Turning point for The Plan: Cubs get October close-up at Wrigley


Turning point for The Plan: Cubs get October close-up at Wrigley

Internally, the Cubs ran all the numbers and projected between 84 and 86 wins this year. A critical mass of young talent created a bigger variance than normal in those preseason simulations. But the organization gladly would have signed up for meaningful September games when pitchers and catchers reported. No questions asked.

Near the end of spring training, president of baseball operations Theo Epstein stood in the middle of the team’s Arizona complex, turning his head between fields, watching no-name prospects and listening to a question about how he would have to take ownership of this team — and take heat on the major-league level — in Year 4.

“This isn’t going to be our best team,” Epstein said, explaining the balance between the present and the future.

[MORE: Cubs counting on Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant to start producing in playoffs]

Fast forward to a beautiful Sunday afternoon at Wrigley Field, the Bears game showing on the 3,990-square-foot video board in left while Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber played catch.

Joe Maddon — the free-wheeling manager whose RV “The Cousin Eddie” had been parked at a satellite lot north of the stadium — gleefully called the workout “eyewash.”

The Cubs had already enjoyed “Breakfast on Wrigley,” a multi-table buffet set up on the dirt track behind home plate offering eggs, bacon, waffles, doughnuts, juice and coffee.

A stack of Korbel boxes sat on the concourse that leads out onto Waveland Avenue, in case the Cubs or St. Louis Cardinals end this epic National League division series on Tuesday after four games.

As good as it gets? Not necessarily, but the anticipation leading into this felt like something that could never be duplicated again.

Jake Arrieta having perhaps the greatest second half of anyone who’s ever thrown a baseball. The Cubs hosting their first playoff game in seven years and in position to clinch their first postseason series ever at Clark and Addison.

This is supposed to be the opening of the window to contend, but the Cubs are only guaranteed two more playoff games.

“Honestly, any thoughts beyond 2015 have kind of been pushed out of my mind until we’re done playing,” Epstein said. “This team has earned everyone’s full engagement, full attention, full commitment. I think we’re good enough to play all the way through October and into November.”

[MORE: Jake Arrieta emerges as October star and gets locked in for Cubs-Cardinals]

That’s why the Cubs invited all their full-time staffers in scouting and player development — the behind-the-scenes guys who did the grunt work tracking and coaching up prospects like Russell, Schwarber, Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler — to Chicago for this.

The Cubs expected a group of more than 250 people (including spouses) to gather for a dinner on Sunday and then attend Game 3 on Monday against the hated Cardinals.

“They’ll get to watch the fruits of their labor,” Epstein said.

Team Play Stupid obliterated expectations, winning 97 games and a wild-card showdown against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park, which set up the first playoff matchup between two iconic franchises that have been competing against one another since 1892.

“It’s already crazy when Jake pitches,” said Anthony Rizzo, the All-Star first baseman who brought so much credibility to the rebuilding project. “I can’t imagine it (with) the rivalry. There’s going to be a lot of Cardinals fans there. There’s going to be a lot of Cubs fans there. It’s going to be a great time. It’s going to be must-watch television.”

Maddon walked into the makeshift media room — basically a storage room underneath the stands that had been cleared out and set up with folding chairs and tables — and took his position on stage in front of the cameras. A reporter asked if the Cubs have become “America’s Team.”

“I never even thought about that,” Maddon said. “We’re on TV a lot. It’s (easy) to see us. I just like the way we’re playing. If people are interested or really getting involved with us…a lot of it has to do with our young players.

“We have a lot of charismatic young players that are attempting to play the game properly. I don’t think you’ve heard one excuse from any of them. They’re very accountable.

“And then, of course, the candle on the cake right now is the season Jake has put together. I think he draws a lot of attention towards us.

“It’s a combination of the youth and maybe one spectacular season out of a pitcher that’s really put the spotlight here. And beyond that, the city itself.”

[NBC SHOP: Buy Cubs playoff gear]

Those young players will get older, more expensive and injured. The egos will get bigger. Maddon’s act could eventually become stale. The clubhouse chemistry created through the machine-generated fog of postgame dance parties might not stay the same.

Dexter Fowler — the you-go-we-go leadoff guy — is about to become a free agent. Arrieta, a Scott Boras client, remains under club control for only two more seasons. The Cubs stayed exceptionally healthy this year and got lucky enough to win 34 one-run games and 13 in extra innings.

Cubs fans and the Chicago media can’t stay giddy forever. Pretty soon, Epstein’s front office, Maddon’s coaching staff and Rizzo’s boys will be at a point in the rebuild where 84 wins could feel like total failure.

So Epstein is trying to enjoy the moment and focus everything on how to beat the Cardinals on Monday at Wrigley Field.

“That’s really what’s on our mind,” Epstein said. “It’s a good feeling to know that we’re positioned with a lot of hard work, some good breaks, some good decisions to make sure that we’re a regular participant in October. But we might never be as well-situated as we are right now. Who knows?

“This is where it’s at.”

Cubs still waiting for Willson Contreras' offense to take off, but they know it's coming

Cubs still waiting for Willson Contreras' offense to take off, but they know it's coming

If every Major League Baseball player was thrown into a draft pool in a fantasy-type format, Willson Contreras may be the first catcher taken.

Joe Maddon and the Cubs certainly wouldn't take anybody else over "Willy."

The Cubs skipper said as much in late-May, placing Contreras' value above guys like Buster Posey, Gary Sanchez and Yadier Molina based on age, athleticism, arm, blocking, intelligence, energy and offensive prowess.
Contreras strikes out more, doesn't hit for as high of an average and doesn't yet have the leadership ability of Posey, but he's also 5 years younger than the Giants catcher. Molina is possibly destined for the Hall of Fame, but he's also 35 and the twilight of his career is emerging. Sanchez is a better hitter with more power currently than Contreras, but a worse fielder.

Remember, Contreras has been in the big leagues for barely 2 years total — the anniversary of his first at-bat came earlier this week:

All that being said, the Cubs are still waiting for Contreras to display that type of complete player in 2018.

He's thrown out 11-of-32 would-be basestealers and the Cubs love the way he's improved behind the plate at calling the game, blocking balls in the dirt and working with the pitcher. They still see some room for improvement with pitch-framing, but that's not suprising given he's only been catching full-time since 2013.

Offensively, Contreras woke up Saturday morning with a .262 batting average and .354 on-base percentage (which are both in line with his career .274/.356 line), but his slugging (.412) is way down compared to his career .472 mark.

He already has 14 doubles (career high in a season was 21 last year) and a career-best 4 triples, but also only 4 homers — 3 of which came in a 2-game stretch against the White Sox on May 11-12.

So where's the power?

"He's just not been hitting the ball as hard," Maddon said. "It's there, he's gonna be fine. Might be just getting a little bit long with his swing. I think that's what I'm seeing more than anything.

"But I have so much faith in him. It was more to the middle of last year that he really took off. That just might be his DNA — slower start, finish fast.

"Without getting hurt last year, I thought he was gonna get his 100 RBIs. So I'm not worried about him. It will come. He's always hit, he can hit, he's strong, he's healthy, he's well, so it's just a patience situation."

The hot streak Maddon is talking about from last season actually began on June 16 and extended to Aug. 9, the date Contreras pulled his hamstring and went to the disabled list for the next month.

In that 45-game span (40 starts) in the middle of 2017, Contreras hit .313/.381/.669 (1.050 OPS) with 16 homers and 45 RBI.

It looked like the 26-year-old catcher may be getting on one of those hot streaks back in mid-May when he clobbered the Marlins, White Sox and Braves pitching staffs to the tune of a .500 average, 1.780 OPS, 3 homers and 11 RBI in a week's worth of action.

But in the month since, Contreras has only 3 extra-base hits and no homers, driving in just 4 runs in 29 games (26 starts) while spending most of his time hitting behind Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo.

What's been the difference?

"I think it's honestly just the playing baseball part of the game," Contreras said. "You're gonna go through your ups and downs, but I definitely do feel like I've been putting in the work and about ready to take off to be able to help the team."

Contreras admitted he's been focused more on his work behind the plate this season, trying to manage the pitching staff, consume all the scouting reports and work on calling the game. He's still trying to figure out how to perfectly separate that area of his game with his at-bats.

"With my defense and calling games, that's one way that I'm able to help the team right now," Contreras said. "And as soon as my bat heats up, we're gonna be able to take off even more."

On the latest round of National League All-Star voting, Contreras was behind Posey among catchers. The Cubs backstop said he would be honored to go to Washington D.C. next month, but also understands he needs to show more of what he's capable of at the plate.

"If I go, I go," he said. "Honestly, it's not something that I'm really focusing on right now. ... I do think I've been pretty consistent in terms of my average and on-base percentage and helping create situations and keep the line moving, at least.

"But right now, I know my bat hasn't been super consistent so far. It would be a great opportunity and I'd thank the fans."

As a whole, the Cubs have been hitting fewer home runs this season compared to last year. Under new hitting coach Chili Davis, they're prioritizing contact and using the whole field over power and pulling the ball.

Contreras has a 19.3 percent strikeout rate — the lowest of his brief big-league career — while still holding a 9.6 percent walk rate, in line with his career mark (9.9 percent).

Thanks to improved defense, Contreras still boasts a 1.6 WAR (FanGraphs) despite the low power output to this point. Posey (1.7 WAR) is the only catcher in baseball more valuable to his team.

Just wait until his power shows up.

"He hasn't even taken off yet," Maddon said. "He's gonna really take off. Remember last year how hot he got in the second half? That's gonna happen again. You see the pickoffs, what he does behind the plate, how he controls the running game — he's a different cat.

"And he's gonna keep getting better. He's not even at that level of consistency that I think you're gonna get out of him. Great athlete, runs well, does a lot of things well, but it does not surprise me that he's [second in NL All-Star voting at catcher] with Posey."

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

A year ago, the Cubs were struggling to float above .500, sitting 1.5 games behind the first-place Brewers.

Two years ago, the Cubs were10.5 games up on the second-place Cardinals in the division and already in cruise control to the postseason.

As they entered a weekend series in Cincinnati at 42-29 and in a tie for first place, the Cubs are feeling quite a bit more like 2016 than 2017.

The major reason? Energy, as Joe Maddon pointed out over the weekend.

That energy shows up most often on defense.

The 2016 Cubs put up maybe the best defensive season in baseball history while last year they truly looked hungover.

After a big of a slow start to 2018, the Cubs are feelin' more of that '16 swag.

If you watched either of the wins against the Los Angeles Dodgers this week at Wrigley Field, it's clear to see why: the defense.

"I like the defense," Maddon said of his team last week. "I'm into the defense. There's a tightness about the group. There's a closeness about the group. Not saying last year wasn't like that, but this group is definitely trending more in the '16 direction regarding interacting.

"If anything — and the one thing that makes me extremely pleased — would be the continuation of the defense. We've fed so much off our defense in '16. We've been doing that more recently again. We do so much good out there, then we come in and it gets kinda electric in the dugout. I'd like to see that trend continue on defense."

The Cubs scored only 2 runs in 10 innings in the second game against the Dodgers Tuesday night and managed just 4 runs in the finale Wednesday. Yet their gloves helped hold the Dodgers to only 1 run combined between the two games.

Wednesday's game was a defensive clinic, with Jason Heyward throwing out Chris Taylor at home plate with an incredible tag by Willson Contreras while Javy Baez, Albert Almora Jr., Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber all hit the ground to make sprawling/diving plays.

"[Almora] comes in and dives for one and I'm just like, 'OK, I'm done clapping for you guys,'" Jon Lester, Wednesday's winning pitcher, joked. "It's expected now that these guys make these plays. It's fun on our end. It's the, 'Here, hit it. Our guys are really good out there and they're gonna run it down.'"

The Heyward throw, in particular, jacked the team up. 

Maddon compared it to a grand slam with how much energy it provided the Cubs. Almora said he momentarily lost his voice because he was screaming so much at the play.

There was also Baez making plays in the hole at shortstop, then switching over to second base and turning a ridiculous unassisted double play on a liner in the 8th inning.

"That's what we're capable of doing," Maddon said. "In the past, when we've won on a high level, we've played outstanding defense. It never gets old to watch that kind of baseball."

The Cubs are back to forcing opposing hitters to jog off the field, shaking their head in frustration and disbelief.

"It could be so dispiriting to the other side when you make plays like that," Maddon said. "And also it's buoyant to your pitchers. So there's all kinds of good stuff goin' on there."

A lot of that is the play of the outfield, with Almora back to himself after a down 2017 season and Schwarber turning into a plus-rated defensive outfield.

After finishing 19th in baseball in outfield assists last season, the Cubs are currently tied for 6th with 14 outfield assists this year.

Schwarber has 7 alone, which is already as many as he tallied in the entire 2017 season.

"I feel like they'll learn quickly on Schwarber, if they haven't yet," Heyward said. "You gotta earn that respect. You gotta earn that sense of caution from the third base coach.

"But please keep running on me in those situations. I want it to happen."