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.

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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."