Cubs familiar with late bloomers

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Cubs familiar with late bloomers

The Cubs have completed 19 games thus far; a decent chunk of the season...and Bryan LaHair has 57.1 percent of the team's home runs.

LaHair, 29, has all of a half of a season's worth of a game under his Major League belt. The feeling around Wrigleyville is that he's just a placeholder until highly-touted prospect Anthony Rizzo is ready to take the next step. Rizzo's tearing up the minors; with 7 HR and 21 RBI in 20 games at Iowa.

LaHair knows Iowa. Curiously, the Iowa Cubs play in the Pacific Coast League; and LaHair took home 2011 PCL MVP honors with a stunning season of 38 HR, 109 RBI and a .331 BA. But he's 29.

Is it inconceivable for a late bloomer to burst onto the scene and have a productive career?

Ask Hank Sauer.

The man referred to as "The Mayor of Wrigley Field" was a fan favorite at the Friendly Confines for several years, and it took him a long time to get there.

Born in the Pittsburgh area in 1917, he finished high school in 1935 and went to work to help support his family, playing baseball on the weekends. Discovered on a sandlot by a Yankees scout, he spent 1937-38 at Butler of the Penn State Association. He also figured he was a bit old for his level, so he listed himself as two years younger than he really was...and played his entire career with this secret until after his retirement.

He was drafted by the Reds organization prior to the 1939 season, which he spent at Akron, then moved on to Birmingham for the next two seasons, earning a cup of coffee with the big-league team in Cincinnati in both 1941 and 1942. 1943 was spent entirely in Syracuse; Reds skipper Bill McKechnie doubting his defensive ability.

Next came World War II; 1944 and most of 1945 were spent serving in the Coast Guard. He finished September 1945 with the Reds and looked for a starting spot the next season, but was overlooked, and back to Syracuse he went for 1946 and 1947 as well.

After posting solid numbers in the minors from year-to-year, usually in the teens in home run output before hitting 21 in 1946, it was 1947 when Sauer broke out. Syracuse Chiefs manager Jewel Ens recommended a heavier bat, and the results turned heads. Sauer hit .336 with 50 homers and 141 RBI, earning him recognition as The Sporting News Minor League player of the year.

Sauer arrived in the Majors for good as a 31-year-old in 1948. He paced the Reds with 35 homers, finishing with more than any two teammates combined. A slow start in 1949, hitting .237 with only 4 homers through 41 games raised doubts, and the Reds decided to pull the trigger, dispatching the 6-foot-4 slugger to the Cubs with Frank Baumholtz in exchange for Peanuts Lowrey and Harry Walker. Lowrey and Walker gave the Reds a combined 4 HR in 266 games after the trade, while Sauer got back to business at Wrigley Field, cranking out 27 longballs in 96 games in 1949 alone.

It didn't stop. For an encore in 1950, Sauer slugged 32 homers, followed by 30 more in 1951. The Wrigley faithful showered left field with pouches of tobacco to show their appreciation.

In 1952, at age 35, he kicked it up a notch, leading the Majors with 121 runs knocked in and tying for the Major League lead (with Ralph Kiner) with 37 HR. The Cubs were a fifth place team at 77-77, but voters couldn't help but make Sauer the first player from a second division team (bottom half of the standings in the 8-team NL) to win MVP.

A succession of broken fingers and finally a broken hand limited Sauer to 108 games and 19 bombs in 1953, but once again he rebounded in a major way with a career-high 41 home runs in '54.

After a trade to the Cardinals and subsequent release, Sauer's last hurrah came in 1957, when the 40-year old slugger won the Comeback Player of the Year award with 26 homers and a .508 slugging percentage. He played his last game in 1959 before enjoying a long career as a scout.

In all, he hit 281 of his 288 career homers (97.6 percent) past the age of 30. At the time of his retirement, only Babe Ruth (430) had hit more homers beyond that age.

The story of Hank Sauer is encouraging to those of us who got a late start at something they love. It makes me think of getting back in the classroom at age 28...doing hard work for free at various internships just to get my name out there.

I didn't get my first job in the media until age 29, and nearly three years later, I'm still working as hard as I can, still feeling the thrill just to have the platform I do. It would be nice if the Cubs can provide the same opportunity to LaHair.

Sources:
Hank Sauer - (SABR BioProject) - by Jim Sargent
baseball-reference.com
We Played the Game - edited by Danny Peary
The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract

Why Cubs are excited for pitching prospect Dylan Cease: He's 'throwing lightning bolts'

Why Cubs are excited for pitching prospect Dylan Cease: He's 'throwing lightning bolts'

Theo Epstein's front office is heading into Year 6 with the Cubs and they're finally talking about a pitcher as one of the organization's most exciting prospects.

That's how senior vice president of scouting and player development Jason McLeod framed his Dylan Cease report to fans at the Cubs Convention at the Sheraton Grand Chicago last weekend.

It was a tongue-in-cheek summation from McLeod after he spent the previous few minutes fawning over Cease, the Cubs' sixth round pick in 2014.

Of course, McLeod and the Cubs can poke fun at the lack of impact pitching the farm system has developed when the homegrown position players like Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber just helped lead the franchise to its first World Series championship in over a century.

Cease, however, has been one of the more intriguing Cubs prospects for years — a right-handed pitcher capable of touching 101 mph on the radar gun.

"This guy is throwing lightning bolts out of his arm," McLeod said. "It's really exciting. But we also understaned he's only in Low-A this year, so he's far away."

The Cubs expect Cease to pitch for Class-A South Bend in 2017 after spending last season pitching for short-season Eugene and the 2015 campaign working in the rookie league in Arizona.

Cease — who just turned 21 in late December — put up some impressive numbers at both stops in the Cubs system, posting a 2.36 ERA and 1.165 WHIP to go along with a whopping 91 strikeouts in 68.2 innings. He also only surrendered one homer and walked more batters (41) than reached via a basehit (39).

Control is obviously an issue for Cease, but the upside is evident.

"He's so far away," McLeod said. "He's gonna go into 2017 as a starter. As with a lot of young guys, it's gonna come down to command and depend on that third pitch and the ability to land them for strikes.

"It's a special arm. He can pitch 95-100 mph with a big power curveball. He's unlike anyone else we have in our system since we've been here in terms of pure stuff."

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One fan compared Cease to Carl Edwards Jr. in terms of their lanky build and high velocity, setting McLeod up for a layup joke.

"Well, Dylan is much stronger physically than CJ is...as is everybody in this room," McLeod said as the ballroom filled with laugher. "Don't tell [CJ] I said that. 

"They have different body types, obviously. Carl is long and lanky and Dylan has probably put on 20 pounds since we drafted him, so he's more like 6-foot-2, 190."

By comparison, Edwards — who goes by "The String Bean Slinger" for his slight build — is listed at 6-foot-3, 170 pounds.

Edwards was drafted in the 48th round in 2011 and spent his whole minor-league career as a starting pitcher until the Cubs converted him to a reliever in 2015.

Cease may eventually go down the same path, but the Cubs are going to give him every opportunity to make it as a starter first.

Cease was one of the top pitchers available in the 2014 draft, but his stock took a hit when he was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery on his pitching elbow while at Milton High School in Georgia.

That scared off a lot of teams — as did the potential signability issues with college offers looming — but the Cubs took a chance and have now watched Cease soar to a top prospect in the system (No. 4 by Baseball America; No. 7 by FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus) despite the cautious approach and lack of innings in professional ball.

"We have to thank Kyle Schwarber, actually, as one of the main reasons we got to sign Dylan Cease," McLeod said. "Because we took Kyle fourth overall, we were able to save money on the selection with him, which gave us the resources to go get Dylan Cease.

"He was a Top 10 pick in the draft — a high school arm that got hurt, fell down to the fifth round and he had a commitment to Vanderbilt, I think it was, and we were able to use the money we saved from Kyle.

"Just another reason to love Kyle Schwarber."

Joe Maddon’s messaging to Cubs before the 2017 campaign

Joe Maddon’s messaging to Cubs before the 2017 campaign

Joe Maddon's Washington itinerary didn't include an hour-long sit-down with Chuck Todd for NBC's "Meet the Press." There would be no rehashing the manager's Game 7 decisions as he stood outside the West Wing, though the second question during the media stakeout involved "last year's team" and how the 2017 Cubs are prepared to defend a World Series title.

"You're already there, huh?" Maddon said to a CNN reporter, minutes after President Barack Obama's final official White House event ended on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. 

But last year's team is gone — preserved now in highlight films and the hearts and minds of generations of Cub fans — even if so many familiar faces will be in Mesa when pitchers and catchers officially report to Arizona on Valentine's Day.

It would be impossible to replicate everything that made the 2016 Cubs so special. Baseball has its own relentless pace and the dynamics are constantly shifting. (Remember when players were passive-aggressively complaining about Maddon's spring-training approach during the final week of a 103-win regular season?) The clubhouse chemistry will inevitably feel different after climbing a Mount Everest of professional sports.

"A mind once stretched has a very difficult time going back to its original form," Maddon said. "We're motivated by it. We want to do it again, of course. There's no question we're trying to do that.

"I'm really leaning on the phrase or the thought of being uncomfortable. I want us to be uncomfortable. I think the moment you get into your comfort zone after having such a significant moment in your life like that, the threat is that you're going to stop growing.

"So I really want us to be uncomfortable. I really want to continue (to see) a pattern of growth and really try to get at them very quickly again."

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Can Jason Heyward recover from one of the worst offensive seasons in the majors last year? Is Willson Contreras ready to be a frontline catcher? Will Javier Baez have to adjust back to being a role player after becoming a playoff superstar? Does Kyle Schwarber in the leadoff spot and Albert Almora Jr. and Jon Jay in a center-field timeshare represent an upgrade over Dexter Fowler?

If healthy, Wade Davis should be a trusted, lower-maintenance closer than Aroldis Chapman, with an advanced approach to pitching and more clubhouse presence. As a staff, the Cubs will have to bounce back from pitching into early November (or not, in the case of the relievers Maddon didn't trust during the playoffs).

As it stands, Jon Lester (33) and John Lackey (38) have already combined to throw almost 5,000 innings in The Show (including the postseason). Jake Arrieta will have to deal with the pressure of playing for his megadeal in his final season before becoming a free agent.

The drop-off after Mike Montgomery — and it's still mostly projected potential with the No. 5 starter — appears to be very steep in an organization that doesn't have any high-end pitching prospects in the upper levels of the farm system.

After painting the bull's-eye on the chest and turning "Embrace The Target" and "Try Not To Suck" into viral T-shirts, a guy who hates meetings is still working on his themes for this campaign.

"I'm really rotating around the thought of authenticity," Maddon said. "I talked about it a lot last year, the fact that I think authenticity has a chance to repeat itself without even trying. It's part of who you are. It's not fabricated. It's real.

"I've talked about our guys a lot the last couple years. I think one of our strongest qualities is the authentic component of our players. So I'm really focusing on that word right now. Again, that's a great word to bring an entire message from (when) you get in front of the group that first day in spring training.

"I kind of just think like authenticity happens. And let's work it from there."

The costumes should be in midseason form with Maddon planning a house party around Tampa's Gasparilla Pirate Festival before driving his RV from Florida to Arizona.

Maddon will turn 63 on Feb. 8 and have to keep evolving, just like his players, who might outgrow some of those gimmicks. But the Cubs are still a reflection of their future Hall of Fame manager.

Amid all the uncertainty in Washington, Maddon wouldn't touch a question about what advice he would give Donald Trump before Friday's inauguration.

"I'm not even going to go anywhere close to that," Maddon said. "I will say this: I have a lot of respect of the office.

"At the end of the day, just have a lot of respect for the office, regardless of your political persuasion. My point would be to encourage people to really respect the office and let's see what we get done here over the next four years."