Cubs from A-Z: What to watch for in 2013


Cubs from A-Z: What to watch for in 2013

This. Is. The. Year.

Not even the most optimistic Cubs fan woke up on New Years Day thinking that way. Most have bought into team president Theo Epsteins rebuilding plan and accept that this will be another bridge year. Theyd probably settle for an interesting summer, and there appears to be enough pitching to make you think this team doesnt have to be out of it by Memorial Day.

But as Epstein has said, there will be a subtext. Looking at the big picture, here are the names, ideas and trends from A to Z that will shape the Cubs in 2013:

Albert Almora: The first draft pick of the Epstein administration should get a taste of what life is like in this market. The gifted outfielder will likely be making a stop at Kane County. He could be playing alongside his buddy Jorge Soler, giving this Class-A team a lot of buzz.

Brett Jackson: One ex-Cub once predicted (half-jokingly) that he will someday become the most popular guy in Wrigleyville since Mark DeRosa. All Jackson has to do is cut down on the strikeouts. The front office is building the Opening Day roster without him, ticketing him for Triple-A Iowa to start the season. But given the emphasis on speed, defense and athleticism, it wouldnt be surprising to see him running into brick walls this summer.

Crapshow: Thats how Matt Garza described his first half last season, and how he performs in April, May and June will say so much about the teams direction, whether they will be buyers or sellers or even consider signing him to a long-term contract (which is looking doubtful now). This is a walk year for Garza, who still has to prove hes healthy and once dismissed all the trade rumors (Texas Rangers?) by saying: Ill pitch on the freaking moon.

Distraction-free zone: At times, Dale Sveum was left with a Triple-A roster last season, but the front office did him a favor by getting rid of some divisive personalities. In Year 2, the manager will have to deal with increased expectations, while also maintaining that professional, no-nonsense clubhouse.

Edwin Jackson: Lance Berkman once told Sports Illustrated hes like the Kevin Bacon of BaseballSix Degrees of Edwin Jackson. Together they won World Series rings with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2011. After pitching for seven teams across the past eight seasons, Jackson becomes a building block on the North Side and gets the security that comes with a four-year, 52 million contract.

Foundation for sustained success: Even Epstein is getting tired of using this phrase. But assuming theres no out-of-nowhere miracle run to the playoffs, this year will be judged on how many more core pieces emerge for 2015 and beyond, to build alongside Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro and Jeff Samardzija.

Gary Sheffield bat speed: That was Sveums scouting report on Javier Baez, whos about as close to being a core player as a 20-year-old can be. The ninth overall pick in the 2011 draft figures to reach Double-A Tennessee at some point this year, and his high-energy, maximum-effort approach should be fun to watch. Baez left the Arizona Fall League with what was described as a non-displaced fracture on the tip of his right thumb. General manager Jed Hoyer identified the cause as a celebratory high-fivehe didnt punch a wall or anything.

Hohokam Stadium: The Cubs hope this is their final Cactus League run on Center Street before moving into a new facility in Mesa, Ariz.

Ian Stewart: Nows the time to show hes at full strength after wrist surgery and fully committed to becoming an everyday third baseman. His deal is non-guaranteed only in the sense that its like a standard contract for an arbitration-eligible player. He should make the Opening Day roster and get his money. Just dont expect the Cubs to have nearly as much patience.

Jim Deshaies: From the start of the search to replace Bob Brenly, the longtime Houston Astros analyst was said to be one of Len Kaspers favorites. That projected chemistry with the play-by-play man should help out during their first year together in the broadcast booth.

Kyuji Fujikawa: Whats Japanese for closer controversy? Fujikawas said to be a good guy, low-maintenance and without a huge entourage. The ninth inning may not be his on Opening Day, but hes viewed as part of the solution here, a big piece for 2014 and 2015.

L flags: After 101 losses, the tension between a baseball operations department looking toward 2015 and the business side trying to get you to buy tickets and shirseys will be fascinating to watch.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel: How City Hall responds to the Ricketts familys plans to renovate Wrigley Field which were met with silence during a bitter presidential election will again be a big story.

No no-trade clauses: Epstein and Hoyer have refused to give those out as Cubs executives, and its difficult to see that club policy changing anytime soon. The Ryan Dempster drama and the Carlos Marmol leak during the Dan Haren negotiations only reinforced that belief. The next time you hear a rumor about Alfonso Soriano, remember that hes in total control and has very specific ideas about where he might approve a trade. As Dempster said, its better to be the hammer than the nail.

On-base percentage: Epstein has viewed this as an institutional failure. It got Rudy Jaramillo fired. It will be a point of emphasis for hitting coaches James Rowson and Rob Deer. It will influence the types of players they sign, draft and develop.

Platform years: Phil Hughes will be 27 and maybe the most interesting pitcher on the market after his walk season with the New York Yankees. Super-agent Scott Boras will no doubt want to get the Cubs in on Jacoby Ellsbury and the media will play up the Boston Red Sox connections this front office has with the dynamic (and often injured) outfielder. If they want big-ticket free agents, the Cubs will be in position to strike.

Quail hunting: Heres hoping Sveum doesnt get shot in the ear again and survives his next trip out with old buddy Robin Yount.

Rizzo Effect: Sveum looks at a half-season and projects a 30-homer, 100-RBI force in the middle of the lineup, knowing that the Cubs played their best ball for about a month after Rizzos promotion last summer just before the bottom fell out with a fire sale at the trade deadline.

Sean Manaea: The Cubs have to be right on the second overall pick in the June draft. A desperate need for pitching could lead them to the Indiana State left-hander, who dominated the Cape Cod League last summer, going 5-1 with a 1.22 ERA and notching 85 strikeouts in 51-plus innings. You will read about Mark Appel, but why would the Cubs take the Stanford right-hander at No. 2 if they passed on him last year with the sixth pick? Arkansas right-hander Ryne Stanek should be on the radar, or the Cubs could grab a high school outfielder with a high ceiling, like they did with Almora. The big question will be what the Astros do with the No. 1 pick.

Tommy John recovery: Scott Baker is supposed to be part of the Opening Day rotation, while Arodys Vizcaino will take it slow, likely starting out in Iowa and building up strength before getting promoted to the big leagues. Chang-Yong Lims two-year, minor-league deal was made with 2014 in mind. Epstein has talked about the predictable rehab from reconstructive elbow surgery, the 95-plus percent success rate, so look for the Cubs to keep taking chances on these types of pitchers.

Unchained: Thats how Samardzija views the 2013 season free from innings limits. There wont be another precautionary shutdown. The expectations are 200 innings, year after year after year, for a potential No. 1 starter.

Votto Watch: The Cincinnati Reds are going for it, adding Shin-Soo Choo to hit leadoff and play center and seeing how Aroldis Chapmans 100 mph heat will play as a starter. They won 97 games last year even with a down season from the 2010 National League MVP and that got manager Dusty Baker extended through 2014. If Joey Vottos surgically repaired left knee is 100 percent, this could be the runaway division winner.

Walkaway point: The Anibal Sanchez pursuit showed the industry and fan base that the Cubs are willing to get serious about big-time free agents and end it when the price no longer makes sense to them. That was 77.5 million for Sanchez, who got 80 million over five years from the Detroit Tigers. That wont be the last time the Cubs finish second in those kinds of negotiations.

X-factor: The infusion of television money has completely changed the landscape, lifting up smaller-market franchises and creating a new class of uber-rich teams. The Cubs can opt out of their WGN contract after the 2014 season, and you can be certain theyll be trying to lay the groundwork for a new monster deal. Stay tuned to find out if that means a new network will be in play.

Yadier Molina: The St. Louis Cardinals are loaded with young arms and their pitching-and-defense identity revolves around the best catcher on the planet. The last time the Cardinals lost 101 games was 1907. They havent hit 90 losses since 1976. This is a model franchise that wont go away when the Cubs get good again.

Z: Will anyone take a chance on Carlos Zambrano?

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Clayton Kershaw stands between Cubs and World Series: ‘To be the best, you got to beat the best’

Clayton Kershaw stands between Cubs and World Series: ‘To be the best, you got to beat the best’

Clayton Kershaw stands between the Cubs and the World Series, a possibility that left veteran catcher David Ross thinking about Ric Flair inside Dodger Stadium’s visiting clubhouse late Thursday night: To be The Man, you got to beat The Man. 

“Woo!” That’s how the Cubs like to punctuate their postgame celebration routine, channeling the professional wrestling legend in a ritual with so much sensory overload that the fog machine set off fire alarms throughout the underground Wrigley Field lair…after a win in the middle of August. “Woo!” 
The Cubs left Los Angeles one win away from their first National League pennant since 1945, and with two chances to pull it off this weekend at Wrigley Field, beginning on Saturday night in Game 6. So imagine how this crew would trash the Party Room if they beat Kershaw, a three-time Cy Young Award winner and 2014 NL MVP. 

“The guy competes,” manager Joe Maddon said. “It’s pretty much like mechanics be damned, it’s just about me beating you somehow. 

“He’s got a good fastball that he locates. He doesn’t walk people. He’s got a dynamic curve and slider. And he’s got deception. He’s a little bit funky, and that’s got to be hard to pick up. The ball gets on you pretty quickly, and then he commands it. 

“So there’s nothing you could possibly ask for that he doesn’t already have.”

Now we’ll see if something clicked while the Cubs turned a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 NLCS lead – handling rookie starters Julio Urias and Kenta Maeda and the softer parts of the Los Angeles bullpen – or if those 18 runs combined in Games 4 and 5 were a mirage.

In 16-plus innings so far, the Cubs still haven’t scored a run off Kershaw, if-necessary Game 7 lefty starter Rich Hill or dominating closer Kenley Jansen, who got this review from Maddon: “He’s like a 100-pound heavier version of Mariano Rivera. He’s the bigger man with the same kind of stuff.”

[SHOP: Buy a "Try Not to Suck" shirt with proceeds benefiting Joe Maddon's Respect 90 Foundation & other Cubs Charities]

Why are the Cubs so confident? Remember, this offense scored 808 runs during the regular season, more than every NL team except for the Colorado Rockies. This lineup knocked out October legend Madison Bumgarner after five innings in the divisional round (though pitcher Jake Arrieta delivered the three-run homer in a game the San Francisco Giants would win in extra innings). 

The Cubs should at least have a better idea of what to expect after getting that up-close view during a 1-0 loss in Game 2, the end of a 10-day period where the Dodgers used Kershaw for three starts and a division-series save against the Washington Nationals.  

Ben Zobrist – a veteran of 11 postseason series – explained: “His heater – as straight as it is – (comes from) the deception of his funky windup. You think you’re there, and it’s right above your barrel.”

“We’ll all be ready to go,” All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “Any time you see a guy back-to-back, it’s always to our advantage as hitters. We just have to go out there and play our game and have good at-bats off a left-handed pitcher. 

“I know it’s Clayton Kershaw, but we really got to just focus in on having good at-bats.” 

The Dodgers still have to beat a leading Cy Young contender (Kyle Hendricks) and last year’s award winner (Arrieta) on back-to-back nights in a building that will be shaking if the Cubs take an early lead with a Kris Bryant home run. And until this October, Kershaw had a reputation for underachieving in the playoffs.

“We got to battle,” Bryant said. “We know Kershaw likes to keep his pitch count down, because he wants to pitch the whole game. He’s a competitor, so we got to find a way to work counts and not swing at the pitches that he wants us to.

“Any time you got the best in the game going at you, it’s a challenge. And it’s going to be fun.” 

That’s exactly how the Cubs have approached everything this year, with an Embrace-The-Target attitude and all this Flair for the dramatic. 

“To be the best, you got to beat the best,” Rizzo said.