Youth movement will pay off for Cubs in 2016


Youth movement will pay off for Cubs in 2016

The Hall of Fame shutout for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens — and the Baseball Writers’ Association of America shunning Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire — reinforces the idea this is a young man’s game again.

Professional athletes aren’t supposed to be record-shattering peak performers through their mid-30s and still playing at an MVP/Cy Young level around their 40th birthday.

It would be naïve and foolish to think the game is completely clean, that every trace of ego, greed and insecurity has been scrubbed away now or that Major League Baseball is somehow on top of all the cutting-edge chemistry.

But at a time of tougher testing for performance-enhancing drugs — when players should in theory break down faster, come back from injuries slower and might not be getting the same pick-me-ups to combat the brutal travel/day-night schedule — it pays to be young, deep and flexible.

That’s what the Cubs are now, making them a World Series favorite, the champions of the offseason, a team that will be playing with a target on its back from the moment pitchers and catchers report to Arizona in February.

This lineup is built around young power hitters: Anthony Rizzo (26), Kris Bryant (24), Jorge Soler (24 in February), Kyle Schwarber (23 in March). Addison Russell — who stabilized the team’s defense once he took over at shortstop — will turn 22 this month. Jason Heyward — the Gold Glove outfielder with $184 million guaranteed — is actually a day younger than Rizzo.

[MORE CUBS: Sammy Sosa (barely) stays on the Hall of Fame ballot for another year]

Besides primary second baseman Ben Zobrist — who perfected the super-utility role on Joe Maddon’s Tampa Bay Rays teams — this roster also features other versatile players who can handle multiple positions: Bryant, Javier Baez, Chris Coghlan.

Maddon can get creative, play matchups and keep everyone fresh with four swingmen who can pitch multiple innings out of the bullpen: Adam Warren, Travis Wood, Trevor Cahill, Clayton Richard.

The experience of winning 97 games and advancing to the National League Championship Series will also pay dividends. Jon Lester — the $155 million lefty who won two World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox — talked about that amid the celebration at Wrigley Field after the Cubs eliminated the St. Louis Cardinals.

Lester — who once tipped his cap to Derek Jeter in that farewell Nike commercial — used the New York Yankees and their homegrown core as his reference point.

“They taught the young guys,” Lester said. “They taught the other guys how to win — and how to be a Yankee. So these guys in the future will be able to teach the young guys how to be a Cub — and how to do it the right way — and how to win at the same time. That just sets us up for success for a long time.

“That’s one of the reasons why I really wanted to come here. I wanted to be a part of this and be a part of that group. Even though I’m a little bit — well — a lot older than them. Because I believe in having that core.”

[MORE CUBS: Starlin Castro thanks Chicago in vulnerable open letter for Players' Tribune]

The Cubs Way still has a lot to prove, but catching/strategy coach Mike Borzello sees some of those parallels after working on the Yankee teams that won four World Series titles between 1996 and 2000.

“They’re not in awe at all,” Borzello said. “I feel like the whole game’s changed now where the young players come right in and seem to have no problem adjusting to being a big-league player.

“Twenty years ago, there were very few Derek Jeters that belonged right from Day 1. Most of them had to come up — and go down — and kind of fail and understand it all first. Here, I feel like they all show up and they’re ready to go. Almost like: ‘What took you so long to call me up here?’

“That’s what’s impressed me — not only just about our team — but all of baseball, (how) these young players come up and are ready to jump right in and take the responsibility on.

“With this team in particular, to have so many at one time is incredible. You’re having all these 22-year-olds and 23-year-olds thrown not (just) onto the team, but right into the starting lineup. They’re your core players right from Day 1.

“To be able to handle the hype — and also produce right when you get here — is astounding.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

Not that Maddon has trouble getting his players’ attention, but after hearing how great the Cubs were in 2015, the manager will point to the breakdowns during that four-game sweep against the New York Mets, so that veteran catcher Miguel Montero stays prepared, Baez keeps himself focused and Schwarber and Soler better understand the subtleties of playing a corner-outfield spot.

“You’re always, always looking to get better,” Maddon said. “So when you want to preach something about maybe the little things in spring training — and then point out what occurred last October — it actually helps a lot. Because the guys that have never been through it before — we’ve talked about the minutiae and how important it is — (but) it doesn’t really resonate with them sometimes.

“Now, having gone through this — putting the bunt down, hitting the cutoff man, being in the right position or whatever — it’s an easier sell.”

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.”