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Youth movement will pay off for Cubs in 2016

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Youth movement will pay off for Cubs in 2016

The Hall of Fame shutout for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens — and the Baseball Writers’ Association of America shunning Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire — reinforces the idea this is a young man’s game again.

Professional athletes aren’t supposed to be record-shattering peak performers through their mid-30s and still playing at an MVP/Cy Young level around their 40th birthday.

It would be naïve and foolish to think the game is completely clean, that every trace of ego, greed and insecurity has been scrubbed away now or that Major League Baseball is somehow on top of all the cutting-edge chemistry.

But at a time of tougher testing for performance-enhancing drugs — when players should in theory break down faster, come back from injuries slower and might not be getting the same pick-me-ups to combat the brutal travel/day-night schedule — it pays to be young, deep and flexible.

That’s what the Cubs are now, making them a World Series favorite, the champions of the offseason, a team that will be playing with a target on its back from the moment pitchers and catchers report to Arizona in February.

This lineup is built around young power hitters: Anthony Rizzo (26), Kris Bryant (24), Jorge Soler (24 in February), Kyle Schwarber (23 in March). Addison Russell — who stabilized the team’s defense once he took over at shortstop — will turn 22 this month. Jason Heyward — the Gold Glove outfielder with $184 million guaranteed — is actually a day younger than Rizzo.

[MORE CUBS: Sammy Sosa (barely) stays on the Hall of Fame ballot for another year]

Besides primary second baseman Ben Zobrist — who perfected the super-utility role on Joe Maddon’s Tampa Bay Rays teams — this roster also features other versatile players who can handle multiple positions: Bryant, Javier Baez, Chris Coghlan.

Maddon can get creative, play matchups and keep everyone fresh with four swingmen who can pitch multiple innings out of the bullpen: Adam Warren, Travis Wood, Trevor Cahill, Clayton Richard.

The experience of winning 97 games and advancing to the National League Championship Series will also pay dividends. Jon Lester — the $155 million lefty who won two World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox — talked about that amid the celebration at Wrigley Field after the Cubs eliminated the St. Louis Cardinals.

Lester — who once tipped his cap to Derek Jeter in that farewell Nike commercial — used the New York Yankees and their homegrown core as his reference point.

“They taught the young guys,” Lester said. “They taught the other guys how to win — and how to be a Yankee. So these guys in the future will be able to teach the young guys how to be a Cub — and how to do it the right way — and how to win at the same time. That just sets us up for success for a long time.

“That’s one of the reasons why I really wanted to come here. I wanted to be a part of this and be a part of that group. Even though I’m a little bit — well — a lot older than them. Because I believe in having that core.”

[MORE CUBS: Starlin Castro thanks Chicago in vulnerable open letter for Players' Tribune]

The Cubs Way still has a lot to prove, but catching/strategy coach Mike Borzello sees some of those parallels after working on the Yankee teams that won four World Series titles between 1996 and 2000.

“They’re not in awe at all,” Borzello said. “I feel like the whole game’s changed now where the young players come right in and seem to have no problem adjusting to being a big-league player.

“Twenty years ago, there were very few Derek Jeters that belonged right from Day 1. Most of them had to come up — and go down — and kind of fail and understand it all first. Here, I feel like they all show up and they’re ready to go. Almost like: ‘What took you so long to call me up here?’

“That’s what’s impressed me — not only just about our team — but all of baseball, (how) these young players come up and are ready to jump right in and take the responsibility on.

“With this team in particular, to have so many at one time is incredible. You’re having all these 22-year-olds and 23-year-olds thrown not (just) onto the team, but right into the starting lineup. They’re your core players right from Day 1.

“To be able to handle the hype — and also produce right when you get here — is astounding.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

Not that Maddon has trouble getting his players’ attention, but after hearing how great the Cubs were in 2015, the manager will point to the breakdowns during that four-game sweep against the New York Mets, so that veteran catcher Miguel Montero stays prepared, Baez keeps himself focused and Schwarber and Soler better understand the subtleties of playing a corner-outfield spot.

“You’re always, always looking to get better,” Maddon said. “So when you want to preach something about maybe the little things in spring training — and then point out what occurred last October — it actually helps a lot. Because the guys that have never been through it before — we’ve talked about the minutiae and how important it is — (but) it doesn’t really resonate with them sometimes.

“Now, having gone through this — putting the bunt down, hitting the cutoff man, being in the right position or whatever — it’s an easier sell.”

10 thoughts on the Cubs heading into the most important series of the season

10 thoughts on the Cubs heading into the most important series of the season

Only 10 games remain in the Cubs' 2019 regular season. 

Seven of those 10 games come against the first-place St. Louis Cardinals, beginning Thursday night at Wrigley Field. 

The Cardinals come into the series with a 3-game lead over the Cubs, while the Milwaukee Brewers — who lost Wednesday night — are also 3.0 games back and tied with the Cubs for the final playoff spot in the National League. Both teams trail the Washington Nationals by 1.5 games for the top Wild-Card spot. 

The only way the Cubs end this weekend in first place in the division is by taking all four games from the Cardinals — who have been one of the hottest teams in baseball the last two months. Anything less than a sweep means the Cubs will enter the final week of the season at least a game out.

It's not an impossible thought. The Cardinals have yet to win a game at Wrigley Field this season, going 0-6. But this is a different St. Louis team than the last time they visited town in early June.

"This is gonna be a lot of fun," Joe Maddon said. "It's not an easy task. Anything and everything's possible and we're gonna go into it with that thought. It's one at a time."

All homestand, the Cubs have been preaching the need to stay in the moment and take each day as it comes.

'We know what's in front of us," Jon Lester said. "We know what lies there and how big of a weekend it is. But if you start looking toward the entire weekend, you forget about tomorrow and we gotta worry about that."

Here are 10 thoughts on the Cubs heading into the biggest series of the season:

1. This Cubs-Cardinals rivalry is about to hit a fever pitch

If you thought the three-game series between these two teams to finish last season was intense, wait until these next two weekends. 

"There is no more fun than how we're doing this right now," Maddon said. "Of course we're expecting a good result, but to do it vs. the Cardinals. When you're looking at the schedule at the beginning of the year, you're hoping you have like an 8-game lead by the time this [stretch] occurs, but then you get in the position we're in here, you're thankful that you have to play them that many times. It is what it is."

Maddon said he already had lined up how the Cubs batting order and defensive alignment would look for the four-game series before Wednesday's game, but was still focused on making sure his team keeps that one-day-at-a-time mindset.

The Cubs know they control their own destiny over the next week-and-a-half, but they can't get there if they're trying to win Sunday's game on Thursday or trying to make up the 3-game gap in the division all in one day.

2. Scoreboard watching will be awfully interesting

The Cubs and their fans will obviously know how the team fares in relation to the Cardinals this weekend, but Cubdom will also be Padres, Pirates and Marlins fans over the next few days.

The Brewers finish off a four-game set with San Diego Thursday afternoon before welcoming the Pirates for three games over the weekend. Meanwhile, the Nationals enjoy their final off-day of the season Thursday before embarking on a road trip to Miami for three games. Beginning Friday, Washington has to play 11 games over the final 10 days of the season, including a doubleheader against the Phillies Tuesday.

Maddon and the Cubs players insist they don't spend too much time watching the scoreboard, but they also can't help themselves, especially at this time of the year.

How do Theo Epstein and the rest of the Cubs front office executives view the rest of the pennant race?

"Do you want the answer I should give or the real answer?" Epstein joked. "We all watch a lot of baseball this time of year — not just our own team. If we win our games, we're gonna win the division because we play the Cardinals so many times. That lessens the import of scoreboard-watching. 

"It's really something you should not spend too much time doing because you can't control it. You're just hoping, you're just watching. It's better to pour your energy into who you're playing or who you're about to play, trying to find some small nugget that might help in some small way. Scoreboard-watching doesn't really get you anywhere. Now, you can root, but you don't want to spend too much time on it."

3. The Brewers are built for this month

Even with Wednesday's loss to the Padres, the Brewers have still been the hottest team in baseball this month, winning 13 of their 17 contests.

This is a team that looked to be running out of fumes entering September, but the Cubs have nobody but themselves to blame for letting Milwaukee back into the race. Maddon and Co. went just 2-5 against the Brewers earlier this month and gave the team life that sustained them even when reigning NL MVP Christian Yelich was lost for the season with a fractured kneecap.

Even still, this is the second straight year where the Brewers look like a totally different team in September than they were during the first five months of the season. Suddenly, their rotation issues aren't a problem since they have so many relievers to help cover and their "starters" now only go three or four innings.

That extreme bullpenning strategy clearly works against good teams (the Cubs and Cardinals can attest to that), but it can be especially effective against rebuilding teams just playing out the season...which is what Milwaukee's schedule consists of the rest of the way (Padres, Pirates, Reds, Rockies).

4. The timelines for Rizzo and Baez

Anthony Rizzo is still in a boot and unable to walk until at least the weekend, but his sprained right ankle will be re-evaluated at that point to determine if he will be able to make it back at all before October. We may not know anything before the end of this homestand, but any Rizzo updates will be crucial.

Javy Baez is supposed to meet with doctors later this week to determine an updated timeline on his fractured thumb. The Cubs aren't expecting him to play again in the regular season, but right now, they don't even know if he'll be able to suit up in October (if they get there).

5. The return of Kimbrel and Kintzler

The Cubs certainly missed their closer and top setup guy Wednesday night. In a tight, extra-inning game, Maddon had no choice but to go to inexperienced rookie James Norwood in the 10th inning with Steve Cishek not available (he pitched both Monday and Tuesday night) and Craig Kimbrel (elbow) and Brandon Kintzler (left side) still not healthy.

David Phelps, Pedro Strop, Kyle Ryan, Tyler Chatwood, Rowan Wick and Derek Holland had already been used after Jon Lester was removed with nobody out and two runners on in the sixth inning.

Kimbrel hasn't pitched since Sept. 1, but threw a bullpen Tuesday night and reported positive after it. He went through a regular pregame routine Wednesday and could be activated from the injured list before Thursday's game. 

Kintzler said he's been dealing with the left oblique issue for the last few weeks, but the pain became too unbearable in San Diego last week, so he shut it down for a little while. He threw Wednesday and is hoping to return to the Cubs bullpen sometime this weekend, though no exact day has been determined yet.

6. Can the bullpen stay hot?

Even with the 2 runs allowed Wednesday night and the bullpen taking a loss, this group of Cubs relievers still has the best ERA in Major League Baseball since the All-Star Break and is head and shoulders above the rest of the pack in September.

The bullpens figure to play a huge role in this weekend's series — and all seven games remaining against the Cardinals. 

Maddon had to utilize nearly every name in the 'pen Wednesday, but anticipated every one of the guys would be available Thursday for the opener against St. Louis. The only guy who might have a bit of a restriction is Wick, who needed 26 pitches to get through the ninth inning Wednesday night.

Cishek should be available and Kimbrel could once again help lock things down at the back end.

7. Hoerner vs. Russell at shortstop

Addison Russell is eligible to return from the 7-day concussion IL Thursday after missing the last week-and-a-half following a pitch to the face in Milwaukee. He went through a complete pregame routine Wednesday, including batting practice and taking grounders at shortstop.

Nico Hoerner is still only 15 months removed from being drafted, but the rookie has given the Cubs a spark over his first 10 big-league games, hitting .317 with an .876 OPS while impressing everybody with his defense at shortstop and calm demeanor.

Maddon has already indicated he may still stick with Hoerner at shortstop even when Russell is ready to return, though he still prefers Russell's defense at shortstop. Both Russell and Hoerner can play second base, so it's possible they are in the lineup — at least defensively — at various points this weekend, too (assuming Russell does not suffer a setback). 

8. State of the offense

The Cubs lineup set records this weekend with productivity, but it came with Rizzo leading off, the wind blowing out at Wrigley and against a bad Pirates pitching staff. They were able to carry it over just one day into the Reds series before once again going back to their Jekyll and Hyde ways.

To a man, the Cubs tipped their caps to the Cincinnati pitching staff after Tuesday's and Wednesday's losses and deservedly so — the Reds pitched well. But this lineup needs to do more, especially at this point in the season. 

[READ: From injuries to harsh criticism, Kris Bryant is still learning how to give himself a break]

Thirteen different Cubs pitchers combined to allow only 7 runs in 19 innings of work the last two nights, which should be good enough to win most games. But the offense managed only 9 hits and 5 walks over those same 19 innings.

Things don't get any easier this weekend, either. If the Cubs thought the Reds pitching staff was good...the Cardinals are even better. St. Louis' rotation leads baseball by a WIDE margin with a 2.11 ERA in September, more than half a run better than the next-closest team (Arizona — 2.65 ERA). 

Rizzo and Baez aren't grabbing a bat at any point this weekend., but there are still plenty of good names in that lineup, led by Kris Bryant and Nicholas Castellanos.

The Cubs still have time to find the "offensive nirvana" they've been in search of for over a calendar year.

9. It's time for the rotation to step up

While the offense rides the roller coaster and the bullpen works back to health, a lot of weight over the next 10 days falls on the rotation. The Cardinals starters — led by Jack Flaherty, who is on a 2015 Jake Arrieta-esque run right now — are going to bring it and the Cubs' veteran-laden rotation needs to respond.

That starts with Kyle Hendricks, who leads baseball in home ERA (1.75) and has absolutely dominated the Cardinals this season to the tune of a 0.39 ERA and 3-0 record in 3 starts.

Cole Hamels and Jose Quintana have been searching for consistency the last few times out and the Cubs badly need them to find that groove this weekend and hope Hendricks and Darvish can continue their hot streak.

10. Zobrist and the leadoff spot

The Cubs lineup finally looked better and more solid 1-through-8 when Maddon moved Rizzo up to the top spot last week in San Diego. The numbers were great and it meant the Cubs' top hitters were all guaranteed to come up in the first inning.

Now that burden of leadoff falls back on Ben Zobrist's shoulders. He's done a nice job atop the order this season, but after he missed four months for personal leave and closely monitoring his birth certificate, the Cubs insisted all along they didn't plan on pushing the 38-year-old veteran too hard.

Things have certainly changed now. Zobrist has started five straight games at leadoff, though Maddon has been able to switch him out in each contest, including a couple times for nearly half the game over last weekend.

"I've been in constant contact with him," Maddon said. "So far, so good. The games against Pittsburgh did help, there's no question. But I'll continue to talk with him on a daily basis trying to figure out the next day."

If Zobrist can't lead off, it's unknown who would get the call up there. Schwarber, Jason Heyward and almost everybody else has taken a turn atop the order and the results haven't been to anybody's liking. 

With the four biggest games of the year on tap, expect Maddon to treat them all like playoff games and that means Zobrist leading off in Rizzo's stead.

From injuries to harsh criticism, Kris Bryant is still learning how to give himself a break

From injuries to harsh criticism, Kris Bryant is still learning how to give himself a break

As Kris Bryant stood at his locker before Wednesday night's game, a reporter asked him how the Cubs have been able to get by recently without their "best players" — referencing the injuries to Anthony Rizzo and Javy Baez.

The reporter quickly clarified and said, "SOME of your best players," but Bryant didn't even bat an eye and he certainly didn't appear to take any offense to the accidental slight. 

In fact, he agreed and also referred to Rizzo and Baez the Cubs' "best players" throughout the interview.

It was just a small, innocuous interaction, but it is a window into how Bryant views himself. 

He's obviously confident (no player can make it to the big leagues without self-confidence), but he's also his harshest critic and a perfectionist. 

There's a strong argument to be made that Bryant is the Cubs' single most important player even when everybody is healthy — he is the only guy in that locker room who has ever won an MVP award — but now that Rizzo and Baez are likely done for the regular season, all eyes are on Bryant.

If the Cubs are going to get where they want to go, they're going to need an MVP-level performance from Bryant. And he'll have to deliver that while battling through right knee inflammation that has hampered him for the last two months.

Bryant received a cortisone shot in that knee last week in San Diego and returned to the lineup with such force that he was named National League Player of the Week. He also surpassed Ernie Banks for the most homer by a Cubs player (137) in his first five years with the team.

He wasn't willing to credit the shot as a magic cure, but he admitted it played a factor in his turnaround at the plate.

"When you speak up and say something's not right and then you — I wouldn't say fix it — but make it feel a lot better, that's very satisfying," Bryant said. "Sometimes people are scared to say stuff or speak up because you think you're gonna look a certain way or you're not gonna look tough. But at the end of the day, you gotta do what's best for the team and at that point, I was hurting the team by not saying anything. I'm glad I did."

Bryant said he still feels like he has a lot to learn in that regard — finding the balance between trying to tough out injuries and speaking up to get some time off or other treatment to address the issue. Even after dealing with last year's shoulder injury and this year's knee issue, he still doesn't know exactly how to walk that fine line.

Part of that is because he has such high expectations for himself. 

He's so tough on himself that earlier this month, Joe Maddon resorted to emailing Bryant some notes and included his career WAR, highlighting how impactful he's been as a player in his five years with the Cubs.

"He can be his own worst critic," Maddon said. "This guy really sets high standards for himself and so does everybody else around him — almost to the point that the standards are unsustainable or unreachable."

The Cubs skipper called Bryant an "underrated" player and feels the 27-year-old with a .904 career OPS still has another level of production he can achieve as he continues to learn how to give himself a break.

Over the weekend, Bryant was discussing his career to date and said he felt it was filled with good and bad but probably more bad days than good. 

Seriously.

The guy who trails only Mike Trout and Mookie Betts in WAR since the start of the 2015 season believes his career has been filled with more bad days than good?

"Think where he came from: He was supposed to be this guy since he was 12," Maddon said. "So he's been dealing with these kinds of thoughts for a long time. And any time he has a bad moment, it becomes overamplified, there's no question about it. 

"...I appreciate that, the fact that he is self-critical in a sense. But he's also gotta give himself a break. Cut yourself some slack, brother. There's 29 other teams that would love to have him."

Bryant agrees that he's his own harshest critic. So any time a fan expresses frustration after he strikes out or complains when he doesn't come through in the clutch, what they're saying holds no weight compared to what he's already telling himself inside his own head.

He appreciates the way Maddon and his Cubs teammates and coaches have had his back and provided him with positive reinforcement over the years, especially when he's slumping or just having a tough day. 

But he also doesn't anticipate a world in which he is not his own harshest critic. 

In fact, Bryant and those around him feel he's actually gotten HARDER on himself over these last few years, even though he's already accomplished so much personally and for his team (including etching his name in history books forever by playing a central role in the 2016 World Series championship).

Bryant is still learning how to forgive himself and not beat himself up too much. Even after hitting two homers in the Cubs' rout of the Pirates Sunday, he spent more time thinking about how he struck out in his final at-bat of the game.

"It's a game of failure," Bryant said. "I need to think that way so that it brings the best out of me so that I'm never satisfied or complacent with anything I do on the field, 'cause I don't ever want to feel that. And it's tough because I'm so hard on myself, but that's just who I am.

"I'm still working on that. It's really hard to get to that point because I think it's just natural for us to be negative sometimes. There's so much negativity in baseball. You're failing so much. But I truly think in sports, the strongest and most mentally tough people are baseball players because you really have to do it for 162-plus games a year — just constantly succeeding and then getting beat up for four straight at-bats, then succeeding, then doing it again, then making an error in the field or making a nice play. Just so much going on, but I wouldn't trade that for the world."