Chicago Cubs

Young Cubs outfielders making an impression

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Young Cubs outfielders making an impression

By Jason P. Skoda
CSNChicago.com contributor

MESA, Ariz. The Cubs outfield is for the over 30 crowd.

Alfonso Soriano is 36, David DeJesus is 32 and Marlon Byrd is 35. The fourth outfielder is slated be Reed Johnson and he is 35.

All have produced in the past, but have shown signs of wear and tear in recent years.
Enter Brett Jackson, 23, Matt Szczur, 22 and even Tony Campana, 25.

Any slip ups, injuries or maybe even a shakeup of the clubhouse after a bad couple of weeks and the youngsters just might be ready to take over.

While Campana, who had two hits on Sunday in a 7-5 10-inning loss to the White Sox at HoHoKam Stadium, made his major-league debut last season, Jackson, as everyone knows, is the next big thing at Wrigley Field.

When you see him in person, its been pretty impressive, every part of his game, Cubs manager Dale Sveum said earlier this week. He comes to play every game. He comes to kick the other teams butt. Theres no doubt about it. A very aggressive, confident kid whos probably going to end up playing here a long time.

The feeling is the current contingent of outfielders are far from done otherwise there would be more of a push to keep Jackson on the roster on Opening Day.

Byrd has lost a ton of weight and is gliding better in the outfield, DeJesus just signed a two-year, 10-million deal this offseason and Soriano has lessened his leg kick and seemingly found a groove this spring at the plate.

"The other day, Brett Jackson was hitting a ball down the line and pushing into second," Byrd told the Chicago Tribune. "The next time I get up, I'm like, 'All right, he hit it down the line. I'm doing the same thing.' These kids can play, and that's the exciting thing."
Sveum, of course, feels that way after taking over the top spot in the Cubs dugout this season with the expectation of being around long enough to benefit from the young talent down the line.

I dont see why he wouldnt be ready, he said of Jackson. Maybe just develop the last part of his game as a little bit better two-strike hitter and not putting himself in some of those counts with swinging and missing. As far as the ability or anything, I dont see what else has to happen.

Szczur, who will start the season at Double-A Tennessee after spending 2011 in Single-A Peoria and Daytona, is still getting at-bats because of a strong of split-squad games despite getting sent down.

Its a huge honor to still be here, Szczur said after going 0-for-3 on Sunday. When I am up here, getting one at-bat here or one at-bat there its hard but it is still a chance to show them something.

Bench coach Jamie Quirk said the extra look is vital for a young player like Szczur.
Its great for the young guys to get four or five at-bats, said Quirk, who managed in Arizona while Sveum was in Las Vegas. Its mental toughness. They get to keep playing and show their skills. Anytime they can show their skills it is a plus.

Szczur said the idea of playing with Jackson, who is hitting .318 with a home run and five RBIs in 22 at-bats, in the confines of Wrigley someday has crossed his mind, but he is more focused on the present day.

We just go out there and play, said Szczur, who is hitting .158 in 19 spring at-bats. It is exciting to see us out there together. Were having fun. I have to worry about the day-by-day for now but I am excited to see what happens.

Notes: The Cubs will play a B game Monday against the Indians at Goodyear with right-hander Randy Wells getting the start. Right-hander Chris Volstad had another solid outing, giving up one earned (his first of the spring), in four innings against Texas in Las Vegas. He allowed four hits and struck out three. The crowd of 12,469 was the second largest of the spring for the Cubs after getting 13,245 on Friday.

Cubs vs. Rays: Joe Maddon imagines what Chris Archer could do in a big market

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USA TODAY

Cubs vs. Rays: Joe Maddon imagines what Chris Archer could do in a big market

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Picture Chris Archer performing with Wrigley Field as the backdrop – the one Joe Maddon compared to a computer-generated scene from “Gladiator” – instead of a dumpy building off Interstate 275.      

Archer could see, feel and hear the Cubs fans who took over Tropicana Field on Tuesday night, a crowd of 25,046 saluting Maddon and watching the defending World Series champs play a sharp all-around game in a 2-1 win over a Tampa Bay Rays team that has a less than 1 percent chance of making the playoffs now.  

“It’s weird,” Archer said after the tough-luck loss, comparing the scene to last week’s games relocated to New York in the wake of Hurricane Irma. “I didn’t know we had that many people from Chicago, Illinois, Midwest area, in Tampa, but I guess we do. It was just weird for their players to come out and get announced and get so much love. It was strange.

“It felt like we were in Citi Field playing the Yankees, honestly. I’m not being critical. It was just crazy how much royal blue there was out there. When Willson Contreras went out there to warm up the pitcher, he had a standing O.

“I’ve been here for however long – and seen some really good players come – and I’ve never seen anybody get as much love (as they did when) they ran out of the dugout to warm up.

“It was just kind of crazy.”  

Archer pitched in the Before Theo farm system, at a time when the Cubs were scrambling to try to pry their window to contend back open after winning back-to-back division titles in 2007 and 2008. Maddon became the beneficiary when the Cubs packaged Archer – who had 13 Double-A starts on his resume at that point – in the blockbuster Matt Garza trade in January 2011.

Archer, who worked last year’s World Series as an ESPN analyst, has pitched in only two playoff games, making two relief appearances out of Maddon’s bullpen when the Boston Red Sox handled the Rays during a 2013 first-round series.   

Archer lost 19 games last season while putting up a 4.02 ERA and 200-plus innings. He earned his second All-Star selection this year and will turn 29 later this month. Wonder what the good-but-not-great numbers in 2017 – 9-11, 4.02 ERA, 32 starts, 241 strikeouts – would look like on a contender.       

“He is among the elite pitchers, there’s no question about that,” Maddon said. “I don’t watch him enough to know when he goes into these bad moments what exactly is going on. (And) I don’t even know how much certain years luck plays into it or not.

“But the thing about him in a big-city market that would intrigue me is him. He’s really bright. And he’s very socially engaged. For him to be in more of an urban kind of a setting with a greater audience, he could make quite an impact.”

Archer is locked into a team-friendly contract that will pay him roughly $14 million in 2018 and 2019 combined, plus the Rays hold bargain club options for 2020 ($9 million) and 2021 ($11 million). Meaning it would take an unbelievable offer just to get Tampa Bay’s attention.

Archer is also a face of the franchise, a two-time Roberto Clemente Award nominee who visits young men and women in the Pinellas County Juvenile Detention Center and stays involved with Major League Baseball’s RBI Program (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities).

“Beyond being a pitcher who is very, very good, I would be curious if he was in a larger situation,” said Maddon, who has an offseason home and a restaurant in Tampa and sat with Archer during a Buccaneers game last season. “Just because socially, in a community, he’s already done it here. But you put him in a large city with more of an urban situation – he could really be impactful in that city. He’s really engaging when he speaks. He’s very bright. He’s really well-thought-out.”

Archer has come a long way from the Mark DeRosa salary-dump trade with the Cleveland Indians on New Year’s Eve 2008. Stan Zielinski, the beloved scout who died in January, lobbied then-general manager Jim Hendry, insisting the Cubs shouldn’t do the deal without Archer, a Class-A pitcher who went 4-8 with a 4.29 ERA that season.

While closing the Garza deal, the Rays actually pushed for another pitching prospect, but the Cubs wanted to hold onto Trey McNutt. Other players bundled in that trade became useful major-league pieces (Brandon Guyer, Robinson Chirinos, Sam Fuld), but the headliner was supposed to be Hak-Ju Lee, a South Korean shortstop already blocked by Starlin Castro who never made it to the big leagues.    

“There was a lot of good players that came the Rays’ way at that time,” Maddon said. “I didn’t know what to expect (from Archer). I saw him in camp. Great arm. Didn’t really have a good feel for command at that time.

“But when you talked to the kid, you couldn’t help but really like him a lot. He and I connected on more of an intellectual level regarding books and stuff, because he’s really well-read. He’s a lot smarter than I’ll ever be. I’ve always enjoyed my conversations with him. And then all of a sudden, he started finding the plate. And that slider’s electric.”

Maddon has already seen what the Cubs brand and Chicago platform can do for his baseball legacy, bank account and off-the-field interests.

Do you want Archer back?

“I didn’t say that,” Maddon said. “That’s something I cannot (say).”

Joe Maddon finally sees Cubs playing with the right 'mental energy'

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USA TODAY

Joe Maddon finally sees Cubs playing with the right 'mental energy'

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Joe Maddon looked back on the perfect baseball storm that hit the Tampa Bay Rays and played all the greatest hits for local reporters, waxing poetic about the banners hanging inside Tropicana Field, stumping for a new stadium on the other side of the Gandy Bridge, telling Don Zimmer stories, namedropping Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston and riffing on sabermetrics and information buckets.

But the moment of clarity came in the middle of a media session that lasted 20-plus minutes, Maddon sitting up on stage in what felt like the locker room at an old CYO gym: “We only got really good because the players got really good.”

There’s no doubt the Cubs have the talent to go along with all the other big-market advantages the Rays could only dream about as the have-nots in the American League East. Now it looks like the defending champs have finally got rid of the World Series hangover, playing with the urgency and pitch-to-pitch focus that had been lacking at times and will be needed again in October.    

Maddon essentially admitted it after Tuesday’s 2-1 victory, watching his team beat Chris Archer and work together on a one-hitter that extended the winning streak to seven games and kept the Milwaukee Brewers 3.5 games back in the National League Central.

“You’re really seeing them try to execute in moments,” Maddon said. “When they come back and they don’t get it done, it’s not like they’re angry. But you can just see they’re disappointed in themselves.

“Their mental energy is probably at an all-season-high right now.”

Six days after the Cubs moved him to the bullpen, lefty swingman Mike Montgomery took a no-hitter into the sixth inning, when Tampa Bay’s No. 9 hitter (Brad Miller) drove a ball over the center-field wall. Maddon then went to the relievers he will trust in October – Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Wade Davis – with the All-Star closer striking out the side in the ninth inning and remaining perfect in save opportunities (32-for-32) as a Cub.       

“We want to go out there and prove every day that we’re the best team in baseball,” said Kyle Schwarber, the designated hitter who launched Archer’s 96-mph fastball into the right-center field seats for his 28th home run in the second inning. “The way our guys are just going out there and competing, it’s really good to see, especially this time of year. It’s getting to crunch time, and we just got to keep this same pace that we’re going at.

“Don’t worry about things around us. Just keep our heads down, keep worrying about the game and go from there.”     

In what’s been a season-long victory lap, Maddon couldn’t help looking back when the sound system started playing The Beach Boys and “Good Vibrations” echoed throughout the domed stadium, a tribute running on the video board and a crowd of 25,046 giving him a standing ovation.

“It was cool,” Maddon said. “I forgot about the bird, the cockatoo, I can’t remember the name. Really a cool bird. I told (my wife) Jaye I wanted one of those for a while. But then again, she gets stuck taking care of them.

“I was just thinking about all the things we did. You forget sometimes that snake. I think her name was Francine, like a 19-year-old, 20-footer. And then the penguin on my chair. You forget all the goofy stuff you did. But you can see how much fun everybody had.

“I appreciated it. They showed all my pertinent highlights. There’s none actually as a player. It’s primarily as a zookeeper.”

But within the last week, you can see the Cubs getting more serious, concentrating on their at-bats and nailing their pitches. There is internal competition for roster spots and playing time in the postseason, when Maddon becomes ruthless and doesn’t care at all about making friends. This just might be another perfect storm.

Montgomery – who notched the final out in the 10th inning of last year’s World Series Game 7 – put it this way: “I feel ready for anything after how this year’s gone.”