Cubs

One year early? Belief in young players pays off for Cubs

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One year early? Belief in young players pays off for Cubs

Who says this young Cubs team arrived a year ahead of schedule?

A team infused with young talent and four rookies playing almost every day has found itself clinching a playoff spot with more than a week left in the regular season.

There is no clear-cut timeline for when a team is "supposed" to be a contender.

Joe Maddon talked seriously about the playoffs at his opening press conference. He really believed it was possible for a franchise that had recorded five straight fifth-place finishes entering 2015.

[MORE CUBS: Party like it's 2008 - Cubs clinch playoff berth with Giants loss]

"Coming through this baseball thing like I have, from the minor leagues on up, I've had a lot of young, good players," Maddon said. "I've always believed our teams are going to do well. Maybe it's just a positive nature. I don't know.

"But then it's accelerated with the skill level of these young guys. They're an unusually skillful group of young players."

On Saturday, Maddon discussed a lineup he filled out earlier in the week that featured four rookies in Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Jorge Soler and Kyle Schwarber and then Javier Baez (who is not technically a rookie despite his lack of major-league experience).

In late September, most teams that play five young players like that are out of the postseason race. The Cubs are right in the thick of it.

"We're in this position and a lot of it is built on them," Maddon said, while also crediting veterans like Jon Lester and David Ross for leading from within the clubhouse.

[MORE CUBS: Jon Lester’s big-game reputation gave Cubs credibility in rebuild]

The Cubs understand the "one-year-too-early" angle, but they're not exactly adopting that as the next T-shirt slogan.

"It would have been impossible to expect this group of young players to play at this level," general manager Jed Hoyer said. "We're not suprised we've done it, but certainly expecting it would have been difficult.

"If it means we exceeded expectations, that made this summer a little bit more improbable. I think that's great. No individual player has done anything we know they can't do. And we think all these guys will do this going forward.

"I understand this narrative that we're one year too early. But I think Joe and this coaching staff really believed in this group all year and they proved him right."

Bryant has been touted as a possible Rookie of the Year candidate since he tore up the minors last year, but Russell wasn't expected to make his big-league debut on April 21 or supplant Starlin Castro as the franchise shortstop in August.

Schwarber wasn't supposed to be able to hold his own as a catcher in the majors, let alone mash the ball at the ridiculous pace he accomplished in his first two months in "The Show."

Baez had his season almost completely derailed by the death of his sister and then a finger injury, but he emerged on Sept. 1 as a factor with his defense all over the infield as well as his speed and more mature approach at the plate.

"It is amazing," Jake Arrieta said. "Being around for a while and knowing how difficult it is to play this game and to play it at a high level consistently and seeing Addy, Schwarbs, Bryant, all these guys do it at such a high level and continue to progress and learn on a daily basis, it's tremendous."

Russell isn't surprised by the production from the Cubs rookies this season.

[SHOP: Get your official Cubs postseason gear]

"I think we're doing what we need to do," Russell said. "Just looking around, it's clear this clubhouse is different. There are a lot of young guys, but we're young guys ready to win, willing to fight.

"Joe's giving them an opportunity and Theo [Epstein] and Jed are giving them an opportunity as well. I think we're all hungry and we're all blessed to be here and to get to this point.

"Now we just need to have fun and come out with some wins."

Even with the playoff berth, Maddon is keeping the Cubs focused on the big picture.

"It's an exciting time for all of us," Bryant said. "But we've got a lot of work to do. 

"We kind of had a feeling we were gonna get [a playoff spot]. But it's not over there."

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

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USA TODAY

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

MESA, Ariz. — The frequent mission of spring training is to iron out a 25-man roster.

But at Cubs camp, that mission seems to already be completed.

With an entire Cactus League schedule still to play, the Cubs’ 25-man group that will leave Arizona for the season-opener in Miami seems pretty well set.

The starting rotation: Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood.

The position-player group: Willson Contreras, Victor Caratini, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, Tommy La Stella, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist.

The bullpen: Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery, Brian Duensing, Justin Wilson and Justin Grimm.

Boom. There’s your 25.

Joe Maddon, do you agree?

“You guys and ladies could probably write down what you’re seeing and be pretty accurate,” Maddon said Thursday. “I can’t deny that, it’s true. Oftentimes, when you’re a pretty good ball club, that is the case. When you’re not so good, you always get auditions during spring training.

“I think what the boys have done is they’ve built up a nice cache in case things were to happen. The depth is outstanding. So you could probably narrow it down, who you think’s going to be the 25, and I won’t argue that.”

It’s the latest example in a camp that to this point has been full of them that the Cubs are one of baseball’s best teams and that only a World Series championship will fulfill expectations. Had the front office stuck with a starting rotation of Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, Chatwood and Montgomery, then there would’ve been a spot open in the bullpen. But the statement-making signing of Darvish jolted the Cubs into “best rotation in the game” status, sent Montgomery back to the bullpen and further locked the roster into place.

Guys like Grimm and La Stella have been forced off the 25-man roster at points in recent seasons, though even their spots seem safe. Maddon even said that a huge spring from someone else wouldn’t mean as much at what guys have done at the major league level in recent memory.

“Spring training performance, for me, it’s not very defining,” Maddon said. “You’re going to be playing against a lot of guys that aren’t going to be here, more Triple-A guys, even some Double-A guys. Some guys come in better shape, they normally look better early. The vibe’s different. You play a couple innings, you don’t get many at-bats, the pitcher doesn’t see hitters three times and vice versa. So I don’t worry about that as much.

“It’s more about, guys that might be fighting for a moment, what do they look like, does it look right, does it look good, how do they fit in? Is there somebody there that you scouted? Because what matters a lot is last year and what you did last year and the last couple months of last year.

“So of course guys that have been here probably have a bit of an upper hand, but we’re very open-minded about stuff. And I think when you look at the guys, you’re right, it’s probably pretty close to being set. But stuff happens.”

Could the recently signed Shae Simmons give Grimm an unexpected challenge for the final relief spot? Maddon said guys who have been with the Cubs in the recent past have a leg up. Could Chris Gimenez turn his experience with Darvish into a win over Caratini for the backup catcher spot? Maddon threw cold water on the "personal catcher" narrative last week.

Of course, Maddon left the door open the possibility of an injury that could open up a roster spot and even shake up the depth chart. But barring the unforeseen, this 25-man group looks locked into place.

That gives the Cubs an edge, perhaps, in that they can specifically find ways to tune up those guys rather than focus on getting enough at-bats for players who are fighting for roster spots. But most of that edge came during the winter, and in winters and summers past, when the front office built this team into a championship contender.

There have been plenty of years when the fans coming to Mesa to watch the Cubs play in spring training saw the blossoming of a big league player thanks to a monster spring or a surprise tear during March. That’s going to be unlikely this spring, a reflection of just how far this team has come.

“It’s easy for me to reflect on this because when I started out with the Rays, wow,” Maddon said. “That was a casting call trying to figure it out. You had very few settled positions when you walked in the door. And then as we got better, it became what we’re talking about. As we moved further along, you were pretty much set by the time (you got to spring training) except for one or two spots.

“So I think the better teams are like that.”

The Cubs are most definitely one of those better teams.

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

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KELLY CRULL

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

Spring training baseball games are up around the bend, but before the boys of summer get into organized action, two of the team’s new coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey sit down with Kelly Crull.

Plus, Vinnie Duber joins Kelly to discuss these baseball conversations including the memorable first words of Kyle Schwarber to Chili Davis, “I don’t suck!"

Listen to the full episode at this link (iOS users can go here) or in the embedded player below. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts.