Chicago Cubs

Cubs showing the next Mark Prior and Kerry Wood what it takes

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Cubs showing the next Mark Prior and Kerry Wood what it takes

The Cubs bookended their rookie development program around Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. The next generation got to hear about how you carry yourself in the big leagues and what it takes to make it in Chicago.

Do they have any idea what theyre getting into? That question might have gone through your mind on Thursday if you were watching those 12 prospects working out inside Northwestern Universitys field house in Evanston.

It shouldnt have been hard to see the warning signals. Last years Cubs Convention was overshadowed by the sexual-assault allegations against Starlin Castro. The night before, the Internet exploded with Deadspins story about Manti Teos fake dead girlfriend and the scandal at the University of Notre Dame.

Everyones under a microscope, said Jason McLeod, the vice president of scouting and player development. So weve spent a lot of time trying to help talk about those types of things and letting them know what to watch for. Of course, we cant be babysitters 247, but we can give them the tools to make good decisions. Ultimately, thats what were trying to do.

McLeod highlighted seminars on media training and how to deal with social media and watching what they put on Twitter (because team officials are definitely tracking it).

The run of guest speakers included baseball czar Theo Epstein, chairman Tom Ricketts, president of business operations Crane Kenney, pitching coach Chris Bosio and Bears linebacker Nick Roach, along with presentations from nutritionists and strength and conditioning staffers. It started last week with Wood and was scheduled to end Thursday afternoon with Prior at Wrigley Field, leading into this weekends convention at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers.

Who better to know and understand having all the hype, having all the pressure, being the young guy coming up and then performing in this environment? McLeod said. Who better than those two guys? Those had to have been two of the most hyped Cubs prospects of the last 15-20 years.

Prior, who hasnt pitched in the big leagues since 2006, is said to be looking for another chance to play, though that isnt expected to come with the Cubs. McLeod didnt know all the details about how it ended here, but hes friendly with Prior because theyre both San Diego guys.

The audience included four position players Javier Baez, Jae-Hoon Ha, Matt Szczur and Logan Watkins and pitchers Dallas Beeler, Marcus Hatley, Barret Loux, Trey McNutt, Zach Rosscup, Nick Struck, Robert Whitenack and Tony Zych. The ETA for these prospects could be within the next year or two.

McNutt remembered being blown away as a kid in 1998, watching Woods 20-strikeout game against the Houston Astros on television at his grandfathers farm in Alabama: It was like: Oh my God, this guys awesome.

During this trip to Chicago, McNutt made a point to ask Wood how he threw that curveball and took mental notes on the grips.

Its real awesome to get their opinion, McNutt said, (see) the way they carried themselves to the majors, (hear) what they accomplished, how they accomplished it.

The Cleveland Indians are widely credited with first developing this kind of assimilation program several years ago. Epstein, McLeod and general manager Jed Hoyer had worked to put together a similar one for the Boston Red Sox.

One of the challenges we had in Boston was really getting young players to come up and be able to perform at a high level right away in a big market, Hoyer said. The difference between playing in the minor leagues and the big leagues is enormous anywhere. But now you take it to a big market like Boston or Chicago and its really difficult the media pressures, the fan pressures.

We want these guys to be able to come up here and get used to what its like to live here, what its like to deal with the media, whats expected of them every day. Because at some point, theyre going to get called up for the first time and theyre going to be scared to death to go out and face Adam Wainwright.

We want them to focus on facing Adam Wainwright and not focus on: How much do I tip this guy? How do I get to the ballpark? (So) they can worry about playing baseball when they get here and not feel totally overwhelmed.

Cubs World Series Baby-Boom in full swing

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USA TODAY

Cubs World Series Baby-Boom in full swing

Technically... the Chicago Cubs became world champions on Nov. 3, 2016 at 12:47 a.m. 

Approximately... that was nine months ago.

Theoretically... there should be a lot of Anthony's and Kris's being born in Chicago right about now. 

Now, that last part may be a bit of a stretch, but what is not a stretch is the arrival of what the Cubs organization are calling 'World Championship Babies', and what a ring that has to it. 

This upswing in births has even garnered national attention, shown below

In a press release on Monday, the Cubs celebrated this correlation by announcing that babies born around now would receive membership to the 'Newborn Fan Club' as well as a Cubs “Rookie of the Year” onesie, Cubs pinstripe beanie cap, custom-made birth certificate and personalized Wrigley Field Marquee photo.

This mass membership growth will take place today, Wed., July 26 at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center, 836 W. Wellington Ave, Chicago, Ill.

Is Schwar-Bombs an acceptable first name?

How Addison Russell saved the Cubs' season...for now

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USA TODAY

How Addison Russell saved the Cubs' season...for now

As the Cubs head to the South Side Wednesday night for Game 3 of Crosstown, they sit one-half game behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central and a season-high five games above .500.

But things could've been a lot different if not for Addison Russell.

The "what-if" game is a popular one among sports fans, especially around the water cooler or in the local bar. 

Joe Maddon plays that game only on rare occasions and while he didn't fully head down that path this past weekend, he did acknowledge the important role Russell and Willson Contreras have played in saving the Cubs' season.

Maddon's squad has burst out to a 9-2 start to the second half of 2017. And when asked about the team's 6-0 road trip coming out of the break, Maddon pointed to Russell's game-winning homer in the ninth inning of the first game in Baltimore — the game that started this hot stretch — and Contreras' game-saving block on a ball in the dirt in the ninth inning of the first game in Atlanta.

"That first night still, giving up that lead and then that home run by Addy, that was a real seminal moment potentially for the entire season," Maddon said. "I talked about it in Atlanta, the block by Contreras. Just two significant plays that have occurred on that recent trip.

"That could've turned that into a 4-2 trip as opposed to a 6-0 trip. Addy's homer and that block by Willson. Check out that block from Willson. It was a breaking ball from [closer Wade Davis] and it wasn't going good. It was not going good at that moment. Those are two plays on that trip that really stood out to me."

The Russell homer was key because the Cubs had burst out of the break — with freshly-acquired pitcher Jose Quintana in tow — with an 8-0 lead after the top of the third inning, but Mike Montgomery and the Cubs bullpen had allowed the Orioles back into the game. After Koji Uehara served up the tying home run in the bottom of the eighth, Russell lined a one-out shot over the left-centerfield fence off Brad Brach in the top of the ninth.

In Atlanta, Contreras' block came with the tying run on third base as Davis eventually secured the nail-biting save in a 4-3 Cubs victory.

Had the Cubs blown the lead in either game, it would've been a tough pill to swallow mentally for a team that struggled to a 43-45 record in the first half. Of course, Contreras' red-hot bat (.341 AVG, 1.133 OPS, 5 HR, 15 RBI since the Break) has helped those victories hold up.

Everybody had been looking for that "seminal moment" around the Cubs for the entire first half of the season. There are still more than two months left in the season, but if the Cubs truly have turned the corner, maybe it did all start on the field with Russell's homer.

"When the manager says at a certain point, the season completely turned on a good note for the team and you're part of that, that's a huge compliment, especially coming from Joe Maddon," Russell said. "Joe has a pretty good reason behind everything that he says. In that situation, just trying to put the barrel on the ball. 

"Get in position to have the other guys knock me in and get on base. That's kinda my goal. It's a huge complimient that he said that. I'm gonna have to ask him a little more about that."

While the Cubs' season may have turned around on Russell's shot to left center on July 14, he had actually started his own personal turnaround more than a month prior.

Since June 11, Russell has hit .291 with an .888 OPS in 35 games, collected 17 extra-base hits (11 doubles, six homers) and 15 RBI.

After a trying couple of months to start 2017 — both on a personal and professional level — Russell's season line looks very similar to last year's total. He has the same batting average (.238) and his slugging percentage is only two points off (.415 compared to .417 last season). The on-base percentage is lower (.304 compared to .321 in 2016) as Russell's walk rate is down, but the 23-year-old shortstop is proving that his slow start is in the past.

The confidence of a big, possibly season-saving home run could help give him a boost, as well.

"[Maddon] kind of gets a sense of how I go about my business and how I go about my game in general," Russell said. "Maybe he saw something that was ready to come out and just go with that the rest of the season."