Joe Maddon has no choice but to ignore the noise and put his faith in young Cubs lineup: ‘If you want to freak out, freak out’

Joe Maddon has no choice but to ignore the noise and put his faith in young Cubs lineup: ‘If you want to freak out, freak out’

LOS ANGELES – A radio guy crammed into the manager’s office asked Joe Maddon what he would say to Cubs fans who might be freaking out at home.

“Oh, please, let them freak out,” Maddon said after Sunday’s 9-4 loss at Dodger Stadium. “If you want to freak out, freak out.”

After back-to-back shutouts and an emphatic three-game sweep that showed all the different ways the Dodgers can neutralize this lineup, Maddon has no choice but to block out the noise, trust all this young talent and believe in the players who delivered last October.   

Right around the time Theo Epstein was asked when the Cubs might consider sending Kyle Schwarber down to Triple-A Iowa, Ian Happ became the new shiny object for fans and the Chicago media.

In less than 200 at-bats, Schwarber went from World Series legend to dropping from the leadoff spot to being a platoon player to getting shipped away in a fantasy-baseball trade for pitching.

Unless the Cubs moved Javier Baez, because Gold Glove-caliber middle infielders on a 25-homer, 90-RBI pace just fall from trees. Not to mention someone already proven on the biggest stages as a National League Championship Series co-MVP and World Baseball Classic star.

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Even Happ is coming back down to earth as the league adjusts to him. The Cubs already played their top-prospect card for this season.

“The best I can do is talk to the player himself, which I’ve done with ‘Schwarbs,’” Maddon said. “That’s just the nature of the industry. That’s a part of it that makes it so much fun, too, for the fan, the fact that they can interact and throw out their conjecture like that.

“Internally, it has nothing to do with how we react to anything. And you have to talk to the player, because he’s always feeling these outside sources pressing down on him. He really shouldn’t, but they’re human beings.

“How do you prevent that from really infiltrating? It’s just conversation with the guys themselves. That’s about it. You ask the player to really not pay attention and listen to that.

“But, again, with all the tablets and the different sources available to follow what’s going on, it’s almost inevitable they’re going to hear or read something. So you got to stay positive with them. And we have to have that conversation with them to maintain their confidence.”

The Sunday lineup constructed to face Clayton Kershaw featured eight position players between the ages of 22 and 27: Baez, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Happ, Jason Heyward, Willson Contreras, Addison Russell and Albert Almora Jr.

A team built around offensive firepower woke up that morning ranked eighth and ninth in the NL in runs scored (231) and OPS (.736). A .222 batting average with runners in scoring position placed the Cubs 15th out of the NL’s 15 teams. 

“The best explanation I can offer is that we’re hitting young,” Maddon said. “You look at the end of last season and how well a lot of the guys that are struggling right now performed under those circumstances. I believe we’re going to come back and do that.

“In the meantime, they need our support. They need our conversations, so nobody’s left in the dark or wondering what everybody’s thinking about around here. They need openness. And if you get that, they’ll come back.”

The Cubs have bigger problems, like an inconsistent rotation that has kept this team hovering around .500 and prevented any real sense of momentum. This is still largely the same group of hitters that beat Johnny Cueto, outlasted Madison Bumgarner, eliminated Kershaw and wore down Corey Kluber during last year’s World Series run.

“They’ll get it together,” Maddon said. “We haven’t even come close to hitting that real offensive ‘go’ moment. We haven’t been there and we’re still paddling pretty well. That moment’s coming.

“Whether it’s Happ making adjustments, Contreras making adjustments, Addison making adjustments, these guys were pretty good at the end of last season in some really difficult moments, so they’ll be back.”

From the stands at the World Series to 2017's outfield, Cubs see Jon Jay as important piece of title defense

From the stands at the World Series to 2017's outfield, Cubs see Jon Jay as important piece of title defense

Jon Jay got an in-person sense of what a ratcheted-up atmosphere at Wrigley Field sounds and feels like when he happened to be in the stands for Game 3 of the 2016 World Series — which was the first Fall Classic contest played on Clark and Addison in 71 years. 

Jay was already going to be in the area with plans to head east on the Indiana Toll Road to South Bend, Ind., where his alma mater, Miami, was playing Notre Dame on the last weekend in October. So the seven-year major league veteran scored a ticket and filed into Wrigley Field that Friday night with hordes of fans, many of whom literally had waited their entire lives for that night. 

"It was surreal for me just walking up to the park and seeing how many people were walking in, and thinking this is what people do every single day," Jay said last month at the Sheraton Grand for Cubs Convention. "So to see that was real cool, and then the atmosphere was great. You saw how happy the fans were. It was real cool."

The Cubs lost Game 3, and Miami lost to Notre Dame the next day, so it wasn't exactly a good weekend for Jay's future and past teams. The Cubs signed Jay to a one-year, $8 million deal in November, with the expectation the 32-year-old will help fill the hole left by Dexter Fowler's winter departure to the St. Louis Cardinals. 

Jay played for the Cardinals from 2010-2015 and was a steady top-of-the-order presence for most of those years, compiling a .354 on-base percentage over 757 games. He won a ring with the Cardinals in 2011 and has 220 postseason plate appearances to his name, giving the Cubs an injection of another veteran presence in a clubhouse that, despite back-to-back playoff appearances, remains young. 

Right fielder Jason Heyward played with Jay in 2015 — which, statistically, was the worst year of Jay's career — and came away impressed with his presence in both a lineup and a clubhouse. 

"He brings a lot of baseball knowledge, a lot of the little things that can happen on and off the field," Heyward said. "Great clubhouse guy, great leader by example, somebody with experience, somebody with a ring and just a lot of those things come with time and experience. And he has that, and he brings that to our ballclub. Obviously we have for the most part a young team, but we got some experience now for our young guys. But it's good to add somebody else in there to be a calming voice. 

Added Heyward: "When we lose a David Ross, we need to kind of replace that and have it in there." In St. Louis, Heyward said Jay "was that guy" akin to Ross in the Cardinals' clubhouse."

It'll be an exercise in flexibility to figure out how Jay fits in a Cubs outfield that loses Fowler but returns Kyle Schwarber to left field, and also can be staffed by Heyward, Ben Zobrist, Albert Almora, Willson Contreras and Kris Bryant. Jay was better in 2016 (.291/.339/.389 in 374 plate appearances) with the San Diego Padres than in 2015 (.210/.306/.257 in 245 plate appearances) with the Cardinals, but he's probably not the lineup staple that Fowler was. 

But the ability for the Cubs' lineup to be flexible is one of the things Jay keyed on when asked why he thought last year's club was so successful. So after getting an in-person chance to see how that flexibility could play out on baseball's biggest stage, Jay will be a part of it as the Cubs push to defend their title in 2017.

"Who knows what the lineup's going to be, who knows who's going to be out there every day," Jay said. "But guys are going to be able to rest and then when it's time for October, guys are going to be fresh."

Cubs have high hopes for top prospect Ian Happ in 2017

Cubs have high hopes for top prospect Ian Happ in 2017

At this point, maybe the highest compliment a Cubs official could give a prospect would be to compare his mental makeup to that of Kyle Schwarber's. 

The Legend of Schwarber has grown to the levels of Greek mythology with the way he came back from a devastating knee injury to emerge as a hero in the World Series.

So it's natural Cubs fans would want to know who in the farm system is the next Schwarber in terms of mental toughness and makeup.

When posed that question at the Cubs Convention earlier this month, director of player development Jaron Madison pointed to Ian Happ, the Cubs' first round pick (ninth overall) in 2015.

Happ was drafted the year after Schwarber and fit the same mold as "America's large adult son" — an advanced college bat with a refined approach at the plate and no set position in the field.

And like Schwarber's drive to stick at catcher, Happ insists he can stay at second base and is not just an outfielder.

When the Cubs sent Happ to short-season Eugene after he signed following the draft, Madison told Happ and the coaches the young player was going to play outfield only. But when Happ showed up, he told the coaches he was strictly a second baseman.

Of course, the Cubs front office won out and Happ only appeared in the outfield in 2015, but when he returned for Instructional League, Madison and the Cubs allowed him an opportunity to prove his worth in the infield.

"He was a different guy when he came back in Instructional League and we let him work at second base," Madison said. "He opened up; he was a completely different personality. His conviction and dedication to trying to get good at second base is special.

"It's the same thing you saw with Schwarber. It's the same thing you saw with [Kris] Bryant and all the questions about what position he was gonna play coming up once he got to the big leagues.

"Those guys work hard and they're determined that's where they're going to play and Ian has that conviction."

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Happ appeared in 134 games in 2016 between Advanced Class-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Tennessee, playing 92 games at second base and only 23 in the outfield.

Happ's success in 2016 — which included a .279/.365/.445 slash line — was enough to earn him the consensus No. 2 prospect in the Cubs system (behind outfielder Eloy Jimenez) and also the third best second base prospect in the game by behind new White Sox phenom Yoan Moncada and Ozzie Albies of the Atlanta Braves.

"With Ian, he went out and had such great success early when he was in Myrtle, which we expected," Cubs director of amateur scouting Matt Dorey said. "He was such an advanced college hitter coming out of the draft that year and we felt the most important thing for Ian was to really allow him the opportunity to settle in at one position defensively.

"All through college, he played shortstop, center field. That's one of the things we liked about him — his versatility. But at the same time, we thought it was in his best interest to settle in in his first full season in the minor leagues to really sink his teeth in on one position, feel comfortable and really get into a good routine."

The Cubs still want Happ to work in the outfield in an effort to fine-tune his versatility before making it to the big leagues.

Joe Maddon loves moving players all around the diamond and the Cubs already have a quandry at second base between Javy Baez and Ben Zobrist.

But even in the outfield, Happ's road to Chicago appears to be blocked by the Cubs' stable of young position players, which explains why Happ's name is often bandied about in trade rumors as the Cubs look for long-term pitching answers.

A big 2017 season would help put Happ on the map even more after wearing out down the stretch last year, finishing with a .231 average and .730 OPS over the final month with Double-A Tennessee.

"Ian had to, for the first time, really learn how to manage his body," Dorey said. "He was always in really good shape and he took care of himself, but that first experience and taste of a long full season can really beat you up. At the end of the year, he did get a little bit tired and I think we saw that a little bit in the Arizona Fall League.

"Just hearing some of the feedback from the instructors, the strength and conditioning guys, he really embraced that challenge coming into 2017. We're all really excited to see him really develop into the type of player he's going to be — whether it's in 2017 on the major-league roster at some point or 2018 moving forward.

"He's an exciting player; he can do a lot of things on the field. Switch-hitter with power and really controls the zone. We all have high hopes for Ian in the 2017 season."