Dale Sveum will put the Cubs on edge

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Dale Sveum will put the Cubs on edge

Dale Sveum studied the way Joe Torre communicated in the dugout. He sensed that Tony La Russa was always thinking several innings ahead. He noticed how Jim Leyland was able to motivate.

As a player, Sveum pulled pieces from all those managers. He was once the hotshot prospect, an injury case, a fringe player, even sticking around after he was released as a bullpen catcher on the 1998 Yankees team that won the World Series.

Sveum played with future Hall of Famers Robin Yount and Paul Molitor in Milwaukee. He worked for Terry Francona and navigated the superstar culture around the Red Sox. He watched Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun develop and get the Brewers back into the playoffs.

The guy nicknamed Nuts believes that, deep down, 99.9 percent of all players want to be looked in the face and told to get their crap together.

Thats what Sveum told the media last November, after the Cubs introduced their 52nd manager in franchise history. Soon it will no doubt be the message in Arizona, where he will run his first big-league camp.

When the guys arent hustling, you make them accountable for it, Sveum said last month. I dont really care how much money theyre making, or how many years they have in the big leagues. Theyre still embarrassing the team and theyre embarrassing the organization.

Everybodys treated the same. I dont care if youre a rookie or a guy that has 15 years in the big leagues. If youre doing something I dont like or youre embarrassing the organization, Im going to say something to you. It might come to where you have to bench guys. Thats just the bottom line.

Those applause lines were like throwing red meat to the diehards at the Cubs Convention. But will the players listen?

Pitchers and catchers officially report on Feb. 18. A group has already gathered at Fitch Park in Mesa, a short ride from Sveums offseason home. Even if the players dont yet know their new manager all that well, several have done their research.

From talking to players that (hes worked with), they have nothing but great things to say, pitcher Matt Garza said. Hes a players guy. Hes been through the grind and he knows what its like and he knows what its gonna take to win. And thats what Im excited about.

The players once lobbied for Mike Quade, another first-year manager who promised to drive home fundamental play (and didnt last).

Sveum should benefit from the instant credibility that comes from playing 12 seasons in the big leagues. He was also able to have a voice in assembling his coaching staff. He wont have to deal with Carlos Zambrano.

Perhaps most importantly, everyone knows that Theo Epstein picked Sveum to be the front man for this rebuilding project.

Sveum played for some great managers, but people have almost described him as an NFL coach with the countless hours spent breaking down video and obsessively charting plays. Brewers general manager Doug Melvin got used to showing up at his Miller Park office and finding Sveum already at work.

Sveum knows that information might yield an advantage only once a series. But all that adds up and certainly resonates with the Cubs president of baseball operations.

(Sveums) somebody who believes in hard work, preparation, respecting the game, having your teammates back, Epstein said. Whats really hard in todays baseball for managers is to connect with players and win their respect and admiration without enabling them and coddling them. Thats a typical players manager that you hear sometimes. Basically, he lets the players do whatever they want.

Often times, that becomes a popular manager, but it doesnt necessarily create the type of discipline that you need. (But) Dales been the best of both worlds. Players get to know him in that he works so hard. (They) like him and they play so hard for him. At the same time, he holds them to really high standards.

I guarantee you every single player is going to run as hard as they can, 90 feet, down to first base.

Thats what the Cubs will be selling after a winter in which they passed on the big-ticket items. Right now, this team is mostly nameless and faceless in Chicago. But it wont stay that way forever.

At the convention, a fan asked Sveum about Nyjer Morgan, an instigator for a Brewers team that wasnt shy about talking trash or choreographing over-the-top celebrations. For an organization looking for an identity, the answer was revealing.

You have to have some cockiness on the field, Sveum said. You dont want to take anything away from guys.You have to throttle it. (But) when you do irritate the other team, (it) means youre doing something (right).

You never show the other team up. But when you come to play, your team should have some kind of identity (instead) of being a vanilla team (where) youre just going out there and going through the motions. It makes a big difference to have some guys out there with personality and showing some emotion.

Cubs catcher Willson Contreras looks ready for prime time

Cubs catcher Willson Contreras looks ready for prime time

SAN DIEGO – Within 24 hours at Petco Park, Cubs catcher Willson Contreras handled the wild movement of Jake Arrieta’s pitches and framed the edges of the strike zone for Kyle Hendricks, showing the dexterity to handle a playoff rotation.

Contreras looked ready for prime time on Tuesday night and Wednesday afternoon, helping shut down the San Diego Padres and complete a three-game sweep where two National League Cy Young Award candidates found a rhythm while throwing to a rookie catcher.

“Everything’s a lot easier,” Contreras said after a 6-3 victory. “I’m way more comfortable right now, because my first week everything was speeding up on me. But now I’m able to slow down the game and do my job.” 

The day after Arrieta fell one inning short of a two-hit, complete-game shutout, Hendricks credited Contreras for calling more curveballs and getting him through a stretch where the Padres put the leadoff man on base in each of the first four innings. 

“From the get-go, I wasn’t shaking him off,” Hendricks said. “We’ve been rolling for the last five, six starts, at least. It’s been easy.” 

Contreras has now caught Arrieta twice, and got one-start exposure to Jon Lester, while developing chemistry with Hendricks, John Lackey and Jason Hammel, which means veteran catcher Miguel Montero might not have a spot on the postseason roster if this continues.

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Contreras is a dynamic presence, launching his eighth home run on Wednesday afternoon and keeping the Padres stationary after Tuesday night’s laser throw to pick off a runner at third base. 

“I was waiting for somebody to run,” Contreras said. “But they didn’t run, so I’ll have to save it for another game.”

The Cubs are nearing the point where a 24-year-old player who didn’t make his big-league debut until June 17 could be behind the plate for the biggest games in franchise history.

“In this clubhouse, we are like a family,” Contreras said. “Once you get here, you start feeling comfortable the first day. You don’t even know that you are a rookie who just came up.”

Kyle Hendricks keeps rolling as Cubs sweep away Padres

Kyle Hendricks keeps rolling as Cubs sweep away Padres

SAN DIEGO – Kyle Hendricks reported to spring training as a fifth starter, leads the majors in ERA in late August and could pitch Game 1 in a playoff series. That gradual evolution from possible question mark at the back of the rotation into a National League Cy Young Award candidate highlights how the Cubs have transformed from a team that won the offseason to one that owns the summer and maybe this fall. 

In his own understated way, Hendricks smashed any perceptions of that ceiling, performing at a level and with a consistency that matches the franchise’s young hitting stars, mirroring their baseball IQ and grounded nature, without the billboards and flair for social media. 

Hendricks kept rolling on a beautiful Wednesday afternoon at Petco Park, knocking the San Diego Padres off-balance and finishing the three-game sweep with a 6-3 victory. That pushed the Cubs to 36 games over .500 for the first time since finishing their 1945 pennant-winning season at 98-56. The best team in baseball could play a little over .500 (19-17) down the stretch and still reach 100 wins.

A Dartmouth College graduate with an Ivy League degree in economics helped create all this momentum – and certainly knows what he wants to do on the mound – but Hendricks as an ace still seems beyond the wildest internal preseason projection.

“I thought he ended really well last year and that there was a lot to look forward to,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He’s just taken it to another level right now. He’s in that 26-27-year-old range where a young pitcher who’s had some major-league experience can really find his next level. And I think that’s what’s going on. He’s such a wonderful student. The difference between last year and this year is the confidence thing: ‘I belong here. I can do this. I’m one of the best.’ 

“A lot of our guys are going through that moment right now. And I think that’s what you’re seeing out of Kyle. I’ve talked about the couple tweaks he’s made regarding the four-seam fastball and curveball usage. That makes him a little bit different. But more than anything, I think he believes he’s among the best right now.”

The Padres (53-74) looked a little checked out and didn’t really put much pressure on a Cubs team that should get an adrenaline boost this weekend at Dodger Stadium. Dexter Fowler and Kris Bryant opened the game with back-to-back doubles before Ben Zobrist lined a two-run triple into the right-center field gap. Within six minutes of Paul Clemens’ first pitch, Jorge Soler’s sacrifice fly made it 3-0.

Hendricks hasn’t allowed more than three earned runs in a start since May 17, a run of 17 straight outings that has sliced his ERA from 3.51 to 2.19 while pushing his record to 12-7.

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Hendricks hides his emotions and didn’t get flustered when the Padres put the leadoff man on base in each of the first four innings, working around the traffic to limit San Diego to two runs and finish with eight strikeouts. 

Hendricks made it through six innings – he’s now gone at least five in each of his 24 starts this year – after beginning the day with a FanGraphs soft-hit rate (26 percent of batted balls) that led the majors and would be the highest mark in the last five seasons.

Hendricks has to pitch a different game than Jake Arrieta, but with an 8-1 record and a 1.38 ERA in his last 13 starts, he might be this year’s breakthrough performer who helps carry the Cubs into October.

“I’m just trying to stay where I’m at and keep the consistency,” Hendricks said. “Keep my pitches feeling good, keep my command. It’s just staying in my routine and really not doing too much – not doing less – just kind of riding it out until I feel something change.”

How soon before Cubs make Javier Baez an everyday player?

How soon before Cubs make Javier Baez an everyday player?

SAN DIEGO — The airtight defensive alignment for October would have to include Javier Baez, a game-changing force moving in all directions. The Cubs have seen Baez make barehanded plays and laser throws, take charge on bunts and frustrate hitters with an uncanny ability to improvise and make split-second decisions.

Baez and Addison Russell are two of the best athletes in the entire game, Jake Arrieta said after Tuesday night’s win over the San Diego Padres, so put the ball in play and let those two middle infielders take over.

There could be playoff lineups where Baez starts at second base and bumps Ben Zobrist to the outfield. But manager Joe Maddon isn’t about to hand Baez an everyday job, sticking with the super-utility formula and versatile philosophy that’s helped the Cubs become the best team in baseball.

“It depends on how we morph as a group over the next couple years,” Maddon said Wednesday at Petco Park. “Right now, I like the way it’s working out. I like the fact that (Javy’s) getting rested (and) not playing every day. Look at his at-bats — they have gotten better, too. He is making adjustments or adaptations during the at-bat. He’s not just out of control every swing.”

Baez has channeled his aggressiveness, hitting .276 with 13 homers, 47 RBIs and 83 strikeouts through 343 plate appearances, becoming a more mature and well-rounded player at the age of 23.

“You’re seeing a lot of progress,” Maddon said. “Who knows if by playing sporadically this is becoming more part of who he is? As opposed to playing every day, maybe getting caught in the trap of not hitting well, whatever, and all of a sudden he takes it on defense. It’s natural progression. He’s an everyday player, there’s no question, in maybe a couple years.”

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The Geek Department and scouting reports will ultimately influence where Baez plays, because Maddon wants him wherever the ball will most likely be hit most often. When Jon Lester pitches, that can mean Baez starting at third base and Kris Bryant moving to the outfield.

The Cubs promised Zobrist the second-base job when he signed a four-year, $56 million contract, agreeing the focus on one position would help reduce the wear and tear on his body at the age of 35. The Cubs still need Zobrist’s switch-hitting skills and World Series experience in the lineup.

Maddon also wants to keep Jorge Soler involved — because he’s a presence other teams have to account for — and maybe that will mean sacrificing Jason Heyward’s Gold Glove defense in right field at times.

But Baez is the type of defender the Cubs will want to see out there in one-run, low-scoring playoff games.

“He’s unbelievable,” Bryant said. “Any ball hit his way — whether it’s in the air, on the ground, on line — you kind of just expect him to make the play and make it look good. That’s what he’s been doing all year. I certainly think he’s Gold Glove worthy, but he plays all over. I feel like there should be a utility man Gold Glove, because he definitely (deserves it).”