In NL Central, injuries could shift balance of power

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In NL Central, injuries could shift balance of power

Monday, March 28, 2011
Posted 6:31 p.m.

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

Talk to enough Cubs people in Arizona and you notice they return to the same point: As long as we stay healthy

It will take months before anyone can finish that thought. But there is a sense of guarded optimism around camp, especially when you take a look at the rest of the National League Central.

The Cardinals have already lost 20-game winner Adam Wainwright, who will spend this year recovering from Tommy John surgery.

The Brewers are waiting for their Cy Young candidate Zack Greinke to heal from a fractured left rib suffered while playing pickup basketball. Milwaukee could begin the season with five players on the disabled list: Greinke; outfielder Corey Hart; catcher Jonathan Lucroy; and pitchers Manny Parra and LaTroy Hawkins.

The Reds rotation has also taken a hit, with Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey expected to be placed on the disabled list this week.

Through the course of 162 games, my guess is we will all have to deal with these situations from time to time, Cubs manager Mike Quade said. A couple of (teams) are going to have to deal with it early. If youre fortunate enough to stay healthy knock on wood we have all spring and I hope we do all summer then, yeah, thats a good thing.

But rarely does that happen. So whether its pitchers or regulars, during the course of (a season) youre usually going to be down some of your prime people.

Sure, injuries could shred what looks to be a very solid bullpen on paper. Check back in September to see if Kerry Wood wound up on the disabled list for the 15th time in his career, and confirm that John Grabows left knee held up for an entire season.

Both Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza have made at least 30 starts in each of the past three years. During that time, Carlos Marmol has averaged 79 appearances per season.

That means they are extremely durable or you could argue that theyre eventually due for a physical breakdown, given all the collective stress on their right arms.

But this close to Opening Day, the Cubs are going to focus on the positives.

Aramis Ramirez and Alfonso Soriano worked out extensively at the teams facility in the Dominican Republic this winter. Not only are they in better shape, they say they were energized by being around all those hungry, young players.

Marlon Byrd took up boxing and didnt sprint as much in the offseason in order to save his legs. He feels his body is better prepared for all the day games at Wrigley Field. He vows to stay strong in the outfield and through the second half.

Catcher Geovany Soto hasnt felt this good in years, and has no restrictions after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder last September.

Carlos Zambrano was joking when he said that the psychologist gave him approval to be alone by himself. Either way the Cubs will be reminded of these two words: Im cured.

Zambranos mental health is a major issue in a division where the margins could be very thin.

Baseball Prospectus rates the Cubs as an 80-win team though thats not far behind the Brewers, projected to be in first place at 85-77.

Even without Wainwright, it would be foolish to dismiss the Cardinals, who have had one losing season in the past 11 years. Tony La Russa and Albert Pujols could be free agents at seasons end, but they wont make that a distraction.

The Reds are still the defending champions in the Central. Their core of young players should make them a factor for years to come.

But it wont take an unbelievable season to contend in a division without an overwhelming favorite. An NL Central team hasnt won a postseason series since the Cardinals won it all in 2006. To get in the tournament, the key could just be staying healthy.

We fully expect to be in contention in the National League Central. (I) dont have any doubt we can do that, Cubs general manager Jim Hendry said. We won two divisions in a row and then we were supposed to kind of cruise and St. Louis won easily (in 2009). Then they were supposed to cruise and Cincinnati had a great year. The division (got) better.

PatrickMooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. FollowPatrick on Twitter @CSNMooneyfor up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

Why Cubs are excited for pitching prospect Dylan Cease: He's 'throwing lightning bolts'

Why Cubs are excited for pitching prospect Dylan Cease: He's 'throwing lightning bolts'

Theo Epstein's front office is heading into Year 6 with the Cubs and they're finally talking about a pitcher as one of the organization's most exciting prospects.

That's how senior vice president of scouting and player development Jason McLeod framed his Dylan Cease report to fans at the Cubs Convention at the Sheraton Grand Chicago last weekend.

It was a tongue-in-cheek summation from McLeod after he spent the previous few minutes fawning over Cease, the Cubs' sixth round pick in 2014.

Of course, McLeod and the Cubs can poke fun at the lack of impact pitching the farm system has developed when the homegrown position players like Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber just helped lead the franchise to its first World Series championship in over a century.

Cease, however, has been one of the more intriguing Cubs prospects for years — a right-handed pitcher capable of touching 101 mph on the radar gun.

"This guy is throwing lightning bolts out of his arm," McLeod said. "It's really exciting. But we also understaned he's only in Low-A this year, so he's far away."

The Cubs expect Cease to pitch for Class-A South Bend in 2017 after spending last season pitching for short-season Eugene and the 2015 campaign working in the rookie league in Arizona.

Cease — who just turned 21 in late December — put up some impressive numbers at both stops in the Cubs system, posting a 2.36 ERA and 1.165 WHIP to go along with a whopping 91 strikeouts in 68.2 innings. He also only surrendered one homer and walked more batters (41) than reached via a basehit (39).

Control is obviously an issue for Cease, but the upside is evident.

"He's so far away," McLeod said. "He's gonna go into 2017 as a starter. As with a lot of young guys, it's gonna come down to command and depend on that third pitch and the ability to land them for strikes.

"It's a special arm. He can pitch 95-100 mph with a big power curveball. He's unlike anyone else we have in our system since we've been here in terms of pure stuff."

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One fan compared Cease to Carl Edwards Jr. in terms of their lanky build and high velocity, setting McLeod up for a layup joke.

"Well, Dylan is much stronger physically than CJ is...as is everybody in this room," McLeod said as the ballroom filled with laugher. "Don't tell [CJ] I said that. 

"They have different body types, obviously. Carl is long and lanky and Dylan has probably put on 20 pounds since we drafted him, so he's more like 6-foot-2, 190."

By comparison, Edwards — who goes by "The String Bean Slinger" for his slight build — is listed at 6-foot-3, 170 pounds.

Edwards was drafted in the 48th round in 2011 and spent his whole minor-league career as a starting pitcher until the Cubs converted him to a reliever in 2015.

Cease may eventually go down the same path, but the Cubs are going to give him every opportunity to make it as a starter first.

Cease was one of the top pitchers available in the 2014 draft, but his stock took a hit when he was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery on his pitching elbow while at Milton High School in Georgia.

That scared off a lot of teams — as did the potential signability issues with college offers looming — but the Cubs took a chance and have now watched Cease soar to a top prospect in the system (No. 4 by Baseball America; No. 7 by FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus) despite the cautious approach and lack of innings in professional ball.

"We have to thank Kyle Schwarber, actually, as one of the main reasons we got to sign Dylan Cease," McLeod said. "Because we took Kyle fourth overall, we were able to save money on the selection with him, which gave us the resources to go get Dylan Cease.

"He was a Top 10 pick in the draft — a high school arm that got hurt, fell down to the fifth round and he had a commitment to Vanderbilt, I think it was, and we were able to use the money we saved from Kyle.

"Just another reason to love Kyle Schwarber."

Joe Maddon’s messaging to Cubs before the 2017 campaign

Joe Maddon’s messaging to Cubs before the 2017 campaign

Joe Maddon's Washington itinerary didn't include an hour-long sit-down with Chuck Todd for NBC's "Meet the Press." There would be no rehashing the manager's Game 7 decisions as he stood outside the West Wing, though the second question during the media stakeout involved "last year's team" and how the 2017 Cubs are prepared to defend a World Series title.

"You're already there, huh?" Maddon said to a CNN reporter, minutes after President Barack Obama's final official White House event ended on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. 

But last year's team is gone — preserved now in highlight films and the hearts and minds of generations of Cub fans — even if so many familiar faces will be in Mesa when pitchers and catchers officially report to Arizona on Valentine's Day.

It would be impossible to replicate everything that made the 2016 Cubs so special. Baseball has its own relentless pace and the dynamics are constantly shifting. (Remember when players were passive-aggressively complaining about Maddon's spring-training approach during the final week of a 103-win regular season?) The clubhouse chemistry will inevitably feel different after climbing a Mount Everest of professional sports.

"A mind once stretched has a very difficult time going back to its original form," Maddon said. "We're motivated by it. We want to do it again, of course. There's no question we're trying to do that.

"I'm really leaning on the phrase or the thought of being uncomfortable. I want us to be uncomfortable. I think the moment you get into your comfort zone after having such a significant moment in your life like that, the threat is that you're going to stop growing.

"So I really want us to be uncomfortable. I really want to continue (to see) a pattern of growth and really try to get at them very quickly again."

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Can Jason Heyward recover from one of the worst offensive seasons in the majors last year? Is Willson Contreras ready to be a frontline catcher? Will Javier Baez have to adjust back to being a role player after becoming a playoff superstar? Does Kyle Schwarber in the leadoff spot and Albert Almora Jr. and Jon Jay in a center-field timeshare represent an upgrade over Dexter Fowler?

If healthy, Wade Davis should be a trusted, lower-maintenance closer than Aroldis Chapman, with an advanced approach to pitching and more clubhouse presence. As a staff, the Cubs will have to bounce back from pitching into early November (or not, in the case of the relievers Maddon didn't trust during the playoffs).

As it stands, Jon Lester (33) and John Lackey (38) have already combined to throw almost 5,000 innings in The Show (including the postseason). Jake Arrieta will have to deal with the pressure of playing for his megadeal in his final season before becoming a free agent.

The drop-off after Mike Montgomery — and it's still mostly projected potential with the No. 5 starter — appears to be very steep in an organization that doesn't have any high-end pitching prospects in the upper levels of the farm system.

After painting the bull's-eye on the chest and turning "Embrace The Target" and "Try Not To Suck" into viral T-shirts, a guy who hates meetings is still working on his themes for this campaign.

"I'm really rotating around the thought of authenticity," Maddon said. "I talked about it a lot last year, the fact that I think authenticity has a chance to repeat itself without even trying. It's part of who you are. It's not fabricated. It's real.

"I've talked about our guys a lot the last couple years. I think one of our strongest qualities is the authentic component of our players. So I'm really focusing on that word right now. Again, that's a great word to bring an entire message from (when) you get in front of the group that first day in spring training.

"I kind of just think like authenticity happens. And let's work it from there."

The costumes should be in midseason form with Maddon planning a house party around Tampa's Gasparilla Pirate Festival before driving his RV from Florida to Arizona.

Maddon will turn 63 on Feb. 8 and have to keep evolving, just like his players, who might outgrow some of those gimmicks. But the Cubs are still a reflection of their future Hall of Fame manager.

Amid all the uncertainty in Washington, Maddon wouldn't touch a question about what advice he would give Donald Trump before Friday's inauguration.

"I'm not even going to go anywhere close to that," Maddon said. "I will say this: I have a lot of respect of the office.

"At the end of the day, just have a lot of respect for the office, regardless of your political persuasion. My point would be to encourage people to really respect the office and let's see what we get done here over the next four years."