Cubs

Cubs see World Series window opening now: ‘Why not us?’

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Cubs see World Series window opening now: ‘Why not us?’

It felt like no one wanted to leave Wrigley Field on Tuesday night, “Go Cubs Go” and “Sweet Home Chicago” playing on a loop after this rising team planted a “W” flag in October.

Fans could look up at the huge video board in left field and watch the players in goggles spray each other with champagne — Hey, was that Eddie Vedder? — a cool look behind the curtain at the clubhouse dance party/light show after eliminating the St. Louis Cardinals.

The Friendly Confines are under construction and will get tricked out with more and more modern amenities. But when the Cubs posed for team pictures on the mound, they got the old-school center-field scoreboard as the iconic backdrop.

This could become Major League Baseball’s biggest playoff stage for years to come. Or at least this franchise shouldn’t have to wait another century for the next playoff-series-clinching-win on home turf.

[MORE: Knock on wood: Trevor Cahill has resurrected his career with Cubs]

The Cubs have all these young power hitters, big arms at the front of their rotation, the star manager people want to play for and stability in the front office and the owners’ suite.

Wrigley Field is guaranteed only two more games in the National League championship series next week, but understand the Cubs aren’t just happy to be here, knowing they are eight wins away from a parade down Michigan Avenue.  

“I feel like we’re the team this year,” chairman Tom Ricketts said. “We’re young. We’re playing well. Everybody’s loose. Joe (Maddon) has got everyone believing. That’s all you need. Every year, there’s that one team that has the momentum.

“This year, why not us?”

The Cubs know two wild-card teams made it to last year’s World Series, with the San Francisco Giants beating the Kansas City Royals in a dramatic Game 7, earning their third title in five seasons.

The Cubs are getting hot at the right time, winning 12 of their last 13 games and taking out the Pittsburgh Pirates and rival Cardinals, the two teams with the best regular-season records in baseball (198 wins combined).

That’s why Jake Arrieta said no one wants to play this team right now. The Cubs won’t be intimidated by the idea of going on the road to face either the Los Angeles Dodgers or New York Mets, whoever wins Thursday’s Game 5 at Chavez Ravine.

“It’s just getting started,” said Arrieta, who might have won a Cy Young Award with his breakthrough season. “We’ve come a long way. We weren’t expected to get this far. So to be where we are right now, it’s such a rewarding thing for everybody involved — the city of Chicago, the fans, the players.

“It’s hard to completely put into words how far we’ve come. But we’ve got a couple stages to go. And we’re ready for it.”

Jon Lester grew up on the arms race between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees and wanted to be a transitional figure for baseball’s next potential superpower.

[NBC SHOP: Buy Cubs playoff gear]

The $155 million lefty signed that six-year megadeal last winter knowing the Cubs would have Anthony Rizzo (26), Kris Bryant (23), Jorge Soler (23), Kyle Schwarber (22) and Addison Russell (21) in place as building blocks.

“That’s the big thing,” Lester said. “You look at a lot of the great teams that were good for a long time — the Yankees (recently) and the Red Sox for a little while. They had a core group of guys that came up through the system and believed in what the system believes in.

“You see the Cardinals have done it for (so) long with their guys. It’s a big building point. You have a group of guys (who) figure out how to win together, then that just trickles down to the next guys that come up. They want to do the same thing. And then when the free agents come in, they don’t want to let those guys down.”

Talking World Series in 2015 would have sounded crazy while the Cubs were losing 286 games and writing off three major-league seasons. But any sense of dread has been overwhelmed by the feeling that anything seems possible. 

“Obviously, times weren’t easy the last few years,” Rizzo said. “But with all the talent we had – and all the talent we were building – everyone knew that the Cubs were coming.

“We’re here. And hopefully we can keep this thing going.”

19 for '19: What should expectations be for Kris Bryant Comeback SZN?

19 for '19: What should expectations be for Kris Bryant Comeback SZN?

We're running down the top 19 questions surrounding the Cubs heading into Opening Day 2019.

Next up: What is a reasonable expectation for Kris Bryant Comeback SZN?

Kris Bryant's Comeback Tour is officially upon us.

The former NL Rookie of the Year and MVP missed 60 games last year due to a shoulder injury and even when he was on the field, he was a completely different player. 

He initially hurt his shoulder on a headfirst dive into first base in Cincinnati in mid-May. He left that series hitting .305 with a .427 on-base percentage and .583 slugging percentage (1.010 OPS). 

Even more encouraging, Bryant looked to be addressing his biggest weakness — strikeouts. In 185 plate appearances, he struck out just 15.7 percent of the time which was well below his career line of 23.8 percent. His previous career-best in that category came in 2017 (19.2 percent) and if he continued along that line for the rest of 2018, it would've marked the fourth straight season in which he reduced his strikeout percentage.

Alas, that was not to be and Bryant struck out 28.7 percent of the time after suffering the shoulder injury and hit just .252/.338/.382 (.721 OPS) with 5 homers and 28 RBI in 63 games.

There's no saying Bryant would've kept those numbers going all season without the injury, but he was on pace for 34 homers, 100 RBI, 121 runs, 100 walks and 59 doubles - all of which would either set new career highs or approach his previous best marks.

If he stays healthy in 2019 (admittedly a big "IF"), that seems like a very fair stat line to expect of Bryant over a full 2019 season: 30+ homers, an OPS north of .900 and approaching 100 walks. He also will probably hover around 110+ runs and come near 100 RBI depending on where he hits in the lineup (which will probably be in the 2-hole, but there's a legit case to be made that he should lead off).

Bryant confirmed over and over again this winter that his shoulder is just fine and he's proved it so far this spring, with a couple of homers while playing both third base and the outfield. 

He also has a little chip on his shoulder, soliciting more talk from the haterz to fuel his Revenge SZN, speaking openly about the state of baseball's free agency and even sparking a war of words with all of St. Louis. 

Injuries are impossible to predict, but there's nothing indicating a healthy Bryant is anything less than an MVP candidate.

-Tony Andracki

In the time since Bryant became a mainstay in the Cubs’ everyday lineup, there have only been three more valuable position players in baseball: Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, and Jose Altuve. Before an injury-shortened 2018, Bryant had started his career with 6.1-, 7.8-, and 6.7-win seasons. He has, quite frankly, been the best third baseman in baseball since being drafted.

That’s why the only real way Bryant can “improve” on 2018 is staying healthy. With two actually-working shoulders, he’s not only a legitimate MVP candidate, but a legitimate MVP frontrunner.

Normally, guys with an ISO north of .200 (what FanGraphs qualifies as ‘Great’) come with a lot of strikeouts. In 2017, Bryant’s last full season, there were 48 guys with ISO’s above .200 and 550 PAs (the number generally accepted as an appropriate sample size). Of those 48 guys, Bryant was Top-20 in ISO (19th), lowest K% (19th), highest BB% (6th), and highest OBP (4th). He’s lived up to his 70/80 power grade while arguably outperforming his 50/55 discipline grade. Basically, there aren’t many better pure hitters in the game.

If we wanted to nitpick, Bryant’s defense could improve. After flashing serious leather during his first two seasons, Bryant was replacement-level in the field during 2017, and bad in 2018. Say what you will about the reliability of defensive numbers, but it’s hard to spin a negative DRS. His statcast numbers paint a similar, albeit slightly more forgiving, picture.

Still, it’s hard to judge Bryant’s defensive prowess on 2018. He’s been a net-positive in the field during every season he’s been healthy, and it stands to reason that a shoulder injury -- even one on his non-throwing shoulder -- would impede his defense in some way, shape, or form. Now, if a healthy Bryant puts up monster numbers at the plate all year and is still bad in the field, then maybe it’s worth a discussion.

For now, Kris Bryant Comeback SZN depends almost entirely on health. Even in a shortened season that was by all accounts disappointing, he was still 25 percent better than the average league hitter. If the shoulder’s fine, he’s in the MVP conversation.

-Cam Ellis

 

The complete 19 for '19 series:

19. Who will be the Cubs' leadoff hitter?
18. Who's more likely to bounce back - Tyler Chatwood, Brian Duensing or Brandon Kintzler?
17. How different will Joe Maddon be in 2019?
16. Can Cubs keep off-field issues from being a distraction?
15. How can Cubs avoid a late-season fade again?
14. Is this the year young pitchers *finally* come up through the system to help in Chicago?
13. How much will Cubs be able to count on Brandon Morrow?
12. How does the Addison Russell situation shake out?
11. Will Willson Contreras fulfill his potential as the best catcher on the planet?
10. Will the offseason focus on leadership and accountability translate into the season?
9. Will payroll issues bleed into the season?
8. Will Javy Baez put up another MVP-caliber season?
7. Will Jon Lester and Cole Hamels win the battle against Father Time for another season?
6. What should we expect from Kris Bryant Revenge SZN?
5. Do the Cubs have enough in the bullpen?
4. What does Yu Darvish have in store for Year 2?
3. Are the Cubs the class of the NL Central?
2. Is the offense going to be significantly better in 2019?
1. How do the Cubs stay on-mission all year?

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Cubs Talk Podcast: Cardinals Scouting Report with Chris Rongey

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Cardinals Scouting Report with Chris Rongey

Luke Stuckmeyer is joined by Chris Rongey, host at 101 ESPN in St. Louis, to take a closer look at the arch-rival Cardinals. The pair discusses the ramifications of the rumored Paul Goldschmidt extension (2:30), the pressure on the Cardinals to get back to the playoffs (6:30), the potential of Jack Flaherty (10:30), and Kris Bryant's inflammatory comments about St. Louis at Cubs Convention (13:45).

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player: