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Don’t take it for granted: Cubs will face great expectations in 2016

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Don’t take it for granted: Cubs will face great expectations in 2016

This might have been the best chance for the Cubs to win a World Series in your lifetime. Or it could have been the opening scene for a dynasty. The point is you never know.

Yes, this franchise is positioned to get back to October over and over again, but there are zero guarantees. The Cubs stayed exceptionally healthy, developed a special chemistry and shattered all their internal projections for a talented young nucleus.

That’s why this should sting, even with all the unexpected good times at Wrigley Field this summer, the laugh-out-loud quotes from manager Joe Maddon, the quantum leaps made by rookies Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber, the spontaneous clapping to the music when Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro walked up to home plate.

But it’s not like the New York Mets are a smoke-and-mirrors team that just swept the National League Championship Series with Wednesday night’s 8-3 victory in Game 4, leading for all 36 innings and showing their foundation should be built to last.

“I don’t want any of the guys to take it for granted,” catcher Miguel Montero said afterward. “You got to remember we maybe made it look a little easy the first year and we got to the NLCS. But don’t take it for granted. And I say that because I lived that before.”

Montero had been part of the 2007 Arizona Diamondbacks team that swept Lou Piniella’s Cubs in the divisional round – and then got swept by the Colorado Rockies – and wound up finishing two games over .500 in 2008.

“We were a young team who got to the NLCS,” Montero said. “A year later, we didn’t do anything. We played good, but not good enough. That’s my advice: Don’t take it for granted.

“Next year, just get to spring training with the same intensity, even hungrier than this year, so we finish what we started.”

[MORE: A season comes crashing down for Cubs in NLCS]

The Cubs still haven’t advanced to the World Series since 1945 or won a championship in 107 years, the longest droughts in North American professional sports.

With Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Steven Matz and Noah Syndergaard, the Mets have four frontline starters between the ages of 22 and 27. That group limited the Cubs to six runs across 25 innings, notching 29 strikeouts by mixing speeds, hitting spots and consistently approaching triple-digit velocity.

“With good health, these guys are going to be good for many years to come,” manager Joe Maddon said. “There’s no question.”

Remember, the Cubs finished third in the division behind the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates. The Washington Nationals are still stacked with perennial MVP (Bryce Harper) and Cy Young Award (Max Scherzer) candidates. The Los Angeles Dodgers have a seemingly unlimited checkbook to fix a 92-win team. The San Francisco Giants have those three World Series titles since 2010.

It’s going to get more complicated now, bigger egos and bigger expectations surrounding this team. The harsh reality for the 2016 Cubs is that winning 90-plus games will be met with so-what shrugs and not the shaking-your-head, what-just-happened looks of joy and amazement.

That’s why president of baseball operations Theo Epstein understood this would be the end of the innocence, relating it to a conversation with his old buddy, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder.

The 2015 Cubs would be like the band that catches fire with a first record, bursting onto the national scene, enjoying the newfound fame and then having to deal with the backlash.

“It stings right now getting swept,” pitcher Jake Arrieta said. “But to be one of four standing at the end of the year and still playing meaningful games in the middle of October is pretty special. We got to be happy with that. Use it as some motivation moving forward.”

[NBC SHOP: Buy Cubs playoff gear]

At this point, it’s unclear what a playoff push means for next year’s payroll and when the Cubs will be able to strike it rich with their next TV deal.

The David Price rumors started months – if not years – ago and the Cubs will probably need to add at least two legitimate starting pitchers to their rotation. Russell appears to be untouchable as the franchise shortstop, but trading Castro or Javier Baez could help address the organization’s pitching deficit.

The Cubs will likely explore the possibility of a long-term deal for Arrieta, who won’t become a free agent until after the 2017 season. But super-agent Scott Boras won’t do a team-friendly deal and wants his clients to test the open market.

The Cubs will give Dexter Fowler the qualifying offer and expect him to get paid elsewhere, meaning they will probably be looking for someone else to hit leadoff and play center field.

The Cubs can upgrade their bullpen, get better defensively and cash in some prospects for real big-league players in win-now trades. But The Plan is now clearly in place.

“We have a good idea of things we’ll potentially be able to accomplish in the future with the group of guys that are here,” Arrieta said. “I’m not big on outside expectations, but I think that we exceeded pretty much anybody’s expectations for the way we were able to play as a team throughout the season.

“Still playing meaningful games in the middle of October is really important and a very valuable experience for everybody involved. Moving forward, it’s only going to make us better.”

With trade deadline approaching, Cubs know they can't rely on Yu Darvish

With trade deadline approaching, Cubs know they can't rely on Yu Darvish

Sunday began like most days have around the Cubs recently: No update on Yu Darvish.

But while the skies opened up over Wrigley Field about 90 minutes before game time, Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein sat in the third-base dugout and spoke candidly about where Darvish is at currently and how much the Cubs can count on him during the stretch run.

Darvish threw from flat ground — 135 feet — Sunday morning and Epstein said it was "his best day in a long time. He threw really well and felt really good."

Still, there is no specific timetable for when Darvish may be back on the Wrigley Field mound, facing live hitters in a game that matters.

The next step for Darvish will be throwing off a mound, but the Cubs aren't yet talking about where or when the 31-year-old pitcher will go on a rehab assignment.

With the non-waiver trade deadline approaching in just over a week, Epstein and the Cubs know they can't simply project Darvish into the September — or October — rotation.

"I think just making an educated guess," Epstein said. "You can't be overly reliant on somebody who hasn't been able to stay healthy and perform this year. At the same time, you track the rehab closely because you know you have to try to anticipate what he might be able to give you.

"...If you put yourself in a position where you're overly reliant on something that hasn't been dependable up to this point and then it doesn't come through, it's probably more on you than on the fates."

Darvish has accounted for only 40 innings for the Cubs this season and hasn't pitched since May 20. He made it through 5 innings just three times in his eight starts on the campaign.

This is the second DL stint for Darvish this season. He had a bout of the flu in early May and then initially went back on the shelf over Memorial Day Weekend with a triceps issue. The triceps strain has morphed into an elbow impingement after Darvish made a rehab start with Class-A South Bend and he received a cortisone shot in the elbow in late June.

Mike Montgomery has taken Darvish's place in the Cubs rotation and the southpaw has had a lot of success in the role with a 3.02 ERA and 1.18 WHIP in 10 starts, averaging nearly 6 innings a start.

Of course, Montgomery's insertion into the rotation has left a bit of a hole in the bullpen as the Cubs have been without their top long man and down one reliable left-handed option.

The long relief role was filled last week with the trade for Jesse Chavez, but the Cubs could probably still use another lefty in the bullpen with Justin Wilson's control issues, Brian Duensing's struggles and Randy Rosario's relative inexperience and worrisome peripheral numbers.

Whether the Cubs will acquire another starting pitcher before the trade deadline is unknown. Epstein's front office knows they need more pitching and understands it's much harder to acquire arms after July 31 than before.

But with Montgomery already filling the last spot in the rotation, Drew Smyly on the comeback trail from Tommy John surgery while being stretched out as a starter and now Chavez in town, the Cubs have some veteran starting pitching depth beyond the inexperienced Luke Farrell and Duane Underwood Jr.

The starting pitching market is relatively thin at the moment in terms of arms a team like the Cubs could acquire and plug into a potential playoff rotation. And that's saying nothing of the pieces it would require to pull off such a move, as the Cubs don't have the elite-level prospects they once had to acquire Aroldis Chapman and Jose Quintana the past two summers.

But with Darvish's status unknown and Tyler Chatwood currently boasting more walks than strikeouts through 18 starts, the Cubs aren't exactly sleeping easy at night trying to project their October rotation.

Epstein acknowledged the front office is focused primarily on pitching ahead of the deadline and though it may be tougher to make those big-name deals compared to years past, that doesn't necessarily take the Cubs out of the running on the impact guys.

Still, don't expect Jacob deGrom or Chris Archer to be walking through that door anytime soon.

"I think we're in a more difficult position to do so. I don't think it's impossible," Epstein said. "But certain years lend themselves to being able to participate in more hands. Other years, because of the way your prospects are performing or because of your desire to keep growing the farm system or just the nature of what's available and how much you need, you have to be more selective.

"I think we're hopefully pursuing a lot of different things, but I think in terms of what's realistic for us, we have to be a little bit more targeted, more selective and a little more opportunistic. And that's fine. Sometimes those end up being the best deals. The Chavez deal is an example of that. He's probably not a name anyone had mentioned at all. We think he's a really good fit for us.

"So that's [an example of] the kind of stuff we're looking to do. While participating in everything else, but knowing that most of the stuff we talked about we won't be able to get done."

Cubs fight back after Javy Baez ejection: 'We're not animals'

Cubs fight back after Javy Baez ejection: 'We're not animals'

If baseball wants stars that transcend the game, they need guys like Javy Baez on the field MORE, not less.

That whole debate and baseball's marketing campaign isn't the issue the Cubs took exception with, but it's still a fair point on a nationally-televised Saturday night game between the Cubs and Cardinals at Wrigley Field.

Baez was ejected from the game in the bottom of the fifth inning when he threw his bat and helmet in frustration at home plate umpire Will Little's call that the Cubs second baseman did NOT check his swing and, in fact, went around. 

Baez was initially upset that Little made the call himself instead of deferring to first base umpire Ted Barrett for a better view. But as things escalated, Baez threw his bat and helmet and was promptly thrown out of the game by Little.

"I don't think I said anything to disrespect anything or anyone," Baez said after the Cubs' 6-3 loss. "It was a pretty close call. I only asked for him to check the umpire at first and he didn't say anything.

"I threw my helmet and he just threw me out from there. I mean, no reason. I guess for my helmet, but that doesn't have anything to do with him."

Baez and the Cubs would've rather Little check with the umpire who had a better view down the line, but that wasn't even the main point of contention. It was how quickly Little escalated to ejection.

"We're all human," Baez said. "One way or the other, it was gonna be the wrong [call] for one of the teams.

"My message? We're not animals. Sometimes we ask where was a pitch or if it was a strike and it's not always offending them. I think we can talk things out. But I don't think there was anything there to be ejected."

Upon seeing his second baseman and cleanup hitter ejected in the middle of a 1-0 game against a division rival, Joe Maddon immediately got fired up and in Little's face in a hurry.

Maddon was later ejected, as well, and admitted after the game he was never going to leave the field unless he was tossed for protecting his guy.

"He had no reason to kick him out," Maddon said. "He didn't say anything to him. I mean, I watched the video. If you throw stuff, that's a fine. That's fineable. Fine him. That's what I said — fine him — but you cannot kick him out right there.

"He did nothing to be kicked out of that game. He did throw his stuff, whatever, but he did not say anything derogatory towards the umpire.

"...You don't kick Javy out. If he gets in your face and is obnoxious or belligerent or whatever, but he did not. He turned his back to him. That needs to be addressed, on both ends."

Maddon and the Cubs really want Major League Baseball to get involved in this situation. 

There are many other layers to the issue, including veteran Ben Zobrist having to come into the game as Baez's replacement. Maddon was not keen on using the 37-year-old Zobrist for 1.5 games during Saturday's doubleheader and now feels like he has to rest the veteran Sunday to lessen the wear and tear of a difficult stretch for the team.

There's also the matter of the groundball basehit in the eighth inning that tied the game — a seeing-eye single that just got past Zobrist as he dove to his left. It tied the game at 3 and the Cardinals took the lead for good the following inning.

Does Baez make that same play if he were out there instead of Zobrist? It's certainly possible.

"The dynamic of our defense was lessened by [the ejection]," Maddon said. "Again, listen, if it's deserved, I'm good. It was not. They don't need me out there, we need Javy out there.

"And it surprised me. I stand by what I'm saying. It was inappropriate. MLB needs to say something to us that it was inappropriate because it was and it could've led to the loss of that game."