CHICAGO -- The message on the dry-erase board on the wall of the Cubs' clubhouse Sunday morning spoke volumes about Joe Maddon and the club's new era. It read: Cage open -- 11 a.m.
Even if a slumping hitter wanted to get to the ballpark at the crack of daylight -- as slumping hitters often do -- he might as well sleep in, because there wouldn't be anyone there to throw him batting practice. So players took their time getting to the workplace for the afternoon game against the Pirates, some arriving barely two hours before Jake Arrieta's first pitch.
It's a long season, and as much as Maddon loves his team's 21-16 start, he knows the Cubs will be remembered for how they finish the season. That's why he frequently scratches batting practice and sometimes even locks up the cage. It's also why Maddon realigned his pitching staff over the weekend, moving left-hander Travis Wood to the bullpen, even though the Cubs had won four of his last six starts.
Wood, who will be replaced by lefty Tsuyoshi Wada in the rotation, adds depth to what for a few days will be a 10-man bullpen. When Wood earned an unexpected save on Saturday against the Pirates, it spared a little work for Hector Rondon, who had pitched three days in a row.
Setup man Pedro Strop, Jason Motte, rookie lefty Zac Rosscup and Phil Coke are already seeing heavy work, and it's not yet Memorial Day. No one understands this more than Maddon, and he's the perfect man to lead the Cubs back toward the playoffs.
Here are nine other things we know after watching them for six weeks:
1. Anthony Rizzo is a serious National League MVP Award candidate.
At 25, the first baseman is showing why Theo Epstein so quickly targeted him for acquisition after taking over in Chicago. Rizzo has been the complete package as a leader, fielder and hitter, batting .344 with eight homers and more walks (22) than strikeouts (17). A .226 career hitter against lefties before this season, Rizzo is 14-for-30 (.467) against them this year. In addition, he continues to crowd the plate, even through he's already been hit by 11 pitches.
"He's a definite thinker at the plate,'' Maddon said of Rizzo. "As many at-bats as he's had this year, he's not given away any, not one as far as I can tell.''
2. The Cubs' 92-win pace is no fluke.
Baseball Prospectus' playoff odds list them with a 62.8 percent chance of playing in the postseason, showing that they've replaced the Pirates as the biggest threat to the Cardinals in the NL Central.
"The roster's stronger,'' Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said of the Cubs. "I think they've gotten a little stronger everywhere. The rotation's a little stronger, the bullpen's a little stronger, the position-player pool is stronger, the catching position [is stronger]. They've added strength in every category.''
3. The Cubs are a budding offensive juggernaut.
With the addition of rookies Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler and Addison Russell, center fielder Dexter Fowler and catcher Miguel Montero, the Cubs have constructed a lineup that is on its way to becoming one of the game's best. It ranked fourth in the NL in on-base percentage (.330) through Sunday.
4. Jon Lester will be just fine.
Some eyebrows were raised when the pricey free agent wasn't quite himself coming out of Spring Training, but the lefty who outdueled Gerrit Cole on Saturday looked exactly like the guy who beat Adam Wainwright twice in the 2013 World Series. Lester is 4-0 with a 2.18 ERA in his last five starts, striking out 33 and walking nine in 33 innings.
5. Bryant and Rizzo are a lethal combo.
Who's better? The Dodgers' Adrian Gonzalez and Yasiel Puig? The Nationals' Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman? Maybe. But with the way Bryant has burst onto the scene, he and Rizzo look to be the game's best middle-of-the-order duo for years to come.
6. Starlin Castro has hung a no-vacancy sign on the infield.
While Castro has hit only .209 in May, you almost wouldn't know it. He's kept a smile on his face and had his share of big at-bats, while being OK at shortstop (although he's already made six errors). Maddon has loved Castro's approach on the field and connection with younger players off the field, so you wonder if this is the infield the Cubs will have for years, as Rizzo, Russell, Castro and Bryant are all under team control at least through 2020.
7. The Cubs' one question mark is left field. Chris Coghlan, the 2009 NL Rookie of the Year Award winner in Miami, is mentally tough and has been a harder out than his .194 average suggests. But there's a thick knot of outfield prospects in a farm system that MLB.com and others rank as the best in baseball, and the competition between Billy McKinney, Albert Almora and others will be fierce.
The infield logjam could eventually force Bryant to the outfield. Or Epstein could switch tracks with Double-A catcher Kyle Schwarber, a left-handed-hitter cut from the same cloth as Bryant, and consider him as a left-field option for the stretch run. Schwarber's tearing up the Southern League (1.105 OPS in 33 games) almost as badly as Bryant did a year ago.
8. The Cubs need a starter.
Because pitching depth rules in September and October, the Cubs will look to add one starter and maybe a bullpen arm or two before the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline. Lester, Arrieta and Jason Hammel are strong at the top of the rotation, but the back end is unreliable. Wada, Wood and Edwin Jackson are available for depth, but the Cubs have few highly-regarded starting pitching prospects.
9. The Cubs' enthusiasm is contagious.
Everyone on the roster believes in the talent on the team and is aware there is more on the way.
"They're playing very confidently," Maddon said. "I do believe the freedom we give them supports that. They're not afraid to make a mistake.''
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.