Cubs

Theo Epstein rooting for wild-card chaos as Cubs gear up for possible playoff opponents

Theo Epstein rooting for wild-card chaos as Cubs gear up for possible playoff opponents

Cubs president Theo Epstein is rooting for chaos, hoping the National League’s wild-card battle spills into a Game 163, setting up another emotionally draining elimination game the next night, leaving the last team standing among the St. Louis Cardinals, San Francisco Giants and New York Mets physically exhausted by the time they get to Wrigley Field.

“Each team presents its own set of challenges,” Epstein said before Monday night’s 5-2 win over the Cincinnati Reds. “It might have roster implications one way or another, too, based on the matchups. But we hope there’s a three-way tie — and then there’s about a 20-inning game to decide who plays on Tuesday (Oct. 4). And then the Tuesday game goes about 30 innings. And rain delays to push (the wild card and) make it a Thursday game.”

Weather permitting, the Cubs won’t know their first-round opponent until the night of Oct. 5, but Epstein’s front office and manager Joe Maddon will meet on Tuesday to discuss the playoff rotation, bubble players on the roster and what they need to see across the final 12 games in the regular season.

The Cubs won’t know their first-round opponent until the night of Oct. 5, but Epstein’s front office and manager Joe Maddon will meet on Tuesday to discuss the playoff rotation, bubble players on the roster and what they need to see across the final 12 games in the regular season.

A strong scouting infrastructure and a detailed game-planning system have been hallmarks of the Epstein administration and a coaching staff led by Dale Sveum-era holdovers Chris Bosio and Mike Borzello, marketing veteran pitchers for trade-deadline deals that rebuilt a fifth-place team into a division champion and helped transform Kyle Hendricks into a Cy Young Award candidate.

“We’re fully into the advance scouting process,” Epstein said. “We got our scouts out watching all the teams that we might face at some point. (We’re) doing a lot of video work as well. That ramps up as you get closer, but it’s already started.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get your NL Central champions gear right here]

With the NL Central title already wrapped up, the Cubs can treat late September like spring training, experimenting, scheduling days off and scripting out their playoff rotation. The hope is outfielder Jorge Soler (right side tightness) will be available to pinch-hit on Tuesday night and reliever Pedro Strop (knee) will throw a simulated game soon.

Meanwhile, the Mets (80-69), Giants (79-70) and Cardinals (78-71) went into Monday night’s games understanding there would only be two postseason spots available, forcing them to channel the adrenaline and sharpen their every-pitch focus.

Then again, the Cubs could also get to see the Mets and Giants burn Noah Syndergaard and Madison Bumgarner in a wild-card game, or if the St. Louis rotation will again be running on fumes by Oct. 7, creating flashbacks to last year’s playoffs.

“It cuts both ways,” Epstein said, “because then you can get run into the ground a little bit, get a little tired, especially with your pitching staff.

“All things being equal, I would rather clinch early and have the ability to rest guys. I don’t think this group is going to lose their edge because we might play games for a short period of time that aren’t quite as important as the ones that came before.

“Everyone knows what this team’s all about, why we’re here, what we’re trying to accomplish. We’ll be ready.”

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.

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.”