Albert Almora Jr.

Cubs Talk Podcast: Takeaways from Cubs Convention and players primed for a 2018 breakout

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Takeaways from Cubs Convention and players primed for a 2018 breakout

On the latest edition of the Cubs Talk Podcast, Kelly Crull, Tony Andracki, Jon Graff, Matt Buckman and Scott Changnon rattle off their main takeaways from the weekend’s Cubs Convention, including the funniest moments and how the players engaged with fans and each other throughout the three days at the Sheraton Grand Chicago.

Plus, which players — besides Kyle Schwarber — made the most of the offseason and are primed for a breakout in 2018? The crew gives its take, with options including Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ and Jason Heyward.

Take a listen below:

Overheard at Cubs Convention: The best and funniest moments from the 2018 fan fest

Overheard at Cubs Convention: The best and funniest moments from the 2018 fan fest

What a difference a year makes.

Cubs Convention 2017 brought with it a ton of emotional moments as fans constantly discussed their own personal World Series championship moments and there were many "thank you"s to Cubs players and personnel.

But there was also some negativity, as Cubs fans grilled Joe Maddon about his pitching decisions - why he kept Aroldis Chapman in so long or why he pulled Kyle Hendricks so early, etc.

2018 featured a much more laid-back approach. 

Maddon made it more than 31 minutes into his panel before his pitching decisions were second-guessed. Fans were still appreciative of anybody who contributed to the championship drought, but they're also hungry for more and wanting to know what the organization is doing to win another World Series in 2018.

With that, here are the best sights and sounds from the weekend:

♦♦This was easily the best moment of the Convention (Warning: NSFW language):

And Schwarber's reaction to it was incredible, too:

Apparently Contreras is willing to sign his new catch phrase on a bat, too:

♦♦A young fan won our NBC Sports Chicago contest and got a chance to meet Addison Russell Saturday.

Grace's dad is deployed in Afghanistan for the third time and we surprised her by bringing her and her mom up to meet Russell. While everybody was waiting at the security desk, Kris Bryant walked through one of the side entrances, saw Grace holding a cheer card and asked, "What's an Authentic Fan?" To which Grace responded - "We are!"

Watch the video of her meeting Russell here:

♦♦There were many funny moments from the weekend, but one of the best lines was from chairman Tom Ricketts. 

In talking about the changes to Wrigley Field in 2018, Ricketts said the notoriously cramped and outdated visitor's clubhouse "may have hot water this year."

♦♦Ricketts also told a story Saturday of an interaction he had with FOX staffers after the Cubs won the NLCS in 2016 and received a trophy:

FOX: "There's something for your trophy case."

Ricketts: "We're the Cubs, we don't have a trophy case."

♦♦Todd Ricketts shared a story of an experience he had with a fan following the magical fall of 2016.

Two brothers had Cubs World Series tickets and one of the brothers ended up having a stroke and had to go to the hospital right before the game they were supposed to attend.

Todd: "Sorry you had to miss the game."

Fan: "Oh, I didn't miss it. As soon as I heard he was gonna live, I grabbed a buddy and went to the game!"

♦♦The best shirt seen at Cubs Convention:

♦♦Some of the best moments come from kids getting up to the microphones and asking questions to Cubs players or staff. One young man got up to the mic and first thanked Theo Epstein for his advice to the fan at a previous convention about how to get a job working in baseball.

The fan then asked the front office how they can find a way to finally get some use out of all those pitchers they've drafted over the years with the Cubs who have yet to make an impact in the big leagues.

Epstein joked that the kid really built up the front office's confidence before shutting them down. Newly-promoted assistant GM Scott Harris jokingly got up and offered the kid a seat his own seat on the podium. 

♦♦Another kid asked Theo Epstein when he should get his own Bryce Harper Cubs jersey.

Epstein: "Ask Kris Bryant. He seems to own a bunch of 'em."

♦♦The first question to Epstein and the front office panel also came from a kid keepin' it real: "What happened to all the pitching in the NLCS??"

♦♦Another kid question to Cubs front office: "Are you going after Yu Darvish?

Kid proceeds to list off teams Darvish is reportedly interested in, including the Cubs.

Epstein: "Wow, you're way more on top of it than our writers are."

♦♦Yeah, yeah, Kyle Schwarber is all skinny now. But Albert Almora Jr. looks like he's in great shape, too. It's not like Almora has ever really looked out of shape, but he looks skinnier and has spent the last month or so working out in Arizona in anticipation of playing a much larger role on the 2018 Cubs.

♦♦Maddon loves his coaching staff, calling it right up there with the best coaching staff he's ever been a part of. Now, he says something along those lines every single year, but this time, the entire staff is filled with guys he hand-picked himself. 

If this coaching staff doesn't work out for whatever reason, more blame than ever will fall on Maddon's shoulders. 

That being said, every coach he brought on - particularly hitting coach Chili Davis, pitching coach Jim Hickey and third-base coach Brian Butterfield - is highly, highly respected around the league.

♦♦Cubs catching coach Mike Borzello said his favorite player growing up was Steve Garvey. Assistant hitting coach Andy Haines said his favorite player was Ozzie Smith.

Both were booed roundly by the Chicago faithful.

♦♦Fan asking Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney said: "Nachos were never harder to find [at Wrigley] than last year." Then proceeded to try to pump up the crowd by asking if there were any nacho fans out there. 

It was weird.

♦♦One of the oddest hot takes from the Convention was a fan saying he hates the baskets in the outfield at Wrigley. Not sure I've heard that one before and other fans there did not appreciate it (he was booed mercilessly).

♦♦Who is Kyle Schwarber's celebrity crush? Well...

♦♦This adorable fan:

♦♦Pretty awesome gender reveal with the help of Kris Bryant, Javy Baez, Kyle Schwarber and Anthony Rizzo:

♦♦An awesome selfie from the Kapman:

♦♦Dillon Maples showing young fan how he holds his slider and arm slot:

♦♦Derrek Lee was asked what homer was most memorable from his career. He said his first one ever, but then also said one in the first couple months he was a Cub. 

He had been traded for Hee Seop Choi and got off to a rough start in Chicago, struggling at the plate. He would hear fans chanting "Hee Seop Choi! Hee Seop Choi!" whenever he came up to the plate. 

Lee finally broke through once at Wrigley and hit a grand slam. He said Saturday he will never forget that curtain call.

♦♦D-Lee and Big Z were an absolute riot. They had a great rapport and could probably work in comedy if they wanted. 

Both players gave each other good-natured crap and Zambrano was hilarious in response to several questions, like a fan asking if he ever had any regrets from his playing career. 
"Next question..." he said to laughs.

♦♦Zambrano also signed a Gatorade bottle for a fan since you know, he loves Gatorade so much...

♦♦Zambrano's dig on Lee was classic:

♦♦How did Lee celebrate the Cubs World Series? Watching with family as they all wore Cubs jerseys. He admitted he was jealous he couldn't be a part of the team that ended the drought, which - I imagine - is a common refrain among former Cubs, especially those that played rather recently.

♦♦In case anybody cares, Ronnie Woo Woo would like to see Ladies Night back at Wrigley Field.

♦♦Let's end on some breaking news: 

Why Joe Maddon still thinks Kyle Schwarber makes sense as a leadoff hitter

Why Joe Maddon still thinks Kyle Schwarber makes sense as a leadoff hitter

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Kyle Schwarber may take the first official at-bat of the 2018 Cubs season. 

When the Cubs take on the Giancarlo Stanton-less Marlins in Miami March 29, Schwarber may very well be the team's leadoff hitter.

Yes, even after that idea didn't pan out so well last year.

As manager Joe Maddon met with the media Tuesday afternoon at the Walt Disney World Dolphin Resort, he admitted he hasn't lined up a batting order for 2018 yet, but when asked about Schwarber, he said he wouldn't run from the idea of using the now-svelt slugger atop the lineup.

"He's probably arguably in the best shape of his life, so it starts there," Maddon said. "Regarding the leadoff thing — it was only failed in the sense that Kyle had a tough time last year. He could have hit 1-9 and still had a tough time last year. It just was not his year, although he rebounded nicely.

"I don't know, I haven't drawn a lot of conclusions with that. Obviously we still got to see what the team's going to look like in its entirety. Schwarber obviously could lead off, if he is hitting like Schwarber and he's accepting his walks and he's got his .250-plus batting average. His on-base percentage is going to be a hundred points over his batting average, I really believe that again.

"I definitely will consider [Schwaber leadoff] again, but I want to see who all the available candidates are first."

Schwarber hitting leadoff was a gigantic storyline entering 2017 and it didn't work out so well when the lefty slugger hit just .190 with a .693 OPS in 36 starts atop the order. 

He was moved lower in the order, but still wound up hitting just .211 with a .782 OPS overall, though he did manage 30 homers despite coming in shy of 500 plate appearances after a midseason stint in the minors.

The Cubs still haven't found a clear choice for the leadoff spot since Dexter Fowler left in free agency following the 2016 World Series championship and unless they make a trade, the 2018 leadoff guy(s) will come from the group already in place.

Among the choices, Schwarber provides maybe the best option, especially against right-handed pitching. He's patient, sees a lot of pitches, can give the team an immediate boost with a first-inning homer and can set the table for MVP candidates Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo immediately behind him.

Ian Happ could also fill that role in his sophomore campaign, though both players strike out a ton.

Maddon wouldn't commit to Schwarber playing more against left-handed pitching in 2018, but even if he sits, Albert Almora Jr. — who hammers southpaws — could be a nice fill-in guy.

Either way, the Cubs aren't stressing about this whole leadoff thing anywhere near as much as the fanbase is.

"It would be a luxury for us," Theo Epstein said. "You can have a really functional offense without a traditional leadoff guy. I think we demonstrated that last year — we scored over 800 runs, second most in the league behind Colorado, without much impact in the leadoff spot.

"I'd sign up for over 800 runs again and the second-most runs in the league. What shape it takes, I don't really care. We'd love to have a prototypical leadoff guy, but not at the expense of the core elements of the team.

"Right now, pitching is more important."