Chicago Cubs

Cubs lean on Dempster as the face of franchise

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Cubs lean on Dempster as the face of franchise

Thursday, March 31, 2011
Posted: 5:14 p.m.

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

Its hard to remember now, because you can see his image on the front of the building, next to the Wrigley Field marquee. But Ryan Dempster was essentially damaged goods when he first signed with the Cubs.

Dempster hadnt yet turned 27 and he was already on his fourth organization. He was almost six months removed from Tommy John surgery by January 2004. It would have been difficult to envision him as he is today the face of the franchise.

But at 1:20 p.m. on Friday, Dempster will stand on the mound at Clark and Addison as a billboard for everything the Cubs are trying to project. He is a family man, a trusted teammate, a good citizen and lets not forget their most reliable pitcher.

There is the Opening Day assignment against the Pirates. But April 1 also marks the second birthday of Dempsters daughter, Riley, who has battled DiGeorge syndrome, a developmental disorder that impacted her ability to swallow. It will be time for the family to reflect.

Shes come a long way in two years, man, thats for sure, Dempster said. Its been pretty special to watch what shes been able to do and do for other people. It will be a fun day.

On a cold December night, Dempster and his wife, Jenny, hosted a fundraiser for their charitable foundation inside a Lakeview pizza joint. There Kerry Wood and general manager Jim Hendry reconnected hours after Ron Santos funeral.

Before leaving, each went up to Dempster separately and essentially said the same thing: If hes serious, Im serious. The 1.5 million deal to make Wood a Cub for life was in sight.

Dempster never carried the same weight of expectations as Wood once did, but hes also grown up before our eyes.

All about winning

Dempster will turn 34 in May and has reached that point in his life where hes become almost corporate. When ESPN visited Fitch Park during spring training, he climbed aboard the bus and did his impression of Matt Foley, Chris Farleys old character on Saturday Night Live. But that wacky side isnt seen as often anymore.

Im a husband and father of three now. I find that a lot of my free time is with them, Dempster said. My little guys not even five yet and he does his little Harry Caray in the backseat its pretty funny. (But) there is definitely greater responsibility as you get older. I leave that up to the younger guys now to have that kind of fun.

The work is its own reward. Dempster keeps himself in excellent physical condition and has accounted for at least 31 starts and 200 innings in each of the past three seasons. But personal numbers dont consume him.

Dempster volunteered to defer part of his 12.5 million base salary last year so that the Cubs could add another player. Though its believed that he was paid the entire sum in 2010, the offer said everything about his priorities.

I was just going to get the money one way or another, said Dempster, who seemed reluctant to talk about it. It just seemed like if we needed a little bit extra, (then) you give me mine a little bit later and help the team get a little bit better.

It didnt quite work out like we were supposed to. But I think you see that with guys as you get older. You (just) want to win. When youre younger you want to win, too, but youre trying to establish yourself in your career. As you get older, really the only thing that matters is winning a World Series.

Risk-reward

That focus doesnt surprise Hendry, who never viewed Dempster as a risk. As a high school kid in British Columbia, Dempster once signed with Notre Dame to play for Paul Mainieri, one of Hendrys best friends and the current LSU coach.

The Cubs knew Dempster had a strong family background and would bring intangibles to the clubhouse.

When you take chances on people that (are) coming off injuries, Hendry said, the work ethic and character of the guy plays huge. (We) liked him as a pitcher before he got hurt, and we knew enough about him as a man that he was certainly worth taking a gamble on.

The Rangers chose Dempster in the third round of the 1995 draft and he never wound up playing for Notre Dame. He turned pro in every sense of the word.

Pitchers on other teams are jokingly called punters, because they are viewed as specialists, situational players completely divorced from the daily rhythms of the game.

But theres no doubt that Dempster has become a team leader, the veteran that young pitchers model themselves after.

In Arizona Dempster led a group of teammates on a hike up Camelback Mountain. And one free afternoon he finished playing Xbox with James Russell and suggested that they get off the couch and drive over to Tempe to watch Cubs-Angels in the rain. No one does that in the Cactus League.

You got to keep it fun and relaxed, Russell said. Thats what Ryan does so well. (For) four days hes joking around, having a good time. (But) when its his fifth day, you see him (and) its like a different person.

The future

Even with a higher public profile, Dempster still shows that Canadian sense of humor. After a recent start in Arizona, a reporter mentioned how Matt Garza likes to work on different pitches in spring training. Dempster was asked if he also likes to experiment.

I try to stay away from that kind of stuff, Dempster said. Oh, youre talking about baseball.

Dempster said he hasnt decided what hell do with his 14 million player option for 2012. The Cubs love the joy Dempster takes out of competing, how his work habits impact the rest of the clubhouse. But they also felt the same way about Ted Lilly, and hell be wearing a Dodgers uniform this season.

Id like to play here and win here, Dempster said. (Ill) just keep going out and doing my job. Wherever the cards fall, they fall. (I) dont really care to go anywhere (else but) thats a long ways down the road.

Its a business that Dempster tries to remember as a kids game. It's clear he wants to stay on the North Side. How much longer does he want to pitch?

Until I cant get anybody out anymore, Dempster said. What am I going to do? Work?

PatrickMooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. FollowPatrick on Twitter @CSNMooneyfor up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

While 2017 has been underwhelming for other hitters, Ian Happ has become a reliable rookie fixture for Cubs

While 2017 has been underwhelming for other hitters, Ian Happ has become a reliable rookie fixture for Cubs

Go ahead. Be honest.

Did you really see Ian Happ coming this fast?

Obviously you knew he’d be here one day, another one of Theo Epstein’s much-ballyhooed first-round draft picks, a position player destined to fit snugly into the Cubs’ long-term lineup.

But Happ was drafted mere months before the Cubs made their breakout run to the 2015 National League Championship Series. He spent his first full season as a professional while the big league team marched to that curse-smashing World Series championship.

Though like Kris Bryant and Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras before him, Happ has landed in the big leagues and become a fixture in the North Side batting order. He’s an everyday player who might not be tearing the cover off the ball on a daily basis, but it’s now hard to imagine the lineup without him.

“I’ve felt really good since I’ve been here,” Happ said earlier this week, “the way guys are super accepting and the way they’ve embraced me in the clubhouse, I couldn’t ask for more. Being with the team for the entire spring training, getting to know the guys, it made it easy for the transitional period and making me feel like I belong right away.”

Happ showed his stuff Saturday, playing a starring role in the North Siders’ narrow 4-3 win over the visiting Toronto Blue Jays. Happ was on base three times, drove in a pair of runs and scored twice, too. He drove in the game’s first run in the first inning, launched a game-tying solo homer in the fourth and scored the go-ahead run on a Javy Baez base hit in the sixth.

Right in the middle of the action is where Happ’s been since he arrived in the bigs back in the middle of May.

It’s been a good thing, too. Because at this point in this odd season, this quest to repeat that has hardly gone according to plan, it’s possible that the Cubs aren’t in first place without Happ. A playoff spot is still nowhere close to a certainty with the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals hot on the Cubs’ tail in the NL Central standings.

With the underachieving and in some cases injury-plagued seasons to date from the likes of Russell, Schwarber, Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward, the reliability of Happ has made him, even if quietly, one of the key cogs on a team that is still in first place, even if they haven’t been able to pull away and lock down a third straight trip to the postseason.

And he’s doing all this with just 80 games of major league service time.

“I think the more experience you get, as you start to see different pitchers over and over again, you kind of start to see the way guys are going to pitch you, the way the game develops,” Happ said earlier this week. “The more experience you have with that, it kind of helps you to slow the game down.

“I think all the way up for me, once you move up a level, you have to adjust. Sometimes, it happens quick and sometimes it’s more of a process. I feel like I’ve had to make adjustments at every level and definitely this level, you’re making adjustments every day. The quicker you can make them, the better off you’ll be.”

As mentioned, Happ isn’t putting up some sort of jaw-dropping, send-him-to-Cooperstown kind of a rookie season. He's hitting .249 after Saturday’s two-hit day, and undoubtedly he’s had his struggles. In his last 21 games prior to Saturday, he hit .189 and punctuated that rocky stretch with a four-strikeout day Friday against this same Blue Jays team.

But his .819 OPS ranks fifth among NL rookies. It ranks fourth on the Cubs, lower only than Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Contreras. He’s also in the top five on the team in RBIs and slugging percentage. Saturday’s long ball was his 18th homer of his 80-game season. Extrapolate those numbers to the team’s 122 games on the season, and he’d have more than 25 dingers already.

Thrown into the major league fire, he’s doing all this while asked to be an everyday contributor for a team with World Series aspirations — or rather World Series expectations.

“It’s tough. It’s a new adjustment,” Rizzo said Saturday. “It’s a new everyday grind up here that’s different from the minor leagues. And he’s hit his bumps along the way, but he keeps adjusting, keeps virtually getting better every day. And it’s fun when you see his success pay off.”

“The game ebbs and flows all the time,” Happ said Saturday. “That’s why it’s a beautiful game and a terrible game at the same time. You’re going to have your good weeks, your bad weeks, good days, bad days. Being able to stay even and keep fighting through it is important.”

While the focus for the Cubs is on the present and winning the NL Central crown, this franchise’s championship window extends far beyond the end of the 2017 campaign. Happ will continue to be a big piece of that window staying open, and Maddon said that this rookie season will have positive effects far down the road.

“Developmentally, I think this year’s going to be a boon to him for next year, absolutely, getting this kind of experience,” Maddon said earlier this week. “Defensively, I think he’s really improved at second base. I think he’s very nice in the outfield. I think there’s actually more positions he can venture into, whether it’s first base, third base, other things that he can do that make him even more valuable.

“The moment he starts forcing pitchers into the zone, he’s got extreme power. He really does. He’s not tall, but he’s strong. The ball comes off his bat as hot as anybody out there. It’s just a matter of him understanding the major league game and what they’re trying to do and veteran pitchers trying to take advantage of young hitters, which they do often. You’ve just got to make sure you force this guy back over the plate.

“When he learns that, like these other guys, they’re going to be very good players.”

Surely the future is bright for Happ, as it is for many of the Cubs’ young players. But as it’s plain to see on a daily basis, there’s a lot of brightness right now, too. Happ might be a rookie, but he sure doesn’t act like it. And at times, with his play, he sure doesn’t look like it, either.

“I’ve felt comfortable here, I have for a long time, and I feel really great with this group of guys,” Happ said Saturday. “And winning baseball games is a lot of fun.”

If the Cubs are going to keep winning baseball games, expect Happ to play a major role.

In thick of tight division race, Cubs add catcher Rene Rivera: 'You can't have enough experience'

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USA TODAY

In thick of tight division race, Cubs add catcher Rene Rivera: 'You can't have enough experience'

If this was 2016, the Cubs might not have bothered to acquire Rene Rivera.

But this isn’t 2016.

The Cubs have a vastly different catching situation than they did a year ago. But even more importantly, they’ve been unable to build any sort of lead in a crowded National League Central race.

Rivera, claimed off waivers from the New York Mets on Saturday morning, almost surely won’t end up being the guy who fuels the Cubs’ pulling away from the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals. But with Willson Contreras on the disabled list, Miguel Montero on the Toronto Blue Jays, Alex Avila not even a month into his Cubs tenure and Victor Caratini just 17 games into his big league career, adding an extra veteran presence behind the plate seems like a pretty good idea.

“It’s like you can’t have enough pitching. You can’t have enough experience, depth-wise, especially at that position,” manager Joe Maddon said Saturday. “So I though we were very fortunate to be able to do this right now. Theo (Epstein, team president) told me about the potential yesterday, obviously it happened.”

This time last season, the Cubs had a reliable 1-2 punch behind the plate with Montero and Contreras. And more notably they had a double-digit lead in the NL Central standings. There’s been an awful lot of change since, with Montero’s brutal honesty getting him shipped off to Canada and Contreras injuring his leg in San Francisco.

Fortunately for the Cubs, they invested some of their last remaining minor league capital in acquiring Avila. Avila won’t replicate the kind of offensive production that made Contreras the hottest hitter on the team, but he’s a very capable starting catcher during Contreras’ time on the shelf.

And while Caratini has been fine — in fact, he’s hitting .400 since Contreras went down and collected three hits in Friday’s win over the Blue Jays — the Cubs are no longer about getting guys experience in August and September. The stakes are much higher.

The Cubs might’ve been an unstoppable juggernaut during the 2016 regular season. This year, though, has been a much different story, and a playoff spot is hardly a certainty.

Rivera isn’t going to solve the problems that have made it so the Cubs are stuck fighting for the crown of a middle-of-the-road division. But he’ll bring veteran experience to a playoff race that could last all the way until the season’s final days.

Rivera has been playing big league ball since 2004 but has totaled just nine years of major league service since then, serving in backup roles and just twice appearing in more than 100 games in a season. The Cubs raved about his defensive ability Saturday — as well as the eight homers he hit in 54 games for the Mets this season.

“He’s very good. Saw him with different teams, we’ve all seen him. He’s got a great reputation,” Maddon said. “Nice fella. Very good defensive player, great reputation. And he's got some pop, too. He hit a couple home runs. So that veteran kind of presence, the depth that it provides is all good stuff.”

No announcement has been made about the active roster. Minor league pitcher Aaron Brooks was designated for assignment to make room for Rivera on the 40-man roster. But the general thinking is that Caratini will head back to Triple-A Iowa.

“He’s done really well,” Maddon said of Caratini. “The way he’s blocked pitches in the dirt has been spectacular. I’ve enjoyed watching his receiving and his blocking, too. The pitchers have been really happy with him. … He’s very aware of building relationships with his pitchers, which I like. And it seems as if the pitchers are into him, too.

“There’s a great future for him in this game.”

But right now, the Cubs need all the experience they can get.