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Bright young stars carry Cubs to new heights

Talented youth is unparalleled in past few decades
October 12, 2016

CHICAGO -- Goats? To quote the T-shirt Bill Murray wore to Wrigley Field last week, the Cubs ain't afraid of no goats.There are a few reasons why not, including the leadership of four veterans who already own World Series rings and manager Joe Maddon, who announced upon his arrival in

CHICAGO -- Goats? To quote the T-shirt Bill Murray wore to Wrigley Field last week, the Cubs ain't afraid of no goats.
There are a few reasons why not, including the leadership of four veterans who already own World Series rings and manager Joe Maddon, who announced upon his arrival in Chicago that he "doesn't vibrate at that frequency." But the biggest might be that these Cubs -- who will play the Dodgers on Saturday in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series (8 p.m. ET/7 p.m. CT on FS1) -- are too young to know better.
:: NLCS: Dodgers vs. Cubs coverage ::
"Nobody really cares about a curse or a goat or anything else," Jon Lester said on Tuesday, a few hours before the Cubs eliminated the Giants in the NL Division Series. "It's what you make of it. If we make a mistake, we're not going to blame it on a curse or anything else like that. We're going to blame it on ourselves and be accountable for it and move on to the next play or the next moment.
"I think we got too many young guys in there that don't even know what that stuff is. It's almost better to play naive and just go out and worry about us, worry about the Cubs and not anything else in the past or, like I said, any animals.''
Lester is right. These Cubs are the biggest, best collection of young talent that a team has put together in 40 years, if not longer. Anthony Rizzo, Jason Heyward, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Jorge Soler were the primary players at their position this year, and all were in their age-26-or-younger season.
Chicago is in the NL Championship Series for the second consecutive season. If it wins the World Series, it will be the first team to do it with five regulars that young since the 1969 Mets -- and that list of young Cubs doesn't include Javier Báez and Willson Contreras, who played leading roles in the Game 4 comeback against the Giants.

Youth has many advantages. One of them is the innocence and lack of scar tissue that comes from having known too much defeat and disappointment.
Rather than get caught up in why their predecessors couldn't win, Chicago's players seem to have embraced the chance to be part of the franchise's first championship team since 1908. They must understand that the stress level would have been at maximum levels if they had found themselves facing Johnny Cueto in Game 5, but the Cubs seem confident they could have handled it.
Heyward was asked if players feel the fans' anxiety.
"I'm not going to call it anxiety; I'm going to call it a beautiful thing," Heyward said. "The live-or-die these fans have [with] this team is a beautiful thing. It's been an awesome experience to do it with this group, because the city is hungry. We know we need eight more wins to do what we came here to do, but all in all, it's just awesome to see the support from everybody."
Remember when Bryant spoofed the goat in that commercial before he was even called up to the Majors early in the 2015 season? Russell and the chest-pounders, Baez and Contreras, don't seem the personality types to fret about anything that happened in 2003, let alone 1984 or '69.
It's probably not a coincidence that the Cubs are both the youngest and the healthiest team in the postseason. Aside from losing Kyle Schwarber -- another young stud in his age-23 season -- to a knee injury in April, there have been no major medical issues for Maddon's team, and very few minor issues.
Kyle Hendricks, Chicago's youngest starting pitcher at age 26, took a line drive off his right forearm in Game 2, but everyone seemed pleased by his bullpen session following the injury. Reliever Pedro Strop had his left knee scoped on Aug. 12, but he has returned. The biggest question might be Héctor Rondón, the closer before Aroldis Chapman was added in a July trade. Rondon dealt with right elbow issues late in the season, and he hasn't regained his consistency.
Fatigue can be a problem for teams given the physical and mental demands of the extended postseason format. That may be why only four of the past 12 World Series have gone more than five games, with seven-game series only in 2011 and '14.
Maddon feels good about his team having the fresh legs and minds to battle for 27 outs every time. He loved Tuesday's four-run rally in the ninth to overcome a three-run deficit against the Giants, which matched the biggest in a postseason-clinching game.
"After the game, even on the mound there taking the photographs, the guys were chanting, 'We don't quit, we don't quit,'" Maddon said.

The Cubs are the best defensive team in the Major Leagues, with serious NL Gold Glove Award candidates at first base (Rizzo), second base (Baez), shortstop (Russell) and in right field (Heyward). Maddon believes there's an element of the team's defensive efficiency that goes beyond the individual players, however.
Maddon points to the range Chicago has at almost every position because of the way his young, athletic players cover ground. The ability to take away a few hits every game contributed to holding opponents to a .212 batting average, the lowest since the 1968 Indians of Sonny Siebert, "Sudden Sam" McDowell and a young Luis Tiant.
The Cubs will likely trade hitting for fielding in left field next season, when Schwarber returns. Albert Almora Jr., a first-round Draft pick in 2012 who is 22, profiles as a defensive upgrade to Dexter Fowler in center field if Fowler isn't re-signed. There are other young players on the way, including switch-hitting second baseman Ian Happ and 19-year-old outfielder Eloy Jimenez, who won the Midwest League Most Valuable Player Award. Happ is Chicago's top prospect, according to, and Jimenez is the club's No. 2 prospect.

"This is a special group," Maddon said. "It's pretty easy when you want to have kids act like kids. Listen, you see them on the field. They play. We play hard. I think we play it right. We're pretty fundamentally sound. Normally we play a good game of baseball on a daily basis. And understand, we're going to get better. These kids are young.
"To be able to be participating in this particular moment now speaks well for the future, because I don't anticipate any of them changing when it comes to their personalities, their methods. I just think they're going to get better."

Phil Rogers is a national columnist for