How Cubs built a bigger and better version of last year’s NLCS team

How Cubs built a bigger and better version of last year’s NLCS team

The Cubs are a bigger, better version of the team the New York Mets swept aside in last year’s National League Championship Series, no longer just happy to be here and now fully expecting to beat the Los Angeles Dodgers this time.

“A lot of us have a sour taste in our mouth from last year,” Kris Bryant said. “We’ll be ready for it. I definitely can’t wait.”

That doesn’t guarantee the franchise’s first NL pennant since the year World War II ended, or its first World Series title since the Theodore Roosevelt administration. But the Cubs upgraded a 97-win team in all phases of the game, not overreacting to that four-game sample against the Mets as much as reinforcing what they already knew.

Those young players who kept hearing how special they are – and how good this team should be for a long time – didn’t take the opportunity for granted and played with passion and focus. The media crush and every-pitch intensity won’t be intimidating or a shock to the system during Game 1 on Saturday night at Wrigley Field.

“It’s great to have that experience,” said Jason Heyward, who played on the 100-win St. Louis Cardinals team the Cubs bounced from last year’s playoffs. “And not the ‘wow factor’ of doing it for the first time. And then it’s like: ‘Hey, we expect to be here.’

“Nobody’s surprised to be here.”

To get back here, the final bill for free agents came in at almost $290 million, an itemized list that had a meet-the-Mets-again feel to it.

Suffocated by New York’s power pitching, the Cubs added two switch-hitters to their lineup by winning the Ben Zobrist sweepstakes (without making the highest offer) and bringing back Dexter Fowler (in a shocking stealth-mode deal days after the you-go, we-go leadoff guy reportedly reached an agreement with the Baltimore Orioles).

Stretched thin in the rotation, the Cubs signed John Lackey – the most valuable pitcher on that St. Louis team – and can now use the two-time World Series champion as a Game 4 starter. Shaky in the outfield, the Cubs added a three-time Gold Glove winner in Heyward to change their defensive identity.

[RELATED: Cubs in 'better place' after 2015 NLCS experience]

Vulnerable in the running game, the Cubs fast-tracked Willson Contreras after only 55 games at Triple-A Iowa, promoting the dynamic catcher in the middle of June. By late July, the Cubs finalized a blockbuster deal with the New York Yankees for Aroldis Chapman, giving manager Joe Maddon a game-changer like Mets closer Jeurys Familia. 

“You just look up and down,” Bryant said. “This team’s a whole lot better. Just look at each individual player and how much better we are than we were last year.

“I can say that for myself – I’m a way better player than I was last year. Look at Kyle Hendricks – unbelievable. Look at Jon Lester – he’s having a way better season than he had last year, too.

“That just gives us all the confidence in the world knowing that each individual guy in here has done something this year to get better than they were last year.”

Bryant topped his Rookie of the Year campaign with a 39-homer, 102-RBI MVP-caliber season. Hendricks went from a being a nominal fifth starter to winning the ERA title. Lester, the Game 1 starter, looked and acted far more comfortable during Year 2 of that $155 million megadeal, which might translate into a Cy Young Award.  

Addison Russell – who didn’t make last year’s NLCS roster while dealing with a strained hamstring – became a 21-homer, 95-RBI All-Star shortstop at the age of 22. Javier Baez, who looked rattled at times while filling in for Russell against the Mets, became the breakout star of this year’s NL Division Series, delivering big hits, making spectacular defensive plays and getting under the skin of the San Francisco Giants.  

“It’s hard to focus in the postseason with the loudness of the fans, but I’ve been working on slowing the game down,” Baez said. “That has been big for me (since) I was coming up to the big leagues. Now, I’m really good at it. Obviously, there’s still a little pressure and nerves. But you still have to play the game and keep slowing it down.”

In a hypothetical best-of-seven series between the 2015 Cubs and the 2016 version, Bryant said, “We’d crush that team.” Now let’s see if these Cubs can handle another playoff-tested cast featuring Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen, Corey Seager, Justin Turner and Adrian Gonzalez.

“Expectations and pressure,” Maddon said, “that’s the baseball fossil fuel right there.

“My initial message to the boys was: Why would you ever want to be in a situation that doesn’t require a little bit of pressure added to it, or expectations? I would not want to go into a season having zero expectations and zero pressure applied to you because you’re going to finish fourth or fifth in a division. I mean, that’s a bad way to live.

“Listen, if you hear the word pressure, you got to run toward it. That’s a good thing. That means we’re good and something good is attached to it.”

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.

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

News broke to Willson Contreras that the league will be limiting mound visits this upcoming season, and the Cubs catcher —notorious for his frequent visits to the rubber — is not having it.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If you have to go again and pay the price for my team, I will," he said.

The new rules rolled out Tuesday will limit six visits —any time a manager, coach or player visits the mound — per nine innings. But, communication between a player and a pitcher that does not require them moving from their position does not count as a visit.When a team is out of visits, it's the umpire's discretion to allow an extra trip to the mound.

But despite the new rules, Contreras is willing to do what's best for the team.

“There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? They cannot say anything about that. If you’re going to fine me about the [seventh] mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”