Joe Maddon digging hot starts from Cubs and White Sox

Joe Maddon digging hot starts from Cubs and White Sox

The Adam LaRoche retirement fiasco figured to either tear the White Sox apart or bring them closer together. Outside Camelback Ranch, Chris Sale’s blistering takedown of Kenny Williams sounded like an All-Star pitcher daring his boss to trade him.

LaRoche popped up again on Wednesday, posting this message on his Twitter account: “Don’t forget, tomorrow is take your child to work day.” But once that media storm passed in spring training, the White Sox could go back to being the team built on a strong rotation and a lineup anchored by Jose Abreu and Todd Frazier.     

A series of low-risk, high-reward moves are paying off, with the White Sox now 16-6 after sweeping the Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre. The Cubs – another big offseason winner – are the only team in the majors with a better record (15-5).     

“Digging it,” said Cubs manager Joe Maddon, who wore a pink Mother’s Day edition of his “Try Not To Suck” T-shirt during his media session at Wrigley Field. “I’m really happy for them and their success. I think it’s great for the city. If we could both sustain this kind of play, it could make for a very interesting summer.” 

The Cubs were digging themselves so much in Arizona that a coach’s son taking out a lineup card before a Cactus League game almost felt like Maddon’s crew trolling the White Sox (and not what it actually was – a prearranged birthday reward). 

But Maddon has deep respect for Robin Ventura and the way the White Sox manager navigated his team through the bizarre LaRoche situation, a player walking away from $13 million because his son would no longer have unrestricted access in the clubhouse. 

“I know he went through a tough gig this past spring training,” Maddon said. “I thought he handled it great.”

As an Angels coach in the mid-1990s, Maddon remembered bumping into Ventura and noticing the people skills that made him such a favorite on the South Side. 

“Robin Ventura’s a good man,” Maddon said. “I’m walking into the ballpark – (and) I’m just a year-and-a-half, a year in the big leagues – and he happened to be walking in at the same time.

“He greeted me like I had been there for 20 years. He addressed me. And I’ll never forget that.”

This year, Maddon and his old buddies from the Angels joined Ventura for dinner one night in spring training.   

“It was like me, (Mike Scioscia), Buddy Black, Ronnie Roenicke and Sandy Koufax,” Maddon said with a smile. “Did I say Sandy Koufax? And then Robin was there, too, because Robin digs wine. And Robin is always like throwing me a good bottle now and then.” 

The Cubs and White Sox haven’t both finished with winning records since 2008, when they each won division titles and had all these big, combustible personalities like Lou Piniella, Ozzie Guillen, Carlos Zambrano and A.J. Pierzynski. 

The Cubs and White Sox will play four straight games on both sides of the city (July 25-28) and we’ll see if they stay hot. But the Bulls and Blackhawks are done, and this year baseball doesn’t have to be a space-filler until the Bears report to training camp. 

“When you live in this city and you have that stuff going on, what could possibly beat that?” Maddon said.

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.”