Chicago Sun-Times

Inside the Cubs

with sports reporters Chris De Luca and Gordon Wittenmyer

When the Cubs look out west and see what Cuban rookie Yaiel Puig has done after just one week in the big leagues - and after just 63 games in the minors before that - it's hard not to think about recently drafted slugger Kris Bryant and the handful of other potential impact hitters in their system making the same big noise someday.

In fact, the Theo Epstein rebuilding program depends on it, manager Dale Sveum.

"Oh, yeah, those are the guys we're counting on in the organization that we need to come through when you do call them up," Sveum said of Bryant, advanced-A teammates Javy Baez and Jorge Soler and Class A outfielder Albert Almora. "Those are our best prospects - whether it's Baez, Soler, the Almoras - whenever they're ready to get here. We're still talking about a couple years away.

"[But] those are the guys that you have to have hit. Otherwise, you're back to the drawing board."

Soler and Baez made big first impressions at big-league camp in spring training. And both earned Florida State League All-Star selection.

And the heating-up Baez, delivered an eye-popping four-homer game Monday night.

But Sveum said he doesn't anticipate any of those top prospects getting even a late callup in September this year.

"We're not talking about next year or anytime this year," he said. "That's not what we're trying to do. :They're here to develop. ... We're still not getting the huge production at the level [they're at]."

Did the Cubs get the next Bryce Harper or Mike Trout with Thursday's No. 2 overall pick - a big hitter who could land in the big leagues fast as an impact player?

"Deep down I absolutely think that," said University of San Diego slugger Kris Bryant, the Cubs' choice for what many considered the team's most important draft pick in at least a decade.

"I think every ballplayer should think like that. You should think you can go out there and play with the best of the best," said the 6-foot-5 third baseman, who has drawn comparisons to Troy Glaus and Jayson Werth. "That confidence is definitely inside of me."

It's a confidence the Cubs seem to share after passing on the biggest power arm in the draft and their greatest area of need to take Bryant over Oklahoma right-hander Jonathan Gray.

Given the dearth of elite pitching prospects in the Cubs' system, the decision means the Cubs will look elsewhere for frontline starters - such as 26-year-old Cuban defector/free agent Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, or deadline trades of veterans again, along with an overall draft emphasis in pitching for the second consecutive year.

It might also suggest the timeline on the Cubs' rebuilding is getting moved back again, especially if Matt Garza is traded next month or leaves via free agency in the fall.

The Cubs moved to that pitching emphasis Thursday night with their second pick, taking Missouri junior Rob Zastryzny, a 6-foot-3 left-hander, with the 41st overall pick. Their next pick comes at 75 overall when the draft resumes Friday.

Bottom line with the No. 2 pick, said Jason McLeod, the Cubs' top scouting and player development executive was deciding on the likeliest big-impact, long-term player.

Bryant, 20, a junior whose advisor is hard-negotiating agent Scott Boras, hit .329 with 31 home runs and an .820 slugging percentage in 62 games for San Diego this year.

Once the Houston Astros selected Stanford pitcher Mark Appel - a pitcher coveted by some in the Cubs' draft room -- with the No. 1 overall pick, Gray seemed the likely choice for the Cubs to get the impact pitcher they crave.

Colorado took Gray with the third pick.

"We felt the best player for the Cubs long term, looking at those two players, was Kris Bryant," McLeod said. "We talked a lot about the history of the draft and position player vs. pitcher and those kinds of things."

Position players historically succeed at a higher rate and higher impact than pitchers with top first-round picks.

Recent changes in college-bat rules that reduced the exaggerated power of traditional aluminum bats made Bryant's numbers this year even more impressive and reliable for evaluating, McLeod said.

"Don't get me wrong," McLeod added, "We thought all three of those guys were very talented and deserved to go 1-2-3 in the draft. We just made the pick that we felt was right for this organization now and for the long-term."

Gray's draft stock was called into question in the past week with revelations he tested positive for Adderall, an ADHD medication commonly used by athletes for enhanced short-term focus.

But McLeod said: "Ultimately it didn't affect how we felt about him as a player and as a person. That really has no bearing on it, other than we had to do more due diligence on it. We certainly wish good health and success for Jon."

The Cubs have a $10.6 million MLB-mandated budget for their top 10 picks, including $6.7 million for Bryant's slot.

Bryant said he didn't know much about the Cubs except that they haven't won the World Series in "a while."

"Hopefully, I can do all I can to help the Cubs win one," he said, adding he plans to start quickly. "If we can make this deal happen, I obviously think I can play in the big leagues now. I have that type of confidence in myself. But that's not my decision."

Cubs' swings and misses with top draft picks

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Thursday's No. 2 overall draft pick for the Cubs could be the most significant in franchise history, given the Theo Epstein rebuilding project underway.

How the Cubs' previous top-5 overall picks have fared, including Joe Carter - the guy on the list with the best big-league career but who never played a game of it for the Cubs:

3B Josh Vitters (3), 2007 On DL at AAA; .121, 33 Ks, 38g

RHP Mark Prior (2), 2001 All-Star in '03 before derailed by injuries

SS Luis Montanez (3), 2000 .223 in 129g as OF since '08 debut with Orioles

OF Corey Patterson (3), 1998 Symbol for overhyped Cubs prospects (.252 career)

RHP Kerry Wood (4), 1995 RoY and 2-time All-Star had HoF look until injuries

RHP Mike Harkey (4), 1987 Cubs passed on J.McDowell (5) and K.Appier (9)

SS Shawon Dunston (1), 1982 2-time All-Star, longtime Wrigley favorite

OF Joe Carter (2), 1981 4-time All-Star traded in '84 Sutcliffe deal

OF Brian Rosinski (4), 1975 Local kid never got to big leagues

SS Terry Hughes (2), 1967 54 career big-league games (2 w/ Cubs)

RHP Dean Burk (5, 1966 Downstate kid never made big leagues

No more hugs for Pujols from the Cubs

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ANAHEIM, Calif. - Two years ago, the Cubs gave Albert Pujols a hug. The Angels gave him $240 million.

That was the intersection point for a pair of franchises that went in dramatically different directions as the 2011 season came to a close - the once-big-market, big-spending Cubs cordially passing on the big boys as the Rickettses' austerity plan took hold under the guiding, rebuilding hand of Theo Epstein.

The Angels, with the promise of a $3 billion local TV deal, spent like never before as owner Arte Moreno continued to chase the 2002 championship success of previous ownership - signing Pujols and $77.5-million pitcher C.J. Wilson in the 2011-12 winter, and $125-million outfielder Josh Hamilton last winter.

It hasn't paid off in October yet, but in the Cubs' first game against the Angels in three year, Pujols' eighth-inning homer off Carlos Villanueva - for L.A.'s 4-3 victory -- offered a reminder of why so many Cub fans seemed to rejoice over the hype of then-GM Jim Hendry's hug of Pujols before a midseason game against Pujols' St. Louis Cardinals in '11.

"People made a big deal about it," Pujols said, smiling when reminded. "But that's just who I am. This game comes and goes, but the relationships that you build will always stay there forever, until the day you die."

Pujols, who knew Hendry for years through mutual friends from Hendry's college coaching days, still talks to Hendry once in a while.

"I have fun conversations with him," he said. "He's a guy I respect, and whether he was working for one of our rivals, to me I didn't care. ... He even sent congratulations to me when I signed here."

Easy for Hendry say. Whether the Cubs had even a slim chance of ever signing Pujols, it ended the day Hendry was fired later that 2011 season.

Meanwhile, the guy who spent a decade killing the Cubs for the Cardinals, did it again in his first game against them since signing as a free agent with the Angels.

It was his 54th homer against the Cubs, most for him against any team - and sent the Cubs to their National League-leading 19th loss in games they led at some point.

After the game, Pujols downplayed his lifetime of success against the Cubs (never mind against Villanueva - against whom he now has a 1.165 OPS).

"I treat it like every game the same, every pitcher I face," he said. "Obviously, I've had good success against those guys because I've played almost 100, 200, 300 games against them in my career, being in the same division as St. Louis.

"I take every game as my last game of my career, the last game of my life."

No more hugs for this guy.

Cubs' Sveum ticked at pitch call on winning HR by Pujols

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ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Carlos Villanueva knows first-hand about the Los Angeles Angels' Albert Pujols as much as any pitcher on the Cubs' roster. After all those years with Milwaukee facing Pujols' St. Louis Cardinals, nobody had faced Pujols in more plate appearances than Villanueva.

"He's hit me well," Villanueva said quietly after The Machine got him again. "But he wasn't htting 1.000 off me. I've gotten him out before. You make a good pitch and he might be out. You make a mistake, and hitters like him do what they're supposed to do."

In this case, it was a first-pitch, 89-mph fastball down the middle of the plate in the eighth inning that Pujols crushed to left field for a two-run shot that gave the Los Angeles Angels a 4-3 victory over the Cubs.

It was Pujols' 54th homer against the Cubs - most for him against any opponent.

It was his third off Villanueva - making him 10-for-29 (.345) against Villanueva, with a .759 slugging percentage and 1.165 OPS.

It was also yet another case of manager Dale Sveum left chapped after the game by a pitcher and/or catcher freelancing away from the game plan and burning the team.

The Cubs now lead the National League with 19 losses in games they led at some point.

"We were not supposed to be even close to calling or throwing that pitch against him," Sveum said. "Somewhere along the line, you lose the scouting report between the bullpen and the mound."

Pujols, who entered the game hitting just .243 with eight homers, got a cookie from Villanueva that split the plate just below belt high.

Villanueva said he was throwing the right pitch - he just didn't execute it. He wanted it in on Pujols - "maybe move his feet, or get a foul ball," he said.

It negated a quality start from Scott Feldman, who survived Angels ace Jered Weaver to leave a 3-1 game in the hands of the bullpen with two men on and none out in the seventh.

James Russell navigated the bottom of the order to limit the damage to one run and give Villanueva the ball with a 3-2 lead.

The Cubs have 12 blown saves, compared to just 10 saves.

"We seem to beat a lot of people for seven innings,'' said Sveum, whose club lost for the third straight time following a season-high five-game winning streak.

Shark vs. Snakes

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ANAHEIM -- Until he heard what Arizona manager Kirk Gibson had to say after Saturday's game, Cubs starter Jeff Samardzija thought his back-and-forth with Diamondbacks third-base coach Matt Williams was just "heat of the moment" stuff and over with.

Afterward Gibson told reporters: "He didn't get the win did he? Maybe he should just shut the f--- up and pitch."

Samardzija, addressing it Tuesday for the first time, said: "Maybe they just needed a story about something over there. ... I don't think it was a big deal. I just thought we were playing the game, and there were a lot of emotions. And they played for a long time, too, and they were successful as players. I figured they'd understand, but I guess not.''

The D-Backs seemed to be upset at a some inside pitches from Samardzija to Arizona pitcher Ian Kennedy.

"I don't know why I'd be trying to hit him; he's the pitcher," Samardzija said. "I was just losing the ball arm-side there for a while. Apparently they don't like that."

The Cubs see the Diamonbacks again July 22-25 in Arizona.

Why Cubs manager compares Castro to Jeter

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ANAHEIM - The longest slump Starlin Castro can remember having in his career has the Cubs' All-Star shortstop batting seventh in the two-game series against the Los Angeles Angels.

Manager Dale Sveum, who admits a lot of the video and cage work the staff is doing with Castro could be getting in his head, told the shortstop it's not a long-term move and isn't about putting him on notice or suggesting he'll suddenly be trade bait next month.

"Just a way of hopefully letting him kick back and relax in another spot and see what happens," Sveum said.

Castro is 10 for his last 61 (.164) over the last two weeks. His average has sunk from .291 to .258 entering Tuesday night's game against the Angels.

"It's tough, because this is long enough," he said. "I've never [slumped] longer than this. Good things aren't happening now, but I know it's coming.

"Let's see what happens," he said. "Four months left? I think that changes."

Sveum, who'd like to see Castro scrap his leg kick but has learned to accept it, said the sometimes heated scrutiny Castro gets is just part of the territory that comes with his marquis position, market and big contract.

"Just like the Derek Jeters of the world," Sveum said of the Yankees great - who batted seventh or lower in 163 games in his career. "Those guys are going to be dissected. They're playing a prime spot in a big market, and it's a guy who's had a lot of success very early in his career. It's a good thing they've put themselves in that position to be dissected."

Castro at 500

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Starlin Castro played in his 500th major league game Sunday, and at age 23 already is a two-time All Star with a hefty long-term contract.
Castro entered the game with 589 hits but trying to end a 2-17 slump on the homestand.
While manager Dale Sveum said Castro's slugging percentage and on-base-plus slugging (OPS) percentage need to get more consistent, Castro already is on pace to equal some of the game's best-ever hitters.
He has more hits (589) than Hall of Famer Robin Yount had in his first 569 games (570 hits) and is within 59 hits of the 648 hits Alex Rodriguez collected in his first 513 games.
Among Cubs players, he ranks seventh in hits in first 500 games, but most of those ahead of him were already veterans when they became Cubs. He has the ninth-most doubles in his first 500 games (108), but also is behind players who were veterans, including Aramis Ramirez (109 doubles) and franchise record holder Riggs Stephenson (135), who came from Cleveland.
Sveum said Castro's current struggles are about lack of plate discipline.
``The biggest thing is we know he'll swing at pitches out of the zone, but he's not doing anything with the drive-able pitches now,'' he said.

A two-game series against the Los Angeles Angels begins Tuesday but the Cubs will be home again Friday to play Pittsburgh--another oddity of this year's schedule.
The Cubs will make four more West Coast trips this season, but this is the only two-game trip.
``We know the history of the West Coast is no fun,'' Sveum said. ``It's hard to go there, and if you play .500 on the West Coast, you've done a pretty good job.''
An off day Monday to travel and on Thursday to return will help.

The two-day amateur draft begins on Thursday, with the Cubs holding the No. 2 pick overall, but also picking at No. 41 and 75.
Vice president of scouting/player development Jason McLeod said the team has spent more time evaluating for the later picks than the top pick.
``We've probably discussed No. 2 for two hours in the last four days,'' he said. ``We'll get into those a lot more in the coming days.''
Houston, with the top pick, and the Cubs are expected to focus on pitchers Jonathan Gray of Oklahoma and Mark Appel of Stanford.
`` We need to take the guy who gives us the best chance to for him to provide significant impact,'' McLeod said.

Pitcher Shawn Camp {strained right toe) will throw a bullpen session in Anaheim on the road trip while catcher Steve Clevenger (left oblique strain) begins rehabbing at Class AAA Iowa on Monday.

A handful of pitchers carry the kind of reputation that gives their teammates an edge on the field.
Jeff Samardzija may not have that reputation yet--but his performances are building a case for it.
``I played for a long time, and there were certain guys that when you woke up in the morning, you'd think `we have to score a few runs today because this guy is capable of throwing shutouts or giving up just one or two,'' Cubs manager Dale Sveum said.
``That's in your mindset--a guy throwing strikes, powering guys away and competing like he [Samardzija] does.
``I don't care who you are--you know the one guy on the other team who is pitching [and] you're going to have to scratch out runs one way or another.''
Samardzija had good stuff again Saturday--but his 11 strikeouts through six innings weren't good enough to overcome two walks that got him into trouble in the seventh.
They led to a three-run inning before a four-run inning off Carlos Marmol (2-3) in the eighth turned the game to the Diamondbacks.
Paul Goldschmidt's grand slam off Marmol was one of two four-run innings for the Diamondbacks in their 12-4 rout, ending the Cubs five game win streak.
The Cubs had only three hits off Ian Kennedy (3-3), two by Nate Schierholtz who doubled home a run in the first and homered in the seventh.
The only other hit was David DeJesus' first inning double.
``Those walks in the seventh hurt,'' Samardzija said. ``Those things happen. I think the outcome was a little skewed because we battled them the whole game. But they're a first place team for a reason.''
The Diamondbacks scored four more in the ninth off just-recalled Class AAA pitcher Zach Putnam.
He was one of six Cubs pitchers before it was over. But of the eight walks issued, four came from Samardzija and three from Marmol.
``The bottom line is you walk eight guys, you're not going to win many games,'' Sveum said.
Samardzija gave up a leadoff home run to Gerardo Parra. But the Cubs came back with three runs for him in the bottom of the first after a 2 hour 21 minute rain delay.
He was at his best again in the third and fourth, striking out six straight after leaving the bases loaded in the second. He had eight strikeouts at the end of four innings.
``The one thing when you're dealing with power guys like Samardzija -and not to take away from anyone's bullpen--but when you have a guy who left the seventh or eighth and is still throwing 97 and has thrown 90 pitches, even if he was at 100 pitches, it's hard to find someone in your bullpen who has that kind of stuff,'' Sveum said of the complete game against the Sox.
There is also the psychological advantage of keeping his dominating pitcher in the game.
``If you take that guy out in the 8th inning, the other team is thinking `thank God,' '' he said.
Sveum didn't get to see much of his starter's latest outing. Umpire Joe West ejected him in the second inning after arguing a call at first by umpire Toby Basner.
It was the second ejection this season for Sveum.
``Joe was fine. I was saying my piece and I was out there long enough,'' Sveum said.
``You have to be a resilient team,'' he said of the game. ``We beat them for seven innings, but obviously the walks were big. Eight walks and getting three hits doesn't win too many games.''

Arizona left the bases loaded twice Saturday against the Cubs. But Paul Goldschmidt didn't let it happen the third time.
His grand slam in the eighth off Carlos Marmol (2-3) was decisive in a 12-4 rout for the Diamondbacks--ending the Cubs five-game win streak.
The game began after a 2 hour 21 minute rain delay and became a duel between Cubs starter Jeff Samardzija and Diamondback starter Ian Kennedy (3-3).
Samardzija struck out 11 Diamondbacks in six innings, but two walks in the seventh led to trouble.
Samardzija had given up only a leadoff home run to Gerardo Parra and left the bases loaded twice. He struck out six straight through one stretch from the second through the fourth.
The Diamondbacks left eight runners stranded before the seventh.
But Samardzija walked two in the seventh before leaving with one out. James Russell, who hadn't allowed a run since May 21, retired Miguel Montero but walked Martin Prado to load the bases. Jason Kubel followed with a bases-clearing double.
Nate Schierholtz, who had an RBI double in the first, homered (7th) off Kennedy leading the seventh to pull the game into a 4-4 tie.
Cubs bench coach Jamie Quirk was directing the game after manager Dale Sveum was ejected in the second inning by umpire Joe West. Sveum argued with first base umpire Toby Basner, who ruled A.J. Pollack safe on a close play at first. The argument continued with West, who threw out Sveum.
It was the second ejection of the season for the Cubs manager.
The Cubs scored three in the first off Kennedy but didn't get another hit until Schierholtz' homer in the seventh.
They had only those three hits in the game.
Kennedy worked seven innings and gave up four runs on only three hits, striking out seven with one walk. He also hit one batter, Starlin Castro in the first, who scored on Schierholtz' double.
The Diamondbacks added four runs in the ninth off Zach Putnam, who was recalled from Class AAA a day earlier.

With two off days next week, the Cubs will give lefthander Travis Wood extra time off and not have him pitch again until Friday at home against Pittsburgh.
``He's pitched a lot of innings already (72) and a lot of pitches in those games and a lot of stressful innings,'' manager Dale Sveum said. ``And he's been on the bases a lot [hitting] in the games he's pitched.''
The rotation will be Edwin Jackson pitching Sunday against Arizona before a two-game series in Anaheim when Scott Feldman (Tuesday) and Matt Garza (Wednesday) will work against the Angels' predominantly righthanded lineup. The Cubs have another off day Thursday.
``It works out,'' said Sveum, adding Wood has no health issues. ``You're always going to try when everything works out to give somebody extra time [off.] It's a good time two months into the season to give him a little breather.''

Forearm strains seem to have become contagious for Cubs relievers. The latest is Rafael Dolis, who was placed on the disabled list Saturday.
``That's part of bullpens now,'' Sveum said.
The Cubs recalled righthander Blake Parker from Class AAA Iowa a day after recalling Zach Putnam to take over for Alex Burnett, who was designated for assignment on Saturday.
Parker had a 2.04 ERA with seven saves at Iowa while Putnam had a 3.26 ERA and four saves--but a 0.82 ERA in his last 10 outings.
``To have the depth in Putnam and Parker, the way they've been throwing is nice to have,'' Sveum said.
Parker, 27, was drafted by the Cubs in 2006 and made his major league debut last season. He holds Iowa's franchise record for saves with 41.
Putnam, 25, was claimed off waivers from Colorado in November, 2012.

Alfonso Soriano needs one home run to tie Hall of Famers Orlando Cepeda and Tony Perez for 64th place on the all-time list (379).
Sveum considers Soriano a special player already.
``What he did last year at that age [36] and what he did after May 15 [hitting all his 32 homers] was about as impressive as you can get,'' he said. ``He goes out every day and feels good, he keeps himself in phenomenal shape. He's one of those special guys who come around.''
Soriano is one of only six in franchise history to drive in 100 runs (he had a career-high 108) at age 36 or older.
``One of only six, and he's still doing it. That speaks for itself,'' Sveum said.

James Russell has turned into one of the best setup relievers in baseball--left-handed or right-handed.
But don't think he's forgotten about his first pitching goal--to be a starter.
``I still have that in the back of my mind,'' the lefty said Saturday. ``But right now it's not in the cards, so I'm going with the flow of reiieving.''
He's had smooth sailing in that flow.
Russell entered Saturday's game against the Arizona Diamondbacks having allowed only two earned runs all season in 20 2/3 innings. He started the season throwing 17 straight scoreless innings and has thrown 25 scoreless innings in his 27 appearances, striking out 20 and walking only five.
The first run of the season he allowed came on May 8 against St. Louis and led to a blown save.
But since then, his ERA has declined steadily to 0.87, the second lowest for any National League reliever with at least 25 outings. Only Colorado's Rex Brothers, also a lefty, has a better one at 0.38 (1 ER/23 2/3 innings, 26 appearances.)
Russell, 27, last took the mound as a starter in 2011 when he made five spot starts. But even then, his ERA was also better as a reliever (2.19 in 49 relief appearances.)
``Starting is still a passion of mine,'' he said. ``I feel I'm starting to learn more about how to pitch. I feel I'm progressing as a pitcher, not just a relief pitcher.
``But I definitely love the bullpen now and the adreneline of coming in the seventh or eighth or ninth when it counts.''
Russell has given up only four hits in his last 10 appearances--and two were in his May 8 game when he last gave up a run. He's yielded only one hit in his last six appearances.
``I'd like to go no-hit every time out, but that's not going to happen,'' he said. ``But it's just good to have a good feel for how things are going now.''

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