Chicago Cubs

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.” 

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Which Cub will make biggest impact down the stretch?

lester.jpg
USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Which Cub will make biggest impact down the stretch?

Ben Finfer (ESPN 1000), Chris Hine (Chicago Tribune) and Jordan Bernfield join David Kaplan on the panel. Jon Lester, Addison Russell and Willson Contreras all work out with the Cubs before their game. Which player’s return with have the biggest impact down the stretch?

Plus, the guys discuss how many snaps Mitch Trubisky should take with the first team, debate who won the big Cavs/Celtics deal and Scott Paddock drops by with the latest NASCAR news.

Listen to the SportsTalk Live Podcast below. 

Mike Montgomery will gladly aid Cubs as spot starter, but could this be a mini audition for 2018 rotation?

mike_montgomery_0821.jpg
USA TODAY

Mike Montgomery will gladly aid Cubs as spot starter, but could this be a mini audition for 2018 rotation?

Jon Lester isn’t expected to be on the disabled list for long, which of course is great news for the Cubs.

But while he’s there, it’s once again time for Mike Montgomery to audition for a spot in the team’s 2018 starting rotation.

The Cubs are facing the possibility of losing two members of that starting staff this offseason, when both Jake Arrieta and John Lackey will be free agents. Montgomery seems like a logical replacement, but he’ll need to be better than he’s been as a starter this season. He’s put up a 5.13 ERA in eight starts.

He’ll get another opportunity to show his stuff over the next week or so, as he makes one or two spot starts with Lester on the shelf resting up his left lat tightness and general shoulder fatigue.

“I don’t want to see anybody get hurt, especially our ace. But it’s a challenge. I’m looking forward to going out there and helping the team win,” Montgomery said over the weekend. “I’m going to go out there and prepare and be ready to help this team get to the playoffs.”

Montgomery doesn’t have to worry about instilling confidence in his bosses. Joe Maddon and Theo Epstein both lauded Montgomery’s efforts since he was acquired about a year ago, in the middle of the 2016 team’s march to that curse-smashing World Series win. It was Montgomery who earned the save in Game 7.

And again this season Montgomery has given plenty of reason for those guys to have confidence in him. He’s turned in a strong 2.57 ERA in 27 relief appearances, one of the more reliable arms out of what is becoming an increasingly shaky bullpen. This past Thursday, he relieved the early-to-depart Lester, pitching 4.1 shutout innings and allowing just three hits and a walk against the Cincinnati Reds.

Throw in the versatility of being able to effectively switch between starting and relieving, and that’s a recipe for sticking on a big league roster.

“He’s good about bouncing back and forth,” Maddon said. “He’s been invaluable to us the last couple years. He’s still learning his craft. Every time I talk to him it’s kind of like the little lightbulb constantly goes off for him regarding his stuff and how to utilize it. That’s what I’ve been talking about with him the last couple years. This guy’s got all kinds of tools in the toolbox but he doesn’t really know how to utilize them all, and I think he’s finally understanding the cutter, the curve, the changeup to go with the fastball. He’s one of those guys that he should never get wild with his fastball because his pitches are so good and he can throw them for a strike.”

Montgomery’s reliability has been enough that Epstein said there’s no plan for the Cubs to add another starting pitcher before this month’s waiver trade deadline. Of course, the fact that Lester’s injury isn’t as bad as initially feared and the July acquisition of Jose Quintana factors into that, as well.

“We’ve expended a lot of prospect capital trying to make this team better. We think it’s just a start or two (that Lester will miss), and Mike Montgomery is more than capable of filling in,” Epstein said. “He’s thrown the ball really well, like what we saw from him (Thursday). So we’re going to fill that vacancy internally with Mike and go from there.”

While every start made by any pitcher this season seems important — the Cubs entered Monday’s day off with just a two-game lead on the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central standings, with a playoff spot hardly guaranteed — Montgomery’s efforts could have just as great an effect on next season. If Arrieta and Lackey both end up departing via free agency, the Cubs will need some replacements. Montgomery figures to be among the first options, especially if this midseason audition goes well.

Of course, Montgomery is happy to do whatever he needs to to help his team. He’s not complaining about a bullpen role or one that has him shuttling between the relief corps and the rotation. But he admitted that starting is his goal, meaning the importance of this moment likely hasn't been lost on him.

“Yeah, absolutely, I wanted to start. But also I wanted to be a guy who could fill another role and hopes that makes our team better,” he said. “If me starting makes us better in their mind, then that’s what I want ideally. But I’ve realized I can’t always control that, I can go out there and pitch well. If I pitch well, they’re probably going to give me more opportunities, which is probably going to lead to starting.

“I think it’s because I spent five years in Triple-A from the time I was 21 and I had a bigger ego. And then you realize that you just want to be in the big leagues and that Triple-A kind of stinks. I think it’s just how I’ve gotten to this point. And coming here last year from a team that was trying to get in the playoffs to a team that was clearly going to win the division, you realize that your role isn’t to come here and start making demands, it’s to come here and just do your job.”

Right now, the Cubs need Montgomery to fill the void while Lester rests up. And if he can make his starts look a little more like his bullpen outings, he’ll do just that. And if that’s what happens, maybe they’ll call on him next season to do a whole lot more.