Cubs

Extra wild card plays right into Epsteins hands

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Extra wild card plays right into Epsteins hands

MESA, Ariz. Theo Epstein envisions Wrigley Field in October, sellouts night after night, year after year, until theres a parade down Michigan Avenue.

That was part of the lure in leaving the Boston Red Sox for a presidents job with the Cubs. There are game-changers on the horizon at Clark and Addison, potential stadium renovations and monster television deals that should pump up revenue and fuel an annual contender.

But the landscape changed immediately on Friday with the announcement that Major League Baseball and the players union had agreed to add an extra wild card in each league for 2012 and beyond.

The goal always has to be to win the division, Epstein said. When you set out, thats the only sure-fire way to get in and now it comes with a significant added advantage of getting to avoid single-game elimination.

We still set out with the same goal of winning the division, but clearly it makes the bar of qualifying for postseason play lower and more attainable for teams that are kind of in that building phase. Its a good thing.

Epstein is trying to create another sustainable model. The Red Sox won 95 games or more six times during his nine seasons as general manager. When they reversed the curse in 2004, winning their first World Series in 86 years, they did it as a wild card. Its all about getting in the tournament.

We got more chances now, outfielder Alfonso Soriano said. We have a lot of talent here, so I think if everybody stays healthy and we play the game the right way, well be fine.

The players arent supposed to wear their (Bleep) the Goat T-shirts anymore. Instead, theres more of a quiet optimism around camp, because no one on the outside thinks theyll contend. They know they wont be playing with bulls-eyes on their backs.

I think everybody in here believes that we can win the World Series, pitcher Randy Wells said. If you didnt, then you shouldnt be here. If you do have a season where you can get hot at the right time, and jump in that extra wild card, itll help anybody.

The fans and the media dont think this is the year the Cubs will win their first World Series since 1908. This season will be about identifying core players for a championship contender.

Epstein didnt like how Billy Beane revealed all those industry secrets in Moneyball. But Epstein generally agrees with the Oakland As executive in that the playoffs can be a crapshoot.

But there are things that you can do to increase your chances in that tournament, Epstein said. Like being healthy, being rested, being prepared, advance scouting your tails off to make sure youre better prepared than the opponent.

(Its) having a really strong top of your rotation, a really strong closer, a really strong defense, certain things that sort of show up even more in the postseason than they do over the course of 162 games.

The postseason is less of a meritocracy than the regular season. (But) there are still things that you can do to hedge your bets.

Thats an insight into how Epstein plans to build this organization. The Moneyball references misrepresent Epstein because hes so heavily invested in scouting and believes in character and chemistry, intangibles that are supposed to help form The Cubs Way.

The self-proclaimed band of idiots in 2004 had guts, grinders and huge personalities: Curt Schilling; Pedro Martinez; Johnny Damon; David Ortiz; Jason Varitek; Kevin Millar; Bill Mueller; Keith Foulke; even Manny Ramirez before the fall.

Big games and big spots always boil down to players stepping up (and) overcoming adversity and performing, Epstein said. A lot of factors go into that. Theres always some randomness in the results. But (it helps) when you have guys who are really motivated and play as a team.

This is my personal experience. Ive seen guys who have come through in big spots when its more for the team and for themselves. (If) you have a bunch of guys who go out there playing as individuals, I dont know how many of those teams end up having a lot of success.

Then again, Epstein thought of the in-fighting on teams in the 1970s and 1980s that still won titles, like the As and New York Yankees: So I dont think you can draw any bright lines.

All that history attracted Epstein to the North Side, but his views on baseball can also be cold and calculating. The odds just got a little better at the casino. An extra wild card will play right into his hands.

As much as Im a traditionalist (and) a purist, its hard to argue with this, Epstein said. It seems to be the right move at the right time for the game.

One MLB executive thinks Kyle Schwarber can emerge as Cubs' best hitter in 2018

One MLB executive thinks Kyle Schwarber can emerge as Cubs' best hitter in 2018

When the 2017 season ended, Cubs left fielder Kyle Schwarber looked in the mirror and didn't like what he saw.

He was stocky, slower than he wanted to be and he had just finished a very difficult season that saw him spend time back in the minor leagues at Triple-A after he struggled mightily through the first three months of the season.

Schwarber still put up solid power numbers despite his overall struggles. He slammed 30 home runs, putting him among the Top 15 hitters in the National League and among the Top 35 in all of baseball. But, Schwarber was honest with himself. He knew he could achieve so much more if he was in better shape and improved his mobility, his overall approach at the plate and his defense.

Schwarber was drafted by the Cubs out of Indiana University as a catcher. However, many scouts around baseball had serious doubts about his ability to catch at the big league level. The Cubs were in love with Schwarber the person and Schwarber the overall hitter and felt they would give him a chance to prove he could catch for them. If he couldn't, then they believed he could play left field adequately enough to keep his powerful bat in the lineup.

However, a serious knee injury early in the 2016 season knocked Schwarber out of action for six months and his return to the Cubs in time to assist in their World Series run raised expectations for a tremendous 2017 season. In fact, the expectations for Schwarber were wildly unrealistic when the team broke camp last spring. Manager Joe Maddon had Schwarber in the everyday lineup batting leadoff and playing left field.

But Schwarber's offseason after the World Series consisted of more rehab on his still-healing injured left knee. That kept him from working on his outfield play, his approach at the plate and his overall baseball training. 

Add in all of the opportunities and commitments that come with winning a World Series and it doesn't take much detective work to understand why Schwarber struggled so much when the 2017 season began. This offseason, though, has been radically different. A season-ending meeting with Cubs president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer led to a decision to take weight off of Schwarber's frame. It also included a decision to change his training program so that he improved his quickness, lateral movement and his overall baseball skills.

"I took two weeks off after the season ended and then I went to work," Schwarber said. "We put a plan together to take weight off and to improve my quickness. I have my meals delivered and I feel great. My baseball work combined with a lot of strength and conditioning has me in the best shape that I have ever been in."

Schwarber disagrees with the pundits who felt manager Maddon's decision to put him in the leadoff spot in the Cubs' loaded lineup contributed to his struggles.

"I have no problem hitting wherever Joe wants to put me," Schwarber said. "I didn't feel any more pressure because I was batting leadoff. I just needed to get back to training for a baseball season as opposed to rehabbing from my knee injury. I'm probably 20-25 pounds lighter and I'm ready to get back to Arizona with the boys and to get ready for the season."

Many around the game were shocked when the Cubs drafted Schwarber with the No. 4 overall selection in the 2014 MLB Draft, but a rival executive who was not surprised by the pick believes that Schwarber can indeed return to the form that made him such a feared hitter during his rookie season as well as his excellent postseason resume.

"Everyone who doubted this kid may end up way off on their evaluation because he is a great hitter and now that he is almost two years removed from his knee injury," the executive said. "He knows what playing at the major-league level is all about I expect him to be a real force in the Cubs lineup.

"Theo and Jed do not want to trade this kid and they are going to give him every opportunity to succeed. I think he has a chance to be as good a hitter as they have in their order."

Watch the full 1-on-1 interview with Kyle Schwarber Sunday night on NBC Sports Chicago.

The low-key move that may pay dividends for Cubs in 2018 and beyond

The low-key move that may pay dividends for Cubs in 2018 and beyond

The Cubs-Cardinals rivalry is alive and well and this offseason has been further proof of that.

The St. Louis Cardinals haven't made a rivalry-altering move like inking Jake Arrieta to a megadeal, but they have proven that they are absolutely coming after the Cubs and the top of the division.

However, a move the St. Louis brass made Friday afternoon may actually be one that makes Cubs fans cheer.

The Cardinals traded outfielder Randal Grichuk to the Toronto Blue Jays Friday in exhange for a pair of right-handed pitchers: Dominic Leone and Conner Greene. Leone is the main draw here as a 26-year-old reliever who posted a 2.56 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and 10.4 K/9 in 70.1 innings last year in Toronto.

But this is the second young position player the Cardinals have traded to Toronto this offseason and Grichuk is a notorious Cub Killer.

Grichuk struggled overall in 2017, posting a second straight year of empty power and not much else. But he once again hammered the Cubs to the tune of a .356 batting average and 1.240 OPS. 

He hit six homers and drove in 12 runs in just 14 games (11 starts) against Joe Maddon's squad. That's 27 percent of his 2017 homers and 20 percent of his season RBI numbers coming against just one team.

And it wasn't just one year that was an aberration. In his career, Grichuk has a .296/.335/.638 slash line against the Cubs, good for a .974 OPS. He's hit 11 homers and driven in 33 runs in 37 games, the highest ouput in either category against any opponent.

Even if Leone builds off his solid 2017 and pitches some big innings against the Cubs over the next couple seasons, it will be a sigh of relief for the Chicago pitching staff knowing they won't have to face the threat of Grichuk 18+ times a year.

Plus, getting a reliever and a low-level starting pitching prospect back for a guy (Grichuk) who was borderline untouchable a couple winters ago isn't exactly great value. The same can be said for the Cardinals' trade of Aledmys Diaz to Toronto on Dec. 1 for essentially nothing.

A year ago, St. Louis was heading into the season feeling confident about Diaz, who finished fifth in the NL Rookie of the Year race in 2016 after hitting .300 with an .879 OPS as a 25-year-old rookie. He wound up finishing 2017 in the minors after struggling badly to start the season and the Cardinals clearly didn't want to wait out his growing pains.

The two trades with Toronto limits the Cardinals' depth (as of right now) and leaves very few proven options behind shortstop Paul DeJong and outfielder Tommy Pham, who both enjoyed breakout seasons in 2017.