Cubs

The buzz around Dexter Fowler at Cubs camp

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The buzz around Dexter Fowler at Cubs camp

MESA, Ariz. – Dexter Fowler heard it from his teammates on Monday morning, the whiny, high-pitched voices yelling on the other end of clubhouse: “Ewwww…I’m afraid of beeees!”

No, Cubs strength/conditioning coach Tim Buss didn’t dress up in a bumblebee costume or a beekeeper suit for the team stretch/daily stunt.

But Fowler already pulled off the biggest surprise in camp when he walked into the Sloan Park complex on Feb. 25 – two days after reports had him agreeing to a three-year, $35 million deal with the Baltimore Orioles.     

This time, the buzz around Fowler became how he left Sunday’s game after feeling tightness on his left side, which forced Jason Heyward to move from right field to center, where a swarm of bees attacked the Gold Glover with the new $184 million contract.

“It wasn’t the bees,” Fowler said. “My side was tight before that – before I even started the game. And then I figured I ended on a good note.”

Yes, Fowler homered off Seattle Mariners left-hander James Paxton in his first at-bat, and his teammates enjoyed calling him out for that, too. By the third inning, Heyward was trying to escape the bees by jumping onto the center-field fence.

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“(My side) needs to be tight all the time, right?” Fowler said. “If it was something to worry about, I’d be worried. And I’m not worried at all.”

Fowler had been labeled as an injury-prone player with the Colorado Rockies and Houston Astros, and that reputation combined with the qualifying offer made teams hesitant to give up a draft pick – and the bonus-pool money – and make a long-term deal.

The Cubs felt confident they could beat a two-year offer from the Orioles or White Sox, that Fowler felt comfortable enough at Wrigley Field if he needed a soft landing spot.   

At the same time, if the Orioles hadn’t slow-played those negotiations, or the free-agent game of musical chairs played out differently, or the Cubs didn’t generate all that extra revenue with a playoff run into the National League Championship Series, then Fowler is now probably wearing black and orange and playing next to Adam Jones instead of Heyward.

“We got kind of lucky throughout this whole process,” manager Joe Maddon said. “But I do think you’re going to see the best of Dexter this year. He had a really good year last year. I think he’s going to surpass that this year.”

Fowler hurt his side hitting the wall trying to make a defensive play over the weekend – not while taking a swing – and that should downplay the injury concerns. But if super-utility guy Javier Baez (thumb) doesn’t have enough time to get ready for Opening Day, then it reinforces the importance of Fowler and how much the Cubs will need their depth to withstand what they believe will be a seven-month marathon.

[MORE CUBS: Time running out for Javier Baez to make Opening Day roster]

“When he walked in, everything kind of like felt right,” Maddon said. “Everything felt good to that point. But then all of a sudden, everything felt right. You could see how that last piece just fit in there. There was a place for him and he fit right into it perfectly.

“I don’t know that we knew how important that piece was until it actually came back to us.” 

Fowler will get $13 million guaranteed this season, the Cubs betting on the leadoff guy who hit 17 homers and scored 102 runs for a 97-win team last year.   

“He’s definitely physically stronger,” Maddon said. “Beyond that, you can truly see that he has a joy for being here. He really does. I absolutely recognize that.

“And I do believe there might be a little bit extra motivation going on right now for the way this all came down this past winter. So I’ll take all that stuff.”

After getting stung at least 10 times by that swarm of bees, Heyward felt good enough to play center field and hit a three-run homer during Monday’s 8-8 Cactus League tie against the Los Angeles Angels at Tempe Diablo Stadium.

“I told him it’s the cologne he’s wearing,” Fowler said.

Cubs executive Jason McLeod reportedly linked to Giants' GM opening

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USA TODAY

Cubs executive Jason McLeod reportedly linked to Giants' GM opening

Is this the offseason that Cubs executive Jason McLeod finally becomes an MLB general manager?

According to Bruce Levine, the Giants are reportedly interested in McLeod, the Cubs senior vice president of scouting and player development, for their vacant general manager position.

McLeod joined the Cubs' front office in 2011 alongside Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer. Before the Cubs, he spent six years in the Red Sox front office and two in the Padres' (with Hoyer, who was San Diego's general manager from 2010-2011). 

Of course, the Giants' reported interest in McLeod doesn't necessarily mean that he will interview for the job. However, it's worth noting that McLeod interviewed for the Twins' general manager job in 2016; he also withdrew his name from consideration for the Padres' general manager job in 2014. 

In addition to the Giants, McLeod's name has been linked to the Mets' general manager vacancy. This is more speculation, but the point is that it seems to be only a matter of time before McLeod is hired as general manager elsewhere.

For what it's worth, though, McLeod is under contract through 2021 and has previously said that he is grateful to be with the Cubs. 

“I’m exceptionally grateful,” McLeod said. “All of us are. Look at where we are at this moment in time with this team," McLeod said in 2016. "I can’t imagine a better environment, a better culture to work at in baseball.

"We’ve been together a long time. We’re friends. We’re good. We embrace the fact that we are good. And we challenge ourselves to be even better.”

Cubs have new hitting coach in Anthony Iapoce

Cubs have new hitting coach in Anthony Iapoce

The Cubs are heading into a new season with a different hitting coach for the second straight winter, but the most recent choice is a familiar face.

Anthony Iapoce is set to join Joe Maddon's coaching staff this week after serving in the same capacity with the Texas Rangers for the last three seasons. The Cubs confirmed the move Monday afternoon shortly after the news broke out of the Rangers camp.

The Cubs fired Chili Davis last week after just one season as the team's hitting coach.

Entering the final week of the season, the Rangers fired manager Jeff Banister, leaving Iapoce and the rest of the Texas coaching staff in limbo.

As such, Iapoce is rejoining the Cubs, where he served as a special assistant to the General Manager from 2013-15 focusing on player development, particularly in the hitting department throughout the minor leagues.

Iapoce has familiarity with a bunch of the current star offensive players on the Cubs, from Willson Contreras to Kris Bryant. 

Both Bryant and Contreras endured tough 2018 seasons at the plate, which was a huge reason for the Cubs' underperforming lineup. Bryant's issue was more related to a left shoulder injured suffered in mid-May while Contreras' offensive woes remain a major question mark after the young catcher looked to be emerging as a legitimate superstar entering the campaign.

Getting Contreras back to the hitter that put up 21 homers and 74 RBI in only 117 games in 2017 will be one of the main goals for Iapoce, so the history between the two could be a key.

With the Rangers, Iapoce oversaw an offense that ranked 7th, 9th and 14th in MLB in runs scored over the last three seasons. The decline in offensive production is obviously not a great sign, but the Rangers as a team have fallen off greatly since notching the top seed in the AL playoffs in 2016 with 95 wins only to lose 95 games in 2018, resulting in the change at manager.

Iapoce has worked with an offense backed by Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus, Shin-Soo Choo, Nomar Mazara and Joey Gallo the last few seasons.

Under Iapoce's tutelage, former top prospect Jurickson Profar shed any notion of a "bust" label and emerged as a budding star at age 25, collecting 61 extra-base hits with a .793 OPS in 2018.

When the Cubs let Davis go last week, they provided no update on assistant hitting coach Andy Haines, who just finished his first season in that role and is expected to remain with the team for 2019. The same offseason Iapoce left for the Rangers, Haines took over as the Cubs' minor league hitting instructor.