Chicago Cubs

Behind the scenes at Wrigley: Cubs going full speed ahead to defend World Series title

Behind the scenes at Wrigley: Cubs going full speed ahead to defend World Series title

Jake Ciarrachi moved around the trolley, pointing his iPhone at the sea of people, documenting the championship parade so he could show the videos to his kids someday. The Grant Park rally ended on a Friday afternoon, and by Monday morning Ciarrachi would be leaving his Bucktown home again and flying to Phoenix to scout the Arizona Fall League.

“Back to work for 2017, baby,” Ciarrachi said. “Get right back at it.”

The Cubs pushed City Hall for a Nov. 4 parade, lobbying to start it the morning after the team landed in Chicago following an epic World Series Game 7 in Cleveland. Cubs executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer had to be at the Omni Scottsdale Resort & Spa by the night of Nov. 6 for the general manager meetings.

There the Cubs began to lay the groundwork for a one-year, $8 million deal with outfielder Jon Jay, who earned a World Series ring with the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals and should help fill some of the leadership void in a Grandpa Rossy-less clubhouse.

During a relatively quiet winter meetings at National Harbor in Maryland — at least compared to their grand-scale celebrations — the Cubs closed in on Wade Davis and Koji Uehara, adding two relievers to their bullpen who’ve already notched the final out of a World Series with the 2015 Kansas City Royals and 2013 Boston Red Sox.

Tyson Ross is said to be making a deliberate decision, going through a comprehensive review of his options as he tries to reboot his career after surgery to address thoracic outlet syndrome, but the talented pitcher could be an X-factor for the 2017 rotation. The Major League Baseball calendar never stops.

“Every year, you watch the World Series,” Ciarrachi said. “You always say to yourself: Man, to be on that side and walk out as the team last standing, there could be no better feeling.”

Recently promoted to major-league scout, Ciarrachi, 36, has an understanding wife, Brooke, who works around her own busy travel schedule as a consultant with Accenture. Ciarrachi also knows what it’s like to dream about working for the Cubs — and how rare these jobs are — because he grew up in Lombard, graduated from Montini Catholic High School and played baseball at Northern Illinois University.

Ciarrachi then played and coached independent ball in the Frontier League, worked in the Arizona Fall League and went to MLB’s scout school. He sent three letters to all 30 MLB front offices — addressed to each team’s farm director, scouting director and director of baseball operations — before finally landing a one-year internship with the Cubs for the 2006 season.

Ciarrachi laughed at the memory of one of his first tasks for Jim Hendry: Flying with the former general manager’s school-age children to ensure they made it down to spring training safely.

“I just worked my ass off,” Ciarrachi said, “and then hopefully something came of it.”

Whether by design — to emphasize closer collaboration and a tighter inner circle — or simply a product of Tribune Co. belt-tightening and the office-space squeeze at Wrigley Field, the smaller front-office structure Andy MacPhail and Hendry built allowed someone like Ciarrachi to gain wider exposure to the draft, the minor-league affiliates and the administrative side of the game.

As chairman Tom Ricketts invested in infrastructure and Epstein’s group overhauled baseball operations, Ciarrachi hit the road as a pro scout and covered the Baltimore Orioles in 2013, becoming one of the sources of information vouching for Jake Arrieta, an up-and-down, borderline Triple-A pitcher.

“Stuff-wise, it was off the charts,” Ciarrachi said. “I know numbers-wise, he wasn’t that great. But he was still young, a really strong kid. I heard really good things makeup-wise about him, because I had some friends with Baltimore.

“You say to yourself, man, when that light turns on, he’s a guy that I’ll take my chances with.

"If he could be a buy-low kind of guy — when he figures it out — he’s going to be really good.

“You can’t walk away from that kind of stuff, because you don’t see that kind of stuff. It wasn’t only just his fastball — breaking ball, his hybrid slider/cutter, changeup — he had it.

“This is the kind of guy you would want to have on your club. Like with any player, there’s no guarantee. Guys will get hurt or what have you, but he was a guy that I was going to bet on.”

The pitching infrastructure the Cubs can sell Ross helped transform Arrieta into the National League’s Cy Young Award winner in 2015 and the World Series starter who beat the Indians in Games 2 and 6 at Progressive Field.

In late September, Ciarrachi started doing advance work on Cleveland, tracking the Indians throughout the playoffs (plus jumping over to watch the Los Angeles Dodgers beat the Washington Nationals and move on to the NL Championship Series). The Cubs typically assigned five scouts to a playoff series, two for each team and a floater to cross-check what they were seeing.

“We were a young team — and we made the adjustments,” Ciarrachi said. “(Coming back) shows what our players are made of. They didn’t succumb to pressure. It was kind of like: ‘Hey, we know we’re the best team in baseball. Don’t be afraid that you’re down in the series.’

“Our guys were just (calm throughout). I don’t know if it was the youth. This is a huge credit to Theo and Jed and those guys — the makeup of our (players). They’re just quality human beings that jelled together to win.

“We struggled against Cleveland offensively. (Corey) Kluber handled us well. (Trevor) Bauer was tough, same as (Josh) Tomlin. I (remember) talking to (hitting coach John) Mallee (and saying): ‘I feel comfortable with our guys facing them again a second time, because I think our guys will adjust, like we did against L.A.’

“That was something that really stuck out for me with our guys, making the adjustments and then executing (while) being on the biggest stage (for) a franchise that hasn’t won in a long time.

“It was awesome to see. They didn’t really care about the past. I’m not saying they didn’t care, but that wasn’t on their minds. It was the present. With Joe (Maddon) at the helm leading our guys, you couldn’t have a better guy to do it. He kind of kept them grounded: Take every day as just one game and go from there.”

Embrace The Target? The Cubs will need a fresh message from their star manager — plus the New England Patriots-style game plans and the composure and baseball IQ they showed throughout October — to defend their World Series title.

While the Cubs kept showing up on “Saturday Night Live,” “The Tonight Show,” “Conan,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” and “Live with Kelly,” Epstein declined requests to do the national morning shows and late-night talk-show circuit.

“I turned down all the, you know, extracurricular stuff, trips to New York and things like that,” Epstein said. “For a few different reasons, among them we had to get back to work right away. But I also think it’s kind of the players’ time to enjoy stuff like that.

“Being around Chicago was wonderful, so many people coming up and saying thank you. I think David Ross was the first one to sort of point out that everyone was saying ‘thank you,’ not ‘congratulations,’ which, I think, reflects this tremendous gratitude that everyone has and how personally they feel the championship impacted their lives.

“It was great to see everyone in a good mood — and connected with each other (through) the ballclub and with different family members and generations — all because of one team that came together to play great baseball.

“It’s been awesome to be in the middle of that and observe it and see how rewarded all our fans feel. And all the front-office guys who pull the all-nighters and all our players who grew up in the middle of a pennant race.

“It’s been fun to see the positive impact it’s had on so many people, and the city as a whole, really. I mean, what more could you want than to be able to feel that just walking around town? It’s been wonderful.”

And the Jed’s-in-charge, wake-me-up-for-the-winter-meetings bender?

“I pulled that one off pretty good,” Epstein said.

CSN Chicago is replaying all 11 playoff wins, part of a programming block that will run through the day after Christmas, featuring sit-down interviews with Cubs personnel, a look back at the championship parade and Grant Park rally and fresh content on CSNChicago.com.

More stories from Behind the scenes at Wrigley

Behind the scenes at Wrigley: A Giant comeback launched a new generation of Cubs

Behind the scenes at Wrigley: Cubs winning World Series hit longtime scout Sam Hughes 'like a tidal wave'

Behind the scenes at Wrigley: Eddie Vedder, the Cubs Way, and how winners write history

Once again, Javier Baez will be a huge X-factor for Cubs down the stretch

javy_baez.jpg
USA TODAY

Once again, Javier Baez will be a huge X-factor for Cubs down the stretch

Javier Baez flicked his bat and watched the ball rocket in the direction of Waveland Avenue, the last of the back-to-back-to-back homers against Cincinnati Reds starter/Cubs trivia answer Scott Feldman.

That quick strike came during a four-homer fourth inning on Thursday afternoon at Wrigley Field, where the offense looked explosive and the pitching looked combustible in a 13-10 loss that left the Milwaukee Brewers one game out of first place, the St. Louis Cardinals right behind them and the Cubs awaiting a diagnosis on Jon Lester’s lat injury.

“I know the talent we got,” Baez said. “When they come to play a team like us, we know they’re going to come play hard and obviously play good baseball. They’re going to come to compete, and that’s what we got to do.”

Whatever happens from here – the Cubs are 2-2 so far during a 13-game stretch against last-place teams – you know Baez will be in the middle of the action as the No. 8 hitter with 19 homers this season and a power source with Willson Contreras (strained right hamstring) injured.

This is the starting shortstop until Addison Russell (strained right foot/plantar fasciitis) comes off the disabled list and the unique talent you couldn’t take your eyes off during last year’s playoffs.

“He’s not afraid of anything,” manager Joe Maddon said. “So I don’t care how big or small the game is, he’s going to play the same way. He’s going to do everything pretty much full gorilla all the time.

“Sometimes, he’s going to make a mistake. And that’s OK, because with certain people – with all of us – you got to take the bad with the good. Everybody wants perfection. He’s going to make some mistakes. But most of the time, he’s going to pull off events.”

The night before against the Reds, Baez led off the ninth inning with a line-drive double and scored the game-winning run on a wild pitch. Last week, Statcast clocked him at 16.11 seconds for his inside-the-park homer off the San Francisco Giants at AT&T Park. Over the weekend, he launched another home-run ball 463 feet against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field.

There are so many different ways Baez can help the Cubs win a game at a time when they don’t have anywhere close to the same margin for error that they did during last season’s joyride into the playoffs.

“I know we often talk about the strikeouts or the big swings,” Maddon said. “But look at his two-strike numbers. Look at his OPS (.808). Look at the run production in general (his 55 RBI match Kris Bryant). It’s been outstanding. And you combine that with first-rate defense.

“Now he’s going to make some mistakes. I’ve talked about that. That’s going to go away with just experience. As he gets older, plays more often, he’s going to make less of those routine mistakes. And the game’s going to get really clean and sharp.”

Until then, Baez will keep taking huge swings, making spectacular plays and trying to cut down on the errors (10 in 334 innings at shortstop, or one less than Russell through 729 innings), because he knows what he means to this team.  

“Javy’s very important,” pitcher Jake Arrieta said. “He’s one of our best defensive players, one of our most athletic players on the team.

“Javy’s got a really big swing, but he’s got a great eye and he handles the bat really well. For as big as his swing is, he still manages to make really good contact. I don’t want him to approach the game any other way than he does right now.”

Should the Cubs pursue Justin Verlander after Jon Lester's injury, and what would they have to give up?

Should the Cubs pursue Justin Verlander after Jon Lester's injury, and what would they have to give up?

The Cubs may be in some trouble, with the injury bug hitting them at an inopportune time.

First it was Addison Russell (strained right foot), then it was Willson Contreras, arguably the best catcher in baseball and one of the hottest hitters on the planet before going down with a hamstring injury, and now it's Jon Lester who may be on his way to the disabled list after suffering a strained left lat muscle in Thursday's 13-10 loss to Cincinnati.

All of this occurring during a time Joe Maddon's club is looking to pull away from the pack in the National League Central and capture their second straight division crown, which appears to be the only way the North Siders can control their own destiny.

So what should the Cubs do if Lester is sidelined for an extended period of time?

One option could be re-opening trade discussions surrounding Justin Verlander, who cleared revocable waivers in early August. But what would it take to get him, and how much salary would they have to take on for it to happen?

The SportsTalk Live panel weighed in on that possibility in the video above.