In 'rollercoaster' Cubs year, Russell gets first win

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In 'rollercoaster' Cubs year, Russell gets first win

Friday, Sept. 3, 2010
Updated 6:45 PM

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

James Russell made the team out of spring training as a 24-year-old rookie. Except for the 18-day stretch he spent at Triple-A Iowa in June, he has been there for almost all of the weirdness surrounding this Cubs season.

But it wasnt until the third day of September that he earned his first major-league victory. His father Jeff won 56 games, lost 73 and saved 186 for five different teams during his 14-year career. There was a text message waiting for the son on Friday afternoon, saying congratulations and call home.

Blake DeWitt secured the 7-6 victory over the New York Mets with a three-run homer he launched into Wrigley Fields right-field bleachers. Afterward the 6-foot-4-inch Russell, an easy-going type who once pitched at the University of Texas, had changed into shorts and a T-shirt and stood in front of his locker.

I guess I owe Blake a beer or two, he said.

Russell recently got a haircut, shaved his beard and joked that he looked like he was 14 years old. Outside of Starlin Castro, the Cubs can drink legally, but the average age of their roster is 28 years and 72 days, making them the eighth-youngest group in the majors.

Thats why its crucial that their next manager be able to guide players who are on a steep learning curve. A 58-77 team overall is now 7-3 since Mike Quade took over for Lou Piniella. Beyond wins and losses, Quade hopes there will be a full accounting of his 37 games in charge.

The guys are playing hard, Cubs general manager Jim Hendry said. Mikes done a real nice job of getting everybody involved and giving people chances and putting some people in spots that wed like them to be in, so we can see what we got by the end of the year.

Its hard to tell what the Cubs have in Randy Wells, who finished a strong rookie season at 12-10 with a 3.05 ERA last year. Just check out his splits from July (2-2, 1.83) and August (1-4, 5.91). He began September by giving in to a media label he hates.

You put yourself in the mindset coming into spring training that this sophomore jinx or whatever you guys call it isnt real, Wells said. You can work through it. But the truth of the matter (is) the biggest part of the sophomore jinx is mental. Its learning how to work through the bad things, working through the struggles.

Wells gave up three runs in the first before putting together four scoreless innings. Quade came out to the mound to visit him with two outs in the sixth and left him in the game, trying to buy time for his bullpen, and knowing that Carlos Beltran and Jose Reyes were on the Mets bench.

Lucas Duda slapped an RBI double into the right-field corner for his first major-league hit to tie the game 4-4. Wells was charged with four runs on eight hits in 5 23 innings.

Its not a matter of ability. Its not a matter of stuff, Wells said. Its just a matter of knowing how to deal with this league. The reports get better. Guys have seen you.

You got to be on top of your game every time. Theres no, Ok, Im not sharp, but Im hoping guys hit balls right at people.

Wells isnt going through this alone, and he knows that he will be challenged for a job in 2011. Russell bailed him out by getting Beltran to fly out to end the sixth, minutes before DeWitt changed the game with one swing.

In front of 31,424 fans, Russell (1-1, 4.50) faced only one batter and threw seven pitches, but that was enough. Hes shown that he could be a useful bullpen piece in the future and was finally rewarded with a win. When youre young and play for the Cubs, theres no shortage of places to celebrate.

Its been quite a rollercoaster ride, but I wouldnt trade it for anything in the world, Russell said. Thats one thing I pride myself on not getting too up or too down. The minute you get really high in this game, you get a piece of humble pie. And next thing you know youre down in Triple-A.

Patrick Mooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. Follow Patrick on Twitter @CSNMooney for 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."