Cubs

How Cubs are positioned for a Giant run – right now and in the future

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USA TODAY

How Cubs are positioned for a Giant run – right now and in the future

SAN FRANCISCO – Since last October, the San Francisco Giants have gone from nearly pushing the Cubs into a dreaded elimination game against Johnny Cueto to racing the White Sox to the bottom for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft.
 
The Cubs are headed for that Giant crash someday. Maybe Theo Epstein leaves Wrigley Field in a gorilla suit, the players tune out Joe Maddon’s “Easy Rider” act and Jon Lester’s $155 million left arm finally breaks down and the pitching infrastructure collapses.
 
Who knows? Perhaps all those young hitters weren’t quite as good as we thought they were. Years of drafting near the bottom of the first round and spending restrictions within the collective bargaining agreement will slow down – if not stop – the flow of young, blue-chip talent to Wrigleyville.

Nothing lasts forever.

But San Francisco’s free fall into last place in the National League West – 36 games behind the hated Los Angeles Dodgers – is a reality check for the relative struggles of a first-place team and a reminder of how well the defending champs are positioned for the future.

Because as much as the Cubs obsessed about the Boston Red Sox during the rebuilding years, the Giants represented an ideal of business/baseball synergies with stable leadership, a spectacular waterfront stadium, big-market payrolls, a talented homegrown core and the mental toughness to win World Series titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014.

To put it in perspective now: Anthony Rizzo will turn 28 on Tuesday and is only 14 months older than Joe Panik, the Gold Glove/All-Star second baseman viewed as the young guy in San Francisco’s clubhouse.

Jason Heyward was born the day after Rizzo in 1989. Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Javier Baez, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber and Albert Almora Jr. are all between the ages of 25 and 23. Ian Happ will turn 23 this weekend. It won’t just be seeing the black and orange all around AT&T Park during a three-game series that begins Monday night and returning to the scene of last year’s epic Game 4 comeback and raucous celebration in the visiting clubhouse.

“When we go play other teams, I’m still struck by how we’re always the youngest team on the field,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “We have this young core of position players at basically every position who are guys that were all top-10, top-15 prospects in baseball who are wearing rings on their finger from last year.”

So, no, the Cubs aren’t worried about the “Bottom of the Barrel” label that Baseball America put on their farm system, ranking it as one of the industry’s worst after the July 31 trade deadline and aggressive moves for Jose Quintana, Justin Wilson and Alex Avila.

“Certainly, we’ve traded a number of prospects to go out and win a World Series and strengthen ourselves for the future,” Hoyer said. “Prospect rankings are valuable in some ways. I think how big your prospects are is – in some ways – a good view into sort of organizational health. But we’re unusual in that way.

“It’s really difficult or challenging to look at our organization in that way, because on the one hand, yes, we’ve traded a number of prospects. But on the other hand, we’ve really protected that core of players that are in the big leagues. And that’s a very deep core of super-talented players who are young and under control for a long time. We’re an incredibly healthy organization from a young-talent standpoint.”

The guess here is that the Cubs brand is so strong, team officials are so good at marketing their young players and there are enough legitimate assets to get some names on Baseball America’s 2018 top 100.

But looking back at those rankings heading into the 2012 season – the first full year for the Epstein regime – shows how unpredictable this business can be: Brett Jackson placed 32nd on a top 100 where the top five went Bryce Harper, Matt Moore, Mike Trout, Yu Darvish and Julio Teheran.

Baseball America slotted Rizzo at No. 47 in between Randall Delgado and Billy Hamilton. Matt Szczur landed at No. 64, or one spot ahead of Sonny Gray. At No. 61, Baez fell two spots behind George Springer, who got this blurb: “Figures to battle Rangers’ Mike Olt for title of best UConn position player in the big leagues.”

Sooner or later, the Cubs will have a new TV deal that will enhance all their built-in advantages over the small-market franchises in the NL Central. The potential departures of free agents like Jake Arrieta, John Lackey, Wade Davis, Jon Jay, Koji Uehara, Brian Duensing and Avila could create more than $50 million in payroll space.

Quintana’s club-friendly deal – which will make him an anchor for the 2018, 2019 and 2020 rotations at just under $31 million – allows the Cubs to think big and add another star player. Epstein’s front office also structured long-term contracts for Lester and Ben Zobrist with a curve that made upfront payments, took their ages into account and decreased the financial commitment on the back end.

So while 1908 hung over everything the Cubs once did, in reality the operating philosophy could be summed up like this: Get into the playoffs, say, seven times in 10 seasons and there should be a year – or two or maybe even three – where your team stays healthy, gets hot, runs into the right matchups and makes enough plays for a parade down Michigan Avenue.

The 2017 Cubs are staying in the picture.

Cubs need Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo to produce or else their reign as defending World Series champs is over

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USA TODAY

Cubs need Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo to produce or else their reign as defending World Series champs is over

Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo are the yin and yang of the Cubs lineup, the right- and left-handed forces that feed off each other, two huge building blocks for a World Series team, the smiling faces of the franchise, an ideal brand for social media and two friends close enough that Rizzo became a groomsman at Bryant’s Las Vegas wedding in January.

With the defending champs now down 0-2 in a best-of-seven National League Championship Series – and the Los Angeles Dodgers looking like an updated version of the 2016 Cubs – winter is coming if Bryzzo Souvenir Co. doesn’t start producing soon.

Like Tuesday night in Game 3 at Wrigley Field. Take away the 9-8 outlier against the Washington Nationals – where an intentional walk, a passed ball on a swinging strike three, a catcher interference and a hit by pitch sparked a big rally – and the Cubs have scored 11 runs in six playoff games this October.

“Everybody in the lineup, they feel the same way: When you don’t produce, it’s like you let the team down,” Bryant said. “But that’s not the right way to feel, because not one person makes or breaks the team.

“I put that in perspective all the time, and realize it’s not what you do in the playoffs, it’s what the team does. And, obviously, we haven’t been getting it done so far in the series. But this is a totally unselfish team. I don’t think anybody here is pouting or down on themselves.”

Bryant (.179 average) has struck out 13 times in 28 postseason at-bats while working only one walk and hitting zero homers. Rizzo – who shouted “RESPECT ME!” at Dusty Baker and the Nationals during the divisional round and went 0-for-6 over the weekend at Dodger Stadium – dismissed the idea that he feels any extra responsibility to jumpstart the offense.

“I think that is selfish if you did,” Rizzo said. “One through nine, all 25 guys, we got to get going. Our pitching is doing a heck of a job. You need help from everyone in the lineup, not just one or two guys.”

But Bryant and Rizzo can certainly make Joe Maddon’s job a lot easier, not forcing the pinch-hitters as early for Kyle Hendricks and Jake Arrieta, creating some breathing room for the middle relievers or just getting the lead and taking the guesswork out of the equation: Give the ball to All-Star closer Wade Davis.     

Even without launching home runs, Bryant and Rizzo also happen to be very good on the bases, with enough speed and instincts to make things happen when the Dodgers keep putting zeros on the scoreboard. The Cubs are already sacrificing offense for defense at second base (Javier Baez) and in right field (Jason Heyward) and don’t have their World Series MVP (Ben Zobrist) in peak condition.    

Bryant is exceptionally available to the media, and usually shrugs almost everything off with an upbeat answer, but even he sounded and looked a little different in terms of tone and body language on Sunday night in Dodger Stadium’s visiting clubhouse.

Whether it was the nature of that walk-off loss – Where’s Wade? – or the reality of a different Dodger team or the jet lag, the Cubs seemed a little shell-shocked.

It was almost exactly a year ago when Bryant stood in the same room in front of the cameras and purposely said, “Nope,” when asked if there was any sense of panic creeping into the clubhouse after seeing Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill in back-to-back shutouts.

[MORE: Wade Davis won't second-guess Joe Maddon]      

But Bryant even admitted that defending a World Series title is more taxing than chasing a championship ring.  

“I wouldn’t say emotionally or mentally,” Bryant said. “Physically, yeah, I think some guys are tired. It’s been a really long year, (but) you only notice that before and after the game.

“During the game, there’s so much adrenaline and the fans cheering that you don’t really notice it. But then you sit down after a game, you feel pretty tired and beat. And then you wake up and do it all over again the next day.”

That has been the story of 2017 for Bryant, who followed up an MVP campaign with a 29-homer/.946 OPS season that drew attention for his lowered RBI total (73). But just like Rizzo, he has a tenacious competitive streak and a unique ability to separate one pitch from the next. The Cubs need all of that now, or else their reign as defending World Series champs is about to end.   

“I’ve put some good swings on some balls, but sometimes you just get beat,” Bryant said. “Sometimes you go through good stretches, bad stretches, stuff like that. I realize it’s all part of the game.

“It just stinks. You want to go out there and perform right now, because if you perform now, you’re winning. But you can’t force it.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Where do Cubs go from here down 0-2 in NLCS?

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Where do Cubs go from here down 0-2 in NLCS?

Patrick Mooney and Tony Andracki analyze the Cubs' sub-optimal position in the NLCS, down two games to none to the Dodgers with a lack of offense and a struggling bullpen.

Plus, what was Joe Maddon thinking with his lineup and bullpen decisions in the first two games of the series? And what is really going with Wade Davis?

Listen to the full episode in the embedded player below: