How Cubs plan to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump for young players in 2016


How Cubs plan to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump for young players in 2016

The sophomore slump is one of those dreaded terms that hovers around baseball's top young players like a shadow.

It's the idea that the league has an offseason to adjust to players who had successful rookie seasons and production takes a dip in Year 2.

If that's the case for the Cubs, that could be a brutal blow with four key players - Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler - entering their "sophomore" seasons in the big leagues in 2016.

[RELATED - Will Joe Maddon keep Addison Russell ninth in Cubs lineup?]

If the Cubs really have hopes of a World Series this year, they're going to have to get production from that quartet. So how will they keep the "sophomore slump" at bay?

For starters, the Cubs hope to avoid the issue simply because they feel a lot of their young players have already endured a bump.

"I thought last year, some of the guys had the opportunity to experience the sophomore bump in their freshman year," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "They had some difficult moments last year that I thought they really worked through well."

Maddon cited the mechanical adjustments Bryant and Russell made last season to get through some slumps.

Bryant has worked to cut down on his strikeouts by keeping the bat through the strike zone longer, eliminating a bit of his uppercut swing.

Russell incorporated a leg kick into his swing last year, something he and the Cubs felt helped unleash some of the power in his line-drive swing.

Schwarber, meanwhile, hit .179 with zero homers and only one RBI in his final 17 games of the 2015 regular season and also endured yearlong inconsistency against left-handers (.143 AVG, .481 OPS).

However, in the postseason, Schwarber found his stroke, clubbing a franchise-record five homers, including a monster shot on top of the right-field scoreboard at Wrigley Field off St. Louis Cardinals lefty Kevin Siegrist in Game 4 of the National League Division Series.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

The Cubs know there are still slumps awaiting all their young players, but they feel they have the tools in place to rise above.

"Our job is to try to stay ahead of [the difficult moments] as much as we possibly can," Maddon said. "Be there for them and try to understand what's going on. But primarily would be that our guys adjust back to what these other guys are trying to do to us.

"If you're not hardheaded and you're mindful and you understand those concepts, I think you have a better chance of adjusting back and avoiding those prolonged periods of nonproductivity."

The Cubs also hope to combat any inkling of a sophomore slump by understanding the mental game.

Bryant said one of the ways he's looking to avoid a dip in numbers is by envisioning 2016 as just a continuation of 2015...with a three-and-a-half-month break.

You can't have a sophomore slump if you don't have a sophomore season, right?

"I've actually felt that way watching our guys - it's kinda like they're picking up where they left off," Maddon said. "A lot of enthusiasm, a lot of desire to be at the ballpark, they like each other - all those factors are still in play.

"So yeah, it feels almost like we did pick it up where we left off. We're having a lot of fun, but the work's been outstanding."

The Cubs are attacking projected slumps and adversity head-on.

"I think that's the attitude you have to have," Bryant said. "I've played this game for a very long time, but not as long as some guys in here. You go through your bad spells. You go through your good spells. The good ones always bring you back.

"It's fun to go through those. It's a roller-coaster ride. I wouldn't be playing this game if it wasn't like that. I enjoy the adversity because I know it only gets better."

The other factor playing into all this is each guy's role into the overall locomotive that is the Cubs.

Ideally, young players first cracking into the big leagues wouldn't have to be major pieces on an everyday basis. That wasn't the case with the Cubs last season, of course.

But this year, Theo Epstein's front office helped supplement the young talent with proven commodities like Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist, plus starting pitcher John Lackey and they also brought back centerfielder Dexter Fowler to set the table at the top of the order.

Maddon has talked about young players getting their first taste of life in "The Show" and caring more about their own survival - ensuring they don't make mistakes, focusing and obsessing over their personal numbers - rather than just helping the team win.

[RELATED - No question: Addison Russell knows he belongs now with Cubs]

The Cubs don't see their "sophomores" just keeping their heads above water.

"A lot of times, younger guys are still in survival mode and they're just trying to stay here because they think it's pretty cool," Maddon said. "They're not normally the guy that's going to help you win because their agenda is to not make a mistake.

"But once you get to the point where you feel like you belong here, then you really shift to, 'All I wanna do is win.'

"...I think all our young guys are about that. Believe me, man. It's a real pleasure to talk to these guys."

Yu Darvish emotional after Cubs lose another tough one: 'I'm so frustrated'

Yu Darvish emotional after Cubs lose another tough one: 'I'm so frustrated'

With their postseason hopes fading by the day and the Cubs needing him most, Yu Darvish delivered on Sunday.

And yet, the game ended in a far-too familiar way for the Cubs: with a 3-2 loss, the Cubs’ fifth-straight one-run defeat — and third since Thursday when they were tied or leading in the ninth inning or later.

“If you just play back the tape, it’s almost unbelievable that it turned out this way,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “Also, the games against Cincinnati. For the last six, this is really wash and repeat. Of course it’s frustrating."

Darvish was extremely emotional postgame, as evidenced by a mud stain spread across his locker resulting from an anger-laced throw of his cleat. He pitched well — 8 1/3 innings, three earned runs, 12 strikeouts and no walks — only running into trouble in the ninth.

“I’m so frustrated, you can see it, right?” he said, looking back at his locker. “We have to win, especially today, but we lost.”

The 33-year-old right-hander was rolling heading into the ninth, which started off with pinch-hit triple by Jose Martinez that hit off Albert Almora Jr.’s glove, despite a valiant diving effort.

“It sucks that we couldn’t win that game,” Almora said. “I really wanted to make that play there. Can’t catch them all, but I tried.”

For what it’s worth, Craig Kimbrel didn’t pitch Sunday because he was unavailable, though Maddon said he would’ve stuck with Darvish even if his closer was available.

"I was happy at that point, but right now everything just….There’s no words right now," Darvish said.

That’s neither here nor there, though. What matters is that the Cubs lost another game that they seemed to have in their grasp, only to see it slip away late. They're now eliminated from NL Central contention, and their elimination number in the Wild Card race is three.

Even Maddon struggled to explain the series, one where the Cubs played quite well but only saw their playoff hopes take a big hit.

“It’s really difficult,” he said. “You look at it, how did that all happen? How did we lose all those four games? They were just one runner better than us every night and they were really evenly matched. That’s all I will concede.”

Although Darvish admitted he feels responsible for Sunday’s loss, Maddon spoke highly of the right-hander, even comparing how he's pitched to what Jake Arrieta did during his tenure with the Cubs. 

“I saw Jake pitch really well and win a Cy Young, but this is equivalent of all of that,” he said. “The stuff, command of his stuff. [Darvish] absolutely deserved a better fate.”

Whether you think that Maddon was being too hyperbolic there or not, there’s no doubting that Darvish looked excellent for majority of his outing on Sunday. Baseball is a game of inches, something the Cubs experienced firsthand this weekend.

“They got us. They got us,” Maddon said. “Give them credit for that, but we did not leave anything on the field, man.”

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Cubs games easily on your device.

Cubs Talk Podcast: Swept by the Cardinals (and playoff dreams dashed)

USA Today

Cubs Talk Podcast: Swept by the Cardinals (and playoff dreams dashed)

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Tony Andracki and Kelly Crull discuss the Cardinals sweep, Yu Darvish taking the loss so hard, and what to look for over the final six games of the year.

01:00 - Reaction to being swept by the Cards

03:30 - Darvish taking the loss really hard

05:30 - This is the Yu Darvish Cubs fans thought they were getting when he signed with the Cubs

07:00 - Almora's miscue in the 9th inning of the loss

08:00 - It feels like the end of an era

12:00 - Is this the end of an era for the Cubs?

16:00 - Surprised Rizzo was available on the field for the entire Cardinals series?

20:00 - There is no one thing you can look to that didn't work this season

22:00 - What do you want to see over the final six games?

25:00 - Seeing a cornerstone being helped off the field for a second Sunday in a row

29:00 - How much will we see the injured guys on the field?

Listen here or in the embedded player below. 

Cubs Talk Podcast