Cubs

Who's next? Joe Maddon knows Willson Contreras can impact Cubs

Who's next? Joe Maddon knows Willson Contreras can impact Cubs

PHILADELPHIA – The obsession with what’s next means Cubs fans and the Chicago media are already wondering about Willson Contreras’ ETA now that Albert Almora Jr. has left Triple-A Iowa and made his big-league debut. 

Contreras is the catcher of the future for an organization now carrying three catchers – Miguel Montero, David Ross and Tim Federowicz – at the major-league level. There are obvious questions about Contreras catching Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta’s electric stuff, meshing with John Lackey’s unique personality and handling the coaching staff’s intricate game-planning system.

But when Contreras is hitting like this at Iowa – .343 average with nine homers, 39 RBI and a 1.026 OPS through 48 games – people start to wonder when he will be in The Show. And if Contreras could essentially become the big bat added before the trade deadline, the way Kyle Schwarber burst onto the scene last year as a rough-around-the-edges catcher.

“You’ll see (Contreras) here at some point – I’m certain of that,” manager Joe Maddon said Wednesday at Citizens Bank Park. “I just don’t know when. But he’s doing everything properly. I’m hearing a lot about his defense, because you think he’s going to hit.

“The big thing with us is you can see our pitching staff’s doing so well. How much do our catchers have to do with that? We have some veteran catchers back there now that can really help pitchers.

“So just make sure that all the boxes are checked properly and then you bring him up when you think it’s the right time. But I’ve heard nothing but glowing reports about him.”

Yes, the Cubs lead the big leagues in rotation ERA (2.34) by a wide margin – with the well-publicized New York Mets second at 3.20 – but their catchers are also hitting .211 combined with a .679 OPS that’s about average across the majors. 

Still, the Cubs are willing to sacrifice offense for defense. Almora, 22, made his first big-league start on Wednesday afternoon, batting sixth and playing left field against the Philadelphia Phillies. Contreras, 24, would also be entering what’s become a great atmosphere for young players, with the attention and pressure spread out across the clubhouse and a manager who helps create a sense of belief.

“You can’t expect a finished product,” Maddon said. “You got to expect some things to pop that you’re just going to have to address and work on. But I’m fine with that. That’s part of (the job).

“Understand that they’re also going to make mistakes, just like veterans do. I hate the term ‘rookie mistake’ – I’ve seen a lot of veterans make the same mistakes. I’ve never really uttered those words.

“With young guys, I’m talking about the nuance of the game, understanding little things, whether it’s base-running stuff, whether it’s making sure you’re throwing to the right base, working an at-bat (when) your pitcher just had a long inning and you go out there and you make a first-pitch out. Those are the kind of things you want to make sure that the guy is savvy about.

“A Major League Baseball game is really chock full of nuance that is not really played up as much in the minor leagues.”

That would be a final piece to the education of Contreras, who should at least get acclimated for a bigger role in 2017, if not become this year’s Schwarber. The Cubs don’t have to force it now – unless another injury happens – but the noise around Contreras is only going to get louder.

“I’m patient because I know who I am and I’m having a good season here, so sooner or later they have do something,” Contreras recently told The Des Moines Register. “As soon as I get there, I will never be back.”

Forget 2015, the Brewers are more like 2016 Cubs

Forget 2015, the Brewers are more like 2016 Cubs

With the Milwaukee Brewers about to kick off the NLCS, many Cubs fans and pundits have taken to comparing them to the 2015 Cubs.

At first glance, it's easy to see why — they're in the playoffs for the first time as something of an underdog and "surprise" team — but that's not the recent Cubs squad we should be comparing the 2018 Brewers to.

This Milwaukee team is a lot more like the 2016 Cubs.

Here's why:

1. They're not a surprise.

Nobody expected the 2015 Cubs to win 97 games and wind up in the NLCS. They were expected to compete very soon, but everything went right in a red-hot August, they rode Jake Arrieta's right arm to the NLDS and then toppled the Cardinals to get to the LCS, where they ran into the brick wall that was Matt Harvey and and the Mets pitching staff.

The 2018 Brewers are not — and should not be — a surprise. Anybody who was caught off guard by this team being so good hasn't been paying much attention. The Brewers were leading the NL Central in 2017 for much of the year before a late-season fade that coincided with the Cubs' late-season surge.

This Milwaukee squad was always supposed to be one of the top teams in the NL in 2018 and they really hit their groove in September to chase down the Cubs. Still, it took a Game 163 to force a changing of the guard atop the division.

2. They greatly improved expectations with a big free-agent OF signing over the winter.

The Cubs had Jason Heyward in between 2015 and '16. The Brewers had Lorenzo Cain.

Cain has provided quite a bit more offense in the first season of his 5-year, $80 million contract but both Cain and Heyward provided leadership in the clubhouse and elite defense in the outfield in the first years with their new teams.

3. The Brewers have the NL MVP.

This one's an easy comparison to make, though Cubs fans will hate it.

Christian Yelich is this season's NL MVP. Sorry, Javy Baez fans. "El Mago" had a great season, but it's impossible to give the award to anybody but Yelich.

Yelich winning the league's most coveted accolade would be another perfect tie-in to the 2016 Cubs, who had Kris Bryant take home NL MVP.

4. They have a dominant LHP out of the bullpen.

Josh Hader has been doing his best Aroldis Chapman impression in 2018 as an absolutely dominant southpaw out of the bullpen. Unlike Chapman, Hader's spent all season with the Brewers, but like Chapman in '16, Hader will be leaned on heavily for multiple innings throughout the rest of the playoffs.

5. They picked up some valuable in-season assets.

The 2016 Cubs dealt for Chapman, but they also traded for reliever Joe Smith and called up Willson Contreras in the middle of the year, who provided a spark for the offense.

The 2018 Brewers have acquired plenty of valuable assets along the way this season from Mike Moustakas to Jonathan Schoop to Erik Kratz (more on him later) to Gio Gonzalez. But one of their most important additions (especially in October) was the promotion of top prospect Corbin Burnes, a flame-throwing right-hander who posted a 2.61 ERA in 30 regular-season games and allowed only 1 hit in 4 shutout innings in the DS.

6. They're on a mission with a chip on their shoulder.

The 2015 Cubs had a little bit of a chip on their shoulder as they attempted to take down the divisional powerhouse that was the St. Louis Cardinals. But again, they were a surprise contender - even within that clubhouse (especially early in 2015). But after falling short in the NLCS, the Cubs retooled over the winter and came back with one goal in mind - to win the World Series.

It was a goal they accomplished. We'll see if the Brewers will be able to do the same, but they certainly came to play in 2018 with a chip on their shoulder and the ultimate goal of winning the final MLB game of the year.

The Brewers didn't lead the division from Day 1 and weren't able to coast into October, but they still wound up with homefield advantage throughout the NL playoffs.

7. They have journeyman catcher who is winning over fans' hearts.

This is a fun one.

The 2016 Cubs had David "Grandpa" Rossy who still elicts deafening cheers whenever he's shown on the giant video board at Wrigley Field. The 2018 Brewers have Kratz, who has become a fan favorite recently and was mic'd up for the final out of the NLDS.

Ross was 39 when he helped lead the Cubs to the 2016 World Series and Chicago was his eighth stop (seventh different team) along his MLB journey. Kratz is 38 and on his ninth stop (seventh different team) along his MLB journey.

In fact, Ross and Kratz are so intertwined, they've already been compared to each other by MLB.com.

But the major difference is Kratz has zero postseason playing experience until a week ago. Will he be able to ride off into the sunset with a championship ring on his finger the way Ross did?

We'll have an answer to that over the next few weeks in the final chapter of the Brewers' 2018 season, though Cubs fans surely wouldn't be too happy to see their division rivals celebrating with a World Series parade just 90 minutes north of Wrigley Field.

Cubs bench coach Brandon Hyde interviewed for Rangers' manager opening

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USA TODAY

Cubs bench coach Brandon Hyde interviewed for Rangers' manager opening

The Cubs just lost one coach with hitting coach Chili Davis getting fired. Another opening on Joe Maddon's coaching staff could also open up.

According to report from MLB.com's T.R. Sullivan, bench coach Brandon Hyde interviewed with the Rangers on Thursday.

Rangers farm director Jayce Tingler was the first candidate the club interviewed, but Hyde and Astros bench coach Joe Espada were also interviewed.

The 45-year-old Hyde has been with the Cubs since 2014. He was a bench coach in 2014 under Rick Renteria before moving to first base coach from 2015-17. This past season he moved back to his original role as bench coach.

He played four seasons in the minors for the White Sox.

The Rangers job opened up when Jeff Banister was fired on Sept. 21. Banister won AL Manager of the Year in 2015 and guided the Rangers to back-to-back playoff appearances in 2015 and 2016, but couldn't get out of the ALDS either year. A 78-84 season in 2017 was followed by an even worse 2018, which led to his firing late this season.