Cubs

Will Cubs clubhouse come together or completely collapse?

Will Cubs clubhouse come together or completely collapse?

This was hours after the Cubs dumped Miguel Montero for ripping Jake Arrieta, becoming the viral national story during a dead spot on the hot-take calendar with the NFL on hiatus and the NBA in between the draft and the start of free agency.

Roughly half the team skipped an optional trip to the White House, where that afternoon board member Todd Ricketts told Donald Trump the Washington Nationals would “crumble” against the Cubs in October. The Nationals at that point had a 98-percent chance to make the playoffs while the defending World Series champs were stuck around .500 and hadn’t been in first place in three weeks. That’s Cub.

Surrounded by reporters on June 28, star manager Joe Maddon sat on the bench in the visiting dugout at Nationals Park, knowing his team would also be playing shorthanded with a World Series MVP (Ben Zobrist), Gold Glove outfielder (Jason Heyward) and Cy Young Award finalist (Kyle Hendricks) already on the disabled list and a World Series legend (Kyle Schwarber) demoted back to Triple-A Iowa the week before.

With his eyes shielded by sunglasses, Maddon listened to the question during his pregame media session: Are you concerned about the clubhouse starting to splinter?

“No,” Maddon said, pausing and leaning in as if he would launch into a filibuster or a philosophical dissertation or some story from his days as a minor-league instructor and instead going silent.

Why not?

“Because there’s no reason to,” Maddon said.

OK then, maybe we’re talking to the wrong guy here, because bench coach Dave Martinez usually runs interference and handles a lot of difficult conversations with players.

Just ask John Lackey, who responded this way after a 6-1 loss on June 12 when a reporter mentioned Maddon’s pregame suggestion that the veteran pitcher might change his approach this time against the New York Mets: “Joe doesn’t have much to do with the pitching. I don’t know what he’s talking about there.”

Lackey — who has a history with Maddon, three World Series rings and a 5.20 ERA that ranks 66th out of 74 qualified big-league pitchers — would later crush a softball question about Jon Jay after the super-sub delivered a pinch-hit, game-tying, three-run homer in a comeback win over the Tampa Bay Rays on July 5: “He’s been everything we needed this year. Honestly, I can’t believe he doesn’t play more.”

It’s hard to believe, but there are times where it feels closer to 108 years than eight-plus months since the Cubs last won the World Series.

For all the talk about this 43-45 team getting hot and having a run in them, the Cubs should also be concerned about the possibility of the bottom falling out and this second half turning ugly.

For all the speculation about Theo Epstein’s front office riding to the rescue at the July 31 trade deadline, this post-All-Star break window could be about making sure the Cubs don’t overreact and give up on the wrong young player and do something that blows up The Foundation for Sustained Success. 

That day in Washington, Maddon circled back to his belief in the clubhouse culture and the positive attitude and hands-off style that’s made him a three-time Manager of the Year and a future Hall of Famer. 

“Primarily, again, there’s a lot of guys missing,” Maddon said. “That’s the biggest thing. You’re not going to find splintering among (Albert) Almora and (Javier) Baez and (Addison) Russell and Willson (Contreras) and (Kris) Bryant, to answer your question specifically.

“It’s not about splintering. It’s about youthful players finding their way to the major-league level. We’re missing a lot of the key components that drove us to the World Series last year, and now we’re building another group of components that are going to take us back there again.”

Russell became the subject of a Major League Baseball investigation last month after a third party leveled an abuse allegation on social media, responding to his wife’s since-deleted Instagram post that accused him of infidelity and foreshadowed her divorce filing.

Baez started all 17 playoff games at second base last year and then starred for Team Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic, but Maddon didn’t feel comfortable anointing him as the everyday second baseman. Baez has signed endorsement deals worth $2 million in the last six months, according to USA Today, joining forces with Nike, Toyota, Apple and David sunflower seeds and getting on the cover of ESPN The Magazine’s body issue. 

Almora, Contreras and Ian Happ haven’t gone through a full season in the majors yet. Backup catcher Victor Caratini made his big-league debut after the Montero fiasco. 

“Splintering is not it at all,” Maddon said. “For me, it’s a patient, consistent approach with me doing my job as the manager and the coaches doing what they’re supposed to do in regards to bringing the message out there on a daily basis.

“It’s a different path. We’re fortunate we are in this division right now, based on the record and we’re still very solvent. (But) it’s an entirely different group — entirely different. I mean, to try to connect the dots between last year and this year, to me, is impossible.”  

Except it’s impossible to ignore after making history. A player agent once described meeting his client on the road last year and noticing the flocks of Cubs fans gathering and growing bigger and bigger as they walked through a mall near the team hotel. This is life after “Embrace The Target.”  

“That’s where you want to be,” said catching/strategy coach Mike Borzello, who won four World Series rings with the New York Yankees. “You want to be that team. It’s this rock-star aura around this club now with all the young guys. Good players, good-looking guys – men, women, everyone wants to be around the team. It was the same way in New York.”

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Schwarber — who now has the lowest batting average (.178) among all qualified big-league hitters — became part of a Gatorade ad campaign, a face of the New Era hat company and a regular on WMVP-AM 1000. That’s the same station where Anthony Rizzo used his radio gig to either stick up for a teammate or do some of management’s dirty work, burying Montero before the DFA news leaked.

The Twitter account for Rizzo’s charitable foundation — which does admirable work for cancer patients and recently donated $3.5 million to Lurie Children’s Hospital — retweeted Rizzo’s ESPN 1000 comments: “When you point fingers you’re a selfish player. We have another catcher that throws everyone out.” The message above that since-deleted tweet: “Win together, lose together.”

“I think we have a great clubhouse,” Rizzo said. “Guys get along really well. We’re all joking around. We’re all having a good time. We’re just not 25 games over .500. We got to keep playing (and) come together and continue to fight.”

While Bryzzo Souvenir Co. didn’t get the ideal All-Star Game placement, Bryant and Rizzo still combined for 38 homers, 94 RBI and an OPS range between .894 and .928 in the first half. Yet the Cubs are still a stunningly mediocre team with 399 runs scored and 399 runs allowed and 61 errors through 88 games.

The Cubs keep talking about searching for their identity, because that beats the alternative of admitting they’ve already found it.

“It’s a hard thing to define,” Epstein said. “It’s like culture. You can go on and on trying to define it, but it’s like what the Supreme Court said about pornography: You know it when you see it.

“I think our identity last year was all our guys got to the point where they felt like they were part of something bigger than themselves. They felt completely connected with one another. They felt like they were on a mission to win the World Series for the first time in 108 years.

“I think part of their identity was they were keenly aware of how talented they were — and what a special opportunity it was — and how as long as they had each other’s backs, things would work out really well for this group. That meant maybe playing multiple positions or taking less playing time or backing up a teammate rather than playing a leading role.

“Nothing was going to get in the way of the group working together to make history and take advantage of the special opportunities that they had. Every year, the landscape is different. The environment is different. The challenge is different. The circumstances are different. And the group is different.

“Every year, a new identity has to emerge. And I think it just so happens that we’re still in the process of that happening. Again, it’s kind of been a stop-and-start first half of the season for us. We haven’t gotten on any kind of roll.”

Combined, the Cubs are 2-6 against the American League East and 6-11 vs. the Nationals, Los Angeles Dodgers and Colorado Rockies, a reality check that means the next 74 games could become more and more about player development, 2018 auditions and planning for the future, even while trying to make up that 5.5-game deficit against the Milwaukee Brewers.

“Guys have been around enough, for the most part, to understand that tomorrow if something happens and I don’t walk in this clubhouse, the game will still be played,” Jon Lester said, the $155 million ace looking back on the churn rate. “Regardless of what moves that Theo and the front office and ownership and management feel we need to make, the game will still be played.

“That’s kind of how you have to look at it. There’s a lot of moving parts. It’s not too often that you have a team that doesn’t make a move through the entire course of a season. Some of them as a player you don’t like, and some of them as a player you agree with or whatever, but that’s not our job. Our job is to go out and play with who’s in this clubhouse and make the best of it. That’s all we can control.”

That starts again Friday night at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore, where the Cubs will either begin to finally click or continue this slow-motion collapse. As Lackey said: “Winning makes everything better.”

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.”