'Badass' Cubs won't sit back at trade deadline


'Badass' Cubs won't sit back at trade deadline

CLEVELAND — “I am a badass.”

That’s how Tsuyoshi Wada began his postgame media session, delivering a message in English while standing at his locker inside Progressive Field’s visiting clubhouse.

Wada didn’t really know what that means — Cubs manager Joe Maddon told him to say it — but it worked after throwing seven innings in a 17-0 win over the Cleveland Indians. The Japanese lefty knew he nailed the line when he saw the reporters burst into laughter.

Yes, the Cubs are feeling pretty good about themselves at 35-28. They wore out the Indians (30-34) with 18 hits, forcing Cleveland manager Terry Francona to use nine pitchers, including position players Ryan Raburn and David Murphy.

This is the time for Theo Epstein to keep following his killer instincts.

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The Cubs president of baseball operations has already shown what he thinks of this team by giving Jon Lester a $155 million contract, not playing Super Two games with Kris Bryant and Addison Russell, signing former All-Star closer Rafael Soriano and fast-tracking Kyle Schwarber from Double-A Tennessee to The Show.

“I don’t believe in labels like necessarily ‘buyers’ or ‘sellers,’” Epstein said. “But I think we’re always looking for ways to improve this team. We’re clearly in contention, and you can’t take that for granted.

“So whether it’s a minor-league signing here, or putting a prospect in a certain role there in order to help the big-league team, those are things that you do when you’re in contention and have a relevant season.

“We definitely won’t sit back. We’re going to examine every possible opportunity and work hard to try to improve this team as we go.”

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While the Cubs have been connected to bigger names that would help their bullpen (Philadelphia Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon) and everyday lineup (Oakland A’s super-utility guy Ben Zobrist), the rotation should be a priority.

Wada — who’s now 1-for-6 in quality starts — understood what’s at stake after earning his first win this season and slicing his ERA from 4.84 down to 3.68.

“Step by step, every outing should be better each time,” Wada said through translator Nao Masamoto, the major-league video coordinator and Pacific liaison. “And then, hopefully, I will be able to say ‘badass’ again.”

Since Lester’s “dead arm” in spring training, the rotation has stayed relatively healthy, with the Cubs using only six starters through almost 40 percent of the season. But it’s not realistic to think this group will remain injury-free or become automatic for October.

“Often, pennant races can be won or lost based on who has the best starting depth,” Epstein said. “Frankly, that’s not an area of strength for us right now. So if you asked (what’s the) one single thing we’re spending most of our time on — besides urgent matters that come up — it’s sort of game-planning how to establish a little bit more starting depth right now. We’re going to need it.”

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The Cubs are stuck in the middle of a top-heavy division and trailing the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates — combined 30-plus games over .500 — during a season where the National League’s two wild cards should be up for grabs.

The Cubs also have 30 games after the All-Star break against the Phillies, Cincinnati Reds and Milwaukee Brewers, three teams that look like obvious sellers playing for the future.

“We stack up,” said veteran catcher David Ross, who’s been to the playoffs five times and won a World Series ring with the 2013 Boston Red Sox. “I love our team.

“We come every day, and we expect to win. I think we got a good chance to do something special around here. I’ve seen us grow and get better in a lot of areas. It’s fun to see — as a veteran guy with such a young group — that we don’t give up.

“All you can do on a nightly basis is give yourself a chance to win, and I think we have done that more than not. I’m extremely excited about where this team is going.”

How long before Cubs players start wearing “I AM A BADASS” T-shirts?

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.”

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Who was Theo Epstein’s first draft pick with the Cubs?

The answer to that trivia question will always and forever be Albert Almora Jr. picked sixth overall in the 2012 amateur draft.

In some ways, the young outfielder from Florida became the forgotten man in the stable of can’t-miss prospects that Epstein and top lieutenants Jed Hoyer and Jason MacLeod amassed since their arrival over six years ago. While players such as Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ zoomed through the minor leagues on their way to the majors, Almora took a different path – one that included seven different stops over parts of five developmental seasons before he broke into the big leagues during the 2016 season.

But Almora’s road to the majors began years before he was selected by the Cubs, when he began playing for Team USA as a 13-year-old. Over the next several years, Almora played for the Red, White & Blue seven times, his final appearance coming in 2015. The seven appearances are the most in the history of USA Baseball, and Almora recognizes the impact his time with the national squad had on his playing career.

“[It was] one of the best experiences of my life," he said. "Every year I had something special to play with, unbelievable guys, went to crazy places, and out of those six years, five of them came with a gold medal so that was pretty special as well. Also, that helped me in my baseball life, how to experience things and learn from those type of experiences.

“I’m a Cubbie and that’s what’s on my chest right now, but Team USA will always have a special place in my heart.”

While Almora carries those national team experiences with him every day, his main focus coming into the 2018 season is becoming a consistent difference-maker. Almora made only 65 starts during the 2017 campaign, and 63 percent of his at-bats last year came against left-handed pitching, against which he hit a robust .342. That led to a platoon role in a crowded outfield, with Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber, Jon Jay, Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist all taking turns on the merry-go-round. But with the departure of Jay, Almora believes his time is near.

“I have the most confidence in myself that I can play every day, but I try not to think about that kind of stuff because it’s out of my control," Almora said. "All I control is like last year what I did; whenever I was given an opportunity, I tried to do my best and help the team win.”

Almora’s ultimate role on the 2018 Cubs remains to be seen, but there’s no question that Theo’s first Cubs pick will earn whatever role he ends up with, and the foundation of Almora’s journey to Clark and Addison was laid many summers ago during his time with Team USA.