Addison Russell in the middle of red-hot start for Cubs

Addison Russell in the middle of red-hot start for Cubs

“No,” Addison Russell said with a laugh, he didn’t see this coming when he stopped being Billy Beane’s most prized prospect. Playing for a team on pace for 120-ish wins? Partying in the Celebration Room built into a state-of-the-art clubhouse? Owning this city with the Blackhawks already eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs? “Absolutely not.”  

Two years ago, Matt Garza sent a message to Jeff Samardzija through the media: The Cubs are a team without hope. Pitch your way out of Chicago.  

Garza had heard enough trade rumors – “I’ll pitch on the freakin’ moon” – and was riding high with the Milwaukee Brewers during the first season of a four-year, $50 million contract. The Brewers improved to 17-6 after Garza beat his old team on April 25, 2014 at Miller Park and would finish that month with 20 wins and a five-and-a-half-game lead in the National League Central.

But the Brewers faded away and finished that season in third place, only two games over .500. Garza is now on the disabled list with a right lat strain. A Milwaukee franchise that once resisted the full-scale teardown and thought bigger than its small market isn’t going for it this year. The Brewers will also probably punt on the 2017 and 2018 major-league seasons and try to follow The Cubs Way. 

Hope? That’s so 2014. The Cubs are now a destination where free agents actually take less guaranteed money for the chance to play at Wrigley Field and make history. 

This is a team that goes into every game expecting to win, and Tuesday night’s 4-3 victory pivoted in the sixth inning with a big swing from Russell, who had been acquired from the Oakland A’s two years ago in the – wait for it – Samardzija Fourth of July blockbuster deal.  

Russell – who’s only 22 years old and still just scratching the surface of his offensive potential – drilled a Carlos Torres fastball into the right-center field gap and hustled for a two-out, two-run triple that broke open a tie game.  

“We’re the frontrunners right now,” Russell said. “We’re embracing it. We love it.” 

Last year’s Cubs didn’t make it to 10 games above .500 until August, when Russell bumped Starlin Castro off shortstop to stabilize the defense and Joe Maddon aggressively managed his bullpen like it was already October. 

These Cubs got to 15-5 with Russell’s clutch hit and Maddon lifting Kyle Hendricks for a pinch-hitter after five innings, getting the game-tying run and using swingman Adam Warren for two scoreless innings.  

“Last year, we were just getting a lot of young guys broken in,” Maddon said. “I thought we were good last year, but it took a while to really get it all working. ‘KB’ (Kris Bryant) had to show up. Addison eventually playing shortstop was a big play for us. Starlin going to second base was a big move for us. Dexter (Fowler) getting on fire. (Kyle) Schwarber getting here. 

“There were a lot of parts that did not arrive early enough, regardless of lack of experience or we just hadn’t played well enough to that point.” 

The Cubs still wound up winning 97 games last season and now look like a well-oiled machine. This began a stretch where the Cubs are scheduled to play 16 of 19 at Wrigley Field (weather permitting) with six straight games against the Brewers (8-12) and wait-until-next-year Atlanta Braves. Tanking or reloading or retooling or whatever you want to call it isn’t as easy as Theo Epstein’s front office made it look. 

It takes good scouting, strong player development, big-market spending power and a certain amount of luck. Between 2012 and 2014, the Cubs identified 10 major trades and gave up 13 players (average age: 31) – like Garza – and eight years of future control for 17 prospects (average age: 22.5) and 95 years of future control. That haul included future Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta.

Within that churn, the Cubs also picked up Hendricks from the Texas Rangers in the Ryan Dempster trade minutes before the July 31 deadline in 2012. Hendricks – who is as reliable and as competitive as just about any fifth starter in baseball – allowed one run across five innings to improve to 2-2 with a 3.52 ERA.   

A 101-loss season in 2012 also yielded a future Rookie of the Year in Bryant as well as another No. 2 overall pick – in the Rule 5 draft – which yielded Hector Rondon. The closer worked a scoreless ninth inning to notch his fourth save and has now struck out 11 of the 20 batters he’s faced this season.

“We love playing here, but so does everybody else,” Maddon said. “I talked about ‘Embrace the Target.’ When you’re going to play teams that possibly aren’t doing as well, they’re going to come in and there’s going to be 40,000 people. The place is electric all the time. It’s a playoff atmosphere. So you got this big old target right on your chest, and we have to respond to that. To this point, we have.

“We’re learning to play a better, complete brand of baseball.”

Javy Baez should be the frontrunner for NL MVP heading into the All-Star Break

Javy Baez should be the frontrunner for NL MVP heading into the All-Star Break

If the season ended today, Javy Baez may be your National League MVP.

Of course, the season isn't ending today, only the first half of the 2018 campaign is.

He flashed his skills again over the weekend — scoring the game-winning run Friday, posting a 5-RBI game Saturday and then drove in the Cubs' first run in their 7-4 victory Sunday to close out a sweep of the Padres.

Entering the All-Star Break, Baez should be the frontrunner for Most Valuable Player.

For starters, he's the best player on the best team in the league.

Thanks to a recent hot surge by the Cubs and an ugly weekend for the Brewers (who have lost 6 straight), Baez and Co. will go into the break with the best record in the NL. 

Baez, meanwhile, leads the Cubs in WAR and nearly every offensive category — OPS, slugging percentage, homers, RBI, runs scored, doubles, triples, total bases, stolen bases and hits.

And that's not even saying anything about his glovework at any position on the infield or dynamic baserunning.

He's on pace to become the first Cubs player to drive in 125 runs since Sammy Sosa in 2001.

Baez also is on track for a 30-30 season — something only Sosa accomplished in a Cubs uniform in 1993 and 1995. 

El Mago will enjoy his week in the Home Run Derby and as the NL's starting second baseman in the All-Star Game, but those shouldn't be the end of his accolades this year if he can find a way to keep this pace up in the second half.

What other NL candidate would be a better choice for the MVP right now?

Baez is tied for the league lead in RBI. Brewers first baseman Jesus Aguilar is just behind Baez with 70 RBI, but he also has 70 fewer at-bats than the Cubs star due to a platoon to begin the year. 

Eugenio Suarez and Scooter Gennett are also having great years, but the Reds are nowhere close to a playoff spot. 

Nolan Arenado, Freddie Freeman and Paul Goldschmidt are also having very good seasons on teams that are currently in the playoff hunt, but how do you deny the best player on the league's best team?

After all, where would the Cubs be without Baez this season? 

Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo have battled through injuries and bouts of ineffectiveness, the pitching staff has had all kinds of consistency/health woes and Willson Contreras has yet to find his power stroke at the plate.

At the very least, "El Mago" has been the most important player on the North Side of Chicago during the first 3.5 months of 2018.

Nico Hoerner makes great catch in first game with South Bend

Nico Hoerner makes great catch in first game with South Bend

Cubs first-round pick Nico Hoerner made his debut with the Class-A South Bend Cubs, and he did not disappoint.

The 23-year old shortstop showed off impressive hops during an acrobatic grab in the topf of the second inning in his first game with the South Bend Cubs. Hoerner will surely be an exciting defensive prospect with ability like this.

As far as offense goes, through four at-bats at South Bend, Hoerner is batting .500, and this comes after he hit .318 with a home run and two RBI through seven games with the Eugene Emeralds, the Cubs Class A short-season affiliate.

Here is to hoping we continue to see big-time plays from Hoerner.