On to the Pennant

1383642_616596775058148_1814435643_nTuesday was a historic day in Chicago and at Wrigley Field on the city’s north side. For the first time in the history of the Friendly Confines, a postseason series was clinched on its turf. And given how the Cubs won their National League Division Series, you may say it was worth the wait.

This series also marked the first time ever that the Cubs and Cardinals squared off against each other in the playoffs. Each franchise has been around for over a century, but never had they met in the postseason until this year. The fact that the Cubs were able to win their first ever playoff series at Wrigley Field and that it came at the expense of the Cardinals made this victory that much sweeter.

Cubs fans have been told all about these promising young prospects down on the farm for the past three years or so, and how they would one day be the faces of the franchise. Well, we weren’t lied to. It was those once “promising prospects” that won this series over St. Louis in four games.

10-171460575-smallBaez, Bryant, Castro, Rizzo, Schwarber, and Soler all went deep at least once in the NLDS and accounted for 9 of the team’s 10 home runs hit in the series. It was a power-barrage unlike anything that we’ve ever seen before. If teams around the MLB weren’t already aware of who the Cubs are and just how good they can be, they sure are now.

By defeating the Cardinals, the Cubs won just their second postseason series since 1908 and are now returning to the NLCS for the first time since 2003. Let those stats sink in for second.

These last two games played at Wrigley Field were unlike anything any of these Cubs players have ever witnessed before. The stadium was deafening for each home run, big hit, two-strike count on an opposing hitter, and basically for every out made by the Cardinals. Word on the street is that the Wrigley Field press box even shook a few times due to the bedlam taking place in the stands, and that was just for the NLDS. The atmosphere at Wrigley from here on out might be something that none of us, not just the players, have ever seen before.

And rightfully so.

The Cubs haven’t played in a World Series since 1945, and they haven’t won one since 1908. Over the course of the last century, the Cubs and their fans have been tortured time and time again by bad breaks and bad luck. It’s been a tradition of heartbreak and losing for the Cubs, thus their old nickname of the “Lovable Losers.”

I say “old” because this is a new team with a new attitude and a new identity. Just a year ago, they won only 73 games while finishing in last place in the NL Central Division. Jump ahead to this season, and they’re a 97-win ball club with unparalleled confidence and swagger. They are too young and too dumb to realize the amount of pressure that they’re actually under to finally win a championship. They also couldn’t care less about any goat, black cat, fan interference play, or anything else that people like to stack on to that list. It is because of that mindset, due in large part to their manager Joe Maddon, that this team may just be the perfect combination of players to finally win a World Series for the Cubs.

The Cardinals were without a doubt a stiff challenge, but with the stakes raised even higher now in the NLCS, the Cubs can expect their toughest opponent yet in either the Mets or Dodgers. People want to say “I’d rather play the Dodgers!” or “I want to play the Mets!” To me, that’s the worst thing you can do. The second you wish for a certain opponent, they beat you. Just let that other series play out and take whoever you get. Have confidence in the Cubs for once, and quit worrying about their opponent.

The Cubs are on to the the National League Pennant, and now is when things start to get real. This should be a fun couple of weeks.

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Regardless of Tonight’s Outcome, Cubs’ Future is Promising

10-171460575-smallIn 24 hours from now, the game will have been played, a team will have won, and a memorable moment or two will be etched in our minds for the foreseeable future. Either we’ll (hopefully) be talking about a Cubs-Cardinals showdown in the NLDS, or once again next year. But in all honesty, regardless of what happens in tonight’s Wild Card game between the Cubs and Pirates, there’s reason to be optimistic about this Cubs team for years to come.

This was supposed to be a “stepping stone” season for the Cubs, meaning they would hopefully win around 84 games and begin their push towards sustained success with their mostly homegrown talent. Instead, the train arrived a bit early on the north side, and we witnessed this team reel off 97 wins; good for third best in Major League Baseball.

This massive turnaround from last season to this season started last October when the Cubs announced that they had hired Joe Maddon to be their next manager. Then a couple months later, Jon Lester signed on to become what we thought would be the Cubs’ newest ace. The pieces were all coming together.

In spring training we saw Kris Bryant display his full offensive potential while lighting up the Cactus League and becoming the talk of baseball. Lost in his publicity was the performance of other top Cubs prospects such as Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, Jorge Soler, and even Javier Baez who knew he had to turn his game around after a disappointing late summer last season.

None of those guys made the Opening Day roster other than Soler.

After just a couple weeks of the regular season had passed, we finally got the much anticipated arrival of Kris Bryant in the big leagues. Not long after, Addison Russell followed him. Then in mid-summer, Kyle Schwarber arrived way ahead of schedule and turned heads instantly. These guys surrounded Anthony Rizzo in the lineup to create what has to be one of the most feared rosters in baseball.

Following the All Star break, Jake Arrieta started to take over all of baseball en route to what was a Cy Young-worthy season, and one for the record books.

The rest is history.

That this Cubs team won 97 games with such little MLB experience from most of their key offensive contributors is mind blowing. The confidence that these guys have displayed all season long and even heading into tonight’s Wild Card game has been incredible. This new wave of Cubs players may only be in their early 20’s with limited big league experience, but you would never know it. And a lot of that has to do with the leadership of Anthony Rizzo taking these rookies under his wing and instilling in them the right kind of attitude.

After watching this team do what they did this year while taking into account their youth and the fact that they are all under club control for a number of years to come, one can’t help but wonder just how good the Cubs could be in a few years down the road when these “kids” hit their prime. It’s almost scary…

So regardless of what happens tonight, just remember this is only the beginning of what should be many years of success for the Cubs. For what may be the first time ever, we finally have a team that seems destined for a title before too long.

Keys for the Cubs down the stretch

Colorado Rockies v Chicago CubsThe Cubs are coming into this week fresh off of a 9-game winning streak that was snapped by their crosstown rivals this past Sunday. It was their longest winning streak since 2008, which was also the last time the Cubs made the postseason. For the season, the Cubs are currently the proud owners of a 67-49 record; good for fourth best in Major League Baseball. The only problem is that two of the three teams with a better record than the Cubs are the Cardinals and Pirates, both of whom are also in the Central Division.

For the most part, the Cubs have been winning this year thanks to their starting pitching. Jake Arrieta is 14-6 on the year (those 14 wins are tied for the most in baseball) with a 2.39 earned run average and 0.99 WHIP. If he isn’t considered a Cy Young candidate, then something is wrong. Jon Lester is 8-8 on the season, but don’t let that record fool you. His 3.21 ERA and 1.18 WHIP are very respectable numbers. He has pitched much better the second half of the season after getting off to a slow start in April and May, and is now looking like the ace that the Cubs thought they were getting when they signed him.

Jason Hammel has been one of the team’s more consistent pitchers all year despite a couple of rough outings as of late following his stint on the DL, and Kyle Hendricks has been up and down on the season but still owns an ERA under 4.00. Add in the acquisition of Dan Haren at the trade deadline, and you’ve got yourself a very respectable starting rotation with arguably the best one-two punch in the league.

If the Cubs want to continue their winning ways as the calendar turns over to September, that starting pitching will need to keep doing what they have been doing. However, not everything falls on their shoulders.

For the better half of this season, the Cubs’ offense has been underwhelming. Sure they have Anthony Rizzo whose stat line (.296 AVG, 23 HR, 68 RBI, .407 OBP) is among the best in baseball, but guys like Castro, Bryant, Soler, Fowler, and Russell have gone through some prolonged slumps that really hurt the Cubs at times. Some of that was to be expected, especially with the rookies who are still getting used to big league pitching and need to learn to adjust to it just like the pitchers have adjusted to them. But if the Cubs really want to be serious about making a run in October, the offense needs to stay clicking like it has of late.

Since the All Star break, the Cubs have seen their team on-base percentage, batting average, and OPS (on-base plus slugging) all rise by a fair amount. Guys like Dexter Fowler are getting on base much more often, and the addition of rookie Kyle Schwarber has been huge. One noticeable difference lately with the Cubs’ offense has been their tendency to see as many pitches at the plate as possible. They are not a free-swinging team like we’ve seen in recent years. They’ll have the opposing starter’s pitch count up into the 30’s or 40’s by the end of the second inning on a regular basis, which is extremely important.

Right now, the Cubs currently own a 4-game lead over the Giants for the second Wild Card spot in the NL, and sit just 2 games behind the Pirates for the top Wild Card spot. If the Cubs want to end the season as at least a Wild Card team, their offense needs to keep on rolling. The pitching has been there for them all season, but now that the offense has started to figure things out at the plate, we are seeing a big increase in win percentage. If they continue to play the way they have as of late, this will be a tough team to beat down the stretch and into the playoffs.

Here are my five keys to a strong finish to the regular season:

  1. Starting pitching. It seems obvious, but it’s undeniable. Without above average starting pitching, you have no shot. Arrieta and Lester need to continue leading the staff while the other three deliver quality outings more often than not. Getting six strong innings from Haren every fifth game would be huge.
  2. Keep getting on base. Everyone wants to look at batting average, home runs, RBI’s, etc. On-base percentage, however, is arguably the most important offensive statistic there is. If you’re not getting on base, you’re not scoring. Over the past month and a half, the Cubs have improved greatly in this category, and they need to keep that rolling.
  3. Bullpen. There are still some big questions regarding the Cubs’ pen. They have been using a “closer by committee” approach recently with guys such as Rondon, Motte, and Grimm all getting save opportunities. Rondon figures to be the best bet to be the closer, but even he still needs to find more control with his pitches right now. The bullpen has been better the second half for the most part, and it’ll need to be strong from here on out.
  4. Run prevention. The average fan does not think of defense when looking at what makes a team so good, but run prevention has become a prominent factor in deciding who the really good teams are in recent years. As a team, the Cubs have seen better defense this season than in previous seasons, and it is a big reason why their record is what it is. There is still room for improvement, though, and it will need to get even better starting now.
  5. Get some hot streaks. Rizzo has had some incredible streaks at the plate this year, and the Cubs will need other guys to follow suit over the last month and a half. If Soler can finally find his power and start putting baseballs into the outfield stands, and if Kris Bryant can somewhat close up that huge hole in his swing and string together a few solid weeks at the plate, this team will be in good shape.

Some of those keys may seem obvious, but that doesn’t make them any less important. This is a good Cubs team and the best one we’ve seen in seven years. Getting home field advantage for the Wild Card one-game playoff would be huge, and it is within their grasp.

It’s here: Cubs’ future is now

10-171460575-smallAs is the case every so often, I’ll take a quick break from writing about hockey on here and shift the focus to baseball. Particularly, Cubs baseball. After promoting baseball’s top prospect, Kris Bryant, to the big league’s last Thursday, the Cubs made another big announcement late Monday night by recalling the game’s number four prospect: Addison Russell. It was widely known or assumed that Bryant would be on the Cubs’ roster by May, but things didn’t seem to be as sure for Russell.

With Mike Olt getting injured just a few games into the season, the Cubs were all of a sudden left with a gaping hole at the third base position. They got by for a handful of games with what they already had on the big league roster until enough games had passed where they could bring up Bryant without losing a year off his contract. So that problem was quickly and not surprisingly solved.

The other glaring problem with the Cubs’ lineup has been second base. Arismendy Alcantara was supposed to be the guy to hold down that position for the time being, but his early season struggles have led the Cubs to their next big call-up. Addison Russell, who figures to be a shortstop in the long run, had started putting some work in at second base recently, which raised some eyebrows and some questions regarding his immediate future with the organization. Are the Cubs just trying to get him used to another position, or do they want him coming up to Chicago sometime soon to play second base? As it turns out, the front office wants him starting tonight at second base for the big league club.

I think most people, myself included, expected Russell to see his first big league action somewhere between June and July. However, most people weren’t really expecting the Cubs to have such a dire need at second base either.

Everyone knew Kris Bryant would be making his first start for the Cubs somewhere around the 10-12 game mark of the season. As I already hinted at, not many expected Russell to be doing the same. What his promotion tells me is two things:

  1. The Cubs feel he is ready to make the leap from Triple A to the big leagues. In eleven games with Iowa this year, he hit .318 with 1 home run, 9 runs batted in, and an .803 OPS. His fielding has never been a concern.
  2. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer are going for it and feel that this team and its young players are ready to compete for a playoff spot. If they didn’t believe that the playoffs were a real possibility, my guess is Russell would still be in Iowa.

The Cubs have gotten off to a 7-5 start to the season, which is by far their best start in many years. Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro have proven that they are good MLB players, with Rizzo looking like a perennial All Star and a cornerstone piece of the franchise, and Castro continuing to hit while improving defensively. Jorge Soler, who debuted with the Cubs last summer, has adjusted extremely well to the big league game and is off to a great start to the year. Many “experts” have him pegged as this year’s NL 10-171460575-smallRookie of the Year. Then you have recent addition Kris Bryant, labeled by many as the savior of the Cubs franchise. He has played in four games with the Cubs while hitting .429 with 2 doubles and 4 runs batted in. Oh, and his early OPS is 1.150.

Now that you add Addison Russell into the equation and take into account his potential, the Cubs’ lineup is suddenly loaded, and all with young talent. The average age of their infield is just 23 years old.

And don’t forget about the Cubs’ pitching staff. Jon Lester, while off to a forgettable start to the season, is a true ace and figures to turn his game around sooner than later. Jake Arrieta is coming off his best season a a pro in 2014, and is already 2-1 with a 1.74 ERA this year. Then you have Jason Hammel, Travis Wood, and Kyle Hendricks who have all pitched well and provided reason for optimism. Also, the Cubs’ bullpen is no pushover. Prior to Neil Ramirez getting hurt, they had the best bullpen ERA in the National League. I see no reason for their ‘pen to become a weakness.

Most people would say that this team’s weakness is their inexperience and starting rotation. Well I have a response to each.

The Cubs may be young, but they don’t play like it, and they don’t think like it. Epstein, Hoyer, and Jason McLeod draft players who not only possess great talent, but possess great maturity for their age. It doesn’t take a fool to see that while watching the likes of Rizzo, Soler, and Bryant, just to name a few. Secondly, the starting pitching of the Cubs wasn’t bad last year, and only got better this year. If the team continues winning games and is in a competitive position in the standings at the trade deadline, I would expect Epstein to deal for another top of the line starter in exchange for any combination of current (available) Cubs prospects. Starlin Castro and Javier Baez could be potential pieces to any such trade.

Obviously there is still A LOT of season left, but there is more reason for optimism with this team than we’ve seen in a long, long time. If the first twelve games are any indication as to how the rest of the season will play out, it’s going to be one hell of a fun summer on Chicago’s north side.

Stay optimistic about the Cubs’ future

While this has not been a good year for the Cubs in terms of their record, there is no reason to believe that things won’t change in the next few years or so. Just look at Anthony Rizzo.

Prior to being called up to the big leagues this season, Anthony Rizzo was being called “the next Babe Ruth,” “a future Hall of Famer,” “the second coming,” and so on. I’m not saying that he didn’t deserve those praises, but those are some tough expectations to try and live up to. As tough as it is to succeed at the Major League level, Anthony Rizzo is doing just that. In the 29 games since being called up, Rizzo is hitting .321, with 8 home runs and 20 RBI, including this past Sunday’s walk-off home run against the Cardinals. Not many players could have lived up to the hype that surrounded Anthony Rizzo prior to his Cubs debut, but Rizzo has done that and more.

Aside from Rizzo, the Cubs have guys like Starlin Castro and Darwin Barney already producing at the Major League level. In the minor leagues they have players such as Brett Jackson, Josh Vitters, Jorge Soler (a recently signed Cuban outfielder), and Albert Almora (their number 1 pick in this year’s draft). While those guys still have yet to prove themselves at the Major League level, their futures look pretty bright.

Jed Hoyer and Theo Epstein went into this season’s trade deadline with a sole purpose of acquiring young talent, especially in the form of pitchers. Monday night, Reed Johnson and Paul Maholm were dealt to the Atlanta Braves for 2 minor league pitchers, one of which was rated the Braves number 3 prospect last season. Also on Monday night, they traded Geovany Soto to the Texas Rangers for another young pitcher. Today, Ryan Dempster was traded to the Rangers as well, but the details involving the trade have not fully come out yet.

As I have stated before in previous blogs, I have total confidence in Epstein and Hoyer. They know what they are doing when they trade for, sign, and develop young prospects. Just look at what they did in Boston if you need proof. Odds are that the Cubs will not be too good next season, or the next season, or maybe even the next season. But if you give Epstein and Hoyer time, there is no reason to believe that they won’t fulfill their promise of putting a winning team on the field. In the mean time, we can all sit back and watch the whole future develop right before our eyes in players such as Rizzo and Castro.

Stay optimistic Cubs fans.