Cubs

Cubs had to think big to keep up with National League elite

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Cubs had to think big to keep up with National League elite

Could the Cubs win 90 games and still be sitting home in October?

The Cubs understood there would be no sneaking up on anyone or sneaking into the playoffs this year. There are no guarantees in a National League where so many teams are focused on either going all-in to win a World Series in 2016 — or writing off big-league seasons to build for the future, the way the Cubs and Houston Astros reconstructed their franchises.

Super Bowl 50 is over, which means attention will soon shift to pitchers and catchers reporting to Florida and Arizona, where the Cubs will be hyped as a World Series favorite.

The Cubs don’t believe their window is closing — the way the Denver Broncos did with Peyton Manning — but there is still a sense of urgency to win now. The Cubs don’t have a move-the-needle star quite like Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, but they think they have the right mix of big personalities needed for a championship-caliber team.

“The dynamics of the National League this year will mean that it will take a lot of wins to make the playoffs,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “We know that.”

The Cubs committed more than $276 million to outfielder Jason Heyward, second baseman Ben Zobrist, pitcher John Lackey and swingman Trevor Cahill, leading the majors in spending on free agents this winter, according to ESPN’s tracker.

[MORE: Cubs, Jake Arrieta agree to $10.7 million deal, avoid arbitration]

Of the next 11 biggest spenders on that list, seven are NL teams, including the San Francisco Giants, Arizona Diamondbacks, Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Mets, St. Louis Cardinals, Miami Marlins and Washington Nationals.

The Cubs also can’t dismiss the Pittsburgh Pirates, an exemplary small-market team coming off a 98-win season and their third consecutive playoff appearance. President of baseball operations Theo Epstein understood nothing could be taken for granted after the Mets swept the Cubs out of the NL Championship Series.

“There are many great teams — great, not just good — in the National League,” Epstein said during his state-of-the-team press conference in October. “The Cardinals aren’t going anywhere. They haven’t for a hundred years. They won 100 games. They have a pretty young core.

“Pittsburgh has had three outstanding seasons in a row and have the building blocks in place to be good for a really long time. The Giants are three-time World Series champs (since 2010) and I’m sure are going to add a number of key pieces this winter.

“The Dodgers are extremely talented and extremely rich. They’re not going anywhere. The Nationals’ window hasn’t necessarily ended at all. They’re still really, really good and I’m sure will bounce back.

“The Mets — if they can keep their rotation healthy and performing the way it is now — are going to be dangerous as can be for a long period of time.”

At the same time, FanGraphs projects the Milwaukee Brewers, Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves will be the three worst teams in the majors, forecasting between 91 and 95 losses, with negative run differentials ranging from -97 to -126.

FanGraphs also predicts the Colorado Rockies, Cincinnati Reds and San Diego Padres will be bottom-third teams, finishing with around 86 losses this season.

“Obviously, you don’t want to have too many teams in a rebuilding cycle at one time in one league, and I accept that,” Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred told ESPN.com for a column headlined “The odd and troubling state of the National League.”

“But the fact of the matter is, when you have 30 teams, it’s not unusual that you have five or six in a rebuilding cycle. I think if you look back historically, that would not be a number that’s out of line.”

So far, the Reds, Brewers and Phillies haven’t spent a penny on a major-league free agent this offseason. Combined, the Cubs will play the Reds and Brewers 38 times this season as those small-market teams try to follow the tanking blueprint and collect as many long-term assets as possible.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Since July, the Reds and Brewers have traded away Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, Todd Frazier, Aroldis Chapman, Carlos Gomez, Mike Fiers, Aramis Ramirez, Jonathan Broxton, Gerardo Parra, Francisco Rodriguez, Adam Lind and Jean Segura.

The Cubs will have to capitalize on those big-league talent drains in Cincinnati and Milwaukee, knowing 97 wins was only good enough for third place in the Central last season.

“It’s an incredibly competitive landscape in the National League, and that motivates us,” Epstein said. “There are some years you can just sit back and say: ‘Ah, you know, there aren’t that many great opportunities to get better. Let’s take our chances. Let’s build a team that can win between 86 and 88 games and we’ll find ourselves in the wild-card mix and maybe we can improve during the course of the season and see where we (are at).’

“Now, with what’s going on in the National League, it’s a better approach (to) say: ‘Hey, in order to compete with teams just in our division — like the Cardinals and Pirates — we have to try to attain a really high standard. We have to put ourselves in a position where we have a chance to be great. So that we can win the division and not have to go through the coin flip of the wild-card game.’

“Certainly, we need to raise the bar as far as the type of team we want to build and the path to being a great club — not just a good club.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

Spring training baseball games are up around the bend, but before boys of summer get into organized action, two of the team’s new coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey sit down with Kelly Crull.

Plus, Vinnie Duber joins Kelly to discuss these baseball conversations including the memorable first words of Kyle Schwarber to Chili Davis, “I don’t suck!"

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here:

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

MESA, Ariz. — We know Willson Contreras doesn’t like baseball’s new pace-of-play rules.

He isn’t the only one.

“I think it’s a terrible idea. I think it’s all terrible,” Jon Lester said last week at spring training, before the specifics of the new rules were even announced. “The beautiful thing about our sport is there’s no time.”

Big surprise coming from the Cubs’ resident old-schooler.

The new rules limit teams to six mound visits per every nine-inning game, with exceptions for pitching changes, between batters, injuries and after the announcement of a pinch hitter. Teams get an extra mound visit for every extra inning in extra-inning games. Also, commercial breaks between innings have been cut by 20 seconds.

That’s it. But it’s caused a bit of an uproar.

Contreras made headlines Tuesday when he told reporters that he’ll willingly break those rules if he needs to in order to put his team in a better position to win.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If I have to pay the price for my team, I will,” Contreras said. “There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? … You have to go out there. They cannot say anything about that. It’s my team, and we just care about winning. And if they’re going to fine me about the No. 7 mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”

Talking about pace-of-play rule changes last week, Cubs manager Joe Maddon said his team would adapt to any new rules. In Chicago baseball’s other Arizona camp, a similar tune of adaptation was being sung.

“Obviously as players we’ve got to make adjustments to whatever rules they want to implement,” White Sox pitcher James Shields said. “This is a game of adjustments, we’re going to have to make adjustments as we go. We’re going to have to figure out logistics of the thing, and I would imagine in spring training we’re going to be talking about it more and more as we go so we don’t mess it up.”

There was general consensus that mound visits are a valuable thing. So what happens if a pitcher and catcher need to communicate but are forced to do it from 60 feet, six inches away?

“Sign language,” White Sox catching prospect Zack Collins joked. “I guess you have to just get on the same page in the dugout and hope that nothing goes wrong if you’re out of visits.”

In the end, here’s the question that needs answering: Are baseball games really too long?

On one hand, as Lester argued, you know what you’re signing up for when you watch a baseball game, be it in the stands at a ballpark or on TV. No one should be shocked when a game rolls on for more than three hours.

But shock and fans' levels of commitment or just pure apathy are two different things. And sometimes it’s a tough ask for fans to dedicate four hours of their day 162 times a year. So there’s a very good reason baseball is trying to make the game go faster, to keep people from leaving the stands or flipping the TV to another channel.

Unsurprisingly, Lester would rather keep things the way they are.

“To be honest with you, the fans know what they’re getting themselves into when they go to a game,” Lester said. “It’s going to be a three-hour game. You may have a game that’s two hours, two hours and 15 minutes. Great, awesome. You may have a game that’s four hours. That’s the beautiful part of it.

“I get the mound visit thing. But what people that aren’t in the game don’t understand is that there’s so much technology in the game, there’s so many cameras on the field, that every stadium now has a camera on the catcher’s crotch. So they know signs before you even get there. Now we’ve got Apple Watches, now we’ve got people being accused of sitting in a tunnel (stealing signs). So there’s reasons behind the mound visit. He’s not just coming out there asking what time I’m going to dinner or, ‘Hey, how you feeling?’ There’s reasons behind everything, and I think if you take those away, it takes away the beauty of the baseball game.

“Every game has a flow, and I feel like that’s what makes it special. If you want to go to a timed event, go to a timed event. I’m sorry I’m old-school about it, but baseball’s been played the same way for a long time. And now we’re trying to add time to it. We’re missing something somewhere.”

Whether limiting the number of mound visits creates a significant dent in this problem remains to be seen. But excuse the players if they’re skeptical.

“We’ve got instant replay, we’ve got all kinds of different stuff going on. I don’t think (limiting) the mound visits are going to be the key factor to speeding this game up,” Shields said. “Some pitchers take too long, and some hitters take too long. It’s combination of a bunch of stuff.

“I know they’re trying to speed the game up a little bit. I think overall, the game’s going as fast as it possibly could. You’ve got commercials and things like that. TV has a lot to do with it. There’s a bunch of different combinations of things. But as a player, we’ve got to make an adjustment.”