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.

Cubs’ Potential Lineup in Wild Card Game

15-_DSC2491-toresizeToday, Cubs manager Joe Maddon spoke to the media in advance of Wednesday’s Wild Card game between the Cubs and Pirates, but would not reveal who he plans to start in the game. We all know Jake Arrieta will be taking the hill for the Cubs, but that’s about it. From there, there’s a lot of different options.

Here’s how I project the lineup to look Wednesday night:

  1. Fowler, CF
  2. Schwarber, RF
  3. Bryant, LF
  4. Rizzo, 1B
  5. Castro, 2B
  6. La Stella, 3B
  7. Montero, C
  8. Arrieta, P
  9. Russell, SS

With Gerrit Cole being named the starting pitcher for the Pirates, Maddon will likely want an extra left-handed bat in the lineup to counter Pittsburgh’s top righty. That’s where Tommy La Stella comes into play. La Stella has been one of the Cubs’ hottest hitters in recent weeks, and he does it from the left side. In a one game playoff like this, you’re going to want your best hitters in the game. That may mean leaving someone like Coghlan, Soler, or Baez out of the starting lineup, but in a situation like this, it is imperative to put your hottest bats in the lineup.

Another factor to take into account here when looking at that projected lineup is defense. This isn’t the Cubs’ best defensive lineup, but it’s not bad. With the outfield at PNC Park being one of the largest in baseball, Maddon will likely elect to play Kris Bryant in left field instead of Schwarber. Why? Because Bryant is more athletic and can cover more ground than Schwarber. Left field holds a lot more ground to cover at PNC than right field. If it were all about defense, Schwarber probably wouldn’t even be in the lineup, but his bat can become crucial in a game like this.

Speaking of which, the lineup that I have projected above is a pretty powerful one, minus La Stella. Basically every player in the order has serious potential to hit the ball out of the park at any time. This is the main reason why I believe Schwarber will be in the starting lineup. Against a pitcher like Gerrit Cole, who rarely makes mistakes with his pitches, you need a lineup going against him that is full of players who can capitalize on Cole’s mistake(s). Players like Schwarber, Bryant, Rizzo, Castro, Montero, and even Russell can do that.

In these one game playoffs, there’s usually one player that leaves a huge impact on the game outside of the starting pitchers. My pick for that player in Wednesday night’s game is Addison Russell. You may be asking why not a guy like Rizzo or Bryant? While those two can certainly play an enormous role in a game like this, I really like what I’ve been seeing from Russell lately. His defense has always been elite and could be pivotal Wednesday night, but his bat has come alive here over the last couple of weeks. With him likely to be hitting out of the number nine spot in the lineup, his ability to get on base and drive in runs from the bottom of the order could be big.

So there you have it. We’ll wait and see how Maddon elects to construct his starting lineup, but it’s a good bet it will be something similar to what I have listed above.

Joe Maddon to the Cubs?

940-couture-loganLet’s take a break from hockey for a minute and focus on another Chicago team: the Cubs. Jon Heyman of CBS Sports just reported that Joe Maddon has agreed to become the next manager of the Cubs, which if true, is huge. Maddon is a 2-time AL Manager of the Year winner with the Tampa Bay Rays, and is known for really creating a good clubhouse atmosphere and for knowing how to handle young players.

Before we get any further, let me just say that there are numerous reports out there right now that are saying no deal is in place between Maddon and the Cubs, but that there is still a very good chance Maddon ends up in Chicago. During the World Series, Major League Baseball enforces a “news blackout” which prevents any teams, players, etc. from announcing anything that might take focus away from the World Series, which might be why some reporters are denying that a Maddon deal is done. There is a very solid chance that the two sides have in fact agreed to a contract, but they won’t make anything official until Thursday or Friday (once the World Series is over).

So now let’s look at what this would mean to the Cubs if Maddon is next year’s skipper.

Like I already said, he’s a 2-time Manager of the Year recipient while in Tampa, he’s been to the World Series once (and lost), and he’s somehow kept the Rays in the thick of things in the AL East for the past 6-7 years despite having a low payroll. He knows how to manage young players, which the Cubs are stocked with, and he creates a very good atmosphere in the clubhouse. He’s been known to dye his hair after win streaks and have his players dress up in weird costumes on travel days. Aside from being a smart manager, he’s a player’s manager, and that is a good thing.

What this potential signing does is send a message to all of baseball that the Cubs are getting real serious about winning in the very near future. It’s no secret that they’ll be in the market for at least one, if not two high end pitchers this winter, and signing Joe Maddon will only increase a free agent’s desire to join the team. Look for the Cubs to target guys like Jon Lester and now James Shields, who both have connections (potentially) to the Cubs. Lester played with the Red Sox in Boston while Epstein was still in control there, and the two sides won the 2007 World Series together. James Shields played with the Rays from 2008-2012 and had Joe Maddon as his manager each of those years. If the Cubs could sign both of those guys to go along with Jake Arrieta, they would have a very potent top 3 in their starting rotation to go along with what should be a dangerous offense. If you really think about it, there aren’t too many players in the Major League’s that won’t want to be a part of the Cubs over the next few years. Everyone is going to want their name to be on the Cubs’ roster that one day wins the World Series, and it’s looking like the possibility of that actually happening is better now than ever before.

Clearly the Joe Maddon signing is not official, but in all likelihood he’ll be the Cubs manager come Opening Day. It kind of makes you feel bad for Rick Renteria who gained a lot of confidence from the Cubs’ front office this past year. He’ll be out of a job if Maddon comes to town, but it’s a move that the Cubs essentially have to make in this situation. It’s not every day that you get the chance to sign one of the game’s best managers.