Joe Maddon wants Cubs to take the fight to NL Central


Joe Maddon wants Cubs to take the fight to NL Central

Aroldis Chapman blew away Mike Olt with four straight fastballs. The first one hit 99 mph. The next three clocked 100 mph. Game. Over.

That’s how the dominant, mysterious Cincinnati Reds closer sent everyone home on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, closing out a 3-2 victory over the Cubs. Welcome to the National League Central.

It’s not as glamorous as the old American League East that made Theo Epstein a legend throughout New England for taking down the Evil Empire. Or Joe Maddon a big celebrity for transforming the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in their David and Goliath story against the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees.

But this division features five teams that are going for it now, and the Cubs manager knows what that means for Jorge Soler and Arismendy Alcantara and eventually Kris Bryant and Javier Baez.

“You have to beat the best to be the best,” Maddon said. “So I love when your own division is very, very competitive. I think young players get better sooner because they got to show up every day. Otherwise, you will be embarrassed.

“When you’re playing good teams, you really have to show up, and I think our division’s going to really draw that out of our young players.”

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Jake Arrieta learned that the hard way with the Baltimore Orioles. Arrieta blossomed after that change-of-scenery trade in July 2013, taking two no-hitters into the seventh inning against the Reds last season.

“Nothing is going to be handed to you,” said Arrieta, who retired the first nine Reds before a three-run fourth inning. “You’re having to face guys that are the best of the best, day in, day out, series after series. So, yeah, you have no choice but to grow up quick, or else you’re going to be shipped out.

“Playing that level of competition really escalates your development. It has to. Because if you want to survive there, you have to find ways to get it done.

“We’re in the thick of it right here in the Central. It’s no slouch.”

Except for that one inning, Arrieta (1-1, 1.98 ERA) again looked like a frontline guy against the Reds (5-3). But the only offense this lineup could generate came from pinch-hitter/No. 3 catcher Welington Castillo, who hit a two-run homer off ex-Cub Kevin Gregg in the eighth inning. The Cubs (4-3) ran out of late-game magic against Chapman, falling out of first place.

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Epstein’s front office and veteran players viewed as short-term assets have talked about the urgency of getting off to a good start the last few years, so the team wouldn’t get blown up at the trade deadline.

Now, the Cubs hope to be buyers on July 31, and 25 of their first 31 games come against Central opponents.

“The start is just so essential, especially when you’re in a really competitive division,” Epstein said. “We put ourselves in a big hole the last few years. I think we have more talent this year and we have a more realistic chance to go do some damage and really compete.

“(But) focus on getting off to a good start. It’s so important in this division.”

It’s not necessarily the same as going into Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium.

But everyone knows about the St. Louis Cardinals and their 11 World Series titles. The Reds have made the playoffs three times since 2010. The Pittsburgh Pirates are coming off back-to-back seasons winning a wild card. The Milwaukee Brewers spent 159 days in first place last season.

“You got to take charge of your division,” Maddon said. “You have to ascend within your division. Nobody’s going to be just giving us anything here. Not at all. We have to go out there and take that momentum. We have to take our place within the division. As it should be.”

Albert Almora Jr. gave another example of his all-around game

Albert Almora Jr. gave another example of his all-around game

Albert Almora Jr. might be in the middle of a breakout season. The 24-year-old outfielder continues to show his impressive range in center field and is having his best year at the plate.

In Sunday's 8-3 win against the Giants, Almora had three hits and showed off his wheels in center to rob Evan Longoria of extra bases. The catch is visible in the video above.

"Defensively, right now he's playing as well as he possibly can," Maddon said.

On top of the defense he has become known for, he is hitting .326. That's good for fifth in the National League in batting.

"He's playing absolutely great," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "He's working good at-bats. His at-bats have gotten better vs. righties.

"The thing about it, is there's power there. The home runs are gonna start showing up, too."

There's also this stat, which implies Almora is having a growing significance on the Cubs as a whole:

There may be some correlation, but not causality in that. However, with Almora's center field play and growing accolades at the plate, the argument is becoming easier and easier that he is one of the most important players on the Cubs. That also goes for Almora's regular spot in the lineup, which has been up in the air with Maddon continuing to juggle the lineup.

Joe Maddon wants Cubs fans to cheer for Gleyber Torres and Eloy Jimenez

Joe Maddon wants Cubs fans to cheer for Gleyber Torres and Eloy Jimenez

Why can't a trade be looked at as a win-win? 

There doesn't always have to be a clear winner and loser.

Prior to Jose Quintana taking the ball for Saturday's game against the San Francisco Giants at Wrigley Field, Joe Maddon was asked about the players (Eloy Jimenez, Dylan Cease) the Cubs gave up to acquire Quintana as well as the deal with the Yankees for Aroldis Chapman in July 2016.

Gleyber Torres is absolutely killing it in New York, hitting .323 with a 1.014 OPS, 9 homers and 24 RBI in only 29 games. Six of those homers have come in the last week alone. 

With the White Sox, both Jimenez and Cease have found success in Double-A and Advanced Class-A, respectively.

Jimenez is hitting .331 with a .992 OPS, 9 homers and 35 RBI in 35 games. Cease is 6-2 with a 2.83 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and 57 strikeouts in 47.2 innings.

As the Cubs work to get their offense settled into a consistent groove, some Cubs fans have been looking at what might've been with guys like Torres and Jimenez.

"You can't have it both ways, man," Maddon said. "I'm happy for Gleyber. When he left, we talked about it. And we talked about the kids that went to the White Sox. It's good stuff. 

"I'm really disappointed if anybody's disappointed in the fact we won the World Series in 2016 and the fact that the guy we're talking about that we had to give up Gleyber for was so instrumental in that happening. That's bad process if you're gonna get stuck on something like that. Be happy for Gleyber. Be happy for him."

Maddon has been a fan of Torres' since he saw him in spring training in 2015, Maddon's first year in the Cubs organization.

"This kid's 21, with high, high baseball intellect," Maddon said. "He's very similar to Javy on the field. I've had some great conversations with him in the past. 

"The first time I saw him in spring training, I thought this guy's for real. It was like one at-bat, line drive to RF, I said who is this guy? And then you have a conversation with him. He's solid."

Maddon's point is a great one — would Cubs fans prefer to still have Torres and NOT have the 2016 World Series championship? Because that title doesn't happen without Chapman, regardless of how you feel about him as a person or what the Cubs had to give up to acquire him.

"Don't play that game," Maddon said. "Be happy for [Torres]. I'm gonna be happy when Eloy and Dylan make it up here. All these dudes, I want them to get here and be really good. And the guys that we get, I want them to be really good. 

"I don't understand why somebody's gotta lose all the time. This is an absolute classic example of what was good for both teams."