On Friday afternoon, the Chicago Cubs were sitting at 13-8 on the season, Addison Russell had just hit his first career home run, and Jon Lester had pitched a gem of a game and gotten his first win in a Cubs’ uniform.
Everything, as they say, was coming up Milhouse.
Then, in the blink of an eye, everything seemed to unravel. The Cubs’ bullpen began to falter. Their starting pitching vanished. Their offense even vanished over the weekend as they were badly outscored and dropped two straight games to the Milwaukee Brewers. On Monday night, it appeared that they were back on track as they took a 5-0 lead in the first inning, but it all came undone as Travis Wood surrendered four runs and the Cubs ultimately lost the game thanks to some poor work done by their bullpen.
A quick perusal of social media after the game revealed plenty of anger within the Cubs’ fan base, and rightfully so. This was a game that the Cubs by all accounts should have won, and a combination of bad pitching and bad luck conspired against them as they dropped their third straight game and fourth in the last five games overall.
Amid all of that anger though, an interesting fact becomes abundantly clear: it feels good to get this worked up about baseball again.
For years now, a Cubs loss would be met by some eye-rolling and maybe an occasional hand-wringing gesture, but fans got over it. To paraphrase Heath Ledger’s Joker, it was “all part of the plan.” The Cubs needed to lose these games to give their young talent time to develop in the minor leagues, and they got some really high draft picks and made some serious trades as a result as they reshaped the entire roster from top to bottom.
Now, with a group of veterans brought in and the youngsters really starting to come into the big leagues, expectations are on the rise on the north side of Chicago. Every Kris Bryant at-bat is met with breathless anticipation as fans await his first home run. Every diving stop by Starlin Castro is fawned over at length. Every Anthony Rizzo stolen base elicits reminders that he has more steals than the entire Chicago White Sox roster.
These things are part of the allure of baseball, and it’s so nice to have them back.
So before you get too worked up about losing a game to the St. Louis Cardinals in early May, or before you rue the fact that the Cubs could easily be 17-7 or 16-8 at this point of the season, just remember this: how much more fun is it to care about baseball than it was to ignore it and wait for Bears season to start?
From one observer’s perspective, this is a heck of a lot better.
The Chicago Cubs welcomed new third baseman Kris Bryant to Wrigley Field on Friday afternoon for his first big league game, and after only getting three hours of sleep as he flew in from Des Moines, the star was ready to get things underway.
“Right now, it’s a little overwhelming, but I’m ready to have fun with it,” he said in a pregame media availability.
Joe Maddon and the Cubs aren’t hesitating to throw the youngster to the wolves right away, as he will bat in the clean-up spot and play third base in Friday’s game against the San Diego Padres. With Mike Olt and Tommy La Stella both on the disabled list, Bryant has an opportunity to grab a roster spot for the long haul over the next few weeks, but he’s focused more on the day-to-day chances that his new spot gives him.
“When you start putting expectations that are way out there, you start losing sight of what’s important in this game,” he said.
High expectations can be the downfall of many players, but Bryant doesn’t seem to be one of them. He has excelled at every level of professional baseball he has played at so far, and even after he was sent down following a nine-home run stint in Cactus League play, he slugged three more home runs for the Iowa Cubs before his call-up.
Fans can count Maddon among the chorus of people who don’t believe that Bryant will be affected by the pressure surrounding him.
“I don’t think he’s going to be impacted by any of that,” he said. “Whether we batted him first or ninth, it doesn’t matter. He’s still going to play the game. I told him that my expectations are that (he) respect 90 feet and enjoy himself.”
As for what the plans are for Bryant after his initial time at third base, Cubs President Theo Epstein indicated that he believes the slugger will remain at the hot corner for the foreseeable future.
“The need right now is at third base, and we’re very comfortable with his defensive abilities,” he said. “I think this guy can play third base for a while.”
Bryant is only 23 years old, so his career with the Cubs could end up lasting a very long time. Even with that bright future ahead of him, his debut is still a moment for celebration for him and his family, and they will be in the building at Wrigley Field on Friday.
“I’ve never seen my dad cry before. That’s what it’s all about,” Bryant said. “Now my family, friends, girlfriend get to watch me on this stage.”
Throughout my life as a fan of the Chicago Cubs, I’ve seen all manner of prospects make their big league debuts. Whether it’s a player like Corey Patterson, touted for his five-tool ability, or a player like Mark Prior, who came out of college touted as the best pitcher to ever toe a slab, the team has had plenty of guys for me and my fellow fans to be excited about.
Kris Bryant is different. Kris Bryant is a different animal altogether.
Ever since the Cubs grabbed him with the second pick in the 2013 MLB Draft, I’ve kept an eye on his stats on a weekly, sometimes daily basis. I watched a few of his college games before that, but it was when the Cubs selected him in the draft that I fully grasped the enormity of what Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer had pulled off. This guy is a special player, and he was going to be playing for my favorite team.
Seeing him in person for the first time in spring training in 2014 was a bit of a letdown. He bobbled an easy play at third base (before he ultimately made the throw across), and he was stranded in the on-deck circle before I even got a chance to see him hit. This spring was a heck of a lot different, as I got to witness his home run against the Cleveland Indians (you know the one, as it was part of the trio of consecutive home runs by Bryant, Javier Baez, and Jorge Soler) and I got to witness two more when I saw the Cubs play against the Seattle Mariners. All I could do for that second set of bombs was whistle, because I was in the press box and aggressive fist-pumping and hooting is generally frowned upon.
Today will be the first time Bryant will be in the lineup for the Cubs, and he will be batting fourth for Joe Maddon. That sentence doesn’t have any particular meaning other than this: it feels like a dream to me. Ever since Maddon led the Tampa Bay Rays to the World Series in 2008, I’d harbored fantasies about him managing on the North Side. Adding a guy like Bryant to the mix only heightens the sense for me that this team is becoming something special.
At the same time that I’m salivating over the possibility of Bryant hitting in the heart of the order for the next seven years (thanks arcane MLB free agency rules!), I’m also well aware of the fact that the Cubs are a team that historically hasn’t had much to cheer about when it comes to homegrown talent. Guys like Ryne Sandberg (acquired from the Philadelphia Phillies in a trade) are about as close as we can get to that, but Bryant could be this team’s Ken Griffey Jr. He could be this team’s Mike Trout. He could become the prize that the Cubs didn’t steal. He could become the shiniest crown jewel.
Feeling the sense of giddiness that I do about Bryant becoming a member of the Chicago Cubs is an emotion that I hope I never lose. Writing about the Chicago Blackhawks and Chicago Bears full time for NBC, I feel like my enthusiasm for both teams has dulled over the years. That isn’t a bad thing, and is in fact beneficial as I try to dispassionately analyze both teams. I do miss that rush of adrenaline that I used to get, and baseball has become one of the only outlets I have when I’m looking to get my “fan on,” so to speak.
Bryant reminds me that sports are supposed to be fun. Bryant reminds me that it’s okay to get really excited about something in the sports world. Today is going to be a day that a lot of us are going to remember for a long time, and I hope it’s another step up the ladder toward a championship that would mean more to me than I probably realize as I type these words.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock since Monday, you know that Tuesday afternoon the Cubs became the talk of Spring Training, as prospects Jorge Soler, Javier Baez and Kris Bryant hit back-to-back-to-back home runs in a preseason game they didn’t even win. Not that wins mean all that much in Spring Training anyway. In the hierarchy of what’s important, they rate far below player conditioning and far above whether an individual is allowed to bring their own food into the ballpark.
The Chicago Cubs are a team in transition this season, bringing aboard fresh-faced prospects and high-priced free agent veterans alike as they try to turn over a new leaf with manager Joe Maddon.
On Monday at Cubs camp in Mesa, Maddon discussed the team’s plans for one of the prospects who will be looking to make an impact this season, saying that Kris Bryant will play at both third base and in the outfield as the team plays its Cactus League schedule.
“He gets it,” Maddon told the media. “I think he understands the work involved that’s necessary to being great.”
Bryant had an incredible 2014 season, skyrocketing through both the double-A and triple-A levels. In 594 plate appearances, he slugged 43 home runs and drove in 110 RBI, and he stole 15 bases in 19 attempts for good measure as he established himself as the top prospect in not only the Cubs’ system, but in all of baseball.
While speculation that Bryant could end up as the team’s left fielder (depending on what happens with Javier Baez, Starlin Castro, and Addison Russell in the infield) has been bandied about quite a bit, he hasn’t played any outfield since he was drafted by the Cubs in 2013. He has played all 177 of his career minor league games at third base, putting up a respectable fielding percentage of 94.6 percent while improving on his defense at each stop along the way.
It will be something worth keeping an eye on as Bryant works out the kinks in left field, and even though the odds are that he’ll begin the season in triple-A to avoid starting his big league service clock, it’s possible this move will give him even more versatility when he finally does make the jump.
In Part One of our conversation with new Chicago Cubs pre-and-postgame host Mark Grote, we discussed what the interview process was like, and what drew him to the job. In Part Two, we’ll discuss the on-field issues that the team will have to address in the coming year.
WCH: Now that we’ve covered the broadcast part of the equation, let’s talk a bit about the team. After seeing Javier Baez make his debut last season, what are your expectations for him in the new year?
Grote: Baez is that guy that took your breath away at times when he connected with that ferocious and wonderfully untamed swing, but the strikeouts are too much. I think the Cubs’ coaching staff has a very delicate task as it pertains to Baez. You don’t want to turn this guy into a doubles hitter, but striking out half the time is unacceptable. He could be a monster at Wrigley Field if he makes slight changes to his approach.
WCH: The other big prospect story with the Cubs concerns whether or not Kris Bryant will start the season at the big-league level. Do you think he’ll be on the team’s roster when they leave Mesa, or do you see him going back to triple-A?
Grote: I believe that Kris Bryant will be on the Cubs’ opening day roster IF he tears it up in spring training. I respect and understand the money clock, but there is a point where a baseball player becomes undeniable. Where the player means actual wins at the big league level now. And, if this is to be the next phase of the Cubs’ “rebuild,” they are going to have to act accordingly.
WCH: When he does make his way up here, do you see him staying at third base or shifting to the outfield?
Grote: I’d like to see him get a crack at third base. I realize his height is not ideal for the position, but it would be easy to rearrange pieces if necessary.
WCH: Out of the Cubs’ big offseason moves, which one do you think is the one that will make the biggest impact?
Grote: The answer is Jon Lester. Not just because of his immense skills, but because he allows the rest of the rotation to fall into place. He legitimizes things, as I like to say. Remember last year when everybody was asking if Jake Arrieta was a number one guy? No need for further inquiry.
A comfortable number two spot is where he can thrive. The jovial Jason Hammel seems tailor-made for the three, and where Lester really works his magic is with Kyle Hendricks, who was a pleasant surprise in his first year. Now he can continue to play it cool and perhaps take the next step without everybody EXPECTING him to take the next step.
It also puts Travis Wood in a perfect spot, and I do believe Wood will have a turnaround season (assuming he’s not traded).
WCH: What do you think this team’s biggest need is as they head to Mesa for spring training?
Dexter Fowler smoothed out the outfield situation, but what about left field? My vote is to give Chris Coghlan a shot. The former rookie of the year was fantastically consistent last season. I really like him, and not every position has to be ‘Cubs super-prospect.’ Coghlan could be one of those guys who is just now figuring it out. It happens.
WCH: Outside of the big stars and hotshot prospects, which player do you see being a surprise for the team this year?
Grote: I already alluded to my faith in Chris Coghlan to be something real. The other I keep thinking that may be ready to pounce is Jason Motte. He had 42 saves in 2012, and Joe Maddon is uniquely qualified to make those bullpen guys jump.
WCH: There’s one last question that absolutely has to be asked: do you, Mark Grote, think that the Cubs will win the World Series in 2015?
Grote: Let’s see. I was just named the Cubs pre and postgame host. I’m going to be on the team plane, and around these guys 24/7.
OF COURSE THE CUBS ARE GOING TO WIN THE WORLD SERIES IN 2015!!
The real answer is that I would not predict the Cubs to win the World Series this season, but there is life. Real life. What one can begin to predict again is good things. It is safe to go back into the water.
As the Chicago Cubs prepare to head out to spring training in Mesa, Arizona, Windy City Hardball is previewing each of the positions on the field for the team (and pretending we’re heading to Phoenix ourselves to enjoy the warm weather).
We keep things rolling today with a look at the team’s options at second base.
The Cubs have a ton of options available to them at this position, but who the starter will end up being is up in the air. In all likelihood it is a two-horse race, with Javier Baez and Tommy La Stella going head to head for the job. Baez has plenty of upside and can hit the tar out of the baseball….when he makes contact. As for La Stella, his slash numbers were solid last season with the Atlanta Braves, and his plate discipline was a heck of a lot better than Baez’s.
The problem with La Stella is that he provides literally nothing else if he isn’t getting on base. His power is nonexistent, and going into his second season in the bigs, pitchers are really going to start adjusting to him in the new year. Baez’s power upside is definitely something that could give him an edge in the battle, but if he struggles in the warm air in Arizona, then we could see a shift in thinking on the part of the Cubs.
Either Baez or La Stella could get the primary back-up job at second base (Baez could get a leg up for a roster spot since he can also fill in at shortstop, and potentially at third base in a pinch), but Arismendy Alcantara will also see plenty of time at the position. With Dexter Fowler in center field, Alcantara will be looked at as a utility guy extraordinaire, and he provides a nice insurance option in case Baez and La Stella both struggle out of the gate.
The Cubs may have quite a few guys that can play the position, but we still have this spot ranked seventh out of the eight fielding spots. The questions about Baez’s plate discipline and about La Stella’s ability to continue hitting for average with the Cubs are serious concerns, and even though Alcantara does give the spot a bit of a boost, not having an established guy to man the position is a bit concerning.
The Cubs’ plethora of middle infield prospects is an asset that many teams would love to emulate. Logan Watkins made 68 plate appearances for the Cubs in the 2014 season, putting up an OBP of .269, so he could start the season in the minors. Gleyber Torres is another guy to keep an eye on, with an insanely high ceiling and some great tools that he could use to jump higher on the team’s overall prospect rankings.
One other player to keep an eye on this season is Gioskar Amaya. He could be poised for a jump after playing well in high-A ball last year with Daytona, and he has some decent speed (14 stolen bases in 21 attempts in 2014) to go along with a solid OP of .379 a season ago.