Cubs familiar with late bloomers

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Cubs familiar with late bloomers

The Cubs have completed 19 games thus far; a decent chunk of the season...and Bryan LaHair has 57.1 percent of the team's home runs.

LaHair, 29, has all of a half of a season's worth of a game under his Major League belt. The feeling around Wrigleyville is that he's just a placeholder until highly-touted prospect Anthony Rizzo is ready to take the next step. Rizzo's tearing up the minors; with 7 HR and 21 RBI in 20 games at Iowa.

LaHair knows Iowa. Curiously, the Iowa Cubs play in the Pacific Coast League; and LaHair took home 2011 PCL MVP honors with a stunning season of 38 HR, 109 RBI and a .331 BA. But he's 29.

Is it inconceivable for a late bloomer to burst onto the scene and have a productive career?

Ask Hank Sauer.

The man referred to as "The Mayor of Wrigley Field" was a fan favorite at the Friendly Confines for several years, and it took him a long time to get there.

Born in the Pittsburgh area in 1917, he finished high school in 1935 and went to work to help support his family, playing baseball on the weekends. Discovered on a sandlot by a Yankees scout, he spent 1937-38 at Butler of the Penn State Association. He also figured he was a bit old for his level, so he listed himself as two years younger than he really was...and played his entire career with this secret until after his retirement.

He was drafted by the Reds organization prior to the 1939 season, which he spent at Akron, then moved on to Birmingham for the next two seasons, earning a cup of coffee with the big-league team in Cincinnati in both 1941 and 1942. 1943 was spent entirely in Syracuse; Reds skipper Bill McKechnie doubting his defensive ability.

Next came World War II; 1944 and most of 1945 were spent serving in the Coast Guard. He finished September 1945 with the Reds and looked for a starting spot the next season, but was overlooked, and back to Syracuse he went for 1946 and 1947 as well.

After posting solid numbers in the minors from year-to-year, usually in the teens in home run output before hitting 21 in 1946, it was 1947 when Sauer broke out. Syracuse Chiefs manager Jewel Ens recommended a heavier bat, and the results turned heads. Sauer hit .336 with 50 homers and 141 RBI, earning him recognition as The Sporting News Minor League player of the year.

Sauer arrived in the Majors for good as a 31-year-old in 1948. He paced the Reds with 35 homers, finishing with more than any two teammates combined. A slow start in 1949, hitting .237 with only 4 homers through 41 games raised doubts, and the Reds decided to pull the trigger, dispatching the 6-foot-4 slugger to the Cubs with Frank Baumholtz in exchange for Peanuts Lowrey and Harry Walker. Lowrey and Walker gave the Reds a combined 4 HR in 266 games after the trade, while Sauer got back to business at Wrigley Field, cranking out 27 longballs in 96 games in 1949 alone.

It didn't stop. For an encore in 1950, Sauer slugged 32 homers, followed by 30 more in 1951. The Wrigley faithful showered left field with pouches of tobacco to show their appreciation.

In 1952, at age 35, he kicked it up a notch, leading the Majors with 121 runs knocked in and tying for the Major League lead (with Ralph Kiner) with 37 HR. The Cubs were a fifth place team at 77-77, but voters couldn't help but make Sauer the first player from a second division team (bottom half of the standings in the 8-team NL) to win MVP.

A succession of broken fingers and finally a broken hand limited Sauer to 108 games and 19 bombs in 1953, but once again he rebounded in a major way with a career-high 41 home runs in '54.

After a trade to the Cardinals and subsequent release, Sauer's last hurrah came in 1957, when the 40-year old slugger won the Comeback Player of the Year award with 26 homers and a .508 slugging percentage. He played his last game in 1959 before enjoying a long career as a scout.

In all, he hit 281 of his 288 career homers (97.6 percent) past the age of 30. At the time of his retirement, only Babe Ruth (430) had hit more homers beyond that age.

The story of Hank Sauer is encouraging to those of us who got a late start at something they love. It makes me think of getting back in the classroom at age 28...doing hard work for free at various internships just to get my name out there.

I didn't get my first job in the media until age 29, and nearly three years later, I'm still working as hard as I can, still feeling the thrill just to have the platform I do. It would be nice if the Cubs can provide the same opportunity to LaHair.

Sources:
Hank Sauer - (SABR BioProject) - by Jim Sargent
baseball-reference.com
We Played the Game - edited by Danny Peary
The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract

Cubs: Ben Zobrist's path back to October and a possible three-peat

Cubs: Ben Zobrist's path back to October and a possible three-peat

MESA, Ariz. – Ben Zobrist is focused on a personal three-peat, not worrying about a changing of the guard or any awkward moments with Javier Baez. Cubs manager Joe Maddon has repeatedly said that Zobrist will be the primary second baseman and another "Javy Being Javy" highlight reel from the World Baseball Classic won't change that thinking right now.

Zobrist sees the big picture better than almost anyone else in the clubhouse after going undrafted out of Eureka High School in downstate Illinois, perfecting the super-utility role Maddon envisioned with the Tampa Bay Rays and helping transform the 2015 Kansas City Royals into World Series champions.

While Baez started all 17 playoff games at second base last year, bursting onto the scene as the National League Championship co-MVP, Zobrist became the World Series MVP with his clutch hitting and still has three seasons left on his $56 million contract.

Maddon didn't spare anyone's feelings during the playoffs, turning $184 million outfielder Jason Heyward into a part-time player, giving a quick hook to major-league ERA leader Kyle Hendricks and shunning relievers not named Aroldis Chapman.

"We haven't had an extended conversation about it," Zobrist said. "But at the beginning of spring, we talked about it. I think his words were: ‘I really think rest is the next improvement in player performance.' Learning what rest means, what good rest is for players and what kind of rest certain players need versus others.

"That doesn't necessarily mean just because you're 35. It could mean you're 25 and you still got to take care of yourself and make sure you're getting the proper rest. Because we have such a deep team, he's able to do that at any given point in time and still feel confident about the team we have on the field.

"It's a good problem to have when you have really good players not playing and sitting on the bench. We had that all last year and we had guys accept their role and just buy into the team concept.

"The makeup of this team is the same, basically. We've got a few new guys and they've got the same mindset, so I anticipate more of the same."

Injuries are one variable that prevents Maddon from getting too stressed out about dividing the playing time over 162 games while the NCAA tournament is still going. Zobrist's stiff neck felt good enough to hit leadoff and play right field in Tuesday afternoon's 10-7 loss to the San Francisco Giants, seeing his first Cactus League action since March 19.

Zobrist plans to play again on Wednesday in Mesa and catch up with more at-bats on the minor-league side of the complex. Assuming Zobrist and All-Star shortstop Addison Russell (stiff back) are ready for Opening Night, Baez will be an NLCS MVP, all-WBC talent waiting for the right matchup or break in the schedule or to sub in as a defensive replacement.

"It's pretty impressive, looking around at the young talent in this clubhouse," Zobrist said. "All throughout spring training, we've seen there's definitely other talent coming, so this team is poised to have a good, long run of success. If everybody stays healthy and we stay together, this is a very good team.

"The biggest thing that I go into the season with this year is we have to be healthy and we have to make sure that we don't relax too much. That's the temptation for teams that just won, to go: OK, well, we're tired, because we had a long season last year and you kind of just assume things are going to go as well as they did.

"You can't assume anything. No matter how good this team is, we have to still go out and execute and perform – and that's going to determine where we are in the standings."

In real time, as the Cubs experienced their lowest moments during last year's regular season, Zobrist correctly pointed out the exhaustion factor while the team played 24 days in a row, losing 15 of their last 21 games before the All-Star break.

What looks like overwhelming depth on paper should help the 2017 Cubs survive and advance into October.

"It's huge," Zobrist said. "It's up and down the lineup on offense. It's all throughout the pitching staff and on the defensive side. It's so deep that you can absorb a little bit of injury here and there.

"With that being said, there are certain guys that you just don't want to lose. So we got to protect everybody. We got to protect our horses – both on the mound and in the lineup – and just make sure that we have our key cogs in there. And if we do, we're as good, if not better, than anybody out there."

Cubs return Rule 5 lefty Caleb Smith to Yankees as roster comes into focus

Cubs return Rule 5 lefty Caleb Smith to Yankees as roster comes into focus

MESA, Ariz. - Matt Szczur vs. Tommy La Stella - and a combination of right/left, outfield/infield and contractual considerations - appears to be the final decision as the Cubs shape their Opening Night roster.

The Cubs returned Rule 5 lefty Caleb Smith to the New York Yankees on Tuesday and assigned injured non-roster players Jemile Weeks and Chris Dominguez to minor-league camp. That left 27 players still technically in the mix, though depth catcher Carlos Corporan isn't really part of that conversation.

The projected eight-man bullpen would look like this: Wade Davis; Koji Uehara; Pedro Strop; Hector Rondon; Carl Edwards Jr.; Justin Grimm; and lefties Mike Montgomery and Brian Duensing.

Szczur, who is out of minor-league options, could be a good fourth outfielder on a team that didn't have so much depth and World Series expectations, making him a potential trade chip for pitching. La Stella offers infield insurance and a left-handed bat off the bench.