Cubs

Joe Maddon sees Matt Szczur playing 'tension-free' baseball with Cubs

Joe Maddon sees Matt Szczur playing 'tension-free' baseball with Cubs

Joe Maddon is the king of chill.

The relentlessly positive Cubs manager could never be described as uptight and he spends a lot of time making sure his players feel loose and free.

Matt Szczur has looked awfully comfortable in the early going, hitting .385 with a 1.192 OPS in 16 plate appearances. He also has five RBI - the same total as Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler and one more than Ben Zobrist.

Maddon chalks up Szcuzr's small sample size of success to a more relaxed approach and mindset.

"What you're seeing now is what he's done in the minor leagues," Maddon said. "I think he's finally getting comfortable here. If you watch him in batting practice, there's more of a tension-free approach to his game. He's not uptight.

"He is thinking here as he had done in Triple-A or Villanova or wherever. I think that's the difference. I like that. 

"He's very talented. He has a lot to contribute. He's a tremendous athlete - runs well, throws well, hits well, he's got great power. He's not the biggest guy in the world, but the ball really jumps for him."

Szczur was always pretty highly regarded as a prospect, going in the fifth round of the 2010 MLB Draft and passing up a possible pro football career. He was ranked as the No. 64 prospect in the game by Baseball America prior to the 2012 season and posted a .733 OPS in six minor-league seasons with 26 homers and 140 stolen bases.

Now the 26-year-old Szcuzr is getting his chance on the big-league level, making his first Opening Day roster when Javy Baez started the season on the disabled list and now with Kyle Schwarber lost for the season, Szczur could be in Chicago to stay as a key role player in the outfield.

Maddon has already utilized Szczur in almost every game on the young season, whether as a defensive replacement, pinch-hitter or spot-starter to give an outfielder a rest (as he did Saturday, playing right field to spell Jason Heyward).

Szczur has worked with Cubs hitting coach John Mallee to stop rolling over on the ball so much and grounding out to the left side of the infield and the results are showing on the field right now.

"He's made a lot of nice adjustments," Maddon said. "The biggest thing I'm talking about - I've only known him for a little over a year now, but I can see a definite difference in just his approach to the day here at the major-league level."

Szczur said the major difference in his mindset is a change in confidence and knowing he belongs in the big leagues. He is out of options, so the only way the Cubs can send him down to the minor leagues is if they put him on waivers and risk losing him to another organization.

"I'm not thinking that I'm gonna go down," Szczur said. "Last year, I feel like I was playing very tight. Didn't want to make a mistake and get sent down, because I knew if someone got hurt or if we used an extra pitcher or someone had to come up, I was gonna go down.

"This year, I'm able to play a lot looser. I think it's helped me a lot. A lot of weight off my shoulders, for sure."

Szczur said he spent a lot of time learning from veteran Chris Denorfia last season. Denorfia has made a career out of being a role player and his game is similar to Szczur's - right-handed hitter, solid defense all around the outfield, a blend of power and speed.

But no matter what he learned from Denorfia, Szczur couldn't shake that feeling last season that he could be sent down to the minors at any moment.

"I feel like more of a part of the team now because I know I'm not going down," Szczur said. "I feel like an everyday guy here. I know everybody. I'm comfortable here.

"For me, it's much easier. I know I belong here and I know I'm not going down."

Why Kris Bryant doesn't feel 'safe' and why his voice should matter most to MLB

Why Kris Bryant doesn't feel 'safe' and why his voice should matter most to MLB

Having spent the past week failing to answer how they expect anyone to believe they have a chance to pull off a baseball season during a pandemic, MLB officials are forcing hundreds of players to keep asking their own shared question: “Why the hell am I doing this?”

Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant on Monday said he “absolutely” considered opting out of playing after his wife gave birth in April to their first child and then watching the spread of COVID-19 accelerate across his native Nevada and baseball-centric states such as Florida, Texas, Arizona and California.

“I still think that runs through a lot of people’s minds today,” Bryant said.

Concerns haven’t been eased by lags and deficiencies in coronavirus testing during the first week of training camps. MLB was forced to release a statement Monday promising improvement after players throughout baseball raised the issue with media in recent days.

That included closer Sean Doolittle of the defending-champion Nationals citing a lack of masks and other protective gear with his team and Bryant saying he didn’t feel safe after seeing the promises of every-other-day testing already being broken by the team.

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Bryant, who wears a mask even at times while practicing on the field, said he went from having an intake test on June 27 to his second test on Sunday.

“Then you don’t get the results for two days, so that’s nine days without knowing,” he said. “I wanted to play this year because I felt that it would be safe, and I would feel comfortable. But, honestly, I don’t feel that way."

Bryant’s voice is especially significant on the topic — and not only as a star player and former union representative.

His voice is coming out of a camp that has had no delays or cancelations of work over testing or safety issues — the only team in at least the National League without a positive COVID-19 test among its players.

In other words: The Cubs’ former MVP and three-time All-Star doesn’t feel “safe” in the team environment that by definition is the safest in the league (so far).

If Cubs players and staff are seeing problems that raise concerns, what does that mean for the rest of baseball, where players have tested positive and others have opted out?

What does that say about even the slim chances baseball had at the outset of even starting a season — never mind finishing one?

“Guys are doing a great job,” Ross said three days into training camp — offering an understated “bothered” to describe Monday his emotional state when talking to league officials about his team’s testing concerns.

“We’re doing everything possible. But for sure, there’s a lot of pause around the league, and rightfully so.”

Just on Monday:

— The Astros and Nationals canceled practices over safety issues, and the Oakland A’s have yet to hold a full-squad workout because of testing deficiencies.

— Braves outfielder Nick Markakis, citing the frightening symptoms of stricken teammate Freddie Freeman, became the ninth player known to have opted out of the 2020 season.

—The Rangers reported that slugger Joey Gallo, whose father was a baseball-school partner of Bryant’s father in Las Vegas, has tested positive for the virus (asymptomatic as of Monday) — joining dozens of known COVID-19 cases among MLB players.

Perhaps ironically, Monday also was the day MLB officially released the schedule for the shortened season, to begin in less than three weeks.

MORE: 2020 Cubs schedule starts vs. Brewers, ends at White Sox

“It’s not guaranteed that we’re going to play or finish a season,” Bryant said. “Everybody involved knows that and is aware of that.”

And with every day that includes news of PPE shortages, positive test results or descriptions of Freeman’s “chills and fever,” every player in the game will be forced to ask the same question every time he looks in the mirror in the morning — and then takes his temperature to find out if he qualifies to even go to the ballpark.

“Why?”

Since he made his original decision to play, Bryant so far remains firm in his resolve to stand by that decision and “do everything I can to be safe and healthy and lead by example and encourage people to do the right thing,” he said.

“I know I have a lot to worry about, and I still worry about going home and bringing it to my wife my newborn,” said Bryant, who brought his family to Chicago with him. “That’s scary to me.”

Scary? Ask the Phillies, who had at least 12 players and staff test positive before anyone headed to Philadelphia for camp. And ask the Braves, who have lost at least four players early to positive tests, and a fifth player and a coach (Eric Young Sr.) to opt-outs — in a city where the mayor just reported Monday night that she had tested positive for the virus.

And then ask, again, why?

Maybe MLB can get its act together before a wave of opt-outs remove more players from the 2020 season than the virus itself, said Cubs center fielder Albert Almora Jr., who did not bring his wife and small kids to Chicago.

“That will probably bring down the barriers for the guys that are uneasy and uncomfortable,” he said, “But, yeah, it sucks. There’s no other way to put it.”

Angels star Mike Trout has expressed reservations about playing with his wife due next month, and Bryant noted Yankees ace Gerrit Cole has a newborn at home.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if people like that decide to sit out, and rightfully so,” Bryant said, “because there’s a lot more to living than playing a game.”

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Cubs early schedule is favorable, but watch out for divisional games

Cubs early schedule is favorable, but watch out for divisional games

With only 60 games this season, getting off to a good start is imperative for any team's postseason chances. That sentiment is especially true for the Cubs, based on how their schedule lines up to start the season.

The Cubs and Cardinals have the second easiest schedules through Aug. 6, based on their opponents' 2019 winning percentages (.445). The Reds (.437) have the easiest schedule through that stretch.

In those 14 games the Cubs play the Brewers (three times), Reds (four), Pirates (three) and Royals (four). They then play St. Louis three times before their first scheduled day off (Aug. 10).

MORE: 2020 Cubs schedule starts vs. Brewers, ends at White Sox

The context, of course, is Reds — a thorn in the Cubs' side last season — improved their roster immensely over the winter. Cincinnati added outfielder Nick Castellanos (Cubs) third baseman Mike Moustakas (Brewers), starter Wade Miley (Astros) and outfielder Shogo Akiyama (Japan) in free agency following a 75-87 2019 campaign. They also have a formidable rotation featuring Trevor Bauer, Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray and Miley.

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Besides Moustakas, Milwaukee lost another cog to their 2019 lineup to free agency in catcher Yasmani Grandal (White Sox). Also gone is first baseman Eric Thames (25 homers last season), who joined the Nationals in free agency.

As has been the case in recent seasons, there are questions about Milwaukee's starting rotation. They dealt Zach Davies to the Padres and Chase Anderson to the Blue Jays, adding Erik Lauer (trade with San Diego), and Josh Lindblom (Japan) and Brett Anderson (A's) in free agency. 

Milwaukee is still a competitive rival and has proven doubters wrong by making back-to-back postseasons. Their bullpen is solid and they're still led by 2018 NL MVP Christian Yelich.

Pittsburgh and Kansas City are still in rebuild mode, but lest we forget the Pirates were 44-45 at the All-Star break last season and in the thick of the NL Central race. A 60-game season is a crapshoot, and it would be foolish to take any opponent lightly.

No matter what any team did last season, 2020 is unique and unlike anything we've seen. Even with these factors, the Cubs need to get off to a good start to assert themselves in the race to October (should we get there, COVID-19 contingent).

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