Cubs

Cubs preaching patience on Jorge Soler's development

Cubs preaching patience on Jorge Soler's development

As Joe Maddon passed by a small contingent of fans beyond the left field bleachers at Wrigley Field before Friday's game, one fan found the courage to yell "try not to suck" at the Cubs manager.

That "Maddonism" has become the rallying cry for Cubs Nation in 2016, but baseball isn't always that simple.

Maddon can't simply tell Jorge Soler to "try not to suck."

Soler entered play Sunday hitting .174, which would be the lowest mark in the National League if he had enough plate appearances to qualify. His .530 OPS would also be the fourth-lowest mark in the NL if he qualified.

Soler's struggles culminated in a rough game Wednesday night, as he struck out all four times up and left four men on base in the Cubs' 1-0 loss to the San Diego Padres.

Still, Maddon kept trotting Soler out there, giving him the start in left field each of the first two games against the Pittsburgh Pirates over the weekend. Soler went 1-for-6 with a walk and a run in those two games against a pair of left-handed pitchers.

"He just has to go out there and play," Maddon said. "He needs opportunity. When a guy has a tough day, I don't get really carried away in a negative way. It's part of development. It's part of making a young player a good major league player.

"When you're attempting to develop young players, there's a lot of patience involved. And then if you put your scout's hat on, you can see what the eventual reward is going to look like. A guy like Jorge, you have to be patient."

Soler flashed his potential when he posted a .903 OPS and 20 RBIs during his 24-game cup of coffee in 2014.

He also set a record by reaching base nine straight times to begin the postseason, drawing five walks and collecting four hits — including a double and two homers — to help jumpstart the Cubs' offense against the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLDS.

It's that potential — and the fact that Soler just turned 24 in February — that explains why the Cubs aren't so quick to just bench Soler or give up on him in any form.

"That's absurd. If we had walked away from him last year, we probably don't get out of that Cardinals series," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. "He and (Kyle) Schwarber were our two best hitters in that series. He played a primary role in helping us win a couple of those games.

"That's how good he's capable of being, and you need to invest in him in order to help him get to that level on a more consistent basis. And you have to win games along the way. We have good problems to have."

Like Epstein said, the Cubs have proven they've placed an emphasis on winning now so they have to manage Soler's development with what's best for the entire team.

Still, the Cubs entered play Sunday 27-8 with a plus-110 run differential, one of the best starts the game has ever seen.

Epstein predicted Soler will get hot and carry the Cubs at some point like he did in the playoffs.

He also reminded everybody this is actually the normal development path for young players, referencing the Kansas City Royals' patience with guys like Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Alex Gordon.

But Cubs fans and Chicago media have gotten a little spoiled of late, watching how guys like Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Schwarber have been key contributors from the first second they stepped foot on a big league field.

"We have to be patient," Epstein said. "The fans have to be patient, too, because not everyone steps right in and wins the Rookie of the Year and takes off and puts up a .900 OPS.

"There are more variations of performance. It comes more sporadically. If you invest in young players over time, you get rewarded. His talent is there. It's undeniable. Look what he did against the best pitchers in the league at the most important time last year."

Soler's playing time has become a source of debate, too. Those who look at his numbers cry for the Cubs to bench him or send him back down to Triple-A Iowa.

There are also those who believe Soler's slump is at least partially due to inconsistent playing time with Bryant drawing a bunch of starts in left field.

Epstein and Maddon both acknowledged Soler would have plenty of opportunity to play as the season wears on, but Maddon also pointed to Soler's overall inexperience in professional baseball.

Soler has played in just 158 big league games and only 155 minor league games while battling injuries throughout his career. He also spent about two years where he didn't play much competitive baseball in defecting from Cuba before signing with the Cubs.

"His development has been spotty, in a sense, because of injuries," Maddon said. "He's shown flashes of brilliance. I guess from a fan's perspective or (media) asking me qeustions, I can understand where you're coming from.

"But from where I sit, it's very easy to see what the right thing to do is. I can't and I won't get caught up in that kind of rhetoric. It's about a young man developing. ... You just gotta keep throwing him out there until eventually it clicks and it will."

Maddon also has learned the need to be extra patient with young Latin players who are tasked with the culture shock of adjusting to life in a new country as well as learning a new language on top of developing on-field skills.

Soler admitted in spring training he had concentration and focus lapses last season but had no problem turning it on in the playoffs when the stakes were raised.

Maddon isn't willing to point to concentration issues as a reason for Soler's struggles this year.

"Actually, I think that's really done well," Maddon said. "He's done a lot of work with the hitting coaches, with our sports psych guys. If you watch him in the batter's box when he might not like something, he just takes the walk back and forth in the box (he doesn't get out of the box because that is a finable offense).

"Even that's a mindful moment for me right there. His self-awareness is growing. Of course you want to see more performance right now, but I know that's gonna be forthcoming. I'm not worried about that.

"He's really trying to do the right things and that matters a lot. You've got this 6-foot-5 behemoth, strong man, tremendous power, working on different things, making the adjustments to the United States. He'll figure it out."

Enter Jim Hickey, the Cubs' new pitching coach tasked with shepherding one of baseball's best staffs

Enter Jim Hickey, the Cubs' new pitching coach tasked with shepherding one of baseball's best staffs

MESA, Ariz. — For years, Chris Bosio was credited as part of the reason for the Cubs’ recent string of pitching success. He helped turn Jake Arrieta into a Cy Young winner and oversaw pitching staffs that led the Cubs to three consecutive NLCS appearances and that curse-smashing World Series win in 2016.

But now it’s 2018, and Bosio is out. Jim Hickey is in.

The Cubs’ new pitching coach arrives with high expectations and has been tasked with shepherding a group of arms that saw a few too many bumps in the road last season. Jon Lester had his worst season in a long time, Jose Quintana’s numbers weren’t as good as they had been during his time with the White Sox, Tyler Chatwood led the National League in losses last season, and Yu Darvish got roughed up in a pair of World Series starts. And that’s before even mentioning the bullpen.

Still, even with all that said, the Cubs look to have, on paper, one of the best starting rotations in the game. And the upgrades in the bullpen have tempered some of the rage over the relief corps’ repeated postseason implosions. Theo Epstein’s front office had a mission this offseason to improve the pitching staff, and Hickey is a very large part of trying to accomplish that mission.

“What really was the slam dunk in my decision to come to Chicago or at least the finishing touches on it was getting to meet Theo, getting to meet Jed (Hoyer), going physically to Chicago, go to the offices there, seeing the physical building, meeting the people inside, just getting that vibe. Everybody was on the same page, and that page was winning,” Hickey said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. “And also built not just to win here for two or three years but for a sustained period of time, and that was what was very, very attractive.”

Hickey’s ties to the Cubs are obvious. He worked as Joe Maddon’s pitching coach in Tampa Bay for eight seasons before Maddon left to take over managing duties on the North Side. The two coached some phenomenal pitchers with the Rays, guys like James Shields, David Price, Scott Kazmir and Chris Archer and won an American League pennant in 2008. Prior to that, Hickey coached for the Houston Astros and oversaw a staff that included Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Roy Oswalt en route to the 2005 World Series.

How does the Cubs’ rotation of Lester, Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Quintana and Chatwood compare to those great rotations from Hickey’s past?

“That’s a really tough question. But I think one through five, it may be as deep as any staff that I’ve had,” he said. “Really tough to say. I’ll give you a better idea after the season’s over, but one through five, it’s really, really good. Had some very, very good staffs, obviously, in years past. But these five guys, we talk about it all the time, the starters pitching innings and not falling into this pattern of starters being used less and less and the bullpen being used more and more.

“If you were to give me a staff of five guys, or give anybody a staff of five guys, that threw between 185 and 200 innings, you would probably have a championship-caliber club. And that’s what my expectations are out of this staff, and I think they will be a championship-caliber club.”

Hickey’s toughest task, though, likely won’t be working with all those veteran starters but instead working with a  bullpen that struggled under the bright lights of the postseason last October. While Cubs relievers had the sixth-lowest ERA in baseball during the regular season (3.80), the playoffs were a different story, with the bullpen rocked to the tune of a 6.21 ERA. Cubs relievers walked a postseason-high 27 batters while striking out only 35 in 37.2 innings.

The front office tried to fix that strike-throwing problem by bringing in new closer Brandon Morrow, who shone with the Los Angeles Dodgers last season, and Steve Cishek, who has closing experience from his time with the Miami Marlins and Seattle Mariners, plus he worked with Hickey last season in Tampa Bay.

But Hickey is the bigger key to fixing that problem, and it’s one of his biggest objectives to not just bring the walks down but make the Cubs one of the best staffs in baseball when it comes to issuing free passes.

“I really think that walks, especially out of the bullpen, are a little bit more of a mindset than they are anything physically or mechanically wrong,” he said. “You come into a situation where maybe you give up a base hit and maybe it changes the game, so you’re a little bit reluctant to throw the ball over the plate.

“So I think it’s more of a mindset, and once the group gets the mindset of ‘attack, attack, attack,’ it’ll be contagious. And I think it is contagious. I think last year it was probably contagious in that there was more walks than you would like, and I think as you turn the corner and head the other direction, that would be contagious, as well.

“I have very few outcome goals in a season. I don’t sit there and say, ‘I want to lead the league in earned-run average’ or ‘I want to lead the league in strikeouts.’ … But that one thing, that one outcome goal that I always have for a staff is to have the least amount of walks in the league. And I think at the end of the day, especially with the talent that’s out there, if that is the case, it’s going to be an extremely successful season.”

Ben Zobrist knows reality of Cubs' crowded lineup: 'There are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench'

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USA TODAY

Ben Zobrist knows reality of Cubs' crowded lineup: 'There are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench'

MESA, Ariz. — Ben Zobrist has long been known for his versatility on the field. But it might take a new kind of versatility to get through what’s facing him for the 2018 season, being versatile when it comes to simply being on the field.

Zobrist was among several notable Cubs hitters who had a rough go of things at the plate in the follow-up campaign to 2016’s World Series run. He dealt with injuries, including a particularly bothersome one to his wrist, and finished with a career-worst .232/.318/.375 slash line.

And so, with younger guys like Javy Baez, Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr. forcing their way into Joe Maddon’s lineup, it’s a perfectly valid question to ask: Has the 36-year-old Zobrist — just 15 months removed from being named the World Series MVP — been relegated to part-time status for this championship-contending club?

Obviously that remains to be seen. Joe Maddon has a way of mixing and matching players so often that it makes it seem like this team has at least 12 different “starting” position players. But Zobrist, ever the picture of versatility, seems ready for whatever is coming his way.

“I’m prepared for that, if that’s what it comes to. I told him, whatever they need me to do,” Zobrist said Sunday, asked if he’d be OK with being in a platoon situation. “You’ll see me at some different positions. As far as at-bats, though, I’ve got to be healthy. That was the biggest thing last year that kept me from getting at-bats and being productive. So if I can be healthy, I think I can play the way that I’m capable of, and the discussion then at that point will be, ‘How much can you play before we push you too far?’

“We’ve got a lot of great players, and there are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench on our team at times. But no one ever rusts because you know how Joe uses everybody. You’re still going to play. Even if you don’t start, you’re probably going to play later in the game. It’s just part of the National League and the way Joe Maddon manages.”

It’s no secret, of course, that when Zobrist is on, he’s the kind of player you want in the lineup as much as possible. It was just two seasons ago that he posted a .386 on-base percentage, banged out 31 doubles, smacked 18 home runs and was a starter for the team that won the World Series.

But he also admitted that last year’s injury fights were extremely tough: “Last year was one of the most difficult seasons I’ve ever had as a player.” Zobrist said that while he’s feeling good and ready to go in 2018, with his recent physical ailments and his advancing age, he’s in a different stage in his career.

“At this point in my career, I’m not going to play 158 games or whatever. I’m going to have to manage and figure out how to play great for 130,” he said. “And I think that would be a good thing to shoot for, if I was healthy, is playing 130 games of nine innings would be great. And then you’re talking about postseason, too, when you add the games on top of that, and well, you need to play for the team in the postseason, you’ve got to be ready for that, too.

“From my standpoint, from their standpoint, it’s about managing, managing my performance and my physical body and making sure I can do all that at the highest level, keep it at the highest level I can.”

Maddon’s managerial style means that Zobrist, even if he’s not technically a part of the everyday starting eight, will still get the opportunity to hit on a regular basis, get a chance to play on a regular basis. Baez figures to be locked in as the team’s No. 1 second baseman, but he’ll need days off. Maddon mentioned Sunday that Zobrist, along with Happ, have been practicing at first base in an effort to be able to spell Anthony Rizzo. It’s the crowded outfield where Zobrist could potentially see the most time. He’ll be a piece of that tricky daily puzzle along with Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward and the aforementioned Almora and Happ.

Unsurprisingly, in the end that versatility, combined with how Zobrist has recovered physically and whether he can get back to how he’s produced in the past, will determine how much he will play, according to the guy writing out the lineups.

“I think he’s going to dictate that to us based on how he feels,” Maddon said. “Listen, you’re always better off when Ben Zobrist is in your lineup. He’s a little bit older than he had been, obviously, like we all are. I’ve got to be mindful of that, but he’s in great shape. Let’s just see what it looks like. Go out there and play, and we’ll try to figure it out as the season begins to unwind because who knows, he might have an epiphany and turn back the clock a little bit, he looks that good. I want to keep an open mind.

“I want to make sure that he understands we’re going to need him to play a variety of different positions. He’s ready to do it, he’s eager, he’s really ready. He was not pleased with his year last year, took time to reflect upon it and now he’s really been refreshed. So I think you’re going to see the best form of Ben Zobrist right now.”

Two years ago, Zobrist played a big enough role to go to the All-Star Game and get named the MVP of the World Series. In the present, that role might be much, much smaller. But Zobrist said he’s OK with anything, admitting it’s about the number of rings on the fingers and not the number of days in the starting lineup.

“I’m 36 as a player, so I’m just trying to win championships at this point. It’s not really about what I’m trying to accomplish as an individual,” Zobrist said. “Everybody wants to have great seasons, but I’ve told (Maddon), ‘Wherever you need me, I’m ready.’ Just going to prepare to fill the spots that need to be filled and be a great complement to what’s going on.”