Cubs

Now healthy, Cubs' Clayton Richard optimistic about future

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Now healthy, Cubs' Clayton Richard optimistic about future

Clayton Richard is optimistic about his future and until recently it had been a while since he experienced similar confidence.

With his health intact for the first time in two offseasons, Richard likes his chances of earning a big league job in 2016, though the pitcher wouldn’t mind if he stayed put with the Cubs.

Richard — who produced 4 2/3 scoreless innings in the playoffs after he went 4-2 with a 3.83 ERA in 42 1/3 innings — was just as confident during a turbulent period this summer when the Cubs twice designated him for assignment.

Even though his future was uncertain, Richard, 31, knew he was healthy and likely to get a chance somewhere. Turns out the Cubs ultimately would give him that opportunity and benefitted from their decision. Now, after two offseasons of ambiguity and injury, the Lafayette, Ind.-native is excited about his prospects this winter.

“Having been through the health issues, that puts things in perspective,” Richard said. “I kind of look back and put myself where I was a year and a half ago, it’s pretty special. I’m excited to be here now and looking forward to the future.”

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A future is something Richard wasn’t certain he’d ever have again.

He had his first surgery in June 2013 to shave parts of his left clavicle to avoid future difficulties with his AC joint.

But that didn’t end his issues.

The following February, Richard had surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome, a condition that can cause numbness in the fingers and pain in the shoulder, arm and neck. He was able to pitch again by August and posted a 6.75 ERA in four minor league games for the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Last offseason, Richard signed a minor-league deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He appeared in his first game at Single-A Bradenton on May 7 was immediately promoted to Triple-A Indianapolis, where he went 4-2 with a 3.21 ERA in nine starts.

In need of starting pitching depth, the Cubs acquired Richard from Pittsburgh in July for cash. He won his first start on July 4 but posted a 5.40 ERA through 15 innings before the Cubs DFA’d him on July 22. The Cubs brought him back for another start on Aug. 2 and he won, allowing a run in six innings. But in need of room, Richard was designated again the next day.

Still, he didn’t worry about his future.

“I knew I was healthy and I was going to be playing and no matter where I went I was going to be able to prove that I could be a contributor at the big league level,” Richard said.

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When he returned again on Aug. 12, Richard moved to the bullpen and it looks like the move could stick. With a four-seam fastball that averaged between 93-95 mph from mid-August through October, Richard posted a 3.38 ERA over 19 appearances. He followed it up with the 4 2/3 scoreless innings in relief in the postseason.

“It took a little bit of time (to adjust) but it wasn’t terrible,” Richard said. “At the end of the day its getting loose and executing pitches and we were able to do that.”

Richard played a key role for Joe Maddon down the stretch and he may fit in the bullpen again next season. A former 14-game winner, the left-hander has one more season left until he becomes a free agent, which means the ball is in the team’s court.

Though he was disappointed by the team’s loss in the National League Championship Series, Richard could see past the disappointment to realize what had transpired. He’s also excited about the team’s future and his own.

“It’s a special team and I hope that doesn’t get lost in the loss,” Richard said. “It’s a special young team that did big things for this city and the organization and it has a bright future. But you don’t want to just dismiss what happened this year. It was a special year and I hope people recognize that and appreciate it for what it is and then when the time comes look forward to the future.”

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

Carmen DeFalco (ESPN 1000) and Jordan Bernfield join Kap on the panel. Anthony Rizzo returns to the Cubs after an emotional weekend home while Tom Ricketts expects another World Series parade. Plus Hall of Famer Andre Dawson joins Kap to talk about his Cubs reunion and how the current crop unsigned free agents compares to his experiences with collusion. 

Cubs' World Series expectations are no surprise, but they show how radical transformation from Lovable Losers has been

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USA TODAY

Cubs' World Series expectations are no surprise, but they show how radical transformation from Lovable Losers has been

MESA, Ariz. — Tom Ricketts sure doesn’t sound like the guy who met his wife in the bleachers during the century-long tenure of the Lovable Losers.

“Everyone knows that this is a team that has the capability to win the World Series, and everyone will be disappointed if we don’t live up to that capability.”

Yeah, the Cubs have been among baseball’s best teams for three seasons now. That curse-smashing World Series win in 2016 was the high point of a three-year stretch of winning that’s seen three straight trips to the National League Championship Series and a combined 310 wins between the regular season and postseason.

But it’s still got to come as a strange sound to those who remember the Cubs as the longtime butt of so many baseball jokes. This team has one expectation, to win the World Series. The players have said it for a week leading up to Monday’s first full-squad workout. The front office said it when it introduced big-time free-agent signing Yu Darvish a week ago. And the chairman said it Monday.

“We very much expect to win,” Ricketts said. “We have the ability to win. Our division got a lot tougher, and the playoff opponents that we faced last year are likely to be there waiting for us again.

“I think at this point with this team, obviously that’s our goal. I won’t say a season’s a failure because you don’t win the World Series, but it is our goal.”

The confidence is not lacking. But more importantly, success drives expectations. And if the Cubs are going to be one of the best teams in baseball, they better keep winning, or they’ll fail to meet those expectations, expectations that can sometimes spin a little bit out of control.

During last year’s follow-up campaign to 2016’s championship run, a rocky start to the season that had the Cubs out of first place at the All-Star break was enough to make some fans feel like the sky was falling — as if one year without a World Series win would be unacceptable to a fan base that had just gone 108 without one.

After a grueling NLDS against the Washington Nationals, the Cubs looked well overmatched in the NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers, and that sparked plenty of outside criticism, as well as plenty of offseason activity to upgrade the club in the midst of baseball’s never-ending arms race.

“I think people forget we’ve won more games over the last three years than any other team. We’ve won more playoff games than any other team the last three years. And we’ve been to the NLCS three years in a row,” Ricketts said. “I think fans understand that this is a team that if we stay healthy and play up to our capability can be in that position, be in the World Series. I don’t blame them. We should have high expectations, we have a great team.”

On paper, there are plenty of reasons for high expectations. Certainly the team’s stated goals don’t seem outlandish or anything but expected. The addition of Darvish to a rotation that already boasted Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana makes the Cubs’ starting staff the best in the NL, maybe the best in the game. There were additions to the bullpen, and the team’s fleet of young star position players went untouched despite fears it might be broken up to acquire pitching.

“I think this is, on paper, the strongest rotation that we’ve ever had,” Ricketts said. “I think that being able to bring in a player of (Darvish’s) caliber reminds everyone that we’re intending to win our division and go all the way.

“We’ve kept a good core of players together for several years, and this year I think our offseason moves have really set us up to be one of the best teams in baseball.

“Just coming out of our team meeting, the vibe feels a lot like two years ago. Everybody’s in a really good place. I think everyone’s really hungry and really wants to get this season off to a great start and make this a memorable year.”

There should be no surprise that the team and its players and its executives and its owners feel the way they do. The Cubs are now expected winners, even if that’s still yet to sink in for the longtime fans and observers of the team they once called the Lovable Losers.