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

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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?

After winter of taking heat, Cubs still have Joe Maddon's back

After winter of taking heat, Cubs still have Joe Maddon's back

MESA, Ariz. — It only took 21 minutes into spring training — or the first press conference on the day pitchers and catchers officially reported to Arizona — before Joe Maddon listened to another question about all the heat he took for his World Series Game 7 decisions.

More than 2,000 miles away at Yankee camp in Florida last week, Aroldis Chapman told the Chicago Sun-Times that he "was just being truthful" when he used the conference call to announce the biggest contract ever for a closer — five years and $86 million — to inform the New York media that Maddon misused him during the playoffs. Nothing lost in translation there.

Miguel Montero finally declared a ceasefire on Monday night, getting the sit-down meeting the Cubs felt should go longer than the standard meet and greet after the veteran catcher's jarringly critical comments on WMVP-AM 1000 (if only because it happened on the same day as the championship parade and Grant Park rally).

"It's such an unusual situation," general manager Jed Hoyer said, "because we won the World Series, and theoretically you think that people would be really happy."

As ex-Cub manager Dale Sveum might say: "Ya think?"

Ending the 108-year drought might lead Maddon's Hall of Fame plaque someday, but it also led to waves and waves of second-guessing and speculation about how it might impact his clubhouse credibility. But with Maddon and Montero declaring their Andreoli Italian Grocer summit a success, gonzo strength and conditioning coordinator Tim Buss cruising onto the field in a Ferrari for the first wacky stunt of 2017 and Cactus League games beginning on Saturday, it's time to remember that the Cubs still have their manager's back.

"Everyone says they don't see or read anything," pitcher Jake Arrieta said. "We see and hear a lot of the stuff. But I just think that critics are going to find holes in something always.

"Joe was our leader all year last year. He obviously set the tone in spring training and gives us all these freedoms that help us play the way we played. So the people that matter — and know what Joe's about — are on the same page with his philosophies.

"The way he expresses himself to us is the most important thing. And we stand behind him. We trust that he's going to do what's in our best interest. And we know that any decision he makes is geared towards trying to help us win."

Within the last two seasons, the Cubs have won 200 games, five playoff rounds and their first World Series title since the Theodore Roosevelt administration. Maddon readily admits that the scouting and development wings of Theo Epstein's front office did most of the heavy lifting and credits the strong coaching staff he largely inherited. Spending more than $475 million on free agents like Jon Lester and Ben Zobrist certainly helped.

But all this doesn't happen without Maddon and the environment he created. The Cubs Way absolutely needed a ringmaster for this circus.

Arrieta developed into a Cy Young Award winner. Kyle Hendricks transformed into an ERA leader. Kris Bryant burst onto the scene as a Rookie of the Year and the National League MVP. Addison Russell became an All-Star shortstop by the age of 22. Maddon didn't prejudge Javier Baez, immediately appreciating the dazzling array of skills and super-utility possibilities.

Surprised by the Maddon backlash?

"Yes and no," All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. "Because there needs to be a story. But what he did — people who are real involved know that since Day 1, he came in and he set the tone.

"He completely flipped the way people think, the way we believe, and everyone has bought into it. The credit he deserves — he gets a lot of it — but I don't think he gets enough of it. Because he lets me be me. He lets Javy be Javy.

"Willson (Contreras), Kris and Addie — everyone has their different personalities. He understands that. And it's not easy to do."

It's such an impossible job, at times, that even Cubs officials and players have acknowledged their frustrations with some of Maddon's in-game decisions and communication gaps. This can't just be written off as a media creation. But imagine the grumbling if the Cubs didn't have a leader with seven 90-win seasons and three Manager of the Year awards on his resume.

"We have a competitive group of guys," Hoyer said. "Every guy wants to be on the field at the right time. Every guy wants to be on the roster. Every guy wants to pitch in winning games.

"That's not realistic sometimes. It comes from a great place. It doesn't come from a place of selfishness. It comes from a place of: 'I want to contribute to winning.'

"The meetings we've had have been awesome. Our camp is unbelievably focused. We are just as focused as last year. I really don't look at it as a negative."

The last word from Maddon, who turned 63 this month and has a $25 million contract, a wide range of off-the-field interests and the championship ring that will make him a legend in Chicago forever, no matter what kind of heat he took this winter.

"Stuff like that doesn't bother me at all," Maddon said. "Regardless of what people may have thought — like any other game that I worked all year long — I had it planned out like that before the game began. So it wasn't anything I tried to do differently game in progress. Had I not done what I thought I was supposed to do — then I would have second-guessed myself.

"So, no, I have no problem with that. I really don't mind the second-guessing from anybody. I kind of encourage it. Please go ahead and do it, because I'll take that kind of second-guessing after winning a World Series on an annual basis. Thank you very much."

Kris Bryant: Major League Baseball could be going down 'slippery slope' with rules changes

Kris Bryant: Major League Baseball could be going down 'slippery slope' with rules changes

MESA, Ariz. – Kris Bryant has led a charmed baseball life – Golden Spikes Award winner, Arizona Fall League MVP, consensus minor league player of the year, two-time All-Star, Hank Aaron Award winner, National League Rookie of the Year and MVP and World Series champion – all before his 25th birthday last month.

So, no, the Cubs superstar doesn't see the need for any dramatic overhaul to a sport that's desperately trying to connect with Bryant's demographic and keep up at a time when iPhones are killing everyone's attention spans and the entertainment options are endless.            

"I love the way it is," Bryant before Wednesday's workout at the Sloan Park complex.

Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred essentially fired a warning shot during Tuesday's Cactus League media event at the Arizona Biltmore, threatening to unilaterally impose pace-of-play changes – think pitch clock, limited mound visits, new strike zone – for the 2018 season if the players' union doesn't cooperate.

The first reported difference is the traditional four-pitch intentional walk turning into a dugout signal, which seems to be more of a cosmetic change than an actual efficiency measure.

"You're in the box, you want to force someone to make a pitch," said Bryant, who remembered Anthony Rizzo’s 10th-inning matchup against Cleveland Indians reliever Bryan Shaw. "Just the World Series, for example, when 'Rizz' got intentionally walked. There were a couple that were low. What if the ball got away? That's huge. Especially in that type of situation – Game 7 of the World Series – you want to put pressure on the pitcher any way you can.

"It seems like it's not stressful at all, but any time you're not throwing at full effort for a pitcher, it seems like there's a chance that we could do damage on that."

That's actually Manfred's agenda in an age of grinding at-bats, specialized bullpens and defensive shifts – trying to create more action and eliminating some of the dead air more than simply cutting the length of games by a few minutes.

"The game's been the same to me since I was young, so I don't think there's anything wrong with it," Bryant said. "I think that's what makes our game great. It is a long game and we play 162 games a year and there's more strategy involved with it. I think it could be a slippery slope once you start changing all these things. 

"The people you really need to ask are the fans. The diehard fans are going to be the ones who oppose more changes. They're the ones who pay to watch us play. Those are the opinions that you need."

In using this power in the new collective bargaining agreement as leverage, Manfred is looking at the future of a $10 billion industry, insisting the game isn't broken when more than 75 million people visited major-league stadiums last season.

But even Cubs manager Joe Maddon – who’s usually open-minded and in tune with these kind of big-picture ideas – doesn’t get the pace-of-play focus.

"I'm not privy to all the reasons why it's so important," Maddon said. "It just appears to be important for the people in New York. My job is not to make those decisions. My job is to ultimately make the Cubs play well again, etc., so there are certain things that I don’t quite understand.

"If I had more interior information maybe you could be more supportive of it. On the surface – I've talked about it in the past – I don't really understand the pace-of-game issues because I don't really pay attention to that. I'm just locked into managing the game. The nine innings go 2 hours and 15 minutes, or 3 hours and 20, as long as you win, I don’t care.

"That's where I come from, but there's something obviously larger than that that's really causing a lot of these discussions. Again, from my office, I don't necessarily know what that is. But I do know new normals may occur."