Cubs

Cubs keeping their eyes on Jackson and Rizzo

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Cubs keeping their eyes on Jackson and Rizzo

Even if Theo Epstein insists that the Cubs will block out all the external noise, that wont stop the fans and the media from wondering: When are Brett Jackson and Anthony Rizzo getting here?

It will only grow louder on talk radio and the message boards if the Cubs dont get off to a good start. But Epsteins front office is supposed to run things like a corporation, without emotions. So this year an individual player plan was created for every prospect in the organization.

Jackson and Rizzo are near the intersection of the parallel tracks Epstein likes to talk about. In the years to come, they are supposed to anchor the lineup and glue the clubhouse together. So whats left to prove at Triple-A Iowa?

Its kind of a broad word, but consistency in terms of how they approach their at-bats, really the mental focus from at-bat to at-bat, said Jason McLeod, the senior vice president of scouting and player development. Its kind of easy when you go down to the back fields to lose concentration. Even when you get into Double-A and Triple-A, everyones kind of itching, scratching, like they can feel it, getting to the major leagues.

Sometimes guys, even on the way up, kind of get complacent being there because Im not saying these guys are but you fall into this trap of just kind of biding your time until you get called up. (So its) consistency, mental focus and preparedness every single day.

Epstein said that major-league service time and the financial advantage gained by delaying it will not really be a consideration. It sounds like the Cubs wont be reactionary if there are injuries or trades.

With potential impact young players, we always try to make decisions based on whats best for their development, Epstein said. Theres a certain set of criteria for advancement that we have for each level of the minor-league system and that sort of checklist that goes into how those decisions are made.

So Id like to see players get a significant amount of time at Triple-A, usually a full calendar year, if possible, and certainly Id like to see them check all the boxes (before) theyre advanced up here.

As talented as Anthony and Brett are, there are still some issues left in their development, so wed like to see those addressed before they get up here.

Manager Dale Sveum called Jackson probably the best young player hes seen in camp since he started coaching in the big leagues almost 10 years ago. Its just that there werent any job openings in the outfield.

A 2009 first-round pick out of Cal-Berkeley, the 23-year-old Jackson began this season with only 48 games above the Double-A level. The attention to detail in that player plan is such that the Cubs want to see certain improvements in his baserunning, as far as angles, turns and jumps.

With Brett being the athlete that he is, he can do so many things, McLeod said. Hes probably got a little more power than is good for him, because he knows he can juice a ball. But when you have multiple skills like he does, hes got to learn how to take advantage of and get the most out of all those skills.

Hes a guy that can hit in the top of the order and he can probably hit in the middle of the order. Hes got that kind of power. So (theres) his plate discipline. Approach, again, is way too broad-based of a word. Its (more): What am I looking to do in this at-bat? What am I looking to do in this count? Whats the game situation?

(Its) understanding his strengths and weaknesses, because he can get on base, he can walk and he can steal bases. There are reasons mechanically and mentally why the strikeouts are a little high.

Rizzo is the Cubs first baseman of the future, but then again he had that same label for the Red Sox and Padres. Drafted by these Boston executives, and traded to San Diego in the Adrian Gonzalez deal, he knows all about The Red Sox Way the Cubs are trying to recreate.

They just preach winning, Rizzo said. Right when I signed, (it was): Win a World Series. They brought up a ton of talent through their minor-league system.

General manager Jed Hoyer has admitted that Rizzo was rushed last season to San Diego, where he hit .141 with 46 strikeouts in 128 at-bats. The Cubs dont want to make the same mistake.

With Rizz, its again that mental focus, McLeod said. His, obviously, is a swing mechanics type thing and he likes to tinker a little bit, so its staying consistent with what feels good to him.

I try to think back to when I was 22 years old. I think its a hard thing to not be like always looking at Wrigley and (wondering): Whens my time? Whens my time? Whens my time? So its just kind of more being in the now and every day getting yourself focused.

The idea is that once Jackson and Rizzo get to Clark and Addison, theyre never going to leave.

The Cubs are in a way better spot than they were a year ago

The Cubs are in a way better spot than they were a year ago

ST. LOUIS — It's night and day watching the 2018 Cubs compared to the 2017 version.

Even with the injury to Javy Baez Sunday night, the Cubs are in a way better spot now than they were a year ago.

On June 17 of last season, the Cubs sat at 33-34 with a run differential of just +6.

They looked flat more often than not. "Hangover" was the word thrown around most and it was true — the Cubs really did have a World Series hangover.

They admit that freely and it's also totally understandable. Not only did they win one of the most mentally and physically draining World Series in history, but they also ended a 108-year championship drought and the weight of that accomplishment was simply staggering. 

The 2018 iteration of the Cubs are completely different. 

Even though they didn't finish off the sweep of their division rivals in St. Louis Sunday night, they're still only a half-game behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central and for the best record in the league. A +95 run differential paced the NL and sat behind only the Houston Astros (+157), Boston Red Sox (+102) and New York Yankees (+98) in the AL.

Through 67 games, the Cubs sat at 40-27, 13 games above .500 compared to a game below .500 at the same point last summer.

What's been the main difference?

"Energy," Joe Maddon said simply. "Coming off the World Series, it was really hard to get us kickstarted. It was just different. I thought the fatigue generated from the previous two years, playing that deeply into the year. A lot of young guys on the team last year.

"We just could not get it kickstarted. This year, came out of camp with a fresher attitude. Not like we've been killing it to this point; we've been doing a lot better, but I didn't even realize that's the difference between last year and this year.

"If anything, I would just pinpoint it on energy."

Of course the physical component is easy to see. The Cubs played past Halloweeen in 2016 and then had so many demands for street namings and talk shows and TV appearances and Disney World and on and on. That would leave anybody exhausted with such a shortened offseason.

There's also the mental component. The Cubs came into 2018 with a chip on their shoulder after running into a wall in the NLCS last fall against the Los Angeles Dodgers. They have a renewed focus and intensity.

But there's still plenty of room for more. The Cubs aren't happy with the best record and run differential in the NL. They know they still haven't fully hit their stride yet, even amidst a 24-13 stretch over the last five weeks.

"I think we've been pretty consistent," Jon Lester said. "We've had some ups and downs on both sides of the ball as far as pitching and hitting. But the biggest thing is our bullpen and our defense has been pretty solid all year.

"That's kept us in those games. When we do lose — you're gonna have the anomalies every once in a while and get blown out — we're in every single game. It's all we can do. Keep grinding it out.

"Our offense will be fine. Our defense and the back end of our bullpen has done an unbelievable job of keeping us in these games. And if we contribute as a starting five, even better. 

"You have the games where our guys get feeling sexy about themselves and score some runs. That's where the snowball effect and we get on that little bit of a run. I feel like we've been on a few runs, it just hasn't been an extended period of time. I don't have any concerns as far as inside this clubhouse."

Lester hit the nail on the head. The Cubs sit at this point with only 1 win from Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood struggling with command and low power numbers from several guys including Kris Bryant.

Throw in the fact that Joe Maddon's Cubs teams always seem to get into a groove in August and September when they're fresher and "friskier" than the rest of the league and this team is currently in very good shape for the remainder of the year. 

If they can get 3 wins away from the World Series after going 33-34, the sky should be the limit for a 2018 squad that's in a much better position 67 games in.

For now, it appears Javy Baez has avoided serious injury on hit-by-pitch

For now, it appears Javy Baez has avoided serious injury on hit-by-pitch

ST. LOUIS — Cubs nation can breathe a sigh of relief for now.

The team announced Javy Baez has a left elbow contusion after taking a 90 mph fastball off it in the third inning of Sunday night's game. He was initially scheduled for an X-ray to make sure there is nothing more sinister at play, but that was deemed not necessary throughout the course of the game and it looks as if the Cubs' dynamic young infielder has avoided serious injury.

"I'm fine. Just really sore," Baez said. "It got me really good right on the elbow. I thought the pain was gonna go away right away but kinda numbed my whole arm. We've been icing it. It feels pretty sore, but right now, I'm good."

Baez said he didn't move his arm for almost an hour after getting hit, but wasn't experiencing any numbness or lack of feeling in his left hand or fingers after the game. He didn't rule out playing in Monday night's homestand opener at  Wrigley Field.

Still, this is not what the Cubs wanted to see.

The Cubs entered play Sunday night having gone 24-12 since getting swept out of St. Louis in the first weekend of May. They were feeling good about themselves, starting to get their mojo back and playing more like the team everybody expected.

And then Baez took a fastball off the left elbow.

After a couple minute delay, Baez was led off the field and Addison Russell came in off the bench to replace him at first base.

The 25-year-old is in the midst of a breakout season for the Cubs, sitting 5th in the National League with 46 RBI and on pace for a near 30-30 season (33 homers, 29 stolen bases). 

He had slowed a bit (.175 average, .502 OPS in June) but still gives the Cubs so much energy and versatility on a daily basis with his ability to move around the infield and lineup.