The chain reactions that turned Cubs into playoff contender


The chain reactions that turned Cubs into playoff contender

Everybody has a plan, Mike Tyson once said, until they get punched in the mouth.

To become a heavyweight contender, the Cubs had to constantly bob and weave, hit below the belt a few times and get up off the mat over and over again.

So don’t pretend the Cubs knew it would happen like this or try to airbrush history and push the year-ahead-of-schedule narrative. The Plan wasn’t even necessarily supposed to be The Plan.

When Theo Epstein left the Boston Red Sox and took over as president of baseball operations, the idea of the Cubs fighting for the second wild card and finishing in third place in the National League Central by Year 4 would have sounded completely reasonable, maybe even a little disappointing.

That’s it? Then again, raise your hand if you saw this lightning-bolt season coming in 2015, the Cubs waking up on Sept. 24 with the third-best record in the majors and on pace for 95 wins heading into this weekend’s showdown against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Wrigley Field.

The Cubs needed guts to take a stocky catcher/outfielder from Indiana University, make a below-slot deal with last year’s No. 4 overall pick and fast-track Kyle Schwarber into the middle of their lineup.

The Cubs needed patience to grab a Tommy John case from the Cleveland Indians in the Rule 5 draft, carry Hector Rondon on the 2013 roster and allow him to develop into a 100-mph closer.

The Cubs also had to get lucky, be aggressive and learn how to counterpunch in baseball’s toughest division. With the magic number down to two, a look back at the chain reactions that might have created a playoff monster.

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“Those twits never lie”

Dale Sveum didn’t have any use for social media, and he will never be known as the most elegant public speaker. But the baseball lifer has so many contacts throughout the industry and a gym-rat mentality that still influences this team.

After 197 losses in two seasons, Epstein fired the manager over beers inside a neighborhood bar along the Southport Corridor. But two of Sveum’s closest allies — Chris Bosio and Mike Borzello — stayed on the coaching staff after the 2013 season and then survived Rick Renteria’s one-and-done year.

Bosio and Borzello work closely with the pitching staff and catchers, breaking down video, interpreting the data and developing a strong game-planning system that tries to maximize individual strengths and minimize damage.

Together, they helped coach up and market pitchers like Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza, Scott Feldman, Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel for the midseason trades that infused the organization with so much young talent.

The Cousin Eddie

Since the Tampa Bay Rays would never set the market and pay top dollar, Alan Nero tried to get a little something extra for his client, negotiating an opt-out clause into Joe Maddon’s contract if general manager Andrew Friedman left the organization.

That triggered once Friedman left to run baseball operations for the Los Angeles Dodgers last October. If the St. Louis Cardinals hadn’t just beaten Cy Young/MVP winner Clayton Kershaw twice in a best-of-five series, would the Dodgers have demoted Ned Colletti?

Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer quickly met Maddon at an RV park on Florida’s Gulf Coast and ultimately fired Renteria, a good guy who had already been told he would be coming back in 2015 (despite looking overmatched).

Nero, the managing director of Octagon Baseball, has an office on Michigan Avenue, fueling the suspicions in Tampa that this had been another insider deal in Chicago. The Cubs felt the Rays reacted like spoiled brats, pushing Major League Baseball to launch a tampering investigation.

Maddon has the perfect personality to lead this team, hip enough to connect with rookies, the big name that commands respect from veterans, a curiosity level that works well with The Geek Department and the right amount of weird to keep the Chicago media distracted.

All that makes Maddon’s five-year, $25 million contract (plus playoff incentives) look like a bargain.

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“Quarterback controversy”

In explaining why he sold low on Anthony Rizzo, Josh Byrnes told reporters he didn’t want a “quarterback controversy.” Byrnes — the San Diego Padres general manager at the time — had acquired first baseman Yonder Alonso in the Mat Latos deal with the Cincinnati Reds just before Christmas 2011.

The Cubs got their franchise first baseman three weeks later, giving up Andrew Cashner, a talented pitcher they believed would struggle to stay healthy and max out as a reliever.

Cashner has made 80 starts for the Padres, accounting for 520-plus innings. Byrnes — another one of Epstein and Hoyer’s buddies from Boston — now works in Friedman’s front office. Alonso has 32 career home runs in the big leagues.

Rizzo is a two-time All-Star who should show up again in the MVP voting this year (30 homers, 95 RBIs). He turned 26 last month and could remain under club control through the 2021 season.

The Oriole Way

The Baltimore Orioles pushed a cookie-cutter philosophy onto their pitchers and felt the tension between Dan Duquette’s front office and Buck Showalter’s dugout.

It didn’t stop the Orioles from winning 93 games in 2012 and the American League East last season. Maybe it never would have happened for Jake Arrieta in Baltimore (20-25, 5.46 ERA).

But that change-of-scenery trade in the middle of the 2013 season gave the Cubs a legitimate ace, a 20-game winner, someone with the potential to collect Cy Young hardware.

It only cost Feldman’s final 15 starts before free agency and reserve catcher Steve Clevenger to get Arrieta plus hard-throwing reliever Pedro Strop and two international signing bonus slots.

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Ground Control

Another what-if scenario comes from perhaps the most polarizing organization in the game. Imagine how far the Houston Astros would be puffing their chests out now if they had taken Kris Bryant with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 draft and dropped another Rookie of the Year frontrunner into their powerful lineup.

The Cubs weren’t sold on Mark Appel, concerned he had been sheltered too much at Stanford University and left wondering just how high his ceiling would be. Plus, the Epstein administration doesn’t like the risk involved with pitchers near the top of the draft, believing position players are a much safer bet.

Bryant — a 6-foot-5 slugger out of the University of San Diego with superstar potential — looked almost like a sure thing to the Cubs. The Astros passed on Bryant (26 homers, 98 RBIs in The Show) and took Appel (5.12 ERA through 253 career minor-league innings).

The Tanaka sweepstakes

The Cubs also lucked out when the New York Yankees blew them away in the Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes, committing $175 million to the Japanese pitcher, who has pitched at an All-Star level but hasn’t answered all the questions about his durability.

Epstein didn’t spend all of his department’s 2014 dollars, working with chairman Tom Ricketts to essentially create a savings account for the baseball side, a marked change from how it had been set up during the Jim Hendry administration.

This unconventional move was supposed to sync up the timeline with Crane Kenney’s business-operations department, working around the franchise’s financial restrictions until the Cubs had big-market spending power again.

The Cubs rolled the Tanaka money into this year’s budget, artificially inflating the payroll and helping finance Jon Lester’s six-year, $155 million megadeal.

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The gorilla suit

The Cubs have a Boston complex, trying to use Fenway Park as a blueprint for the Wrigley Field renovations, and they probably wouldn’t be here without outgoing Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino.

Lucchino helped drive Epstein out of Fenway Park, first in a gorilla suit on Halloween 2005, and for good after the epic collapse at the end of the 2011 season.

Lucchino — who first helped Epstein break into the business and finally lost the power struggle in Boston this year — also tried to play hardball with Lester, making a below-market offer to a two-time World Series champion.

Lester ultimately felt disrespected and that standoff led the Red Sox down the path of dealing a homegrown player to the Oakland A’s at last year’s trade deadline.

During his recruiting trip to Chicago last November, Lester kept telling Epstein: “They’re going to burn this city down again when we win the World Series.”

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

MESA, Ariz. — You don’t need to spend long searching the highlight reels to figure out why Javy Baez goes by “El Mago.”

Spanish for “The Magician,” that moniker is a fitting one considering what Baez can do with his glove and his arm up the middle of the infield. The king of tags, Baez also dazzles with his throwing arm and his range. He looks like a Gold Glove kind of player when you watch him do these amazing things. And it’s no surprise that in his first media session of the spring, he was talking about winning that award.

“Just to play hard and see what I can do. Obviously, try to be healthy the whole year again. And try to get that Gold Glove that I want because a lot of people know me for my defense,” he said Friday at Cubs camp. “Just try to get a Gold Glove and stay healthy the whole year.”

Those high expectations — in this case, being the best defensive second baseman in the National League — fall in line with everything the rest of the team is saying about their own high expectations. It’s been “World Series or bust” from pretty much everyone over the past couple weeks in Mesa.

Baez might not be all the way there just yet. Joe Maddon talked earlier this week about his reminders that Baez needs to keep focusing on making the easy plays while staying a master of the magnificent.

“What I talked to him about was, when he had to play shortstop, please make the routine play routinely and permit your athleticism to play. Because when the play requires crazinesss, you’re there, you can do that,” Maddon said. “But this straight up ground ball three-hopper to shortstop, come get the ball, play it through and make an accurate throw in a routine manner. Apparently that stuck. Because he told me once he thought in those terms, it really did slow it down for him. And he did do a better job at doing that.”

But the biggest question for Cubs fans when it comes to Baez is when the offense will catch up to his defense. Baez hit a game-winning homer run in his first major league game and smacked 23 of them last season, good for fifth on a team full of power bats. But arguably just as famous as Baez’s defensive magic is his tendency to chase pitches outside of the strike zone. He had 144 strikeouts last season and reached base at a .317 clip. Seven Cubs — including notable struggling hitters Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist — had higher on-base percentages in 2017.

Baez, for one, is staying focused on what he does best, saying he doesn’t really have any specific offensive goals for the upcoming season.

“I’m not worrying about too much about it,” he said. “I’m just trying to play defense, and just let the offense — see what happens.”

Maddon, unsurprisingly, talked much more about what Baez needs to do to become a better all-around player, and unsurprisingly that included being more selective at the plate.

“One of the best base runners in the game, one of the finest arms, most acrobatic, greatest range on defense, power. The biggest thing for me for him is to organize the strike zone,” Maddon said. “Once he does that, heads up. He’s at that point now, at-bat wise, if you want to get those 500, 600 plate appearances, part of that is to organize your zone, accept your walks, utilize the whole field, that kind of stuff. So that would be the level that I think’s the next level for him.”

Will Baez have a season’s worth of at-bats to get that done? The versatile Cubs roster includes a couple guys who split time between the infield and outfield in Zobrist and Ian Happ. Getting their more consistent bats in the lineup might mean sacrificing Baez’s defense on certain days. Baez, of course, also has the ability to slide over to shortstop to spell Addison Russell, like he did when Russell was on the disabled list last season.

Until Baez learns how to navigate that strike zone a bit better, it might make Maddon more likely to mix and match other options, rather than considering him an everyday lock like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.

But like Russell, Albert Almora Jr. and Willson Contreras, Baez is one of the young players who despite key roles on a championship contender the last few years still have big league growth to come. And Maddon thinks that growth is right around the corner.

“I want to believe you’re going to see that this year,” Maddon said. “They’ve had enough major league at-bats now, they should start making some significant improvements that are easy to recognize. The biggest thing normally is pitch selection, I think that’s where it really shows up. When you have talented players like that, that are very strong, quick, all that other stuff, if they’re swinging at strikes and taking balls, they’re going to do really well. And so it’s no secret with Javy. It’s no secret with Addy. Addy’s been more swing mode as opposed to accepting his walks. That’s part of the maturation process with those two guys. Albert I thought did a great job the last month, two months of getting better against righties. I thought Jason looked really good in the cage today. And Willson’s Willson.

“The natural assumption is these guys have played enough major league at-bats that you should see something different this year in a positive way.”'s Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

USA TODAY's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

Could 2018 be the year that the Cubs finally see a top pitching prospect debut with the team? 

Thursday, released its list of the Cubs' 2018 Top 30 Prospects, a group that includes six pitchers in the Top 10. The list ranks right-hander Adbert Alzolay as the Cubs' No 1. prospect, projecting him to debut with the team this season. 

Alzolay, 22, went 7-4 with a 2.99 ERA in 22 starts between Single-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Tennessee last season. He also struck out 108 batters in 114 1/3 innings, using a repertoire that includes a fastball that tops out around 98 MPH (according to

Following Alzolay as the Cubs' No. 2 overall prospect is 19-year-old shortstop Aramis Ademan. Ademan hit .267 in just 68 games between Single-A Eugene and Single-A South Bend, though it should be noted that he has soared from No. 11 in's 2017 ranks to his current No. 2 ranking. He is not projected to make his MLB debut until 2020, however.

Following Alzolay and Ademan on the list are five consecutive pitchers ranked 3-7, respectively. Oscar De La Cruz, No. 3 on the list, slides down from his 2017 ranking in which listed him as the Cubs' top overall prospect. De La Cruz, 22, finished 2017 with a 3.34 ERA in 13 games (12 starts) between the Arizona League and Single-A Myrtle Beach.

De La Cruz is projected to make his MLB debut in 2019, while Jose Albertos (No. 4), Alex Lange (No. 5), Brendon Little (No. 6) and Thomas Hatch (No. 7) are projected to make their big league debuts in 2019 or 2020. All are right-handed (with the exception of Little) and starting pitchers.

Hatch (third round, 2016) and Lange (30th overall, 2017) and Little (27th overall, 2017) were all top draft picks by the Cubs in recent seasons.

Having numerous starting pitchers on the cusp of the big leagues represents a significant change of pace for the Cubs. 

Since Theo Epstein took over as team president in Oct. 2011, a plethora of top prospects have debuted and enjoyed success with the Cubs. Majority have been position players, though.

The likes of Albert Almora, Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell all contributed to the Cubs winning the World Series in 2016. Similarly, Ian Happ enjoyed a fair amount of success after making his MLB debut last season, hitting 24 home runs in just 115 games.

Ultimately, Alzolay would be the Cubs' first true top pitching prospect to make it to the big leagues in the Theo Epstein era. While him making it to the big leagues in 2018 is no guarantee, one would think a need for pitching will arise for the Cubs at some point, whether it be due to injury or simply for September roster expansion.

The Cubs have enjoyed tremendous success in recent years in terms of their top prospects succeeding in the MLB. If the trend continues, Alzolay should be a force to reckon with on the North Side for years to come.