David Kaplan

Albert Almora, Cubs won't settle for anything less than another World Series title

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USA Today

Albert Almora, Cubs won't settle for anything less than another World Series title

With Major League Baseball players getting ready for the 2018 season in Arizona and Florida, this is the time that predictions start to grab the headlines. While the defending world champion Houston Astros are everybody's choice as the clear favorite, the 2016 world champion Cubs are acting like Ricky Bobby from the movie Talladega Nights, living by the motto "If you ain't first you're last." 

The 2016 season took so much out of the team that the 2017 season began in the throes of a World Series hangover. The Cubs struggled out of the gate and spent the first half of the season trying to stay in the National League Central race. Despite a sub-.500 record at the All Star break and a 5 1/2 game deficit to the Milwaukee Brewers, the Cubs steadied themselves and won the division to advance to the National League Championship Series for the third consecutive season. However, 2017 never felt like a championship run was in the cards. When the Cubs were eliminated by the Los Angeles Dodgers in five games, no one was surprised and it almost felt like a sense of relief to those around the team.

After a very active offseason that saw the Cubs overhaul their pitching staff both in the starting rotation and in the bullpen, expectations are sky high. Las Vegas oddsmakers set the Cubs expected win total at 93 1/2 and multiple prognosticators see the Cubs as one of the favorites to win the World Series.

But do the players feel that way? Or are they simply embracing the mantra "One Batter, One Pitch, One Out at a Time?" Despite the one day at a time approach that most professional athletes employ, Cubs center fielder Albert Almora Jr. exercises no such caution.

In fact, he believes that only one result is acceptable. 

"The expectation for this group is to win the World Series," Almora said. "We know the group in here can do it and we expect nothing but that. No matter how old or young we are, we have a great mix of players and we can do it. We've done it and our mindset is to do it again." 

So while so many in professional sports repeat the standard line that "we just play them one day at a time and let the chips fall where they may" one of the youngest members of the 2018 Cubs is all in on what he believes can be accomplished.

Chicago Cubs, 2018 World Series Champions. Almora likes how that sounds and he expects it to happen.

Cubs choosing Yu Darvish over Jake Arrieta has them sitting shotgun as World Series favorites

Cubs choosing Yu Darvish over Jake Arrieta has them sitting shotgun as World Series favorites

Saturday’s news that the Cubs were signing Yu Darvish now makes the Cubs the team to beat in the National League.

Darvish is the centerpiece of a loaded rotation that is among the two or three best in all of baseball, and his addition sent a message to the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals that despite their active offseasons the Cubs are still clearly the team to beat in the NL Central.

With a lineup of talented young hitters who still haven’t reached their peak and a loaded pitching staff full of depth the Cubs should surpass the 92.5-win projection that Las Vegas recently posted, and they should have a great shot to return to the Fall Classic this October.

The baseball free agent market has been in a holding pattern for the past three months and the Cubs, like the other 29 MLB teams, have been waiting for players to accept much lower offers than most were expecting when they hit the open market at the end of the 2017 season.

The Cubs entered the offseason with two major needs to address: their much-maligned bullpen that struggled in the second half of last season, and the their starting rotation that had two openings needing to be filled.

Both Jake Arrieta and John Lackey had expiring contracts, and while Lackey was not expected to continue his career on the mound, Arrieta was looking for the first big deal of his career. A deal that his agent, Scott Boras, openly said they expected to be seven years in length at an average salary of $30 million or more.

“I don’t think a six- or seven-year deal is out of the question,” Arrieta said. "I feel very confident I can pitch until I’m 40. I do everything possible to make sure I’m healthy and durable. It could be six or seven more years. Or it could be twelve.”

But instead, the Cubs pursued Darvish and made it clear he was their top choice instead of pursuing Arrieta, who they knew well and had reached the pinnacle of baseball with when the Cubs, in part rode his arm to a World Series title in 2016.

So do the Cubs have a better rotation today with Darvish in the fold than they did in 2017 when they had Arrieta and John Lackey? The answer is unequivocally yes, because Darvish is an upgrade from Arrieta as is Tyler Chatwood from Lackey.

Yes, Arrieta has proven that he can succeed on baseball’s biggest stage, going 2-0 in the World Series and dominating the Cleveland Indians twice in Cleveland when the Cubs were trailing in the series. Darvish has had some solid postseason success but his awful performance in the 2017 World Series when he was rocked by the Houston Astros twice has left a bad taste in some fans' mouths.

However, Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and the rest of the Cubs front office did a deep analytical assessment of Darvish and came away convinced that he would be worth a major financial investment. Their research told them that Darvish possessed the swing-and-miss stuff that plays in pressure-packed moments with a playoff berth on the line. And they are convinced that they can fix his struggles with tipping his pitches that reportedly led to his World Series struggles against the Astros.

Darvish was also very impressed with the Cubs pitching infrastructure that has helped to get the best out of many of their pitchers. Current Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks, who shares an agent with Darvish, has spoken many times about how detailed the Cubs pitching scouting reports and game plans are and how much they have helped him become a successful big league starter.

Arrieta turned his career around when he arrived in Chicago after struggling mightily with the Baltimore Orioles, and he felt the Cubs approach to pitching was a huge part in resurrecting his career after he considered walking away from the sport before he was traded.

But now, Arrieta will have to pitch somewhere else as the Cubs have moved on. They have landed a pitcher in Darvish that Epstein has long wanted to acquire. In fact, the Cubs were the runner-up to the Texas Rangers when Darvish left Japan and came to the US in 2012. Darvish figures to sit atop the Cubs rotation with Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood manning spots two through five and giving the Cubs perhaps baseball’s deepest and most talented starting rotation.

Several seasons ago, as the Cubs were going through the pain of the building process and losing 289 games in three seasons, Tom Ricketts promised Cubs fans that when the time was right to spend big money, the checkbook would be there to support Epstein, Hoyer and their plan.

He has spent and spent big when his front office has asked him to and today he delivered again. And that decision just might have the World Series trophy making a return trip to the Friendly Confines.

From Left Field: Is a hot dog a sandwich?

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USA TODAY

From Left Field: Is a hot dog a sandwich?

To some, an athlete who shows passion and personality is considered a hot dog. But to those who love to see an athlete play with fire and an outward display of emotion, it's a refreshing change from the vanilla way that many in the world approach their jobs.

Cubs catcher Willson Contreras approaches his job in such a way that his teammates feed off of his emotion and passion. He plays as hard as he can every second he is on the playing field, and that approach has quickly made him one of the most popular members of this current Cubs team.

There are many players around baseball who are personable and charismatic in their approach to playing the game. However, there are very few players who not only have that internal fire that they outwardly display, but also are among the best players in the sport. Contreras is an elite defensive player with a cannon for an arm that allows him to control an opponent’s running game at all times.

He is also a tremendous offensive force, not only hitting for a solid average but possessing outstanding power to all fields and can change the game with one swing of the bat. Add in his ability to hit in the clutch and the Cubs have found a cornerstone player for the next decade to anchor their team. Contreras is a student of the game and he has gained the trust of veteran pitchers like Jon Lester in developing a game plan and calling pitches.

However, it is his fire and passion for the game that attracts the most attention. Some may call it hot dogging, but those who are around him on a regular basis know it is the enthusiasm that he has for his craft that brings out the competitor in him.

No, Willson Contreras isn’t a hot dog, he is just an all-out warrior every time he steps on the field.