Cubs

As Epstein reshapes Cubs, Barney hopes to be building block

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As Epstein reshapes Cubs, Barney hopes to be building block

During his Boston media tour before the Red Sox visited Wrigley Field last month, Theo Epstein mentioned several times that they liked to kick around an idea in the front office.

What if we rolled out an entire lineup of homegrown players?

But that was a fantasy world, because the Red Sox had to feed the monster and sell tickets to Fenway Park and boost television ratings on NESN. Epstein and his old bosses on Yawkey Way have gone round and round subtly trying to shift blame for those bad free agent contracts.

Long before Epstein came to the North Side as president of baseball operations, Darwin Barney played for Ryne Sandberg in the minors and talked about the Cubs doing things a certain way.

When the Cubs (33-52) go back to work on Friday at Wrigley Field against the Arizona Diamondbacks, the entire focus will be on who stays and who goes.

Barney and Tyler Colvin used to talk often about what it would be like to win big here. Barney still stays in touch with Colvin, the former first-round pick traded to the Colorado Rockies last winter in the Ian Stewart deal, one of the first moves of the Epstein administration.

Colvin went into the All-Star break as one of the hottest hitters in baseball, with five of his 13 homers coming in July. Hes batting .305 with a .961 OPS.

Im really happy for him, Barney said. Hopefully, hes found his niche. You put him in a lineup every day, hes going to produce for you. A change of scenery is kind of what he needed. Its a great place to hit over there.

Barney wasnt part of the Three Cs marketing campaign leading into the 2011 season. Only All-Star shortstop Starlin Castro remains after Andrew Cashner was sent to the San Diego Padres in the Anthony Rizzo trade.

Colvin never sought out the attention. Lou Piniella had trouble finding regular playing time for him (just ask Steve Stone), and so did Mike Quade. A shattered bat nearly went through his heart near the end of the 2010 season, and he looked lost at the plate last year.

He was all-in with the Cubs, man, Barney said. Thats the thing I loved about Colvin. For him, it was about winning.

Barney has laughed when hes seen his name on MLBTradeRumors.com. He doesnt exactly grind out at-bats (.304 on-base percentage), or hit for power (.666 OPS), but hes an elite defender at second base and a potential team leader.

Its very hard to feel comfortable in this game, Barney said. I feel like Ive underachieved in my production offensively. I feel like I can be better.

Im pleased with the way Ive played defensively, but in no way am I pleased with the results of the team. Thats what its all about. Coming into this year, I really, really thought we were going to contend, and I think we all feel (that) weve underachieved. Theres a lot of work to do.

Manager Dale Sveum an old hitting coach the front office listens to while evaluating players thinks Barney can be a very productive offensive player with a few adjustments and says theres still room to grow.

At a time when the Cubs are implementing their advance scouting system, Barney has studied the spray charts and helped make sure the shifts put them in the right position.

Factor in the diving plays to his left and his right and the sprints into the outfield, the Cubs should feel good up the middle for years to come with Castro and Barney.

The defense hes had all season long has been incredible, Sveum said. Its hard to believe that theres been a better second baseman in baseball defensively than Barney.

(This is) a guy that goes out there every single day to try to be a Gold Glover.

There are also the intangibles Barney brings as someone who helped Oregon State University win two College World Series titles. At the age of 26, hes already married with two kids. He reads books in the clubhouse. Hes managed to stayed grounded playing inside the Wrigley Field fishbowl.

This games not easy, Barney said. You got to find a way to separate this and the rest of your life. Theres a lot of times when this is all that you feel you are. (Baseballs) a lifestyle. Thats why people fall in love with it.

Keeping your sanity is just one of those things where you respect the game and you know how hard the game is.

Thats the hardest thing to do, especially in Chicago, to keep your head level when its so competitive and everybody knows that winnings what its all about.

For all the demands, distractions and uncertainty, theres still the chance to make history. That helped pull Epstein to Clark and Addison. Barney remembered talking about this with catcher Steve Clevenger.

Theres no better place to be, Barney said. Can you believe that we have the ability to do something amazing in sports here, if we were to win a championship? You dont have that anywhere else.

This is one of those places where every year we have an opportunity to do something special. Were blessed to be here and have that opportunity. Now lets make it happen.

Cubs' World Series expectations are no surprise, but they show how radical transformation from Lovable Losers has been

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USA TODAY

Cubs' World Series expectations are no surprise, but they show how radical transformation from Lovable Losers has been

MESA, Ariz. — Tom Ricketts sure doesn’t sound like the guy who met his wife in the bleachers during the century-long tenure of the Lovable Losers.

“Everyone knows that this is a team that has the capability to win the World Series, and everyone will be disappointed if we don’t live up to that capability.”

Yeah, the Cubs have been among baseball’s best teams for three seasons now. That curse-smashing World Series win in 2016 was the high point of a three-year stretch of winning that’s seen three straight trips to the National League Championship Series and a combined 310 wins between the regular season and postseason.

But it’s still got to come as a strange sound to those who remember the Cubs as the longtime butt of so many baseball jokes. This team has one expectation, to win the World Series. The players have said it for a week leading up to Monday’s first full-squad workout. The front office said it when it introduced big-time free-agent signing Yu Darvish a week ago. And the chairman said it Monday.

“We very much expect to win,” Ricketts said. “We have the ability to win. Our division got a lot tougher, and the playoff opponents that we faced last year are likely to be there waiting for us again.

“I think at this point with this team, obviously that’s our goal. I won’t say a season’s a failure because you don’t win the World Series, but it is our goal.”

The confidence is not lacking. But more importantly, success drives expectations. And if the Cubs are going to be one of the best teams in baseball, they better keep winning, or they’ll fail to meet those expectations, expectations that can sometimes spin a little bit out of control.

During last year’s follow-up campaign to 2016’s championship run, a rocky start to the season that had the Cubs out of first place at the All-Star break was enough to make some fans feel like the sky was falling — as if one year without a World Series win would be unacceptable to a fan base that had just gone 108 without one.

After a grueling NLDS against the Washington Nationals, the Cubs looked well overmatched in the NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers, and that sparked plenty of outside criticism, as well as plenty of offseason activity to upgrade the club in the midst of baseball’s never-ending arms race.

“I think people forget we’ve won more games over the last three years than any other team. We’ve won more playoff games than any other team the last three years. And we’ve been to the NLCS three years in a row,” Ricketts said. “I think fans understand that this is a team that if we stay healthy and play up to our capability can be in that position, be in the World Series. I don’t blame them. We should have high expectations, we have a great team.”

On paper, there are plenty of reasons for high expectations. Certainly the team’s stated goals don’t seem outlandish or anything but expected. The addition of Darvish to a rotation that already boasted Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana makes the Cubs’ starting staff the best in the NL, maybe the best in the game. There were additions to the bullpen, and the team’s fleet of young star position players went untouched despite fears it might be broken up to acquire pitching.

“I think this is, on paper, the strongest rotation that we’ve ever had,” Ricketts said. “I think that being able to bring in a player of (Darvish’s) caliber reminds everyone that we’re intending to win our division and go all the way.

“We’ve kept a good core of players together for several years, and this year I think our offseason moves have really set us up to be one of the best teams in baseball.

“Just coming out of our team meeting, the vibe feels a lot like two years ago. Everybody’s in a really good place. I think everyone’s really hungry and really wants to get this season off to a great start and make this a memorable year.”

There should be no surprise that the team and its players and its executives and its owners feel the way they do. The Cubs are now expected winners, even if that’s still yet to sink in for the longtime fans and observers of the team they once called the Lovable Losers.

Blackhawks deal Michael Kempny to Capitals for conditional third-round pick

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USA TODAY

Blackhawks deal Michael Kempny to Capitals for conditional third-round pick

The Blackhawks dealt defenseman Michael Kempny to the Washington Capitals for a third-round pick. Kempny had seven points in 31 games this season.

Kempny, 27, recorded 15 points in 81 career games for the Blackhawks. He tallied an assist in Saturday's 7-1 victory over the Capitals.

Kempny signed a one-year extension through the end of this season back in May.