Chicago Cubs

Theo sees changes coming to Wrigley (or bust)

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Theo sees changes coming to Wrigley (or bust)

The Cubs lost 101 games last season and it has been 104 years and counting since their last World Series title. But if you are willing to overlook that and suspend your disbelief, you can actually see the pieces forming for a mega-team.

This is the time to do it, with temperatures around the freezing point, pitchers and catchers less than a month away from reporting to Arizona and the fanfest downtown this weekend. Get ready to hear all about the Baltimore Orioles and Oakland As and the Cubs wondering: Why not us?

The Cubs will point to the outliers, how the Orioles flipped their record from the year before and went 93-69, how the As won 20 more games and the American League West. But the Cubs are really gearing up for 2015, when they think they can emerge as no-doubt-about-it contenders and stay at that level.

The forces are lining up that way, from the monster television deals on the horizon, to the prime years with guys like Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro to the ETA for some prospects in Chicago this week, getting a taste of life in the big city as part of the rookie development program.

And the juice that will come with a renovated Wrigley Field. Team president Theo Epstein was coy on Wednesday when asked for an update on those plans.

Um, I think there will be some sharing of information on that later this week, so I dont want to be a spoiler, Epstein said. Well see what happens this weekend.

The Cubs had stopped at a Marine Corps base on the Northwest Side to serve lunch as part of their winter caravan, which leads up to their convention at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers. Its unclear how this idea would be financed, but an official press release highlighted a Renew Wrigley Field session on Saturday with the teams business executives, who like to make news during that space.

There will be a lot of talk about the future, where Javier Baez might fit, whether or not Brett Jackson can become a core player and how much longer fans will have to wait to see Albert Almora and Jorge Soler.

But Epstein believes this is a team that can compete right away.

Absolutely, otherwise theres no reason to show up or build a team, Epstein said. Its postseason or bust every year. Thats what our goal is. Now that said, were obviously building for something greater, which is a time when we can expect to be in the postseason every year.

So behind the scenes, regardless of the results, theres progress being made. But as far as 2013, you can define it as a success or failure by whether we make the postseason and, ultimately, whether we win the World Series.

There are stories every year about teams that dont necessarily look like the favorites on paper that find their way playing meaningful games in September and playing into October and playing deep into October.

What else is he supposed to say?

Well, Epstein thinks Matt Garza and Scott Baker should be ready for an Opening Day rotation that will include Jeff Samardzija and Edwin Jackson.

Dale Sveum sees Rizzo and Castro taking huge leaps forward, and a deeper bullpen with Carlos Marmol as closer and Kyuji Fujikawa setting up in the eighth inning. The manager welcomes greater expectations in Year 2.

The one thing you hate doing is saying: You know, .500 will be good. Because its not good, Sveum said. Its not 101 losses, but .500 isnt getting you to the playoffs.

Nothings acceptable except playing in the playoffs. The thing that you cant fall victim to is (saying): Yeah, we are obviously in a transition in the organization. We are trying to get it healthy. Dont fall into the category that we cant win right now. Baseballs a funny thing.

But this front office isnt hoping for a one-year fluke. Epstein insisted that signing Jackson to a four-year, 52 million deal was consistent with his philosophy. It made sense given Jacksons age (29) and durability (180-plus innings the past five seasons) combined with the organizations financial flexibility and lack of impact pitchers.

As Epstein said: I dont think we ever wanted to get into a situation where we had to wake up one day and say: Oh, now were going to be competitive. We have to go sign Players X, Y and Z. Thats not a good position to be in, so adding the right piece as you go along that fits the present and the future is something that well certainly be open to.

But the Cubs are still in a place where theyre willing to see if Ian Stewart and Nate Schierholtz can become everyday players. They arent quite ready to sacrifice a draft pick and part of their signing-bonus pool to sign a free agent.

And if it doesnt work out in 2013, well, Cubs fans are already used to hearing this message: Wait until next year.

What happened between John Lackey and Anthony Rizzo in Cubs dugout? 'None of your business'

What happened between John Lackey and Anthony Rizzo in Cubs dugout? 'None of your business'

Nothing to see here, the Cubs insisted after a TV camera caught John Lackey and Anthony Rizzo arguing in the Wrigley Field dugout on Tuesday afternoon, a scrap overshadowed by Kris Bryant’s ejection and the White Sox getting eye-for-an-eye retribution.

It still became the pregame story on the South Side, even if it somehow didn’t immediately go viral on Twitter, or really register on the Cubs-Sox Richter scale that shook for Carlos Zambrano and Ozzie Guillen, Lou Piniella vs. Steve Stone and Michael Barrett vs. A.J. Pierzynski.

So what happened?

“None of your business,” Lackey said Wednesday with a big smile and the chuckle that punctuates most of his answers to the media. “It’s in that dugout.”

Minutes later, on the other side of the visiting clubhouse at Guaranteed Rate Field, Rizzo joked: “It was almost kind of like Zambrano and Derrek Lee.”

This wouldn’t have even come up during the anger-management sessions the Cubs forced Zambrano to attend after that incident here in 2010. Big Z showed up for spring training the next year and pronounced: “I’m cured. I got approval from the psychologist that I can be by myself.”

“It wasn’t a big deal at all,” Lackey said. “Like I said, none of your business.”

Frustrated by a potential double-play ball that found a hole with Tim Anderson running and shortstop Addison Russell covering second base, Lackey bumped into Rizzo in the dugout after a second inning that also saw White Sox pitcher Carlos Rodon hit a two-run double. Rizzo’s eyes widened and the franchise first baseman gestured toward the field with both of his hands. A muttering Lackey turned his back and started to walk away from Rizzo.

“Like I said, none of your business,” Lackey said. “Just two men talking.”

The Cubs are used to Lackey Being Lackey, which means glaring at hitters, jawing with umpires and sometimes showing up teammates for perceived lapses on the field (even when last year’s 103-win team played defense at a historic level).

“We won the game,” said Lackey, who also became the first Cub to hit four batters in a game since Moe Drabowsky in 1957. “Let’s move on. You guys are trying to stir s--- up.”

Everything all right with you and Lackey?

“Yeah, as far as I know,” Rizzo said. “We’re just talking, making sure he knows we’re going to give him some more runs, not to worry about it. That’s really it. It’s pretty funny I have to talk about this the next day.”

Either way, this probably won’t end well for Lackey, who is 38 and has a 4.97 ERA in the final season of a two-year, $32 million contract. But clashing with Rizzo during a 96-loss season contributed to manager Dale Sveum getting fired in 2013. And burying Miguel Montero during Rizzo’s WMVP-AM 1000 gig foreshadowed the veteran catcher getting DFA’d last month.

“I think it’s just a lot of uneducated speculation, to be honest, about our team,” Rizzo said.

Well, educate us then, a reporter said.

“I don’t need to educate you guys on in-house matters,” Rizzo said. “Lackey’s one of my probably best friends on this team. That’s the good part about this team. When you have friends, you can talk to them, and it’s nothing more than just friends talking to friends.”

Manager Joe Maddon – who has known Lackey since he was a rookie on the 2002 Anaheim Angels team that won a World Series – sounded like a press secretary during the pregame briefing.

“Not at all (unusual),” Maddon said. “I don’t know if I’ve seen it before. The thing is, I’ve heard about this and it’s really kind of funny. Really innocuous to the point where I had no idea.

“First of all, there’s two things: There’s really nothing to report. Second of all, if there is a little bit of that that ever occurs, there’s nothing wrong with it. Nothing wrong with guys calling BS on somebody else in the moment. But that’s not what happened yesterday.”

The truth is we will miss Lackey when he goes home to Texas and disappears. This is a great cartoon villain/media foil/old-school curmudgeon with three World Series rings. The Cubs-Sox rivalry needs more of those characters.  

“He’s a competitor,” Rizzo said. “It’s really, really good for us. He does bring a lot of intensity every single start, and he expects the best out of everyone. That’s good for a team like ours with young guys. Five, six, seven years from now, they’re going to be talking about how Lackey used to play, and what he used to do to the younger guys coming up, and how he was locked in for every one of his starts.”

Cubs can live with Javy Baez being out of control

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AP

Cubs can live with Javy Baez being out of control

Even after a five-strikeout game, the Cubs have no intentions of toning down the Javy Baez roller coaster.

It's just the latest chapter in the Javy being Javy story.

On Tuesday, Baez became the first Cubs player to whiff five times in a game since Ted Lilly in 2008 and first position player to do so since Geovany Soto (also in '08):

After the game, Joe Maddon just laughed, compared Baez to golfer John Daly again and said, "Javy must've tied some sort of record today."

The Cubs know this is part of the package with Baez.

Even with that albatross of a game, Baez's strikeout percentage of 27.8 is still slightly below his career average (29.3 percent). That number is bloated a bit since Baez struck out 41.5 percent of the time during his rookie season in 2014.

Baez is striking out more in 2017 than he did last year (24 percent), but is also walking more (5 percent compared to 3.3 percent in 2016).

When Maddon was filling out Wednesday's lineup before Tuesday's game, he had already penciled in a day off for Baez, even before the five-strikeout game made it apparent a day of mental and physical rest was needed for the 24-year-old.

"He was just swinging a bit too hard," Maddon said. "...Most of the time, for me, when a guy comes out of his zone a lot, it's because he's a little bit mentally fatigued. So let's get him off his feet."

Maddon said before the game he wouldn't shy away from using Baez in Wednesday's contest if the need arose. The Cubs manager also was not worried about the five-strikeout game getting the enigmatic young infielder down.

"He's fine," Maddon said. "He's done that a lot in his career. So he knows how to bounce back. It's not gonna impact him. I watch him run out to defense after the strikeouts, and he's running out there. I love that about him. He's ready to play.

"A lot of guys have that moment, historically, but the difference with Javy — two things — he'll play his defense and he'll bounce back.

"He's his own toughest critic, also. I have a lot of faith in him, I have a lot of faith in hitting coaches. He'll be fine. I really am not concerned. ... He's young, he's done it before, he'll do it again. I promise you — that's gonna happen again. In the mean time, just continue to support him."

Including Tuesday and Baez's recent 1-for-11 stretch, he's still hitting .321 with an .863 OPS in July and is on pace for 20 homers, 28 doubles and 64 RBI in addition to his usual highlight reel of defensive plays.

Baez will always come with ups and downs and the Cubs know that. They aren't trying to coach that out of him.

They'll take the five strikeout games along with the hot stretch, like when he hit .415 with seven extra-base hits in a 13-game stretch from July 2-21.

After all, this is the guy who was named co-NLCS MVP last fall.

"Javy continues to show a lot of improvement," Maddon said. "In spite of the John Daly hack on occasion, you look at his two-strike numbers, they're outstanding. [Baez is hitting .215 with a .568 OPS with two strikes, but does have five homers and 22 RBI.]

"So it's like, you gotta be careful what you wish for. I've already talked to [Cubs hitting coach] Johnny Mallee about this. You wanna tone somebody down, but then if you do, does this good thing go away? You wanna morph into it more slowly here as he gradually understands and creates a different method as he gts into the latter part of counts, runner on third base, just try to score one, not two or three."

In 15 at-bats with a runner on third and less than two outs, Baez has 11 RBI, but he's also struck out six times.

Maddon and the Cubs coaching staff are working on a lot of the same things with both Baez and 23-year-old shortstop Addison Russell, who has also had an up-and-down offensive season.

"That takes time," Maddon said. "I know that sounds crazy, but it does. And so, be careful what you wish for, be careful how you approach a young player. 'Cause you could absolutely — I've talked about not coaching instinctiveness out of a player.

"Javy's got his own way. I think you're eventually going to see him settle into it, but yes, they're being developed. They both have to adjust to game situations.

"Next year, you're gonna see an improvement. Two years from now, you're gonna see a pretty nice finished product."