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It's No Joke: The New-Look Cubs Are Ready to Win and Win Big in 2015

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistApril 1, 2015

B/R via Getty, AP Images

MESA, Arizona — These are the New Cubs: A funky, brilliant manager concerned between spring drills with the "dining experience" at his new restaurant. An MVP-candidate first baseman whose bold prediction of a division title reverberated throughout the spring. A Rookie of the Year candidate who...

You want the Rookie of the Year candidate third baseman who bludgeoned Cactus League pitching this spring as if he is the second coming of Babe Ruth? Hello, Kris Bryant.

Or the Rookie of the Year candidate outfielder from Cuba with the thoroughbred body who reminds the new manager of Vladimir Guerrero? Hello, Jorge Soler.

Or perhaps a Rookie of the Year candidate second baseman from Puerto Rico with the hands of a magician? Hello, Javier Baez.

And, these are the Old Cubs: A veteran pitcher who was scratched from a spring start because he showed up for work at the wrong park. Whoops. Players arriving at their gorgeous training facility on the last Saturday of camp to a greeting on the clubhouse message board: "No Hot Water." Brrr.

The more things stay the same, the more they change. Or is that the other way around?

Bleacher Report spent three days last week with an organization moving through growing pains toward a season that many believe will launch one of the greatest eras in Cubs history.

Snapshot: The Ace

Chris Carlson/Associated Press

Mid-morning, already a sizzling 86 degrees and Cubs president Theo Epstein can breathe again. For the past 10 days, ever since Jon Lester complained of shoulder fatigue, dead arm—the descriptions were interchangeableEpstein quietly has been holding it in.

Spring training's reputation as a casual, carefree time of year belies one hard truth: Each moment brings with it the threat that something could go terribly wrong and derail the six-month grind ahead. A blown-out elbow or shredded shoulder in March has sabotaged the best-laid plans of the smartest executives. At this level, even when everything appears in place on the surface, stomachs churn just beneath it. It's the cost of doing business.

Not that there was any sign of imminent disaster around Lester, a nine-year veteran who has never been on the disabled list with an arm problem. But both the stakes and the timetable for this organization's laborious rebuilding process were fast-tracked once the Cubs won the bidding war for him over the winter and signed Lester for $155 million over six years.

Now, here he was throwing in a minor league game on a back field after skipping his last start. Pop! Fastball, 93 mph. Pop! Cutter, 87. One inning, two innings, three, four. Pop! Pop! Pop! They would all agree later, from Epstein to new manager Joe Maddon to catcher David Ross: Lester was throwing free and easy. He looked comfortable. He mixed up his pitches. Bullet dodged. Breathe.

You cannot overstate the significance of Lester's presence on a team loaded with young talent, nor can you over-exaggerate his importance at a pivotal point in Cubs history.

"Jon Lester is going to help this organization in so many more ways than just taking the ball every five days," says Rick Sutcliffe, the former Cubs great brought back by Epstein as a special instructor.

Two days ago, Sutcliffe spoke to the Cubs minor leaguers and brought Lester with him. First, though, he asked Ross—who played with Lester in Boston—what type of things he should ask the left-hander in front of the minor leaguers.

Preparation, the catcher said. Ask him about his preparation. So Sutcliffe did.

Rick Sutcliffe
Rick SutcliffeAndrew Nelles/Associated Press/Associated Press

"Jon shows up not every fifth day to get the win, he shows up every day to get the win," Sutcliffe says. "He talked about his preparation all five days. His lift day workload. His running day. His throwing routine. He will not walk out of that clubhouse unless he is prepared to win.

"Jon Lester is going to help this organization, in my opinion, for decades to come."

Best news right now is that Lester appears in shape to help this organization on Sunday night, April 5, when the Cubs host the St. Louis Cardinals in the season opener. He had been up to 70 pitches in a Cactus League game, but the Cubs backed him off to 54 pitches this morning against the minor leaguers. Just to be safe.

Test passed, Maddon figures Lester will throw between 75 and 80 pitches in his final spring outing, positioning him for close to "a hunskey" against the Cardinals.

No wonder, a couple of days later, during another Maddon session with reporters, old friend and camp visitor Mickey Hatcher, the former big leaguer and Angels hitting coach, heckles from a few yards away.

"I hope you guys have a dictionary so you can figure out what he's talking about!" Hatcher quips, breaking Maddon up and adding to the vibe around here that is producing equal parts smiles and confidence.

Had that dictionary been available, it would have defined "hunskey" as 100, of course. Realistically, Maddon figures, Lester maybe will go 95 pitches in the opener.

In the clubhouse, Ross, when asked how Lester's arm looked, deadpans that it "looked nice and freckly when I saw him. He had a farmer's tan. He didn't look tired."

In a serious moment, Ross describes Lester as a perfectionist and one of the fiercest competitors he's ever known.

"I'll take that guy off of the couch in December," Ross says. "In competition, I'll take that guy anytime, anyplace, even if he hasn't thrown the ball in two months."

Snapshot: The Skipper

MESA, AZ - MARCH 6: Joe Maddon #70, manager of the Chicago Cubs is seen prior to the game between the Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds on March 6, 2015 at Sloan Park in Mesa, Arizona. The Reds defeated the Cubs 5-2. (Photo by Rich Pilling/Getty Images)
Rich Pilling/Getty Images

Yes, Joe Maddon uses words like "hunskey" and "gimmicky." He is as comfortable discussing wine, literature and rock 'n' roll as shifts and double switches.

And his Italian restaurant, Ava, not only immediately was named as the best restaurant in Tampa by the Tampa Bay Times, it received that particular critic's highest marks ever (ahem, the fried kale salad and wood-roasted vegetables with olive oil and sea salt are spectacular, as is the Cavatelli al Ragu—pasta with fennel sausage and tomato).

Now, here's the deal: Guys caked in infield dirt and encrusted with dried tobacco spittle see through phonies and posers in a split-second flat. But they do not see through Maddon, because there is nothing to see through. He is authentic and genuine, the beatnik manager who remains spellbinding to those who know him and easily wins over those who don't.

"It's very simple: There's zero eyewash with him," Ross says. "There's zero doing things just to check them off of a list. He does things to make you think baseball and be a better baseball player."

One day, Baez and rookie shortstop Addison Russell turn a spectacular double play—the two of them are like a symphony on the field, so good defensively. It was spectacular partly because Baez is taken out at second base as if by a linebacker on a football field. When Maddon goes out to check on him, he asks Baez, "When was the last time a Puerto Rican played in the NFL?"

The next day, slugger Anthony Rizzo is batting leadoff. At his request.

"I asked," Rizzo says, practically beaming. "It's something I've always wanted to do. They've been messing with the lineup a lot, so why not? It will be fun."

There are many different routes to winning, and it is safe to say that Maddon, who managed Tampa Bay to four playoff berths in seven seasons, takes the road least traveled. Can you imagine Tony La Russa handling that request? Rizzo might have been run through the shredder before exiting the manager's office.

Anthony Rizzo asked, and was allowed, to bat leadoff in a recent spring game for the Cubs.
Anthony Rizzo asked, and was allowed, to bat leadoff in a recent spring game for the Cubs.Matt York/Associated Press/Associated Press

"Why not?" Maddon asks. "I like doing that once in awhile. It's always about perspective, and you let guys do things like that it sort of freshens them up a bit. It's exciting to see it happen, the fans dig it, so let's give it a whirl.

"I love that stuff. Although some guys...feel it's gimmicky. But it's the type of gimmick I do like to use. Anything that alters somebody's mindset, which is needed in a moment, I think is good."

The genius of Joe Maddon is that he is not one size fits all. He relates to players of all shapes, sizes, positions and nationalities. Veteran reliever Joaquin Benoit, now with the Padres, relays the tale of Maddon's handling of closer Fernando Rodney in Tampa Bay in 2012.

Coming off of two disappointing seasons in a suffocating atmosphere under Angels manager Mike Scioscia, Rodney brightened up considerably when Maddon got in his face early in '12 and told him it was bullcrap, the way he was wearing his cap. Crooked and sloppy, with the bill toward the side like he now wears it? No. In Anaheim, Rodney was told to wear it straight. He couldn't be himself.

Steve Nesius/Associated Press

Wear it crooked, Maddon ordered. Then, often when Rodney would pitch, Maddon did the same with his own cap in a dugout show of solidarity. Rodney responded with an All-Star, 48-save season.

"He's brought a ton of energy and optimism," says Epstein, who stole the skipper away from Tampa Bay in November with a five-year, $25 million deal (the Rays have filed tampering charges, which the Cubs firmly deny, and MLB is investigating). "He's an old-school and new-school baseball guy. The closer you get to him, the more you realize it's genuine, it's not an act.

"I think players pick up on that and they go out and play in a really relaxed, loose, free state of mind that will make us play better as a team."

To a man this spring, the Cubs are all in.

"He's awesome," Bryant says. "He understands what we go through as players and he'll go to bat for you. It's been real cool to see how he goes about it.

"It's exciting for me because it's cool when you've got a manager like that who also understands there is more to life than just baseball."

Snapshot: The Phenom

Chris Carlson/Associated Press

Next to Kris Bryant in the Cubs' spring clubhouse is center fielder Dexter Fowler. Which means Fowler has spent a large part of his spring patiently weaving his way around the media masses worshiping at the altar of Bryant.

"There's always room for me," the good-natured Fowler says, chuckling. "You have to make room for yourself, right? And he's sure done a good job with that."

Bryant has been electric enough this spring (.425/.477/1.175 and a team-leading nine homers and 15 RBI) that he alone could run the lights for the many night games this spring across the desert. Plus, he led professional baseball with 43 home runs in the minors last season. Still, on this day he appears to have made room for himself everywhere but on the Cubs' Opening Day roster. Sure enough, 72 hours later he will be optioned to minor league camp.

For business reasons having to do with pushing his arbitration and free-agent clocks back a year, Bryant will spend at least the first 12 days of the season in the minor leagues.

The Cubs will not admit to this business reason, of course. They say he needs more seasoning defensively at third base in the minors. Plus, Epstein's track record in Boston and here is that he has never put a key rookie on an Opening Day roster.

Scott Boras
Scott BorasLenny Ignelzi/Associated Press/Associated Press

The injustice of it all has raged back and forth, peaking when Bryant's agent, Scott Boras, ripped Cubs owner Tom Ricketts to USA Today. How frayed are nerves? When Epstein is asked if he has a few moments to talk about general Cubs issues, he says sure, then mutters that he's got nothing more to say this spring about one player in particular.

Bryant? At 23, he's handling everything with a maturity beyond his years. Which is no surprise, because Bryant, the second pick in the 2013 draft, is wise beyond his years.

He carried a 3.35 grade-point average as a finance major at the University of San Diego, and when he and I last spoke during his final days at USD the week before the '13 draft, he had just finished final exams in marketing, business law and financial management the day before, plus turned in an English paper.

Now, it's as if he is in his final exams as a professional: The majors are tantalizingly close. But in addition to the business end of things, the Cubs have hit him with a late spring surprise: A couple of starts in left field.

"It is a little different because you're working out at one position all spring and then all of a sudden it changes," Bryant says. "But I'm a baseball player, and it's good to have that versatility.

"I think if you go about it with a positive attitude, it will all turn out good."

Back before the draft in '13, one scout who watched him frequently said he thought that, if third base was rough at the majors level, he could excel in right field at a Gold Glove level because of his long, lanky body, a la Jayson Werth.

Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

In his first spring game in left field, Bryant didn't get many chances but did double off a runner at second base with a pinpoint throw. And he hadn't patrolled the outfield since his junior year at USD in '13, when he played some center field and right field.

"Center field is fun," he says, noting that normally you don't have to deal with balls hooking and slicing like the corner outfielders do.

From the next locker over, Fowler pipes up: "Be careful, guys."

Says Bryant quickly: "I like center field, but Dexter's got center field."

At this point, Bryant clearly will be happy to get his foot into a major league uniform any way he can, the sooner the better, be it at third base or in the outfield. With their big dreams of immediate success, the Cubs players surely concur.

With nine spring homers, Bryant came close to the most of any player over the past decade. Philadelphia's Ryan Howard slammed 11 during spring training in 2006.

"I had the pleasure to be in spring training with Jason Heyward when he burst on the scene with Atlanta in 2010," Ross says. "He handled every minute of it, and I see the same thing with Kris, if not more.

"There have been articles written that he's a better person than he is a baseball player, and from what I've seen since I've been here, I have to agree.

"All of these young guys, that's the fun thing about being a Cub right now. It's not just the talent level, but also the human beings in here. They work hard, they're hungry and they're respectful."

Snapshot: The Prognosticator

Chris Carlson/Associated Press

So the stage was set for this spring, for this season, heck, probably for this generation of Cubs back in January when Anthony Rizzo, speaking to Chicago media a day before the start of the Cubs' Convention, said this:

"We're going to win the NL Central. Quote me on that. We should be the team, with all due respect to every other team, they're just as good talent-wise, but we're going to do some things this year. That's what we're expecting."

Instead of backing down or changing the subject, the Cubs have owned Rizzo's words ever since. The next day, Epstein said "swagger is a good thing." Maddon said he was all in.

Rizzo, 25, is an emerging star who finished 10th in NL MVP voting last season. He hit .286/.386/.527 with 32 homers and 78 RBI and, most notably, compiled a .928 OPS against left-handers. As his bat matured, so, too, did his leadership skills.

On Sunday, in as fitting an opener as you could schedule, the new Cubs will begin their season against the St. Louis Cardinals, who have played in four consecutive NLCS and in seven of the past 11. Yes, the road to the NL Central division title runs through St. Louis every bit as much as the Mississippi River.

"You know what?" Rizzo says. "I probably should have said we'll finish in fourth place. But I think that would be [disrespectful] to this team, to this organization and to the whole city of Chicago if I said we were going to lose.

"We're young, and we're confident."

We're talking about an organization that has not finished over .500 for four consecutive seasons since 1967-1972. And since then has only produced three consecutive seasons above .500 once, under then-GM Jim Hendry from 2007-09. The players finally are in place to better all of that, and they do not intend to waste time.

"I think he's right," catcher Miguel Montero, acquired from the Diamondbacks over the winter, says of Rizzo's prediction. "I'm going to be with him. I support him. We can do it. I don't know why not.

"I don't see anybody better than us."

MESA, AZ - MARCH 6: David Ross #3 of the Chicago Cubs is seen prior to the game between the Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds on March 6, 2015 at Sloan Park in Mesa, Arizona. The Reds defeated the Cubs 5-2. (Photo by Rich Pilling/Getty Images)
Rich Pilling/Getty Images

At 38 and in his 14th big league season, Ross, who signed as a free agent over the winter, not only is the wise, old hand in the clubhouse, he's got more winning pedigree than just about anybody employed by the Cubs in years. Ross has played on division winners with the Dodgers (2004), Padres (2005) and the Red Sox (2013) as well as wild-card clubs in Boston (2008) and Atlanta (2010 and 2012).

There is a reason the Cubs wanted him in the clubhouse as they train their prospects in the game's many facets, including how to win.

"It's funny," Ross says of Rizzo's bulletin-board quotes. "When I was coming up, you'd never say those things.

"But playing in winning environments, I've learned that if you believe you're good, there's nothing wrong with saying you're good. It wasn't cocky the way he said it.

"I feel like him and a lot of guys in here have paid their dues. To be excited, and not scared, says a lot about their personalities. Some people cower from expectations.

"It's a great prediction, but we're a work in progress. I definitely believe what he said is true, that we're a division contender. The only reason I'm still playing is to go to a World Series.

"That's why I came to Chicago."

Snapshot: The Hype

Matt York/Associated Press

Shortly after Epstein was hired and brought Sutcliffe aboard as an adviser in 2012, he handed Sutcliffe an assignment: Go out and evaluate our pitchers.

So Sutcliffe saw 67 minor league pitchers in two days, then went back and gave his report.

"Three guys can pitch in the big leagues," Sutcliffe told Epstein.

"#$%@!" Epstein told him back.

"He knew it, too," Sutcliffe, who will return to the ESPN booth as an analyst again this season, says. "And it's completely changed now.

"You think back to Boston when Theo was there, where every year they had one, two, three impact players coming up from the minors, guys like Xander Bogaerts, Clay Buchholz, Kevin Youkilis, Jacoby Ellsbury...those are the pieces I see in place here now."

The pipeline is long, with the latest evidence coming on Tuesday when Baseball America named the Cubs No. 1 in its annual ranking of the game's 30 farm systems.

Bryant, who has hit at every professional level he's sampled, was named as the 2014 Minor League Player of the Year by both Baseball America and USA Today. In two professional summers, from rookie ball up through Triple-A, Bryant has combined to hit .327 with 140 runs scored, 48 doubles, three triples, 52 homers and 142 RBI in 174 career games.

MESA, AZ - MARCH 2:  Jorge Soler #68 of the Chicago Cubs poses for a portrait during Photo Day on March 2, 2015 at Sloan Park in Mesa, Arizona.  (Photo by Rich Pilling/Getty Images)
Rich Pilling/Getty Images

The Cubs signed Soler, 23, to a nine-year, $30 million deal in June, 2012, after he fled Cuba.

"I'm just seeing him for the first time and, as a scout, my God," Maddon says. "If he was in the United States as a draft choice, he's the No. 1 pick overall, no doubt."

Soler, 6'4" and 215 pounds, will play right field and likely bat second for the Cubs, giving him a jump on Bryant for the Rookie of the Year race—though he has battled an assortment of leg injuries already in his brief professional career.

"I really, really enjoy the way he is," Maddon says. "He's like Vladimir with plate discipline."

Baez, 22, who was dispatched to the minors on Monday along with Bryant, was named as the Cubs' top prospect entering both the 2013 and 2014 seasons by Baseball America. The Cubs' first-round pick (ninth overall) in 2011, he is both a highly intelligent and street-smart kid who had a tough childhood in Puerto Rico. His father died when he was 10, and then his family moved to Florida so his sister could be treated for spina bifida.

Javier Baez
Javier BaezNorm Hall/Getty Images

The puzzling thing about Baez is that he has been able to handle every part of the game but the batter's box, where he simply has been unable to slow things down. He has struck out in 42 percent of his professional plate appearances, and that rate remained alarming this spring (20 whiffs in 52 at-bats).

"I understand it's a long process," says Baez, who explains that because of his strikeout rate, the Cubs took away his big leg kick, and he's had difficulty finding his balance and timing ever since.

"Probably in the future I'll go back to normal, to the big leg kick," he says. "But for now I'm trying to stay short to the ball."

Addison Russell, ticketed to start at Triple-A Iowa, is one of the game's best prospects and will turn Starlin Castro into trade bait in the near future. Russell, acquired from Oakland in last summer's Jeff Samardzija trade, is pure silk at shortstop. Outfielder Billy McKinney, catcher Kyle Schwarber and outfielder Albert Almora round out a pool of young talent that is scary.

"I'm picking the Cubs to win this year," Sutcliffe says. "And people say, 'Yeah, well, you work for the Cubs.' I picked Kansas City last year and people said the same thing, 'Yeah, well, you live in Kansas City.'"

Addison Russell
Addison RussellRoss D. Franklin/Associated Press/Associated Press

The Royals played in the World Series regardless of how Sutcliffe's predictions and real estate situation jibed.

"The expectations are a reflection of some of the young positional talent we have on the field, Jon Lester as a No. 1 starter and Joe Maddon, a talented manager," Epstein says. "In that sense, it's expected, and I'm glad that our fans are excited. They deserve to be excited.

"But I do think our young players risk missing out on that opportunity to surprise people, where they can have that season where they can sneak up on teams and at the end of the year, people look back and say, 'Wow they were better than I thought they'd be.'

"That might be gone now, and that's fine. It's good to hold the organization accountable, hold me accountable to the highest expectation. But individually, I'd like our young players to be afforded a little bit of patience and have a little bit of time to find their games. Because it takes time to find your comfort level as position players in the big leagues."

Internally, the Cubs are prepared for the roller-coaster ride that surely will be just up ahead. Bryant went 0-for-4 Saturday against Jered Weaver, a smart veteran who has lost the sizzle on his fastball but is crafty enough to make 86 and 83 mph pitches play. They are so young. There will be tape-measure homers and highlight-reel plays. There also will be frustration and more growing pains.

"We are extremely young, and if you take a look at the Royals they had a similar group of hitters three years ago and they all played really well last year and got to the World Series," Epstein says. "But if you look back, it took them about 2,000 plate appearances in the big leagues, on average, to reach that point where they could go out and be themselves and hit and perform at a big-league level.

"I think if it takes our guys that long, from the outside looking in, people will consider them disappointments, big-time, for the next few years. And maybe they should. We're doing everything we can to make it happen as quickly as possible, but we also know there are going to be players who struggle. Every player has his own timetable."

Or, his own GPS. But it may be best not to mention that too loudly right now. It was right-hander Edwin Jackson who reminded everyone last week that even in the teeth of optimism and exuberance, some things about the Cubs will never change.

Edwin Jackson
Edwin JacksonMatt York/Associated Press

Slated for a spring start last Wednesday against the Athletics, the well-liked Jackson plugged their spring home into his phone and Google Maps spit out directions to Phoenix Municipal Stadium.

Mistake. The A's moved to the Cubs' old home in Mesa, Hohokam Park, in 2015. The only team that plays at Phoenix Muni is Arizona State University.

"You pull in and nobody's there and the sign says 'ASU' and you're like, 'great,'" Jackson says.

Maybe there's no better metaphor for a young, uber-talented team homing in on its target while still finding its way.

Quips Jackson: "I have to call the app lady and tell her to update it."

May as well, because a whole lot else is being updated around here, too.

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

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