Cubs

Before and after: What a difference for red-hot Cubs at Wrigley Field

Before and after: What a difference for red-hot Cubs at Wrigley Field

Wrigley Field started shaking again once Addison Russell connected on a 95-mph Jumbo Diaz fastball, watching it take flight and disappear into the bleachers in left-center. 

It felt that way last October, when the Cubs eliminated the St. Louis Cardinals from the playoffs, and that atmosphere left the crowd of 40,882 wanting more late Monday night. Russell emerged from the dugout, raised his blue helmet and twirled around for the curtain call in the eighth inning after that go-ahead three-run homer.

With one quick swing from Russell — the 22-year-old shortstop who can dance like Michael Jackson — the Cubs could christen the Celebration Room in their tricked-out new clubhouse.

“I knew it was gone,” Russell said after a 5-3 victory over the Cincinnati Reds. “I normally don’t pimp home runs. But Opening Night, we’re down, the occasion called for it.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

What a before-and-after snapshot of this franchise, the comparisons between a locker room that would have felt cramped and out of date for a high school team. Or the ballpark where overhyped prospects used to get buried. Or the stadium operations that became a national joke when enough toilets didn’t work on Opening Night last year.

Amid a $600 million construction project and the hum of a scouting-and-player-development machine, Wrigley Field is becoming a place that works and the Cubs have morphed into a team that expects to win every night. Even when Brandon Finnegan takes a no-hitter into the seventh inning.

“You’re trying to believe in those promises,” said Jon Lester, who got a quality start no-decision and looks visibly more comfortable in the second season of a six-year, $155 million megadeal. “It was just really trying to listen and believe in the upside of all these guys that have never played in the big leagues.”

Lester knew Cubs executives Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod from their time together with the Boston Red Sox and had to take the leap of faith Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward and John Lackey didn’t in joining an instant contender.

“I believed Theo,” Lester said. “To get where we were last year — to get to 97 wins — I think kind of panicked Theo a little bit. I don’t think he really expected that.

“But to give those guys a winning season — and get to the playoffs and get that experience under their belt — (has) relaxed these guys a little bit and allowed them to just go out and play baseball.

“They know how to deal with the expectations now. It’s just about going out and performing.”

[MORE: Late Cubs fireworks turn one-time no-hitter to wild comeback win]

At this time last year, Russell and eventual National League Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant hadn’t made their big-league debuts yet, meaning they won’t become free agents until after the 2021 season, the same time frame the Cubs have All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo under club control.

Even the layout of the room — with blue mood lighting next to wood-paneled lockers and a Cubbie logo on the ceiling — symbolizes this youth movement.

“Being a circle unites teammates, creates a sense of equality,” Epstein said. “There’s no premium locker that’s greater than anyone else’s. There’s no corners to hide in. Everyone’s equal.”

Where the Cubs used to drop a net from the ceiling to help get pinch-hitters ready in the middle of a game, they now have a batting cage, The Jake Arrieta Pilates Room, a hyperbaric chamber, infrared/steam saunas, a lunch room stocked with organic food and an NFL-style tunnel leading them onto the field.

The end goal isn’t winning the clubhouse arms race and being 6-1 during the second week of the season. But a franchise that used to talk a good game is seeing actual results. Wrigleyville will keep rocking.

“The clubhouse fits our identity,” Epstein said. “We believe in young players and the clubhouse has kind of a young, energetic, fun feel to it. But it also has everything that you would ever need to improve yourself. That supports the growth mindset that we try to have for our players.

“Every new device under the sun is in there. You want to try to have the best facilities to go along with the best team, which is obviously what we’re trying to build. And there’s only one way you get there. It’s by proving it on the field.”

Forget 2015, the Brewers are more like 2016 Cubs

Forget 2015, the Brewers are more like 2016 Cubs

With the Milwaukee Brewers about to kick off the NLCS, many Cubs fans and pundits have taken to comparing them to the 2015 Cubs.

At first glance, it's easy to see why — they're in the playoffs for the first time as something of an underdog and "surprise" team — but that's not the recent Cubs squad we should be comparing the 2018 Brewers to.

This Milwaukee team is a lot more like the 2016 Cubs.

Here's why:

1. They're not a surprise.

Nobody expected the 2015 Cubs to win 97 games and wind up in the NLCS. They were expected to compete very soon, but everything went right in a red-hot August, they rode Jake Arrieta's right arm to the NLDS and then toppled the Cardinals to get to the LCS, where they ran into the brick wall that was Matt Harvey and and the Mets pitching staff.

The 2018 Brewers are not — and should not be — a surprise. Anybody who was caught off guard by this team being so good hasn't been paying much attention. The Brewers were leading the NL Central in 2017 for much of the year before a late-season fade that coincided with the Cubs' late-season surge.

This Milwaukee squad was always supposed to be one of the top teams in the NL in 2018 and they really hit their groove in September to chase down the Cubs. Still, it took a Game 163 to force a changing of the guard atop the division.

2. They greatly improved expectations with a big free-agent OF signing over the winter.

The Cubs had Jason Heyward in between 2015 and '16. The Brewers had Lorenzo Cain.

Cain has provided quite a bit more offense in the first season of his 5-year, $80 million contract but both Cain and Heyward provided leadership in the clubhouse and elite defense in the outfield in the first years with their new teams.

3. The Brewers have the NL MVP.

This one's an easy comparison to make, though Cubs fans will hate it.

Christian Yelich is this season's NL MVP. Sorry, Javy Baez fans. "El Mago" had a great season, but it's impossible to give the award to anybody but Yelich.

Yelich winning the league's most coveted accolade would be another perfect tie-in to the 2016 Cubs, who had Kris Bryant take home NL MVP.

4. They have a dominant LHP out of the bullpen.

Josh Hader has been doing his best Aroldis Chapman impression in 2018 as an absolutely dominant southpaw out of the bullpen. Unlike Chapman, Hader's spent all season with the Brewers, but like Chapman in '16, Hader will be leaned on heavily for multiple innings throughout the rest of the playoffs.

5. They picked up some valuable in-season assets.

The 2016 Cubs dealt for Chapman, but they also traded for reliever Joe Smith and called up Willson Contreras in the middle of the year, who provided a spark for the offense.

The 2018 Brewers have acquired plenty of valuable assets along the way this season from Mike Moustakas to Jonathan Schoop to Erik Kratz (more on him later) to Gio Gonzalez. But one of their most important additions (especially in October) was the promotion of top prospect Corbin Burnes, a flame-throwing right-hander who posted a 2.61 ERA in 30 regular-season games and allowed only 1 hit in 4 shutout innings in the DS.

6. They're on a mission with a chip on their shoulder.

The 2015 Cubs had a little bit of a chip on their shoulder as they attempted to take down the divisional powerhouse that was the St. Louis Cardinals. But again, they were a surprise contender - even within that clubhouse (especially early in 2015). But after falling short in the NLCS, the Cubs retooled over the winter and came back with one goal in mind - to win the World Series.

It was a goal they accomplished. We'll see if the Brewers will be able to do the same, but they certainly came to play in 2018 with a chip on their shoulder and the ultimate goal of winning the final MLB game of the year.

The Brewers didn't lead the division from Day 1 and weren't able to coast into October, but they still wound up with homefield advantage throughout the NL playoffs.

7. They have journeyman catcher who is winning over fans' hearts.

This is a fun one.

The 2016 Cubs had David "Grandpa" Rossy who still elicts deafening cheers whenever he's shown on the giant video board at Wrigley Field. The 2018 Brewers have Kratz, who has become a fan favorite recently and was mic'd up for the final out of the NLDS.

Ross was 39 when he helped lead the Cubs to the 2016 World Series and Chicago was his eighth stop (seventh different team) along his MLB journey. Kratz is 38 and on his ninth stop (seventh different team) along his MLB journey.

In fact, Ross and Kratz are so intertwined, they've already been compared to each other by MLB.com.

But the major difference is Kratz has zero postseason playing experience until a week ago. Will he be able to ride off into the sunset with a championship ring on his finger the way Ross did?

We'll have an answer to that over the next few weeks in the final chapter of the Brewers' 2018 season, though Cubs fans surely wouldn't be too happy to see their division rivals celebrating with a World Series parade just 90 minutes north of Wrigley Field.

Cubs bench coach Brandon Hyde interviewed for Rangers' manager opening

hyde-1011.jpg
USA TODAY

Cubs bench coach Brandon Hyde interviewed for Rangers' manager opening

The Cubs just lost one coach with hitting coach Chili Davis getting fired. Another opening on Joe Maddon's coaching staff could also open up.

According to report from MLB.com's T.R. Sullivan, bench coach Brandon Hyde interviewed with the Rangers on Thursday.

Rangers farm director Jayce Tingler was the first candidate the club interviewed, but Hyde and Astros bench coach Joe Espada were also interviewed.

The 45-year-old Hyde has been with the Cubs since 2014. He was a bench coach in 2014 under Rick Renteria before moving to first base coach from 2015-17. This past season he moved back to his original role as bench coach.

He played four seasons in the minors for the White Sox.

The Rangers job opened up when Jeff Banister was fired on Sept. 21. Banister won AL Manager of the Year in 2015 and guided the Rangers to back-to-back playoff appearances in 2015 and 2016, but couldn't get out of the ALDS either year. A 78-84 season in 2017 was followed by an even worse 2018, which led to his firing late this season.