Cubs

Cubs: Sammy Sosa (barely) stays on the Hall of Fame ballot for another year

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Cubs: Sammy Sosa (barely) stays on the Hall of Fame ballot for another year

Sammy Sosa used to love the spotlight, but now it feels like his name only comes up in the Cooperstown voting or with the Cubs Convention question. The star attraction during all those summers in Wrigleyville resurfaces in the dead of winter – for a news cycle or two – and then disappears again.

The Baseball Writers’ Association of America elected Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza to the National Baseball Hall of Fame while Roger Clemens (45.2 percent) and Barry Bonds (44.3 percent) – two of the biggest symbols from The Steroid Era – didn’t come close to the 75-percent threshold needed for induction.

Griffey went 437-for-440, scoring the highest percentage (99.3) in the history of this popularity contest. Junior finished his highlight-reel career with 630 home runs and 10 Gold Gloves in center field, spending almost his entire career with the Seattle Mariners organization that drafted him No. 1 overall and his hometown Cincinnati Reds (plus a run with the 2008 White Sox after a July 31 deadline trade).

Piazza – the power-hitting catcher who turned into a 12-time All-Star and a franchise icon for the New York Mets after the Los Angeles Dodgers picked him in the 62nd round of the 1988 draft – broke through with 83 percent of the vote in his fourth year on the ballot.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Sosa just cleared the 5-percent cutoff and will remain on the ballot for another year after the BBWAA released the results on Wednesday, but his resume isn’t moving the needle, the percentages going from 12.5 to 7.2 to 6.6 to 7 since 2013.

At this point, Sosa is not expected to attend next week’s Cubs Convention, and it would probably take a fundamental shift in thinking for that sort of reunion to happen, where he’s signing autographs, sitting alongside old teammates and telling stories inside a packed downtown hotel ballroom.

The marketing machine has so many other personalities to promote that weekend (Jan. 15-17) at the Sheraton Grand Chicago, from a Manager of the Year (Joe Maddon) to a Cy Young Award winner (Jake Arrieta) to a Rookie of the Year (Kris Bryant), plus the big-name additions to a 97-win team (Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist, John Lackey).

In what’s becoming a new Cubs Convention tradition, a fan at the microphone or a reporter in the media scrum will ask chairman Tom Ricketts about Sosa and when the franchise’s all-time leader in home runs (545) will ever be invited back to Wrigley Field.

From top to bottom, the organization has completely changed since Sosa walked out during the final game of the 2004 season, leaving him without many longtime allies on the North Side (where institutional memories of some behind-the-scenes personality clashes still linger).

[MORE: Ex-White Sox OF Ken Griffey Jr. makes HOF while Tim Raines comes up just short]

From an ownership point of view, the sense is that Sosa could account for whatever happened – or didn’t happen – during that time and follow Major League Baseball’s roadmap back into the game.

That’s a reasonable expectation. But it’s still “awkward” – as Ricketts has said – that such a big part of the franchise’s history keeps fading from view. Especially when so many other former players use their Cubs connections to work in baseball operations and broadcasting.

Team president Theo Epstein already hired Manny Ramirez as a hitting consultant, believing “Manny Being Manny” meant something different after failing at least two drug tests, cooperating with MLB officials and sharing his story with the next generation of players.    

“I really like what he does with the hitters,” Maddon said during last season’s surprising playoff run. “Beyond that, almost as a cultural coach, (given) the fact that we have so many young Hispanic players, (Manny’s) here to validate a lot of the stuff that we’re talking about. (It) really helps – not a little – but a lot. His influence within that group has been substantial.

“When I have a situation or a moment dealing with some of the younger guys there, he’ll come in, we’ll talk about it, and then I just turn him loose.

“I love having him here. He’s a positive, upbeat kind of a guy, so he’s been a really nice fit. I’m telling you – when it comes to Starlin (Castro) and Jorge Soler, primarily those two guys – the job he’s done has been spectacular.”

Sosa’s reputation unraveled with that corked-bat incident, an unconvincing performance in front of Congress and a New York Times report that identified him as one of the players who tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug in 2003 (during what was supposed to be an anonymous survey).

Mark McGwire – Sosa’s foil during the 1998 Home Run Derby – did some version of a confessional media tour, took hitting-coach jobs with the St. Louis Cardinals and Dodgers and will be the San Diego Padres bench coach this year. (McGwire came in at 12.3 percent in his 10th and final year on the ballot.)

Even Bonds is coming out of the shadows and will work as a hitting coach for the Miami Marlins this season.

The guess here is Sosa could still have something to offer, but the ball is in Sammy’s court.

On and off the field, Nico Hoerner proved he should be a big part of 2020 Cubs

On and off the field, Nico Hoerner proved he should be a big part of 2020 Cubs

Even before his surprise mid-September call-up, things were shaping up for Nico Hoerner to be a big part of the 2020 Cubs.

Now it looks like a certainty after the way he played in his 20-game cup of coffee in the final few weeks of 2019.

The organization's top prospect excelled at every level after the Cubs made him a first-round pick (24th overall) in June 2018. A broken wrist cost him two months this summer, but when he returned to Double-A Tennessee, the Cubs had him playing second base and center field in addition to shortstop, his natural position. That only boosted his value, as the Cubs clearly have holes at both center and second that they need to address this winter.

When he was pressed into duty after injuries to Javy Baez and Addison Russell, Hoerner proved the moment was certainly not too big for him. He hit .282 with a .741 OPS and 17 RBI in 20 games while playing solid defense at shortstop and displaying his great contact skills. 

While it's not unheard of for 22-year-olds to come up and immediately make an impact in the big leagues, Hoerner's case was particularly impressive given he played just 89 minor-league games and had not taken an at-bat above the Double-A level.

And Hoerner didn't just turn in solid production on the field — he was actually credited with helping provide a spark to the rest of the club, even though the season ultimately didn't end up the way the Cubs wanted. 

"He's been a little bit of a spark plug for us," Jon Lester said at the beginning of the Cubs' final homestand. "Any time you add energy like that, especially the naiveness of it — just not knowing what to expect and just going and playing baseball. Sometimes we all need to get back to that. Sometimes we all need to get back to just being baseball players and not worry about what else is going on surrounding us."

His former manager, Joe Maddon, called Hoerner a "differencemaker" down the stretch and felt confident he could stick at shortstop long-term.

It was also Hoerner's attitude and temperament that really drew rave reviews. Everybody — from Maddon to Theo Epstein to fellow teammates — were blown away by his sense of calm and confidence even while playing in pressure-packed big-league games. Those are the intangibles the Cubs have loved about Hoerner since they drafted him and don't expect that to change anytime soon.

"This is the type of human being he is," Epstein said. "He processes things really well he has strong character, he's in it for the right reasons, he's got a great family. He's really an invested member of the organization, a teammate and a winner."

This is the way he's always been, as his mom, Keila Diehl, explained to Kelly Crull in an interview on NBC Sports Chicago's broadcast on Sept. 14.

"He's just not full of himself," Diehl said. "He could be, and he's just not. ... He's just like this nice, ordinary guy — no attitude. Always brings a lot of energy and positivity to any team he's on."

That's exactly the guy we saw in Chicago in the final three weeks of the season. 

So as he recovers from his first full season of professional ball, Hoerner is in a position to forge a huge role for himself in Chicago next year. At the moment, it's reasonable to expect that to come at second base, but his ability to play shortstop might very well make Russell expendable this winter, especially with MLB Trade Rumors projecting the latter would be due $5.1 million in arbitration in 2020. 

The Cubs made it a point to get Hoerner some playing time at both second base and center field in the final two games of the 2019 season and he could at the very least offer a depth option in the outfield. 

His versatility, intangibles, and competitive drive present an intriguing package and his offensive skillset can help bring some diversity to the Cubs lineup. Hoerner is not really a power hitter at this point in his career but his hand-eye coordination and contact ability provide a refreshing style to this offense.

Simply put, Hoerner is just a good *baseball* player and profiles as the type of guy that can help any winning team in some capacity. 

The only question now is: Will the Cubs stash him in the minors for the early part of the season or let him continue to develop at Wrigley Field?

“We don’t ever draw it up that a player’s gonna skip Triple-A," Epstein said at his end-of-season presser. "It’s not determined yet where Nico’s gonna start next season, but given his mental makeup, given his skillset, who he is as a person, we felt that was something under the extraordinary circumstances that he could handle. I think it’s important that player development continues at the major-league level. 

"These days, it’s becoming a younger player’s game. If you look around baseball, the best teams have young players dominating. Yes, it’s not linear. There’s gonna be regression at the major-league level. But our players have had some real regression that’s taken them a while to dig out from. That’s something that we have to solve — finding ways to finish development off as best you can in the minor leagues, but understanding too that you need to create an environment at the major-league level with players who are expected to perform night after night are still developing, still working on their weaknesses, still making adjustments to the league." 

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Report: Giants interested in Cubs first base coach Will Venable for manager opening

Report: Giants interested in Cubs first base coach Will Venable for manager opening

The Giants' search for a successor to now-retired manager Bruce Bochy has led them to the North Side.

According to NBC Sports Bay Area's Alex Pavlovic, the Giants are interested in Cubs first base coach Will Venable for their own managerial opening. San Francisco's interest is intriguing, as Venable went to high school just outside San Francisco in nearby San Rafael. His father — Max Venable — played for the Giants from 1979-83. 

Venable also interviewed for the Cubs' manager job earlier this month, telling the Chicago Sun-Times that his interest is in the "organization in general." He is one of several internal candidates for the Cubs' job, along with bench coach Mark Loretta and front office assistant David Ross.

The Cubs also interviewed Joe Girardi and are set to meet with Astros bench coach Joe Espada and former Phillies manager Gabe Kapler.

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