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.”

[SHOP: Gear up for the new season, Cubs fans!]

• 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.”

SportsTalk Live Podcast: MLB and NFL Commotion

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: MLB and NFL Commotion

Anthony Herron, Scott King and Jason Goch join Kap on Tuesday's SportsTalk Live panel.

0:00 - Mariano Rivera, Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina and Roy Halladay get elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame while Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens remain out. Will they get in next year? Do they deserve to get in at all?

12:00 - Yadier Molina is still mad that Kris Bryant called St. Louis "boring." Why can't The Best Fans in Baseball let it go?

15:00 - Yu Darvish posts a throwing video on Instagram. Who's excited?

16:30 - Saints fans are suing the NFL. But will they have to settle for the league changing its instant replay guidelines or is that too much video review?

22:30 - Patrick Mahomes watches from the bench as Tom Brady drives down the field in overtime. Does the league need to adopt college style OT?

29:00 - The Bears get two more players in the Pro Bowl pushing their total to 8. Is making the Pro Bowl still a big deal?

Listen to the entire podcast here or in the embedded player below.

Sports Talk Live Podcast

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Searching for the next Cubs Hall of Famer

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AP

Searching for the next Cubs Hall of Famer

The 2019 BBWAA Hall of Fame voting results were released on Tuesday. No Cubs were elected, so why not take the time to look at the Hall of Fame cases of six former Cubs!

The criteria? Play for the Cubs in at least one game. The number of games played in a Cubs uniform among my six candidates ranges from three to 1,124. Hey, like I said – at least one game.

I avoided Sammy Sosa, who’s still on the BBWAA ballot. I also didn’t bother reviewing Rafael Palmeiro’s case. Both of those players’ cases depend heavily on what your stance is on alleged PED use. I chose to keep it limited to players who might be on a ballot (be it BBWAA or an Era Committee) in the next few years.

Note: rWAR is baseball-reference WAR, fWAR is Fangraphs WAR

Alfonso Soriano (BBWAA - 2020)

412 HR, 1,159 RBIs, .270/.319/.500, 28.2 rWAR, 39.1 fWAR, 111 wRC+

Alfonso Soriano is one of only 55 players in MLB history with 400 or more home runs, and his 412 rank 53rd all-time. He is the fourth (of four) players in MLB history to hit 40 HR and steal 40 bases in a season (2006). Soriano’s total of 54 leadoff home runs ranks second only to Rickey Henderson. He was a seven-time All-Star and a four-time Silver Slugger winner.

Will he get in? It’s doubtful. He had a late start; Soriano wasn’t a regular until he was 25, then once he joined the Cubs he tailed off considerably. In 889 games with Chicago, he was worth 8.1 rWAR (1.5 per 162 games) or 18.3 fWAR (3.3 per 162 games). His .319 career OBP was subpar, as was his defense.

Rick Reuschel (Modern Baseball Era Committee – possibly 2020)

214-191 W/L, 3.37 ERA, 3,548 1/3 IP, 2,015 K, 69.7 rWAR, 68.2 fWAR, 114 ERA+

Rick Reuschel had a sneaky-good career. He spent many years toiling for mediocre teams but had success because he was able to keep the ball in the park and was relatively stingy with the base on balls. Even without huge strikeout totals, “Big Daddy” was able to turn in a strong Major League career. There are 27 pitchers in MLB history with at least 214 wins, 2,015 strikeouts and 68 pitching WAR; 24 are in the Hall of Fame. The others are Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling and Rick Reuschel.

Will he get in? Likely not, but he’s probably better than you think.

Aramis Ramírez (BBWAA - 2021)

386 HR, 1,417 RBIs, .283/.341/.492, 32.6 rWAR, 38.7 fWAR, 115 wRC+

Ramírez is fifth all-time in career home runs as a third baseman, with 381 (the other five were either as DH or PH). In his first five full seasons with the Cubs, he averaged 32 HR and 105 RBI, hitting an excellent .302/.366/.554 (131 wRC+). With the third base position being considerably underrepresented in the Hall of Fame, Ramírez starts to look a little more interesting.

Will he get in? It’s doubtful. He put up big offensive numbers in an era where many players did the same. His defense was underwhelming and his high MVP finish was 9th (in 2012 with the Brewers).

Joe Nathan (BBWAA - 2022)

377 SV, 2.87 ERA, 923 1/3 IP, 26.7 rWAR, 19.4 fWAR, 151 ERA+

Nathan pitched three games for the 2016 Cubs. Did you forget already?  He’s 8th on the career saves list with 377 and he brought quality as well as quantity. Of the 50 pitchers with at least 200 career saves, he’s eighth with a 151 ERA+.

Nathan's peak run was 2004-09 – his first six seasons with the Twins. He put up a 1.87 ERA and 0.934 WHIP with 518 K to only 271 hits in 418 2/3 IP over that span.

Will he get in? Probably not. Billy Wagner was clearly better yet only managed 16.7 percent of the BBWAA vote in 2019.

Fred McGriff (Today’s Game Era Committee – possibly 2022)

493 HR, 1,550 RBIs, .284/.377/.509, 52.6 rWAR, 56.9 fWAR, 134 wRC+

McGriff received 39.8 percent of votes from the BBWAA in 2019 – his final year on the ballot. His case now goes to the Today’s Game Era Committee.

The Crime Dog’s case has had some recent momentum – with good reason. McGriff was consistent and he had a clean reputation, which will help him going forward. The work stoppage of 1994-95 likely cost him a shot at 500 career home runs, which would probably been enough to get him elected via BBWAA in the first place.

By the way, who was the last Cubs lefty prior to Anthony Rizzo to hit 30 HR in a season? It was Fred McGriff in 2002.

Will he get in? I think he’ll get elected the first time he goes on the Today’s Game Era ballot.

Kenny Lofton (Today’s Game Era Committee – possibly 2024)

Lofton played only 56 games with the Cubs – all in 2003 – after coming over from Pittsburgh along with Aramis Ramírez. When considering leadoff men from 1980-present, Rickey Henderson was the best. Then there’s Tim Raines. After that, it just might be Kenny Lofton.

  Games Runs HR RBIs SB BA/OBP/SLG wRC+ rWAR fWAR
Player A 2,651     1,420 117 780 509 .311/.355/.402 104 59.3 57.6
Player B 2,103 1,528 130 781 622 .299/.372/.423 109 68.3 62.4
Player C 2,616 1,610 149 900 938 .293/.343/.410 109 45.3 43.2

Player B is Lofton. Player A is Ichiro. Player C is Lou Brock.

Lofton earned six All-Star selections and four Gold Glove Awards in his career. He’s one of five players in MLB history with 100 triples, 100 home runs and 600 stolen bases. The others are Tim Raines, Lou Brock, Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner. From 2002-07, Lofton played with nine different teams, which may hurt his case a bit.

Will he get in? I think Lofton will get in eventually through the Era Committee, though it might take a while.

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