Chicago Cubs

Garza believes Cubs will play with a hard edge

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Garza believes Cubs will play with a hard edge

MESA, Ariz. Dale Sveum walked over and introduced himself to a young player leaving the batting cages, who shook his hand and joked: You just missed the laser show.

That Friday morning scene at Fitch Park will be replayed over and over again across the next few weeks. The Cubs have a first-year manager in Sveum, a front office restructured around Theo Epstein and enough new faces that you kept asking: Who is that guy?

With his hat turned backwards and Oakley sunglasses shielding his eyes, Matt Garza looked relaxed and content, the picture of spring training. He is one of the few big names left.

Pitchers and catchers officially report on Saturday, and will go through their first formal workout on Sunday, but Garza has been in Arizona for almost two weeks. He has made it clear that he would like to stay here with the Cubs.

It became a running joke in the Garza house this offseason, watching the crawl on the bottom of the screen during the winter meetings and wondering where hed be traded next.

No hard feelings, Garza says, because he has already been traded twice and heard the rumors for most of his career.

Epstein has also mentioned the possibility of a contract extension for Garza, who is under club control through the 2013 season. The two sides recently avoided an arbitration hearing by agreeing to a one-year, 9.5 million deal.

Some players set deadlines and dont want to negotiate once they get to camp, or when the season starts, but Garza doesnt seem to have any ultimatums, other than refusing to go through the media.

I dont talk about that, Garza said. Thats between my agent and myself, and then my agent and the front office. If they want to contact us, we contact them, whatever way it works, thats great. But my main focus is on getting ready for April 5 and having some fun again.

Sveum was a coach on a Milwaukee Brewers team that appeared to have a lot of fun (Prince Fielders bowling ball celebration at home plate) and didnt seem to care what other people thought (Nyjer Morgan calling out Alberta Pujols on Twitter).

The new manager doesnt want a vanilla team, and expects his guys to play with an edge. That sounds like Garza screaming into his glove.

You play hard for nine (innings), thats going to determine your identity, Garza said. You can be scrappers. You can be rollovers. You can be whatever. But (if) you play hard for nine, youre going to develop your own identity.

Were going to be a bunch of scrappers. We dont have the big-name power threats. We have (Alfonso Soriano) in the middle of our lineup. We have (Starlin) Castro, whos going to be a great hitter and an even better shortstop this season. We got a lot of (role players, so) were going to be scrappy, and thats the best way to play.

If you got a big bopper and (he) doesnt come through, its not going to (work). But if you got a bunch of guys who hit-and-run, squeeze, bunt, move-em-over, get-em-in, thats what wins you ballgames. The guys we have in place are going to pay attention to a lot of detail. Little things count up here. Thats going to be a huge asset for us.

That has already started, Kerry Wood throwing from the mound and hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo breaking down David DeJesus swing. After two straight fifth-place finishes, and deeper cuts into the major-league payroll, the little things will have to make a difference.

Garza will have to cut down on his errors, the wild, rushed throws to first. He could use more run support after going only 10-10 with a 3.32 ERA last season. But hes still a very good bet for 30 starts and 200 innings, and hes done it before in the playoffs.

Garza spent most of the winter in Chicago, if thats any indication of where his heads at. He took his family on a vacation to Italy. He worked out for awhile at Northwestern University and found another indoor facility in Chicago. He enjoyed driving his Range Rover through the snow. He still thinks he can win here.

I like pitching day games, Garza said. I like waking up early. I like going home and having dinner with my kids, so for me it was a lot of fun. I had a blast last year. Our record didnt indicate it, but if Im on a field, Im having a good time.

I love pitching at Wrigley. Its a blast. A lot of great people have played there. I want to be able to leave a legacy like they did.

While 2017 has been underwhelming for other hitters, Ian Happ has become a reliable rookie fixture for Cubs

While 2017 has been underwhelming for other hitters, Ian Happ has become a reliable rookie fixture for Cubs

Go ahead. Be honest.

Did you really see Ian Happ coming this fast?

Obviously you knew he’d be here one day, another one of Theo Epstein’s much-ballyhooed first-round draft picks, a position player destined to fit snugly into the Cubs’ long-term lineup.

But Happ was drafted mere months before the Cubs made their breakout run to the 2015 National League Championship Series. He spent his first full season as a professional while the big league team marched to that curse-smashing World Series championship.

Though like Kris Bryant and Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras before him, Happ has landed in the big leagues and become a fixture in the North Side batting order. He’s an everyday player who might not be tearing the cover off the ball on a daily basis, but it’s now hard to imagine the lineup without him.

“I’ve felt really good since I’ve been here,” Happ said earlier this week, “the way guys are super accepting and the way they’ve embraced me in the clubhouse, I couldn’t ask for more. Being with the team for the entire spring training, getting to know the guys, it made it easy for the transitional period and making me feel like I belong right away.”

Happ showed his stuff Saturday, playing a starring role in the North Siders’ narrow 4-3 win over the visiting Toronto Blue Jays. Happ was on base three times, drove in a pair of runs and scored twice, too. He drove in the game’s first run in the first inning, launched a game-tying solo homer in the fourth and scored the go-ahead run on a Javy Baez base hit in the sixth.

Right in the middle of the action is where Happ’s been since he arrived in the bigs back in the middle of May.

It’s been a good thing, too. Because at this point in this odd season, this quest to repeat that has hardly gone according to plan, it’s possible that the Cubs aren’t in first place without Happ. A playoff spot is still nowhere close to a certainty with the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals hot on the Cubs’ tail in the NL Central standings.

With the underachieving and in some cases injury-plagued seasons to date from the likes of Russell, Schwarber, Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward, the reliability of Happ has made him, even if quietly, one of the key cogs on a team that is still in first place, even if they haven’t been able to pull away and lock down a third straight trip to the postseason.

And he’s doing all this with just 80 games of major league service time.

“I think the more experience you get, as you start to see different pitchers over and over again, you kind of start to see the way guys are going to pitch you, the way the game develops,” Happ said earlier this week. “The more experience you have with that, it kind of helps you to slow the game down.

“I think all the way up for me, once you move up a level, you have to adjust. Sometimes, it happens quick and sometimes it’s more of a process. I feel like I’ve had to make adjustments at every level and definitely this level, you’re making adjustments every day. The quicker you can make them, the better off you’ll be.”

As mentioned, Happ isn’t putting up some sort of jaw-dropping, send-him-to-Cooperstown kind of a rookie season. He's hitting .249 after Saturday’s two-hit day, and undoubtedly he’s had his struggles. In his last 21 games prior to Saturday, he hit .189 and punctuated that rocky stretch with a four-strikeout day Friday against this same Blue Jays team.

But his .819 OPS ranks fifth among NL rookies. It ranks fourth on the Cubs, lower only than Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Contreras. He’s also in the top five on the team in RBIs and slugging percentage. Saturday’s long ball was his 18th homer of his 80-game season. Extrapolate those numbers to the team’s 122 games on the season, and he’d have more than 25 dingers already.

Thrown into the major league fire, he’s doing all this while asked to be an everyday contributor for a team with World Series aspirations — or rather World Series expectations.

“It’s tough. It’s a new adjustment,” Rizzo said Saturday. “It’s a new everyday grind up here that’s different from the minor leagues. And he’s hit his bumps along the way, but he keeps adjusting, keeps virtually getting better every day. And it’s fun when you see his success pay off.”

“The game ebbs and flows all the time,” Happ said Saturday. “That’s why it’s a beautiful game and a terrible game at the same time. You’re going to have your good weeks, your bad weeks, good days, bad days. Being able to stay even and keep fighting through it is important.”

While the focus for the Cubs is on the present and winning the NL Central crown, this franchise’s championship window extends far beyond the end of the 2017 campaign. Happ will continue to be a big piece of that window staying open, and Maddon said that this rookie season will have positive effects far down the road.

“Developmentally, I think this year’s going to be a boon to him for next year, absolutely, getting this kind of experience,” Maddon said earlier this week. “Defensively, I think he’s really improved at second base. I think he’s very nice in the outfield. I think there’s actually more positions he can venture into, whether it’s first base, third base, other things that he can do that make him even more valuable.

“The moment he starts forcing pitchers into the zone, he’s got extreme power. He really does. He’s not tall, but he’s strong. The ball comes off his bat as hot as anybody out there. It’s just a matter of him understanding the major league game and what they’re trying to do and veteran pitchers trying to take advantage of young hitters, which they do often. You’ve just got to make sure you force this guy back over the plate.

“When he learns that, like these other guys, they’re going to be very good players.”

Surely the future is bright for Happ, as it is for many of the Cubs’ young players. But as it’s plain to see on a daily basis, there’s a lot of brightness right now, too. Happ might be a rookie, but he sure doesn’t act like it. And at times, with his play, he sure doesn’t look like it, either.

“I’ve felt comfortable here, I have for a long time, and I feel really great with this group of guys,” Happ said Saturday. “And winning baseball games is a lot of fun.”

If the Cubs are going to keep winning baseball games, expect Happ to play a major role.

In thick of tight division race, Cubs add catcher Rene Rivera: 'You can't have enough experience'

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USA TODAY

In thick of tight division race, Cubs add catcher Rene Rivera: 'You can't have enough experience'

If this was 2016, the Cubs might not have bothered to acquire Rene Rivera.

But this isn’t 2016.

The Cubs have a vastly different catching situation than they did a year ago. But even more importantly, they’ve been unable to build any sort of lead in a crowded National League Central race.

Rivera, claimed off waivers from the New York Mets on Saturday morning, almost surely won’t end up being the guy who fuels the Cubs’ pulling away from the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals. But with Willson Contreras on the disabled list, Miguel Montero on the Toronto Blue Jays, Alex Avila not even a month into his Cubs tenure and Victor Caratini just 17 games into his big league career, adding an extra veteran presence behind the plate seems like a pretty good idea.

“It’s like you can’t have enough pitching. You can’t have enough experience, depth-wise, especially at that position,” manager Joe Maddon said Saturday. “So I though we were very fortunate to be able to do this right now. Theo (Epstein, team president) told me about the potential yesterday, obviously it happened.”

This time last season, the Cubs had a reliable 1-2 punch behind the plate with Montero and Contreras. And more notably they had a double-digit lead in the NL Central standings. There’s been an awful lot of change since, with Montero’s brutal honesty getting him shipped off to Canada and Contreras injuring his leg in San Francisco.

Fortunately for the Cubs, they invested some of their last remaining minor league capital in acquiring Avila. Avila won’t replicate the kind of offensive production that made Contreras the hottest hitter on the team, but he’s a very capable starting catcher during Contreras’ time on the shelf.

And while Caratini has been fine — in fact, he’s hitting .400 since Contreras went down and collected three hits in Friday’s win over the Blue Jays — the Cubs are no longer about getting guys experience in August and September. The stakes are much higher.

The Cubs might’ve been an unstoppable juggernaut during the 2016 regular season. This year, though, has been a much different story, and a playoff spot is hardly a certainty.

Rivera isn’t going to solve the problems that have made it so the Cubs are stuck fighting for the crown of a middle-of-the-road division. But he’ll bring veteran experience to a playoff race that could last all the way until the season’s final days.

Rivera has been playing big league ball since 2004 but has totaled just nine years of major league service since then, serving in backup roles and just twice appearing in more than 100 games in a season. The Cubs raved about his defensive ability Saturday — as well as the eight homers he hit in 54 games for the Mets this season.

“He’s very good. Saw him with different teams, we’ve all seen him. He’s got a great reputation,” Maddon said. “Nice fella. Very good defensive player, great reputation. And he's got some pop, too. He hit a couple home runs. So that veteran kind of presence, the depth that it provides is all good stuff.”

No announcement has been made about the active roster. Minor league pitcher Aaron Brooks was designated for assignment to make room for Rivera on the 40-man roster. But the general thinking is that Caratini will head back to Triple-A Iowa.

“He’s done really well,” Maddon said of Caratini. “The way he’s blocked pitches in the dirt has been spectacular. I’ve enjoyed watching his receiving and his blocking, too. The pitchers have been really happy with him. … He’s very aware of building relationships with his pitchers, which I like. And it seems as if the pitchers are into him, too.

“There’s a great future for him in this game.”

But right now, the Cubs need all the experience they can get.