Cubs

Jon Jay's future and how Cubs are looking to fix leadoff spot

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USA TODAY

Jon Jay's future and how Cubs are looking to fix leadoff spot

WASHINGTON — Dexter Fowler set the tone in the last elimination game the Cubs played, leading off with a home run against Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber and backpedaling between first and second base, showing the natural swagger and tension-free attitude needed to end a 108-year championship drought.

Out of that epic World Series Game 7 win over the Cleveland Indians, Fowler switched sides in the rivalry when the St. Louis Cardinals made him an offer he couldn’t refuse — five years and $82.5 million — and the Cubs couldn’t come close to matching.

The 2017 leadoff formula never became as simple as Joe Maddon’s reminder to Fowler: “You go, we go.” But with this season on the line, the Cubs manager absolutely wanted Jon Jay at the top of Thursday night’s Game 5 lineup against Washington Nationals lefty Gio Gonzalez.

After rolling with Fowler thorough six playoff rounds across the last two seasons, the Cubs went 0-for-13 from the leadoff spot in the first four games of this National League Division Series, part of an overall Washington shutdown where they hit .159 with a .514 OPS.

“You know what’s going to fix that? Facing different pitchers, hopefully,” Maddon said with a laugh inside his temporary office at Nationals Park. “That’s what would fix that. They’ve just been that good. Listen, there’s no running away from it. There’s not an excuse. (Max) Scherzer was good. (Stephen) Strasburg’s been good twice.

“We’ve scored eight runs and won two games out of four? That’s not (bad). All this stuff is typical higher-mound baseball, (Bob) Gibson, (Sandy) Koufax kind of stuff.

“They’re really imposing and they got great stuff — every one of them — and also command. That’s been the big thing.”

Think Fowler misses Chicago? He didn’t put any emoji underneath a family photo at McKee Ranch in Las Vegas, but the caption on his Instagram account summed it up: “This October is less climactic than the last, but no less filled with joy.”

St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Jose de Jesus Ortiz also called him out this week in a story about embracing The Cardinal Way: “When teams are winning, teammates hardly ever bother to notice or even care if Dexter Fowler is usually the last guy in the clubhouse and one of the first to leave.”

Jay was drafted and developed under The Cardinal Way and earned a World Series ring with the 2011 team. The Cubs wanted that veteran leadership and playoff experience and got their money’s worth out of a one-year, $8 million deal.

Jay hit .296 with a .749 OPS, played all over the outfield and called a pivotal team meeting on Sept. 10 after the Milwaukee Brewers swept a three-game series at Wrigley Field, helping refocus a team that closed with a 15-4 surge.

Maddon won’t lobby for Jay or any other upcoming free agent: “Listen, that’s up to the front office to decide that.”

Jay also doesn’t want to get distracted or tip his hand about his plans for the future.

“Right now, it’s simple for me,” Jay said. “We’re here trying to win. When I came here, it was for the chance to be in October, and that's what we're doing right now, and I'm extremely happy with that. Right now, my goal is to continue to help this team win.”

Whether or not Jay is still part of the 2018 solution, the Kyle Schwarber leadoff experiment was a failure (though he still wound up with 30 homers after a detour to Triple-A Iowa). Ben Zobrist will be 37 early next season and coming off one of the worst offensive years of his career. A winter focused on top-of-the-rotation pitching will also have to account for top-of-the-lineup production.

“You’re always looking for the prototypical leadoff guy,” Maddon said. “Everybody is, and that’s not an easy animal to find. We thought, honestly, at the beginning of the year with Schwarbs, that would play.

“He just did not have his typical year. He’s unconventional but really highly conventional in the fact that I expected a higher on-base percentage. That’s where it started to alter, and then having to splice it out among Jay and Zobrist, etc., that was just Plan B and C.

“Overall, we have not been displeased, but I think every team wants a guy that can hit a little bit and run a little bit, a little bit of pop on the top. I mean, that’s what everybody’s looking for.”

Albert Almora Jr. is hungry for more

Albert Almora Jr. is hungry for more

While most of the Cubs were focusing on rest and relaxtion this winter, Albert Almora Jr. sees no need for chillin'.

Kris Bryant admitted he was worn down by the end of the Cubs' playoff run last October and most other regulars would say the same thing.

But some Cubs saw the winter not as an "offseason" but as the first opportunity to prove something.

Kyle Schwarber has shed weight and looks to be in great shape, but Almora is in the same boat.

The 23-year-old outfielder is chomping at the bit, anxious for the season to start. So anxious, in fact, that he spent just a couple weeks at home in Florida before heading to Arizona to start training for 2018. 

Yes, that's right. He's been in Arizona since November — training, eating right, mentally preparing himself for the grind ahead, taking swings. 

That's nothing new for the first draft pick under Theo Epstein's front office who's constantly trying to validate the sixth overall selection in the 2012 Draft.

"I'm always going out there trying to prove them right, trying to make them happy," Almora said.

This is a kid who earned a World Series ring before his 23rd birthday and has five gold medals from playing for Team USA as a teenager. 

Almora's no stranger to the big stage and he's already accomplished so much at such a young age, but he's never experienced anything quite like the 2017 season.

He's always been a starter and everyday player. From age 8, when he was playing up with 14-year-olds, Almora has been among the youngest guys on any team he's been on. 

That was the case with the 2017 Cubs once again, but this time, he wasn't a key contributor. He played nearly every day — notching 132 games — but only started 65 times throughout the course of the year. He had to learn a lot about waiting for his moment and making the most of his one at-bat or one inning in the field.

"[Playing time is] not in my control and I'm gonna do whatever I can when my name is called to help the team win games and have a lot of fun with it," Almora said. "That's the only way to stay sane and not worry too much.

"At the end of the day, all I can control is what I do on the ballfield and that's it."

Almora admitted he's let that external stuff creep into his mind in the past, though that was mostly in the minor leagues when he was wondering when he'd get called up to the next level.

In the majors, it's all about winning and Almora believes he can help the big-league team get back to the Promised Land.

Even Epstein admitted Almora is primed for a larger role in 2018, as the young outfielder proved down the stretch last year he could contribute against right-handed pitching as well as southpaws.

What does he make of his progression the last couple years?

"I can answer that by just saying I'm confident," Almora said. "The more opportunity I get, the more experienced under my belt. You're not intimidated, you're having a lot of fun out there and your confident in your game.

Joe Maddon's advice to new Bears head coach Matt Nagy

Joe Maddon's advice to new Bears head coach Matt Nagy

Joe Maddon knows a thing or two about taking a storied Chicago franchise from a rebuilding team to a World Champ.

Bears head coach Matt Nagy hopes to have that in common with the Cubs skipper one day, and it helps that the two share a similar background: Nagy, like Maddon, grew up in Pennsylvania in a town called Manheim, about 80 miles from Maddon's hometown of Hazelton.

It took Maddon only two years to lead the Cubs to the top for the first time in 108 years, but expectations should be tempered for Nagy's Bears. It's more about the process than the results early on. 

And the only way Nagy can help eventually lead the Bears back to another Super Bowl is by doing what Maddon did.

"Just be yourself," Maddon said when asked what his advice is to Nagy. "The one thing that I found when I came to Chicago that I thought my hometown of Hazelton was a microcosm of this city and the people here. Very inviting, open folks, passionate about their sports and Bears football, so I wish you nothing but the best. But all I can say, typically, Pennsylvania: Just be yourself."

Check out Maddon's full comments in the video above.