Cubs

No need for Cubs to overreact when best years should be in front of Kris Bryant and Addison Russell

No need for Cubs to overreact when best years should be in front of Kris Bryant and Addison Russell

There’s no need to overreact when the injuries pile up and the Cubs lose 6-of-7 games in June, because Kris Bryant and Addison Russell are still possibly years away from their best seasons in an organization loaded with young talent.
 
Bryant and Russell have been such integral parts since debuting in April 2015 that it's hard to remember they're still around three-to-five years away from their prime. They're also in a perfect situation to keep developing, not having to worry about carrying the weight of the franchise on their shoulders, the way Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro used to feel those responsibilities.
 
The pressure is spread out among a young core, a battle-tested group of veterans and a manager that loves the spotlight. All of that can help explain why each player has avoided the dreaded "sophomore slump" that sometimes plagues second-year players in the big leagues.
 
"Last year, I thought both of them fought through some really different moments their first year up," Joe Maddon said. "And that's what it's really all about. The sophomore slump, for me, is where the league adjusts to you, and then you adjust back to the league. That's the definition."
 
Bryant currently has an OPS that’s 19 points higher than his 2015 numbers, while Russell's OPS is 23 points higher entering play Monday, and both second-year players have seen major improvement in important areas.
 
Bryant led the league with 199 strikeouts last season, but has seen his strikeout percentage drop from 30.6 percent to 23 percent this season. He's on track for about 162 strikeouts in 2016.
 
Russell, meanwhile, has experienced just an incremental decrease in strikeout percentage (from 28.5 to 27.2 percent), but he has seen a nice jump in walk rate (from 8 percent in 2015 to 11.2 percent this season). Despite drawing only one free pass in his last eight games, Russell is on track for 68 walks, which would've ranked 12th in the National League overall last season and first among shortstops. 
 
"The guys that don't adjust back quickly enough really have an extended period of negative moments," Maddon said. "I think they learned a lot last year. They made a lot of adjustments. Both of them made swing adjustments last year. And that, I think, is permitting their success this year.
 
"Addison's propensity to get big hits is unbelievable, and now he's using the whole field. He's not chasing balls out of the strike zone. Those are the adjustments he had to learn how to do last year when he was going badly, and now he's doing them.
 
"They're both going to hit a bad stretch, there's no question. But I think they're better able to handle that based on their experience from last year."
 
Bryant has settled in as one of the premier offensive threats in the game by following up his 2015 campaign (26 homers, 99 RBI) with a pace for 39 homers and 112 RBI.
 
In spring training, he said he considered 2016 an extension of his rookie season, just with a three-month break off in between. But as the regular season hit, he took that sort of thinking to another gear.
 
"I feel a lot more focused this whole year," Bryant said. "I don't know why. I don't know if it's a whole other level or just extra determination or the fact that I know we have a good team and we really want to win.
 
"I just feel really good up there. I feel like I'm having some quality at-bats. I'm doing all I can to help. I'm in a good spot."
 
Russell, meanwhile, has developed a reputation as a clutch hitter, posting a .429 average, 1.237 OPS and 23 RBI in 54 plate appearances in high-leverage situations. 
 
He's taken his game to another level at the biggest moments, not something often said about a 22-year-old with only 210 big-league games under his belt.
 
"Just a slow heart beat," Maddon said. "If you talk to the kid any time, he's always 'suavecito.' There's nothing really hurried about him. He's just got a great way about him.
 
"Again, he's going to keep getting better. Everybody's liking it when he's doing good. I'm here to tell you: He's going to get better."
 
However, Russell also just went through one of those bad stretches at the end of May/beginning of June where he hit .161 with a .569 OPS through 18 games, striking out 23 times. He felt he had gotten too passive during that span.
 
When the St. Louis Cardinals swept the Cubs at Wrigley Field last week, Russell stared at strike three right down the middle during his first trip to the plate. He instantly made a mental adjustment to be more aggressive and responded with three straight hits to close out that first game.
 
"I've been feeling good," he said. "I've been seeing the ball well. Just taking an opportunity of swinging the bat at the right moment. I felt like early on in that game, watching two balls go by that I would normally do some damage with, I kind of took it hard and realized maybe I'm letting these pitches go too frequently. 
 
"I still feel more comfortable [overall this season]. It's just a daily grind, man. You're going to go through these funks. You're going to hit balls day-to-day that don't tend to fall. You normally don't want to change anything, so my approach is just to stay the same, and I want to take my walks as well."
 
The Cubs understand this is a long season filled with adversity, injuries and losing streaks. But if Bryant and Russell cannot be considered sophomores anymore, would their maturity and advanced approaches put them at a junior level?
 
"I think so. Favorite year in high school, by far," Maddon said. "You're totally free your junior year. SATs don't matter. PSATs are OK. I got my license, among other things. It was a really good time."

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.”

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

MESA, Ariz. — The first thing Kyle Schwarber told his new hitting coach?

"His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.'"

The Cubs hired Chili Davis as the team's new hitting coach for myriad reasons. He's got a great track record from years working with the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics, and that .274/.360/.451 slash line during an illustrious 19-year big league career certainly helps.

But Davis' main immediate task in his new gig will be to help several of the Cubs' key hitters prove Schwarber's assessment correct.

Schwarber had a much-publicized tough go of things in 2017. After he set the world on fire with his rookie campaign in 2015 and returned from what was supposed to be a season-ending knee injury in time to be one of the Cubs' World Series heroes in 2016, he hit just .211 last season, getting sent down to Triple-A Iowa for a stint in the middle of the season. Schwarber still hit 30 home runs, but his 2017 campaign was seen as a failure by a lot of people.

Enter Davis, who now counts Schwarber as one of his most important pupils.

"He's a worker," Davis said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "Schwarbs, he knows he's a good player. His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.' He said last year was just a fluke year. He said, 'I've never failed in my life.' And he said, 'I'm going to get back to the player that I was.'

"I think he may have — and this is my thought, he didn't say this to me — I think it may have been, he had a big World Series, hit some homers, and I think he tried to focus on being more of a home run type guy as opposed to being a good hitter.

"His focus has changed. I had nothing to do with that, he came in here with that focus that he wants to be a good hitter first and let whatever happens happen. And he's worked on that. The main thing with Kyle is going to be is just maintaining focus."

The physically transformed Schwarber mentioned last week that he's established a good relationship with Davis, in no small part because Schwarber can relate to what Davis went through when he was a player. And to hear Davis tell it, it sounds like he's describing Schwarber's first three years as a big leaguer to a T.

"Telling him my story was important because it was similar," Davis said. "I was a catcher, got to big league camp, and I was thrown in the outfield. And I hated the outfield. ... But I took on the challenge. I made the adjustment, I had a nice first year, then my second year I started spiraling. I started spiraling down, and I remember one of my coaches saying, 'I'm going to have to throw you a parachute just so you can land softly.' I got sent down to Triple-A at the All-Star break for 15 days.

"When I got sent down, I was disappointed, but I was also really happy. I needed to get away from the big league pressure and kind of find myself again. I went home and refocused myself and thought to myself, 'I'm going to come back as Chili.' Because I tried to change, something changed about me the second year.

"And when I did that, I came back the next year and someone tried to change me and I said, 'Pump the breaks a little bit, let me fail my way, and then I'll come to you if I'm failing.' And they understood that, and I had a nice year, a big year and my career took off.

"I'm telling him, 'Hey, let last year go. It happened, it's in the past. Keep working hard, maintain your focus, and you'll be fine.'"

Getting Schwarber right isn't Davis' only task, of course. Despite the Cubs being one of the highest-scoring teams in baseball last season, they had plenty of guys go through subpar seasons. Jason Heyward still has yet to find his offensive game since coming to Chicago as a high-priced free agent. Ben Zobrist was bothered by a wrist injury last season and put up the worst numbers of his career. Addison Russell had trouble staying healthy, as well, and saw his numbers dip from what they were during the World Series season in 2016.

So Davis has plenty of charges to work with. But he likes what he's seen so far.

"They work," Davis said. "They come here to work. I had a group of guys in Boston that were the same last year, and it makes my job easier. They want to get better, they come out every day, they show up, they want to work. They're excited, and I'm excited to be around them.

And what have the Cubs found out about Davis? Just about everyone answers that question the same way: He likes to talk.

"I'm not going to stop talking," he said. "If I stop talking, something's wrong."