Chicago Cubs

Everyone will have something to prove in Cubs camp

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Everyone will have something to prove in Cubs camp

Finally, the focus will be back on the field.

This offseason revolved around executive compensation and stadium club news conferences and Albert PujolsPrince Fielder rumors that went nowhere.

Whatever the foundation for sustained success is going to look like, were about to get our first glimpse in Arizona. By the time pitchers and catchers officially report next weekend, everyone will have something to prove.

It starts at the top with chairman Tom Ricketts, who restructured the Cubs organization for a game-changing hire and now has to figure out a way to renovate Wrigley Field.

Theo Epstein has become the face of the franchise, even though that seems to be the last thing that he wants. You know the national media will descend upon Fitch Park, curious to see if the president of baseball operations will live up to the hype.

The new executives led by Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod are trying to mesh with the personnel leftover from the Jim Hendry administration (who must produce for the new boss).

First-year manager Dale Sveum is taking over a team with almost no expectations. The roster is filled with players who are coming off down years andor havent lived up to their potential.

One player laughed when asked if Cubs fans will have the patience for a total rebuilding effort. Another simply said: They have no choice.

In baseball, anything can happen, Epstein said. We might not have the most talent in the division, but I know were going to play hard, and we have young players with upside, (several) entering their prime or pre-prime years. When you have that, you can surprise a little bit.

If we stay healthy and one or two or three or four of the players we have actually takes a big developmental step forward I think you might look up and be surprised in the middle of the summer. Especially with the depth of the starting pitching we have now.

We have one advantage over some of the opponents we might face, in that we can withstand an injury or two and still throw a very reputable starting pitcher out there every day, five days around the rotation. And if our opponents in the division cant because of injuries or attrition or poor performance then we might surprise some people.

Still, the Cubs might not know exactly what theyll get from one start to the next. Paul Maholm, Chris Volstad and Travis Wood were all once first-round picks. The Cubs decided to buy low this winter.

Maholm has a 53-73 career record that can be partially explained by pitching for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Volstad is 6-foot-8 and only 25 years old, though he went 5-13 with a 4.89 ERA last season. Wood has never put it all together for a full year in the big leagues.

This is a team with far more question than answers.

Is Ian Stewart, another former first-round pick, the third baseman who hit 25 homers for the Colorado Rockies in 2009or the guy who had zero last year? Can Bryan LaHairs monster Pacific Coast League numbers translate to the next level?

Which Geovany Soto shows up this season? Will Matt Garza and Alfonso Soriano make it to August in a Cubs uniform?

Everyone will be watching to see if Starlin Castro sharpens his focus. Carlos Marmol will have to show that he still has the right stuff to be a closer. Randy Wells will have to convince a new coaching staff that he belongs in the rotation. Darwin Barney will fight to hang onto the second-base job.

No one should get too comfortable.

The Cubs have laid out a well-reasoned plan that takes the long view. The Epstein hire changed the perception of the organization and, for the moment at least, insulated everyone from the pressure to win RIGHT NOW.

It is a high-stress job and city, Sveum said. The bottom line is were trying to win every single (time) we go out there. But more importantly, were building this organization to win consistently every single year to where you have the ability to win World Series because youre consistently winning 90-plus games every year.

The Cubs talk a good game. If this really is going to an inflection point, were all about to find out.

Cubs World Series Baby-Boom in full swing

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USA TODAY

Cubs World Series Baby-Boom in full swing

Technically... the Chicago Cubs became world champions on Nov. 3, 2016 at 12:47 a.m. 

Approximately... that was nine months ago.

Theoretically... there should be a lot of Anthony's and Kris's being born in Chicago right about now. 

Now, that last part may be a bit of a stretch, but what is not a stretch is the arrival of what the Cubs organization are calling 'World Championship Babies', and what a ring that has to it. 

This upswing in births has even garnered national attention, shown below

In a press release on Monday, the Cubs celebrated this correlation by announcing that babies born around now would receive membership to the 'Newborn Fan Club' as well as a Cubs “Rookie of the Year” onesie, Cubs pinstripe beanie cap, custom-made birth certificate and personalized Wrigley Field Marquee photo.

This mass membership growth will take place today, Wed., July 26 at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center, 836 W. Wellington Ave, Chicago, Ill.

Is Schwar-Bombs an acceptable first name?

How Addison Russell saved the Cubs' season...for now

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USA TODAY

How Addison Russell saved the Cubs' season...for now

As the Cubs head to the South Side Wednesday night for Game 3 of Crosstown, they sit one-half game behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central and a season-high five games above .500.

But things could've been a lot different if not for Addison Russell.

The "what-if" game is a popular one among sports fans, especially around the water cooler or in the local bar. 

Joe Maddon plays that game only on rare occasions and while he didn't fully head down that path this past weekend, he did acknowledge the important role Russell and Willson Contreras have played in saving the Cubs' season.

Maddon's squad has burst out to a 9-2 start to the second half of 2017. And when asked about the team's 6-0 road trip coming out of the break, Maddon pointed to Russell's game-winning homer in the ninth inning of the first game in Baltimore — the game that started this hot stretch — and Contreras' game-saving block on a ball in the dirt in the ninth inning of the first game in Atlanta.

"That first night still, giving up that lead and then that home run by Addy, that was a real seminal moment potentially for the entire season," Maddon said. "I talked about it in Atlanta, the block by Contreras. Just two significant plays that have occurred on that recent trip.

"That could've turned that into a 4-2 trip as opposed to a 6-0 trip. Addy's homer and that block by Willson. Check out that block from Willson. It was a breaking ball from [closer Wade Davis] and it wasn't going good. It was not going good at that moment. Those are two plays on that trip that really stood out to me."

The Russell homer was key because the Cubs had burst out of the break — with freshly-acquired pitcher Jose Quintana in tow — with an 8-0 lead after the top of the third inning, but Mike Montgomery and the Cubs bullpen had allowed the Orioles back into the game. After Koji Uehara served up the tying home run in the bottom of the eighth, Russell lined a one-out shot over the left-centerfield fence off Brad Brach in the top of the ninth.

In Atlanta, Contreras' block came with the tying run on third base as Davis eventually secured the nail-biting save in a 4-3 Cubs victory.

Had the Cubs blown the lead in either game, it would've been a tough pill to swallow mentally for a team that struggled to a 43-45 record in the first half. Of course, Contreras' red-hot bat (.341 AVG, 1.133 OPS, 5 HR, 15 RBI since the Break) has helped those victories hold up.

Everybody had been looking for that "seminal moment" around the Cubs for the entire first half of the season. There are still more than two months left in the season, but if the Cubs truly have turned the corner, maybe it did all start on the field with Russell's homer.

"When the manager says at a certain point, the season completely turned on a good note for the team and you're part of that, that's a huge compliment, especially coming from Joe Maddon," Russell said. "Joe has a pretty good reason behind everything that he says. In that situation, just trying to put the barrel on the ball. 

"Get in position to have the other guys knock me in and get on base. That's kinda my goal. It's a huge complimient that he said that. I'm gonna have to ask him a little more about that."

While the Cubs' season may have turned around on Russell's shot to left center on July 14, he had actually started his own personal turnaround more than a month prior.

Since June 11, Russell has hit .291 with an .888 OPS in 35 games, collected 17 extra-base hits (11 doubles, six homers) and 15 RBI.

After a trying couple of months to start 2017 — both on a personal and professional level — Russell's season line looks very similar to last year's total. He has the same batting average (.238) and his slugging percentage is only two points off (.415 compared to .417 last season). The on-base percentage is lower (.304 compared to .321 in 2016) as Russell's walk rate is down, but the 23-year-old shortstop is proving that his slow start is in the past.

The confidence of a big, possibly season-saving home run could help give him a boost, as well.

"[Maddon] kind of gets a sense of how I go about my business and how I go about my game in general," Russell said. "Maybe he saw something that was ready to come out and just go with that the rest of the season."