Cubs

Joe Maddon knows Cubs have nowhere to hide: ‘We are the target’

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Joe Maddon knows Cubs have nowhere to hide: ‘We are the target’

HAZLETON, Pa. – Not even Joe Maddon can talk his way around this. Not when the Cubs just dropped $272 million on Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and John Lackey. For a team that smashed all expectations by winning 97 games last season, there will now be nowhere to hide.

“Of course, we are the target,” Maddon said. “Of course, you are, so why deny that you are? You’re the target, OK? Embrace it. Seriously, embrace the target. And process it properly and move on. But to deny it? To say that’s not true? It is true.

“But that shouldn’t really alter the way we think. It shouldn’t alter our preparation. It shouldn’t alter anything except, I think, once you admit to it, then you kind of disarm it a bit. If you want to constantly push it back and say it’s not true, then you give it more power.”

Of course, this is exactly what Maddon signed up for when he scored a five-year, $25 million contract, a deal that immediately gave the franchise a new sense of swagger.

To be on the other side of the David vs. Goliath story after nine seasons managing the Tampa Bay Rays. To work at Wrigley Field and take advantage of everything that Chicago has to offer. To use the louder megaphone and bigger platform for his Hazleton Integration Project, the nonprofit organization staging “Thanksmas” this week in his old working-class neighborhood in Pennsylvania.

[MORE CUBS: Theo Epstein feels like Cubs are selling themselves now]

The national media already crowned the Cubs winners of the winter meetings by adding a big-game pitcher Maddon has compared to John Wayne (Lackey) and a Swiss Army knife that can hit anywhere in the lineup and play all over the field (Zobrist).

Now here comes the online headline from USA Today’s coverage of Tuesday’s press conference at Spiaggia on Michigan Avenue: “Jason Heyward gives Cubs the next great dynasty.”

“People are really going to be looking at us now,” Maddon said. “Of course, people are going to be predicting all these grandiose things for us. And that’s great, cool, because that probably means we are pretty good. But then how do you go about achieving those (things)? That’s why you can’t get caught up in this outcome society. You have to just really focus on today.”

Maddon exhaled while making his next point, which is pretty much the same thing he’s been saying since his “Hazleton Way” shot-and-a-beer press conference at The Cubby Bear on Nov. 3, 2014.

“And then when you do that,” Maddon said, “that pressure lightens up. Because all you got to do is win Monday. And then all you got to do is win Tuesday. And then you got to win on Wednesday. As opposed to trying to win 2016.

“I really believe a combination of me, the coaches, (sports psychologist) Ken Ravizza – all the people we have at our disposal – will be able to get that message out there.

[MORE CUBS: Joe Maddon feels like Cubs won baseball lottery again with Jason Heyward]

“Believe me, man, I’m going to pound that home again. Because if we can really adopt that attitude – which I know we can – that’s our best way to really win eight more games next year.”

The last time the Cubs advanced to the National League Championship Series, Sports Illustrated responded by putting Kerry Wood on the cover of its 2004 baseball preview: “Hell Freezes Over: The Cubs Will Win the World Series.” That team won 89 games but finished in third place and missed the playoffs.

The last time the Cubs won 97 games, the team was still up for sale, the window to contend started to close and Milton Bradley poisoned the clubhouse during a miserable follow-up season in 2009.

The Cubs will need good health, good fortune and good chemistry in a division where the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates won’t be conceding anything. At a time when the New York Mets will be defending their pennant, the Washington Nationals are reloading and the NL West has the Arizona Diamondbacks jumping into the arms race between the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants.

[MORE CUBS: Why Jason Heyward chose Cubs over Cardinals]

Jake Arrieta threw almost 250 innings – including three draining playoff starts – during his Cy Young Award campaign. Jon Lester will be 32 next season, or five years younger than Lackey.

That’s why Maddon appreciates team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer preparing for worst-case scenarios in the rotation with Adam Warren, Trevor Cahill, Clayton Richard and Travis Wood.

Whether or not Addison Russell can stay healthy and play shortstop for seven months, the front office is also giving Maddon two potential super-utility guys in Zobrist and Javier Baez.

The message to young, middle-of-the-order stars like Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber should be: Don’t get too comfortable.

Heyward certainly comes across as someone who gets it, but he will have to deal with the pressure of signing the biggest contract in franchise history (eight years, $184 million) and the transition from right to center at Wrigley Field.

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

Forget “Do Simple Better.” It sounds like Maddon now has the perfect slogan for his next T-shirt idea: “Embrace The Target.”

“Regardless of how good we are on paper, theory and reality are two different things,” Maddon said. “We’re going to go through bad stretches next year, regardless of these beautiful names. We’re still going to go through problems. How do we react to them? And how do we keep those windows of failure to a minimum?

“Because it’s going to happen. It happens to everybody every year. So how do you process that? How do you get to the next moment that makes it better?”

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

MESA, Ariz. — We know Willson Contreras doesn’t like baseball’s new pace-of-play rules.

He isn’t the only one.

“I think it’s a terrible idea. I think it’s all terrible,” Jon Lester said last week at spring training, before the specifics of the new rules were even announced. “The beautiful thing about our sport is there’s no time.”

Big surprise coming from the Cubs’ resident old-schooler.

The new rules limit teams to six mound visits per every nine-inning game, with exceptions for pitching changes, between batters, injuries and after the announcement of a pinch hitter. Teams get an extra mound visit for every extra inning in extra-inning games. Also, commercial breaks between innings have been cut by 20 seconds.

That’s it. But it’s caused a bit of an uproar.

Contreras made headlines Tuesday when he told reporters that he’ll willingly break those rules if he needs to in order to put his team in a better position to win.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If I have to pay the price for my team, I will,” Contreras said. “There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? … You have to go out there. They cannot say anything about that. It’s my team, and we just care about winning. And if they’re going to fine me about the No. 7 mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”

Talking about pace-of-play rule changes last week, Cubs manager Joe Maddon said his team would adapt to any new rules. In Chicago baseball’s other Arizona camp, a similar tune of adaptation was being sung.

“Obviously as players we’ve got to make adjustments to whatever rules they want to implement,” White Sox pitcher James Shields said. “This is a game of adjustments, we’re going to have to make adjustments as we go. We’re going to have to figure out logistics of the thing, and I would imagine in spring training we’re going to be talking about it more and more as we go so we don’t mess it up.”

There was general consensus that mound visits are a valuable thing. So what happens if a pitcher and catcher need to communicate but are forced to do it from 60 feet, six inches away?

“Sign language,” White Sox catching prospect Zack Collins joked. “I guess you have to just get on the same page in the dugout and hope that nothing goes wrong if you’re out of visits.”

In the end, here’s the question that needs answering: Are baseball games really too long?

On one hand, as Lester argued, you know what you’re signing up for when you watch a baseball game, be it in the stands at a ballpark or on TV. No one should be shocked when a game rolls on for more than three hours.

But shock and fans' levels of commitment or just pure apathy are two different things. And sometimes it’s a tough ask for fans to dedicate four hours of their day 162 times a year. So there’s a very good reason baseball is trying to make the game go faster, to keep people from leaving the stands or flipping the TV to another channel.

Unsurprisingly, Lester would rather keep things the way they are.

“To be honest with you, the fans know what they’re getting themselves into when they go to a game,” Lester said. “It’s going to be a three-hour game. You may have a game that’s two hours, two hours and 15 minutes. Great, awesome. You may have a game that’s four hours. That’s the beautiful part of it.

“I get the mound visit thing. But what people that aren’t in the game don’t understand is that there’s so much technology in the game, there’s so many cameras on the field, that every stadium now has a camera on the catcher’s crotch. So they know signs before you even get there. Now we’ve got Apple Watches, now we’ve got people being accused of sitting in a tunnel (stealing signs). So there’s reasons behind the mound visit. He’s not just coming out there asking what time I’m going to dinner or, ‘Hey, how you feeling?’ There’s reasons behind everything, and I think if you take those away, it takes away the beauty of the baseball game.

“Every game has a flow, and I feel like that’s what makes it special. If you want to go to a timed event, go to a timed event. I’m sorry I’m old-school about it, but baseball’s been played the same way for a long time. And now we’re trying to add time to it. We’re missing something somewhere.”

Whether limiting the number of mound visits creates a significant dent in this problem remains to be seen. But excuse the players if they’re skeptical.

“We’ve got instant replay, we’ve got all kinds of different stuff going on. I don’t think (limiting) the mound visits are going to be the key factor to speeding this game up,” Shields said. “Some pitchers take too long, and some hitters take too long. It’s combination of a bunch of stuff.

“I know they’re trying to speed the game up a little bit. I think overall, the game’s going as fast as it possibly could. You’ve got commercials and things like that. TV has a lot to do with it. There’s a bunch of different combinations of things. But as a player, we’ve got to make an adjustment.”

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.