Away from White Sox/LaRoche circus, Cubs have become a destination for free agents


Away from White Sox/LaRoche circus, Cubs have become a destination for free agents

MESA, Ariz. – About 30 miles from White Sox camp on Friday morning, the Cubs stood in a half-circle wearing party hats as Munenori Kawasaki gripped the microphone and sang “Happy Birthday” to David Ross and Dexter Fowler.

And then two pink crates stacked as a birthday cake rolled out in front of the weight room at the Sloan Park complex. Strength and conditioning coach Tim Buss popped out wearing a one-piece bathing suit, a cowboy hat and high heels.

Showing the kind of firm leadership that’s made him a three-time Manager of the Year, Joe Maddon had made the executive decision that Buss should wear a one-piece bathing suit — and not a bikini — because that would be funnier. Obviously.

Right around the same time, Chris Sale’s comments were catching fire on social media after the White Sox ace torched executive vice president Kenny Williams for the way he handled the Adam LaRoche situation.

[SHOP: Gear up for the 2016 season, Cubs fans!]

The Cubs have cornered the market on zoo animals. But Camelback Ranch became the circus before the White Sox stopped their airing of grievances in the clubhouse and went out and beat the Cubs 3-2 in front of 13,130 in Glendale and a curious TV audience back home in Chicago.

The White Sox rivalry could bring out the worst in the Cubs during the Carlos Zambrano/Milton Bradley/Lou Piniella years. But the Cubs are now a destination, where free agents take less money to play for baseball’s buzziest team and try to end more than a century of losing.

“It’s kind of an ironic sales pitch,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “The fact we haven’t won in (such a long) time is so alluring to our players. I hope someday we can’t use that sales pitch anymore. But at the moment, it’s certainly effective.”

Maybe an us-vs.-them attitude sparks the White Sox and Williams uses the $13 million LaRoche walked away from — because his 14-year-old son couldn’t have unlimited access to the clubhouse anymore — to make a splash at the trade deadline.

The White Sox have to be one of the most loyal organizations in sports — to their credit and sometimes to a fault — and used patience and discipline to make low-risk, high-reward deals throughout the offseason. Winning will fix everything in that clubhouse.

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The Cubs can be extremely cold and calculating — just ask White Sox bench coach Rick Renteria — but 1908 fuels an ends-justify-the-means philosophy.

Still, the Cubs know how to make personal touches. “The Arm” — an upcoming book on the economics of pitching by Yahoo! Sports baseball columnist Jeff Passan — gives a behind-the-scenes account of the Jon Lester negotiations and how the Cubs appealed to his sense of family.

Within the first two minutes of the recruitment DVD sent to Lester’s home in Georgia, Passan writes, president of baseball operations Theo Epstein talked about how the Cubs staff “a 24-hour on-call doctor and nurse for families in case of emergency when the team is out of town.” 

“The Arm” also nails down another rumor: Lester had been unnerved after getting traded from the Boston Red Sox to the Oakland A’s in a 2014 deadline deal when he found out the wife of a teammate was assaulted at the Coliseum.

During their emotional pitch after that season, the Cubs stressed everything from the security services at Wrigley Field to the differences between the Chicago and Boston media markets to what the franchise could do for Lester’s charitable foundation.

“A lot of our focus in trying to build an organization is just trying to do everything first-class,” Hoyer said. “We have family ownership and try to make sure that every facility is first-class. We treat our players that way.

“When you do that stuff: a.) It’s the right thing to do. And b.) I think word gets around that’s how you treat people.”

[MORE: Cubs have big plans for Willson Contreras and Jeimer Candelario]

Hoyer was speaking broadly — and not at all commenting on LaRoche’s decision to retire — as AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘N’ Roll)” blasted out of the sound system as the Cubs stretched before their workout.

The Cubs also gave Lester the biggest contract in franchise history at the time — six years and $155 million plus full no-trade rights — and the vibe would obviously be so much different if this team had lost 97 games last year.

“It’s not like we reinvented anything,” Hoyer said. “People want to be part of a winner. Joe creates a great atmosphere by focusing on players’ families and doing those little things that maybe is a tiebreaker. But ultimately you can’t become a place that players want to play if you forget about those things.”

A messy night at Wrigley Field ends without a pitch being thrown

A messy night at Wrigley Field ends without a pitch being thrown

The NLCS rematch will have to wait another day.

Mother Nature and the power at Wrigley Field care not for your excitement about a "big series" between the Cubs and Dodgers.

Thunderstorms rolled over the North Side of Chicago, where the Dodgers ended the Cubs' postseason run 8 months ago. 

On top of that, the power at Wrigley Field was not cooperating with the lights down the right field line going out for hours during the rain delay. 

The lights came back on at one point before again going out again roughly a half hour before Monday night's game was officially called. After a delay stretching almost three hours, word finally filtered out just before 10 p.m. the game would be postponed a day.

The Cubs and Dodgers will make the game up as part of a day-night doubleheader Tuesday at Wrigley Field with the first game starting at 12:05 p.m. and the second at the regularly scheduled time of 7:05 p.m. Tyler Chatwood will start the first game for the Cubs with Mike Montgomery slated to go Game 2.

As of 10 p.m. Monday night, the Cubs were unsure what caused the power issue at Wrigley Field but were working on fixing the problem ahead of Tuesday's scheduled doubleheader.

The evening started with the tarp being rolled onto the field by the Cubs grounds crew roughly an hour before scheduled first pitch with a forecast calling for a 100 percent chance of rain.

Only a light rain fell until a downpour began around 8:15 p.m.:

That lasted only about a half hour before the grounds crew came back out around 8:45 p.m. to partially remove the tarp and attempt to get the field ready to play.

The only issue at that point was the light and a sinister forecast.

"It takes 45 minutes to get the field ready to play," said Julian Green, Cubs director of communications. "So once you take that tarp off, you saw them putting the chalk lines down, getting ready.

"We wanted to be ready — even in the face of rain — if the lights came back on, we wanted to make sure we could play baseball, even if it was a limited window of opportunity."

As of 11 p.m., that second bout of rain had yet to materialize, but the lights issue also wasn't corrected and play on the field would've been impossible.

Fans lingered throughout the stadium for nearly three hours before an official conclusion came down. The Cubs kept the same announcement on the right field video board about the weather delay while the left field video board displayed the Brewers-Pirates and other MLB games.

This is the only trip to Chicago the Dodgers make throughout the 2018 season so the two teams and Major League Baseball did all they could to try to get a game in and avoid any issue where these two teams would have to play on a mutual off-day later in the year. 

The Cubs were in the midst of a stretch of 17 games in 17 days without a day off. They're still on that same schedule, though now with an unexpected day off Monday and a doubleheader Tuesday.

The Cubs are no stranger to postponements this season as wacky weather has continued to hamper this MLB season.

"Not only for the Chicago Cubs, but Chicago in general, this has been a really interesting spring and summer season," Green said. "We're taking our licks just like everybody else is.

"Our plan is to play baseball tomorrow and make sure we can accomodate fans as best as possible. So fans who have tickets to tonight's game will be able to use them for tomorrow."

How the Cubs are trying to help Kris Bryant out of his slump

How the Cubs are trying to help Kris Bryant out of his slump

Whatever Kris Bryant does from here, it's just frosting on the cake that is his legacy.

That's one way to look at the lasting impact of a guy like Bryant, who morphed from "The Chosen One" as the No. 2 overall pick. He's lived up to the hype from Day 1, has a Rookie of the Year and NL MVP Award in his trophy case and — most importantly of all — led the Cubs to their first World Series championship in 108 years.

A slump in May and June of 2018 won't tarnish that legacy.

But you can also forgive Cubs fans if they're growing a little antsy with their stud player. 

Just rest easy that he's growing a little antsy, too.

After chronicling his "temper tantrums" and actually admitting he gets so angry he is prone to breaking bats in frustration (still find that really hard to believe) last week, Bryant still isn't quite over his slump.

Maybe he's just simply trying to do too much right now.

"Kris is fine," Jon Lester said. "I mean, I think anytime you have a guy like that, he's got such high expectations not only of himself but the other people outside of the baseball world.

"I think he feels that — he feels pressure from his teammates, he feels pressure from himself and he wants to perform and he wants to do well every night. When he doesn't, it seems like he just keeps adding on. The rock on his back gets a little bigger every time."

As recently as May 22, Bryant was hitting .303 with a 1.007 OPS.

But since then — a span of 21 games — he's hitting just .241 with a .316 on-base percentage and .310 slugging percentage, good for a .627 OPS. More alarming than anything, he's struck out 28 times in 87 at-bats, taking a step back in the area he has made the most improvement in since breaking into the league in 2015.

The power has been an issue for even longer. Bryant just recently went a month without a homer before sending one into the bleachers Friday night at Busch Stadium.

Still, since May 15, he has only 8 extra-base hits (7 doubles and that 1 homer) in 27 games.

The struggle is real right now, but that hasn't stopped the Cubs from going 17-11 during Bryant's dip in power.

GM Jed Hoyer reiterated again that Bryant is the last guy the Cubs worry about in the big picture.

"The way he runs the bases, the way he plays defense, I feel like he's contributing to wins even when he might be struggling at the plate a little bit," Hoyer said Monday evening. "With guys like him, I always look at it and think to myself — that means a hot streak is right around the corner.

"I said that about Anthony [Rizzo] in April when he was struggling and he's been great since May 1. I think Kris will have the same kind of turnaraound. With him, it's just a matter of when he breaks out.

"Over the course of the season, every great player goes through one or two big slumps. We're in a strange sport where even the greatest players are not slump-proof. He'll get out of it and we'll all reap the benefits when he does."

Even with the struggles, Bryant ranks 23rd among position players in WAR (Fangraphs) with 2.3, pacing the Cubs in that category. That still puts him on pace for a roughly 6-WAR pace, which would be his lowest throughout his MLB career but is still very clearly elite.

In an effort to get him back to the "KB" we've seen so much over the last four years, Joe Maddon has twice resorted to bumping him to the top of the lineup, including Monday night's game against the Dodgers.

Maddon is hoping a move to the leadoff spot will reinstill in Bryant's head that he doesn't need to be a power hitter to help the team win.

For right now, it works. After all, Bryant is still tied for 9th in baseball in OBP (.389). 

"You really do start trying too hard," Maddon said. "You try to force things as opposed to letting them come to you. Especially a power guy that's not hit home runs in a bit. My take on power guys is that it normally is cyclical. They'll get it for a while, then they'll get away with it, then it comes back."

Like Hoyer, Maddon talked up Bryant's abilities as a "winning player" in every other area of the game even when he's not going yard. That includes his daily hustle and effort.

"When a guy like him goes through this moment, I want him to focus on that — not homers," Maddon said. "He probably hears that way too much about the power situation and I'm really not interested in that. 

"Put him back in the leadoff spot for the reasons I just said — he can help win a game in so many different ways and I want him to just focus on that. ... He needs our support; he's gonna get it. I just put him in that top spot to readjust how he's thinking and that's all."