Cubs

Cubs young core delivers a World Series and a blindingly bright future

Cubs young core delivers a World Series and a blindingly bright future

CLEVELAND — Albert Almora scored the go-ahead run in the 10th inning of Game 7 of a World Series, but wasn’t quite ready to celebrate immediately after he touched home plate. That’s because he wanted to be 100 percent sure he, indeed, touched home. 

“You never know with this whole replay, the last thing you want to do is go back in history and be remembered as that guy, you know,” Almora said. “I went back, tagged home plate and then I started celebrating. 

“… I’m bleeding somewhere. I don’t even know what happened. I almost had a heart attack. But it was awesome.”

Consider the ages of some of the biggest contributors to the Cubs’ 8-7 win over the Cleveland Indians in Game 7 of the World Series on Wednesday: Almora and shortstop Addison Russell (who had an early go-ahead sacrifice fly) are 22; designated hitter Kyle Schwarber (who went three for five and started that 10th inning rally with a single) and second baseman Javier Baez (who homered off Corey Kluber) are 23; catcher Willson Contreras (who delivered an RBI double) and third baseman Kris Bryant (who scored twice thanks to some aggressive, instinctual baserunning) are both 24. And first baseman Anthony Rizzo is 27 years old, while Game 7 starter Kyle Hendricks is 26. 

“They’re so young, and I really don’t think they understand what they just accomplished,” left-hander Jon Lester said. “I don’t think they’ll understand it until they get a little bit older.”

Catcher David Ross said that youth may have actually paid off for this team in their fight to erase a 3-1 series deficit and win the franchise’s first World Series in 108 years. 

"I think that's why they did it,” Ross said. “They don't know. They know to go out there and play baseball. They're really, really good. You have a lot of successful, young, talented players that have been successful their whole careers that are on the field and they expected to succeed and I think that's what you saw. There's not a whole lot of guys talking about what's happened in the past. They're looking to the future and the future is bright with that group."

Eight years ago, Joe Maddon managed a young Tampa Bay Rays care to the World Series — which they lost to the Philadelphia Phillies — but never made it back to to the World Series after that. The average age of the Rays' position players that year was 27; the average age of the Cubs' position players in 2016 was 27.4.

Reinforcements were out of the question for the small-market Rays, though. Tampa Bay made it back to the playoffs three more times under Maddon after reaching the World Series but never advanced past the American League Division Series, slowly unloading parts who commanded high-priced contracts until, after Maddon left following the 2014 season, only third baseman Evan Longoria remained from that original core. 

The Cubs, though, have the resources to augment and bolster their roster — as they did with the acquisitions of Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and John Lackey after the 2015 season — while keeping that young core that was so critical in the World Series intact. 

“There is a better chance of keeping them together just based on finances, whereas back down there (with Tampa Bay) we didn't have the same opportunity to keep that group together, which I've often lamented,” Maddon said. “Had you been able to keep that group together, what it would eventually look like — I thought it could have rivaled the Yankees' run with that kind of group that had come up in the mid-90's or late 90’s.”

For some of the veteran members of the Cubs, seeing how all that youth coalesced into a World Series title without any of them having been on this stage before was incredible, but it was also just the tip of the iceberg. 

“I think for all the young guys to get their first taste of the World Series and to perform as well as they did in this moment, I gotta believe their confidence is sky-high,” left fielder Ben Zobrist said. “It’s going to be more than ever next year, and I look for even better things from this team next year with all the ability and now the experience that you have with all the young players.”

It’s a scary thought for the rest of baseball that the Cubs feel like they have nowhere to go but up after putting themselves atop baseball on Wednesday. But with a World Series of experience under their belts, in which on the whole the moment wasn’t too big for any of the 20somethings on this team, that’s where the Cubs stand as the best and most powerful franchise in baseball. 

“This is it,” Bryant said, smiling and shaking his head. “This is what you dream for. I mean, I made the last out of the World Series.” 

Cubs will be open for business as Theo Epstein weighs trading hitters for pitching

Cubs will be open for business as Theo Epstein weighs trading hitters for pitching

Theo Epstein answered questions from the Chicago media for more than an hour on Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field, but the most interesting part might have been what the Cubs president didn’t say, something along the lines of: These are our guys.

Or at least Epstein didn’t give the same full-throated endorsement of The Core that he delivered after engineering the Jose Quintana trade with the White Sox this summer, getting an All-Star pitcher without giving up anyone from the big-league roster.

Whether it’s the way the Los Angeles Dodgers dominated the Cubs throughout the National League Championship Series that ended Thursday night, the inconsistencies and frustrations during a 43-45 first half of this season or the reality of losing 40 percent of the rotation, you walked out of that stadium club press conference thinking big changes could be coming.

“We’re going to pursue all avenues to get better,” Epstein said.

The Cubs already understood this would be a challenging time to dramatically reshape their pitching staff, with Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta, Big Boy John Lackey and All-Star closer Wade Davis about to become free agents.

The Cubs don’t really have many (any?) high-end, headliner prospects left to trade after borrowing heavily from their farm system to acquire Aroldis Chapman for last year’s World Series run and get Quintana to help solidify the rotation through 2020.

All of Major League Baseball is looking beyond this winter and preparing for the monster free-agent class that will hit the open market after the 2018 season.

Meaning it’s time for the Cubs to make some difficult decisions about all these young hitters they’ve collected.

“It may or may not be,” Epstein said. “Those choices, they’re not unilateral things. You can’t sit there and decide: ‘Hey, this guy, we’re moving him.’ Because you don’t know what the return might be. You don’t know how the different moving parts might fit together.

“I think going into the offseason prepared to make some tough choices and execute on them — and keeping an open mind to anything — is appropriate under the circumstances where we have some obvious deficits and we have some real surplus with talented players who are really desirable.”

Let’s assume All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo, MVP third baseman Kris Bryant and catcher Willson Contreras are essentially untouchable.

The Cubs used the ninth overall pick in the 2015 draft on Ian Happ with the explicit idea that the college hitter should be on a fast track and could be flipped for pitching later: Is it time to sell high after the rookie just put up 24 homers and an .842 OPS?

During an exit meeting with Albert Almora Jr., Epstein said he couldn’t promise an everyday job in 2018, though the expectation would be more responsibilities: Think anyone else would be interested in a potential Gold Glove center fielder who’s already playoff-tested?

Do you want Addison Russell or Javier Baez as your everyday shortstop for the next four years? Is there an American League team willing to bet big that Kyle Schwarber will crush 40 homers a year as a designated hitter?

The Cubs have to ask themselves those types of questions, which could mean getting outside of their comfort zone and taking on some riskier pitching investments and sapping the strength that has turned them into the dominant force in the NL Central.

“We’ve really benefitted from having two or three extra — and ‘extra’ in quotes because they’re not really extra — starting-caliber players on the roster,” Epstein said. “That helped us win 97 games in ’15, 103 last year, 92 this year. That’s as big a part of the club as anything.

“Having an Addison Russell go down and being able to move Javy Baez to shortstop — that’s an obvious example of it. But those things show up every week for us. There’s a day where someone can’t make the lineup and someone else slides in and you’re still starting eight quality guys. That’s huge.

“Sooner or later, you reach a point where you have to strongly consider sacrificing some of that depth to address needs elsewhere on the club. There’s no sort of deadline to do that. But I think we’re entering the phase where we have to be really open-minded to that if it makes the overall outlook of the team and organization better.”

Translation: The Cubs are open for business. Make your best offer.

Cubs Talk Podcast: 2017 season obituary and previewing an interesting winter for Cubs

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: 2017 season obituary and previewing an interesting winter for Cubs

In the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Kelly Crull, Patrick Mooney and Tony Andracki close the book on the 2017 season following Theo Epstein’s press conference, looking back at what will go down as the craziest calendar year in Cubs history from last November through the team’s loss in the NLCS this October.

Moving forward, where do guys like Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr., Justin Wilson and Mike Montgomery fit? Will the Cubs re-sign Wade Davis or go after another proven closer? And how worried should fans be about the offense that completely disappeared in the postseason?

Take a listen below: