Young Cubs soar past all expectations, caution flags
ST. LOUIS -- With the Chicago Cubs on the cusp of winning the National League Central, it's fun to look back at some of the things the team was saying before the season began.
The one caution coming from the front office was that "all progress is not linear," especially with the Cubs' young players. In other words, some of these kids might take a step backward this year before going forward again.
That didn't happen.
Not only has the progress been linear, in some cases it has been exponential for the Cubs, now 93-52 on the season after a 7-0 victory Wednesday over the St. Louis Cardinals.
Kris Bryant went from Rookie of the Year to the leading MVP candidate in the National League. Kyle Hendricks went from a nice No. 5 starter to a Cy Young candidate.
Addison Russell went from a highly touted prospect to a player chasing the 100-RBI mark. Javier Baez has gone from a question mark with his big swing to an exclamation point with his dazzling defense and improving approach at the plate.
"When you really look at how young players perform, you talk about that in ups and downs," said Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer. "But some of these guys have made a quantum leap from a year ago, Kris most notably by cutting his strikeout rate as much as he did. Obviously he's having an incredible season.
"Addison, obviously, has made tremendous leaps. Kyle, Javy. I'd like to think some of that is contagious. These guys see the progress other guys are making, and it kind of pushes them along. I also think it's sort of the nature of really good young players, that sometimes they can make jumps people didn't expect."
Bryant had a solid 2015 to build on, and he has done that, dropping his strikeout rate from 30.6 percent last year to 21.8 this season, entering Wednesday's series finale at Busch Stadium. Bryant's on-base percentage last year was a solid .369, but he had it to .391 Wednesday.
Russell has seen slight upticks in his batting average and OBP, but he became a 20-homer man, and with a few hits with men on base in the final days of the season, he's looking at 100 RBI.
Hendricks, who pitched a near-no hitter Monday, has gone from a record of 8-7 with a 3.95 ERA last year to 15-7 with a league-leading 2.03 this year.
While it helps that these players are supremely talented, something else has to be at work, too.
"Talent has a lot to do with it -- not alone," manager Joe Maddon said Wednesday. "Just the whole atmosphere (with) the veteran players has had a lot to do with that. The coaching staff has a lot to do with that.
"I think it's the approach we take that has a lot to do with it, meaning we expect mistakes. They're going to make mistakes. They're not going to be perfect.
"Our coaches do a great job of explaining situations and physical mistakes to our players. I think one of the things we talked about from Day One is, 'I want you to be yourself.' I also think that not fatiguing them by a lot of extra work matters, too.
"You have to have good players and then around that build an atmosphere, a situation that's conducive to learning. And also to not be afraid of making mistakes."
Success, of course, breeds success. The Cubs won 97 games last year and rode a season-ending eight-game winning streak into the postseason and into the National League championship series.
Because of that, Maddon didn't seem to think there were any "revelations" with this year's team.
"I felt good in spring training," he said. "Last year really set a lot of it up. The conversations we have in camp, the individual meetings we have with everybody, I think those are really, really important in setting the tone for the season. I think we stay with that really well. Whatever we map out from the beginning, we don't vary from it, so the player knows what to expect.
"And I think the straightforward approach works, always. These guys have no surprises during the course of the year. We pretty much know what to know in advance."
Scouting reportCubs vs. Milwaukee Brewers at Wrigley Field
TV: Comcast SportsNet Thursday and Friday; WGN Saturday; ABC 7 Sunday
Radio: WSCR 670-AM
Pitching matchups: The Cubs' Mike Montgomery (1-1) vs. Jimmy Nelson (7-14) Thursday at 7:05 p.m.; John Lackey (9-8) vs. Chase Anderson (8-11) Friday at 1:20 p.m.; Jake Arrieta (17-6) vs. Zach Davies (10-7) Saturday at 3:05 p.m.; Kyle Hendricks (15-7) vs. Wily Peralta (6-10) Sunday at 1:20 p.m.
At a glance: The Cubs can clinch the NL Central as soon as Thursday night. They lost two of three to the Brewers last week at Miller Park. Milwaukee is trying to hold off Cincinnati and stay out of last place in the Central. Chris Carter entered Wednesday with 34 homers and 82 RBI. Ryan Braun had a line of .309/.373/.541 with 27 homers and 82 RBI. This will be the Cubs' final regular-season homestand of the year, a 10-gamer. The Cubs entered Wednesday on pace to draw 658 walks, which would surpass the franchise mark of 650, set in 1975.
Next: Cincinnati Reds at Wrigley Field, Monday-Wednesday
-- Bruce Miles