Cubs

How Cubs built a bigger and better version of last year’s NLCS team

How Cubs built a bigger and better version of last year’s NLCS team

The Cubs are a bigger, better version of the team the New York Mets swept aside in last year’s National League Championship Series, no longer just happy to be here and now fully expecting to beat the Los Angeles Dodgers this time.

“A lot of us have a sour taste in our mouth from last year,” Kris Bryant said. “We’ll be ready for it. I definitely can’t wait.”

That doesn’t guarantee the franchise’s first NL pennant since the year World War II ended, or its first World Series title since the Theodore Roosevelt administration. But the Cubs upgraded a 97-win team in all phases of the game, not overreacting to that four-game sample against the Mets as much as reinforcing what they already knew.

Those young players who kept hearing how special they are – and how good this team should be for a long time – didn’t take the opportunity for granted and played with passion and focus. The media crush and every-pitch intensity won’t be intimidating or a shock to the system during Game 1 on Saturday night at Wrigley Field.

“It’s great to have that experience,” said Jason Heyward, who played on the 100-win St. Louis Cardinals team the Cubs bounced from last year’s playoffs. “And not the ‘wow factor’ of doing it for the first time. And then it’s like: ‘Hey, we expect to be here.’

“Nobody’s surprised to be here.”

To get back here, the final bill for free agents came in at almost $290 million, an itemized list that had a meet-the-Mets-again feel to it.

Suffocated by New York’s power pitching, the Cubs added two switch-hitters to their lineup by winning the Ben Zobrist sweepstakes (without making the highest offer) and bringing back Dexter Fowler (in a shocking stealth-mode deal days after the you-go, we-go leadoff guy reportedly reached an agreement with the Baltimore Orioles).

Stretched thin in the rotation, the Cubs signed John Lackey – the most valuable pitcher on that St. Louis team – and can now use the two-time World Series champion as a Game 4 starter. Shaky in the outfield, the Cubs added a three-time Gold Glove winner in Heyward to change their defensive identity.

[RELATED: Cubs in 'better place' after 2015 NLCS experience]

Vulnerable in the running game, the Cubs fast-tracked Willson Contreras after only 55 games at Triple-A Iowa, promoting the dynamic catcher in the middle of June. By late July, the Cubs finalized a blockbuster deal with the New York Yankees for Aroldis Chapman, giving manager Joe Maddon a game-changer like Mets closer Jeurys Familia. 

“You just look up and down,” Bryant said. “This team’s a whole lot better. Just look at each individual player and how much better we are than we were last year.

“I can say that for myself – I’m a way better player than I was last year. Look at Kyle Hendricks – unbelievable. Look at Jon Lester – he’s having a way better season than he had last year, too.

“That just gives us all the confidence in the world knowing that each individual guy in here has done something this year to get better than they were last year.”

Bryant topped his Rookie of the Year campaign with a 39-homer, 102-RBI MVP-caliber season. Hendricks went from a being a nominal fifth starter to winning the ERA title. Lester, the Game 1 starter, looked and acted far more comfortable during Year 2 of that $155 million megadeal, which might translate into a Cy Young Award.  

Addison Russell – who didn’t make last year’s NLCS roster while dealing with a strained hamstring – became a 21-homer, 95-RBI All-Star shortstop at the age of 22. Javier Baez, who looked rattled at times while filling in for Russell against the Mets, became the breakout star of this year’s NL Division Series, delivering big hits, making spectacular defensive plays and getting under the skin of the San Francisco Giants.  

“It’s hard to focus in the postseason with the loudness of the fans, but I’ve been working on slowing the game down,” Baez said. “That has been big for me (since) I was coming up to the big leagues. Now, I’m really good at it. Obviously, there’s still a little pressure and nerves. But you still have to play the game and keep slowing it down.”

In a hypothetical best-of-seven series between the 2015 Cubs and the 2016 version, Bryant said, “We’d crush that team.” Now let’s see if these Cubs can handle another playoff-tested cast featuring Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen, Corey Seager, Justin Turner and Adrian Gonzalez.

“Expectations and pressure,” Maddon said, “that’s the baseball fossil fuel right there.

“My initial message to the boys was: Why would you ever want to be in a situation that doesn’t require a little bit of pressure added to it, or expectations? I would not want to go into a season having zero expectations and zero pressure applied to you because you’re going to finish fourth or fifth in a division. I mean, that’s a bad way to live.

“Listen, if you hear the word pressure, you got to run toward it. That’s a good thing. That means we’re good and something good is attached to it.”

Glanville: Fall to Spring - A player’s offseason changes meaning with each changing season

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USA TODAY

Glanville: Fall to Spring - A player’s offseason changes meaning with each changing season

A few weeks after the we (the Cubs) were eliminated from the 2003 playoffs, I got a phone call from my college professor. Since it was officially the off-season, I was in the early stages of a break from following a pocket schedule to tell me where to be every day for nearly eight months.

But this was a man I could not refuse. I chose my college major to go into his field of transportation engineering and he was calling because he needed a teaching assistant to accompany him on his trip to South Africa.

One minute I could barely move off of my couch in my Chicago apartment after losing Game 7 against the Marlins. The next minute, I would be standing within miles of the Southern most point in Africa at the Cape of Good Hope. Why not? I needed the distraction so I agreed to go.

The offseason is its own transition. Leaving the regimen of routine, of batting practice and bus times, to an open ended world that you have to re-learn again. When I finished my first full major league season in 1997, I lived in Streeterville at the Navy Pier Apartments.

That offseason, I decided to stay an extra month in Chicago only to wake up panicked for the first two weeks because I thought I was missing stretch time for a home day game. A major league schedule becomes etched in your DNA after a while.

It is also a time that you get to reflect. The regular season does not give you a moment to really get perspective on what was just accomplished, what it all means, what you would change. I always joked about the T-shirt I wanted to a sell that listed all of the things a major league player figures out during the off-season. From the perfect swing to the ex-girlfriend you need to un-break-up with next week.

It all becomes so clear when a 96 MPH fastball isn’t coming at you.

For years, I would arrange a training program to follow, but I quickly learned that I had to mix it up. There was only so much repetition I could stand in the off-season. So some years, I moved to the site of spring training and worked out early with the staff, other years I found a spot at home where I grew up or wherever I played during the season, to train.

I was single when I played, but now with a family, I have a better understanding of the challenges my teammates would express as they were re-engaging as a daily father again after this long absentee existence.

To keep it fresh and spicy, when I got older in the game, I enrolled in a dance studio and took a winter of dance lessons. Salsa, Foxtrot, Rumba, you name it. On Thursdays we had to dance for an hour straight, changing partners in the room every song change. Dancing with the Stars had nothing on me.

Of course, not every offseason is fun and games. There were years when I wasn’t sure I would have a job the next year, or I was in the throes of a trade rumor. In 1997, I was traded from the Cubs to the Phillies two days before Christmas. In 2002, my father passed away on the last game of the season, leading the offseason to be a time of mourning.

By my final season in 2005, I thought I was officially on my couch forever. I was going to fade away into oblivion like many players do. No fanfare, the phone just would stop ringing and I would just let the silence wash over me. The Yankees had called earlier in that off-season, acting like they were doing me a favor which I turned down, then they called back later with a more open tone, seeing me as a potential key piece in their outfield with Bernie Williams slowing down quite a bit at that point.

I did get off that couch for that call, only to get released the last week of camp, so I was back on the couch, with a fiancé and some extra salt in the wounds after that final meeting with Brian Cashman and Joe Torre, who boxed me into the coaches office to tell me I was released. Released? Come on. Never had that happen before.

The Cubs players will go through all of this if they have the good fortune of playing a long time. The wave of uncertainty, the meaning of age in this game spares no one. Each offseason is a time to reset, a period where you get away, seemingly adrift from the game, then as spring gets closer, the shoreline comes up in the horizon once again, magnetically drawing you to its shores for another season.

Amazingly, you don’t always know your age and what it has done to your body. 34 can’t be that old, right? I can still run, or throw 95. Then those 23-year-olds in camp are the wake up call, or maybe you are that 23-year-old and can’t believe your locker is next to Ryne Sandberg’s.

Then you blink, and you are advising Jimmy Rollins about etiquette and realize you have become that guy, the seasoned vet, preaching about locker room respect.

For the 2018 Cubs, they fell short of their goal to repeat their 2016 magic. Failed to meet their singular destination that meant success over all else. Yet, those who come back for 2019, will not be the same player, the same person, that left the locker room at the close this season. They will have grown, changed, aged, wizened up, rehabbed, hardened. All of which means that new perspective is the inevitable part of this time off, whether you like it or not.

Baseball is a game that has this unique dynamic. The highest intensity rhythm of any sport. Every day you are tested. You are pushed to the brink by sheer attrition. According to my teammate Ed Smith, who was playing third base at the time when Michael Jordan reached third, Jordan, after playing well over 100 games in a row, said to him “Man, I have never been this tired in my entire life.”

The grind.

Then it stops on a dime. Season over. Only on baseball’s terms.

But you may be granted another spring. Another crack at it. Until one day, the baseball winter never ends and its time for you to plant your own spring.

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

Ricky Gutiérrez played in the Majors from 1993-2004. He played shortstop for the Cubs from 2000-01 and later signed with them again in June 2004. 

However, Gutiérrez never got back to the Majors with the Cubs, who sent him to the Red Sox the following month. His final Major League game was with the Red Sox on Oct. 3, 2004, the final game of the 2004 regular season; he didn’t play in the 2004 postseason. Gutiérrez was subsequently signed and released by a few other teams, including the White Sox in 2005.

Gutiérrez holds the distinction of being the first Cubs player to hit a regular season grand slam against the White Sox (July 12, 2001). In his two seasons with the Cubs, he tied for the Major League lead in sacrifice bunts both years (16 in 2000, 17 in 2001) which was odd since he had a grand total of 18 sacrifice bunts in his 847 career games NOT in a Cubs uniform. He also had uncharacteristic power with the Cubs:  21 home runs for Chicago in 272 games, 17 home runs with everyone else (847 games).

What Cubs fans probably remember most is what Gutiérrez did against them. On May 6, 1998 he had the lone hit (many dispute it should have been ruled an error) for the Astros off Kerry Wood in Wood’s 20-strikeout masterpiece at Wrigley Field (Gutiérrez was responsible for two of the strikeouts). 

Later that season, on June 26, the number 20 and Gutiérrez were again connected when he had a 20-pitch battle against Bartolo Colón, which ended in a strikeout. It remained the last plate appearance in the Majors of at least 20 pitches until Brandon Belt flew out on the 21st pitch of an at-bat against the Angels' Jaime Barria on April 22, 2018.

Gutiérrez’s nephew, James Jones, played 14 seasons in the NBA for the Pacers, Suns, Trail Blazers, Heat and Cavaliers.