Chicago Cubs

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?

Are Cubs lining up Jake Arrieta to start Game 1 vs. Nationals?

Are Cubs lining up Jake Arrieta to start Game 1 vs. Nationals?

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Are the Cubs lining up Jake Arrieta to start Game 1 against the Washington Nationals?

“I’m not even anywhere near that,” manager Joe Maddon said during Tuesday’s pregame media session with the Chicago media, immediately shifting his focus back to the decisions he would have to make that night – how hard to push catcher Willson Contreras coming off the disabled list, what the Cubs would get out of lefty Mike Montgomery, how the bullpen sets up – against the Tampa Bay Rays.

“Players can do that kind of stuff. I don’t think managers can. Honestly, I don’t want to say I don’t care about that. I just don’t worry about that, because there’s nothing to worry about yet. Because first of all, he’s got to be well when he pitches, too.”

Arrieta had just completed a throwing session at Tropicana Field and declared himself ready to face the Milwaukee Brewers on Thursday at Miller Park. That would be the Cy Young Award winner’s first start since suffering a Grade 1 right hamstring strain on Labor Day. It would set him up to face the St. Louis Cardinals next week at Busch Stadium and start Game 162 against the Cincinnati Reds at Wrigley Field.

“The plan is to be out there Thursday,” said Arrieta, who would be limited to 75-80 pitches against the Brewers and build from there, trying to recapture what made him the National League pitcher of the month for August. “The good thing is the arm strength is there – it’s remained there – and I actually feel better for maybe having a little bit of time off.

“The idea is to be able to be out there the last game against Cincinnati – pretty much at full pitch count – and to be ready for the playoffs.”

Five days after that would be the beginning of the NL divisional round and what could be a classic playoff series between the defending champs and Dusty Baker’s Nationals. The Cubs started Jon Lester in Game 1 for all three playoff rounds during last year’s World Series run and their $155 million ace could open a Washington series with an extra day of rest.

“It’s inappropriate to talk about that now,” team president Theo Epstein said. “We have a lot of work to do, and those would be the guys that would help get us there in the first place. If you’re lucky enough to get into that situation, you’d just use all the factors. You guys all know – who’s going the best, who matches up the best, the most experienced – and we figure it out and go from there. But we’re still a good ways away from figuring that one out.”

Untouchable: Javier Baez showed why Cubs built around him during takeover at shortstop

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AP

Untouchable: Javier Baez showed why Cubs built around him during takeover at shortstop

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Imagine Javier Baez wearing a New York Mets uniform or playing in an empty Tropicana Field and where the Cubs would be without their backup shortstop.

The trade speculation still lingered into this season, even after Baez blossomed into a National League Championship Series co-MVP and a World Series champion. Maybe it was just out of habit since Theo Epstein’s front office spent years collecting hitters and planning to deal for pitching, or a perception issue for a prospect who wasn’t drafted by this regime and has a “flashiness” to his game that recently got this unfair, narrow-minded label from a Pittsburgh Pirates broadcaster: “A difficult player for me to root for.”

But the Cubs never traded Baez to the Tampa Bay Rays for one of those starters who usually seems to be on the rumor mill – Chris Archer, Alex Cobb, Jake Odorizzi, Matt Moore – and that decision continues to look better and better in hindsight.   

Baez again showed why he is essentially untouchable while Addison Russell slowly recovered from a strained right foot and plantar fasciitis, starting 41 of 42 games at shortstop between Aug. 3 and Sept. 16 and hitting .282 with eight homers and 27 RBI during that stretch.  

Deep down, Baez still views himself as a shortstop – “yeah, for sure, if I get the (chance)” – while deferring to Russell (who was activated over the weekend) and understanding that the Cubs can again have an elite defensive unit when he moves back to second base.

“When I play short every day, obviously, I’m going to be ready for it and making all the adjustments to be there,” Baez said. “I do my best to help the team. Addie’s a big part of the team.”

Remember how shaky the defense looked up the middle when Russell missed the 2015 NLCS with a hamstring injury and the Mets swept the Cubs out of the playoffs?  

The Cubs created enough depth – and room to grow – to stash an All-Star shortstop on the disabled list on Aug. 4 and go from being a 57-50 team with a 1.5-game lead in the division to running a season-high 17 games over .500 heading into Tuesday night at The Trop.  

Even though Joe Maddon lobbied for Baez to make the Opening Day roster during his first post-Rays spring training in 2015, the manager also made a point to say he didn’t run an entitlement program.

Maddon would not anoint Baez as an everyday player heading into this season, even after he started all 17 games at second base during last year’s playoffs and starred for Team Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic.

“If you had done that with him two years ago, he would have buried himself,” Maddon said. “Absolutely. I don’t think he would have made the same adjustments at the plate. You would have seen a lot more mistakes on defense. You would have seen a lot more routine plays not handled routinely. You would not have seen the same base running. Even though he had it in his back pocket, I just think that he’s learned how to really pick his moments there, too. He wasn’t ready for all that.”

There is something to the idea of taking the good with the bad with Baez. Except there are no perfect players and so few have his mind-blowing combination of skills, love for the game and sixth sense for highlight-reel moments.    

“You don’t teach those things – that’s just God-given talent,” catcher Alex Avila said. “He’s been able to put it together. You see those plays. But the work that goes into it – as far as being in the right spot, having the right first step, anticipating the ball, things like that – all that kind of gets you the result.

“(It’s not only) making sure he’s making the routine plays, but he has the athleticism and the wherewithal to be able to make the spectacular plays as well.”

Instead of focusing on the tattoos or the hairstyles or a swing that can get out of control at times, remember that this is someone who already has 22 homers and 70 RBI in the middle of September – and a .791 OPS in his age-24 season that represents a 54-point jump from the year before – for an iconic team with World Series expectations.

“You could see there was a lot of stuff for Javy to iron out,” Maddon said. “He’s worked them out. It’s a lot of repetition. It’s a lot of good coaching. But it’s about the player himself, being able to make those adjustments. I honestly think his path has been a good one. And I think the way we did it last year was perfect.

“Everything’s happened as it should organically for him."