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.
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.”
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.”
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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.”