Cubs

How the stars aligned for Cubs: Rizzo, Bryant, Arrieta, Maddon

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How the stars aligned for Cubs: Rizzo, Bryant, Arrieta, Maddon

ANAHEIM, Calif. — The Cubs took over Disneyland territory and made a Los Angeles Angels cast headlined by Mike Trout and Albert Pujols feel like The Other Team.

The Arizona Diamondbacks might not be an afterthought on Thursday night at Chase Field, but the Cubs have no other choice except to “Embrace The Target” for the next 160 games. Sweeping the Angels by a 15-1 aggregate score and hearing fans sing “Go Cubs Go” on their way out to the parking lots showed what could be ahead this season.

Before the Cubs became Revenants on a Sports Illustrated cover, the last time they played at Angel Stadium of Anaheim was June 4-5, 2013. That’s a jumping-off point for how the stars aligned for what had been a star-crossed franchise.

• Anthony Rizzo: During the first offseason for the Theo Epstein administration in Chicago, the Cubs looked at Pujols and Prince Fielder and pictured the first basemen on a stock chart. The front-office projections had Rizzo’s performance eventually rising to the point where he would pass Pujols and Fielder as they inevitably declined in their later years.

The Cubs still don’t have the kind of TV contract that led the Angels to splurge on a 10-year, $254 million megadeal for Pujols at the 2011 winter meetings. One month later, Cubs executives who knew Rizzo from their time together with the Boston Red Sox and San Diego Padres looked beyond his struggles at Petco Park, giving up hard-throwing/injury-prone pitcher Andrew Cashner.

Rizzo may never come close to matching what Pujols did for the St. Louis Cardinals (two World Series rings, three MVP awards) or finding the level of consistency that allowed the future Hall of Famer to earn 10 All-Star selections and hit 40 homers in his age-35 season last year.

But Rizzo is clearly the player to build around now — at a fraction of the cost — while Pujols tries to stay healthy and transition into being a part-time designated hitter. Rizzo is a Gold Glove-level defender coming off a 31-homer, 101-RBI season, and the team has taken on his personality, striking the right balance between goofy and serious.

“We’re really hungry,” Rizzo said. “If anyone in this clubhouse is thinking about the World Series right now, we’re in the wrong spot. We need to think about tomorrow, winning the game (and) dominating April.”

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• Kris Bryant: Before Darwin Barney batted leadoff on June 5, 2013 in Orange County, the Cubs had already eliminated University of North Carolina third baseman Colin Moran from consideration for the No. 2 overall pick they couldn’t whiff on, leaving two pitchers and a fast-rising hitter still in the conversation.

As the draft unfolded the next day, the Houston Astros selected Stanford University right-hander Mark Appel with the top pick, giving the Cubs their shot at the University of San Diego slugger who led the nation in homers, runs scored, walks and slugging percentage.

Jon Gray — the University of Oklahoma right-hander who dropped to No. 3 — put up a 5.53 ERA in nine starts for the Colorado Rockies last year. The Astros packaged Appel (5.12 ERA in the minors) in the Ken Giles trade with the Philadelphia Phillies this winter. Houston had already acquired Moran — the sixth overall pick who spent last year at the Double-A level — from the Miami Marlins in the Jarred Cosart trade at the 2014 deadline.

Meanwhile, all lines are open at Bryzzo Souvenir Co.

“This could be a very special thing that we have here,” said Bryant, already an All-Star third baseman and a Rookie of the Year. “But we just really need to focus on this year and not really get too ahead of ourselves. There are so many things that can happen in this game. We’re here focusing on today.”

• Jake Arrieta: The pitching infrastructure that just helped shut down Trout and Pujols (0-for-15 with five strikeouts) had already been in place by June 4, 2013, when sign-and-flip guy Scott Feldman got a tough-luck no-decision in a one-run loss to the Angels.

Five weeks later, the Cubs sold high on Feldman (7-6, 3.46 ERA) and shipped him to the Baltimore Orioles in a trade for change-of-scenery pitchers Arrieta and Pedro Strop.

Arrieta’s unconventional workout routine/nutrition regimen has been covered at length, and there are almost two full seasons left to place over-under bets ($200 million) on how much super-agent Scott Boras will get his client in free agency.

But in listening to a Cy Young Award winner explain how to attack the Angels, it’s also clear how much Arrieta enjoys thinking about his craft and preparing for each start. Meaning there are intangible benefits to his presence and reasons to believe he will keep performing at a high level.

“Trout’s a guy who is exceptional at hitting the ball down in the zone really well for power,” Arrieta said, “both to the pull side and to right-center field. So you got to move the ball away from him and into him — to kind of keep him from getting extended — and elevate from time to time. Remaining unpredictable is really big against guys like him (and) Pujols (who) hit the fastball well.

“I expect to pitch this way every time I take the mound. Obviously, once the ball leaves your hand, you can’t dictate the results. But I expect to execute at a pretty high percentage. If I execute — and pound the strike zone with my stuff and keep them guessing — I have a pretty good opportunity to have another good year.”

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• Joe Maddon: The Cubs lucked out when Andrew Friedman bolted from the Tampa Bay Rays after the 2014 season and took a president’s job with the Los Angeles Dodgers, allowing the star manager to use the escape clause in his contract.

But Maddon still knows the groundskeeper by name in Anaheim and appreciates what he learned during his three-plus decades in the Angels organization. Places like Gene Autry Park and Idaho Falls — and the long climb to the top — shaped him into the perfect ringleader for this circus.

“I really trust our players,” Maddon said. “When you talk about pressure and expectations, understand it’s spread out among the whole group. It’s not just on one guy. We have so many good players here. A lot of them have been through the baseball wars before where they’ve been very successful. We’re going to have our rough moments. (But) we have the ability – mentally, physically – to fight through those moments.

“If you factor in everything, experience, talent level, motivation — because all of them want to be here to become part of the first team that wins the World Series for the Cubs in a long, long time — there are so many good things here to repel pressure and expectations.”

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.”