Cubs

How Daniel Descalso plans to win over Cubs locker room

How Daniel Descalso plans to win over Cubs locker room

In the hours after the Cubs were stunned by the Rockies in the National League Wild-Card game, as the attention turned toward the offseason, the way the year ended sure seemed like it was going to be the impetus behind a winter of change around the franchise.

Back then, listening to Theo Epstein talk on that sunny Oct. 3 afternoon, if you had predicted the biggest addition the Cubs would make in the offseason would be Daniel Descalso, you would have been laughed out of the room. 

That's not taking anything away from Descalso, but the Cubs offense faded badly down the stretch last year and he's a 32-year-old utility player who has never notched even 375 at-bats in a season. 

However, Descalso may be just what the Cubs need, especially in an offseason with very little wiggle room in the budget.

His value to this team could go far beyond the stat sheet. He might even be — dare I say — the next David Ross?

That's a lot of pressure to put on a newcomer on this team. Ross has been retired for two years now, but still casts a large shadow in that clubhouse as a respected leader and presence — not to mention the popularity he has with fans and media.

Descalso isn't trying to be the next Ross. He'll settle for the next Jon Jay — especially because Descalso and Jay are great friends who came up together in the St. Louis Cardinals organization.

Jay only spent one season with the Cubs (2017), but players still bring up his impact and leadership unprompted. He's now across town playing for the White Sox, so he and Descalso are reunited in Chicago (even if their schedules won't match up much).

This winter, Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer talked a lot about the need to add some leadership into the clubhouse to help convey a sense of urgency on a daily basis — something they felt was lacking in 2018. 

They landed on Descalso to help fill that void.

"He brings leadership and a lot of intangibles that can't be measured," Jay said of Descalso. "He's a guy that can have that tough conversation with a player and he's not afraid to do it. He can lead by example, he knows exactly when to say the right things at the right times. He's really good for any clubhouse. 

"... Any team can benefit from a Daniel Descalso. He makes everybody better. Just knowing those guys — they're gonna love him. He's a great example for a veteran player, a young player, for coaches. He really knows the game well. He's gonna help bring out the best in anybody."

How Descalso goes about accomplishing that will be tricky. The roster has not had a ton of turnover lately and the core players — particularly the position players — have been together for quite a while. And they've clearly been very successful, with four straight trips to the playoffs and a World Series championship.

That's not an easy environment for a new player to come in and assume a leadership role in.

Descalso understands he was brought in to help emerge as a vocal leader, but he isn't putting pressure on himself or trying to do too much too quickly. 

He also isn't entering a team completely devoid of leadership, especially with Jon Lester, Cole Hamels and Ben Zobrist all making a concerted effort to step up more as leaders in 2019.

"I've been the new guy in the clubhouse a couple times," Descalso said. "If you come in and you're the loud guy and you start ruffling feathers right away, you could put some guys off. I think you just come in, kinda feel your way out in the early parts of spring training and into the season and then you really get a feel for a team and clubhouse and how things work and go from there.

"I'm not gonna come in right away and stand up on the couch and give a rah-rah Knute Rockne speech."

Descalso may not be an everyday player, but he's entering his 10th year in the big leagues and has an idea of how to go about his business while still carrying the self-awareness to know he doesn't have all the answers. He also knows plenty about winning, having gone to the playoffs five times in his career with the Cardinals and Diamondbacks — racking up 48 games in October and notching a World Series ring with St. Louis in 2011.

So what does "leadership" mean to a guy with a resume like that?

"You can lead in a variety of different ways," Descalso said. "You don't have to be a veteran to lead. You can be a young guy and lead by example the way you show up and compete every day. But I think as you get older, you stick around. Maybe you develop a reputation, then you can start to be a little bit more vocal.

"You pick your spots. You have to know the individual you're approaching — is it a guy you can pat on the back? Is it a guy you can get after a little bit? For me, I'm not gonna come in here and be a rah-rah guy. I'm gonna sit back and learn my teammates and get to know them individually and go from there."

Descalso's focus early on in his Cubs tenure is building that trust and rapport. He doesn't have much of a history with the guys on the roster apart from playing against each other over the years.

When Jay was with the Cubs, he didn't really find his voice as a leader until a couple months into the season, especially since the rest of the roster was still riding high off that emotional World Series.

Descalso also has an advantage Jay didn't — the security of a multi-year deal. That allows him to feel more established and comfortable in building rapport with players and assuming a leadership role, knowing he'll make his home here for the next 2-3 years (the Cubs hold a team option on Descalso for 2021).

"Yeah, it's nice to know I'm going to be around here for a couple years, so you can really invest in those relationships," Descalso said. "Not that you wouldn't on a 1-year deal, but it's just not as easy. You have time to build up that trust and build up that camaraderie. I'm looking forward to being around this group for a couple years."

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Cubs' Albert Almora Jr. is off to a hot start in spring training

Cubs' Albert Almora Jr. is off to a hot start in spring training

The Cubs have only played three spring training games, and it’s dangerous to use spring results to predict regular season successes and failures. Still, it’s okay to acknowledge Albert Almora Jr.’s hot start in camp.

In two games, Almora is 4-for-4 with a walk, double, home run, four RBIs and four runs scored. That line is essentially equivalent to a single game in the regular season and could be turned upside down by the end of the week. But it’s a start for the 25-year-old who has struggled immensely at the plate for the last season and a half.

In his last 177 games (dating back to the second half of 2018), Almora holds a .235/.270/.347 slash line. The advanced stats paint an uglier picture: 58 wRC+, .261 wOBA and 52.2 percent groundball rate.

Last season was the most challenging of Almora’s young career. He hit .236/.271/.381 in 130 games with a 64 wRC+, .271 wOBA, -0.7 fWAR (all career worsts). On top of that, he was involved in a heartbreaking moment early in the season; an Almora foul ball struck a young girl at Minute Maid Park during a Cubs-Astros game in May.

Almora refused to blame his 2019 offensive woes on that incident, though it obviously played a part. He did admit that he was in a bad place mentally and used this winter to decompress. Almora also used it to make some adjustments to his swing and the changes are clear as day:

Pre-2020:

2020:

As MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian notes, Almora is now more upright in the box and his stance is more closed. His leg kick is less defined and he’s rotating his front leg far less than previous seasons. In short, he’s more direct to his swing and has more time to react in the box because he cut out a lot of his pre-swing movements.

RELATED: David Ross is wasting no time with Cubs' rotation competition

Almora said Monday he’s far from where he wants to be, pointing out the MLB season is a 200-day marathon. It’s too early to tell whether his simplified approach leads to sustainable success.

Small sample size be damned, Almora’s made noticeable adjustments. That’s the first step in his mission to get back on track offensively.

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Two of the Cubs' best prospects made Keith Law's annual Top 100 list

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USA Today

Two of the Cubs' best prospects made Keith Law's annual Top 100 list

For those who follow such things, Keith Law's yearly Top 100 prospect rankings is always a highly anticipated read. What would baseball twitter even do with their time if they couldn't spend it vocally disagreeing with subjective lists? Having a handful of Top 100 guys is always a shot in the arm for franchises that maybe aren't doing a whole lot of winning at the major league level; when you know you're not winning a World Series, the debuts of these prospects are high points of the summer. 

There wasn't a whole lot of Cubs' representation this season, which isn't a surprise by any means. Only guys two made Law's list: Brennen Davis at 55, and Brailyn Marquez at 80.  

Law claims Davis has the highest upside of any Cubs' prospect, but isn't necessarily close to a debut: 

Davis is lanky and has barely begun to fill out, so there’s likely to be more power to come, while he’s already shown he can manage at-bats and use the middle of the field to get himself on base. Despite his 6′4″ frame he already has a very balanced swing, and the Cubs will just have to tighten up some mechanical things since he’s got such long levers. A former shortstop, he’s adapted quickly to center field; he projects to stay there and add value with his range. 

He also loves Marquez's stuff – comparing it to Aroldis Chapman's – and says it's the reason why he's team's best pitching prospect since Dylan Cease. You can see the entire rankings, which go pretty in-depth, right here.