Cubs

How the stars aligned for Cubs: Rizzo, Bryant, Arrieta, Maddon

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How the stars aligned for Cubs: Rizzo, Bryant, Arrieta, Maddon

ANAHEIM, Calif. — The Cubs took over Disneyland territory and made a Los Angeles Angels cast headlined by Mike Trout and Albert Pujols feel like The Other Team.

The Arizona Diamondbacks might not be an afterthought on Thursday night at Chase Field, but the Cubs have no other choice except to “Embrace The Target” for the next 160 games. Sweeping the Angels by a 15-1 aggregate score and hearing fans sing “Go Cubs Go” on their way out to the parking lots showed what could be ahead this season.

Before the Cubs became Revenants on a Sports Illustrated cover, the last time they played at Angel Stadium of Anaheim was June 4-5, 2013. That’s a jumping-off point for how the stars aligned for what had been a star-crossed franchise.

• Anthony Rizzo: During the first offseason for the Theo Epstein administration in Chicago, the Cubs looked at Pujols and Prince Fielder and pictured the first basemen on a stock chart. The front-office projections had Rizzo’s performance eventually rising to the point where he would pass Pujols and Fielder as they inevitably declined in their later years.

The Cubs still don’t have the kind of TV contract that led the Angels to splurge on a 10-year, $254 million megadeal for Pujols at the 2011 winter meetings. One month later, Cubs executives who knew Rizzo from their time together with the Boston Red Sox and San Diego Padres looked beyond his struggles at Petco Park, giving up hard-throwing/injury-prone pitcher Andrew Cashner.

Rizzo may never come close to matching what Pujols did for the St. Louis Cardinals (two World Series rings, three MVP awards) or finding the level of consistency that allowed the future Hall of Famer to earn 10 All-Star selections and hit 40 homers in his age-35 season last year.

But Rizzo is clearly the player to build around now — at a fraction of the cost — while Pujols tries to stay healthy and transition into being a part-time designated hitter. Rizzo is a Gold Glove-level defender coming off a 31-homer, 101-RBI season, and the team has taken on his personality, striking the right balance between goofy and serious.

“We’re really hungry,” Rizzo said. “If anyone in this clubhouse is thinking about the World Series right now, we’re in the wrong spot. We need to think about tomorrow, winning the game (and) dominating April.”

[MORE: After all the hype, Jon Lester ready to roll with Cubs]

• Kris Bryant: Before Darwin Barney batted leadoff on June 5, 2013 in Orange County, the Cubs had already eliminated University of North Carolina third baseman Colin Moran from consideration for the No. 2 overall pick they couldn’t whiff on, leaving two pitchers and a fast-rising hitter still in the conversation.

As the draft unfolded the next day, the Houston Astros selected Stanford University right-hander Mark Appel with the top pick, giving the Cubs their shot at the University of San Diego slugger who led the nation in homers, runs scored, walks and slugging percentage.

Jon Gray — the University of Oklahoma right-hander who dropped to No. 3 — put up a 5.53 ERA in nine starts for the Colorado Rockies last year. The Astros packaged Appel (5.12 ERA in the minors) in the Ken Giles trade with the Philadelphia Phillies this winter. Houston had already acquired Moran — the sixth overall pick who spent last year at the Double-A level — from the Miami Marlins in the Jarred Cosart trade at the 2014 deadline.

Meanwhile, all lines are open at Bryzzo Souvenir Co.

“This could be a very special thing that we have here,” said Bryant, already an All-Star third baseman and a Rookie of the Year. “But we just really need to focus on this year and not really get too ahead of ourselves. There are so many things that can happen in this game. We’re here focusing on today.”

• Jake Arrieta: The pitching infrastructure that just helped shut down Trout and Pujols (0-for-15 with five strikeouts) had already been in place by June 4, 2013, when sign-and-flip guy Scott Feldman got a tough-luck no-decision in a one-run loss to the Angels.

Five weeks later, the Cubs sold high on Feldman (7-6, 3.46 ERA) and shipped him to the Baltimore Orioles in a trade for change-of-scenery pitchers Arrieta and Pedro Strop.

Arrieta’s unconventional workout routine/nutrition regimen has been covered at length, and there are almost two full seasons left to place over-under bets ($200 million) on how much super-agent Scott Boras will get his client in free agency.

But in listening to a Cy Young Award winner explain how to attack the Angels, it’s also clear how much Arrieta enjoys thinking about his craft and preparing for each start. Meaning there are intangible benefits to his presence and reasons to believe he will keep performing at a high level.

“Trout’s a guy who is exceptional at hitting the ball down in the zone really well for power,” Arrieta said, “both to the pull side and to right-center field. So you got to move the ball away from him and into him — to kind of keep him from getting extended — and elevate from time to time. Remaining unpredictable is really big against guys like him (and) Pujols (who) hit the fastball well.

“I expect to pitch this way every time I take the mound. Obviously, once the ball leaves your hand, you can’t dictate the results. But I expect to execute at a pretty high percentage. If I execute — and pound the strike zone with my stuff and keep them guessing — I have a pretty good opportunity to have another good year.”

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• Joe Maddon: The Cubs lucked out when Andrew Friedman bolted from the Tampa Bay Rays after the 2014 season and took a president’s job with the Los Angeles Dodgers, allowing the star manager to use the escape clause in his contract.

But Maddon still knows the groundskeeper by name in Anaheim and appreciates what he learned during his three-plus decades in the Angels organization. Places like Gene Autry Park and Idaho Falls — and the long climb to the top — shaped him into the perfect ringleader for this circus.

“I really trust our players,” Maddon said. “When you talk about pressure and expectations, understand it’s spread out among the whole group. It’s not just on one guy. We have so many good players here. A lot of them have been through the baseball wars before where they’ve been very successful. We’re going to have our rough moments. (But) we have the ability – mentally, physically – to fight through those moments.

“If you factor in everything, experience, talent level, motivation — because all of them want to be here to become part of the first team that wins the World Series for the Cubs in a long, long time — there are so many good things here to repel pressure and expectations.”

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

There are plenty of intriguing Cubs storylines to monitor this offseason from their potential pursuit of the big free agents to any other changes that may come to the coaching staff or roster after a disappointing finish to the 2018 campaign.

But there's one question simmering under the radar in Cubs circles when it comes to this winter: How will the team solve the shortstop conundrum?

Just a few years ago, the Cubs had "too many" shortstops. Now, there are several different factors at play here that makes it a convoluted mess.

First: What will the Cubs do with Addison Russell? The embattled shortstop is in the midst of a suspension for domestic violence that will keep him off an MLB diamond for at least the first month of 2019.

Has Russell already played his last game with the Cubs? Will they trade him or send him packing in any other fashion this winter?

Theo Epstein mentioned several times he felt the organization needs to show support to the victim in the matter (Russell's ex-wife, Melisa) but also support for Russell. Does that mean they would keep him a part of the team at least through the early part of 2019?

Either way, Russell's days in Chicago are numbered and his play on the field took another big step back in 2018 as he fought through a hand injury and experienced a major dip in power. With his performance on the field and the off-field issues, it will be hard to justify a contract worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 million in his second year of arbitration (prorated, with a month's worth of pay taken out for the suspension).

Even if Russell is on the roster in 2019, Javy Baez is unquestionably the shortstop for at least the first month while Russell is on suspension. 

But what about beyond Baez if the Cubs want to give him a breather or disaster strikes and he's forced to miss time with an injury?

At the moment, there's nothing but question marks on the current Cubs shortstop depth chart throughout the entire organization and they're certainly going to need other options at the most important defensive position (outside of pitcher/catcher). 

There's David Bote, who subbed in for Baez at short once in September when Baez needed a break and Russell was on the disabled list. But while Bote's defense at third base and second base has opened eyes around the Cubs, he has only played 45 games at short across seven minor-league seasons, including 15 games in 2018. There's also the offensive question marks with the rookie, who hit just .176 with a .559 OPS and 40 strikeouts in 108 at-bats after that epic ultimate grand slam on Aug. 12.

The Cubs' other current shortstop options include Mike Freeman (a 31-year-old career minor-leaguer), Ben Zobrist (who will be 38 in 2019 and has played all of 13 innings at shortstop since 2014), Ryan Court (a 30-year-old career minor leaguer) and Chesny Young (a 26-year-old minor-leaguer who has posted a .616 OPS in 201 Triple-A games).

Maybe Joe Maddon would actually deploy Kris Bryant at shortstop in case of emergency like a Baez injury ("necessity is the mother of invention," as Maddon loves to say), but that seems a lot more like a fun talking point than a legit option at this current juncture.

So even if Russell sticks around, there's no way the Cubs can go into the first month of the season with just Baez and Bote as the only shortstop options on a team that with World Series or bust expectations.

The Cubs will need to acquire some shortstop depth this winter in some capacity, whether it's adding to the Triple-A Iowa roster or getting a veteran who can also back up other positions. Right now, the free agent pool of potential shortstops is pretty slim beyond Manny Machado.

Epstein always says he and his front office look to try to mitigate risk and analyze where things could go wrong to sink the Cubs' season and through that lense, shortstop is suddenly right up there behind adding more bullpen help this winter.

Podcast: In light of recent hitting coach turmoil, who’s to blame for Cubs offensive struggles?

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USA TODAY

Podcast: In light of recent hitting coach turmoil, who’s to blame for Cubs offensive struggles?

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, David Kaplan, Kelly Crull, Luke Stuckmeyer and Tony Andracki discuss the comments Chili Davis made after being fired as Cubs hitting coach, ask if the Cubs struggles on offense were Davis' fault or the players and what Anthony Iapoce will be walking into as he tries to gets the team back on track a the plate.

 

Listen to the entire podcast here, or in the embedded player below: