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.” 

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."

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

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."

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

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."