Chicago Cubs

Cubs core: Barney in the running for Gold Glove

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Cubs core: Barney in the running for Gold Glove

In Theo Epsteins mind, players can be divided into two categories: Those who are part of the core, and those who are not.

Its not always that neat or simple some are marked only by potential, others are contingent upon specific improvements to their game and some could ultimately be used as trading chips once the Cubs are in a win-now mode.

But this has been the big idea during the first year of the Epstein administration, and it will continue that way on the North Side in 2013.

The offseason officially began late Sunday night, when the San Francisco Giants looked like a potential dynasty by finishing off the Detroit Tigers and winning their second World Series in the past three years.

Shaping the nucleus of a team that could go on that kind of run is Epsteins No. 1 goal this winter. The Cubs president already thinks Darwin Barney could be one of those guys.

More validation could come Tuesday, when the Gold Glove winners are revealed at 8 p.m. on ESPN2. Rawlings announced Barney as a finalist on Monday, along with Brandon Phillips (Cincinnati Reds) and Aaron Hill (Arizona Diamondbacks) at second base, as voted by managers and coaches.

Phillips has won two consecutive Gold Gloves at the position as well as three in the past four years and wasnt shy saying this in late September: Everybody knows Im the best defensive second baseman.

While defensive metrics are imperfect, Barney (.997) has the edge over Phillips (.992) and Hill (.992) in fielding percentage. According to FanGraphs.com, Barney (13.1) also outperformed Phillips (8.1) and Hill (4.6) in terms of UZR.

Barney has already won a Fielding Bible Award, as an almost unanimous selection as the best defensive second baseman in the majors, from a panel that included Bill James, Doug Glanville and Peter Gammons. The Fielding Bible calculated that Barney led all second basemen with 28 runs saved, or 17 more than Phillips.

In the future, manager Dale Sveum thinks the Cubs could potentially have an infield anchored by three Gold Glove winners, as Barney develops more chemistry with Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo and they enter their prime.

The big hole remains at third base, where the Cubs still have not found a replacement for Aramis Ramirez. Certain segments of the fan base and the media even some inside the organization loved to rip Ramirez, who generated 27 homers and 105 RBI and emerged as a Gold Glove finalist during his first year with the Milwaukee Brewers.

Ramirez didnt go out of his way to be a leader, he had trouble staying on the field and he didnt earn extra hustle points. But he produced when he was healthy, and was perceptive when he turned to Barney one day during batting practice at Wrigley Field late in the 2010 season.

Rami was the guy (in 2010) who said: Look, you have an opportunity to play second base every day next year, Barney once recalled. It was something I never thought about and I kind of was questioning it. He said: Look, you can hit. You can play. And those kind of things people dont get to see.

Already a game-changer defensively, the Cubs expect Barney (.299 on-base percentage) to become more of what they like to call a two-way player. He will turn 27 next month and still has the leadership qualities that made him a glue guy on the Oregon State University teams that won back-to-back College World Series titles.

Now its just a sort of small continued progress offensively, Epstein said. If he gets on base a little bit more, when you look at what he does defensively and his intangibles, he can be a guy that we lean on, too.

Barney grabbed headlines by going 141 straight games without an error at second base, tying Placido Polanco for the major-league, single-season record and making the rest of the league pay attention.

Except for Phillips, who said he didnt know about the streak when a reporter mentioned it before the Reds clinched their division title: Oh, really, thats cool. Thats nice. Honestly, Ive been too busy winning.

With that, here are the National Leagues Gold Glove finalists:

Pitcher
Bronson Arroyo, Cincinnati Reds
Mark Buehrle, Miami Marlins
Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers

Catcher
Yadier Molina, St. Louis Cardinals
Miguel Montero, Arizona Diamondbacks
Carlos Ruiz, Philadelphia Phillies

First base
Freddie Freeman, Atlanta Braves
Adam LaRoche, Washington Nationals
Joey Votto, Cincinnati Reds

Second base
Darwin Barney, Chicago Cubs
Aaron Hill, Arizona Diamondbacks
Brandon Phillips, Cincinnati Reds

Third base
Chase Headley, San Diego Padres
Aramis Ramirez, Milwaukee Brewers
David Wright, New York Mets

Shortstop
Zack Cozart, Cincinnati Reds
Ian Desmond, Washington Nationals
Jose Reyes, Miami Marlins
Jimmy Rollins, Philadelphia Phillies

Left field
Ryan Braun, Milwaukee Brewers
Carlos Gonzalez, Colorado Rockies
Martin Prado, Atlanta Braves

Center field
Michael Bourn, Atlanta Braves
Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh Pirates
Drew Stubbs, Cincinnati Reds

Right field
Jay Bruce, Cincinnati Reds
Andre Ethier, Los Angeles Dodgers
Jason Heyward, Atlanta Braves

Are Cubs lining up Jake Arrieta to start Game 1 vs. Nationals?

Are Cubs lining up Jake Arrieta to start Game 1 vs. Nationals?

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Are the Cubs lining up Jake Arrieta to start Game 1 against the Washington Nationals?

“I’m not even anywhere near that,” manager Joe Maddon said during Tuesday’s pregame media session with the Chicago media, immediately shifting his focus back to the decisions he would have to make that night – how hard to push catcher Willson Contreras coming off the disabled list, what the Cubs would get out of lefty Mike Montgomery, how the bullpen sets up – against the Tampa Bay Rays.

“Players can do that kind of stuff. I don’t think managers can. Honestly, I don’t want to say I don’t care about that. I just don’t worry about that, because there’s nothing to worry about yet. Because first of all, he’s got to be well when he pitches, too.”

Arrieta had just completed a throwing session at Tropicana Field and declared himself ready to face the Milwaukee Brewers on Thursday at Miller Park. That would be the Cy Young Award winner’s first start since suffering a Grade 1 right hamstring strain on Labor Day. It would set him up to face the St. Louis Cardinals next week at Busch Stadium and start Game 162 against the Cincinnati Reds at Wrigley Field.

“The plan is to be out there Thursday,” said Arrieta, who would be limited to 75-80 pitches against the Brewers and build from there, trying to recapture what made him the National League pitcher of the month for August. “The good thing is the arm strength is there – it’s remained there – and I actually feel better for maybe having a little bit of time off.

“The idea is to be able to be out there the last game against Cincinnati – pretty much at full pitch count – and to be ready for the playoffs.”

Five days after that would be the beginning of the NL divisional round and what could be a classic playoff series between the defending champs and Dusty Baker’s Nationals. The Cubs started Jon Lester in Game 1 for all three playoff rounds during last year’s World Series run and their $155 million ace could open a Washington series with an extra day of rest.

“It’s inappropriate to talk about that now,” team president Theo Epstein said. “We have a lot of work to do, and those would be the guys that would help get us there in the first place. If you’re lucky enough to get into that situation, you’d just use all the factors. You guys all know – who’s going the best, who matches up the best, the most experienced – and we figure it out and go from there. But we’re still a good ways away from figuring that one out.”

Untouchable: Javier Baez showed why Cubs built around him during takeover at shortstop

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AP

Untouchable: Javier Baez showed why Cubs built around him during takeover at shortstop

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Imagine Javier Baez wearing a New York Mets uniform or playing in an empty Tropicana Field and where the Cubs would be without their backup shortstop.

The trade speculation still lingered into this season, even after Baez blossomed into a National League Championship Series co-MVP and a World Series champion. Maybe it was just out of habit since Theo Epstein’s front office spent years collecting hitters and planning to deal for pitching, or a perception issue for a prospect who wasn’t drafted by this regime and has a “flashiness” to his game that recently got this unfair, narrow-minded label from a Pittsburgh Pirates broadcaster: “A difficult player for me to root for.”

But the Cubs never traded Baez to the Tampa Bay Rays for one of those starters who usually seems to be on the rumor mill – Chris Archer, Alex Cobb, Jake Odorizzi, Matt Moore – and that decision continues to look better and better in hindsight.   

Baez again showed why he is essentially untouchable while Addison Russell slowly recovered from a strained right foot and plantar fasciitis, starting 41 of 42 games at shortstop between Aug. 3 and Sept. 16 and hitting .282 with eight homers and 27 RBI during that stretch.  

Deep down, Baez still views himself as a shortstop – “yeah, for sure, if I get the (chance)” – while deferring to Russell (who was activated over the weekend) and understanding that the Cubs can again have an elite defensive unit when he moves back to second base.

“When I play short every day, obviously, I’m going to be ready for it and making all the adjustments to be there,” Baez said. “I do my best to help the team. Addie’s a big part of the team.”

Remember how shaky the defense looked up the middle when Russell missed the 2015 NLCS with a hamstring injury and the Mets swept the Cubs out of the playoffs?  

The Cubs created enough depth – and room to grow – to stash an All-Star shortstop on the disabled list on Aug. 4 and go from being a 57-50 team with a 1.5-game lead in the division to running a season-high 17 games over .500 heading into Tuesday night at The Trop.  

Even though Joe Maddon lobbied for Baez to make the Opening Day roster during his first post-Rays spring training in 2015, the manager also made a point to say he didn’t run an entitlement program.

Maddon would not anoint Baez as an everyday player heading into this season, even after he started all 17 games at second base during last year’s playoffs and starred for Team Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic.

“If you had done that with him two years ago, he would have buried himself,” Maddon said. “Absolutely. I don’t think he would have made the same adjustments at the plate. You would have seen a lot more mistakes on defense. You would have seen a lot more routine plays not handled routinely. You would not have seen the same base running. Even though he had it in his back pocket, I just think that he’s learned how to really pick his moments there, too. He wasn’t ready for all that.”

There is something to the idea of taking the good with the bad with Baez. Except there are no perfect players and so few have his mind-blowing combination of skills, love for the game and sixth sense for highlight-reel moments.    

“You don’t teach those things – that’s just God-given talent,” catcher Alex Avila said. “He’s been able to put it together. You see those plays. But the work that goes into it – as far as being in the right spot, having the right first step, anticipating the ball, things like that – all that kind of gets you the result.

“(It’s not only) making sure he’s making the routine plays, but he has the athleticism and the wherewithal to be able to make the spectacular plays as well.”

Instead of focusing on the tattoos or the hairstyles or a swing that can get out of control at times, remember that this is someone who already has 22 homers and 70 RBI in the middle of September – and a .791 OPS in his age-24 season that represents a 54-point jump from the year before – for an iconic team with World Series expectations.

“You could see there was a lot of stuff for Javy to iron out,” Maddon said. “He’s worked them out. It’s a lot of repetition. It’s a lot of good coaching. But it’s about the player himself, being able to make those adjustments. I honestly think his path has been a good one. And I think the way we did it last year was perfect.

“Everything’s happened as it should organically for him."