Cubs

Better than advertised: Where Cubs stand on Memorial Day weekend

Better than advertised: Where Cubs stand on Memorial Day weekend

John Lackey gave one of his dismissive chuckles toward the end of spring training, when asked about the daily pressure of playing for an uber-team/cautionary tale like the 2011 Boston Red Sox and how these Cubs would respond to all the hype.

“I don’t believe in pressure in April and May – I’ve been in October about 10 times, man,” Lackey said. “We got too much talent for those things to not just handle themselves. Joe’s not going to allow any of that to get in here.

“Joe runs a really laid-back clubhouse, but (it’s) business-like on the field. It’s a great mix. If you can’t play for him, you can’t play for anybody.”

Joe Maddon, of course, helped design those “Embrace The Target” T-shirts that literally put bulls-eyes across their chests. And Theo Epstein’s front office purposefully signed veterans with championship experience, whether it’s a big-game pitcher like Lackey or an October-tested hitter like Ben Zobrist.

So far, the 2016 Cubs have actually been better than advertised. After the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend – a traditional mile marker along the 162-game season – this team had the best record in baseball (33-14) and the perception of being a lock for the playoffs. At least according to the projections on Baseball Prospectus (98.3 percent) and FanGraphs (98.9 percent).

• Zobrist remembered how Maddon’s Tampa Bay Rays had almost no margin for error while competing in the brutal American League East and dealing with the financial realities of a small-market team. Those experiences of furiously trying to play catch-up brought a sense of urgency to the Cubs.

“I knew the number in my head for April,” Zobrist said. “I know how important it is to get off to a good start, because we had some great teams in Tampa Bay, and if we didn’t get off to a good start, we found ourselves trying to come back the whole rest of the year.

“My number that I was looking at in April is 17. That was the Cubs’ record for wins in April. (I thought): ‘We need to get there. We need to shoot for that.’ We had a shot to get 18, but we got rained out the last day of April. That, to me, said: ‘OK, we’re on the right path.’

“But you got to keep focusing on today, because the moment you start thinking about how great we’ve played is the moment that we stop focusing on what we need to keep doing.”

• If momentum is all about starting pitching, the Cubs have a rotation that leads the majors in ERA (2.56) and has gone 32-for-46 in quality starts. After Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks each remarkably made 30-plus starts last year, the Cubs have relied on that quartet plus Lackey to make every start so far this season.  

“We want to be that backbone,” Hammel said. “I want to be the guy who hands the baton to the next guy. And we have five guys who can do that. Just keep rolling with it.”

It figures to be a weaker market for pitching when trade talks start to accelerate after the June amateur draft, but arms have to be the priority for a franchise so heavily invested in hitters.

Still, as an overall staff, the Cubs lead the majors in batting average against (.205) and opponents’ OPS (.601). And the No. 2 teams in those categories – the Los Angeles Dodgers (.218) and Washington Nationals (.634) – aren’t even that close. Same with the plus-123 run differential – the Red Sox are second in the majors at plus-70.

• It’s been years in the making, but the Cubs finally have one of those Boston-style lineups, leading the big leagues in walks (piling up 223 before any other team crossed the 200-mark), getting on base almost 36 percent of the time and waiting for the weather to heat up this summer at Wrigley Field.

“We have guys that have that chip built in,” Maddon said. “It’s so hard to teach what our guys do, meaning that they are able to look over a pitch. They have this great decision-making (process) at home plate.

“Everybody wants that, but not everybody has that. So most of the time, you either have to draft it or buy it. To just attempt to nurture that through the minor leagues is very, very hard to do.

“Having said that, Addison (Russell) has made great strides because he’s surrounded by it so much (with) all these other guys in the lineup. Addison, just through observation, sees these other guys doing it and he’s much better at not expanding his strike zone.

“For years, everybody’s been clamoring for hitters (who) don’t give in. (But) it’s just a mindset. It’s just who you are. It’s hard to teach. You normally come equipped with it. I don’t know where it begins. But you look at our guys – Dexter (Fowler’s) had it built in. Jason (Heyward’s) had it built in. ‘KB’ (Kris Bryant) – it’s there. (Anthony) Rizzo’s always had it. ‘Zo’s’ always had it, from ever since I’ve seen him.

“A lot of these guys have had that chip. That’s part of their standard equipment.”

• The Cubs are 9-3 combined this season against the Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals, two teams that together won 198 games last year. That’s helped the Cubs build leads over the Pirates (4.5 games) and Cardinals (8.5 games) in the National League Central.

The Cubs swept a four-game series against the Nationals in early May at Wrigley Field, walking Bryce Harper 13 times in what felt like a possible playoff preview.

The Cubs have also lost series to the Colorado Rockies, San Diego Padres and Milwaukee Brewers, the types of teams that Maddon had in mind when he created the “Embrace The Target” campaign. 

“What we have to get better at as a team is really finishing off some of the teams that probably aren’t as competitive,” general manager Jed Hoyer said, “and making sure you sweep some of those series and really win two out of three, because they count the same as the games against the Cardinals at the end of the year.”

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.

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

News broke to Willson Contreras that the league will be limiting mound visits this upcoming season, and the Cubs catcher —notorious for his frequent visits to the rubber — is not having it.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If you have to go again and pay the price for my team, I will," he said.

The new rules rolled out Tuesday will limit six visits —any time a manager, coach or player visits the mound — per nine innings. But, communication between a player and a pitcher that does not require them moving from their position does not count as a visit.When a team is out of visits, it's the umpire's discretion to allow an extra trip to the mound.

But despite the new rules, Contreras is willing to do what's best for the team.

“There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? They cannot say anything about that. If you’re going to fine me about the [seventh] mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”