Chicago Cubs

Jason McLeod goes inside the Ian Happ/Andrew Benintendi draft

Jason McLeod goes inside the Ian Happ/Andrew Benintendi draft

Imagine Andrew Benintendi — “Freddy Lynn reincarnated” in Joe Maddon’s mind — flying all over Wrigley Field and hitting in a lineup that already included Kyle Schwarber, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell all under club control through the 2021 season.

Two names stood out at the top of the draft board on June 8, 2015, the Cubs targeting their favorite demographic — college hitters — with the ninth overall pick: Benintendi and Ian Happ.

A Boston Red Sox scouting department with deep connections to Theo Epstein and Jason McLeod came at the No. 7 pick with a similar philosophy. Where one fast-track player hit .295 in 34 games for a 93-win team last year — and entered this season as Baseball America’s No. 1 overall prospect — the other is now batting cleanup for the defending World Series champs.

“We obviously liked (Benintendi) quite a bit,” McLeod said on this week’s Cubs Talk Podcast. “We spent a lot of time scouting him as well. Again, going back to that question, did we think (Ian would) be here this fast? (Look at) what (Benintendi’s) done with Boston. Players have recently just kind of switched the timetable a little bit, especially those ultra-talented guys.”

McLeod, the senior vice president who oversees scouting and player development, couldn’t have his staff zero in on one player, the way the Cubs focused so heavily on Bryant (No. 2 overall) and Schwarber (No. 4 overall) in the 2013 and 2014 drafts.

One theory floating around an organization already loaded with hitters wondered if the Cubs would roll the dice with Brady Aiken, who got drafted with the first selection in 2014 but couldn’t reach an agreement with the Houston Astros amid medical concerns.

The Cubs ultimately viewed that as a risky investment where the payoff would maybe take years. Aiken — who had been recovering from Tommy John surgery on his left elbow — got drafted by the Cleveland Indians eight spots after Happ and is now pitching in A-ball.

Instead of dreaming about potential, the Cubs felt far more comfortable projecting Happ’s high-level performance at the University of Cincinnati and as a two-time Cape Cod League All Star. The Cubs would keep collecting young hitters and getting solid returns, knowing that some could be traded for pitching later.

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That draft order would’ve been switched around if the Cubs hadn’t swept a three-game series from the Red Sox in the middle of the 2014 season, as a Boston Globe story detailed during last month’s potential World Series preview. The rebuilding Cubs (73-89) actually finished with a better record than the defending World Series champs (71-91) that year.

“Everything just aligned,” McLeod said. “Obviously, the Red Sox made it easier for us when they took Benintendi with their selection. We had a pretty good sense once that happened that Happ would be our guy.

“I can tell you that once Andrew was taken, those of us in the room felt really good, like: ‘We’re going to get Happ.’ Once he was there for us, we were all excited to bring in this switch-hitter with power and on-base (skills) who was another kind of blue-collar, hard-nosed guy.

“He’s very intense. He has high expectations of himself. We’ve seen that. He’s quieter in the sense that he’s not rah-rah. He’s just very intense about what he wants to get accomplished when he gets to the ballpark that day.”

Happ clearly didn’t spend a lot of time in the minors — 227 games overall and only 26 on the Triple-A level — but he had a sense of purpose and a chip on his shoulder while working on his defense.

“There were questions,” McLeod said. “Not on if he could play defense. I think the conversation with him coming out of the draft that year was: What is his best position? Because he had played infield, he had played outfield. Where would the eventual landing spot be?

“It was more in a positive way. Not: Well, gosh, where can we hide him on the field? It was never anything to do with that. (But) I do feel like he can be an average second baseman in the major leagues. He has enough athleticism, for sure, to be an average outfielder at multiple positions in the outfield.”

Between the home runs, the sliding catches in the outfield and the way he handles himself in the clubhouse, Happ keeps giving the Cubs reasons to not send him back to Iowa. Maddon is already talking up Happ as a Bryant defensive clone and imagining the possibilities.

“I wouldn’t put it past him,” McLeod said, “if Joe asks (Ian to do what) he does with Kris. I think that Ian would be able to be a player like that who could go play first base, who could go stand at third, catch what’s hit to him. If you were asking me to pigeonhole him in one spot, I don’t know exactly what that spot is yet, just because he’s been playing a lot of different positions. I think he can be a big-league defender at multiple positions.”

Jose Quintana’s ‘career-altering’ game has Cubs planning clinch party in St. Louis

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USA TODAY

Jose Quintana’s ‘career-altering’ game has Cubs planning clinch party in St. Louis

MILWAUKEE – The Cubs are going to destroy Busch Stadium’s visiting clubhouse. The rivalry has fundamentally shifted to the point where the St. Louis Cardinals are hanging around the National League’s wild-card race in a transition year and it would have been a massive failure if the defending World Series champs didn’t win this division. But there will be some symbolism to popping champagne bottles and spraying beer all over that room.

“We intend to clinch there,” Ben Zobrist said after Jose Quintana’s complete-game masterpiece in Sunday’s 5-0 win over the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park. “And I think for a lot of the guys that have been around here for a long time, it’s going to be very satisfying.”

Quintana has only been a Cub since the Brewers failed to close a deal with the White Sox and team president Theo Epstein swooped in to make a signature trade during the All-Star break. Quintana hasn’t yet pitched in the playoffs, but this is close enough, the Cubs winning back-to-back 10-inning games against the Brewers and shaking off a walk-off loss before the lefty faced off against Chase Anderson in front of a sellout crowd of 42,212.

Quintana gave the Cubs more data points to consider as they prepare for a probable first-round series against the Washington Nationals. The magic number to eliminate both the Brewers and Cardinals is two, with Milwaukee off on Monday and the Cubs playing a rivalry game in St. Louis that night, meaning the party goggles won’t come out until Tuesday at the earliest.

“It’s the playoffs already for this team,” said Zobrist, who again looked like a World Series MVP in the seventh inning of a 1-0 game when he launched Anderson’s first-pitch fastball into the second deck in right field for a two-run, breathing-room homer. “We’re already thinking that way.

“We’re in postseason mode right now. And we intend to continue that for the next month.”

While there are valid concerns about Jon Lester’s nosedive in performance since coming off the disabled list and the state of Jake Arrieta’s right hamstring, the focus should also be on how Quintana (7-3, 3.50 ERA in 13 starts as a Cub) could be an October game-changer for this rotation.

“Once he got over here, he was really jacked up about having a chance to play in the playoffs,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He’s showing you that right now. Games like that, to me, could be kind of career-altering for a pitcher.

“When you pitch a complete-game shutout on the road under these circumstances, that definitely does something for your interior. It definitely fluffs it up a little bit.”

“It’s exciting to be here,” said Quintana, who allowed only three singles, piled up 10 strikeouts against one walk and hit 93 mph on his 116th and final pitch in the ninth inning. “I just try to help my team and it’s really special when you get that opportunity. It’s about winning and I have a huge opportunity here.”

In all phases of the game – dominant starting pitching, an offense that created different ways to score runs, multiple bullpen contributors and an airtight defense that committed zero errors in 39 innings – Maddon saw what he was looking for: “We reacted in a playoff manner for these four games. Our mental intensity could not be beat.”

That drifting, in-and-out focus had been part of the background when the Cubs shocked the baseball world with the Quintana trade in the middle of July. Concentration won’t be an issue at Busch Stadium. And this hangover will be real.

“It will be nice to do it there, I’ll just say that,” said Zobrist, who understands the Cubs-Cardinals dynamic as someone who grew up in downstate Illinois. “But we got to win the games.

“As John Lackey said it before (this) series: ‘This is not a small series, boys.’ We knew it was a big one here in Milwaukee. And it will be another big one in St. Louis.”

Joe Maddon gives Cubs space during national anthem: ‘Everybody’s got the right to express themselves’

Joe Maddon gives Cubs space during national anthem: ‘Everybody’s got the right to express themselves’

MILWAUKEE – As protests formed at NFL stadiums across the country, sending an anti-Trump message after the president’s inflammatory rhetoric, a group of about 11 Cubs players and coaches stood off the third-base line while a men’s a cappella group sung the national anthem before Sunday’s 5-0 win over the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park.

The night before, Oakland A’s catcher Bruce Maxwell became the first Major League Baseball player to follow in Colin Kaepernick’s footsteps and kneel during the national anthem at the Oakland Coliseum, sending a jolt through a conservative industry.  

“Like I’ve always talked about, everybody’s got the right to express themselves in the manner in which they feel,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “I’ve always felt that way.”

That’s easer said than done in a team sport that doesn’t have the same outspoken culture as NBA or NFL locker rooms. It will be fascinating to see if this starts a similar movement across baseball. The Cubs are a marquee team that has already visited the White House twice since January and will likely return to Washington in October for a must-watch playoff series against the Nationals.

“I have no idea,” Maddon said. “We’re going to wait and see. And, again, if it does, that’s fine. I have no issues. I’m all into self-expression. And if a player feels that he needs to express himself in that manner, then so be it.”

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Maxwell, the son of a U.S. Army veteran who made his big-league debut last year, told Bay Area reporters this decision had been building and rooted in his own childhood in Alabama, where Trump appeared on Friday at a rally for Republican Senate candidate Luther Strange and told the crowd that NFL owners should fire any “son of a b----” kneeling during the national anthem.      

“The point of my kneeling was not to disrespect our military or our constitution or our country,” Maxwell said. “My hand was over my heart because I love this country and I have family members, including my father, who bled for this country, and who continue to serve.

“At the end of the day, this is the best country on the planet. I am and forever will be an American citizen and grateful to be here. But my kneeling is what’s getting the attention, and I’m kneeling for the people who don’t have a voice.

“This goes beyond the black and Hispanic communities because right now we have a racial divide that’s being practiced from the highest power we have in this country saying it’s basically OK to treat people differently. I’m kneeling for a cause, but I’m in no way disrespecting my country or my flag.”

Maddon’s anti-rules philosophy gives the Cubs the space to do whatever they think’s necessary to get ready for the next game. It’s freedom from: dress codes on road trips, guidelines on facial hair and overloaded mandatory batting-practice sessions.

That hands-off approach has worked to the point where the defending World Series champs could clinch a second straight National League Central title as soon as Tuesday at Busch Stadium and celebrate in front of the St. Louis Cardinals. It’s not unusual to see only a small group of players, coaches and staffers standing on the field during the national anthem.

“That’s up to them,” Maddon said. “I’ve never really had a policy regarding being out for the anthem or not. A lot of times guys like to do different things right before the game begins. Sometimes, you’re on the road, you hit later and you get in later and then your time is at a premium. So I’ve never really had a specific theory about coming out for your anthem at all.”