What's left to find out in this Cubs season?

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What's left to find out in this Cubs season?

Monday, Sept. 12, 2011
Posted: 9:58 p.m. Updated: 10:14 p.m.

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com Cubs Insider Follow @CSNMooney
CINCINNATI The flood-the-zone Bears coverage has already begun, which probably means you have already stopped paying close attention as time runs out on this Cubs season.

There are now 15 games left after Mondays 12-8 win over the Reds. Then the real action will start.

When Tom Ricketts announced Jim Hendrys firing on Aug. 19 after the two kept it a secret for almost an entire month the chairman made it clear that the next general manager would come from outside the organization.

That person would be from a winning culture, committed to player development and fluent in statistical analysis. So Ricketts cant make direct contact until Sept. 29 at the earliest and may have to wait until the World Series winner is crowned.

Well just play the cards were dealt, Ricketts said at last months press conference.

So the Cubs could wait to see how the power struggle plays out in the American League East between Bostons Theo Epstein, Tampa Bays Andrew Friedman and New Yorks Brian Cashman. They could try to go Hollywood with Billy Beane the architect of Oaklands Moneyball organization or identify the next executive on the rise.

It did not go unnoticed in the clubhouse that Ricketts strongly endorsed several people in the front office, while saying the decision on manager Mike Quade and his coaching staff would be up to the next general manager.

Until then, heres what the Cubs will be hoping to get out of the next two-plus weeks:

Perception vs. reality

Where the media used to fixate on Tyler Colvin, reporters now question Quade when Bryan LaHair isnt in the lineup.

The Pacific Coast League MVP led all minor-league hitters with 38 homers and has hit safely in all seven games played since his call-up. That 1.515 OPS is weighed against LaHairs age (29 next season) and pedigree (39th-round pick).

We still have a lot of baseball to play, Quade said. Im not inclined to go nuts after watching a guy for four or five games. But the one thing Ive been completely impressed with (is his) at-bats, his takes, his pitch counts that hes running up. Hes doing a lot of good stuff. Well see if it continues.

The future

Heading into this season, the Cubs built their narrative around Colvin and Andrew Cashner, two homegrown players who were supposed to make the leap.

The entire logic behind the Kosuke Fukudome trade was to get the chance to see Colvin play every day. Colvin entered Monday hitting .198 with four homers and 12 RBI in 35 games since the deadline deal. Like LaHair, Colvin runs into Quades loyalty to veteran players, his tendency to play matchups and the natural desire to pad your record.

Its not easy to see someone just giving up on Colvins left-handed pop, but the next administration might not be as invested. It's on Colvin to put up some more numbers this month.

The Cubs will be watching closely any time Cashner steps onto the mound and tests the rotator cuff that derailed his season. He is the X-factor in their 2012 rotation, and perhaps their entire offseason plan.

The superstar

Starlin Castro isnt at that level yet, but hes closer than anyone could have predicted a little more than two years ago, when he was playing at Class-A Daytona.
Starlin Castro will likely reach 200 hits this season and is the Cubs' superstar of the future, but will Mike Quade be his manager much longer? (US PRESSWIRE)
On Monday night Castro returned to Great American Ball Park, where he finished with six RBI in his major-league debut last May. He sliced an RBI double into the right-field corner. He hammered another ball 425 feet to center for a two-run homer, his ninth of the year. It wont be long before the Cubs will be projecting him to hit 20-25 home runs a year.

I know that I have this kind of power, Castro said.

Castro needs only 10 more hits to reach 200, and the Cubs are rooting for him to do it at Wrigley Field. As Alfonso Soriano said: I hope that he can stay hot to finish the road trip with like six or seven more hits and get 200 at home.

Spoilers

History may have had an alternate ending if the Cubs hadnt won three of four games in San Diego during the final week of last season. The Giants snuck into the playoffs and ultimately celebrated their first World Series title since moving to San Francisco.

The remaining schedule is light on contenders, and the races are largely decided across baseball. The Brewers who come to Wrigley Field for a three-game series next week began Monday with a magic number of 10. Maybe theyll be spraying champagne in the cramped visiting clubhouse.

The Cardinals woke up that morning with flickering hopes of a wild card, 4.5 games behind the Braves. Perhaps the Cubs could put those out Sept. 23-25 in St. Louis and play spoilers again.

Way back at the beginning of spring training, club officials promised that the Cubs would draw three-million fans at Wrigley Field. With six home dates left, and attendance at 2,804,409, theyre on target to surpass that mark.

What will that mean for next years major-league payroll?

Ricketts has said that he will have no clue what that dollar amount will be until his staff does a full accounting at seasons end and the next general manager decides how to allocate those resources.

That means the Cubs will continue to be in a holding pattern on the big questions. Will an established executive take this job? Pursue Prince Fielder? Re-sign Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena?

Until then, there are games that have to be played.

You want to finish strong, catcher Koyie Hill said. No matter what youre doing, you dont want to drag across the finish line.

Patrick Mooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. Follow Patrick on Twitter @CSNMooney for up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

Jon Lester thinks Cubs have a special player in Willson Contreras: ‘It’s about time we got an offensive catcher’

Jon Lester thinks Cubs have a special player in Willson Contreras: ‘It’s about time we got an offensive catcher’

MESA, Ariz. – Jon Lester couldn't resist when a reporter mentioned the two home runs Willson Contreras launched off Danny Salazar, an All-Star talent who might have changed last year's World Series if he had been at full strength.

"It's about time we got an offensive catcher," Lester said.

Zing! Lester had already seen David Ross on "Dancing with the Stars" by the time he finished up against the Cleveland Indians and met with reporters on Monday night at Goodyear Ballpark. While Lester knew Grandpa Rossy would appreciate that one-liner, there is also some truth behind it.

Yes, Ross became the security blanket for a $155 million pitcher, helped push and encourage young players like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant and got carried off the field after delivering his own Game 7 homer. But whatever Contreras may lack now in game-calling experience and pitcher psychology, he can make up for it with his rocket arm, smooth swing and willingness to learn.

A camp that began with questions about how Lester would work with Contreras ended with a sincere endorsement.

"Willie's obviously very special, to be serious about it," Lester said. "He's definitely going to add a presence to that lineup as far as protecting ‘Rizz' and ‘KB' to where they're not going to be able to just pitch around those guys. We're going to have some other guys to do some damage in the middle to the bottom of that order.

"He's a special kid, just like anybody else on this team. He's (24), so he'll only get better as time goes on and (he gets) the at-bats and the innings and all that stuff. So I'm excited to see him for a full season and how well he can do back there."

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That's another reason why the defending World Series champs might actually look better on paper than the unforgettable 2016 Cubs. Ross did a "Dancing with the Stars" routine based off Young MC's "Bust a Move," a song released in 1989, or years before Bryant, Contreras, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell, Javier Baez and Albert Almora Jr. were born.

Before the Cubs packed up and left Arizona, Ross made a promotional appearance in Mesa this week and caught up with some old friends like John Lackey.

"We got rid of Rossy," Lackey told reporters as the Cubs finished their Cactus League schedule with Wednesday's 15-11 win over the Oakland A's at Sloan Park. "He stinks. And we should be better. Actually, I was just inside talking to Rossy and he said that, so that's from him."

On paper, have Cubs put together a better roster than last year's World Series team?

On paper, have Cubs put together a better roster than last year's World Series team?

MESA, Ariz. – One minute into the media scrum outside the West Wing, a Washington reporter asked Theo Epstein if this season would be considered a disappointment if the Cubs don't win the World Series.

"Oof, I hadn't thought too much about 2017 yet today," Epstein said after President Barack Obama's final official White House event. "But, yeah, I mean, that's our goal. I think the organization has come such a long way and we have this talented young core. We're clearly in a very competitive phase where I think if we do our jobs, we could be as good, if not better, than any team in baseball.

"So if you're going to compete, you set your sights for the world championship. It doesn't always work out that way. But we see it as our jobs to do everything we can to be back at the White House next year."

Whether or not Epstein would actually go through with a Donald Trump photo op is a different story. But with the Cubs signaling their Opening Night roster – keeping outfielder Matt Szczur and infielder Tommy La Stella while lefty reliever Brian Duensing begins the season on the disabled list – you could make the case that the team breaking camp on Wednesday looks better on paper than last year's World Series winner.

"This is a crazy talented group," All-Star closer Wade Davis said. "There's 10 or 12 players on this team that are some of the best players in baseball."

That doesn't mean the Cubs will develop the same chemistry or sense of purpose, but this team is completely used to the national spotlight, hanging out with celebrity fans and being followed around like rock stars on the road. 

Epstein compared this camp in Arizona with what the Boston Red Sox faced after ending the 86-year drought. 

"I will never forget in '05 spring training, we had 5,000 people the first day, 3,000 fans every day," Epstein said. "I was expecting it to be as nuts. But it's been refreshingly normal, reflecting the personality of our players, taking everything in stride."   

This doesn't mean the Cubs will stay as healthy as they did last year, when the projected rotation made 152 starts combined. But four-fifths of that group returns with Brett Anderson – given his natural ability, pitching IQ and extensive medical file – appearing to have a higher ceiling and lower floor than Jason Hammel.

As Anderson said: "It's not too often that you have a salty veteran with multiple rings (John Lackey) in front of you and a guy (Kyle Hendricks) that led the league in ERA behind you."

The 2016 Cubs won 103 games and scored 800-plus runs: without Kyle Schwarber contributing a single hit during the regular season; and with Jason Heyward finishing with a .631 OPS (or 103 points below the league average).

Manager Joe Maddon said Geek Department projections have this lineup generating even more offense with Schwarber as the new leadoff guy (even with a brace on his left leg), continued growth from young players like Addison Russell and Willson Contreras and Heyward not being one of the worst hitters in the majors.

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The Cubs are also counting on a full season from Davis, instead of a half-season rental like Aroldis Chapman. Where last year's Opening Night bullpen featured three guys who would get DFA'd or traded by midseason (Neil Ramirez, Clayton Richard, Adam Warren), this version features three guys who've already notched the final out in a World Series (Davis, Koji Uehara, Mike Montgomery).

"All the additions are wonderful complements to what this team was already," Schwarber said. "Upgrades. It's going to be really cool to see how it all plays out this season with more guys getting another year of experience under their belt."

Ian Happ raising his profile and hitting around .400 in the Cactus League should help his trade value if the Cubs need to deal for pitching at the trade deadline. The combination of Albert Almora Jr. and Jon Jay in center field should be an improvement over Dexter Fowler for a team that led the majors in defensive efficiency last year.

As someone with fresh eyes – and the perspective from being on Los Angeles Dodgers teams that won back-to-back National League West titles – Anderson hasn't see any signs of complacency.

"Not at all," Anderson said. "The young guys are still hungry. And the handful of guys that weren't here last year makes you that much more hungry and itchy to get back where they were last year.

"It's a really good mix – if not a perfect mix – of young guys, veteran guys and a couple fresh faces that are eager to get back to what these guys accomplished last year."