Cubs

Without Ramirez'Z', Cubs turn to CastroGarza

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Without Ramirez'Z', Cubs turn to CastroGarza

Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011Posted: 5:45 p.m. Updated: 7:38 p.m.

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com Cubs Insider Follow @CSNMooney
Box Score Photo Gallery
READ: Quade acts like he doesn't feel the heat
READ: Without Pena and Garza, Rays still fight Goliath
READWATCH: It's "probably" the end for Cubs, Ramirez
WATCH: Garza was set on finishing the game
WATCH: Castro really hoping to get his 200th hit at home
WATCH: Pena likes the talent in Cubs clubhouse
The Cubs packed duffle bags and taped up boxes to ship back home. It was the perfect image for a franchise in transition. No one knows what's going to happen next.

As promised, the Cubs passed the three-million mark in attendance during the final home game of 2011. Who's going to make you buy tickets to Wrigley Field next season?

What you watched during Wednesday's 7-1 win over the Brewers was a changing of the guard. Starlin Castro received a standing ovation as he reached 199 hits, while Matt Garza threw a complete game that showed why he could be your Opening Day starter.

Around the same time, interim general manager Randy Bush met with Paul Kinzer, the agent for Aramis Ramirez. The third baseman hadn't heard anything to this point about how the Cubs would approach a 16 million option for 2012. The expectation is that Ramirez would void it anyway and become a free agent seeking at least a three-year deal.

"The chances to come back here don't look pretty good right now," Ramirez said.

It looks even worse for Carlos Zambrano, who had already cleared out his locker weeks ago. It became a storage area for footballs and an equipment bag, then a locker split by two minor-league staffers before Triple-A Iowa pitching coach Mike Mason took it over.

Tom Ricketts is already on record saying that he'd have a hard time picturing Zambrano pitching for this team again. The chairman will have to sit down with the next general manager to figure out what to do about the 18 million Zambrano is owed next season.

"That's well out of my hands and the least of my worries," manager Mike Quade said. "I'd like his arm back if he fit into the mix. But it would be tough for him to come back - for me. If he did, then I deal with it."

Carlos Pena - who's also positioned to become a free agent but would prefer to stay in Chicago - said he felt a sinking feeling in his stomach knowing this could potentially be his final game at Wrigley Field in a Cubs uniform.

Ramirez isn't wired that way, calling the day different, not sad. He didn't make an emotional connection with the fans. But he quietly showed leadership behind the scenes, particularly among the Latin players.

"Big time," said Castro, an All-Star at 21. "He (taught) me how you want to play the game."

Garza seemed offended by Quade's idea of competition in the eighth inning. The manager told his pitcher not to swing, so that he wouldn't hit into a double play, and rob Castro of another chance to get his 200th hit at home. Garza grounded out before Castro walked.

"I'm trying to hit, too," Garza said afterward. "Shoot, I want 20 wins. I want 200 innings. I want 200-plus strikeouts. It is what it is, man. (I'm) going to go out there and compete. I'm not just going to give up.

"I know (Castro) has six more games to get it and I'm pretty sure he's going to do it. That's all I got to say about that. Anything else?"

There's no doubt that Garza has an edge, but he's pretty much answered all the questions about how he would handle a bigger market, the Wrigley Field fishbowl. He gave up one unearned run and struck out 10, improving to 9-10 and lowering his ERA to 3.35.

"His record doesn't show the reality of how good he has performed," Pena said. "Imagine what would happen if (things) were to click and go his way? The possibilities are just endless. In my mind, he's a Cy Young pitcher waiting to happen."

Ramirez - who also doesn't care what the media thinks - probably won't be around to see it. Even if he wasn't embraced by the fans, he put up six seasons of at least 25 homers and 30 doubles, just like Hall of Famer Billy Williams.

"My dad always told me that the worst mistake you can ever make is trying to make everybody happy," Ramirez said.

The Cubs will have to make a series of hard decisions across the next several weeks that will impact every level of the organization. They can't keep everyone. They can't worry about winning the press conference. They can't appease every faction of a skeptical fan base.

It could mean writing several huge checks to get rid of Zambrano. Ramirez seems resigned to finding money and happiness elsewhere.

"I can't be here for a rebuilding process," he said. "I'm not that kind of player anymore."

Patrick Mooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. Follow Patrick on Twitter @CSNMooney for up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

MESA, Ariz. — We know Willson Contreras doesn’t like baseball’s new pace-of-play rules.

He isn’t the only one.

“I think it’s a terrible idea. I think it’s all terrible,” Jon Lester said last week at spring training, before the specifics of the new rules were even announced. “The beautiful thing about our sport is there’s no time.”

Big surprise coming from the Cubs’ resident old-schooler.

The new rules limit teams to six mound visits per every nine-inning game, with exceptions for pitching changes, between batters, injuries and after the announcement of a pinch hitter. Teams get an extra mound visit for every extra inning in extra-inning games. Also, commercial breaks between innings have been cut by 20 seconds.

That’s it. But it’s caused a bit of an uproar.

Contreras made headlines Tuesday when he told reporters that he’ll willingly break those rules if he needs to in order to put his team in a better position to win.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If I have to pay the price for my team, I will,” Contreras said. “There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? … You have to go out there. They cannot say anything about that. It’s my team, and we just care about winning. And if they’re going to fine me about the No. 7 mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”

Talking about pace-of-play rule changes last week, Cubs manager Joe Maddon said his team would adapt to any new rules. In Chicago baseball’s other Arizona camp, a similar tune of adaptation was being sung.

“Obviously as players we’ve got to make adjustments to whatever rules they want to implement,” White Sox pitcher James Shields said. “This is a game of adjustments, we’re going to have to make adjustments as we go. We’re going to have to figure out logistics of the thing, and I would imagine in spring training we’re going to be talking about it more and more as we go so we don’t mess it up.”

There was general consensus that mound visits are a valuable thing. So what happens if a pitcher and catcher need to communicate but are forced to do it from 60 feet, six inches away?

“Sign language,” White Sox catching prospect Zack Collins joked. “I guess you have to just get on the same page in the dugout and hope that nothing goes wrong if you’re out of visits.”

In the end, here’s the question that needs answering: Are baseball games really too long?

On one hand, as Lester argued, you know what you’re signing up for when you watch a baseball game, be it in the stands at a ballpark or on TV. No one should be shocked when a game rolls on for more than three hours.

But shock and fans' levels of commitment or just pure apathy are two different things. And sometimes it’s a tough ask for fans to dedicate four hours of their day 162 times a year. So there’s a very good reason baseball is trying to make the game go faster, to keep people from leaving the stands or flipping the TV to another channel.

Unsurprisingly, Lester would rather keep things the way they are.

“To be honest with you, the fans know what they’re getting themselves into when they go to a game,” Lester said. “It’s going to be a three-hour game. You may have a game that’s two hours, two hours and 15 minutes. Great, awesome. You may have a game that’s four hours. That’s the beautiful part of it.

“I get the mound visit thing. But what people that aren’t in the game don’t understand is that there’s so much technology in the game, there’s so many cameras on the field, that every stadium now has a camera on the catcher’s crotch. So they know signs before you even get there. Now we’ve got Apple Watches, now we’ve got people being accused of sitting in a tunnel (stealing signs). So there’s reasons behind the mound visit. He’s not just coming out there asking what time I’m going to dinner or, ‘Hey, how you feeling?’ There’s reasons behind everything, and I think if you take those away, it takes away the beauty of the baseball game.

“Every game has a flow, and I feel like that’s what makes it special. If you want to go to a timed event, go to a timed event. I’m sorry I’m old-school about it, but baseball’s been played the same way for a long time. And now we’re trying to add time to it. We’re missing something somewhere.”

Whether limiting the number of mound visits creates a significant dent in this problem remains to be seen. But excuse the players if they’re skeptical.

“We’ve got instant replay, we’ve got all kinds of different stuff going on. I don’t think (limiting) the mound visits are going to be the key factor to speeding this game up,” Shields said. “Some pitchers take too long, and some hitters take too long. It’s combination of a bunch of stuff.

“I know they’re trying to speed the game up a little bit. I think overall, the game’s going as fast as it possibly could. You’ve got commercials and things like that. TV has a lot to do with it. There’s a bunch of different combinations of things. But as a player, we’ve got to make an adjustment.”

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.