do break that down on paper, we’ve got a lineup that could stack up with the best.”

This winter has been about moving on for Russell, who said he’s spent months working to strengthen his foot and shoulder after they limited him to 110 games last season, the fewest he played in his first three big league campaigns.

And so for Russell, the formula for returning to his 2016 levels of offensive aptitude isn’t a difficult one: stay on the field.

“Especially with the injuries, I definitely wanted to showcase some more of my talent last year than I displayed,” Russell said. “So going into this year, it’s mainly just keeping a good mental — just staying level headed. And also staying healthy and producing and being out there on the field.

“Next step for me, really just staying out there on the field. I really want to see what I can do as far as helping the team if I can stay healthy for a full season. I think if I just stay out there on the field, I’m going to produce.”

While the decrease in being on the field meant lower numbers from a “counting” standpoint — the drop from 21 homers in 2016 to 12 last year, the drop from 95 RBIs to 43 can in part be attributed to the lower number of games — certain rate stats looked different, too. His on-base percentage dropped from .321 in 2016 to .304 last year.

Russell also struggled during the postseason, picking up just six hits in 36 plate appearances in series against the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers. He struck out 13 times in 10 postseason games.

Of course, he wasn’t alone. That World Series hangover was team-wide throughout the first half of the season. And even though the Cubs scored 824 runs during the regular season, the second most in the National League and the fourth most in baseball, plenty of guys had their offensive struggles: Schwarber, Heyward and Ben Zobrist, to name a few.

“You can’t take anything for granted. So whenever you win a World Series or you do something good, you just have to live in the moment,” Russell said. “It was a tough season last year because we were coming off winning the World Series and the World Series hangover and all that. This year, we had a couple months off, a couple extra weeks off, and I think a lot of guys took advantage of that. I know I did. And now that we’re here in spring training, we’re going to get back at it.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

Jon Lester has arrived at Cubs camp, and he’s pleased with the new-look rotation full of potential aces. Kelly Crull and Vinnie Duber discuss the 5-man unit, and where Mike Montgomery fits into the Cubs’ plans.

Plus, Kelly and Vinnie talk Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber, along with the continuing free agent stalemate surrounding Jake Arrieta.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here: