Cubs

Dale Sveum will put the Cubs on edge

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Dale Sveum will put the Cubs on edge

Dale Sveum studied the way Joe Torre communicated in the dugout. He sensed that Tony La Russa was always thinking several innings ahead. He noticed how Jim Leyland was able to motivate.

As a player, Sveum pulled pieces from all those managers. He was once the hotshot prospect, an injury case, a fringe player, even sticking around after he was released as a bullpen catcher on the 1998 Yankees team that won the World Series.

Sveum played with future Hall of Famers Robin Yount and Paul Molitor in Milwaukee. He worked for Terry Francona and navigated the superstar culture around the Red Sox. He watched Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun develop and get the Brewers back into the playoffs.

The guy nicknamed Nuts believes that, deep down, 99.9 percent of all players want to be looked in the face and told to get their crap together.

Thats what Sveum told the media last November, after the Cubs introduced their 52nd manager in franchise history. Soon it will no doubt be the message in Arizona, where he will run his first big-league camp.

When the guys arent hustling, you make them accountable for it, Sveum said last month. I dont really care how much money theyre making, or how many years they have in the big leagues. Theyre still embarrassing the team and theyre embarrassing the organization.

Everybodys treated the same. I dont care if youre a rookie or a guy that has 15 years in the big leagues. If youre doing something I dont like or youre embarrassing the organization, Im going to say something to you. It might come to where you have to bench guys. Thats just the bottom line.

Those applause lines were like throwing red meat to the diehards at the Cubs Convention. But will the players listen?

Pitchers and catchers officially report on Feb. 18. A group has already gathered at Fitch Park in Mesa, a short ride from Sveums offseason home. Even if the players dont yet know their new manager all that well, several have done their research.

From talking to players that (hes worked with), they have nothing but great things to say, pitcher Matt Garza said. Hes a players guy. Hes been through the grind and he knows what its like and he knows what its gonna take to win. And thats what Im excited about.

The players once lobbied for Mike Quade, another first-year manager who promised to drive home fundamental play (and didnt last).

Sveum should benefit from the instant credibility that comes from playing 12 seasons in the big leagues. He was also able to have a voice in assembling his coaching staff. He wont have to deal with Carlos Zambrano.

Perhaps most importantly, everyone knows that Theo Epstein picked Sveum to be the front man for this rebuilding project.

Sveum played for some great managers, but people have almost described him as an NFL coach with the countless hours spent breaking down video and obsessively charting plays. Brewers general manager Doug Melvin got used to showing up at his Miller Park office and finding Sveum already at work.

Sveum knows that information might yield an advantage only once a series. But all that adds up and certainly resonates with the Cubs president of baseball operations.

(Sveums) somebody who believes in hard work, preparation, respecting the game, having your teammates back, Epstein said. Whats really hard in todays baseball for managers is to connect with players and win their respect and admiration without enabling them and coddling them. Thats a typical players manager that you hear sometimes. Basically, he lets the players do whatever they want.

Often times, that becomes a popular manager, but it doesnt necessarily create the type of discipline that you need. (But) Dales been the best of both worlds. Players get to know him in that he works so hard. (They) like him and they play so hard for him. At the same time, he holds them to really high standards.

I guarantee you every single player is going to run as hard as they can, 90 feet, down to first base.

Thats what the Cubs will be selling after a winter in which they passed on the big-ticket items. Right now, this team is mostly nameless and faceless in Chicago. But it wont stay that way forever.

At the convention, a fan asked Sveum about Nyjer Morgan, an instigator for a Brewers team that wasnt shy about talking trash or choreographing over-the-top celebrations. For an organization looking for an identity, the answer was revealing.

You have to have some cockiness on the field, Sveum said. You dont want to take anything away from guys.You have to throttle it. (But) when you do irritate the other team, (it) means youre doing something (right).

You never show the other team up. But when you come to play, your team should have some kind of identity (instead) of being a vanilla team (where) youre just going out there and going through the motions. It makes a big difference to have some guys out there with personality and showing some emotion.

Podcast: Albert Almora Jr. dishes on his role and the Cubs’ unsung hero that keeps things loose behind the scenes

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USA TODAY

Podcast: Albert Almora Jr. dishes on his role and the Cubs’ unsung hero that keeps things loose behind the scenes

Albert Almora Jr. joins Kelly Crull on the Cubs Talk Podcast to weigh in on a variety of topics, including his budding bromance with rumored Cubs target Manny Machado, his expanded role and how he spends his time off away from the ballpark.

Plus, Almora has a surprise pick for the organization’s unsung hero, stating the Cubs would’ve never won the World Series without this guy.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here:

How Ian Happ got his groove back at the plate

How Ian Happ got his groove back at the plate

There's a legit case to be made that Ian Happ has been the Cubs' second-best hitter in 2018.

Yes, really.

Happ ranks second on the Cubs in OPS (.895), behind only Kris Bryant (.995) among regulars, though a recent hot streak has buoyed that overall bottom line for Happ.

Still, it's been a pretty incredible hot streak and it's propelled Happ back to where he began the season — at the top of the Cubs order. 

Happ has walked 10 times in the last 6 games and hammered out 3 homers in that span, including one on top of the Schwarboard in right field as a pinch-hitter Tuesday night.

Even more jaw-dropping: He's only struck out 5 times in the last 9 games after a dreadful start to the season in that regard.

"It was just a matter of time until things clicked a little bit," Happ said. "That's why we play 162 games and it's a game of adjustments. At the end of the day, it all evens out.

"Look at the back of Tony [Rizzo's] baseball card — it's the same thing every single year. That's how this thing goes. You're gonna have your ups and your downs and I'm just trying to be as consistent as I can. If I can level it out a little bit and be more consistent over a period of time, that'll be better for our team."

So yes, Happ is on the upswing right now and he'll inevitably have more slumps where he strikes out too much and looks lost at the plate.

Such is life for a 23-year-old who is still a week away from his 162nd career MLB game.

The league had adjusted to Happ and he had to adjust back, which he'd been working hard doing behind the scenes.

"I just try to get him to primarily slow things down," Joe Maddon said. "Try to get him back into left-center. And I did not want to heap a whole lot of at-bats on him. When you're not going good, if you heap too many at-bats on somebody, all of a sudden, that's really hard to dig out of that hole.

"So a lot of conversations — a lot of conversations — but nothing complicated. I like to go the simple side of things. I wanted him to try not to lift the ball intentionally, really organize his strike zone."

Maddon believes Happ had lost sight of his strike zone organization, chasing too many pitches out of the zone — particularly the high fastball.

Now, the Cubs manager sees Happ using his hands more and less of his arms in his swing, working a more precise, compact path to the ball.

The Happ experiment at leadoff was a disaster to begin the year — .186 AVG, .573 OPS and 22 strikeouts in 10 starts there — but all the same tools and rationale exist for why Maddon likes the switch-hitting utiliy player in that spot.

And that's why Happ was leading off Wednesday with both Ben Zobrist and Albert Almora Jr. getting the night off.

"We're gonna find out [if he can stick at leadoff]," Maddon said. "I just thought he's looked better. He's coming off a nice streak on the road trip. [Tuesday night], pinch-hitting. I know the home run's great and of course that's nice.

"But how he got to the pitch that he hit out, to me, was the important thing. Got the two strikes, took the two borderline pitches and then all of a sudden, [the pitcher] came in with a little bit more and he didn't miss it.

"That's the big thing about hitting well, too — when you see your pitch, you don't either take it or foul it off. You don't miss it. He didn't miss it."