Cubs

Five things we learned about the Cubs in the first month of 2016

Five things we learned about the Cubs in the first month of 2016

Addison Russell strolled out of the Cubs locker room wearing a baggy pinstriped suit with a smile plastered across his face.

He paused for a second and looked back to see Kris Bryant in his American flag suit (complete with American flag shoes) and the rest of his teammates and coaches following suit.

Russell smiled wider and continued the march toward the team bus to the airport.

This was only hours after the sophomore shortstop committed the costly error that led to the worst team in baseball (Atlanta Braves) notching a series split with the best team in the game at Wrigley Field.

Forget the loss. Move on.

Yeah, the Cubs are feeling good about themselves right now.

As they should.

The Cubs ended April with the best record in baseball (17-5), living up to the hype they created after a wild offseason and throughout a wacky spring training.

Things would have been so much difficult if the Cubs had not gotten off to a hot start in a city that watched the Bulls crash and burn and miss the playoffs while the Blackhawks were knocked out in the first round.

Imagine how the city and its sports fans would have responded if the red-hot White Sox was the only baseball team looking like a contender 1/6 of the way through the season.

As the Cubs face their toughest test of the season to date with seven straight games against two of the best teams in the league (Pirates, Nationals), let's look back at the five biggest takeaways from the campaign to date:

1. Jake Arrieta has picked up right where he left off.

Everybody wanted to know what Arrieta would do as an encore to follow up his 2015 Cy Young season in which he put up the best second half the game has ever seen.

How about 5-0 with a 1.00 ERA, a 0.78 WHIP and a no-hitter? It's crazy to think Arrieta could be better than he was last season, but he's making it true with each outing. 

At the very least, Arrieta has picked up right where he left off and might well be the best pitcher in the game (though Clayton Kershaw and Chris Sale would surely have something to say about that).

2. The pitching staff has carried the Cubs.

Even beyond Arrieta, the Cubs pitching staff as a whole has been fantastic. Only the Washington Nationals have a better team ERA entering play Monday. Cubs pitchers also have a batting average against of under .200, tops in the big leagues.

It helps when Arrieta, Jon Lester and Jason Hammel have combined to allow just 13 earned runs in 94 1/3 innings. John Lackey and Kyle Hendricks haven't been bad, either, as the rotation has recorded 18 quality starts in 23 tries.

The back end of the bullpen has been clicking, too, as Hector Rondon allowed his first run of the season Sunday, while Adam Warren still hasn't given up an earned run in eight innings and Pedro Strop is locked in (2.89 ERA, 0.64 WHIP, 13 Ks in 9 1/3 innings).

The Cubs pitching staff has also gotten it done at the plate, driving in eight runs on 10 hits.

"This month was the pitcher," Bryant said. "They were unbelievable and they hit pretty good, too, so they kinda picked themselves up at times. ... The pitchers have carried us the whole month."

3. This team is much improved defensively.

Theo Epstein's front office identified the weaknesses of last year's team that ran into the brick wall that was the New York Mets in the National League Championship Series and one of the main issues was defense — particularly outfield defense.

Gold Glover Jason Heyward's defense has been as good as advertised, with the big free agent acquisition gunning down baserunners and diving all over the outfield.

Dexter Fowler has earned positive grades defensively, too, as the Cubs forced him to play a little deeper in center field.

Bryant has looked solid in left field and at third base, and Ben Zobrist's steady glove at second has been a welcome addition in an infield that already boasts elite defenders in Russell and Anthony Rizzo.

"Defensively, we've caught the ball," Joe Maddon said. "We've played catch well. Everybody's talking about the offense, but primarily, it's been pitching and the defense that's set this whole thing up."

4. This team doesn't wilt in the face of adversity.

The Cubs had remarkably good luck on the injury front in 2015, but it took until only the second inning of the third game in 2016 for the first major blow.

Kyle Schwarber is lost for the season, yet the Cubs had just one letdown game after that news before righting the ship and marching forward without "Fast Hulk" in the lineup.

If somebody predicted the Cubs would be 17-5 in the first month of the season without Schwarber even collecting a hit, they would've been laughed off the internet.

Maddon and his coaching staff have seen just about everything there is to see in this game, and they have a stable of veterans like David Ross, Lester, Lackey and Zobrist who know what it takes to rise above adversity and keep everybody pulling on the same rope.

5. The Cubs haven't reached their peak.

Everybody is talking about a Cubs offense that ended the weekend with the second-most runs scored in baseball.

But the reality is, this lineup really hasn't hit its groove yet, scoring most of their runs with timely hitting and an insanely patient approach that keeps the conga line moving on the basepaths.

Yet Zobrist, Rizzo, Russell, Heyward, Miguel Montero and Jorge Soler are all hitting .250 or below, and Schwarber notched just four at-bats before tragedy struck.

Imagine what this offense will do when everything gets clicking and the weather starts to warm up.

"A lot of us are just getting going," Bryant said. "It'll be fun to see when things are clicking when the pitching's going good and the hitting's going good."

That feeling is mutual around the clubhouse.

"We have some work to do in general," Heyward said. "We're not hitting on all cylinders right now. We're not clicking consistently."

So does that mean the Cubs are expecting months where they finish with a better record than April's 17-5?

"I'd love to just keep doing that every month," Maddon said. "I'd be happy with that. We've played pretty well this entire month. It's hard to knock our guys right now.

"Offensively, defensively, pitching — the baserunning's been really good. To be able to sustain all those components would be great. I think you're gonna see guys actually hit better. A lot of our offense has been just based on some really good at-bats, some timely hitting.

"But just to purely go out there and just literally knock the cover off the ball, we haven't done that yet. So I think there's an offensive push that we're capable of.

"You just look at the numbers in general, and there are guys that are capable of more, numerically speaking. You probably will see more come from the offense."

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

MESA, Ariz. — We know Willson Contreras doesn’t like baseball’s new pace-of-play rules.

He isn’t the only one.

“I think it’s a terrible idea. I think it’s all terrible,” Jon Lester said last week at spring training, before the specifics of the new rules were even announced. “The beautiful thing about our sport is there’s no time.”

Big surprise coming from the Cubs’ resident old-schooler.

The new rules limit teams to six mound visits per every nine-inning game, with exceptions for pitching changes, between batters, injuries and after the announcement of a pinch hitter. Teams get an extra mound visit for every extra inning in extra-inning games. Also, commercial breaks between innings have been cut by 20 seconds.

That’s it. But it’s caused a bit of an uproar.

Contreras made headlines Tuesday when he told reporters that he’ll willingly break those rules if he needs to in order to put his team in a better position to win.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If I have to pay the price for my team, I will,” Contreras said. “There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? … You have to go out there. They cannot say anything about that. It’s my team, and we just care about winning. And if they’re going to fine me about the No. 7 mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”

Talking about pace-of-play rule changes last week, Cubs manager Joe Maddon said his team would adapt to any new rules. In Chicago baseball’s other Arizona camp, a similar tune of adaptation was being sung.

“Obviously as players we’ve got to make adjustments to whatever rules they want to implement,” White Sox pitcher James Shields said. “This is a game of adjustments, we’re going to have to make adjustments as we go. We’re going to have to figure out logistics of the thing, and I would imagine in spring training we’re going to be talking about it more and more as we go so we don’t mess it up.”

There was general consensus that mound visits are a valuable thing. So what happens if a pitcher and catcher need to communicate but are forced to do it from 60 feet, six inches away?

“Sign language,” White Sox catching prospect Zack Collins joked. “I guess you have to just get on the same page in the dugout and hope that nothing goes wrong if you’re out of visits.”

In the end, here’s the question that needs answering: Are baseball games really too long?

On one hand, as Lester argued, you know what you’re signing up for when you watch a baseball game, be it in the stands at a ballpark or on TV. No one should be shocked when a game rolls on for more than three hours.

But shock and fans' levels of commitment or just pure apathy are two different things. And sometimes it’s a tough ask for fans to dedicate four hours of their day 162 times a year. So there’s a very good reason baseball is trying to make the game go faster, to keep people from leaving the stands or flipping the TV to another channel.

Unsurprisingly, Lester would rather keep things the way they are.

“To be honest with you, the fans know what they’re getting themselves into when they go to a game,” Lester said. “It’s going to be a three-hour game. You may have a game that’s two hours, two hours and 15 minutes. Great, awesome. You may have a game that’s four hours. That’s the beautiful part of it.

“I get the mound visit thing. But what people that aren’t in the game don’t understand is that there’s so much technology in the game, there’s so many cameras on the field, that every stadium now has a camera on the catcher’s crotch. So they know signs before you even get there. Now we’ve got Apple Watches, now we’ve got people being accused of sitting in a tunnel (stealing signs). So there’s reasons behind the mound visit. He’s not just coming out there asking what time I’m going to dinner or, ‘Hey, how you feeling?’ There’s reasons behind everything, and I think if you take those away, it takes away the beauty of the baseball game.

“Every game has a flow, and I feel like that’s what makes it special. If you want to go to a timed event, go to a timed event. I’m sorry I’m old-school about it, but baseball’s been played the same way for a long time. And now we’re trying to add time to it. We’re missing something somewhere.”

Whether limiting the number of mound visits creates a significant dent in this problem remains to be seen. But excuse the players if they’re skeptical.

“We’ve got instant replay, we’ve got all kinds of different stuff going on. I don’t think (limiting) the mound visits are going to be the key factor to speeding this game up,” Shields said. “Some pitchers take too long, and some hitters take too long. It’s combination of a bunch of stuff.

“I know they’re trying to speed the game up a little bit. I think overall, the game’s going as fast as it possibly could. You’ve got commercials and things like that. TV has a lot to do with it. There’s a bunch of different combinations of things. But as a player, we’ve got to make an adjustment.”

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.