Cubs

Cubs prospect Dan Vogelbach can't worry about the DH or Anthony Rizzo

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Cubs prospect Dan Vogelbach can't worry about the DH or Anthony Rizzo

You know the baseball world is going stir-crazy when a new story pops up almost hourly about whether or not the designated hitter will - or should - come to the National League.

With less than a month until pitchers and catchers report to spring training, the DH debate rages on, with Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred clarifying his comments this week and admitting pitchers will still be hitting in the NL for the foreseeable future.

That can't be the news Dan Vogelbach wanted to hear. Not if he still has dreams about breaking into the big leagues with the Cubs.

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Vogelbach has to keep improving and would need either a trade or an Anthony Rizzo injury to eventually find his way into a big-league lineup spot. There's no other way around it until the DH comes to the NL.

"Quite frankly, I can't worry about that type of stuff," Vogelbach said during Cubs Convention earlier this month. "I'm just going to continue to play first base and be the best first baseman that I can and learn from Rizzo.

"Obviously, Rizzo is the first baseman of the Chicago Cubs and that's not going to change. So I can't worry about what he does or how he performs. I can only worry about what I do. So if [the DH] opens up, that's another chance and another bat in the lineup. But right now, I'm just going to continue to try to be the best first baseman I can be."

Rizzo is only 26, a two-time All-Star and under team control through the 2021 season. And Vogelbach hasn't forced the issue yet, reaching the Double-A level for the first time in 2015 before missing a month-and-a-half with a torn oblique.

Vogelbach said he's 100 percent healthy and ready for what figures to be a pivotal year in his development. Now 23, he hasn't really shown off the kind of power the Cubs expected when they drafted him in the second round in 2011, 59 spots after Jim Hendry's front office took Javier Baez with the ninth overall pick.

In five minor-league seasons, Vogelbach has hit 60 home runs, or roughly one every 25 at-bats. It hasn’t quite been the light-tower power he was known for during his high school days in Florida.

But Vogelbach has proven he’s more than just a power hitter, putting up a career .382 on-base percentage in the minors with 239 walks and only 292 strikeouts in 411 games.

In some ways, Vogelbach resembles Rizzo as a left-handed hitter. That's by design.

"The way Rizzo hits, he's not scared to go to two strikes," Vogelbach said. "He knows when he needs to hit and when he can let it go to hit a home run.

"That's the stuff that I look at. Everybody hits differently, but when it comes down to it, approach-wise is how you're going to hit and how you're going to be successful."

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Vogelbach talked about understanding the situation, how swinging for the fences in a tie game with a runner on second and two outs is silly when a single can give his team the lead.

Vogelbach is an intense competitor, the type of guy who hates to lose and won't try to hide it. But he prefers a quiet approach when putting in the work.

"I'm not big on asking questions," Vogelbach said. "I just like to watch [Rizzo], how he battles with two strikes, how he doesn't do too much. That's why, every single year, he hits for a high average and his on-base percentage is so high.

"And that's what I pride myself in. I get to watch him and the way he takes pitches the other way. He doesn't chase pitches and that's the way I like to be."

It would make sense if Vogelbach returned to Tennessee to begin this season before making the jump to Triple-A Iowa. He is listed at 6-foot, 250 pounds on his Baseball-Reference page but looks more streamlined now. He also heard all the Kyle Schwarber comparisons throughout Cubs Convention weekend.

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"Coming out of high school, I was obviously overweight and I wasn't in shape," Vogelbach said. "In high school, you can get away with anything. So coming here, they had a plan for me and basically told me I didn't have a choice.

"So I took that to heart. I have to do whatever I can to play. That was the first step. I had to change my eating habits. I worked out a lot more and kind of made it a lifestyle.

"Since losing weight that year, it's really helped me in every aspect of the game. I'm healthy, I feel good and I'm ready for the season."

Stay tuned to see if that means wearing a Cubs uniform or becoming part of a bigger trade for pitching.

'Baby steps' in the right direction for Cole Hamels

'Baby steps' in the right direction for Cole Hamels

Cole Hamels is working on so much stuff mechanically right now, he compared his pitching delivery to a golf swing and how "you're thinking about like 10 different things and you can't hit the ball off the tee box."

The veteran southpaw picked up the win Tuesday night and recorded his first quality start since June 23, but it wasn't exactly smooth.

Two separate times, he failed to come through with a shutdown inning after his offense gave him the lead, serving up a pair of homers to allow the Giants to tie the game. But he came through when they needed him most, throwing up a goose egg in the box score after Jonathan Lucroy drove home Javy Baez with the game-winning run in the bottom of the fifth inning.

Overall, it was a step in the right direction for Hamels as he tries to regain the form he had before he hit the injured list.

"It's just kinda the baby steps and getting back to knowing what I'm capable of doing and obviously not causing any sort of damage for these games that I'm trying to get back to what I know to do," Hamels said after the 5-3 victory and conceded he did have some positive things to build off of. "I was able to get a better line and direction toward home plate, but at the same time, leaving some balls up. That's what I was trying to get away from, just 'cause the past couple starts, I was really getting hurt on the fastballs up. Like I did today, the two fastballs up were obviously hit out of the ballpark.

"It's a game of inches. If I can slowly but surely get to where I need to be, then I can see the type of results I know I'm capable of having and will look a little bit better on TV and in the box score."

Cubs manager Joe Maddon felt like Hamels got better throughout the game, as the lefty started "pitching" more and settling in with his command. 

Hamels was on fire before he hit the injured list with an oblique injury and even after more than a month on the shelf, looked to be picking up right where he left off with 5 shutout innings in his first game back Aug. 3. 

But things have taken a turn since then, as he allowed 12 earned runs on 17 hits over just 5 innings pitched in his next two starts before grinding it out Tuesday night.

The Cubs haven't seen this type of struggle from Hamels, who gave the team a major shot in the arm last summer after coming over in a trade and was the rotation's best pitcher for the first half of this season.

"He's been Steady Eddy for us since he's been here," Anthony Rizzo said. "He's a professional. He's one of my favorite teammates ever. I love when he plays. I love him in the dugout, I love the intensity he brings and it's fun to watch him play."

Assuming the Cubs stay on the same rotation, Hamels will get one more start on this homestand - Sunday afternoon in the series finale with the Nationals.

American Legion Week has come at a perfect time for the Cubs

American Legion Week has come at a perfect time for the Cubs

If this was a movie and not real life, right now would be the montage with some classic song playing in the background while all the players get back in touch with their roots and regain their passion for the game.

Think of Rick Vaughn regaining his "Wild Thing" look and haircut or Billy Heywood and the Twins remembering how to have fun while "Runaround Sue" blares.

Joe Maddon and the Cubs are taking a page out of Hollywood and it just might be what the doctor ordered for this team.

A couple hours after Maddon and Anthony Rizzo and a few other players slid down the Williamsport hill on slabs of cardboard, the Cubs went out and won their first road series since Game of Thrones was on the air.

Sure, it was technically a neutral site, so not really a "true" road series win, but the Cubs will take what they can get at this point. 

Couple that with the beginning of "American Legion Week" at Wrigley Field Tuesday and the Cubs are really hammering home the point: This is a game — go play and have some fun.

That means players are forbidden from showing up to the clubhouse too early during this week and there is no batting practice. This is something Maddon has done every year and the Cubs are now 21-3 during American Legion Week after Tuesday night's 5-3 victory.

"September provides its own energy. August, man, you gotta find it sometimes," Maddon said. "We have taken 5,727 swings each — at least. Maybe it's 10,000, I don't know. I don't know how many throws they've made. I don't know how many videos they've looked at. I don't know how many data sheets they've read. By this time of the summer, it's gotta be at least 80 percent mental, 20 percent physical. Maybe 75/25. You get to this point, it's all mental over physical.

"You have to have that rested mind and body. So I think by picking this time of year to do this, they show up a little bit later, they don't feel compelled to do certain things that they feel like they may have to do to present the right image sometimes. A lot of this stuff is overplayed. A lot of it is eyewash. A lot of it is there to ameliorate others' concerns. Just do what's necessary.

"When hitters aren't hitting on the field, it's also about pitchers not standing in the outfield. It's also about coaches not hitting 1,000 fungoes. It's about when everybody's mind is fresher, you're gonna get a better product. I believe that."

The players agree.

"You get here late and it kinda throws some guys' routines off, but I think it helps this late in the year," Rizzo said. "It's good timing and it's a good win."

Right now, Nicholas Castellanos is the poster boy for a loose/fun approach to the game and he went out and showed that again Tuesday night by homering in the first inning to give the Cubs an early lead. 

That initial lead didn't hold up, but the Cubs prevailed anyways, thanks in large part to big nights from Rizzo (two homers, a single and a walk) and Castellanos (two singles to go along with his first-inning blast). 

But for the newest Cub, it was just another "Opening Day."

After confirming he tells Maddon "Happy Opening Day" before each game, Castellanos refuted a reporter's claim that Tuesday is not Opening Day because the Cubs don't have an 0-0 record.

"That's only if you believe the record," Castellanos said. "It's kind of the mentality — if what has happened is a memory and what's going to happen is a thought, you're taking yourself out of right now. So in that case, every day is Opening Day."

Insert your favorite Bill and Ted GIF here. 

But Castellanos has a point and the Cubs have been feeding off his energy since he arrived at the beginning of the month. 

And it certainly helps to get a weeklong reminder of where these guys came from — the Little League fields to the American Legion ball where they just showed up and played and didn't have to worry about October or money or pressure.

"I wouldn't call it pressure," Castellanos said. "I would call it fun. This is awesome."

For the last couple months, Maddon has been preaching about how important it is for his team to take a deep breath and stop pressing or worrying about making mistakes.

What better way to drive that point home than getting in touch with their inner child?

"I remember American Legion Ball like yesterday, man," Maddon said, while giving props to Post 210 in Danville, Ill. and their trip to the American Legion World Series in North Carolina this week. "That was the summertime. That was coming home after installing fences with Richie and putting your uniform on, going down to 22nd street. There was no video, there was no analytics, there was no BP, there was no nothin'. 

"I mean, your coach couldn't throw BP, so we didn't have that, either. So you just went out and you put it on and you might've had the McDonald's burgers on the bench and you went out and you played baseball and you played it really well."