Cubs have big plans for Willson Contreras and Jeimer Candelario


Cubs have big plans for Willson Contreras and Jeimer Candelario

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Cubs built a strong pipeline in Latin America long before “The Boston Show” moved to Chicago. But it should give Theo Epstein’s front office so many options this summer and help frame the next championship window.

The Cubs optioned Willson Contreras (Triple-A Iowa) and Jeimer Candelario (Double-A Tennessee) to the minors on Friday, hoping they could become part of the next wave at Wrigley Field.   

Contreras, a Southern League batting champion last year, is essentially viewed as the catcher of the future and untouchable in trade talks. Candelario, an All-Star in the Arizona Fall League, is blocked with Kris Bryant already established as an All-Star third baseman and a Rookie of the Year.

The Cubs wouldn’t have won 97 games last year without the rapid development of Bryant, shortstop Addison Russell (14 career games at the Triple-A level) and outfielder/catcher Kyle Schwarber (during his first full professional season).

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But the Cubs will need a new infusion of talent/cheap labor as those young players — ranging in age from 22 to 24 — become expensive through the arbitration system and Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta approaches free agency after the 2017 season.   

“We’ve graduated a class that’s up there right now that’s pretty good,” manager Joe Maddon said before Friday’s 3-2 loss to the White Sox at Camelback Ranch. “You would think it should be barren after that because of how good this class is. But then I get to see these guys more readily: Wow!”

Contreras — the organization’s minor league player of the year in 2015 and Baseball America’s No. 67 overall prospect heading into this season — could eventually end the Schwarber catching experiment. ranked Contreras, 23, as the game’s top catching prospect and he hasn’t disappointed in the Cactus League (5-for-14 with three doubles and four walks).

The next step for Contreras — who signed out of Venezuela in 2009 — is learning how to handle alpha males like Arrieta, Jon Lester and John Lackey and master an intricate game-planning system.

“(It’s) being able to absorb all that information,” Maddon said, “and get behind there in a major-league game and process it all and then gain that kind of connection with a pitching staff.

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“That’s the one thing we really tried to get done this camp from the first day forward — to (get) the pitchers to understand why it’s important to connect with this guy because we definitely see that happening at some point.”

The Cubs are a Big Data team that overloads catchers with scouting reports.

“Willson’s unbelievably connected to all this stuff, passionate about his craft,” Maddon said. “When he gets here, there’s still going to be some problems. There’s a lot to absorb when you come up here as a catcher. We do a lot of stuff in regards to planning, but I have a lot of faith. His English is getting better. He understands why his English needs to get better. He just gets it (and) I think he’ll grow into it.”

Candelario — who signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2010 — could wind up being the headliner in a trade for a top-of-the-rotation starter. Maddon said Bryant’s name never came up during his exit meeting with Candelario, a 22-year-old switch-hitter who’s put up a 1.071 OPS in the Cactus League.

Maddon said: “I just talked about: How can we possibly send you out? You’re the best hitter in the Valley right now. What’s wrong with us?

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“He doesn’t give up a swing in BP. He hits everything hard in batting practice. So I don’t think it’s a big secret why he does the same thing in the game.”

Of course, spring numbers lie, injuries happen and it’s in an organization’s best interests to talk up prospects and set trade bait. But the Cubs showed last year how aggressive they can be with young players, meaning Contreras and Candelario could make a difference at some point this season.

“I totally believe that,” Maddon said. “It’s not an aberration. So, yes, I do think that if they go to the minor leagues and play like we think they can play — and if there’s a need — I think both those guys can be very impactful.”

'Season-defining win'? Cubs are here for it

'Season-defining win'? Cubs are here for it

Smiling came easy for Anthony Rizzo as stood at his locker and fielded questions in a robin-egg blue T-shirt that read: "positive vibes."

This was roughly a half-hour after he went through the high-five line telling all his teammates the 12-11 victory was a "season-defining win" for the Cubs.

Who knows if it will really be that big of a "W" for this ballclub in the midst of what has been an up-and-down season to this point, but there has certainly been no shortage of positive vibes around the clubhouse lately.

One thing's for certain: The Cubs will wake up Thursday morning in sole possession of first place again as the Cardinals lost to the Brewers in a rain-shortened game in St. Louis.

Yu Darvish and the Cubs bullpen squandered a 6-2 lead and then a 10-9 lead. Yet the offense picked up the slack, smacking 14 hits, including Kris Bryant's game-winning two-run blast in the bottom of the eighth inning.

"We haven't won a game like that really all year, I don't think," Rizzo said. "They scored 9 runs in the fifth to seventh innings. Teams don't really win when that happens. Just a good, hard-fought, never-quit win."

Rizzo is right: The Cubs haven't won a game in which they allowed at least 11 runs since Sept. 2, 2017 when they beat the Braves 14-12.

The Cubs have claimed 14 of 17 games at home since the All-Star Break and are now 43-19 at Wrigley Field this season - a winning percentage approaching .700 to combat the .390 winning percentage on the road.

So is it a season-defining victory?

"That's what Rizz told me," Bryant said. "We were high-fiving there and Rizz told me this is a season-defining win. I mean, I can't disagree with him. It's one of those games where you don't feel like you're gonna win just because you take a lead and then you're giving it back, but we came out on top. 

"Definitely some good momentum. We're playing good at home here, obviously and just gotta roll with the records at home and on the road."

Early on, it looked to be a night where the Cubs would cruise to victory behind Darvish, who came into the game red-hot and had settled into a rhythm after serving up a two-run shot to the third hitter of the game.

But that wasn't the case, as Darvish served up four homers overall and Derek Holland and Tyler Chatwood combined to allow 4 runs while notching just two outs as the first arms out of the bullpen.

Before the game, Joe Maddon talked again about how he felt like the only way the Cubs would be able to pull away in a tight NL Central race would be if the offense got into a groove and for one day at least, they were certainly firing on all cylinders.

The only starter who didn't reach base safely at least twice was Kyle Schwarber, and he drove in 3 runs on a homer and a groundout in which he hustled down the line to avoid a double play. Darvish even chipped in with an RBI single in the second inning.

Yes, it was a good win. Yes, the Cubs can go to sleep feeling content and wake up feeling hopeful.

But the only way this becomes a "season-defining win" is if the next five weeks play out like they hope. There have been several wins before Wednesday that seemed like they could propel the Cubs - including the finale in Cincinnati on the last road trip where Bryant once again came through with a clutch late homer. And every time, the team failed to keep the good times rolling for an extended period.

This is all a moot point if the Cubs come out and look flat this weekend or fail to carry any momentum onto the road.

"We'll find out," said Maddon, who has been in this game for nearly four decades. "I mean, I've been involved in those seminal moments and all of a sudden, things switch. 

"I'll tell you one thing though - I liked the method at the plate. Nobody was grinding sawdust; everybody was up there nice and chill and were getting good hacks on good pitches. ... I liked that. That's what we need to get to that point."

Willson Contreras progressing, but still no timeline for return to Cubs

Willson Contreras progressing, but still no timeline for return to Cubs

Before the Cubs hosted the San Francisco Giants on Day 2 of American Legion Week, Willson Contreras was out in left field running and working out his injured right hamstring.

The All-Star catcher hit the injured list earlier this month after hitting a line drive to the gap against the Milwaukee Brewers. 

That was two-and-a-half weeks ago and the Cubs initially tabbed the Grade-2 hamstring strain as a roughly four-week timeline. But team president Theo Epstein said Wednesday Contreras is not nearing a rehab stint.

"He's in what our trainers are calling the aggressive strengthening phase of his rehab, which is building up the hamstring strength now that he's gotten through the initial injury," Epstein said. "Always what comes with that is the strength deficit that you have to really be mindful of building back up so that you don't risk reinjuring it when you get back to full baseball activities. 

"You're gonna see him on the field a lot more over the next few days and hopefully soon he'll be progressing to baseball activities. He's not on the cusp of starting a rehab assignment or anything like that. He hasn't really progressed to baseball activities yet, so that will be the next step."

The minor-league season wraps up in the first couple days of September, so Contreras won't have much of an opportunity to get game at-bats and innings at catcher if he isn't able to head on a rehab stint soon.

But the Cubs won't rush it with one of their most important players. Contreras was hitting .275 with 19 homers, 57 RBI and an .890 OPS in 87 games before the injury.

In his absence, the Cubs have been pretty well covered with Victor Caratini and Jonathan Lucroy splitting duties behind the dish.

Lucroy - acquired Aug. 8 after being released by the Los Angeles Angels - is hitting .333 with a .798 OPS in 7 games and has impressed with his work as a game-caller and veteran presence. Caratini continues to put up quality at-bats while building on his breakout campaign.