Cubs

Barney, Castro could be anchors for Cubs

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Barney, Castro could be anchors for Cubs

MESA, Ariz. Darwin Barney was talking about The Cubs Way long before Theo Epstein left Fenway Park.

Barney saw the big picture and listened to the plan outlined by the new Ricketts ownership group. He loved playing for Ryne Sandberg in the minors and thought a homegrown core could win big in Chicago.

They would bond by riding buses, playing cards and growing up together. Thats what Barney talked about with good friend Tyler Colvin, whos since been traded to the Colorado Rockies.

One part of this rebuilding phase will be seeing if Barney and Starlin Castro can anchor the middle infield for years to come. Ex-manager Mike Quade thought they could, which is why he seemed much harder on them and singled them out in the media, while usually giving a free pass to the veterans.

I dont look back on it that way, Barney said Thursday. You look back and you remember we had to get better. Someone telling you that is not a bad thing. So I dont look at it negatively at all.

On a July afternoon where the temperature hovered near 100 degrees, Quade sounded out of touch when he blasted Castro and Barney (play with some freaking intensity) for letting a pop-up drop between themin the first inningof a 9-1 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies.

I look back at this whole game and look at that play, Quade said that day in the interview room. The suns been in the same damn spot for however long Wrigley Fields been here.

Its no surprise that Barney whos polished and self-aware and speaks in full paragraphs would take the high road. He has won titles everywhere hes been Little League, high school and Oregon State University, where future Boston Red Sox star Jacoby Ellsbury noticed his freshman teammate immediately emerge as a leader.

Barney is 26 years old and bulked up to around 190 pounds this winter, regaining the weight he lost during spring training and across a long, draining season in which he hit .306 before the All-Star break, and .238 after.

You got one shot, he said. You got one window in this game and my thought was: Why not now?

The extra 20 pounds or so made an impression on new manager Dale Sveum, who said Barneys a lot stronger and a lot quicker than I thought.

Hes one of those ultimate professionals thats going to try to make himself a better player every day, and thats what you want on a team, Sveum said.

Can Barney be an everyday second baseman for an entire season?

Hes put himself in (position), Sveum said. (With) the weight and muscle hes put on, I think he realized the grind of it last year, how to handle it a bit differently, especially (mentally) when everythings sped up because its the big leagues. It takes a lot more out of your body than a minor-league game (where) there are 5,000 people in the stands instead of 35,000.

Barney had played shortstop almost his entire life, but was blocked by Castro, so he essentially learned how to play second base at the major-league level. An All-Star shortstop and a steady second baseman both under club control and in their pre-prime years could be building blocks for Epsteins front office.

Starlin and I have good communication, Barney said. Were good buddies and we enjoy playing together. Hes one of the most talented guys Ive ever been around. (We) know how last year shaped up and it was a tough year all around. Were excited to have a clean slate.

Yadier Molina claps back at Willson Contreras

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USA TODAY

Yadier Molina claps back at Willson Contreras

The Cubs-Cardinals rivalry is heating up early, it appears.

Just a few days after Willson Contreras told Chicago Sun-Times' Steve Greenberg that he believes he's going to be better than Yadier Molina and Buster Posey, Molina clapped back with an Instagram post:

That translates to "respect the ranks" showing Molina standing side-by-side with Posey.

At Cubs Convention over the weekend, Contreras said:


"I used to watch a lot of those guys but now I'm watching myself because I know that I'm going to be better than them. That's my plan. That's my mindset. 

“I know that I have a lot of talent and I thank God every day for giving me this kind of talent that I have. In my mind, I want to be the best catcher in the game for a long time — like it was with Yadier Molina, like it is with Buster Posey.”


MLB stoked the flames of this fire by Tweeting out a quote graphic Wednesday morning:

Neither Molina nor Contreras are strangers to keeping it real and saying how they truly feel, so this could get fun.

To be fair, though, it's not like Contreras said anything bad. He's a confident kid who believes he will eventually be the best catcher in the game (though the argument could easily be made that he's already close).

No issue in that. 

Molina has a point, too, that Contreras has only spent the last year-and-a-half in the majors, so maybe not the best time to be making such proclamations, but whatever.

Brian Duensing's return to Cubs is big, but where does he fit in new-look bullpen?

Brian Duensing's return to Cubs is big, but where does he fit in new-look bullpen?

Brian Duensing isn't the marquee pitcher Cubs fans were hoping their team would sign on the morning of Jan. 17, but he is one of the heroes they need.

Duensing is back in the Cubs' bullpen for the next two years at a discount of $7 million. It's a raise for him — he made $2 million in 2017 — but he left a lot of money on the table, joining players like Ben Zobrist who signed for less.

The veteran lefty was somebody the Cubs' "Geek Squad" and scouting department targeted last winter and made a priority to sign a year ago.

That worked out awfully well, as the 34-year-old Duensing put up the best season of his life with a 2.74 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and struck out a career-high 8.8 batters per nine innings.

Even Duensing himself was surprised by the strikeout totals:

"A lot of swings and misses — I don't know what that's about, to be honest," Duensing said back in August when he joined the Cubs Talk Podcast. "I really don't know what's going on there. Just things are working really well right now and hopefully they continue."

Duensing's success didn't quite continue on a linear path from there, as he followed up a stellar August (1.93 ERA) with a 4.82 ERA and 1.82 WHIP in September while striking out only six batters in 9.1 innings.

That poor last month was part of the reason why Duensing fell out of Joe Maddon's circle of trust entering the postseason, and while the veteran southpaw put up a 1.69 ERA and allowed just five baserunners in 5.1 innings, he didn't pitch often in high-leverage situations in October.

As for where Duensing fits in the Cubs bullpen in 2018 and 2019, he provides another reliable arm and helps work toward the front office's goal of getting more strike-throwers in a bullpen that struggled in that department in 2017.

Duensing walked just 18 batters in 62.1 innings and was not a part of the overall problem that saw the Cubs' bullpen post one of the worst BB/9 rates in Major League Baseball.

Of Duensing's 68 appearances in 2017, 15 of them went for more than three outs. While he wasn't a true long-relief option like Mike Montgomery, the former Minnesota Twin does have a background as a starter and can help eat up innings if a Cubs starter is knocked out early or the other bullpen arms need a rest.

He also provides another left-handed option for the 'pen with Justin Wilson a major question mark after his struggles in Chicago and Montgomery currently slotted in as a starter and expected to serve in a swingman capacity for parts of 2018. Reliable left-handed relievers are in short supply in the majors, and the Cubs are investing as much capital as they can in their bullpen.

Duensing probably isn't a guy that would fill in at closer at all if Brandon Morrow is injured or ineffective — Duensing has just two career saves — but he's another glue guy to a bullpen that looks like this:

Brandon Morrow
Carl Edwards Jr.
Pedro Strop
Justin Wilson
Steve Cishek
Justin Grimm
Brian Duensing

Another arm — whether that's Montgomery or somebody else — should slot in there by the end of spring training as the Cubs are expected to roll with eight arms in their bullpen for much of the season.

The big question with Duensing is how he'll be used in October, assuming the Cubs make it there again. Maddon's bullpen usage in the postseason has been oft-questioned, but he clearly saw something in Duensing that made him lose trust on the game's biggest stage.

Does that happen again in 2018?