It was a wild week in the world of Cubdom that included wacky weather, a comeback for the ages, some drama with the Pirates and a debate about who should be the leadoff hitter - Ian Happ or Albert Almora Jr. The NBC Sports Chicago crew of David Kaplan, Kelly Crull, Leila Rahimi and Tony Andracki break down all things Cubs and give their prediction on how the next week will play out.
MESA, Ariz. — It's hard to believe Cole Hamels has actually only spent two months of game action in a Cubs uniform.
It feels like he's been around a lot longer than that, largely due to how seamless his transition was into the Cubs clubhouse and how quickly the fanbase embraced him late last summer. (It certainly helps when you put up a 1.00 ERA in your first 7 starts with a new team in the midst of a heated pennant race.)
The 13-year pro believes he fit in so well with this Cubs team because they've had similar experiences of "winning young." Hamels got his first taste of the playoffs during his first full MLB season (2007) with the Philadelphia Phillies, then won a World Series in 2008 and made it back to the Fall Classic in 2009, where the Phillies lost to the Yankees. Two months before his 25th birthday, he was hoisting a championship trophy and accepting World Series MVP honors.
This Cubs core had a very similar experience. Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr. and Willson Contreras have not spent a single day in the big leagues where the Cubs were not in contention for the playoffs.
Bryant and Contreras were 24 when they won it all, while Schwarber and Javy Baez were 23 and Almora was only 22 years old. Anthony Rizzo and Jason Heyward had just turned 27 a couple months prior.
Call it an excuse if you want, but the reality is last fall's early exit was a true eye-opener for the young core of position players. It might not be popular, but it's understandable why the Cubs felt like they'd be OK in the end and everything would work itself out and the Cubs would wind up in the NLDS because that's the only reality they've ever known at the major-league level.
"The craziest part about when you win young is I don't think you understand what you just accomplished," Hamels said. "Yeah, it's all great and yeah you've won probably ever since you were in Little League or high school or college and then you win in the big leagues, it's just kind of a normal thing.
"When you don't win for a while, then I think you try to grasp the importance of what it really meant and how to actually go about trying to do it again. I think that's what was probably a good thing about the way the season ended — it really was a gut punch and a check to a lot of guys in really realizing how difficult this game can be and not taking things for granted."
It may have been a very quiet offseason for the Cubs in terms of transactions, but one thing is for sure: All the younger guys have a new perspective.
"Obviously it hurt [losing last year]," Schwarber said. "I don't think that's how anyone envisioned us going out after 163 and then that [Wild-Card] game. It wasn't ideal, but it is what it is. Obviously it stung, but for us coming into this year knowing what we have in [the clubhouse] and not take that for granted and go out there and play every day like we know that we can."
There's also added weight here with this core because of how they took home their title. When Hamels won with the Phillies, it was just another World Series. When Bryant, Rizzo and Co. won it all, it was the end of the greatest quest in American sports history — the final chapter of a story we will never see again.
Because of that, this group has a connection to the Cubs fanbase unlike any team in any sport has ever had with their fans.
"At the end of the day, doing everything you possibly can to get everything out of yourself and out of your teammates to go out and win," Hamels said. "Because that's really what it's about. We love to win for each other, but there's a really good focus on knowing we can win for an amazing organization, an incredible city. They're the ones that show up, they're the ones that watch us, they travel.
"There's an appreciation that we're fortunate enough to play the game of baseball, but it's because they want to watch us play baseball. I think that's something we can enjoy, because it doesn't last forever."Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Cubs easily on your device.
MESA, Ariz. — Cole Hamels let out a few chuckles initially when asked about comments from Phillies ownership, but that was the only thing about baseball's frozen market that he found humor in.
A couple weeks into the offseason, Phillies owner John Middleton said his team may spend "stupid" money this winter, though they have yet to ink either of their top targets — Bryce Harper and Manny Machado — to a deal as of Saturday afternoon.
"John's the best there," Hamels said between laughs, reminiscing about his 13 years in the Phillies organization. "I've always enjoyed John; he's great."
But then things turned serious as Hamels explained how players are currently viewing a free agency system that is so clearly in need of updates.
Hamels sat at the table in the Cubs media workroom on Feb. 16 — nearly a full week into spring training — talking about a market that still featured many big-league players beyond Harper and Machado, though it's that duo that's really the focal point.
Things have gotten so bad, Cardinals veteran Adam Wainwright said this weekend he is worried players may walk out midseason.
"This is tough for baseball," Hamels said. "If you really look at it, I think it's tough for the fans. We're players and we're blessed to be in this position, but I think before we were in this position, we were baseball fans and we understood being a fan of the city we grew up in. We understand trying to follow and like a player, getting his jersey.
"There's a benefit in building and having those types of players. You have to have those players in the league. It benefits having those guys sign early so you can build off that, you can market off that. That's what I believe the fans want and need. This is tough to see. It really is.
"I know there will probably be some changes in the future to make sure everything is balanced and everything is fair. You have to really look at it from a standpoint that the fans want to see something and we're trying to provide it as much and as best as you possibly can, but you do have to have those players. They really do make this game the best and when you have the best players out there signed early, I think it helps the game 100 times more."
The Cubs obviously picked up Hamels' $20 million option to kick off the offseason, but he admitted there were a few moments where he thought he might join Harper, Machado and the others in the free agent market.
The act of picking up Hamels' option ensured the Cubs had less financial flexibility to utilize for other areas of the roster this winter and is part of the reason Theo Epstein's front office can't add a guy like Harper or Machado. But the Cubs also know how valuable Hamels is and the veteran lefty made a hell of impression on the team and clubhouse in his two-month stint last season.
Still, Hamels is only signed through 2019 and soon enough, he will be back on the open market trying to find a job in a tough situation.
"I look at it like — I hope I did everything I possibly could to make sure that all 29, 30 teams want me," Hamels said. "That I'm desirable. It comes from what your approach is off the field, who you are as a person off the field, what you stand for. But at the end of the day, it does come to results.
"If I had to stand alone on just my results as a player, that teams would want that and experience that comes with what I've been able to do and accomplish in the postseason and what I can do for the younger generation of minor-league players who are trying to come up and fill that role, too."Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Cubs easily on your device.