Cubs

As spring training opens, Cubs hope this is the beginning of a dynasty

As spring training opens, Cubs hope this is the beginning of a dynasty

Even after winning arguably the greatest Game 7 ever played – and headlining one of the largest gatherings in human history – the Cubs still feel this is more like the beginning than the end.

The Cubs believe they have enough personality, style and crossover appeal to become Major League Baseball’s version of the Golden State Warriors, drawing sellout crowds all across the country and becoming must-see TV.  

The Cubs hope they have the homegrown talent and big-market financial muscle to match what the New York Yankees did in 1998, 1999 and 2000, pulling off a three-peat to go with their 1996 World Series title, part of an unbelievable stretch of 24 consecutive winning seasons.    

The Cubs talked about this amid the early-morning, champagne-fueled haze on Nov. 3, even before changing back into their street clothes, leaving Progressive Field’s visiting clubhouse and flying back from Cleveland to Chicago.

Once pitchers and catchers officially report to Arizona on Tuesday, and go through their first formal workout at the Sloan Park complex on Wednesday, the celebration will be over. Manager Joe Maddon can start rolling out the mimes, zoo animals and karaoke machines (or whatever else gonzo strength and conditioning coordinator Tim Buss comes up with this spring). But don’t get lost in the distractions – the Cubs are focused on becoming a dynasty.    

“We just keep getting better,” Jon Lester said. “That’s, I think, kind of a scary part for the rest of our league for the next however many years.”

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Two years ago, Lester showed up in Mesa, experienced a dead arm and got diagnosed with the yips on Opening Day, making it seem as if that $155 million investment might be doomed from the start. All the Cubs have done since then is win 200 games, five playoff rounds and the franchise’s first World Series title since 1908.  

Lester has been exactly what the Cubs hoped for, a 200-inning machine, a no-nonsense professional and one of the best big-game pitchers of his generation. The prospects Cubs executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer put front and center during their recruiting pitch to Lester have been better than advertised.    

Kris Bryant is 25 years old and already a Rookie of the Year, reigning MVP, Hank Aaron Award winner, two-time All-Star and World Series champion. Addison Russell is 23 years old and already an All-Star shortstop. Kyle Schwarber is already a Chicago legend and still hasn’t spent a full season in the big leagues yet. Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, Willson Contreras and Albert Almora Jr. will also remain under club control through at least the 2021 season.

“For anybody in this game, there’s a lot of factors you can’t control,” said San Francisco Giants general manager Bobby Evans, who had been an executive for the even-year teams that won World Series titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014, “from your health to the performance of your guys to your rosters (that) can be changed overnight in different ways.

“But from the controllable players that they have – and the leadership that they have from the manager to the general manager to Theo – it’s a really great combination of baseball people and elements to a lineup and a rotation and a bullpen that clearly are well-thought-out. And (it) gives me great pleasure to know they’re not in our division.”

The Cubs will also benefit from playing in a National League where so many franchises are playing/tanking for the future and a division populated with small-market teams. The Baseball Prospectus PECOTA system projects the Cubs (91-71) as the only Central team with a winning record – and the St. Louis Cardinals finishing at 76-86 (which would be only their second losing season since 2000).

“We want to compete,” St. Louis general manager John Mozeliak said. “We think we have talent that’s coming that’s going to be useful in the big leagues. So I don’t feel like in any way that we need to take a two- or three-year timeout.

“When you look at it from just a neutral state, (the Cubs are) built to be successful for many years. But you also have to understand that things sometimes happen. People get hurt. Sometimes people underperform. We’ve entered seasons where we thought Adam Wainwright was going to be our ace – and he ends up not coming out of spring training.

“You adjust, so that’s being able to create enough depth. And if you’re able to do that, it allows you to be successful. Or maybe the other way to think about it is it allows you to withstand some negativity.”     

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There are legitimate concerns about how the rotation will hold up and where the next wave of pitching will come from. When Epstein talks about avoiding “organizational arrogance,” it’s easy to think of the Bloomberg Businessweek cover from April 2015 heralding a “sports empire” now “in bloom” (after five straight fifth-place finishes, five different managers since 2010 and all the delays/drama/dysfunction surrounding the Wrigley Field renovations).

But it’s not hype anymore to say that the Cubs are positioned to rule baseball for years to come. It’s why Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward turned down the Cardinals last winter and signed his $184 million megadeal with the Cubs, believing this core could mirror the Atlanta Braves teams he grew up watching and broke in with as a 20-year-old kid, blasting a three-run homer off Carlos Zambrano in his first big-league at-bat on Opening Day 2010 at Turner Field.

“You only hope,” Heyward said. “You never know what’s going to happen with stuff. On paper is one thing. God willing, everybody stays healthy. (But) it looks like it could be a lot of fun for a long time.

“I know it’s going to be a lot of fun, because it’s an awesome place, an awesome organization to play for. These guys are very young – and they’re getting a lot of experience early on – and that can make for a lot of confidence-building and a lot of comfort and having that sixth sense on the field.

“(That’s) what you see with really good teams when they make a run like that – most of those guys play together for a while. And we have a chance to do that here.”

Albert Almora Jr. gave another example of his all-around game

Albert Almora Jr. gave another example of his all-around game

Albert Almora Jr. might be in the middle of a breakout season. The 24-year-old outfielder continues to show his impressive range in center field and is having his best year at the plate.

In Sunday's 8-3 win against the Giants, Almora had three hits and showed off his wheels in center to rob Evan Longoria of extra bases. The catch is visible in the video above.

"Defensively, right now he's playing as well as he possibly can," Maddon said.

On top of the defense he has become known for, he is hitting .326. That's good for fifth in the National League in batting.

"He's playing absolutely great," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "He's working good at-bats. His at-bats have gotten better vs. righties.

"The thing about it, is there's power there. The home runs are gonna start showing up, too."

There's also this stat, which implies Almora is having a growing significance on the Cubs as a whole:

There may be some correlation, but not causality in that. However, with Almora's center field play and growing accolades at the plate, the argument is becoming easier and easier that he is one of the most important players on the Cubs. That also goes for Almora's regular spot in the lineup, which has been up in the air with Maddon continuing to juggle the lineup.

Joe Maddon wants Cubs fans to cheer for Gleyber Torres and Eloy Jimenez

Joe Maddon wants Cubs fans to cheer for Gleyber Torres and Eloy Jimenez

Why can't a trade be looked at as a win-win? 

There doesn't always have to be a clear winner and loser.

Prior to Jose Quintana taking the ball for Saturday's game against the San Francisco Giants at Wrigley Field, Joe Maddon was asked about the players (Eloy Jimenez, Dylan Cease) the Cubs gave up to acquire Quintana as well as the deal with the Yankees for Aroldis Chapman in July 2016.

Gleyber Torres is absolutely killing it in New York, hitting .323 with a 1.014 OPS, 9 homers and 24 RBI in only 29 games. Six of those homers have come in the last week alone. 

With the White Sox, both Jimenez and Cease have found success in Double-A and Advanced Class-A, respectively.

Jimenez is hitting .331 with a .992 OPS, 9 homers and 35 RBI in 35 games. Cease is 6-2 with a 2.83 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and 57 strikeouts in 47.2 innings.

As the Cubs work to get their offense settled into a consistent groove, some Cubs fans have been looking at what might've been with guys like Torres and Jimenez.

"You can't have it both ways, man," Maddon said. "I'm happy for Gleyber. When he left, we talked about it. And we talked about the kids that went to the White Sox. It's good stuff. 

"I'm really disappointed if anybody's disappointed in the fact we won the World Series in 2016 and the fact that the guy we're talking about that we had to give up Gleyber for was so instrumental in that happening. That's bad process if you're gonna get stuck on something like that. Be happy for Gleyber. Be happy for him."

Maddon has been a fan of Torres' since he saw him in spring training in 2015, Maddon's first year in the Cubs organization.

"This kid's 21, with high, high baseball intellect," Maddon said. "He's very similar to Javy on the field. I've had some great conversations with him in the past. 

"The first time I saw him in spring training, I thought this guy's for real. It was like one at-bat, line drive to RF, I said who is this guy? And then you have a conversation with him. He's solid."

Maddon's point is a great one — would Cubs fans prefer to still have Torres and NOT have the 2016 World Series championship? Because that title doesn't happen without Chapman, regardless of how you feel about him as a person or what the Cubs had to give up to acquire him.

"Don't play that game," Maddon said. "Be happy for [Torres]. I'm gonna be happy when Eloy and Dylan make it up here. All these dudes, I want them to get here and be really good. And the guys that we get, I want them to be really good. 

"I don't understand why somebody's gotta lose all the time. This is an absolute classic example of what was good for both teams."