Dillon Maples is primed for the next chapter of his book


Dillon Maples is primed for the next chapter of his book

The symbolism was undeniable.

Dillon Maples had been waiting for the call to the big leagues his entire life and at various points throughout his journey, that ultimate goal looked so daunting and far away. The same could be said about the 700-page book he was reading on George Washington that late-August day in Memphis.

Maples was reading that "beast of a book" in a Starbucks one morning on a day the Iowa Cubs (Triple-A) had just found out their game that night had been rained out.

Cubs director of player development Jaron Madison happened to be at that Starbucks at the same time when he got the call the big-league club wanted Maples to join them for the stretch run. Madison told the rest of the Cubs front office he'd tell Maples himself instead of somebody else breaking the news over the phone.

So Madison walked over to Maples and asked what he had planned for the rest of his unplanned day off, suggesting the young pitcher should come back to the team hotel with him. Maples initially declined, saying he preferred to stay at Starbucks, get a drink refill and do some more reading.

But Madison insisted and broke the news to Maples that his lifelong dream was finally coming true. His first reaction was nerves, like you'd expect, but not about pitching in the big leagues — he was nervous to DANCE in the big leagues in the new Cubs bullpen tradition.

Maples only appeared in six games for the Cubs in the final month of the season and posted a 10.13 ERA, but his story — one of perseverance and inspiration — resonated with the fan base. It doesn't hurt that the kid throws 100 mph with a devastating wipeout slider, either.

The trip to Chicago was the icing on the cake for Maples in 2017, a year where he took control of his career and his life. 

A former 14th-round draft pick who was paid like a 1st-rounder ($2.5 million signing bonus to sway him to the life of professional baseball over college) and heralded as one of the most talented high school arms coming out of the 2011 Draft, Maples had struggled to put it all together in the Cubs system for six seasons. He was actually close to quitting in late 2016 after finishing a rough year in A-ball.

But in 2017, everything clicked and he struck out 111 batters in 68.2 innings across three minor-league levels and the big leagues.

Maples is very cerebral, sucking up knowledge even when he's not on a baseball field. He finished that intimidating George Washington book and now has a novel on Hamilton lined up next. He likes reading about the battles and leaders that founded the U.S.

But even he couldn't fully grasp how the roller coaster of 2017 would affect him until he got a little perspective after the season.

"The first few weeks after the season ended, you're not doing too much, just relaxing," Maples said. "I kinda just let it hit me. I thought about how crazy it was and all the people that have been supporting me through thick and thin.

"It's been really awesome. I've been really grateful to be surrounded by so many great people. Last year was pretty crazy, but this year, I've moved on. That's why I had that two-week period where I could sit back and let it soak in."

"...To let [last year] rest, I had to have that acceptance, reflection. I let that happen. Last year was incredible. I'm glad that I had that time to reflect and I'm ready to move on and get after it next season."

Maples is already to the point where he says last year is "kind of irrelevant." He's turned the page, focusing his energy and brainpower on taking that next step in 2018, entering his age-26 season.

This winter, Maples — who lives in the gym when he's not devouring history novels — has focused on sticking with his same workout routine while still trying to get stronger. He's incorporated some of the things he's learned from the big-league veterans last year and is really putting an emphasis on improving his fastball command.

The Cubs aren't handling him with kid gloves anymore, either. They're ready to unleash that wipeout slider that could be a gamechanger out of the Chicago bullpen if he can harness his control.

"Now it's just about being more consistent and efficient with his pitches," Madison said. "As long as he continues to do that, he'll stay healthy. He works his butt off in the weight room. He's done a lot of work with the mental side of the game.

"We think he's gonna be in a position to help contribute at the big-league level for a long time."

The trade rumors aren't going away, but that hasn't changed Cubs' faith in Addison Russell

The trade rumors aren't going away, but that hasn't changed Cubs' faith in Addison Russell

How much do the Cubs really need Manny Machado? 

They entered play Tuesday leading the National League in runs per game, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and run differential.

That doesn't sound like a team desperate for another bat and would trade future assets to go all-in for only a few months of a player, even one as good as Machado.

Of course, the Cubs went out and got walloped 10-1 by the Indians Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, but that had more to do with awful pitching and Machado won't do a thing to help that area of the game. In fact, Machado would actually hurt the team's run prevention given he's a worse defensive shortstop than Addison Russell.

All that being said, the Machado rumors probably won't be going anywhere until the Baltimore Orioles deal their shortstop to either the Cubs or another team, so Russell will have to get used to hearing his name included in such conversations.

Any Cubs package headed to Baltimore for Machado likely has to start with Russell, the Cubs' 24-year-old shortstop who won't become a free agent until after the 2021 season.

"He would be robotic if it did not [affect him]," Joe Maddon said. "I think honestly if he was 7, 8, 10 years into the league and something like this was being bandied about, probably not nearly as much. But the age that he's at, the experience level that he's at, I think it just can't help but have an impact.

"So we just gotta continue to nurture him here. I talk to him all the time. There's certain things you can't control. You can't control what's being said, but you can control how you react to it. That's about the best thing we could encourage him to do and he'll get our support."

Maddon said he gives Russell a hug and reminds him of "something" before every game as he tries to massage the confidence of a player that is currently the shortstop of a Cubs team with World Series expectations.

Russell doesn't turn 25 until next January, yet many people act like he's already peaked as a player. 

He's two years removed from hitting 21 homers and driving in 95 runs as part of the 2016 championship season.

2017 was a lost year for so many reasons — from off-field issues to shoulder and foot problems — and Russell has only 1 homer in the first quarter of the 2018 season, but he's taken other strides this year.

He currently boasts career best marks in walk percentage, strikeout percentage, line drive percentage, groundball percentage and is using the opposite field more than ever.

The power hasn't come yet this year, but a .343 on-base percentage is a pretty solid complementary piece to one of the best all-around defenders in the game.

Russell ranks 10th in baseball in Defensive Runs Saved among all players, tied for second among shortstops. Fielding metrics are not perfect, but Machado is 133rd in DRS among qualifed fielders and 24th among shortstops, so there is clearly a gap between the two players' glovework.

Maddon has never shown any outward sign of altering his belief in Russell becoming a dynamic player.

"Addy's gonna continue to progress to the point where all his game is gonna become consistent," Maddon said. "And even beyond that, who do you like better at shortstop [defensively] right now? ... His throwing's dramatically improved. His baserunning decisions — I know he had a gaffe in Cincinnati, but for the most part, he's gotten better.

"So what we're really talking about is his hitting. That's where people get hung up about this game all the time. I see absolute progress in that, also. He just came off a hot week and he had a couple tough days and then all of a sudden, it becomes exaggerated. Why? Because he's 24.

"I think the sky is the limit for this guy. He's a confidence guy like most of us are. As he's feeling good about himself, that's when the line drives start to occur. I mean, one of the biggest hits so far was the ball over the centerfielder's head in Atlanta [last week].

"And he always has this tendency to do some really good work when it matters most. He's been that guy already. So just be patient. He's just gonna keep getting better."

Remember, Russell is the same guy that hit a grand slam and drove in 6 runs in Game 6 of the World Series in Cleveland and started every game at shortstop that postseason. Every year Russell has been the Cubs' shortstop, the season has included a trip to the National League Championship Series.

"Our front office has always been one to make moves and they’re not afraid to do things and we’ve seen that," Kris Bryant said. "We won a world series because of that, getting [Aroldis] Chapman and some of the other guys we got, but we don’t put one ounce of thought into that because we’re happy with the guys we have here.

"The effort that everybody puts forth day in and day out when they’re on the field is spectacular. You know we have a great group of guys here and until someone is gone, we’re going to play with what we’ve got and continue to play the way we have. So, not much thought about [trade rumors]."

Russell has also quietly been very productive over the last month after a slow start to the season. Since April 26, he boasts a .306/.386/.444 slash line (.830 OPS).

It's still hard to see the Cubs willing to give up the next 3.5 years of Russell for 3 months of Machado and MAYBE a slightly better chance of re-signing the superstar this winter.

"I was talking about a 24-year-old hitter, what about a 24-year-old human being having to process all of that?" Maddon asked. "Whether he's hearing it or not from anywhere here, it's just mom, dad, brother, friend, former coach on the phone — 'What's that all about?' 

"He's gotta be inundated with that conversation. He didn't ask for that. He's just doing his job."

Cubs still searching for answers for Tyler Chatwood's puzzling control issues

Cubs still searching for answers for Tyler Chatwood's puzzling control issues

Tyler Chatwood looked to be turning the corner with his control issues, but alas, he and the Cubs aren't so lucky.

After walking only two batters in a solid start in Atlanta last week, Chatwood had taken a big step in the right direction. It was, after all, only the third time he'd walked fewer than 5 batters in an outing this season.

Those control woes reared their ugly heads once again Tuesday night at Wrigley Field in a 10-1 loss to the Indians. Chatwood walked 6 batters and managed to net only 8 outs, getting hammered for 4 runs in the third inning.

"Ugh, it was tough," Maddon said. "The stuff was so good, we just couldn't get a strike."

"It's definitely frustrating," Chatwood said, "because one at-bat, I'll feel really good and the next one, I feel like I'm fighting myself.

"Last time [out], I was able to stay in the rhythm. Tonight, I was kinda battling, rushing rather than staying back, so it's just keeping that feeling and maintaining that."

His season ERA is only 3.74, which looks good until you consider his WHIP is 1.62 and he's walked 40 batters in 45.2 innings with only 41 strikeouts in the process. He now leads baseball in walks per 9 innings.

Chatwood said earlier this month in St. Louis that he's figured out what has led to the startling lack of control and while he didn't elaborate on the mechanical issue, he was working hard at correcting the problem in bullpens.

He's also used the term "fighting myself" at least a dozen times this month alone and it's become a common refrain for his explanation of what's going on. 

"He's got a busy delivery when he throws the baseball," Maddon said. "He's kinda busy what he does with his hands. It's not like he can just change it easily because that's how his arm works, how his body works.

"Sometimes, like you see him the other day, everything's on time and how good it can be and when it's out of sorts a bit, then all of the sudden it becomes shotgun. Ah man, you can see the movement [on his pitches] from the side, how good it is. 

"We gotta harness it somehow. I spoke to him briefly on the bench; I reassured him it's gonna be fine, it's gonna be really good by the end of the year. We gotta figure it out and he knows that. But man, that's good stuff. We just gotta get it in the zone."

Chatwood also admitted part of the problem is mental in that he's trying to force pitches rather than trusting his stuff. He's also gotten into the bad habit of drifting down the mound, though he's not sure when or where he picked up that hitch in his delivery.

Chatwood and Cubs pitching coach Jim Hickey are working on slowing his delivery down to get his arm in the same spot on a more consistent basis.

When the Cubs signed Chatwood over the winter, it was easy to see why.

He just turned 28 in December, his peripherals and a move from hitter-friendly Coors Field foretold a potential leap in performance and his stuff is nasty. Plus, he signed a three-year deal at a relative bargain of $38 million.

Once the Cubs signed Yu Darvish in spring training, you could make the case that Chatwood could be among the best No. 5 starters in baseball.

Nine starts later, the honeymoon period is well over with Chatwood, as he threw only 30 of his 74 pitches for strikes Tuesday night and sent catcher Willson Contreras sailing all around home plate for pitches way out of the zone.

Still, it's clear to see there is some intriguing talent there and the season there is roughly 70 percent of the season remaining before the Cubs make what they hope is another run at the World Series.

"I have a lot of faith," Maddon said. "I know we're gonna reap the rewards, the benefits as he figures this thing out."