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.”

Jed Hoyer says Cubs plan to add depth before the trade deadline

Jed Hoyer says Cubs plan to add depth before the trade deadline

With the second half of the season about to kick off Thursday afternoon, the Cubs front office is in the final stretch of roster building as the July 31st non-waiver trade deadline looms.

Cubs General Manager Jed Hoyer spoke with NBC Sports Chicago's very own David Kaplan today on his ESPN 1000 radio show answering plenty of questions on what the Cubs' gameplan is before the trade deadline. 

There has already been a flurry of moves over the past few days, with two of the more enticing trade pieces being moved in new Dodger shortstop Manny Machado and former Padres reliever Brad Hand, who was traded to the Indians Thursday morning.

But when asked about going after big-name talent at the deadline, Hoyer explained while the team may "engage" in those conversations, the focus for him and the Cubs was on adding depth to the roster. 

"Obviously, we'll be involved in those [trade] discussions, but I do feel like adding depth is something we are going to do," Hoyer said. "We're going to be in on every discussion, but at the same time, I do believe we have the pieces internally to be a heck of a team." 

The name that has garnered attention recently has been Mets starting pitcher Jacob deGrom, who is currently having the best season of his career at age 30, but Hoyer made no indication the Cubs would once again facilitate another blockbuster deal.

And even with Tyler Chatwood struggling to locate in the strike zone this season, Hoyer made it clear the front office hasn't lost faith in their second biggest investment of the off-season. 

"We're confident [Chatwood] will have a better second half, we're going to have a really big, long pennant race," Hoyer said. "It's going to be really challenging second half and we're going to need all the pitching we can possibly get and I think Tyler is going to be a big part of that." 

In terms of team needs, the Cubs are a club with few holes on their roster but could stand to add more pitching in both the bullpen and rotation with everyone but Jon Lester having frustrating moments in the first half of the season.

Making moves similar to the Mike Montgomery trade in 2016 are what Hoyer relishes, telling Kaplan those are the moves the Cubs "pride themselves on." 

But when it comes to Cubs improving on their already impressive first half of baseball, Jed Hoyer continued to back the players who are currently on the roster.

And while it may not be the move that creates the social media buzz fans crave this time of year, Hoyer knows he can get more from his current roster in the second half. 

"There's no doubt that the best way we can get better is by having guys we already have [play] better than they have to date." 


Yadier Molina sees something familiar in Cubs: 'They remind me of what we were back in the day'

Yadier Molina sees something familiar in Cubs: 'They remind me of what we were back in the day'

Yadier Molina has been playing the Cubs for a decade and a half.

For 15 years, Molina has been one of the faces of the St. Louis Cardinals, making nine All-Star Games, winning eight Gold Gloves, playing in nine postseasons and winning a pair of World Series championships. And for much of that time, his Cardinals had the upper hand in the rivalry between the two National League Central foes.

But that's changed in recent years. The Cubs have ascended to the Cardinals' old spot as a perennial contender, and it was their defeat of the Cardinals in the NLDS back in 2015 that really seemed to usher in the current era of World Series expectations on the North Side.

If you watch any rivalry long enough, you'll see the balance of power shift back and forth. Molina has been watching this rivalry for a long time.

"They've got good chemistry, they've got good talent there, they play together," Molina said Tuesday in Washington, D.C., before suiting up alongside Willson Contreras and Javy Baez on the NL All-Star team. "So yeah, they remind me of what we were back in the day with the Cardinals."

High praise considering all that Molina and those old Cardinals teams accomplished.

It wasn't too long ago that the Cardinals were a dominant force in this division and in this rivalry. Between 2009 and 2015, the Cubs lost double-digit games to the Cardinals in all but one season. The Cardinals won a World Series title during that seven-year span (2011), ending all but one of those campaigns with a postseason appearance. The Cubs, meanwhile, had five straight fifth-place finishes and missed the playoffs in all but the last.

But since the end of the 2015 regular season, the Cubs are 30-20 against their biggest rivals, a record that includes that 3-1 series win in the 2015 NLDS.

And now it's the Cubs who have seemingly built a winning machine. Like the Cardinals dominated the division with a core cast of characters that included Molina as well as Albert Pujols, Adam Wainwright and Matt Holliday, the Cubs now have that reliable core featuring Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Baez, Contreras and so many others. They're expected to be at the top of the Central standings and compete for championships, just like the Cardinals were for much of a decade.

The Cardinals, of course, have quite recently been thrown into a state of atypical tumult with manager Mike Matheny fired in the middle of the season and a couple off-the-field controversies grabbing national headlines. That's not to say they're exactly out of contention, though, as they begin the second half with an above-.500 record, 7.5 games back of the division-leading Cubs and only four games back for the second NL wild card spot.

But when you compare the drama-drenched Cardinals with the Cubs — who while no one would describe as firing on all cylinders have managed to stay not far behind their 2016 pace — there's a noticeable gap, a gap that's somewhat crazy to think about for those who can remember the Cardinals' past dominance in this rivalry.

Though the Cardinals have actually won more head-to-head matchups this season (five of the eight), the five-game set to begin the second half — the first of eight games between the two teams over the next two weekends — would figure to favor the Cubs, who won 12 of 15 to close out the first half.

"It's important for us to go out there and try to win the series. Right now, we need that as a club," Molina said. "It's going to be tough. The Cubs, they're playing good baseball right now, they've got chemistry there. It's going to be tough, but our concentration is on trying to win the series."