Cubs

Cubs believe they can prove doubters wrong

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Cubs believe they can prove doubters wrong

Walk around the locker rooms here at Fitch Park in Mesa, Ariz., and to a man, the Chicago Cubs will tell you that they love the position that they are in. Absolutely no one unconnected with the team believes they have a snowballs chance on a hot Chicago summer day of having a successful season.

However, this new edition of the Cubs really and truly believes that they have a team that can stun the baseball pundits because they are playing for each other. Gone are the distractions of the past few years from Carlos Zambrano to some of the bloated contracts that belonged to underperforming players who have now moved on to other teams.

Players who were "me-first" guys like Aramis Ramirez are no longer on the roster and while he takes with him a productive bat, he also takes with him an attitude of lazy play that would never be tolerated by the new administration.

We have a great group of guys in here that are all pulling on the same end of the rope," Reed Johnson told me this morning before workouts began. "We dont have a team that can wait on three-run home runs to happen so that means that we have to do the little things correctly to win baseball games."

Starter Ryan Dempster is looking to help lead a starting rotation that has greatly improved depth from a year ago despite a lack of impact, arms except for Matt Garza.

We know that we have those that doubt what we can accomplish but everyone is really trying hard to impress the new bosses and I really like the makeup of the team we have here in camp, said Dempster.

Camp is full of interesting stories about guys who are looking to bounce back from subpar performances such as third baseman Ian Stewart, who comes over from Colorado after a brutal 2011 campaign.

David DeJesus had an injury-plagued season in Oakland but is now 100 percent and is going to open the season as the leadoff hitter and right fielder. He, too, senses something special in the air in Cubs camp.

I love the attitude I am seeing from everybody here. We are taking everything in that manager Dale Sveum is saying and it is all business with him. Guys are playing hard and I am going to do all I can in the leadoff spot to set the table for our run producers, DeJesus said.

Everyone in here came to win a championship, said second baseman Jeff Baker. "We really believe in each other in here and the attention to detail and the emphasis on playing the game the right way has been stressed by Dale and his staff since Day 1. It is up to us to execute and to get the job done."

While the question marks on this rebuilding team are many, there are some bright spots early in camp. The starting pitching depth being one and the play of some guys with a lot to prove -- such as Bryan LaHair -- being another.

Add in the newly bulked up Darwin Barney -- who gained nearly 15 pounds of muscle to help him handle the rigors of a long season -- and the improvement expected from star shortstop Starlin Castro and the optimism is somewhat understandable for an improved season over 2011 when the Cubs lost 91 games.

However, while improvement is one thing, making a run to the postseason is quite another. Johnson, though, believes the impossible is within the Cubs reach.

We are working very hard here in spring training," he said. "If we play up to our abilities, we know what we can accomplish. The attitude in here is great. That is what makes it so exciting to be a part of this team."

Jason Heyward predicts he will be the MVP of 2018 Cubs

Jason Heyward predicts he will be the MVP of 2018 Cubs

“Who will be the Cubs’ 2018 team MVP?”

Jason Heyward: “Me!”

No hesitation, no pause. Just an honest answer from a confident 28-year old with a $184 million contract.

Nobody wants to succeed more at the plate than the Cubs’ two-time Gold Glove award winner, but the offense has been downright ugly (.243, 18 HR, 108 RBI in 268 games).

Despite not performing up to a megadeal, Heyward has no problem talking about his contract:

“It is what it is, I earned it," Heyward said. "I earned that part of it. For me, it’s awesome. To be where I want to be, that’s the most important thing.”

After spending time talking at Cubs Convention speaking with Heyward, his manager and six of his other teammates, it’s no surprise that it was Heyward who delivered the now-famous Game 7 “Rain Delay Speech.”

His teammates adore him.

Question to Ben Zobrist: “Who’s your favorite teammate of all-time at any level?”

After a 10-second pause: “Jason Heyward.”

That definitely says something coming from a 36-year-old, three-time All-Star and World Series MVP.

For the true blue Cubs fans that can’t stand Heyward and his untradeable contract, sorry, his teammates and manager have nothing but good things to say. 

By all accounts, Heyward is a quality human being despite his shortcomings in the batter’s box the last two seasons.

And his goals for an offensive renaissance in 2018 are simple and basic:

“Just being in the lineup every game.”

His teammates will be behind him 100 percent, even if the fans are not.

How Addison Russell plans to keep nagging arm/foot injuries at bay in 2018

How Addison Russell plans to keep nagging arm/foot injuries at bay in 2018

Addison Russell doesn't have time to think about whether or not Javy Baez is coming for the starting shortstop gig.

Russell is too busy making sure he's able to perform at his physical peak for as much of 2018 as possible after a rough few years in that regard.

The soon-to-be-24-year-old only played in 110 games last year as he missed more than a month with a foot injury. He also has a history of hamstring injuries (including the one that kept him out of the 2015 NLCS) and a sore throwing arm that has cropped up at times throughout the last few years (though whether the arm is an issue or not depends on who you ask).

Russell admits his arm has been an issue and he has a new plan of attack this winter that will carry into the spring.

"I've been doing a throwing program," Russell said. "I feel like in the past, with my arm, I started throwing a little bit too early in spring training.

"This year, in the offseason, just kinda ease into it a little bit. In the offseason last year, I feel like I threw a little bit too much. Once midseason hit, it was all the downward effect of me throwing too early in the offseason.

"Having that in mind, taking things easier in the offseason and then going into spring training and then once the season's here, maybe around a quarter of the way through the season, start revving it up and that way, I'll be able to last with both my foot and my arm."

Russell had a bad case of plantar fasciitis last summer that also affected his ability to throw the ball to first base.

He joked he feels like an old man because he is happy he can now wake up without any pain in the foot, but still makes sure he rolls his foot on a golf ball to keep things loose.

With regards to his offseason workouts, Russell is prioritizing quality over quantity and he's taken full advantage of the longer offseason that featured far less distractions than a year ago when the Cubs were coming off the first World Series championship in 108 years.

"I'm getting a little bit older and I think a little wiser when it comes to training and knowing my body," Russell said. "With that being said, it's just kinda being in tune to my body more than pounding out weights.

"Definitely running and cardio is something that has been beneficial to my career in the past. I'm keeping up with that."

Between the foot and arm modifications to his training regimen, Russell is hoping to cut down on some of his throwing errors that plagued him in 2017 and try to get back to the hitter he was when he clubbed 24 homers and drove in 108 runs in 168 games between the 2016 regular season and postseason.

"Definitely I want to be in the All-Star Game this next year," Russell said. "I feel like with the type of skillset that I have and the type of guys around me, I think that could be a goal that I could hit.

"Smaller goals as far as staying consistent with my workouts. Remaining flexible is a huge goal that I wanna hit this year. I see a lot of veteran guys after ballgames stretching and they've been playing for quite a while, so it definitely works out for them.

"Just taking something from veteran guys and kinda incorporating it into my game and picking their ear and listening to how they prepare and how to keep your body in shape is beneficial, for sure."

To make the All-Star Game, Russell would need to get out to a hot start, which is something the Cubs and their fans would love to see. His steady presence in the lineup and as a defensive anchor contributed to the inconsistencies of the 2017 Cubs.

Entering a pivotal season in his development, Russell has emerged as one of the biggest X-factors surrounding the Cubs entering 2018. 

The entire Addison Russell 1-on-1 interview will air Friday night on NBC Sports Chicago.