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David Price, Jason Heyward and how Cardinals respond in rivalry with Cubs

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David Price, Jason Heyward and how Cardinals respond in rivalry with Cubs

Just a thought: Could all this media speculation about Jason Heyward be a strategic way for the Cubs to drive up the price for the St. Louis Cardinals?

Because Theo Epstein’s front office needs to pour those limited resources into the pitching staff and would have to jump through so many hoops to steal Heyward away from the Cardinals, who reportedly finished second to the Boston Red Sox in the $217 million David Price sweepstakes.

Either way, a rivalry that started in 1892 is beginning a new chapter after the Cubs beat the Cardinals in October, winning their first playoff matchup ever. The balance of power hasn’t completely shifted inside the National League Central, but it’s still a division that produced three playoff teams that won at least 97 games this year.

“I wouldn’t say urgency,” Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said during last month’s GM meetings in South Florida. “My point is things happen and we adjust. You’re not going to make irrational decisions just because you feel like your division is extraordinarily difficult. You have to stay disciplined to your process.”

[MORE CUBS: Why John Lackey would make a lot of sense for Cubs]

If those runner-up-for-Price reports are accurate – USA Today had the final offer at $180 million – the patient, sensible, homegrown Cardinals should have money to burn at next week’s winter meetings in Nashville, Tennessee.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch keeps hinting the 11-time World Series champions will have to get out of that comfort zone with headlines like: “Time for Cardinals to get silly?

While the Cubs have faraway plans about their TV future – and picture a much bigger payday – the Cardinals have already locked up a reported 15-year deal with Fox Sports Midwest that begins with the 2018 season and guarantees the club more than $1 billion and an equity stake in the regional network.

The Cardinals have outfielder Matt Holliday entering the final season of a seven-year, $120 million deal – the largest contract in franchise history to this point – and right-hander Lance Lynn recovering from Tommy John surgery and top pitching prospect Alex Reyes serving a 50-game drug suspension.

[MORE CUBS: Cubs have options with David Price heading to Red Sox for $217 million]

Factor in the 3.5 million-plus in attendance at Busch Stadium this year, new revenues from the Wrigleyville-inspired Ballpark Village and the rising tide in what’s becoming a $10 billion industry, and maybe making a huge splash makes sense.

But the Cardinals aren’t going to overreact to winning 100 games and then losing to the Cubs in the divisional round, when Gold Glove/All-Star catcher Yadier Molina tried to play through a thumb injury and Opening Day starter Adam Wainwright could only pitch out of the bullpen after coming back from a torn Achilles tendon.

“I don’t think we went into September full strength,” Mozeliak said. “And we clearly didn’t go into October full strength. But no one’s having pity parties for us. That’s the business.

“It’s one of those things where ideally you hit October 1 (and) you’re at like full stride. We weren’t. But that’s not to take away from the six months we had. The timing wasn’t there.”

The Cubs know they can’t magically recreate the same chemistry they had during the season no one saw coming. Players will get older and more expensive and feel more entitled. Expectations will change on the North Side.

The Cardinals keep finding ways to maintain their competitive edge, making the playoffs 12 times since 2000.

“We’ve had a group of core players that experienced some of our success as early as ’04 with Yadi,” Mozeliak said. “(It’s) understanding what the winning culture’s about. We’ve had advocates and mentors to carry that along. And then we’ve had healthy churn as well, so I think sometimes adding new energy or a new face to it is helpful.

“It’s a balance. Fortunately, we’ve been able to strike that. But it’s a fragile environment. I’m not ready to tell you we’ve got it figured out for next year.”

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

The Cardinals acquired Heyward from the Atlanta Braves last November with the idea that both sides would take a year to see if it would be a good long-term fit.

The Cardinals may or may not have their next core player in Heyward, who’s hard to put a price tag on because he’s only 26 years old and a Gold Glove outfielder who’s hit 20-plus homers only once in his career. Heyward is also a left-handed hitter with speed, on-base skills, clubhouse presence and an .869 career OPS against the Cubs.

The Cubs, Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates – who’ve made three playoff appearances within the last three seasons – all look like built-to-last contenders with young talent, star power and savvy front offices. At a time when the Cincinnati Reds and Milwaukee Brewers appear to be punting on 2016 and playing for the future.

However the Cardinals decide to respond, the Cubs always understood their road to the World Series would have to go through St. Louis.

“A lot of people have asked me this question (about) the Cubs’ emergence, Pittsburgh’s sustainability,” Mozeliak said. “Candidly, four or five years ago, it was Milwaukee.

“Ultimately, we try to worry about ourselves. But it’s hard not to acknowledge what’s happening in your division. And what’s going on right now with both Pittsburgh and Chicago is extremely impressive.”

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

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USA TODAY

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: