Cubs

Kaplan: Reasons for optimism from Cubs camp

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Kaplan: Reasons for optimism from Cubs camp

Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2011
12:56 p.m.

By David Kaplan
CSNChicago.com

While the legions of doubters are out there predicting another long season for the Cubs, there are a handful of reasons for Cubs fans to be optimistic about the 2011 season.

First, the energy and enthusiasm around the ballclub is vastly different from the past two seasons. Gone is the hangover from the 2008-playoff collapse at the hands of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Second, the sideshow that was Milton Bradley is no longer a question that the current Cubs have to deal with. Last spring Bradley was a question that everyone had to answer because he had just been traded to Seattle.

Manager Lou Piniella is no longer here and while he had an outstanding career, there is no denying the fact that he was no longer the right guy to lead the team going into last season. His energy was waning and his players and he did not have the communication that is necessary for a winning club to have.

In Piniellas place is Mike Quade who is a bundle of energy and his players have taken notice and are feeding off of his enthusiasm for the job. Quade is a master at communication and honesty evidenced by the manner in which he announced his selection of Ryan Dempster as the Opening Day starter.

Quade brought all three candidates, Dempster, Carlos Zambrano, and newcomer Matt Garza into his office together so that he could tell them of his plans and the reasons why he made the decision he did. That type of communication, according to several players that I spoke with, is extremely rare in todays game. The current Cubs are buying into what Quades selling and they all appear to be on the same page heading into a season in which not many are giving the Cubs much of a chance to contend.

Obviously every team in baseball feels good about their chances during spring training but the energy and the feel at Cubs camp is a whole lot different this year largely in part because of the attitude of their rookie manager. Add in the leadership of newly acquired first baseman Carlos Pena who has already assumed a large presence on the club and a much improved pitching staff and things are looking up for the Cubs.

Questions still loom large such as what type of seasons will the Cubs get from Aramis Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano, and Zambrano who make a combined 50 million dollars and are all coming off of disappointing seasons. Can any or all of them rebound to perform at their previous levels?

The other major question appears to be defense where the Cubs struggled mightily in 2010. Can second year shortstop Starlin Castro improve his defense? What type of defense will the Cubs get at second base from the tandem of Jeff Baker and Blake DeWitt?

A lot of things have to be improved upon from 2010 for the 2011 Cubs to be contenders but one thing is for sure. Their new manager sure has the enthusiasm and passion for the job to keep working until he gets it right and that is resonating down to his players.

David Kaplan is the host of Chicago Tribune Live on Comcast SportsNet. Follow him on Twitter @thekapman.

Podcast: Albert Almora Jr. dishes on his role and the Cubs’ unsung hero that keeps things loose behind the scenes

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USA TODAY

Podcast: Albert Almora Jr. dishes on his role and the Cubs’ unsung hero that keeps things loose behind the scenes

Albert Almora Jr. joins Kelly Crull on the Cubs Talk Podcast to weigh in on a variety of topics, including his budding bromance with rumored Cubs target Manny Machado, his expanded role and how he spends his time off away from the ballpark.

Plus, Almora has a surprise pick for the organization’s unsung hero, stating the Cubs would’ve never won the World Series without this guy.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here:

How Ian Happ got his groove back at the plate

How Ian Happ got his groove back at the plate

There's a legit case to be made that Ian Happ has been the Cubs' second-best hitter in 2018.

Yes, really.

Happ ranks second on the Cubs in OPS (.895), behind only Kris Bryant (.995) among regulars, though a recent hot streak has buoyed that overall bottom line for Happ.

Still, it's been a pretty incredible hot streak and it's propelled Happ back to where he began the season — at the top of the Cubs order. 

Happ has walked 10 times in the last 6 games and hammered out 3 homers in that span, including one on top of the Schwarboard in right field as a pinch-hitter Tuesday night.

Even more jaw-dropping: He's only struck out 5 times in the last 9 games after a dreadful start to the season in that regard.

"It was just a matter of time until things clicked a little bit," Happ said. "That's why we play 162 games and it's a game of adjustments. At the end of the day, it all evens out.

"Look at the back of Tony [Rizzo's] baseball card — it's the same thing every single year. That's how this thing goes. You're gonna have your ups and your downs and I'm just trying to be as consistent as I can. If I can level it out a little bit and be more consistent over a period of time, that'll be better for our team."

So yes, Happ is on the upswing right now and he'll inevitably have more slumps where he strikes out too much and looks lost at the plate.

Such is life for a 23-year-old who is still a week away from his 162nd career MLB game.

The league had adjusted to Happ and he had to adjust back, which he'd been working hard doing behind the scenes.

"I just try to get him to primarily slow things down," Joe Maddon said. "Try to get him back into left-center. And I did not want to heap a whole lot of at-bats on him. When you're not going good, if you heap too many at-bats on somebody, all of a sudden, that's really hard to dig out of that hole.

"So a lot of conversations — a lot of conversations — but nothing complicated. I like to go the simple side of things. I wanted him to try not to lift the ball intentionally, really organize his strike zone."

Maddon believes Happ had lost sight of his strike zone organization, chasing too many pitches out of the zone — particularly the high fastball.

Now, the Cubs manager sees Happ using his hands more and less of his arms in his swing, working a more precise, compact path to the ball.

The Happ experiment at leadoff was a disaster to begin the year — .186 AVG, .573 OPS and 22 strikeouts in 10 starts there — but all the same tools and rationale exist for why Maddon likes the switch-hitting utiliy player in that spot.

And that's why Happ was leading off Wednesday with both Ben Zobrist and Albert Almora Jr. getting the night off.

"We're gonna find out [if he can stick at leadoff]," Maddon said. "I just thought he's looked better. He's coming off a nice streak on the road trip. [Tuesday night], pinch-hitting. I know the home run's great and of course that's nice.

"But how he got to the pitch that he hit out, to me, was the important thing. Got the two strikes, took the two borderline pitches and then all of a sudden, [the pitcher] came in with a little bit more and he didn't miss it.

"That's the big thing about hitting well, too — when you see your pitch, you don't either take it or foul it off. You don't miss it. He didn't miss it."