Cubs

Cubs buy championship influence with Lackey, Zobrist, Heyward

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Cubs buy championship influence with Lackey, Zobrist, Heyward

John Lackey helped Joe Maddon pay for his daughter’s wedding by beating the San Francisco Giants in Game 7 of the 2002 World Series.

“I was very grateful for many years for that,” said Maddon, the Cubs manager who worked as Mike Scioscia’s bench coach during that championship run with the Anaheim Angels.

The Cubs clearly believe Lackey — and super-utility guy Ben Zobrist and Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward — are money players who can deliver the franchise’s first title since 1908. At a cost of $272 million, the Cubs are paying for big-game experience and intangibles that won’t show up on a spreadsheet.

The Cubs wanted been-there, done-that veterans to set an example for a young group of players that advanced to the National League Championship Series and will face enormous pressure to win in 2016.

That will be the backdrop whenever Heyward gets his welcome-to-Chicago press conference after signing an eight-year, $184 million contract.

Heyward understands expectations after breaking in with the Atlanta Braves in 2010 as Baseball America’s No. 1 overall prospect and getting to the playoffs in three of his first four seasons.

[MORE CUBS: Why Cubs believe winning the offseason won't be a curse]

As an added bonus, the Cubs are stealing Heyward and Lackey away from the 100-win St. Louis Cardinals team they eliminated from the playoffs.

“John is used to winning,” Maddon said. “I like the edge. I love the edge. Edgy’s good.

“He’s going to demand that the guys are ready to play, and I love that. It’s good for us. He’s almost like the perfect fit for us after the season that we just had.”

Lackey is an intimidating presence on the mound, a 6-foot-6 Texan who barks at umpires and opponents and gained even more stature after winning his second World Series ring in 2013 with the Boston Red Sox.

The worst-to-first turnaround helped change the perception of Lackey after being named in that 2011 Boston Globe fried-chicken-and-beer story and then missing the 2012 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery.

“There’s this misconception about Lackey in some circles, from fans and (seeing) him from across the field,” said Cubs president Theo Epstein, who signed Lackey in Boston. “But I can tell you he’s a beloved teammate and a leader in any clubhouse — and really takes charge of a starting staff with workouts and camaraderie and leadership. He and Jon Lester are great for one another with their personalities and their competitiveness and their intensity.

“We’re going to have that bulls-eye on our back a little bit this year. You can’t take games off. You can’t sort of sacrifice a game because it came after an off-day — or not show up on a given Tuesday night in Milwaukee in May. When you’re trying to win the division, you have to show up every night.

“And I think John — in a good way — demands that kind of focus and accountability when he pitches.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

Zobrist is supposed to help teach The Cubs Way to a generation of young hitters by staying patient, making contact and driving the right pitches. Zobrist already spent nine seasons with Maddon, helping the Tampa Bay Rays crawl out of last place in the American League East, make it to the 2008 World Series and become a 90-win contender.

The Kansas City Royals got exactly what they needed when they acquired Zobrist from the Oakland A's before the July 31 deadline, watching him put up an .880 OPS in 16 playoff games and help deliver a championship.

“He just held the trophy,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “That’s the beauty of going out and getting a guy like that. We (now have) Lackey, a guy who’s won a couple rings. I do think it’s really important to have guys like that in your clubhouse — Lester, (David) Ross, Lackey, Zobrist — (who’ve) won titles.

“We’re at that place now. We made it to the NLCS (and got a) taste. Those guys are going to be hungry for winning next year. And (veterans) that have been able to win can really help our young guys sort of cross that line.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

Spring training baseball games are up around the bend, but before the boys of summer get into organized action, two of the team’s new coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey sit down with Kelly Crull.

Plus, Vinnie Duber joins Kelly to discuss these baseball conversations including the memorable first words of Kyle Schwarber to Chili Davis, “I don’t suck!"

Listen to the full episode at this link (iOS users can go here) or in the embedded player below. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts.

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

MESA, Ariz. — We know Willson Contreras doesn’t like baseball’s new pace-of-play rules.

He isn’t the only one.

“I think it’s a terrible idea. I think it’s all terrible,” Jon Lester said last week at spring training, before the specifics of the new rules were even announced. “The beautiful thing about our sport is there’s no time.”

Big surprise coming from the Cubs’ resident old-schooler.

The new rules limit teams to six mound visits per every nine-inning game, with exceptions for pitching changes, between batters, injuries and after the announcement of a pinch hitter. Teams get an extra mound visit for every extra inning in extra-inning games. Also, commercial breaks between innings have been cut by 20 seconds.

That’s it. But it’s caused a bit of an uproar.

Contreras made headlines Tuesday when he told reporters that he’ll willingly break those rules if he needs to in order to put his team in a better position to win.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If I have to pay the price for my team, I will,” Contreras said. “There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? … You have to go out there. They cannot say anything about that. It’s my team, and we just care about winning. And if they’re going to fine me about the No. 7 mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”

Talking about pace-of-play rule changes last week, Cubs manager Joe Maddon said his team would adapt to any new rules. In Chicago baseball’s other Arizona camp, a similar tune of adaptation was being sung.

“Obviously as players we’ve got to make adjustments to whatever rules they want to implement,” White Sox pitcher James Shields said. “This is a game of adjustments, we’re going to have to make adjustments as we go. We’re going to have to figure out logistics of the thing, and I would imagine in spring training we’re going to be talking about it more and more as we go so we don’t mess it up.”

There was general consensus that mound visits are a valuable thing. So what happens if a pitcher and catcher need to communicate but are forced to do it from 60 feet, six inches away?

“Sign language,” White Sox catching prospect Zack Collins joked. “I guess you have to just get on the same page in the dugout and hope that nothing goes wrong if you’re out of visits.”

In the end, here’s the question that needs answering: Are baseball games really too long?

On one hand, as Lester argued, you know what you’re signing up for when you watch a baseball game, be it in the stands at a ballpark or on TV. No one should be shocked when a game rolls on for more than three hours.

But shock and fans' levels of commitment or just pure apathy are two different things. And sometimes it’s a tough ask for fans to dedicate four hours of their day 162 times a year. So there’s a very good reason baseball is trying to make the game go faster, to keep people from leaving the stands or flipping the TV to another channel.

Unsurprisingly, Lester would rather keep things the way they are.

“To be honest with you, the fans know what they’re getting themselves into when they go to a game,” Lester said. “It’s going to be a three-hour game. You may have a game that’s two hours, two hours and 15 minutes. Great, awesome. You may have a game that’s four hours. That’s the beautiful part of it.

“I get the mound visit thing. But what people that aren’t in the game don’t understand is that there’s so much technology in the game, there’s so many cameras on the field, that every stadium now has a camera on the catcher’s crotch. So they know signs before you even get there. Now we’ve got Apple Watches, now we’ve got people being accused of sitting in a tunnel (stealing signs). So there’s reasons behind the mound visit. He’s not just coming out there asking what time I’m going to dinner or, ‘Hey, how you feeling?’ There’s reasons behind everything, and I think if you take those away, it takes away the beauty of the baseball game.

“Every game has a flow, and I feel like that’s what makes it special. If you want to go to a timed event, go to a timed event. I’m sorry I’m old-school about it, but baseball’s been played the same way for a long time. And now we’re trying to add time to it. We’re missing something somewhere.”

Whether limiting the number of mound visits creates a significant dent in this problem remains to be seen. But excuse the players if they’re skeptical.

“We’ve got instant replay, we’ve got all kinds of different stuff going on. I don’t think (limiting) the mound visits are going to be the key factor to speeding this game up,” Shields said. “Some pitchers take too long, and some hitters take too long. It’s combination of a bunch of stuff.

“I know they’re trying to speed the game up a little bit. I think overall, the game’s going as fast as it possibly could. You’ve got commercials and things like that. TV has a lot to do with it. There’s a bunch of different combinations of things. But as a player, we’ve got to make an adjustment.”