Cubs

Everyone will have something to prove in Cubs camp

668586.png

Everyone will have something to prove in Cubs camp

Finally, the focus will be back on the field.

This offseason revolved around executive compensation and stadium club news conferences and Albert PujolsPrince Fielder rumors that went nowhere.

Whatever the foundation for sustained success is going to look like, were about to get our first glimpse in Arizona. By the time pitchers and catchers officially report next weekend, everyone will have something to prove.

It starts at the top with chairman Tom Ricketts, who restructured the Cubs organization for a game-changing hire and now has to figure out a way to renovate Wrigley Field.

Theo Epstein has become the face of the franchise, even though that seems to be the last thing that he wants. You know the national media will descend upon Fitch Park, curious to see if the president of baseball operations will live up to the hype.

The new executives led by Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod are trying to mesh with the personnel leftover from the Jim Hendry administration (who must produce for the new boss).

First-year manager Dale Sveum is taking over a team with almost no expectations. The roster is filled with players who are coming off down years andor havent lived up to their potential.

One player laughed when asked if Cubs fans will have the patience for a total rebuilding effort. Another simply said: They have no choice.

In baseball, anything can happen, Epstein said. We might not have the most talent in the division, but I know were going to play hard, and we have young players with upside, (several) entering their prime or pre-prime years. When you have that, you can surprise a little bit.

If we stay healthy and one or two or three or four of the players we have actually takes a big developmental step forward I think you might look up and be surprised in the middle of the summer. Especially with the depth of the starting pitching we have now.

We have one advantage over some of the opponents we might face, in that we can withstand an injury or two and still throw a very reputable starting pitcher out there every day, five days around the rotation. And if our opponents in the division cant because of injuries or attrition or poor performance then we might surprise some people.

Still, the Cubs might not know exactly what theyll get from one start to the next. Paul Maholm, Chris Volstad and Travis Wood were all once first-round picks. The Cubs decided to buy low this winter.

Maholm has a 53-73 career record that can be partially explained by pitching for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Volstad is 6-foot-8 and only 25 years old, though he went 5-13 with a 4.89 ERA last season. Wood has never put it all together for a full year in the big leagues.

This is a team with far more question than answers.

Is Ian Stewart, another former first-round pick, the third baseman who hit 25 homers for the Colorado Rockies in 2009or the guy who had zero last year? Can Bryan LaHairs monster Pacific Coast League numbers translate to the next level?

Which Geovany Soto shows up this season? Will Matt Garza and Alfonso Soriano make it to August in a Cubs uniform?

Everyone will be watching to see if Starlin Castro sharpens his focus. Carlos Marmol will have to show that he still has the right stuff to be a closer. Randy Wells will have to convince a new coaching staff that he belongs in the rotation. Darwin Barney will fight to hang onto the second-base job.

No one should get too comfortable.

The Cubs have laid out a well-reasoned plan that takes the long view. The Epstein hire changed the perception of the organization and, for the moment at least, insulated everyone from the pressure to win RIGHT NOW.

It is a high-stress job and city, Sveum said. The bottom line is were trying to win every single (time) we go out there. But more importantly, were building this organization to win consistently every single year to where you have the ability to win World Series because youre consistently winning 90-plus games every year.

The Cubs talk a good game. If this really is going to an inflection point, were all about to find out.

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

1020_albert_almora.jpg
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."