Cubs

Ten things to watch for this Cubs season

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Ten things to watch for this Cubs season

MESA, Ariz. Theo Epsteins reserved parking spot is clearly marked by the entrance to the main building at Fitch Park.

Even if the compensation issue with the Boston Red Sox still isnt resolved word from commissioner Bud Selig is expected soon theres obviously no turning back now.

The baseball operations staff is here in Arizona for organizational meetings, where they will try to define and explain The Cubs Way. Several groups of players were working out on Thursday at the teams complex in Mesa, including Marlon Byrd, Darwin Barney, Jeff Samardzija, Bryan LaHair and Tony Campana.

That morning, the front page of USA Todays sports section featured a photo collage of 10 players Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder and Jose Reyes among them. But Epstein was at the center of the spring training preview, standing in front of the Wrigley Field marquee.

The new president of baseball operations doesnt really want to be the face of the franchise, so here are 10 other story lines to consider before pitchers and catchers officially report on Saturday:

1. Camp Sveum

Dale Sveum doesnt want his players to take the easy way out and slide. He believes catchers should fear you when youre coming into home plate. He doesnt want to see any dogs or hear about any excuses. Win or lose, he figures, at least make it a fistfight.

Sveum met with Red Sox ownership last November in Milwaukee, sensing hed be getting an offer to manage a win-now team that never came. Instead of answering questions about fried chicken and beer in the clubhouse, hell be on the ground floor of Epsteins rebuilding project. The first-year manager will be given every opportunity to develop into the next Terry Francona. This is Sveums time to put his stamp on the team.

2. The next big thing

The Cubs were shocked by the changes to the collective bargaining agreement, which limit the amount of money teams can spend in the draft and on the international market. Jorge Soler wouldnt count against that cap if hes signed before July 2, one reason why the 19-year-old Cuban defector could spark a bidding war.

The Cubs own the sixth overall choice in the June draft, plus supplemental picks for losing Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena. Now,their talking point is that its going to become a scouting contest. New executive Jason McLeod who once ran drafts for the Red Sox that produced impact players like Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Clay Buchholz and Daniel Bard becomes one of the most influential people in the organization.

3. Strength up the middle?

At the age of 21, Starlin Castro made the All-Star team and led the National League in hits, but the gifted shortstop still has much to prove. The Cubs expressed support while his lawyers had to deny sexual assault allegations last month. But even without the negative publicity, hed still have to show that hes learned what it takes at this level. This will be his third season in the big leagues, time to cut down on the careless errors and improve his focus. Because of his personality and big smile, there will be many people rooting for him to become a franchise player.

4. Whos on first?

It is LaHairs job heading into spring training. Last years Pacific Coast League MVP will get a chance to show that he belongs in the majors, where he has only 195 at-bats on his resume. The Cubs insist that Anthony Rizzo will begin the season at Triple-A Iowa, where the top prospect will try to erase last years audition with the San Diego Padres (18-for-128 with 46 strikeouts). At 22, Rizzo is seven years younger than LaHair, and projected as someone who will be a force in the lineup and the clubhouse when the Cubs see their next window to contend.

5. Coach em up

Sveum knew exactly who he wanted to be his pitching coach, and this might be the most important relationship in the dugout for a first-year manager. Chris Bosio pitched more than 1,700 innings in the majors, and that should give him some instant credibility. It will be on Bosio to unlock the potential in former first-round picks Travis Wood and Chris Volstad, and help push Matt Garza and Randy Wells to their next levels. The Cubs have talked a lot about the depth theyve added to their pitching staff. Bosio will have to sort it all out.

6. Endgame

Twelve months ago, Carlos Marmol was rewarded with a three-year, 20 million deal. It was a nice story about the 16-year-old kid the Cubs once signed out of the Dominican Republic, who eventually had to be talked into pitching and emerged as a dominating closer. Marmol didnt live up to the contract in 2011. No one in the majors finished with more than his 10 blown saves. Between the return of Kerry Wood and the progress shown by Samardzija and James Russell, the bullpen could be a real strength. But it starts with the closer regaining the feel for his slider, and then his confidence.

7. Follow the money

Local television deals helped juice the baseball economy this winter and shift the balance of power to the American League. Fox Sports regional networks helped bankroll the Los Angeles Angels and Texas Rangers, who combined spent more than 425 million to sign Pujols, C.J. Wilson and Yu Darvish. The Cubs have multiyear broadcasting commitments to both WGN and CSN, and their business executives are no doubt wondering: Wheres ours?

8. Your ad here

The newsiest item out of last months Cubs Convention was the plan to steal business away from the surrounding rooftops by building a patio deck in the right-field bleachers and installing a big LED board to show game information and advertisements. Skeptics will wonder where this is all heading (Jumbotron?) and how it could change the look and feel of Wrigley Field. Either way, this should be a pivotal year for finding a way to finance those stadium renovation plans, which hopefully wont include any yellow noodles outside the building.
9. Ready for prime time?

The crosstown series against the White Sox wont be nearly as explosive without Ozzie Guillen and Carlos Zambrano, who took their talents to South Beach, but there are still dates to circle on the calendar, like April 17-19 in Little Havana. The Cubs will be there at Busch Stadium when the St. Louis Cardinals unveil their World Series banner and hand out championship rings (April 13-15).

Fielder will swing away at Clark and Addison, but only in a Detroit Tigers uniform (June 12-14). The bars around Wrigleyville will be jam-packed when Red Sox Nation invades (June 15-17). By then, it could be time to count down the days until the trade deadline, to see how the market develops for Garza, if a contender needs Byrd and if anyones desperate enough to take on a fraction of Alfonso Sorianos contract.
10. Are we there yet?

Epstein joked that the Cubs led the league in press conferences. The narrative now will be how they stick to their plan, and if everyone will really have the patience to see it through.

What we want to do is create a sustainable team that every single year has a chance to make the playoffs, general manager Jed Hoyer said last month. Its like taking a shot on goal. The teams that win World Series are teams that make the playoffs year after year.

The Florida Marlins' model of making the playoffs and winning the World Series every time they do itthats not really one to follow. We need to get to the point where we make the playoffs every single year and once we do that, a championship should follow. How long its going to take to build that sustainable team? I cant tell you. But I can tell you thats what were working on and, hopefully, it will come sooner rather than later.

Are Cubs feeling drained? The clubhouse is divided

Are Cubs feeling drained? The clubhouse is divided

For the second straight week, Kyle Schwarber halted his postgame media scrum to get something off his chest.

Standing at his locker — the same spot he stood exactly a week prior — the Cubs slugger got about as forceful as he's ever been with the cameras rolling.

Are the Cubs drained right now?

"Never. Nope. Not at all," Schwarber said. "I'll shut you down right there — we're not running out of gas at all."

Really? 

You gotta admire Schwarber's grit. He's got that linebacker/football mentality still locked and loaded in mid-October after a brutal first three games of the NLCS.

But...come on. The Cubs aren't drained? They're not tired or weary or mentally fatigued?

Schwarber says no, but it doesn't look that way on the field. They look like the high point of the season was that epic Game 5 in D.C. It was one of the craziest baseball games ever played, very reminsicent of Game 7 in last year's World Series.

Only one thing: Game 7 was the ultimate last game. They left it all on the field and that was cool because there was no more season left. Last week's wacky contest wasn't the final game of the season. It was just the final game of the FIRST series of the postseason.

So if the Cubs aren't feeling any weariness — emotional, physical, mental or otherwise — they must be superhuman.

Yet Anthony Rizzo — the face of the franchise — backed Schwarber's sentiment.

"I'm 28 years old right now," Rizzo said. "I could run laps around this place right now. I've got a great job for a living to play baseball.

"We have a beautiful life playing baseball. You gotta keep that in perspective. So if you wanna try to get mentally tired, realize what we're doing."

Rizzo talked that talk, but his performance on the field has hit a wall. After his "Respect Me!" moment in Game 3 of the NLDS, Rizzo went hitless in his next 16 at-bats before a harmless single Tuesday night. He then struck out in his final trip to the plate.

Bryzzo's other half — Kris Bryant — actually took the opposite stance of his teammates.

"Yeah, [that Washington series] was pretty draining, I think," Bryant admitted. "Some good games there that I think were pretty taxing for our bullpen and pitchers, too. 

"Kinda expect that around this time of year. The games mean a lot."

It's not surprising to hear those words from Bryant. In fact, it wouldn't even be mildly shocking to hear every player in the clubhouse share the same point of view.

The Cubs played all the way past Halloween last fall, then hit the town, having epic celebrations, going on TV shows, having streets named after them, etc. 

Then, before you know it, there's Cubs Convention again. And shortly after that, pitchers and catchers report. 

From there, the "title defense" season began, featuring a lackluster first half and a second half that took a tremendous amount of energy just to stave off the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central and get into the postseason.

Oh yeah, and then that series with the Nationals where the Cubs squeaked out a trio of victories by the slimest of margins.

These Cubs have never really had anything resembling a break. 

However, they're now just one game away from getting that rest they so badly need (and deserve).

Ben Zobrist breaks down how Dodgers pitching has made Cubs offense disappear

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USA TODAY

Ben Zobrist breaks down how Dodgers pitching has made Cubs offense disappear

Ben Zobrist didn’t look for any deeper meaning in Kyle Schwarber’s first-inning homer off Yu Darvish on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, or hope that one swing could change the entire momentum of this National League Championship Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Zobrist knows what it takes to win in October, the Cubs identifying him as the missing piece to their lineup after he helped transform the 2015 Kansas City Royals into a championship team, and then getting a World Series MVP return on their $56 million investment.

That “Schwarbomb” turned out to be fool’s gold, the only run the Cubs would score in front of a quiet, low-energy crowd of 41,871, the defending champs one more loss away from golfing/hunting/fishing/signing autographs at memorabilia shows.

“That was great to get a homer, but I’d rather see some hits strung together,” Zobrist said after a sloppy 6-1 loss, standing at his locker for almost 10 minutes, answering questions in the underground clubhouse. “I’d like to see a couple doubles together, a few singles, three or four hits in an inning. We just haven’t done that.

“That’s what makes rallies. They’ve stayed away from those kinds of innings. That’s why they’re ahead right now.”

Darvish – Jake Arrieta’s replacement in the 2018 rotation? – canceled out the two singles he allowed in the first inning by getting two of his seven strikeouts and answering some of the questions about how he would respond to all the pressure in October.

Darvish – a trade-deadline acquisition that had echoes of Theo Epstein’s “If not now, when?” explanation for last year’s Aroldis Chapman trade – walked one of the 25 batters he faced and pitched into the seventh inning before handing the game over to a lights-out bullpen.

“There’s nothing that we didn’t see beforehand on video,” Zobrist said. “It’s just a matter of we need him to make more mistakes, and we got to take advantage of those mistakes when he makes them.

“When he got to 3-2 counts, he wasn’t throwing a heater. He was throwing the cutter, and it’s a tough pitch to hit. You have to sit on it, and even then it’s got good movement to it. He kept us off-balance.”

Forward-thinking manager Dave Roberts is at the controls of a Los Angeles bullpen that can match up against right- and left-handed hitters, target locations, unleash upper-90s velocity, execute the elevated fastball that messes with eye levels and lean on All-Star closer Kenley Jansen for multiple innings.

The Dodger relievers essentially put together a no-hitter that lasted nine-plus innings across Games 1, 2 and 3. Together, they have pitched 10.2 scoreless innings, facing 36 batters and allowing two hits and a walk and hitting Anthony Rizzo with a pitch.

“They kept the ball on the edges and kept us off-balance,” Zobrist said. “They’re not throwing the pitch in the middle of the plate when we need them to. They’re keeping it on the edges and those are hard (to hit). When you got guys with good stuff on the mound, you need them to make some mistakes for you, or at least start walking some guys.

“When they’ve gotten in those situations with a three-ball count, they’re still making the pitch when they need to. They’re not walking many guys – and we are.

“That’s why they’re up 3-nothing.”

Zobrist (4-for-23 this postseason) is now more of a part-time player/defensive replacement, no longer the switch-hitting force who dropped the bunt at Dodger Stadium that helped end the 21-inning scoreless streak during last year’s NLCS.

Zobrist insisted the Cubs are still all there mentally, not checked out after a grueling first round against the Washington Nationals and a brutal walk-off loss in Game 2 at Dodger Stadium. He owns two World Series rings and one has the Cubs logo and this inscription: “We Never Quit.”

“We keep it loose all the time,” Zobrist said. “We know what’s at stake. And we don’t shy away from it. We look forward to the challenge ahead. It would be a great story for us to be able to come back in this series and win this series.

“We make adjustments, we take advantage of mistakes and we come out with a victory tomorrow. That’s what we have to do.”