Cubs

What to make of Jeimer Candelario, the breakout star of Cubs camp so far

What to make of Jeimer Candelario, the breakout star of Cubs camp so far

MESA, Ariz. — The Cubs have won the World Series. 

They have an everyday lineup packed with young position players that aren't going anywhere anytime soon.

Sprinkle in a few veterans and the Cubs' big-league roster is already overflowing with talent, to the point where everybody's favorite barroom game right now is trying to figure out how everybody plays.

So why don't we throw another name in there? 

Jeimer Candelario is enjoying a breakout spring for the Cubs, leading the team in hits, (8), runs (5), games played (9) and at-bats (24) through the first week-and-a-half of game action.

The 23-year-old infielder has five hits in six at-bats in the Cubs' last two games before leaving Sunday's game after getting hit on the ankle with a pitch against the Texas Rangers. He was a homer shy of the cycle on Saturday against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

"He's just different this year," Joe Maddon said. "He's more comfortable. ... He watches, he listens, he's quiet, but he's engaged. He's engaged really well. He's gonna be a nice player."

This is actually Candelario's second big-league camp with the Cubs and he made his major-league debut — and appeared in five games — as an injury call-up during the first week of July last year.

Maddon sees a guy that's more comfortable in his "major-league skin," an assessment Candelario agreed with. He said he feels more comfortable in the clubhouse, surrounded by players and coaches he already knows in a situation he's already been through.

"The way they take care of you — the teammates, how they treat you, how they respect you and how they go about your business," Candelario said, "it really gives you confidence and good rhythm here in big-league camp.

"When you don't know everybody well, you are kinda quiet and in your own spot. But right now, I know everybody here and I feel confidence and I feel blessed to be here with these great teammates and great people and great talent."

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Candelario exploded in spring training last year, too, hitting .350 with a 1.056 OPS and seven extra-base hits (four doubles, three homers).

But then he was sent back down to the minors — Double-A Tennessee, to be exact — where he struggled to the tune of a .219 average and .690 OPS in 56 games. He finished the year on a tear after being called up to Triple-A Iowa in June, hitting .333 with a .959 OPS in 76 games.

"Love the guy," Maddon said. "He showed it to us last spring. I think he went out at the beginning of last season and might've applied a little bit too much pressure to himself. Finally, the numbers righted themselves by the end of the year.

"... I think part of it was, he did so well here and then goes back. These are kids. The expectations they fill themselves with, sometimes, are unrealistic, like 'Oh, I did well in spring training, it should be easy.' Then all of a sudden, it's not and then you start to panic.

"I have a lot of faith in this kid. ... For me, the maturation for him is he feels good in his own skin. When that happens, heads up. It's like finding your voice; he's not quite there yet, but he's approaching that Stage 3: I belong here, I can do this.

"He's getting real close to that, from what I can gather. And once he really arrives there, heads up, 'cause he's got some big-boy tools."

Candelario's Triple-A explosion last season netted him spots on Baseball America's Top 10 Cubs prospects (7th) and Baseball Prospectus (5th). He did not appear on BP's 2016 list and came in at 10th on BA's rankings.

Candelario has been almost exclusively a third baseman as he climbed the ranks in the Cubs system, but he played 12 games at first base last year and started there in the place of Anthony Rizzo (tight back) Saturday and Sunday in Cactus League play.

Which brings us to where he fits in the big picture with the Cubs.

When you start rattling off the names of guys who can play third base (Kris Bryant, Javy Baez, Tommy La Stella, even Ben Zobrist and Munenori Kawasaki), it seems like a really tough spot for Candelario to crack, even if Maddon loves his defense at the hot corner.

But if Rizzo went down for an extended period of time, Candelario figures to be toward the top of the list as a first base replacement if the Cubs deem his bat ready.

Maddon already confirmed Bryant and Baez are the backup first basemen at the big-league level right now, but if Candelario keeps hitting the way he has, he may force his way into the lineup if a need arises.

Even in the outfield, though he's never played there in the six seasons he's been in the Cubs system.

"He's the kinda guy you could put in the outfield if you wanted to, but he's so good on the dirt, you'd probably like to leave him there," Maddon said. "However, if the bat comes and these spots are taken, then you do something else."

Which player on the 2019 Cubs has the best redemption story so far?

Which player on the 2019 Cubs has the best redemption story so far?

The Cubs woke up Thursday morning 11 games over .500, 2 games up on the Brewers in the division and sporting the best run differential (+63) in the National League.

But they wouldn't be in that position without some strong comeback seasons from a host of players. 

In the series finale of Game of Thrones this week, Tyrion Lannister made an impassioned speech about how stories bind people and "there's nothing more powerful than a good story."

We already know who had the best redemption arc in Game of Thrones (*cough* Theon Greyjoy *cough*), but who has the best comeback on the 2019 Cubs roster?

There are plenty of worthy candidates — all of whom have been on display in this week's series with the Phillies at Wrigley Field.

Tyler Chatwood

The impetus behind this idea, Chatwood has a very strong case as the Cubs' Comeback Player of the Year. 

After leading Major League Baseball in walks allowed and finding his way out of the rotation by Aug. 1 last season, Chatwood has bounced back in a huge way in 2019. He posted another clutch performance out of the bullpen Wednesday night, throwing 4 innings in relief and allowing only 1 run on a solo shot by Andrew McCutchen.

Chatwood picked up the win in the process and is now 3-0 with a 2.86 ERA and 1.34 WHIP in 28.1 innings. He's been even better of late, posting a 1.82 ERA in 24.2 innings since April 7.

"If he's throwing strikes, he can do anything, absolutely," Joe Maddon said. "But he's been valuable with the length, like he showed today. We needed to have a length guy today. He came through. 

"As we rectify [the bullpen] maybe you get other people that can provide those jobs, maybe you can spot him up a little bit. It's all about him, man. If he wants to go out there and do that, you can put him in anywhere, anytime."

Chatwood has been clutch for the Cubs in so many different roles, including tossing 6 shutout innings in a spot start on April 21, 4 shutout frames in extra innings against the Brewers on May 11 and then Wednesday night's performance to help pick up some of the slack after starter Cole Hamels was forced out of the game by the fifth inning.

"It was awesome," Hamels said. " ... You have him and he's got electric stuff and he's been able to come in after me a few times and just absolutely dominate. That's just great to see. To have that type of caliber guy coming out of the bullpen, it's a big sigh of relief because he can go multiple innings. 

"It definitely alleviates the amount of innings that the relievers are getting and the up-downs because myself not being able to go deep into 2 ballgames within a week is not helpful. So to see what Tyler was able to do, that was outstanding."

Kris Bryant

It took a while for the former MVP to really state his #ComebackSZN case, but he's certainly done that over the last month. 

Bryant has re-emerged as a viable candidate to take the crown as the Cubs' best player and has left no doubt that he's fully over his shoulder injury. 

After another multi-hit game Wednesday night, Bryant is now slashing .280/.404/.560 on the season (.964 OPS) and is on pace for 38 homers, 110 RBI and 138 runs scored.

Of all the guys on this list, Bryant's return to form might be the most important to the Cubs' overall success. 

It's not unheard of for teams to turn in successful seasons without their stars performing up to par or staying healthy, but it's so much easier to have a special season when your studs put up studly numbers.

Albert Almora Jr.

Almora smacked his first career grand slam Wednesday night and was rewarded with a chill-inducing curtain call by nearly 40,000 Cubs fans after the game-winning blast.

"Those are the things you dream about as a kid," Almora said. "That curtain call, all of that went by so quick. I wish I could've enjoyed it a little bit more, but it's something I'll never forget."

But what's even more impressive about the grand slam is that it was Almora's fifth homer of 2019 — the same total he had in all of 2018 when his power cratered in the second half. And we still have more than 2/3 of the season remaining.

Almora has always been a streaky hitter and he got off to a wicked cold stretch to begin this year, but he's been one of the most productive hitters in this Cubs lineup for the last month. 

He's also taken some major steps forward against right-handed pitchers, sporting a .312 average and .827 OPS in an area that was his biggest weakness coming into the season.

Willson Contreras

Speaking of last year's homer total, Contreras has already blown by his 2018 mark, drilling his 11th dinger in Washington D.C. last weekend. 

He once again looks like arguably the best offensive catcher in the game and leads the Cubs in on-base percentage (.421) and OPS (1.024) and is second in slugging percentage (.603).

Contreras is on pace for 38 homers and 103 RBI out of the catcher's spot and has helped solidify the lineup by lending protection for Javy Baez in the middle of the order.

Brandon Kintzler

The 34-year-old reliever has struggled a bit of late, but it's still safe to say Kintzler has been the MVP of the Cubs bullpen all season. 

After coming over to the Cubs in a midseason trade from the Nationals, Kintzler never found his form last year, posting a 7.00 ERA and 2.00 WHIP in 25 appearances. The Cubs declined their team option on the veteran, but he exercised his $5 million player option, much to the chagrin of a large contingent of the fanbase.

But where would the 2019 Cubs be without Kintzler? The bullpen has been a big point of contention for much of the season and the Cubs have been missing closer Brandon Morrow all season, interim closer Pedro Strop for the last few weeks and are still waiting on former top setup man Carl Edwards Jr. to get right.

Meanwhile, Kintzler has a 3.18 ERA, 0.84 WHIP and 8 holds. He's walked just 4 batters in 22.2 innings and is squarely in Maddon's circle of trust.

Jose Quintana

Quintana didn't have a horrible 2018 season, but he underwhelmed pretty much from start to finish. 

So far this season, he's shown exactly why the Cubs gave up so much to acquire him in July 2017. 

The veteran southpaw is tied for the team lead in wins (4), second in innings pitched (57.1), third in strikeouts (54) and third among starters in ERA (3.30) after quietly tossing 6 shutout innings Tuesday night.

Quintana has also given the Cubs some much-needed consistency in the rotation in a season in which Jon Lester has already spent time on the injured list, Kyle Hendricks got off to a shaky start, Hamels has scuffled a bit lately and Yu Darvish is just now starting to turn a corner. 

Over his last 8 starts, Quintana has turned in 6 quality starts and he's allowed more than 3 runs in just one outing so far.

So who has the best redemption arc on the 2019 Cubs?

Maybe it's none of the above. 

One fan brought up a great point — maybe it's Theo Epstein who should get some credit for sticking with the guys the Cubs already had:

Of course, Epstein's hand was pretty much forced this winter due to the budget constraints and guys like Kintzler and Chatwood were both under contract for a pretty hefty guaranteed price tag with essentially no trade value...but you get the point. 

The Cubs could've blown this thing up as an overreaction to the way 2018 ended and they didn't and now they're in first place with the season nearly 1/3 of the way completed. 

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The Confidence Conundrum: How Albert Almora Jr. turned his season around

The Confidence Conundrum: How Albert Almora Jr. turned his season around

What's the secret behind Albert Almora Jr.'s recent offensive resurgence?

It wasn't switching to an axe bat like Kris Bryant. It wasn't even a mechanical adjustment of any kind.

No, Almora has turned things around at the plate just because he has more of a belief in himself right now.

"This game is all about confidence," the Cubs centerfielder said. "It's a game of ups and downs. It's tough mentally, but the quicker you could get back to having that confidence, the better. It's kinda like tricking yourself."

Having 39,246 people demand a curtain call has to do wonders for your confidence.

Almora hit his first career grand slam in the bottom of the fifth inning Wednesday night and was none too happy to oblige the packed house at Wrigley Field.

That blast was his fifth homer of the season, which ties the total he reached in all of last season.

Over the first 21 games of 2019, Almora was hitting just .182 with a .432 OPS and 0 extra-base hits in 61 plate appearances.

Then he pinch hit against Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen on April 25 and smacked his first homer of the season. Since then, he's hitting .341 with a .966 OPS and 12 extra-base hits in 87 plate appearances. 

So if the difference is confidence, is there a way to manufacture confidence? Like a "fake it until you make it" kind of thing?

"No, it's tough," Almora said. "It really is. Maybe some guys are really good at it. Defensively, it's a different type of confidence, because you can control more, but you can be confident at the plate and not have the results."

When Bryant started turning things around at the end of April, much was made about his switch to an axe bat. There's no doubt that change in weaponry perfectly correlated with Bryant's red-hot production at the plate over the last month, but even he downplayed the whole thing, using the idiom, "it's not the arrow, it's the Indian" on the Cubs' last homestand.

In talking about Bryant Tuesday night, all Joe Maddon discussed was the star player's confidence, saying he is "unconsciously confident" in every aspect of his game right now.

"It's just who I am — I feel like this is me as a baseball player," Bryant said. "I'm working counts, getting on base, baserunning, playing all over. When I'm doing that, I feel pretty confident, so I hope I can continue that."

Cubs hitting coach Anthony Iapoce echoed Almora's sentiment that baseball is all about confidence and while mechanical changes can certainly help breed that confidence, the only real way to build it is with positive results on the field. 

Obviously mechanics come into play all the time in professional baseball and there's no doubt Almora's and Bryant's physical mechanics are locked in at the moment.   

But there's no substitute for confidence and there's no drill to work on something that isn't tangible and can't even be quantified. 

"I don't know [how to build confidence]," Almora said. "I wish I had the answer. That's why this game is so hard. You just gotta battle and try to not ride that huge up-and-down roller coaster. Try to stay the same. I feel like just having a good attitude is a good part of it and I think it's something I'm trying to feed off of my teammates. I think I've been doing a really good job of just being happy no matter what."

This is Almora's fourth year in the big leagues and he's closing in on 1,100 plate appearances at this level. But he still doesn't feel like he's come anywhere close to mastering the Confidence Conundrum.

"No, because you wanna perform every year, so every year's different no matter what," Almora said. "I've had success hitting at the big-league level, but every year's a new challenge and every year you have challenges for yourself and for your team to win, obviously. It never gets easier."

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