Cubs have a long way to go to catch up with Cardinals

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Cubs have a long way to go to catch up with Cardinals

Agents used to love playing the Yankees against the Red Sox and getting that huge markup from New York or Boston.
But now the Yankees are working to get under the 189 million luxury-tax threshold by 2014, while the Red Sox hit the reset button with last summers blockbuster trade with the Dodgers.
So the winter meetings that begin Monday could become the battle for Los Angeles, with the Dodgers and Angels fighting over Zack Greinke.
Cubs fans have put their faith in Theo Epsteins Red Sox model. Theyre jealous of the 6 billion television contract the Dodgers could be getting from Fox Sports. But really their focus should be some 300 miles southwest of Wrigley Field.
The Cardinals wont be major players on the lobby scene inside the Gaylord Opryland in Nashville, Tenn. But quietly they have already built the scouting and player development machine the Cubs like to talk about, and they have flexed their financial muscles with a payroll around 110 million last season.
A lot of people always think working in St. Louis: Eh, its not Chicago, New York or L.A., Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said. But there is pressure to win, to do it right. I think thats a great thing about St. Louis.
One year ago, the Cardinals had already lost one franchise icon (Tony La Russa), and were bracing for the possibility of losing another (Albert Pujols). They were hoping they made the right hire with a rookie manager (Mike Matheny).
This is The Cardinals Way. They defended their 11th World Series title by winning 88 games, and were one victory away from clinching the National League pennant.
Mozeliak pointed to chairman Bill DeWitt Jr., who led the group that purchased the team in 1996. Between 1996 and 2011, La Russa won two World Series rings and endured only three sub-.500 seasons. Mozeliak who replaced Walt Jocketty in October 2007 joined the organization after the 1995 season.
Its been a very stable environment, Mozeliak said. You can have that when youre having success, but I think now its sort of grown and become expected.
I always say to people (that) St. Louis is a wonderful place to be in baseball, because our fan base expects to win. Actually, they demand it. And I think thats a great compliment to them, because they show up. Were drawing three million fans. And as long as we put an entertaining product out there, they support it.
Ownership instability handcuffed Jim Hendry, who was never able to build off the 2008 team that won 97 games and a second straight division title. The Cubs went all-in trying to win one for the Tribune Co. after a last-place finish in 2006, but for years there had been issues with draft budgets and the ability to make international investments.
Clearly, the Cubs have a long-range plan now. But its not like the rest of the baseball world is going to stand still. In late October, Hall of Fame writer Rick Hummel wrote a 2011 Cardinals obituary in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. An authoritative voice told you whats coming next.
Never, in my 40 years covering this team, have I been so entranced by the number of good arms the Cardinals have as potential starters, Hummel wrote. Most of those plus-90s spent the postseason in the bullpen, with Lance Lynn emerging for two starts, but the Cardinals never have had as many hard throwers as they have now, with right-handers Lynn, Shelby Miller and Joe Kelly, and Carlos Martinez lurking in the minors.
Then there is Trevor Rosenthal, who is the first Cardinal in my memory to hit 100 miles an hour consistently. Rosenthal also seems to have a working knowledge of a breaking ball but, for my money, I dont want to see somebody throwing 100 mph pitching two innings out of the bullpen. He seems ready for much more and is the most exciting young pitcher to come along here since Rick Ankiel, with Alan Benes and Matt Morris before that. But none of those could throw 100 miles an hour, and you see how interested the San Francisco and Washington hitters were about facing that kind of heat.
The Cubs once felt that way about Mark Prior, Kerry Wood and Carlos Zambrano. What could possibly go wrong?
The organizations that youre certainly envious of are the ones that seem like they have young pitchers all over the place, general manager Jed Hoyer said. Granted, those can be fleeting. Certainly, the 2003 Cubs looked like they were in the catbird seat and soon enough they were all injured and thats what happens. Thats the nature of pitching.
(But) look at the Cardinals right now and its a pretty nice position to be in when theyve got guys like Shelby Miller and Rosenthal coming out of the bullpen in the LCS. Thats having some organizational depth when a guy like (Jaime) Garcia goes down and you (dont) miss a beat. Thats when you know youve drafted well, developed well and made good trades. Thats the position we need to be in.
The last time the Cardinals lost 101 games in a season was 1907. The Cubs have so many needs that pitching will drive several key decisions, from the starter they could sign to join Scott Baker and Scott Feldman in the rotation, to the No. 2 pick in the 2013 draft, to next summers trade deadline.
From Day 1, Hoyer said, weve been staring at the same picture. Its a minor-league system that was devoid of pitching prospects. Its upper levels arent producing the depths that we need.
Its not a problem were going to fix this offseason. Were going to do our best and spend our money as wisely as possible this offseason to improve it, but organizationally its a three-, four-, five-year project. Its drafting pitchers. Its trading for pitchers. Its signing pitchers. I guess you never feel like you have enough pitching depth.
Epstein and Hoyer made their bones in the American League East by taking down the Evil Empire. This isnt the frenzy of Yankees-Red Sox, but if the Cubs are going to matter, they will have to find a way to respond to the Cardinals.

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."