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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Is Addison Russell still on track for Opening Night?

Is Addison Russell still on track for Opening Night?

MESA, Ariz. – Addison Russell believes he will be ready for Opening Night. Right now, Cubs manager Joe Maddon says his All-Star shortstop starting the season on the disabled list is an option that "I'm not considering."

But Russell hasn't played in a Cactus League game since March 22 and the Cubs have only three exhibitions left before facing the St. Louis Cardinals on national TV. The new 10-day disabled list would also allow the Cubs to backdate Russell's injury (stiff back) to March 30 and create a degree of roster flexibility. 

"We're trying to start the season out on a good note and definitely in St. Louis," Russell said Tuesday. "That's kind of the goal, but if the back doesn't feel well until then, maybe that's something that we'll have to do. With the way that I'm feeling, I don't think that's necessary."

The Cubs did get Ben Zobrist (stiff neck) back into the lineup that afternoon against the San Francisco Giants at Sloan Park. Russell estimated he's around "95 percent" and hoped to play Wednesday before the Cubs leave Arizona and fly out for two exhibition games against the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park.      

"We're not trying to take it too quick," Russell said. "Missing a few games here in the spring is a lot better than a few games in the season. I've talked to Joe and there's no hurry back."

Five days out from what should be an electric atmosphere at Busch Stadium, Maddon said athletic trainer PJ Mainville didn't sound concerned about Russell's back issue.

"PJ felt very strongly that he's going to be fine over the next couple days," Maddon said. "From Addison's perspective, knowing baseball players who've been doing so well, you take a couple days off, you're concerned that you're going to lose it. 

"I'm certain he's going to be fine. Actually, I'm OK with him getting some rest right now. The biggest thing is: Medically, is he going to be fine? Everybody thinks that he is, so I'm not concerned."

Cubs release Munenori Kawasaki and keep the door open for his return

Cubs release Munenori Kawasaki and keep the door open for his return

MESA, Ariz. – The Cubs released Munenori Kawasaki on Tuesday, allowing the popular, high-energy Japanese infielder to see what's out there while still keeping the door open for his return.

The timing would also allow the Cubs to avoid paying the $100,000 retention bonus to Kawasaki, who's played parts of five big-league seasons with the Seattle Mariners, Toronto Blue Jays and last year's World Series team.

"Hopefully, we get a chance to sign him back," manager Joe Maddon said at the Sloan Park complex. "A guy like him needs to take advantage of how well he's playing and possibly see if there's a chance to get a major-league job."

With that move, the Cubs cut the roster to 30 players on their second-to-last day in the Cactus League this spring. Between Addison Russell, Ben Zobrist and Javier Baez – and prospects like Ian Happ and Chesny Young – the Cubs would appear to be covered up the middle for now. 

"You can never have enough middle infielders," Maddon said. "I'd love to have him, no question. Hopefully, he's going to be back. Again, this is one of those things where the word 'release' is a very harsh word, but I think it can be rectified possibly. I hope he comes back to us."