What Miguel Montero’s brutal honesty meant for Cubs and Kyle Hendricks

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AP

What Miguel Montero’s brutal honesty meant for Cubs and Kyle Hendricks

Miguel Montero picked the worst possible time to second-guess the way Joe Maddon handled the bullpen during the World Series and communicated with his players — a radio interview on the same day (!!!) as the championship parade through the streets of Chicago and a Grant Park rally that may or may not have been one of the largest gatherings in human history.

The cameras also caught Montero popping off at a time when the Cubs were hovering around .500 and running out of ideas to spark the defending champs. So team president Theo Epstein didn’t hesitate to DFA Montero in late June when the veteran catcher ripped Jake Arrieta for letting the Washington Nationals run wild on the bases. Eating almost $7 million in salary and shipping Montero to Canada became another button to press to shake up the clubhouse.

But Montero also came along at exactly the right time for Kyle Hendricks, who had 13 major-league starts for a last-place team on his resume heading into the breakthrough 2015 season that set up last year’s transformation into an ERA leader, Cy Young Award finalist and World Series Game 7 starter.

Montero doesn’t deserve a tribute on the video board when the Toronto Blue Jays come into Wrigley Field this weekend, but he also shouldn’t be remembered only as a loose cannon or a cartoon character.

“Miggy was huge for me,” Hendricks said on this week’s Cubs Talk podcast. “I know he didn’t go out the way he wanted to. He’s even texted all of us here. We have the utmost respect for him around this clubhouse. We know who he is, the teammate he was around here.

“For me in particular, he was probably the biggest influence right when I came up, from the catching side. He taught me a lot about pitching, especially at the big-league level. (He made) me feel comfortable at the big-league level.

“My development, I think, sped up a lot just because of him being around here, his experience, how much he knew the hitters, his feel and his ability just to talk to you. He could sit down and just have a conversation with you whenever.

“I owe a lot to him. And I’m excited to see him back here.”

The Cubs knew they were getting the good, the bad and the ugly when they traded for Montero during the 2014 winter meetings in San Diego, where they also closed the $155 million megadeal with Jon Lester and dramatically reshaped the franchise.

The Cubs wanted Montero’s edge, which only sharpened as he got stuck in various three-catcher rotations. But Montero welcomed Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras into the clubhouse, delivered a wake-up call to Albert Almora Jr. during a rehab assignment at Double-A Tennessee and worked with Arrieta as he blossomed into a Cy Young Award winner. Montero also became a bilingual intermediary last summer when Aroldis Chapman initially refused to talk to the media after making his Cubs debut.

After handling so many different personalities and styles with the Arizona Diamondbacks — everyone from Randy Johnson to Dan Haren — Montero made the case that Hendricks didn’t need to throw 97 mph to thrive when he could nail the edges and deceive and outthink hitters with movement and sequences. Street smarts from Venezuela and an Ivy League education became a great match.

“He always had that confidence in me, from Day 1, when I showed up in this clubhouse,” Hendricks said. “He caught my bullpens. He kind of saw what I could do with the baseball. He probably had more confidence in me than I had in myself when I first came up.

“That’s just how it is. You’re trying to find your footing. He just kept preaching that to me, telling me what he saw in me, what I could do, the ability I had against these hitters. And then we went out there together and kind of saw it happening.”

One Arizona official who knows Montero well theorized that he — like any former All-Star in his mid-30s nearing the free-agent market — simply had trouble coming to grips with the reality that he was no longer The Man.

Even if you may be right on both counts — and no matter how fast Montero patched it up with Arrieta — the backup catcher can’t blast a star manager and a star pitcher like that.

“It was too bad to see him go,” Hendricks said. “But that’s just baseball. That’s how it goes. You got to learn what you can from who’s around while they’re there and then move on. That’s just the nature of the game.”    

The Cubs Players Weekend jerseys are out and the nicknames are...interesting

The Cubs Players Weekend jerseys are out and the nicknames are...interesting

Jon Lester doesn't have time for nicknames.

MLB is doing Players Weekend for the first time ever this month, where each team will wear new uniforms with nicknames on the back Aug. 25-27, when the Cubs will be in Philadelphia.

Each player will also have a patch to thank people who have inspired them:

The Cubs unveiled their sick new uniforms plus all the nicknames of their players and some are downright hilarious, while others are very blah.

And yes, Jon Lester just chose "Lester" as his moniker:

Those hats are straight fire.

Here's the full list:

Kris Bryant: KB
Kyle Schwarber: Schwarbs
Anthony Rizzo: Tony
Jake Arrieta: Snake
Willson Contreras: Willy (not Killer)
Jon Lester: Lester
Addison Russell: Addy
Ben Zobrist: Zorilla
Ian Happ: Happer
Tommy La Stella: La Stella
Koji Uehara: Koji
Javy Baez: El Mago
Jose Quintana: Q
Mike Montgomery: Monty
Brian Duensing: Deuce
Jon Jay: 305 J
Kyle Hendricks: Hendo
Jason Heyward: J-Hey
Carl Edwards Jr.: Carl's Jr.
Hector Rondon: Rondi
Albert Almora Jr.: Tico
Pedro Strop: Stropy
John Lackey: Lack
Wade Davis: Wader

But how is Contreras not "Killer" as his leather vest showed over the weekend for this "Easy Rider" themed trip?

Lester wasn't the only one who played it right down the middle as La Stella and Uehara kept things low-key. Heyward prefers to just stick with "J-Hey" because "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," he said over the weekend.

Edwards going with "Carl's Jr." and Javy with the "El Mago" are the two best for sure. And of course Schwarber had to be "Schwarbs."

AND HOW IS KYLE HENDRICKS NOT "THE PROFESSOR"?? (Sorry for all caps, but I think we can all agree it was needed.)

But the Cubs are nowhere near some of the best ones from around the league, like Kyle Seager being "Corey's Brother"

I must say, I wouldn't be opposed to owning the Tony jersey

How Cubs are positioned for a Giant run – right now and in the future

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USA TODAY

How Cubs are positioned for a Giant run – right now and in the future

SAN FRANCISCO – Since last October, the San Francisco Giants have gone from nearly pushing the Cubs into a dreaded elimination game against Johnny Cueto to racing the White Sox to the bottom for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft.
 
The Cubs are headed for that Giant crash someday. Maybe Theo Epstein leaves Wrigley Field in a gorilla suit, the players tune out Joe Maddon’s “Easy Rider” act and Jon Lester’s $155 million left arm finally breaks down and the pitching infrastructure collapses.
 
Who knows? Perhaps all those young hitters weren’t quite as good as we thought they were. Years of drafting near the bottom of the first round and spending restrictions within the collective bargaining agreement will slow down – if not stop – the flow of young, blue-chip talent to Wrigleyville.

Nothing lasts forever.

But San Francisco’s free fall into last place in the National League West – 36 games behind the hated Los Angeles Dodgers – is a reality check for the relative struggles of a first-place team and a reminder of how well the defending champs are positioned for the future.

Because as much as the Cubs obsessed about the Boston Red Sox during the rebuilding years, the Giants represented an ideal of business/baseball synergies with stable leadership, a spectacular waterfront stadium, big-market payrolls, a talented homegrown core and the mental toughness to win World Series titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014.

To put it in perspective now: Anthony Rizzo will turn 28 on Tuesday and is only 14 months older than Joe Panik, the Gold Glove/All-Star second baseman viewed as the young guy in San Francisco’s clubhouse.

Jason Heyward was born the day after Rizzo in 1989. Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Javier Baez, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber and Albert Almora Jr. are all between the ages of 25 and 23. Ian Happ will turn 23 this weekend. It won’t just be seeing the black and orange all around AT&T Park during a three-game series that begins Monday night and returning to the scene of last year’s epic Game 4 comeback and raucous celebration in the visiting clubhouse.

“When we go play other teams, I’m still struck by how we’re always the youngest team on the field,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “We have this young core of position players at basically every position who are guys that were all top-10, top-15 prospects in baseball who are wearing rings on their finger from last year.”

So, no, the Cubs aren’t worried about the “Bottom of the Barrel” label that Baseball America put on their farm system, ranking it as one of the industry’s worst after the July 31 trade deadline and aggressive moves for Jose Quintana, Justin Wilson and Alex Avila.

“Certainly, we’ve traded a number of prospects to go out and win a World Series and strengthen ourselves for the future,” Hoyer said. “Prospect rankings are valuable in some ways. I think how big your prospects are is – in some ways – a good view into sort of organizational health. But we’re unusual in that way.

“It’s really difficult or challenging to look at our organization in that way, because on the one hand, yes, we’ve traded a number of prospects. But on the other hand, we’ve really protected that core of players that are in the big leagues. And that’s a very deep core of super-talented players who are young and under control for a long time. We’re an incredibly healthy organization from a young-talent standpoint.”

The guess here is that the Cubs brand is so strong, team officials are so good at marketing their young players and there are enough legitimate assets to get some names on Baseball America’s 2018 top 100.

But looking back at those rankings heading into the 2012 season – the first full year for the Epstein regime – shows how unpredictable this business can be: Brett Jackson placed 32nd on a top 100 where the top five went Bryce Harper, Matt Moore, Mike Trout, Yu Darvish and Julio Teheran.

Baseball America slotted Rizzo at No. 47 in between Randall Delgado and Billy Hamilton. Matt Szczur landed at No. 64, or one spot ahead of Sonny Gray. At No. 61, Baez fell two spots behind George Springer, who got this blurb: “Figures to battle Rangers’ Mike Olt for title of best UConn position player in the big leagues.”

Sooner or later, the Cubs will have a new TV deal that will enhance all their built-in advantages over the small-market franchises in the NL Central. The potential departures of free agents like Jake Arrieta, John Lackey, Wade Davis, Jon Jay, Koji Uehara, Brian Duensing and Avila could create more than $50 million in payroll space.

Quintana’s club-friendly deal – which will make him an anchor for the 2018, 2019 and 2020 rotations at just under $31 million – allows the Cubs to think big and add another star player. Epstein’s front office also structured long-term contracts for Lester and Ben Zobrist with a curve that made upfront payments, took their ages into account and decreased the financial commitment on the back end.

So while 1908 hung over everything the Cubs once did, in reality the operating philosophy could be summed up like this: Get into the playoffs, say, seven times in 10 seasons and there should be a year – or two or maybe even three – where your team stays healthy, gets hot, runs into the right matchups and makes enough plays for a parade down Michigan Avenue.

The 2017 Cubs are staying in the picture.