Cubs set out to create a new identity

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Cubs set out to create a new identity

MESA, Ariz. Theo Epstein leaned on the batting cage, standing in between Billy Williams and Rick Sutcliffe. This was the past and present, shoulder to shoulder at HoHoKam Stadium, and spring training is all about seeing into the future.

The Cubs have been able to sell sunshine and beer for a long time. It was 78 degrees at first pitch, and 10,366 fans rolled in for their Cactus League opener. Before a 12-10 loss to the Oakland As, the president of baseball operations signed autographs by the dugout.

This is what were all here for, to play the game on the field, Epstein had said at the beginning of camp. Sometimes a winter can stretch on and you forget what you do for a living. You feel like an accountant or something.

The Cubs are trying to create a new identity, and it will have more of a corporate feel, from the computer system they designed with Bloomberg Sports to the increased emphasis on video and statistical analysis.

Baseball staffers from every level of the organization assembled at a Mesa hotel in the middle of February to build what Epstein has called the scouting and player development machine, which will come with manuals that run hundreds of pages.

The idea is that something as simple as a bunt play will be run the same in the Dominican summer league as it is inside Wrigley Field, and on and on and on. The Cubs Way.

Weve got better cooks, pitcher Matt Garza said when asked about the difference now.

Yes, the Cubs have even overhauled the kitchen, using a food service company that has cut out red meat from the spread and caters for several teams throughout the Valley. No detail is too small just check out the blue corners on the bases at Fitch Park where your foot is supposed to hit.

After years of ownership instability that handcuffed the previous administration and once new revenues start flowing out of a renovated Wrigley Field this could be the superpower of the Midwest. The empire should include game-changing TV deals and new facilities in Arizona and the Dominican Republic.

Pitcher Andy Sonnanstine recalled a team meeting early in camp where Epstein talked about how its a little bit different when you put the Yankees uniform on the Red Sox and the Cubs are right up there with them. Can you handle the pressure?

The Red Sox model that Cubs executives have long coveted will include a strong, steady manager. Dale Sveum emerged from the same intense interview process that revealed two finalists in Terry Francona and Joe Maddon, who certainly werent stars almost 10 years ago at Fenway Park.

Sveum wont be tossing bases, or entertaining everyone in the interview room with great stories. He may not be loud or show much emotion, but he has presence after lasting 12 seasons in the big leagues, even after a horrific leg injury.

I just try to be myself and whatever happens, happens, Sveum said. But I do believe a team does take on the personality of their managernot that I have any kind of personality.

You just try to harp on the little things. And at the same time, theyve got to know that you know how difficult this game is. Im not the guy where if somebody strikes out with the bases loaded, Im going to be throwing things. I completely understand that.

I wasnt a very good player, so I completely understand the trials and tribulations of this game and the pressures theyre under and all that stuff. My goal is to get them to prepare like its the seventh game of the World Series every day. So when they do fail, (they) can look (into) the mirror and say: I did everything I could today to make myself a better player.

Its not like the other 29 teams are ignoring fundamentals and spending spring training eating fried chicken, drinking beer and playing video games. And check the clips: Around this time last year, everyone was writing stories about the good vibes in Camp Quade (at least until Carlos Silva and Aramis Ramirez almost got into a fight in the dugout).

But the days are longer now, one player said, and at least 10 were out taking extra batting practice in front of hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo after Sundays game ended.

Ramirez and Carlos Zambrano are gone, but there was Alfonso Soriano that morning, walking from one end of the clubhouse to the other, bobbing his head and smiling: Hey babehey babehey babe.

I dont like to be the leader, Soriano said. My teammates can see how I play hard and how I work. I think they can take that to the field. I dont like to talk much. Just work hard and try to be better every day and try to win. Thats what I can take to the young guys here.

You can already see the bonds forming, top prospects Anthony Rizzo and Brett Jackson relaxing in chairs by their lockers. Cubs executives think theyll be glue guys for their lineup and clubhouse.

The things I can control are what I do every day, Jackson said. Im not going to make the team right now today. But every days a piece to that puzzle. Im going to keep working every day until that day comes, and when that day comes Im going to keep working there.

I believe in big things for the Cubs and its something I want to be a part of.

Cubs catcher Willson Contreras looks ready for prime time

Cubs catcher Willson Contreras looks ready for prime time

SAN DIEGO – Within 24 hours at Petco Park, Cubs catcher Willson Contreras handled the wild movement of Jake Arrieta’s pitches and framed the edges of the strike zone for Kyle Hendricks, showing the dexterity to handle a playoff rotation.

Contreras looked ready for prime time on Tuesday night and Wednesday afternoon, helping shut down the San Diego Padres and complete a three-game sweep where two National League Cy Young Award candidates found a rhythm while throwing to a rookie catcher.

“Everything’s a lot easier,” Contreras said after a 6-3 victory. “I’m way more comfortable right now, because my first week everything was speeding up on me. But now I’m able to slow down the game and do my job.” 

The day after Arrieta fell one inning short of a two-hit, complete-game shutout, Hendricks credited Contreras for calling more curveballs and getting him through a stretch where the Padres put the leadoff man on base in each of the first four innings. 

“From the get-go, I wasn’t shaking him off,” Hendricks said. “We’ve been rolling for the last five, six starts, at least. It’s been easy.” 

Contreras has now caught Arrieta twice, and got one-start exposure to Jon Lester, while developing chemistry with Hendricks, John Lackey and Jason Hammel, which means veteran catcher Miguel Montero might not have a spot on the postseason roster if this continues.

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Contreras is a dynamic presence, launching his eighth home run on Wednesday afternoon and keeping the Padres stationary after Tuesday night’s laser throw to pick off a runner at third base. 

“I was waiting for somebody to run,” Contreras said. “But they didn’t run, so I’ll have to save it for another game.”

The Cubs are nearing the point where a 24-year-old player who didn’t make his big-league debut until June 17 could be behind the plate for the biggest games in franchise history.

“In this clubhouse, we are like a family,” Contreras said. “Once you get here, you start feeling comfortable the first day. You don’t even know that you are a rookie who just came up.”

Kyle Hendricks keeps rolling as Cubs sweep away Padres

Kyle Hendricks keeps rolling as Cubs sweep away Padres

SAN DIEGO – Kyle Hendricks reported to spring training as a fifth starter, leads the majors in ERA in late August and could pitch Game 1 in a playoff series. That gradual evolution from possible question mark at the back of the rotation into a National League Cy Young Award candidate highlights how the Cubs have transformed from a team that won the offseason to one that owns the summer and maybe this fall. 

In his own understated way, Hendricks smashed any perceptions of that ceiling, performing at a level and with a consistency that matches the franchise’s young hitting stars, mirroring their baseball IQ and grounded nature, without the billboards and flair for social media. 

Hendricks kept rolling on a beautiful Wednesday afternoon at Petco Park, knocking the San Diego Padres off-balance and finishing the three-game sweep with a 6-3 victory. That pushed the Cubs to 36 games over .500 for the first time since finishing their 1945 pennant-winning season at 98-56. The best team in baseball could play a little over .500 (19-17) down the stretch and still reach 100 wins.

A Dartmouth College graduate with an Ivy League degree in economics helped create all this momentum – and certainly knows what he wants to do on the mound – but Hendricks as an ace still seems beyond the wildest internal preseason projection.

“I thought he ended really well last year and that there was a lot to look forward to,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He’s just taken it to another level right now. He’s in that 26-27-year-old range where a young pitcher who’s had some major-league experience can really find his next level. And I think that’s what’s going on. He’s such a wonderful student. The difference between last year and this year is the confidence thing: ‘I belong here. I can do this. I’m one of the best.’ 

“A lot of our guys are going through that moment right now. And I think that’s what you’re seeing out of Kyle. I’ve talked about the couple tweaks he’s made regarding the four-seam fastball and curveball usage. That makes him a little bit different. But more than anything, I think he believes he’s among the best right now.”

The Padres (53-74) looked a little checked out and didn’t really put much pressure on a Cubs team that should get an adrenaline boost this weekend at Dodger Stadium. Dexter Fowler and Kris Bryant opened the game with back-to-back doubles before Ben Zobrist lined a two-run triple into the right-center field gap. Within six minutes of Paul Clemens’ first pitch, Jorge Soler’s sacrifice fly made it 3-0.

Hendricks hasn’t allowed more than three earned runs in a start since May 17, a run of 17 straight outings that has sliced his ERA from 3.51 to 2.19 while pushing his record to 12-7.

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Hendricks hides his emotions and didn’t get flustered when the Padres put the leadoff man on base in each of the first four innings, working around the traffic to limit San Diego to two runs and finish with eight strikeouts. 

Hendricks made it through six innings – he’s now gone at least five in each of his 24 starts this year – after beginning the day with a FanGraphs soft-hit rate (26 percent of batted balls) that led the majors and would be the highest mark in the last five seasons.

Hendricks has to pitch a different game than Jake Arrieta, but with an 8-1 record and a 1.38 ERA in his last 13 starts, he might be this year’s breakthrough performer who helps carry the Cubs into October.

“I’m just trying to stay where I’m at and keep the consistency,” Hendricks said. “Keep my pitches feeling good, keep my command. It’s just staying in my routine and really not doing too much – not doing less – just kind of riding it out until I feel something change.”

How soon before Cubs make Javier Baez an everyday player?

How soon before Cubs make Javier Baez an everyday player?

SAN DIEGO — The airtight defensive alignment for October would have to include Javier Baez, a game-changing force moving in all directions. The Cubs have seen Baez make barehanded plays and laser throws, take charge on bunts and frustrate hitters with an uncanny ability to improvise and make split-second decisions.

Baez and Addison Russell are two of the best athletes in the entire game, Jake Arrieta said after Tuesday night’s win over the San Diego Padres, so put the ball in play and let those two middle infielders take over.

There could be playoff lineups where Baez starts at second base and bumps Ben Zobrist to the outfield. But manager Joe Maddon isn’t about to hand Baez an everyday job, sticking with the super-utility formula and versatile philosophy that’s helped the Cubs become the best team in baseball.

“It depends on how we morph as a group over the next couple years,” Maddon said Wednesday at Petco Park. “Right now, I like the way it’s working out. I like the fact that (Javy’s) getting rested (and) not playing every day. Look at his at-bats — they have gotten better, too. He is making adjustments or adaptations during the at-bat. He’s not just out of control every swing.”

Baez has channeled his aggressiveness, hitting .276 with 13 homers, 47 RBIs and 83 strikeouts through 343 plate appearances, becoming a more mature and well-rounded player at the age of 23.

“You’re seeing a lot of progress,” Maddon said. “Who knows if by playing sporadically this is becoming more part of who he is? As opposed to playing every day, maybe getting caught in the trap of not hitting well, whatever, and all of a sudden he takes it on defense. It’s natural progression. He’s an everyday player, there’s no question, in maybe a couple years.”

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The Geek Department and scouting reports will ultimately influence where Baez plays, because Maddon wants him wherever the ball will most likely be hit most often. When Jon Lester pitches, that can mean Baez starting at third base and Kris Bryant moving to the outfield.

The Cubs promised Zobrist the second-base job when he signed a four-year, $56 million contract, agreeing the focus on one position would help reduce the wear and tear on his body at the age of 35. The Cubs still need Zobrist’s switch-hitting skills and World Series experience in the lineup.

Maddon also wants to keep Jorge Soler involved — because he’s a presence other teams have to account for — and maybe that will mean sacrificing Jason Heyward’s Gold Glove defense in right field at times.

But Baez is the type of defender the Cubs will want to see out there in one-run, low-scoring playoff games.

“He’s unbelievable,” Bryant said. “Any ball hit his way — whether it’s in the air, on the ground, on line — you kind of just expect him to make the play and make it look good. That’s what he’s been doing all year. I certainly think he’s Gold Glove worthy, but he plays all over. I feel like there should be a utility man Gold Glove, because he definitely (deserves it).”