Cubs

Turning point for The Plan: Cubs get October close-up at Wrigley

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Turning point for The Plan: Cubs get October close-up at Wrigley

Internally, the Cubs ran all the numbers and projected between 84 and 86 wins this year. A critical mass of young talent created a bigger variance than normal in those preseason simulations. But the organization gladly would have signed up for meaningful September games when pitchers and catchers reported. No questions asked.

Near the end of spring training, president of baseball operations Theo Epstein stood in the middle of the team’s Arizona complex, turning his head between fields, watching no-name prospects and listening to a question about how he would have to take ownership of this team — and take heat on the major-league level — in Year 4.

“This isn’t going to be our best team,” Epstein said, explaining the balance between the present and the future.

[MORE: Cubs counting on Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant to start producing in playoffs]

Fast forward to a beautiful Sunday afternoon at Wrigley Field, the Bears game showing on the 3,990-square-foot video board in left while Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber played catch.

Joe Maddon — the free-wheeling manager whose RV “The Cousin Eddie” had been parked at a satellite lot north of the stadium — gleefully called the workout “eyewash.”

The Cubs had already enjoyed “Breakfast on Wrigley,” a multi-table buffet set up on the dirt track behind home plate offering eggs, bacon, waffles, doughnuts, juice and coffee.

A stack of Korbel boxes sat on the concourse that leads out onto Waveland Avenue, in case the Cubs or St. Louis Cardinals end this epic National League division series on Tuesday after four games.

As good as it gets? Not necessarily, but the anticipation leading into this felt like something that could never be duplicated again.

Jake Arrieta having perhaps the greatest second half of anyone who’s ever thrown a baseball. The Cubs hosting their first playoff game in seven years and in position to clinch their first postseason series ever at Clark and Addison.

This is supposed to be the opening of the window to contend, but the Cubs are only guaranteed two more playoff games.

“Honestly, any thoughts beyond 2015 have kind of been pushed out of my mind until we’re done playing,” Epstein said. “This team has earned everyone’s full engagement, full attention, full commitment. I think we’re good enough to play all the way through October and into November.”

[MORE: Jake Arrieta emerges as October star and gets locked in for Cubs-Cardinals]

That’s why the Cubs invited all their full-time staffers in scouting and player development — the behind-the-scenes guys who did the grunt work tracking and coaching up prospects like Russell, Schwarber, Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler — to Chicago for this.

The Cubs expected a group of more than 250 people (including spouses) to gather for a dinner on Sunday and then attend Game 3 on Monday against the hated Cardinals.

“They’ll get to watch the fruits of their labor,” Epstein said.

Team Play Stupid obliterated expectations, winning 97 games and a wild-card showdown against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park, which set up the first playoff matchup between two iconic franchises that have been competing against one another since 1892.

“It’s already crazy when Jake pitches,” said Anthony Rizzo, the All-Star first baseman who brought so much credibility to the rebuilding project. “I can’t imagine it (with) the rivalry. There’s going to be a lot of Cardinals fans there. There’s going to be a lot of Cubs fans there. It’s going to be a great time. It’s going to be must-watch television.”

Maddon walked into the makeshift media room — basically a storage room underneath the stands that had been cleared out and set up with folding chairs and tables — and took his position on stage in front of the cameras. A reporter asked if the Cubs have become “America’s Team.”

“I never even thought about that,” Maddon said. “We’re on TV a lot. It’s (easy) to see us. I just like the way we’re playing. If people are interested or really getting involved with us…a lot of it has to do with our young players.

“We have a lot of charismatic young players that are attempting to play the game properly. I don’t think you’ve heard one excuse from any of them. They’re very accountable.

“And then, of course, the candle on the cake right now is the season Jake has put together. I think he draws a lot of attention towards us.

“It’s a combination of the youth and maybe one spectacular season out of a pitcher that’s really put the spotlight here. And beyond that, the city itself.”

[NBC SHOP: Buy Cubs playoff gear]

Those young players will get older, more expensive and injured. The egos will get bigger. Maddon’s act could eventually become stale. The clubhouse chemistry created through the machine-generated fog of postgame dance parties might not stay the same.

Dexter Fowler — the you-go-we-go leadoff guy — is about to become a free agent. Arrieta, a Scott Boras client, remains under club control for only two more seasons. The Cubs stayed exceptionally healthy this year and got lucky enough to win 34 one-run games and 13 in extra innings.

Cubs fans and the Chicago media can’t stay giddy forever. Pretty soon, Epstein’s front office, Maddon’s coaching staff and Rizzo’s boys will be at a point in the rebuild where 84 wins could feel like total failure.

So Epstein is trying to enjoy the moment and focus everything on how to beat the Cardinals on Monday at Wrigley Field.

“That’s really what’s on our mind,” Epstein said. “It’s a good feeling to know that we’re positioned with a lot of hard work, some good breaks, some good decisions to make sure that we’re a regular participant in October. But we might never be as well-situated as we are right now. Who knows?

“This is where it’s at.”

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

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USA TODAY

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.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

Jon Lester has arrived at Cubs camp, and he’s pleased with the new-look rotation full of potential aces. Kelly Crull and Vinnie Duber discuss the 5-man unit, and where Mike Montgomery fits into the Cubs’ plans.

Plus, Kelly and Vinnie talk Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber, along with the continuing free agent stalemate surrounding Jake Arrieta.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here: