Cubs young core delivers a World Series and a blindingly bright future

Cubs young core delivers a World Series and a blindingly bright future

CLEVELAND — Albert Almora scored the go-ahead run in the 10th inning of Game 7 of a World Series, but wasn’t quite ready to celebrate immediately after he touched home plate. That’s because he wanted to be 100 percent sure he, indeed, touched home. 

“You never know with this whole replay, the last thing you want to do is go back in history and be remembered as that guy, you know,” Almora said. “I went back, tagged home plate and then I started celebrating. 

“… I’m bleeding somewhere. I don’t even know what happened. I almost had a heart attack. But it was awesome.”

Consider the ages of some of the biggest contributors to the Cubs’ 8-7 win over the Cleveland Indians in Game 7 of the World Series on Wednesday: Almora and shortstop Addison Russell (who had an early go-ahead sacrifice fly) are 22; designated hitter Kyle Schwarber (who went three for five and started that 10th inning rally with a single) and second baseman Javier Baez (who homered off Corey Kluber) are 23; catcher Willson Contreras (who delivered an RBI double) and third baseman Kris Bryant (who scored twice thanks to some aggressive, instinctual baserunning) are both 24. And first baseman Anthony Rizzo is 27 years old, while Game 7 starter Kyle Hendricks is 26. 

“They’re so young, and I really don’t think they understand what they just accomplished,” left-hander Jon Lester said. “I don’t think they’ll understand it until they get a little bit older.”

Catcher David Ross said that youth may have actually paid off for this team in their fight to erase a 3-1 series deficit and win the franchise’s first World Series in 108 years. 

"I think that's why they did it,” Ross said. “They don't know. They know to go out there and play baseball. They're really, really good. You have a lot of successful, young, talented players that have been successful their whole careers that are on the field and they expected to succeed and I think that's what you saw. There's not a whole lot of guys talking about what's happened in the past. They're looking to the future and the future is bright with that group."

Eight years ago, Joe Maddon managed a young Tampa Bay Rays care to the World Series — which they lost to the Philadelphia Phillies — but never made it back to to the World Series after that. The average age of the Rays' position players that year was 27; the average age of the Cubs' position players in 2016 was 27.4.

Reinforcements were out of the question for the small-market Rays, though. Tampa Bay made it back to the playoffs three more times under Maddon after reaching the World Series but never advanced past the American League Division Series, slowly unloading parts who commanded high-priced contracts until, after Maddon left following the 2014 season, only third baseman Evan Longoria remained from that original core. 

The Cubs, though, have the resources to augment and bolster their roster — as they did with the acquisitions of Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and John Lackey after the 2015 season — while keeping that young core that was so critical in the World Series intact. 

“There is a better chance of keeping them together just based on finances, whereas back down there (with Tampa Bay) we didn't have the same opportunity to keep that group together, which I've often lamented,” Maddon said. “Had you been able to keep that group together, what it would eventually look like — I thought it could have rivaled the Yankees' run with that kind of group that had come up in the mid-90's or late 90’s.”

For some of the veteran members of the Cubs, seeing how all that youth coalesced into a World Series title without any of them having been on this stage before was incredible, but it was also just the tip of the iceberg. 

“I think for all the young guys to get their first taste of the World Series and to perform as well as they did in this moment, I gotta believe their confidence is sky-high,” left fielder Ben Zobrist said. “It’s going to be more than ever next year, and I look for even better things from this team next year with all the ability and now the experience that you have with all the young players.”

It’s a scary thought for the rest of baseball that the Cubs feel like they have nowhere to go but up after putting themselves atop baseball on Wednesday. But with a World Series of experience under their belts, in which on the whole the moment wasn’t too big for any of the 20somethings on this team, that’s where the Cubs stand as the best and most powerful franchise in baseball. 

“This is it,” Bryant said, smiling and shaking his head. “This is what you dream for. I mean, I made the last out of the World Series.” 

Cubs president Theo Epstein, world's greatest leader? 'The pope didn't have as good of a year'

Cubs president Theo Epstein, world's greatest leader? 'The pope didn't have as good of a year'

MESA, Ariz. – Cubs president Theo Epstein showed zero interest in playing along with Fortune magazine putting him on the cover and ranking him No. 1 on the list of "The World's 50 Greatest Leaders," or two spots ahead of Pope Francis.

"The pope didn't have as good of a year," manager Joe Maddon said Wednesday, channeling Babe Ruth.

Epstein essentially bit his tongue, responding to reporters with a copy-and-paste text message that reflected his self-awareness and PR savvy. 

"Um, I can't even get my dog to stop peeing in the house," Epstein wrote. "The whole thing is patently ridiculous. It's baseball – a pastime involving a lot of chance. If (Ben) Zobrist's ball is three inches farther off the line, I'm on the hot seat for a failed five-year plan. 

"And I'm not even the best leader in our organization; our players are."

Epstein obviously has a big ego. No one becomes the youngest general manager in baseball history and builds three World Series winners without a strong sense of confidence and conviction. But he genuinely tries to deflect credit, keep a relatively low profile and stay focused on the big picture. 

Fortune's cover art became an older image of Epstein standing at the dugout, surrounded by reporters during a Wrigley Field press gaggle. (This was not Alex Rodriguez kissing a mirror during a magazine photo shoot.) The text borrowed from Tom Verducci's upcoming "The Cubs Way" book. 
 
Fortune still hit an Internet sweet spot and generated a lot of buzz, ranking Epstein ahead of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos (No. 4), Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster (No. 7) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel (No. 10).

"I'm all about the pope," Maddon said. "Sorry, Pope Francis. We're buds. I'd like to meet him someday. But after all, what we did last year was pretty special. 

"Has the pope broken any 108-year-old curses lately?"

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Epstein also ended an 86-year drought for the Boston Red Sox, putting the finishing touches on the immortal 2004 team and winning another championship in 2007 with eight homegrown players. 

No matter how the Cubs try to airbrush history now, that five-year plan featured lucky breaks, unexpected twists and turns and payroll frustrations as the franchise went from 101 losses in 2012 to 103 wins last season. But even after the biggest party Chicago has ever seen, no team in baseball is better positioned for the future. And there is no doubt that Epstein is a Hall of Fame executive.  

"He's very good at setting something up and then permitting people to do their jobs," Maddon said. "That's the essence of good leadership, the ability to delegate well. But then he also has the tough conversations. 

"He sees both sides. I've talked about his empathy before. I think that sets him apart from a lot of the young groups that are leading Major League Baseball teams right now. You know if you have to talk to him about something, he's got an open ear and he's going to listen to what you say. He's not going to go in there predetermined. 

"You can keep going on and on, him just obviously being very bright, brilliant actually. He's got so many great qualities about him. But he leads well, I think, primarily because of his empathy."

That blend of scouting and analytics, open-minded nature and pure guts led to the Cubs: drafting Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber; trading for Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Hendricks, Jake Arrieta, Addison Russell and almost their entire bullpen; and signing transformative free agents like Jon Lester and Zobrist.            

Chairman Tom Ricketts locked up Epstein before the playoffs started last October with a five-year extension believed to be worth in the neighborhood of $50 million. Arrieta didn't laugh off the Fortune rankings.

"It just shows you all the positive that's he done," Arrieta said. "Not only here, but beforehand in Boston and what he's built for himself and for the city of Boston and the city of Chicago. It's hard to understate what he means to the organization."

How Cubs decided Kyle Hendricks would be their fifth starter

How Cubs decided Kyle Hendricks would be their fifth starter

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — When Joe Maddon made the obvious choice and named Jon Lester as the Opening Night starter, the Cubs manager joked about Kyle Hendricks reacting to the news by throwing stuff around the weight room.

So imagine how last year's ERA titleholder and a World Series Game 7 starter responded to the idea of being slotted fifth in the rotation.

"I heard things rattling in there," Maddon said with a laugh.

The Cubs revealed their alignment before Thursday afternoon's Jake Arrieta vs. Zack Greinke matchup at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, confirming Brett Anderson will work as a starter (for as long as he's healthy) while Mike Montgomery moves to the bullpen for the defending champs.

The Cubs want John Lackey to face the St. Louis Cardinals, so he will open as the No. 3 starter at Busch Stadium. To break up the lefties in the rotation, Anderson — who once tweeted: "Kyle Hendricks looks like he'd celebrate a World Series win with a glass of 2% milk, Oreos and a book" — will start Game 4 against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park.

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Whether or not the Cubs are overthinking this and overplaying their hand with a mild-mannered personality, don't expect Hendricks to rage against the pitching infrastructure.

"That's the point about our group," Maddon said. "Everybody buys in. Everybody's good. They understand being a part of the puzzle in your own unique way.

"It's kind of neat when you can have these conversations, knowing that ego's not going to play a part of it from the player coming back at you. They know it is part of the overall picture. They also know that the purpose is to try to do what we did last year.

"It's a unique situation. I'm not saying we're taking advantage of it, because everybody kind of digs it."

Whether or not Hendricks repeats his 2.13 ERA and third-place finish in the National League Cy Young Award vote, the Cubs see 200 innings as his next level after throwing 180 in 2015 and 190 last season (plus seven playoff starts combined).

"Everybody gets hung up on numbers," Maddon said. "He's definitely better than a No. 5 starter. It just happens that we're going to slot him in the five-hole coming out of camp. It's not a pecking order regarding ability by any means.

"A lot of it is just comfort zone for us with Kyle doing so well there last year. But, listen, Kyle can be a lot of people's No. 2s or even a 1 in a situation right now, too."

All along, the Cubs have coached up and managed Hendricks to the point where he could beat Clayton Kershaw and the Los Angeles Dodgers to clinch the franchise's first pennant in 71 years.

"Why mess with that?" Maddon said. "As long as his ego doesn't force you to attempt to try to do something differently, and it doesn't, outside of throwing things a little bit. He's beautiful. We're all good."