Cubs

Cubs set out to create a new identity

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Cubs set out to create a new identity

MESA, Ariz. Theo Epstein leaned on the batting cage, standing in between Billy Williams and Rick Sutcliffe. This was the past and present, shoulder to shoulder at HoHoKam Stadium, and spring training is all about seeing into the future.

The Cubs have been able to sell sunshine and beer for a long time. It was 78 degrees at first pitch, and 10,366 fans rolled in for their Cactus League opener. Before a 12-10 loss to the Oakland As, the president of baseball operations signed autographs by the dugout.

This is what were all here for, to play the game on the field, Epstein had said at the beginning of camp. Sometimes a winter can stretch on and you forget what you do for a living. You feel like an accountant or something.

The Cubs are trying to create a new identity, and it will have more of a corporate feel, from the computer system they designed with Bloomberg Sports to the increased emphasis on video and statistical analysis.

Baseball staffers from every level of the organization assembled at a Mesa hotel in the middle of February to build what Epstein has called the scouting and player development machine, which will come with manuals that run hundreds of pages.

The idea is that something as simple as a bunt play will be run the same in the Dominican summer league as it is inside Wrigley Field, and on and on and on. The Cubs Way.

Weve got better cooks, pitcher Matt Garza said when asked about the difference now.

Yes, the Cubs have even overhauled the kitchen, using a food service company that has cut out red meat from the spread and caters for several teams throughout the Valley. No detail is too small just check out the blue corners on the bases at Fitch Park where your foot is supposed to hit.

After years of ownership instability that handcuffed the previous administration and once new revenues start flowing out of a renovated Wrigley Field this could be the superpower of the Midwest. The empire should include game-changing TV deals and new facilities in Arizona and the Dominican Republic.

Pitcher Andy Sonnanstine recalled a team meeting early in camp where Epstein talked about how its a little bit different when you put the Yankees uniform on the Red Sox and the Cubs are right up there with them. Can you handle the pressure?

The Red Sox model that Cubs executives have long coveted will include a strong, steady manager. Dale Sveum emerged from the same intense interview process that revealed two finalists in Terry Francona and Joe Maddon, who certainly werent stars almost 10 years ago at Fenway Park.

Sveum wont be tossing bases, or entertaining everyone in the interview room with great stories. He may not be loud or show much emotion, but he has presence after lasting 12 seasons in the big leagues, even after a horrific leg injury.

I just try to be myself and whatever happens, happens, Sveum said. But I do believe a team does take on the personality of their managernot that I have any kind of personality.

You just try to harp on the little things. And at the same time, theyve got to know that you know how difficult this game is. Im not the guy where if somebody strikes out with the bases loaded, Im going to be throwing things. I completely understand that.

I wasnt a very good player, so I completely understand the trials and tribulations of this game and the pressures theyre under and all that stuff. My goal is to get them to prepare like its the seventh game of the World Series every day. So when they do fail, (they) can look (into) the mirror and say: I did everything I could today to make myself a better player.

Its not like the other 29 teams are ignoring fundamentals and spending spring training eating fried chicken, drinking beer and playing video games. And check the clips: Around this time last year, everyone was writing stories about the good vibes in Camp Quade (at least until Carlos Silva and Aramis Ramirez almost got into a fight in the dugout).

But the days are longer now, one player said, and at least 10 were out taking extra batting practice in front of hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo after Sundays game ended.

Ramirez and Carlos Zambrano are gone, but there was Alfonso Soriano that morning, walking from one end of the clubhouse to the other, bobbing his head and smiling: Hey babehey babehey babe.

I dont like to be the leader, Soriano said. My teammates can see how I play hard and how I work. I think they can take that to the field. I dont like to talk much. Just work hard and try to be better every day and try to win. Thats what I can take to the young guys here.

You can already see the bonds forming, top prospects Anthony Rizzo and Brett Jackson relaxing in chairs by their lockers. Cubs executives think theyll be glue guys for their lineup and clubhouse.

The things I can control are what I do every day, Jackson said. Im not going to make the team right now today. But every days a piece to that puzzle. Im going to keep working every day until that day comes, and when that day comes Im going to keep working there.

I believe in big things for the Cubs and its something I want to be a part of.

Why Joe Maddon sees Anthony Rizzo coming out of his slump

Why Joe Maddon sees Anthony Rizzo coming out of his slump

CLEVELAND — It goes down as two line drives in the scorebook.

Anthony Rizzo has been mired in a season-long slump (OK, that's a little dramatic given it's still not even May yet and he missed more than a week with a back injury), but he may be showing signs of getting out of it thanks to a couple of weak groundballs.

Rizzo finished Tuesday's 10-3 win over the Indians with two hits in his final two at-bats, though one hit barely made it past the pitcher's mound and the other barely made it to the outfield grass.

In fact, Rizzo's exit velocities on both balls combined was 109.2 mph, or 8 mph less than Kyle Schwarber's 117 mph homer in the second inning Tuesday.

So how can a 35.5 mph jam-shot with a hit probability of 8 percent get a player like Rizzo going?

It's all about the hands.

"When I was a hitting coach, I swear, if one of my better hitters got jammed his first at-bat, I went up to him and I said, 'I promise that's at least two line drives tonight,'" Joe Maddon relayed before Wednesday's game.

"My explanation of getting jammed is that you make a mistake with your bottom hand. Your bottom hand gets too far out, you expose the weak part of the bat to the ball, thus you get jammed. That's not a bad way to go. 

"But if you're always coming open too soon, exposing the fatter part of the bat to that particular pitch, eventually they're going to go further away. So anything you hit well is gonna be a foul ball more than likely or rolled over. So this is a better method to go — staying inside the ball, getting the head of the bat there."

Maddon pointed to how Rockies second baseman D.J. LeMahieu and future Hall of Famer Derek Jeter and how they made/make a living based off keeping their hands inside a ball and driving it to center or the other way.

That's what Maddon wants to see from not just Rizzo, but all the Cubs hitters. It's what the manager has been preaching all season, especially the last week or so, as the Cubs have seen better offensive results.

The Cubs entered play Wednesday winners of four of their last five games while the offense has cruised to a .342 average and 9 runs/game in that span. 

However, they've been doing a lot of that while Rizzo still doesn't look like Rizzo. 

He went on the disabled list with a .107 batting average and though he raised it 67 points in the six games since returning from injury, it was with only a modest .240 average in the last week with zero extra-base hits. Rizzo has just one extra-base hit on the season — a homer in the very first game of the season on March 29.

For a guy that's been remarkably consistent in his career, you can bet on Rizzo's numbers normalizing in the long run, which would be a big boost to a Cubs team currently without Kris Bryant.

And maybe it really will be a ball off the fists that traveled roughly 75 feet that gets Rizzo in a groove.

Cubs are still without Kris Bryant, but insist there's no need to worry

Cubs are still without Kris Bryant, but insist there's no need to worry

CLEVELAND — The Cubs will play a second straight game without Kris Bryant, but that doesn't mean fans should start panicking.

Bryant hasn't played since getting hit in the head in the top of the first inning in Sunday's game with a 96 mph fastball.

Bryant has been cleared by doctors in Colorado and Cleveland and will meet with the Cubs team doctor Thursday in Chicago. 

The Cubs kept their MVP third baseman out of the lineup Tuesday to give him an extra day of rest, initially hoping he'd be back Wednesday before deciding Tuesday night they should give him another day.

"He's not bad, he's fine," Joe Maddon said. "It's just one of those things. He's been seeing the doctors. There's nothing awful. It's just a matter of getting him ready to play.

"I'm not hearing anything bad. Not at all. I really anticipate good soon. If anything went the other way, I think we'd be surprised."

Head injuries are very tricky and sometimes symptoms can show up days after the initial trauma. That doesn't appear to be the case here with Bryant, but the Cubs also don't want him to rush back until he's ready physically, mentally and emotionally.

The key word there is "trauma," because it was a traumatic experience for Bryant and something he'll have to come to terms with mentally before he can step back in that batter's box.

"Sometimes that's necessary," Maddon said. "Again, he got hit, I didn't. I'm listening to him right now. So whatever he says, I'm very amenable to right now. 

"I could sense [Tuesday] he wasn't quite ready. ... I don't anticipate any long delay."

The Cubs started Tommy La Stella for a second straight game Wednesday in Bryant's place. La Stella played third base Tuesday and was originally slotted for the same spot Wednesday before a last-minute change moved him to second with Javy Baez playing the hot corner.