Chicago Cubs: 2014 Regular Season

Cubs merit optimism, but playoffs in 2015 still a longshot

September, 29, 2014
Sep 29
11:00
AM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
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Optimism was the key word emerging from the Chicago Cubs locker room as the offseason began, 106 years since their last championship.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Rizzo
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhAnthony Rizzo's return to form -- and the experience gained from his second full season in the major leagues -- was a major positive for the Cubs.
But optimism alone won't end that title drought. It's going to take a lot of hard work and, yes, some more patience.

"We expect to win," first baseman Anthony Rizzo said before the Cubs' last game of the season on Sunday. "I don't want any fan to be complacent with us not winning next year and going to the postseason."

It's the right attitude to take for anyone in uniform. But everyone else, along with the front office, needs to be realistic. The main reasons the Cubs still have a long way to go? Age and inexperience.

The Cubs were the youngest team in the majors. At season's end, their roster averaged 27 years, 50 days. They're bound to stay about that young in 2015. They might add a veteran or two, but the eventual addition of Kris Bryant, among others, will keep the age and experience down.

Take Rizzo as an example.

"I think the biggest thing I learned last year was going through a full season," said Rizzo, who struggled with a .233 batting average in 2013. "That was my first time going through a full season at any level."

Just think how many key players haven't gone through that full season yet. Players such as Javier Baez, Arismendy Alcantara, Jorge Soler and Kyle Hendricks don't know what that 162-game grind at the majors is all about. They got a taste, which should help greatly, but there's much more to learn. Doing it for 162 games might be the hardest grind in sports. Only one member of the Cubs' end-of-the-year rotation, Travis Wood, has thrown 200 innings in a season in the big leagues, and it took him until the final game of the season to do it in 2013. Maybe that changes this winter.

Here's another tangible reason the Cubs have a long hill to climb: They finished dead last in the National League in on-base percentage with a .303 mark.

That's not what a Theo Epstein offense has looked like at its best. That's not to say the Cubs should rid themselves of their homer-hitting, high-strikeout players; it just means they'll need to do better than last.

Five of the top eight on-base percentage teams in the NL made the playoffs this season. The Cubs need to jump into that group. A good on-base percentage is still the doorway to a potent offense.

"As an organization, we all feel some momentum going into the offseason," Rizzo said. "That's what we need. Not only the players, but the front office, as well."

This isn't to put a damper on the excitement for Cubs fans. Almost like the previous season, 2014 probably went better than planned ... you know, other than those 89 losses.

It was a relatively healthy season as injuries go, and just about every prospect expected to make it to the majors saw action at Wrigley Field. Success wasn't necessarily the point; experience was. And players such as Rizzo and Starlin Castro re-established themselves as cornerstone players. That was huge.

But nothing has changed in terms of the Cubs' rebuilding plans.

A reminder: Next season will be Phase 2, Year 2. That doesn't sound sexy, but anyone associated with the team will tell you there are no shortcuts.

Phase 1 consisted of two years of trading away older veterans with hefty contracts and restocking the farm system. Mission accomplished. See Hendricks, Neil Ramirez, Bryant and plenty of others for proof.

Phase 2 also is a two-year plan, this time of development.

[+] EnlargeKyle Hendricks
AP Photo/David BanksAs impressive as Kyle Hendricks was as a rookie this season, he hasn't been through the grind of a 162-game season.
This year consisted of new players getting their feet wet. Next season consists of those guys getting more settled while a few new ones make their debuts. A jump to the playoffs isn't realistic, no matter whom they bring in to help.

Yes, it's possible for them to "change the narrative," as Epstein likes to say, but winning over six months takes a lot more than a nice storyline. It takes many special performances. The Cubs aren't quite ready.

"It's going to be nice for them to see what happened," Rizzo said of the rookies. "It's not always easy to make midseason adjustments. When they can finally get that weight off their shoulders and see what happened, it will be nice."

That kind of introspection doesn't come with a playoff-ready team. It comes with a developing one. Again, it doesn't mean Cubs manager Rick Renteria shouldn't shoot for the stars. After all, he'll have a shiny new toy to play with when 2013 first-round pick Bryant is called up. He could be a franchise-changing player.

"The message is going to be, 'We're playing to win next year,'" Renteria said. "Why wouldn't anyone want goals to have success in the coming years? I'm laying extremely high expectations."

That's what any manager would say, no matter what his roster looks like. It's not impossible for the Cubs to get off to a good start next season and ride a wave; it's just improbable. But one of these years, that winning tone the manager sets will take hold. That's when Phase 3 begins.

"It's a long process to get there," Rizzo said. "You respect every team that's celebrating. Every game counts. It's every day for 162. It's a mindset. You have to gear your sights and thoughts for the right things."

The Cubs are one step closer. They're down to perhaps one more year, at which point we can start to dissect the path to the postseason. Even then, the Cubs will not have reached their peak, but they will finally be in a position to do so -- as long as the talent they've assembled is for real.

"There's always optimism, and now you can see it everywhere," Rizzo said.

Cubs wrap-up: Anthony Rizzo is our MVP

September, 28, 2014
Sep 28
7:08
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
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MILWAUKEE -- The Chicago Cubs ended their season seven wins better than last year with some breakout performances and rebound seasons from several players. Not all was good, but key players did take steps. Here’s a wrap-up of individual performances in 2014:

MVP: Anthony Rizzo

[+] EnlargeAnthony Rizzo
AP Photo/Morry GashAnthony Rizzo rose above his teammates in garnering our MVP for the Cubs. 
There are a few candidates here, but Rizzo wins this award with a big season at the plate. He was just one of three National League players with 30 or more home runs. His .386 on-base percentage ranked sixth in the league. And Sabermetrically speaking, he was one of the best, as well. According to ESPN Stats & Information, he ranked third in offensive win percentage behind Andrew McCutchen and Giancarlo Stanton. That’s pretty good company. And in runs created, he ranked fourth overall. Rizzo led the charge on and off the field, assuming a leadership responsibility and becoming a spokesman for his teammates. He is your 2014 Cubs Most Valuable Player. Honorable mention: Jake Arrieta

Most clutch: Starlin Castro

If you can believe it, there was no one better with men on base or in scoring position than Castro. Good thing, considering he batted cleanup for most of the season. That’s a situation that could have fazed him, but he embraced the RBI chances hitting .286 with runners in scoring position. That ranked first on the team after Jorge Soler, who has had minimal at-bats in the majors. Overall, Castro hit .328 with men on, an impressive stat by any means.

Biggest surprise: Hector Rondon

Yes, Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks get some votes here, but Arrieta always had the stuff to become a No. 1 starter and Hendricks had the makeup of a winner from the moment the Cubs acquired him. Rondon came out of nowhere to not only win, but excel in the closer’s role. He was 29-of-33 in save opportunities and simply didn’t walk the tightrope that often happens in the ninth inning (especially for the Cubs over the years). And remember, he was a former Rule 5 draft pick -- not exactly a highly touted prospect. His success late in games was a huge surprise. Honorable mention: Chris Coghlan

Biggest disappointment: Edwin Jackson

At first glance, this seems like an easy call -- and at the end of the day, maybe it is -- but it also depends on your perspective. Travis Wood made the All-Star team just last season. His ERA in 2014 was 5.03 and he gave up 190 hits in 173.2 innings. But all things being equal, when the highest paid player is your worst -- Jackson’s ERA was 6.33 -- not much more thought needs to go in to this decision.

Breakout player: Kyle Hendricks

There is simply no reason to believe Hendricks can’t pick up where he left off after a marvelous start to his career. He pitched well both at home and on the road, against contenders and pretenders and never hit the proverbial rookie wall. He totaled over 180 innings pitched, and there is no reason to think he can’t exceed 200 next year. The only question is, how many games can he win? Sky seems the limit for the crafty right-hander, who produced a 7-2 record with a 2.46 ERA. Honorable mention: Neil Ramirez

Best interview: Jake Arrieta

A breakout performance on the mound turned into one in the locker room, as Arrieta was able to articulate his success better than anyone. He admitted maturing was his biggest asset this season, and he took over as the leader of the pitching staff. Arrieta was honest about his team both before and after the Cubs traded their top pitchers and embraced his new role as ace of the team. He’ll be a big voice coming out of the locker room in the years to come. Honorable mention: Rizzo

Most exciting: Jorge Soler

There really were only two choices, Soler or Arismendy Alcantara. The latter tailed off so much that we rarely saw his great athletic ability down the stretch, as his high strikeout total got in the way of seeing his speed on display more. Soler showed what he could do both in the field and at the plate with monster home runs and a rocket of an arm from right field. He also displayed the plate discipline he was known for coming up through the minors; that in itself was exciting to watch, as he rarely went down easy.

Toughest to get a read on: Arismendy Alcantara

Again, there are several candidates that qualify here. Welington Castillo might be one, as could Javier Baez. But Alcantara is a mixture of speed and power, but with it all came a ton of strikeouts. He had 93 in just 70 games while walking only 17 times. The Cubs hope he reverts to some on-base numbers he put up in the minors. But he only had one season when he earned a good amount of free passes -- 62 at Double-A in 2013. And at times he played a stellar center field but also made some maddening mistakes. There’s no conclusion to be made on Alcantara, of course, but a better handle of the strike zone will go a long way to his success. He does have some excitement to his game.

Rapid Reaction: Cubs 5, Brewers 2

September, 28, 2014
Sep 28
4:35
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
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MILWAUKEE -- The Chicago Cubs beat the Milwaukee Brewers 5-2 in the season finale on Sunday. Here’s a quick look at the game and season.

How it happened: Anthony Rizzo topped off a stellar year, hitting his 32nd homerun in the first inning. The Cubs added two more in the sixth when Arismendy Alcantara doubled home Rizzo and Jorge Soler. Chris Coghlan drove in another insurance run in the ninth. The Brewers managed two runs in Jacob Turner's five innings. He gave up four hits while walking three. Hector Rondon earned his 29th save in 33 chances.

What it means: The Cubs ended the 2014 season avoiding 90 losses as they went 73-89. Last year they avoided losing 100 so there is progress -- albeit slow. Still, the steps their young players took this year were huge and the whole key to the season. It paid off, to an extent, as the Cubs went 31-28 dating back to the end of July. Even the few rookies who struggled some got needed experience. Now they have to utilize it all to their advantage. The Cubs have set themselves up nicely for Year 4 in the rebuilding plan, but nothing is guaranteed. It was simply another step forward.
Rizzo had three hits and a walk on Sunday to add to his lofty on-base percentage. He was the driving force -- and most consistent player -- on offense all season. His batting average with men in scoring position rose this season and with another hike he’ll have his first 100-RBI year soon enough.

Strikeout totals:
The Cubs led the majors with 1,477 strikeouts as eight different players had 90 or more. After adding three to his total on Sunday, Javier Baez finished with 95 in 52 games. Alcantara also struck out three times, giving him 93 in 70 games. Junior Lake and Mike Olt passed the century mark in less-than-full-time duty as well.

What’s next: The Cubs head into the offseason with a few apparent needs, starting with help at the top of the rotation. A proven 200-inning pitcher would be a great start although there aren’t many in their prime who will be available via free agency. Jon Lester and Max Scherzer are the top two names. The Cubs also say they want to add a veteran or two wherever he might fit in. Catching and/or outfield are possibilities.

Cubs' brimming potential brought a disturbing strikeout trend in 2014

September, 27, 2014
Sep 27
10:43
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
MILWAUKEE -- Unless the Houston Astros set a record for strikeouts in a single game on Sunday -- they’re 29 behind -- the Chicago Cubs will finish the season with the most K's in baseball.

If you think it's unfair to compare the Cubs to an American League team, given that the pitcher doesn't bat in the AL, the Cubs are even further ahead of the next National League team, the Miami Marlins, whom they lead by 56 strikeouts.

The strikeout total is one of the big narratives for the Cubs offense this season, after it struck out 16 more times in a 2-1 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers on Saturday. Milwaukee starter Wily Peralta set a career high before even reaching the sixth inning.

"We're going to attack a lot of different aspects of the offensive game to help us improve," manager Rick Renteria said of his plans for the team next spring. "The emphasis is going to be simply playing the game."

In other words, playing the game that is needed at the time. We know the Cubs will hit home runs, but when the tying run is at third base with fewer than two outs -- as it was in the seventh inning Saturday -- some small ball is in order. Any kind of contact would have been nice in that situation, but Ryan Kalish whiffed, as did pinch hitter Logan Watkins. It's happened too many times this season.

"You can have a really good offense, but sometimes, they don't click on all eight cylinders, so you've got to play the game," Renteria said.

Truer words could not have been spoken. The Cubs have six players who have struck out 100 or more times and two more who passed 90. And some of the big strikeout guys haven't even been here a whole season. Right now, the Cubs are setting themselves up for a lot of all-or-nothing games in 2015. There will be plenty of days on which things click, but with good pitching making a resurgence around the league, a more dynamic offense will be needed. They don't need a complete overhaul, just some tweaking.

"Playing the little game," Renteria said. "Those are going to be things we will emphasize."

It won’t get any easier Sunday. Hard thrower Mike Fiers starts the season finale for Milwaukee. He struck out 14 Cubs in a start the past month.

Rapid Reaction: Brewers 2, Cubs 1

September, 27, 2014
Sep 27
9:28
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
MILWAUKEE -- The Chicago Cubs lost to the Milwaukee Brewers 2-1 on Saturday night. Here's a quick look at the game.

How it happened: Anthony Rizzo drove in the game's first run with a double in the second inning, but that's all the scoring the Cubs would see off Brewers starter Wily Peralta. He went seven innings striking out 13, a career high. He stranded Arismendy Alcantara at third base as the tying run in the seventh when he struck out Ryan Kalish and Logan Watkins to end the inning. The Brewers tied the game on a Carlos Gomez home run, then took the lead when Jonathan Lucroy hit his franchise-record 53rd double of the season that drove in Gomez in the fifth.

What it means: Strikeouts were the name of the game on offense for the Cubs this season. Every hitter who went to the plate on Saturday struck out at least once. Five of them went down by strikeout multiple times. The Cubs are assured of striking out the most in Major League Baseball with one game to play.

Lucroy also set the single-season, major league record for doubles by a catcher with 46. He had 53 for the season through Saturday night's game.

Jackson in relief: Edwin Jackson pitched in relief for the first time Sept. 27, 2011, and threw a clean seventh inning. He gave up a walk but no damage. This could be his new role heading into 2015.

Rusin claimed: Minor league lefty Chris Rusin was claimed off of waivers by the Colorado Rockies.

What’s next: The series and season finale takes place on Sunday afternoon when Jacob Turner (5-11, 6.25 ERA) takes on Mike Fiers (6-4, 1.92) at 1:10 p.m. CT.

Starlin Castro to be ready for 2015

September, 27, 2014
Sep 27
6:06
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
MILWAUKEE -- If the Chicago Cubs were in the playoff hunt right now, shortstop Starlin Castro says he would be playing, not still rehabbing an injury. Never one to sit out a game -- let alone three weeks -- the Cubs and Castro aren’t taking any chances with his sprained ankle that ended his season weeks ago.

“It wouldn’t make sense to play in 1-2 games,” he said Saturday before the Cubs played the Brewers. “We don’t need it.”

A day shy of a half decade in the big leagues, Castro hasn’t sniffed the playoffs. When he went down with a high ankle sprain earlier this month, it was an easy decision: sit out so he can be healthy for the offseason. The only problem is, Castro hates sitting.

“It's big time frustrating,” he said.

That could be his answer for missing games or his team missing the postseason once again. He and teammate Anthony Rizzo did their part in rebounding from underperforming years in 2013, but their teammates lagged behind. More to the point, the front office didn’t deem them ready to win.

“We see a lot of good things in here,” Castro said. “We can show next year we can fight with whoever.”

Castro’s demeanor is to be ever the optimist. He came into spring training in the best shape of his career while a hamstring injury derailed him in March -- not in April or beyond. That was big. He got healthy and put up All-Star numbers while famously returning to being himself at the plate. Batting fourth in the lineup didn’t faze him either. Castro hit .292 with 14 home runs and 65 RBIs this season.

“He did well hitting behind Rizzo,” manager Rick Renteria said. “You could see Starlin hitting anywhere from 2 through 6 in the lineup. His approach really improved.”

The inevitable trade rumors will pop up this winter, considering the Cubs are loaded up the middle with different levels of players. Castro is a three time All-Star, teammate Javier Baez is just starting out his major league career and Double-A newcomer Addison Russell is highly touted. Any could be moved in a deal for pitching. Or maybe they all return next season. The Cubs aren’t in a trade-at-all costs mode.

Castro intends on repeating his offseason workout program with team strength and conditioning coach Tim Buss. Then he intends on playing a full season -- including spring training.

“It helped me,” Castro said of his conditioning. “It was a better season than last year.

“It’s important for me to play in spring training.”

The hamstring he injured sliding into second in the Cactus League’s second game didn’t affect him during the regular season, while the ankle injury he sustained this month sliding into home shouldn’t produce any lingering issues either. He’ll take a couple of weeks off after Sunday’s season finale and then get his ankle checked out.

Then Castro can get back to work. Getting to four All-Star Games in six seasons would be quite the accomplishment. So would getting to the playoffs for the first time. The latter would be bigger.

“That’s an important goal for me,” Castro said.

Mike Olt to work in the outfield

September, 27, 2014
Sep 27
10:00
AM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
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MILWAUKEE -- The Chicago Cubs aren't giving up on Mike Olt, but they might change their strategy with him after the 26-year-old struggled through much of his first year with the club.

Cubs president Theo Epstein said the team will talk with Olt about learning the corner outfield positions this winter as well as continuing to work at first and third base.

"He's always a threat against left-handed pitching, so he can be a guy that covers the four corners and mashes left-handed pitching," Epstein said before the Cubs played the Milwaukee Brewers on Friday night. "That's a nice default for him if the opportunity to play every day doesn't materialize."

[+] EnlargeMike Olt
Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY Sports"Secretly in my head I knew something needed to happen," Mike Olt said of getting sent down. "I needed to figure some things out."
After struggling at the plate for nearly four months, Olt was sent to the minor leagues to figure things out. He made adjustments, had success at Triple-A and came back when rosters expanded in September. Things have gone well.

"The last two months have been good for me," Olt said. "Feeling more comfortable. Working the count."

"Comfortable" was about the last thing Olt was feeling for most of this season. After winning a roster spot with a solid spring training, he never got it going at the plate. His strikeout totals started to rise while his batting average and power dipped. He was hitting .139 when he was sent down to Triple-A in late July.

"For him, it's been mechanical adjustments," Epstein said. "He's got work to do. He's planning on spending the whole winter in Arizona."

After about a month at Triple-A, Olt said he thinks he has it figured out. He hit .302 with a .348 on-base percentage in 28 games and started to feel like himself again.

"My swing is a lot more simple," he said. "I had a high leg kick and my head is not moving. That's the biggest thing for me. I wasn't picking up pitches."

Olt says he wants a "wired stance" so there's less movement. One thing he's already doing is swinging at better pitches. Or, more to the point, not swinging at the bad ones. He has a .357 on-base percentage this month. That's a far cry from the .222 mark he produced before going to the minors. There's little doubt being sent down helped him.

"It did," Olt said. "And secretly in my head I knew something needed to happen. I needed to figure some things out. I knew I wasn’t right."

No longer is Olt next up among the prospects. There are so many coming for the Cubs that if one doesn't succeed in whatever first chance he gets, he goes to the back of the line. Chris Coghlan had to wait his turn and got that opportunity. Now, Olt has to find his way by contributing however the Cubs see fit. Working in the outfield will only increase his chances of getting that playing time.

"This has been a good thing for me," Olt said. "Deal with adversity early on in my career. You just have to be ready for anything.

"It's going to happen in baseball. I was happy to make an adjustment."

Rapid Reaction: Cubs 6, Brewers 4

September, 26, 2014
Sep 26
10:49
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
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MILWAUKEE – The Chicago Cubs beat the Milwaukee Brewers 6-4 on Friday night. Here’s a quick look at the game.

How it happened: The Cubs never trailed as they scored runs in every other inning until the ninth, starting with a leadoff home run by Chris Coghlan on the game’s second pitch. Jean Segura tied matters in the bottom of the second with his own solo shot, but the Cubs retook the lead in the top of the next inning when Javier Baez and Jorge Soler drove in runs. After a sloppy bottom half of the third brought the Brewers within one run, the Cubs responded with two more in the fifth. Baez brought home another one with an RBI base hit, and Anthony Rizzo drove him home with a double. Soler added an RBI single in the seventh. Cubs starter Eric Jokisch looked shaky, lasting only four innings as he battled control issues. The left-hander walked four and was consistently behind in counts. Hector Rondon earned his 28th save with an 11-pitch ninth.

Renteria ejected: Cubs manager Rick Renteria was thrown out in the bottom of the eighth inning after arguing with second-base umpire Jeff Nelson. Nelson called a balk on pitcher Pedro Strop, but, when the pitch was hit to Luis Valbuena at third base, Cubs first baseman Rizzo thought the play was dead and didn't cover the bag. The Brewers chose to take the result of the batted ball, which put men on first and third. A run eventually scored before Strop got out of the jam.

What it means: Baez posted his second career three-hit game and first since Aug. 7. He didn't do anything special in just getting some balls into the outfield, including a broken-bat RBI hit in the third. Coghlan was impressive again in the 1-hole, with the leadoff homer and a double to begin the third inning.

It wasn't a great showing for Jokisch. He averaged 1.8 walks per nine innings in the minors this season but just couldn’t find the plate Friday. For most of his four innings, he pitched with a lead -- making the leadoff walks in the third and fourth innings look even worse.

Pitching change: On second thought, the Cubs decided to shut down starter Kyle Hendricks after the righty threw a career-high 183 innings between Triple-A and the majors this season. He was scheduled to start the season finale Sunday. Jacob Turner will take his place.

What’s next: Game 2 of the series is slated for Saturday night, when lefty Tsuyoshi Wada (4-3, 3.22 ERA) takes on right-hander Wily Peralta (16-11, 3.62) at 6:10 CT.

Epstein on Baez: 'He's a fighter'

September, 26, 2014
Sep 26
8:35
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
MILWAUKEE -- Javier Baez might be struggling through his first call-up to the major leagues, but the Chicago Cubs are hardly down on infielder. No one likes seeing 90 strikeouts in fewer than 50 career games, but what the Cubs do like is his attitude and fight. Baez will get every chance to take what he's learning this season and start to turn things around next.

“In some ways it’s gone as expected,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said Friday afternoon. “He’s extraordinarily talented but very raw. He hasn’t quite learned a consistent approach where he swings at the pitches he wants to swing at, so he’s letting the pitcher dictate the course of the at-bat by not being selective enough. When you do that in the big leagues, it can get ugly in a hurry.”

[+] EnlargeJavier Baez
AP Photo/Morry GashJavier Baez entered Friday with a .161 average but singled in his first three at-bats.
In every interview about Baez, his age is bound to come up. At just 21, he’s still learning on the job. And Epstein was quick to point out the positives. This isn’t a player losing his mind and subsequently his entire game because he was hitting .161 entering play Friday.

“It’s really important to recognize what he’s done defensively,” Epstein said. “He’s played an incredible shortstop. Beyond the tools, he’s shown a great baseball head on his shoulders. He’s won the respect of the veterans here. That’s big. That’s not to be taken for granted for a 21-year-old to do that.”

The Cubs are rallying around Baez, with manager Rick Renteria saying similar things. And they’re not wrong. Baez hasn’t taken his offensive issues to the clubhouse or out onto the field. And while his numbers are ugly -- even for a 21 year-old rookie call-up -- he’s a talented player. With his massive swings come the good and the bad. We saw the good when he first came up from Triple-A, but then came the swings-and-misses. There have been a lot of them.

“His confidence is high,” Renteria said. “He’s continuing to understand he needs to make adjustments. He knows he can do better. He’s done a great job with a little bit of adversity.”

Epstein talked extensively how it takes a player time to “get comfortable,” and sometimes that change comes in the offseason. He likened it to adjustments made by Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro last winter. If Baez can really figure it at such a young age, all the struggles over the past few months will be worth it. By the same token, it could be another year or longer before it comes together.

“You can’t just tell someone to get comfortable,” Epstein said. “It takes time.”

Of course, you have to believe in the player in the first place. The Cubs do, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if a portion of the fan base did not. Baez's pitch selection hasn’t exactly been improving as much as some would like.

“He’s very aware of that dynamic and how he needs to adjust to fix it,” Epstein said.

But again, telling someone to fix it and even showing him on video can’t always do the job without the player coming to it on his own. By all accounts, Baez is getting there, but the results might not show up until next season. The Cubs are hopeful.

“He’s a fighter,” Epstein said. “He doesn’t back down from challenges. He doesn’t get embarrassed about things. He just keeps coming back and trying to find a way.

“Sometimes it takes the offseason in baseball to make those adjustments.”

Epstein: Renteria to return for 2015

September, 26, 2014
Sep 26
7:10
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
MILWAUKEE – A year ago this month, Chicago Cubs president Theo Epstein opened the door for the possibility of then-manager Dale Sveum being dismissed after the season.

The Cubs did indeed fire Sveum, but there’s no such talk this year about his replacement, Rick Renteria. Before the Cubs played the Milwaukee Brewers on Friday night, Epstein was asked if Renteria would be back next season.

“Yeah, absolutely,” he responded.

Renteria is 71-88 heading into the season's final series. He signed a three-year deal last winter that also includes two team option years. He’s been credited with setting the right atmosphere for young players such as Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo to have rebound seasons, and he’s set the tone for a group of prospects who have made their major league debuts this year. Communication and development were said to be Renteria's strengths before he was hired, and from all indications he has proved apt in that department.

Epstein admitted last month that he hoped Renteria would grow with the team in the X’s and O’s department, and handling a young pitching staff that has seen a good measure of turnover isn’t easy. As for the rest of the coaching staff, the Cubs say they’ll address matters after the season -- but don’t expect major changes.

“By and large the coaching staff did a great job this year,” Epstein said.

Renteria was asked if there would be any changes to his staff.

“At this point, not that I’m aware of,” he said.

Podcast: One-on-one with Jake Arrieta

September, 26, 2014
Sep 26
7:02
PM CT
By Staff
ESPNChicago.com
ESPN Chicago's Jesse Rogers talks with Chicago Cubs starter Jake Arrieta about his breakout season and what he plans on doing for an encore next year. Arrieta went 10-5 with a 2.53 ERA and a 0.99 WHIP in 25 starts.

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Coaching the next step for Baker

September, 24, 2014
Sep 24
8:07
PM CT
By Sahadev Sharma
Special to ESPNChicago.com
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John BakerCharles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsBaseball is "all I really know," said Cubs catcher John Baker, who is eyeing a transition to coaching.

CHICAGO -- The stairs up to the Wrigley Field press box are lined with pictures of the Chicago Cubs' current roster. Right after a few images of the coaching staff, the first player shown is John Baker. It's nothing but a coincidence, but it's an interesting one, since the 33-year-old Baker is nearing the end of his playing career and seems likely to transition to a coaching job at some level in the near future.

"It's something that I would like to do, just because I think there are things in the game I could change," Baker said when asked about a potential future in managing. "I think there's coaching philosophies that could be altered -- not pointing any fingers here or other teams -- but just stuff that I see that works and stuff that doesn't work that I'd like to be able to put my stamp on and see what kind of environment I could cultivate with what I know from all the teams I've been on."

Baker appears more than willing to think outside the box if the opportunity arose and he found himself managing a club. While he pointed out that advanced statistics definitely hold an important role in today's game, Baker believes the sabermetric angle is most valuable to the people in front offices, especially when constructing a roster. Numbers certainly have a place for coaches as well, but Baker says the bottom line is most players don't have much use for them.

"It's something I don't think the players think about very often, nor should they think about it," Baker said. "Because baseball boils down to, no matter which way you slice it, hit the ball with the stick and chase the ball in the grass. Mathematics don't necessarily help you with your reaction. It’s going to help [first-base coach] Eric Hinske move Jorge Soler 15 feet to his left, because maybe that's where Matt Holliday is 70 percent likely to hit the ball when we throw a fastball up and away. But it's not going to help Jorge Soler catch the ball."

Baker admitted that a sort of liaison between the front office and coaching staff to help communicate that sort of information could be useful. It's something that more and more teams are starting to use and could become the norm soon enough all around baseball. However, when it comes to having a passion for the game and getting into the nitty-gritty of learning everything about an opponent, Baker seems willing and able to tackle that head-on.

"I really like playing baseball, I love to watch baseball, it's really all I know," Baker said. "I consider myself … not necessarily an expert physically, but I’ve probably watched, closely, more games than a lot of people -- analyzed it on video, watched games on the airplane, trying to figure out why people are pitching certain people certain ways. Trying to figure out different strategies for success and different strategies for cultivating the right environment in the locker room."

Baker surprised some by snagging the backup catcher role in spring training over George Kottaras. But soon, any doubters realized that Baker's infectious personality, easygoing nature and unimpeachable work ethic made him the perfect veteran to work with the pitching staff and have around a young, impressionable core of talent.

"My responsibility as a player is to show up to the field every day ready to play baseball and, in whatever way I can, help the team win the game," Baker said. "I think sometimes that mindset gets lost, especially with the newer generation. I think it's my responsibility to act that way all the time so that when other people see it, they say, 'Oh my gosh, this is a guy who batted seventh in high school, walked on in college and got to the big leagues. He's not the best athlete, but he spends lots of time in the weight room, spends lots of time in the cage, spends lots of time in the video room and spends lots of time practicing.'

"I think you need people around some super-talented guys who have the work ethic where they're going to practice all the time. I think they can learn something from that, because they realize that there's not just one way to be successful. It's not just about having talent; a lot of times it's about being able to prepare. When you prepare and work really hard, even athletes like me can make it to the big leagues."

Baker is aware he might have a future in managing, but he's not spending any energy thinking about that right now. He'll have plenty of time in the offseason to consider his options for next season, which he says include playing again or perhaps moving on to the next phase -- coaching, possibly in the minors or college. But while he's on a major league roster, his only concern is the present.

"Embrace the fact that you're at Wrigley Field and that you're playing against the Cardinals, and that's a really cool thing," Baker said. "The moment I start thinking about myself -- I hate to say it because I have a family that I'll have to take care of in the future -- but I consider those thoughts about my own future away from baseball while I'm a member of the Chicago Cubs is selfish and against what my entire philosophy of baseball [is]. And that philosophy is that every day we show up, it's our job to try to win the game -- and everything that I can do to try and win the game is what I'm supposed to do."

And, while the Cubs haven't done a lot of winning in 2014, or in the recent past, Baker is very confident that is about to change.

"Playing with these players, these younger players especially, that I've played with this year, I love the way their mindset is," Baker said. "Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo in particular. Javy Baez, the way he plays, Jorge Soler, how excited he is to be here. I look at these young players and how good they are, how they're approaching baseball, I really feel like they're going to change this organization. It's something I would love to be a part of. I really feel there's going to be a World Series here in the not too distant future, and I'd love to be a part of that."

Castillo making September push

September, 24, 2014
Sep 24
12:42
AM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO – As if he’s heard the chatter about the Chicago Cubs possibly searching for a new catcher this winter, Welington Castillo is leaving a good impression before the end of the season.

Castillo continued a hot month by getting the game-winning hit in the bottom of the 10th inning Tuesday, and the Cubs beat the St. Louis Cardinals 4-3. Eight innings earlier, Castillo had opened the scoring with his 13th home run of the season.

“It was amazing to hit the homer and walk-off base hit,” Castillo said with a smile after the game. “I’m always thinking it’s the last game of my life, the older I get.”

As the Cubs transition to a winning club, they’ve stated they want to add some experience to help their young players. By getting a veteran catcher -- such as free-agent-to-be Russell Martin of the Pittsburgh Pirates, for example -- they can kill two birds with one stone. They’ll have a new leader in the clubhouse and a veteran game-caller, a supposed weakness of Castillo's. But pitchers such as Kyle Hendricks might say "not so fast." Hendricks has a 1.96 ERA in 11 starts with Castillo behind the plate entering play Tuesday.
[+] EnlargeWelington Castillo
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastWelington Castillo had a big night at the plate Tuesday, with a two-run home run and the game-winning RBI.


“He’s been on the same page with me since Day 1,” Hendricks said. “It’s made it so much easier for me to adapt at this level. I can’t thank him enough for how hard he works and how much time he puts in to know the hitters, so when I go out there I can trust him and not have to think so much about what I have to do.”

Those sentiments have been mostly reserved for veteran backup John Baker, but Castillo and Hendricks have clicked.

Like in the past year at this time, Castillo is leaving another late impression that maybe the experience he’s getting is starting to pay off. On offense, he’s mostly had a pedestrian year, but because of a hot final month, his numbers are starting to look better. His on-base percentage is up to .300, and he has 13 home runs -- tied for fourth among NL catchers. He’s hitting .314 in September with hits in all but four games he has played in. And all that is while battling some nagging injuries.

“He’s continued to grind through the season with double-digit homers and a big game-winning hit [Tuesday],” manager Rick Renteria said.

But Castillo still hasn’t shown enough consistency at the plate, and if calling a game isn’t a strength yet, the whispers for a new catcher might be legitimate. His overall batting average is just .241, and his OPS is below .700. Most of his offensive numbers range from mid-pack to bottom-third in terms of catchers in the league. But he remains one of the best at blocking pitches, and with some help from his pitching staff, he’s been throwing out more base runners lately.

Add it up, and the Cubs could do worse than Castillo as they head into the next season. It’s just the position he plays might require a more veteran presence moving forward as Chicago fields one of the younger teams in the league.

Rapid Reaction: Cubs 4, Cardinals 3

September, 23, 2014
Sep 23
10:25
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO – The Cubs beat the St. Louis Cardinals 4-3 in 10 innings on Tuesday night. Here’s a quick look at the game.

How it happened: Welington Castillo drove in Anthony Rizzo with the winning run after Rizzo doubled with one out in the bottom of the 10th inning. The Cubs got out to a 2-0 lead when Castillo drove a ball into the left-field bleachers in the bottom of the second inning for his 13th home run of the season. They added one in the fifth on a Matt Szczur home run, his second of the year. But the Cardinals tied it in the sixth while chasing starter Kyle Hendricks. Matt Holliday hit a game-tying, two-run home run before Castillo's heroics in the 10th.

What it means: Hendricks pitched well but got hit in his final inning. Still, he gave up just five base knocks and made that one bad pitch to Holliday. His ERA climbed to 2.46 with one start to go, as he’ll pitch the season finale Sunday in Milwaukee. Szczur had only one home run in 414 at-bats in the minors this season. He has two in fewer than 60 at-bats in the big leagues.

Rotation set: Before the game, manager Rick Renteria announced the three starters for this weekend's season-finale series in Milwaukee. Eric Jokisch will pitch Friday, Tsuyoshi Wada on Saturday and Hendricks on Sunday.

What’s next: Game 3 against the Cardinals takes place Wednesday night and features Jake Arrieta (9-5, 2.65 ERA) against John Lackey (3-2, 4.50).

Reconstruction of Wrigley set to begin

September, 23, 2014
Sep 23
6:52
PM CT
Greenberg By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- The home portion of the Chicago Cubs schedule ends Wednesday evening. Then, the real work begins.

The Cubs will begin their long-awaited, $375 million reconstruction of Wrigley Field this weekend, Cubs vice president of communications Julian Green said Tuesday.

First up is the bleacher expansion and the preparation for the expanded home clubhouse. On deck is everything else as the process is expected to take at least four offseasons.

The streets behind the outfield walls have been partially obstructed for weeks as the power and gas lines have been moved to ready for the bleacher expansion. Because of the construction, Waveland and Sheffield Avenues will be closed from the start of construction until Opening Day, Green said.

The left-field and right-field bleachers will be completely rebuilt, with a new party deck in left. The center-field section won't be renovated this offseason, Green said.

The Cubs will start digging their first non-metaphorical hole at Wrigley in many years when they tear up the parking lots that border Clark Street and Waveland Avenue. That construction will continue through next season, along with other fortifications of the 100-year-old stadium to ready it for future enhancements.

What will be different for fans in 2015, aside from the chance at seeing a moderately competitive team?

A giant 4,000-square foot videoboard, for one.

The Cubs still haven't decided on which company will manufacture the board. Request for proposals are still out, Green said, but a decision should be made shortly. He reiterated that it will be up in left-center field for their home opener, April 6, against the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cubs are counting on ad revenue from the videoboard to help bolster their baseball budget.

Another smaller videoboard, similar to the one in right field directly above the ivy, will be in left field next season as part of the party deck. In their amended agreement with the landmark commission, the Cubs received
approval for five additional outfield signs, much to the chagrin of the rooftop club owners. The Cubs "intend" to have those signs, which includes a smaller videoboard in right field, installed for Opening Day.

Also on tap is the large script Budweiser sign in right field that the Cubs claimed would be up for Opening Day of this season.

The bullpens won't be moved under the bleachers until the 2016 season, when the expanded home clubhouse is also expected to be ready.

The Cubs are still trying to find a new TV home for about 70 games next season. The team's contract with WGN, which has telecast games since 1948, is expiring after the season, and the team is still trying to figure out where those games will go. Green had no information but said the Chicago Tribune's characterization that the search is in "extra innings" was accurate.

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TEAM LEADERS

BA LEADER
Starlin Castro
BA HR RBI R
.292 14 65 58
OTHER LEADERS
HRA. Rizzo 32
RBIA. Rizzo 78
RA. Rizzo 89
OPSA. Rizzo .913
WJ. Arrieta 10
ERAT. Wood 5.03
SOJ. Arrieta 167