Thrown into the fire, Cubs rookies leading the charge into contention


Thrown into the fire, Cubs rookies leading the charge into contention

Experience is overrated.

As the smoke cleared and the dust settled after their four-game sweep of the San Francisco Giants, the Cubs sat with the fourth-best record in baseball, even if they're only third in their own division.

The Cubs are now 3.5 games up on the Giants in the battle for the second wild card.

[RELATED - Arrieta struts his ace stuff as Cubs go for the Giants' 'jugular']

It doesn't matter if the Cubs are a year ahead of schedule in the rebuild. They're here now, riding the coattails of four rookies into contention.

There is no learning curve for Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Jorge Soler and Kyle Schwarber. The 2015 Cubs can't wait for them to go through growing pains the way Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo could over the team's fifth place finishes over the last several seasons.

For this team to have success, those rookies have to be thrown into the fire.

"That's huge. It's how you learn," said Jon Lester, owner of two World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox. "When you get put on this stage and you get put against good teams, you have to figure out ways to win.

"It's nice to see these guys show up every day, regardless of what happened the day before and they're ready to play. It's good to see. They're learning on the job and it's a hard thing to do."

But the rookies aren't just learning and taking notes. They're thriving.

The foursome combined to go 20-for-53 (.377 average) in the four games against the Giants with 16 RBI and 14 runs on six extra-base htis (four doubles, two homers), eight walks. They even added two stolen bases for good measure.

[MORE: Anthony Rizzo believes Starlin Castro will be fine]

The series also featured slight role changes for both Russell and Schwarber as Castro headed to the bench, making Russell the team's shortstop and Schwarber the new left fielder.

These rookies are learning and switching positions on top of adjusting to life in "The Show" and trying to figure out big-league pitching.

How do they keep from getting overwhelmed, especially during big moments when mistakes are magnified for a team playing so many close games?

"It's exciting to me," Russell said. "Whenever we're in big positions, it kinda hypes me up and I think it gets me more into the game.

"As competitors, we all do that. It's pretty cool to be able to feel that atmosphere at the big-league level."

Cubs manager Joe Maddon is one of the best in the game at nurturing young talent and creating a situation for rookies to thrive.

For the Cubs' foursome, it's just about not giving them more than they can handle.

Like Maddon's signature T-shirt says, "Do simple better."

"I don't want them to think about anything but just playing," he said after the Cubs' win Saturday. "Just go play. I don't want extra work, I don't want too much work, I don't want too much information.

"Like when you talk about big games, for example. It's not. It's Saturday's game. Tomorrow is Sunday's game. Play it. Play Sunday's game like you know how. And then we'll move on to come back on Tuesday's game."

Maddon called Bryant one of the best young players he's ever had and took the time to gush about each one of the four rookies over the course of the weekend, calling attention to some small part of their game that they're excelling at.

In the clubhouse, ask any veteran about one of the rookies and watch them immediately light up.

Miguel Montero - who just came off the disabled list Friday in a move that helped contribute to Schwarber's switch to left field on a more regular basis - said these rookies "don't get shy."

"They've been amazing," Montero said. "They've been doing a great job all around. Those guys are incredible and they come to play.

"You can tell. They play hard; they grind it out. It's fun to watch them."

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Of course, it's always fun when you're winning.

But this team is winning because of that youth, Lester said. All the postgame dance parties in the clubhouse and "firsts" on the field are keeping things fresh for everybody in the locker room.

"Guys have energy, guys have excitement to be in this position," Lester said. "Sometimes, you can get complacent by doing it every single year and being with the same guys and just kinda going through the motions of August and September like, 'Oh we'll be there when we get there.'

"For a group of guys that have never done it, you've got that excitement every single day that we've got a chance.

"It's just been impressive to see the transformation as they came up as prospects to everyday big leaguers and now we're into this little push. Seeing them learn has been fun."

Ben Zobrist knows reality of Cubs' crowded lineup: 'There are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench'


Ben Zobrist knows reality of Cubs' crowded lineup: 'There are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench'

MESA, Ariz. — Ben Zobrist has long been known for his versatility on the field. But it might take a new kind of versatility to get through what’s facing him for the 2018 season, being versatile when it comes to simply being on the field.

Zobrist was among several notable Cubs hitters who had a rough go of things at the plate in the follow-up campaign to 2016’s World Series run. He dealt with injuries, including a particularly bothersome one to his wrist, and finished with a career-worst .232/.318/.375 slash line.

And so, with younger guys like Javy Baez, Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr. forcing their way into Joe Maddon’s lineup, it’s a perfectly valid question to ask: Has the 36-year-old Zobrist — just 15 months removed from being named the World Series MVP — been relegated to part-time status for this championship-contending club?

Obviously that remains to be seen. Joe Maddon has a way of mixing and matching players so often that it makes it seem like this team has at least 12 different “starting” position players. But Zobrist, ever the picture of versatility, seems ready for whatever is coming his way.

“I’m prepared for that, if that’s what it comes to. I told him, whatever they need me to do,” Zobrist said Sunday, asked if he’d be OK with being in a platoon situation. “You’ll see me at some different positions. As far as at-bats, though, I’ve got to be healthy. That was the biggest thing last year that kept me from getting at-bats and being productive. So if I can be healthy, I think I can play the way that I’m capable of, and the discussion then at that point will be, ‘How much can you play before we push you too far?’

“We’ve got a lot of great players, and there are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench on our team at times. But no one ever rusts because you know how Joe uses everybody. You’re still going to play. Even if you don’t start, you’re probably going to play later in the game. It’s just part of the National League and the way Joe Maddon manages.”

It’s no secret, of course, that when Zobrist is on, he’s the kind of player you want in the lineup as much as possible. It was just two seasons ago that he posted a .386 on-base percentage, banged out 31 doubles, smacked 18 home runs and was a starter for the team that won the World Series.

But he also admitted that last year’s injury fights were extremely tough: “Last year was one of the most difficult seasons I’ve ever had as a player.” Zobrist said that while he’s feeling good and ready to go in 2018, with his recent physical ailments and his advancing age, he’s in a different stage in his career.

“At this point in my career, I’m not going to play 158 games or whatever. I’m going to have to manage and figure out how to play great for 130,” he said. “And I think that would be a good thing to shoot for, if I was healthy, is playing 130 games of nine innings would be great. And then you’re talking about postseason, too, when you add the games on top of that, and well, you need to play for the team in the postseason, you’ve got to be ready for that, too.

“From my standpoint, from their standpoint, it’s about managing, managing my performance and my physical body and making sure I can do all that at the highest level, keep it at the highest level I can.”

Maddon’s managerial style means that Zobrist, even if he’s not technically a part of the everyday starting eight, will still get the opportunity to hit on a regular basis, get a chance to play on a regular basis. Baez figures to be locked in as the team’s No. 1 second baseman, but he’ll need days off. Maddon mentioned Sunday that Zobrist, along with Happ, have been practicing at first base in an effort to be able to spell Anthony Rizzo. It’s the crowded outfield where Zobrist could potentially see the most time. He’ll be a piece of that tricky daily puzzle along with Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward and the aforementioned Almora and Happ.

Unsurprisingly, in the end that versatility, combined with how Zobrist has recovered physically and whether he can get back to how he’s produced in the past, will determine how much he will play, according to the guy writing out the lineups.

“I think he’s going to dictate that to us based on how he feels,” Maddon said. “Listen, you’re always better off when Ben Zobrist is in your lineup. He’s a little bit older than he had been, obviously, like we all are. I’ve got to be mindful of that, but he’s in great shape. Let’s just see what it looks like. Go out there and play, and we’ll try to figure it out as the season begins to unwind because who knows, he might have an epiphany and turn back the clock a little bit, he looks that good. I want to keep an open mind.

“I want to make sure that he understands we’re going to need him to play a variety of different positions. He’s ready to do it, he’s eager, he’s really ready. He was not pleased with his year last year, took time to reflect upon it and now he’s really been refreshed. So I think you’re going to see the best form of Ben Zobrist right now.”

Two years ago, Zobrist played a big enough role to go to the All-Star Game and get named the MVP of the World Series. In the present, that role might be much, much smaller. But Zobrist said he’s OK with anything, admitting it’s about the number of rings on the fingers and not the number of days in the starting lineup.

“I’m 36 as a player, so I’m just trying to win championships at this point. It’s not really about what I’m trying to accomplish as an individual,” Zobrist said. “Everybody wants to have great seasons, but I’ve told (Maddon), ‘Wherever you need me, I’m ready.’ Just going to prepare to fill the spots that need to be filled and be a great complement to what’s going on.”

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

MESA, Ariz. — “That’s last year, don’t want to talk about that.”

In other words, Addison Russell is so over 2017.

The Cubs shortstop went through a lot last year. He dealt with injuries that affected his foot and shoulder. He had a well-documented off-the-field issue involving an accusation of domestic abuse, which sparked an investigation by Major League Baseball. And then came the trade speculation.

The hot stove season rarely leaves any player completely out of online trade discussion. But after Theo Epstein admitted there was a possibility the Cubs could trade away one or more young position players to bolster the starting rotation, well, Russell’s name came up.

And he saw it.

“There was a lot of trade talk,” Russell said Saturday. “My initial thoughts were, I hope it doesn’t happen, but wherever I go, I’m going to try to bring what I bring to the table here. It’s a good thing that it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m happy being in a Cubs uniform, I want to be in a Cubs uniform, for sure. But there was some talk out there. If I got traded, then I got traded, but that’s not the case.”

No, it’s not, as the Cubs solved those pitching questions with free-agent spending, bringing in Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood to replace the departed Jake Arrieta and John Lackey. It means Russell, along with oft-discussed names like Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Javy Baez, are all still Cubs.

While the outside world might have expected one of those guys to be moved in some sort of blockbuster trade for Chris Archer or some other All-Star arm, the Cubs’ young core remains intact, another reason why they’re as much a favorite to win the World Series as any team out there.

“I’m really not surprised. The core is still here. Who would want to break that up? It’s a beautiful thing,” Russell said. “Javy and I in the middle. Schwarber, sometimes playing catcher but mainly outfield. And then (Kris Bryant) over there in the hot corner, and of course (Anthony) Rizzo at first. You’ve got a Gold Glover in right field (Jason Heyward). It’s really hard to break that up.

“When you do break that down on paper, we’ve got a lineup that could stack up with the best.”

This winter has been about moving on for Russell, who said he’s spent months working to strengthen his foot and shoulder after they limited him to 110 games last season, the fewest he played in his first three big league campaigns.

And so for Russell, the formula for returning to his 2016 levels of offensive aptitude isn’t a difficult one: stay on the field.

“Especially with the injuries, I definitely wanted to showcase some more of my talent last year than I displayed,” Russell said. “So going into this year, it’s mainly just keeping a good mental — just staying level headed. And also staying healthy and producing and being out there on the field.

“Next step for me, really just staying out there on the field. I really want to see what I can do as far as helping the team if I can stay healthy for a full season. I think if I just stay out there on the field, I’m going to produce.”

While the decrease in being on the field meant lower numbers from a “counting” standpoint — the drop from 21 homers in 2016 to 12 last year, the drop from 95 RBIs to 43 can in part be attributed to the lower number of games — certain rate stats looked different, too. His on-base percentage dropped from .321 in 2016 to .304 last year.

Russell also struggled during the postseason, picking up just six hits in 36 plate appearances in series against the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers. He struck out 13 times in 10 postseason games.

Of course, he wasn’t alone. That World Series hangover was team-wide throughout the first half of the season. And even though the Cubs scored 824 runs during the regular season, the second most in the National League and the fourth most in baseball, plenty of guys had their offensive struggles: Schwarber, Heyward and Ben Zobrist, to name a few.

“You can’t take anything for granted. So whenever you win a World Series or you do something good, you just have to live in the moment,” Russell said. “It was a tough season last year because we were coming off winning the World Series and the World Series hangover and all that. This year, we had a couple months off, a couple extra weeks off, and I think a lot of guys took advantage of that. I know I did. And now that we’re here in spring training, we’re going to get back at it.”