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."

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 9th homer in 1998

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 9th homer in 1998

It's the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Sammy, when Sosa and Mark McGwire went toe-to-toe in one of the most exciting seasons in American sports history chasing after Roger Maris' home run record. All year, we're going to go homer-by-homer on Sosa's 66 longballs, with highlights and info about each. Enjoy.

Get ready for an onslaught of Sammy Sosa homers and highlights coming nearly every day over the next month-plus.

After a slow start to his historic 1998 season, Sosa really started heating up in late May. He sent his 9th ball into the bleachers on May 22, beginning a run of 25 longballs in roughly five weeks of action leading up to June 30.

Sosa's 9th homer actually came off Greg Maddux, a solo shot with two outs to give the Cubs an early lead in Atlanta. Chicago reliever Bob Patterson wound up blowing the game wide open late as the Cubs stumbled to an 8-2 loss.

Maddux, meanwhile, tossed 8 stellar innings, allowing only 5 hits and 2 runs - including the 440-foot homer to Sosa.

Fun fact: The Braves leadoff hitter that day was none other than current NBC Sports Chicago baseball analyst Ozzie Guillen, who was in the midst of his first season in the big leagues not in a White Sox uniform.

Fun fact No. 2: Atlanta's No. 2 hitter in the game was Keith Lockhart, who is now a scout in the Cubs organization.

Cubs vs. Indians: Which team is better positioned to get back to the World Series in 2018?

Cubs vs. Indians: Which team is better positioned to get back to the World Series in 2018?

It's been nearly 19 months since the Cubs and Indians played what may go down as history as the most important baseball game ever.

Game 7s are always instant classics just because of the win-or-go-home aspect, but the added bonus on that early-November day in 2016 was the fact either one of Major League Baseball's longest championship droughts was going to end. It was just a matter of whether it would be the Cubs' 108-year history or the Indians' 70-year.

Obviously we all know how that played out and for the first time since holding a 3-1 lead in that 2016 World Series, the Indians are returning to Wrigley Field for a brief two-game set beginning Tuesday night.

We're only a little over a quarter of the way through the 2018 campaign so the playoffs are a long way away. But could these two teams be destined for another date in the Fall Classic?

Let's examine the current positions:

STARTING PITCHING

The rotation is the easiest place to look for championship teams. It's really hard to survive a month of high-intensity postseason baseball without a stable of workhorses (even in today's changing world of shorter and shorter outings). 

On paper in spring training, these looked like two of the top rotations in baseball. It hasn't played out that way for the Cubs, though there is clearly reason for optimism with the way Jose Quintana and Yu Darvish pitched over the weekend in Cincinnati.

But the Indians rotation has been absolutely incredible, even including Josh Tomlin who was just bumped to the bullpen with a 7.84 ERA. The Top 4 starters in Cleveland can go toe-to-toe with any in baseball, as Corey Kluber (2.36 ERA, 0.84 WHIP), Carlos Carrasco (3.65, 1.07), Trevor Bauer (2.59, 1.12) and Mike Cleveniger (2.87, 1.16) would create plenty of issues for the opposition in a playoff series.

The rotation is the true strength of the Indians and while the Cubs still boast a starting 5 that could potentially hold its own against anybody in baseball, this one has to go the way of Cleveland.

Edge: Indians

BULLPEN

When you feature Andrew Miller and Cody Allen, it'd be easy to look at that and chalk it up as a Cleveland victory in the bullpen category, but things haven't been so great for the Indians of late.

Miller can't stay healthy and even when he is on the mound, rough outings have dragged his overall numbers (3.09 ERA, 1.54 WHIP) down. We're not used to seeing Miller's ERA even start with a "2" let alone a "3" so this is definitely a cause for concern. Allen, meanwhile, has only blown 1 save in 7 chances, but he also has a 3.32 ERA and 1.26 WHIP, which would be his worst numbers of any season since his rookie year of 2012.

The rest of the Cleveland bullpen is a complete mess, with Zach McAllister (7.16 ERA), Dan Otero (7.47), Tyler Olson (6.08), Nick Goody (6.94) and Matt Belisle (5.06) all struggling.

The relief corps has been an area of major strength for the Cubs in the first quarter of the season. Only Luke Farrell has an ERA above 5.00 in that Cubs bullpen and four different pitchers boast ERAs under 2.00 — Brandon Morrow (1.13), Steve Cishek (1.71), Pedro Strop (1.35) and Brian Duensing (0.61). 

The Cubs' main trick will be managing the workload for all these guys to ensure they don't run full-speed into a wall as they did late last season. But for now, the Cubs bullpen is head and shoulders above the Indians.

Edge: Cubs

OFFENSE

This is the toughest area to evaluate between these two teams.

The Indians' offense is incredibly top-heavy with Francisco Lindor (.933 OPS), Jose Ramirez (.985) and Michael Brantley (.936) providing probably the best Top 3 in an order in baseball. Brantley wasn't around for that 2016 World Series and has missed so much time the last few years with health woes, but he's back and as good as ever right now.

Beyond that, Cleveland is still searching for help. With Lonnie Chisenhall, Tyler Naquin and Bradley Zimmer on the disabled list, the Indians outfield was so desperate for help they had to add Melky Cabrera to the mix as well as needing to rely on 37-year-old Rajai Davis.

Edwin Encarnacion will probably heat up at some point overall, but he's still on pace for close to 40 dingers. Jason Kipnis has been atrocious and Yonder Alonso has also underwhelmed. There's not much in the way of offensive help coming, either, until Zimmer and Chisenhall are healthy.

The Cubs feature a Jekyll and Hyde offense that sometimes looks like the best lineup in the game and at other times, causes their fanbase to pull out hair in frustration. But that's also the way the game has gone in general right now.

That being said, Kris Bryant is making a serious case as the best player in baseball, Willson Contreras is making a serious case as the best catcher in baseball, Albert Almora Jr. is making a serious case as deserving all the Cubs' at-bats in center field and Javy Baez is making a serious case as the starting All-Star second baseman this summer, currently leading the National League in RBI.

Even Ian Happ has utilized a recent hot streak in Cincinnati to bump up his season numbers (now boasting an .870 OPS) and soon-to-be-37-year-old Ben Zobrist has a .382 on-base percentage.

Once Anthony Rizzo gets back to being the hitter we all know him to be and Addison Russell starts depositing baseballs into the bleachers on a regular basis, you'd figure the Cubs offense would stablize.

There's too much potential and talent here to finish anywhere but Top 3 in the NL in runs scored, which cannot be said about the Indians in the AL.

Edge: Cubs

DEFENSE

Another area where the Cubs have been up-and-down, but once again, there is too much talent and potential here not to give Chicago the edge.

Zimmer's return will greatly improve the Indians' team defense and Lindor is still great, but Cleveland still can't match the Cubs' potential Gold Glove contenders at 5+ positions (Rizzo, Russell, Baez, Almora, Jason Heyward).

Edge: Cubs

INTANGIBLES

Both teams have some awesome veteran leadership and even the younger players are plenty battle-tested.

Terry Francona and Joe Maddon are two of the best managers in the game, but Francona may have a longer leash in Cleveland. Maddon's honeymoon period on Chicago's North Side ended the day the Cubs won the World Series, oddly.

The jury is still out on the new Cubs coaching staff, too. Chili Davis looks to be making an impact with the Cubs offense at times and his strategy of using the whole field and limiting strikeouts will take some time to really show strides on a consistent basis. The Cubs pitching staff is still walking FAR too many batters, but that's hardly Jim Hickey's fault.

Both teams should be plenty hungry all summer long as they were bounced from the 2017 postseason in ways that left poor tastes in their respective mouths.

But we'll give this edge to the Indians simply because they are still searching for that elusive championship, so maybe that drive will give them a leg up on the Cubs.

Edge: Indians

OVERALL

The Indians are 22-23, but actually sit in 1st place in the woeful American League Central.

The Cubs are 25-19, yet duking it out with a trio of other teams in their own division.

As such, the Indians' road TO the playoffs seems much, much easier as we sit here in the week leading up to Memorial Day. And the ability to cruise to a division title will allow them to rest and conserve their energy for October, while the Cubs will probably not get to coast to the NLDS like they did in 2016.

That rest and relaxtion may give the Indians an edge, but as of right now, this Cubs roster looks to be better equipped to win it all.