Young Cubs outfielders making an impression

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Young Cubs outfielders making an impression

By Jason P. Skoda
CSNChicago.com contributor

MESA, Ariz. The Cubs outfield is for the over 30 crowd.

Alfonso Soriano is 36, David DeJesus is 32 and Marlon Byrd is 35. The fourth outfielder is slated be Reed Johnson and he is 35.

All have produced in the past, but have shown signs of wear and tear in recent years.
Enter Brett Jackson, 23, Matt Szczur, 22 and even Tony Campana, 25.

Any slip ups, injuries or maybe even a shakeup of the clubhouse after a bad couple of weeks and the youngsters just might be ready to take over.

While Campana, who had two hits on Sunday in a 7-5 10-inning loss to the White Sox at HoHoKam Stadium, made his major-league debut last season, Jackson, as everyone knows, is the next big thing at Wrigley Field.

When you see him in person, its been pretty impressive, every part of his game, Cubs manager Dale Sveum said earlier this week. He comes to play every game. He comes to kick the other teams butt. Theres no doubt about it. A very aggressive, confident kid whos probably going to end up playing here a long time.

The feeling is the current contingent of outfielders are far from done otherwise there would be more of a push to keep Jackson on the roster on Opening Day.

Byrd has lost a ton of weight and is gliding better in the outfield, DeJesus just signed a two-year, 10-million deal this offseason and Soriano has lessened his leg kick and seemingly found a groove this spring at the plate.

"The other day, Brett Jackson was hitting a ball down the line and pushing into second," Byrd told the Chicago Tribune. "The next time I get up, I'm like, 'All right, he hit it down the line. I'm doing the same thing.' These kids can play, and that's the exciting thing."
Sveum, of course, feels that way after taking over the top spot in the Cubs dugout this season with the expectation of being around long enough to benefit from the young talent down the line.

I dont see why he wouldnt be ready, he said of Jackson. Maybe just develop the last part of his game as a little bit better two-strike hitter and not putting himself in some of those counts with swinging and missing. As far as the ability or anything, I dont see what else has to happen.

Szczur, who will start the season at Double-A Tennessee after spending 2011 in Single-A Peoria and Daytona, is still getting at-bats because of a strong of split-squad games despite getting sent down.

Its a huge honor to still be here, Szczur said after going 0-for-3 on Sunday. When I am up here, getting one at-bat here or one at-bat there its hard but it is still a chance to show them something.

Bench coach Jamie Quirk said the extra look is vital for a young player like Szczur.
Its great for the young guys to get four or five at-bats, said Quirk, who managed in Arizona while Sveum was in Las Vegas. Its mental toughness. They get to keep playing and show their skills. Anytime they can show their skills it is a plus.

Szczur said the idea of playing with Jackson, who is hitting .318 with a home run and five RBIs in 22 at-bats, in the confines of Wrigley someday has crossed his mind, but he is more focused on the present day.

We just go out there and play, said Szczur, who is hitting .158 in 19 spring at-bats. It is exciting to see us out there together. Were having fun. I have to worry about the day-by-day for now but I am excited to see what happens.

Notes: The Cubs will play a B game Monday against the Indians at Goodyear with right-hander Randy Wells getting the start. Right-hander Chris Volstad had another solid outing, giving up one earned (his first of the spring), in four innings against Texas in Las Vegas. He allowed four hits and struck out three. The crowd of 12,469 was the second largest of the spring for the Cubs after getting 13,245 on Friday.

What Cubs need to see during finals week before playoff test

What Cubs need to see during finals week before playoff test

PITTSBURGH – Winning or losing the final seven games of the regular season won’t change the perception of the Cubs as the on-paper favorites heading into the playoffs. It all goes back to the question president of baseball operations Theo Epstein got during his Opening Day media session: Will this year be a failure if the Cubs don’t win the World Series? 

The final judgments will come in October, but for now the Cubs will be running through postseason scenarios, adhering to Joe Maddon’s keep-everyone-fresh philosophy and trying to avoid any catastrophic injuries during this road trip through Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.

Before Monday’s 12-2 win over the Pirates, Maddon confirmed the Cubs are leaning toward carrying 11 pitchers and 14 position players for their first-round playoff series, with a 12-man staff being a possibility that hasn’t been ruled out yet. The manager had already scripted out the lineups for these four nights at PNC Park, beginning with Chris Coghlan as a leadoff guy, Willson Contreras as the cleanup hitter and Albert Almora Jr. starting in center field.   

“That fine balance between being rested and being sharp – we’re trying to thread that needle,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “There’s no guidebook for it.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

With the National League’s No. 1 seed, the best record in baseball and 100 wins already secured, the Cubs can focus on:

• Hoping to copy part of the World Series blueprint the Kansas City Royals used last year, the Cubs have built a dominant bullpen that can shorten games and might roll through October. But that depends on Pedro Strop (knee) and Hector Rondon (triceps) coming back from injuries and performing at full strength.   

After Strop pitched a scoreless seventh inning against the Pirates on Monday night, Rondon gave up back-to-back homers to Matt Joyce and David Freese in the eighth, which the Cubs will hope can be written off as lack of adrenaline coming into a 12-run game. Practicing the playoff script, superstar closer Aroldis Chapman worked the ninth inning with a 10-run lead.

• Maddon dropped into a hitters’ meeting last week at Wrigley Field to send a post-clinch message, stressing the idea of using this time wisely and focusing on the fundamentals the Cubs preached in spring training. That’s grinding out at-bats, understanding a two-strike approach and full-count situations and not relying so much on the home run. 

“That’s the key moving forward for us offensively,” Maddon said. “That’s the little nuance of the game as you get to this part (of the year) that really helps you separate.”

• Keeping a third catcher or not sounded more like talk-show filler than an actual debate around the Cubs. David Ross is locked in as Jon Lester’s personal catcher, but at the age of 39 “Grandpa” plays best in a backup role. Willson Contreras offers the most offensive upside and a rocket arm behind the plate, but the rookie would have to make up for his inexperience with energy and enthusiasm. 

Miguel Montero has caught more than 8,400 innings in The Show and finally seems to have found his left-handed swing – hitting .333 with two homers, three doubles and 10 RBI in his last 18 games – near the end of a disappointing offensive season. 

“It’s really tough to find guys like Miggy,” said Kyle Hendricks, a Cy Young Award candidate and projected Game 2 starter on Oct. 8 at Wrigley Field. “He controls the tempo (and) there aren’t many catchers that can control the tempo of a game. He keeps me in sync. He keeps me on time. He knows when to take a break and give me a breather. He just has a really good feel.    

“We go (in) with a good game plan, but I think his in-game adjustments are probably where he really picks it up the most. He’s been around. He’s seen all these hitters. He can feel when guys are trying to do certain things to you.”   

Getting Jake Arrieta back in the zone that made him the hottest pitcher on the planet last year might require Montero’s presence as a game-caller, pitch-framer and ace whisperer.

• Will wild-card chaos reign? The New York Mets (83-74) and San Francisco Giants (82-74) woke up on Monday clinging to wild-card positions, with the St. Louis Cardinals (81-74) only a half-game behind. The playoff probabilities on FanGraphs project the Mets as a virtual lock (88 percent), making it a coin flip between the Cardinals (57.6 percent) and Giants (54.3 percent).

• If the wild-card winner gets hot and shocks the best team in baseball in a best-of-five series, the autopsy of this season will inevitably involve second-guessing how the Cubs handled success and if clinching by mid-September dulled their edge.   

But in trying to stack the odds in your favor, would you rather be scrambling after the season-ending surgeries (Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom) that have decimated New York’s power pitching? Or worrying about the flammable bullpen (major-league-leading 30 blown saves) that might torch San Francisco’s even-year hopes? And if the Cardinals haven’t put it all together by now, what makes you think the flip will be switched in October?

“As a whole, this gives us a chance to get everybody healthy and on the same page,” Ross said. “Throughout the year, we’ve done a good job of focusing on the day and what’s to come. As long as we focus on being the best team that we can be, I don’t think we’ll have a problem.

“If you want to put a negative spin to clinching early, you can, but I’m pretty excited about it. I think the guys in here are very excited about it. I think there are a lot of other teams that would love to be in our position right now.”

Kyle Hendricks helps transform Cubs into 100-win team

Kyle Hendricks helps transform Cubs into 100-win team

PITTSBURGH – The Cubs have gone from the happy-to-be-here team that crashed last year’s playoff party to a 100-win machine that’s expected to win the World Series or else be remembered as underachievers.  

The evolution of Kyle Hendricks from a fifth starter to a legitimate Cy Young Award candidate helps explain why the Cubs have lived up to the preseason hype and created such expectations for October.

The Cubs won’t be leaving their season up to the coin flip of a wild-card game, the way they did 355 days ago at PNC Park, where it almost looks like the Pittsburgh Pirates still haven’t recovered yet. What once appeared to be a circle-your-calendar showdown that could decide the National League Central is now glorified spring training for the Cubs in late September.   

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Hendricks didn’t have to silence the blackout atmosphere during Monday night’s 12-2 win in front of an announced crowd of 20,519 and sections of empty seats. A quiet, polite Dartmouth College graduate would never troll Pittsburgh fans on Twitter the way Jake Arrieta did last year. But the Cubs are witnessing another historic run that could catapult them through October.  

Hendricks (16-8) lowered his major-league-leading ERA to 1.99 with six scoreless innings against the Pirates (77-79). The Cubs reached 100 wins for the first time since 1935 and that sense of momentum always begins with starting pitching. Hendricks has allowed three earned runs or fewer in each of his last 22 starts.  

“Obviously, we did not anticipate all of this,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He’s really exceeded, and good for him. This is something I think he can carry on for years. This is by no means a fluke. It’s not an anomaly. This is how good he’s capable of being. So it’s made a big difference that he’s been able to do what he’s done this year. No question.”