How Cubs created the ideal environment for young talent

How Cubs created the ideal environment for young talent

Javier Baez wheeled his suitcase into the Wrigley Field clubhouse on Wednesday morning, wearing sunglasses indoors, rocking a leopard-print sport coat and navy shorts and holding one of his two pit bulls – Kimbo – on a leash. (“Like Kimbo Slice,” the mixed martial arts fighter who died from heart failure this month.)

The Cubs had the best record in baseball – with 11 26-or-younger players on their active 25-man roster for that afternoon’s game against the St. Louis Cardinals – and another Joe Maddon frat-house stunt lined up for the getaway flight to Miami.

“It’s ‘The Anthony Rizzo Who Wears Short Shorts? Anthony Wears Short Shorts Road Trip,’” Maddon said during a pregame media session that lasted almost 18 minutes. “There’s no real rule. If you’re wearing sandals, you have to have painted toenails. That’s it.”

The manager’s gimmicks wouldn’t seem so cute if this was still a last-place team. Chemistry experiments always work better with real talent. And the Cubs haven’t really won anything yet.

But so far this season Cubs fans used to grumbling about overhyped prospects – in a weird media market and a city filled with so many temptations for professional athletes – might have been watching five of the eight position players who will start the All-Star Game for the National League.

For all the talk about The Cardinal Way, St. Louis has been shuffling core players to (Randal Grichuk) and from (Kolten Wong) Triple-A Memphis. The New York Mets are already sending postcards from “Panic City,” with reports suggesting demoting Michael Conforto – a breakout performer in last year’s playoffs – to Triple-A Las Vegas would be one way to shake up the team.

Of all places, Wrigleyville has become an ideal spot to welcome Albert Almora Jr. and Willson Contreras to The Show. During Wednesday’s 7-2 loss, Contreras came off the bench when Miguel Montero hurt his knee in the sixth inning and drove a two-run homer into the bleachers in the seventh.

“It’s the environment we’re in (and) the people surrounding us,” said Kris Bryant, a Rookie of the Year closing in on his second All-Star selection before his first full season in the big leagues. “It really goes unnoticed just how much fun we’re having. It really makes those times where we’re struggling turn quicker, just because you’re playing the game for the right reasons and not putting any more pressure on yourself.”

So the Cubs (47-23) aren’t going to overreact to getting swept by the Cardinals (38-33). Pedro Strop, the chest-pounding, pointing-to-the-sky reliever, credited Maddon for allowing players to feel free and be themselves, as well as the good mix of personalities inside the clubhouse. Strop compared this group to the old-school Texas Rangers team he joined in 2009.

“You could not ride the bus if you were a rookie,” Strop said. “You got to be there earlier. Stuff like that. I couldn’t wear my hat to the side.

“Stuff that really doesn’t (matter) in the games. That’s what I mean when I say ‘old-school.’ There was a lot of stuff that rookies couldn’t do. You could not lay on the table getting a massage before some veteran (players).

“If you need a massage, I don’t care if you’re 21 years old. If that massage is going to help us win, get it.”

A major-league scout described Contreras as a little “hyper” behind the plate, but that intensity/energy level also helped transform him into arguably the game’s top catching prospect.

“I want him to continue to be that guy,” Maddon said. “I never want to see that leave him. Too many times, a young player like that will come up and eventually (someone) will get in (his) ear and try to tell (him) you can’t be that way.

“(Willson) can be that way for the next 15 years, and I’m good with it. I love his enthusiasm, (and) his effort is sincere. It’s just who he is. Never change who you are, man.”

Compare this atmosphere to the circus that greeted Rizzo almost exactly four years ago for his debut in a Cubs uniform on June 26, 2012. That team was already 20-plus games under .500 and used five pitchers – Randy Wells, Scott Maine, James Russell, Shawn Camp and Carlos Marmol – to get through a 5-3 win over the Mets at Wrigley Field.

“We pride ourselves on player development,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “But I also think that the guys that are coming up right now have a distinct advantage over the guys like Rizzo that came up when they were batting third and expected to carry the lineup.

“It’s never easy to debut in the big leagues, but I do think when you’re debuting on a really good team, you’re not in the spotlight quite as much. You’re not expected to carry the team. A guy like Rizzo really had to carry the load when he came up and that’s a different way to break into the big leagues than these guys are now.”

Those 101 losses in 2012 also yielded No. 2 overall picks in the Rule 5 and amateur drafts, leading to future closer Hector Rondon, Bryant’s billboards in Wrigleyville and what’s become a destination for young talent and big-name free agents.

“We all get together as a team,” Baez said. “We always stay together.”

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

MESA, Ariz. — “That’s last year, don’t want to talk about that.”

In other words, Addison Russell is so over 2017.

The Cubs shortstop went through a lot last year. He dealt with injuries that affected his foot and shoulder. He had a well-documented off-the-field issue involving an accusation of domestic abuse, which sparked an investigation by Major League Baseball. And then came the trade speculation.

The hot stove season rarely leaves any player completely out of online trade discussion. But after Theo Epstein admitted there was a possibility the Cubs could trade away one or more young position players to bolster the starting rotation, well, Russell’s name came up.

And he saw it.

“There was a lot of trade talk,” Russell said Saturday. “My initial thoughts were, I hope it doesn’t happen, but wherever I go, I’m going to try to bring what I bring to the table here. It’s a good thing that it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m happy being in a Cubs uniform, I want to be in a Cubs uniform, for sure. But there was some talk out there. If I got traded, then I got traded, but that’s not the case.”

No, it’s not, as the Cubs solved those pitching questions with free-agent spending, bringing in Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood to replace the departed Jake Arrieta and John Lackey. It means Russell, along with oft-discussed names like Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Javy Baez, are all still Cubs.

While the outside world might have expected one of those guys to be moved in some sort of blockbuster trade for Chris Archer or some other All-Star arm, the Cubs’ young core remains intact, another reason why they’re as much a favorite to win the World Series as any team out there.

“I’m really not surprised. The core is still here. Who would want to break that up? It’s a beautiful thing,” Russell said. “Javy and I in the middle. Schwarber, sometimes playing catcher but mainly outfield. And then (Kris Bryant) over there in the hot corner, and of course (Anthony) Rizzo at first. You’ve got a Gold Glover in right field (Jason Heyward). It’s really hard to break that up.

“When you do break that down on paper, we’ve got a lineup that could stack up with the best.”

This winter has been about moving on for Russell, who said he’s spent months working to strengthen his foot and shoulder after they limited him to 110 games last season, the fewest he played in his first three big league campaigns.

And so for Russell, the formula for returning to his 2016 levels of offensive aptitude isn’t a difficult one: stay on the field.

“Especially with the injuries, I definitely wanted to showcase some more of my talent last year than I displayed,” Russell said. “So going into this year, it’s mainly just keeping a good mental — just staying level headed. And also staying healthy and producing and being out there on the field.

“Next step for me, really just staying out there on the field. I really want to see what I can do as far as helping the team if I can stay healthy for a full season. I think if I just stay out there on the field, I’m going to produce.”

While the decrease in being on the field meant lower numbers from a “counting” standpoint — the drop from 21 homers in 2016 to 12 last year, the drop from 95 RBIs to 43 can in part be attributed to the lower number of games — certain rate stats looked different, too. His on-base percentage dropped from .321 in 2016 to .304 last year.

Russell also struggled during the postseason, picking up just six hits in 36 plate appearances in series against the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers. He struck out 13 times in 10 postseason games.

Of course, he wasn’t alone. That World Series hangover was team-wide throughout the first half of the season. And even though the Cubs scored 824 runs during the regular season, the second most in the National League and the fourth most in baseball, plenty of guys had their offensive struggles: Schwarber, Heyward and Ben Zobrist, to name a few.

“You can’t take anything for granted. So whenever you win a World Series or you do something good, you just have to live in the moment,” Russell said. “It was a tough season last year because we were coming off winning the World Series and the World Series hangover and all that. This year, we had a couple months off, a couple extra weeks off, and I think a lot of guys took advantage of that. I know I did. And now that we’re here in spring training, we’re going to get back at it.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans


Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

Jon Lester has arrived at Cubs camp, and he’s pleased with the new-look rotation full of potential aces. Kelly Crull and Vinnie Duber discuss the 5-man unit, and where Mike Montgomery fits into the Cubs’ plans.

Plus, Kelly and Vinnie talk Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber, along with the continuing free agent stalemate surrounding Jake Arrieta.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here: