Covering the Cubs: A crazy summer rollercoaster

Covering the Cubs: A crazy summer rollercoaster

Thursday, Aug. 26, 2010
6:58 PM

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

WASHINGTON When the Cubs show up for work on Friday afternoon at Great American Ball Park, there will be 38 days remaining in the season, almost 21 percent of their paychecks still to be earned.

That doesnt sound like much time left for the pitchers and catchers who began reporting to the teams complex in Mesa, Ariz., about a week after the New Orleans Saints won Super Bowl XLIV.

But then you flash back to all that has happened in the previous 38 days. It all started on July 20, when Lou Piniellas agent leaked the news that the Cubs manager would be retiring.

New York Daily News columnist Bill Madden a former Yankees beat writer who would be honored that weekend at the Hall of Fame ceremonies in Cooperstown, N.Y. broke the story online.

It was published hours before the Cubs planned to make a relatively low-key announcement, without any advance warning to the media outlets that wouldnt normally rush to Wrigley Field for a Tuesday night game against the Houston Astros.

Piniella broadcast his intention to finish the season, but would be pulled back home twice within the next two weeks. He traveled to Tampa, Fla., for his uncles funeral, and to tend to his ailing mother, a family situation that ultimately led to his resignation and Sundays teary farewell.

As an emotional Piniella wrestled with this decision, Derrek Lee was making his own calculations. On July 28 the Cubs first baseman explained why he used his no-trade rights to block a deal to the Los Angeles Angels.

With a home in Southern California and good friends in the Angels clubhouse, that represented something close to an ideal situation. But Lee didnt want to move his family. The timing wasnt right, the Angels werent a sure thing and the expectation was that he would complete the final year of his contract in a Cub uniform.

After the Cubs landed at OHare International Airport on Aug. 15, general manager Jim Hendry approached Lee about a new opportunity. The Atlanta Braves scouted Lee during a three-game series in St. Louis, where he crushed four home runs in three games.

The next day Lee signaled his approval. Two days later the trade became official. And two days after that he drove his car into his normal parking space at Wrigley Field and walked into the visiting clubhouse, where he hadnt stepped inside since celebrating with the Florida Marlins after the 2003 National League Championship Series.

By then, the Cubs seemed almost numb to all the changes. Laid-back first basemanoutfielder Xavier Nady who has already been traded three times in his career and is playing for his fifth team essentially shrugged his shoulders.

Thats the nature of the game, Nady said. Guys are going to be departing here and there and there will be a lot of new faces. But from our standpoint, you got to come ready to play.

Lee socialized with every corner of the clubhouse, and his ex-teammates understood his change of heart. They had already said their goodbyes to Ted Lilly and Ryan Theriot at the July 31 non-waiver deadline the day after Carlos Zambrano apologized to the entire team but at least they had a flight to catch.

A television camera tracked Mike Fontenot on Aug. 11 as he walked from one AT&T Park clubhouse to the other after he was dealt to the San Francisco Giants.

More than one Cub has said that he hopes to get a chance to play with Lilly again at some point. Both parties left the door open to the veteran left-hander possibly re-signing as a free agent. But the organization is also trying to find in-house solutions and will continue to audition young pitchers.

Left-handed reliever Scott Maine is set to become the 16th rookie to appear for the Cubs this season and the 10th to make his major-league debut. Since July 20, the Cubs have brought up a player from Triple-A Iowa 11 times. Theyve optioned a player down to the minors eight times during that stretch.

Rookie reliever Andrew Cashner sort of shook his head and laughed.

Its been a crazy year, he said. Its definitely been kind of a whirlwind season, not really knowing what to expect.

There was Carlos Silva having trouble breathing on Aug. 1 and being taken to Denvers Saint Joseph Hospital in an ambulance. Eight days later, he underwent cardiac ablation at Northwestern Memorial Hospital to fix an irregular heartbeat.

Like Silva, Carlos Zambrano thought about his family during what might have been his best start of the season on Tuesday night in Washington.

Zambranos postgame news conference lasted about six minutes, and during that time he was confrontational, thoughtful, cocky and philosophical before leaving to see his nephew at a hospital in Venezuela.

Anything close to deathsometimes people shouldnt leave until theyre old, Zambrano said, but when God has something in mind, He calls us to Him. What can we do?

The Cubs will regroup with Thursdays off day in Cincinnati, not exactly a world-class city if you are a millionaire with time on your hands. But the timing couldnt be better after 20 games in 20 days and 17 against teams with legitimate hopes of being soaked in champagne at some point in September or October.

They are on their third manager in the past two weeks. Randy Wells played for Mike Quade in Iowa in 2006 and says hes the same high-strung, funny guy that gets along with everybody.

Quade loves horseracing, but the past 38 days have shown that its impossible to handicap how this all will end.

Its no secret he can say what he wants, and you guys can say what you want, Wells said, but youd be stupid not to try to take this opportunity and show what you can do for possibly a managers job down the road.

You never know whats going to happen.

Patrick Mooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. Follow Patrick on Twitter @CSNMooney for up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

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."