Cubs

GM Jed Hoyer breaks down the season so far and how 2017 Cubs need to create their own identity

GM Jed Hoyer breaks down the season so far and how 2017 Cubs need to create their own identity

The Cubs survived the season's first 15 games without the kind of devastating injury that sidelined Kyle Schwarber last year or the steroid suspension that just took down Starling Marte and might sink the Pittsburgh Pirates. There's value in just avoiding the catastrophic event, like the Toronto Blue Jays starting 2-11 and already sparking speculation about a sell-off. 

The Cubs don't have to worry about their window suddenly closing or wonder if buying would make sense at the trade deadline. There are no free agents in Year 1 of megadeals in the clubhouse, the way Jon Lester and Jason Heyward had to get acclimated to a new team and different expectations. The 108-year drought is finally over.

Maybe 8-7 isn't exactly what the Cubs expected when they left Arizona at the end of spring training. But they also headed out on a 10-day road trip that begins Friday night against the Cincinnati Reds feeling like they already weathered a storm. 

"One of the things about coming off a world championship," general manager Jed Hoyer, "is that I do think there's a tendency to feel like: ‘OK, we have the same group together, the same things are going to happen again.' 

"Every team has to create their own identity. Every team has to go through that process again. Maybe this is good for us, in a way. It forces our guys to realize that just bringing back a lot of the same guys on a really good team — it doesn't just happen overnight. 

"It takes time. It takes building that identity and working through some problems together."    

It's not that the Cubs needed a wake-up call. It's more the reality of a 162-game schedule, the emotions and distractions during that first banner-raising/ring-ceremony homestand at Wrigley Field and the target on their backs. Next weekend's showdown against the Boston Red Sox will be billed as a potential World Series preview, but the Cubs don't need national TV or a backdrop like Fenway Park to know they will be getting everyone's best shot.   

"Even in the games we've won, I don't think we've still been quite as clean or quite as efficient as we were a year ago," Hoyer said. "But one of the nice things about bringing back almost exactly the same team is we know we can do it. Virtually the same group won 103 games last year and obviously was very dominant at times. I think we'll get back to that."

[CUBS TICKETS: Get your Cubs seats right here]

The Cubs have committed 12 errors, while still being a top-seven team in the majors in terms of defensive efficiency. The rotation has made only six quality starts, but that group has an overall 3.60 ERA, even with Kyle Hendricks off to a slow start. The bullpen has blown four saves, but new closer Wade Davis is 2-0 with three saves and a 0.00 ERA.

The Cubs rank 13th in the National League with 13 homers — Bryzzo Souvenir Co. has produced three so far — and have scored more runs than only six other NL teams. But Schwarber (.814 OPS) is a force at the top of the lineup and Heyward is hitting .294 after breaking down and rebuilding his swing. 

"April's difficult — we're drawing big conclusions based on tiny sample sizes," Hoyer said. "That's just the nature of it. That said, I don't think we've played the kind of baseball we played last year, that's for sure. We've been sloppier, at times, than we were last year. We didn't do that last year. We were very clean. We took care of the ball. We didn't give other teams outs. 

"The offensive part — I have zero concerns about that. That's just a matter of time. We have such a talented lineup with guys with track records that actually even have upside beyond what they did last year. The offensive part will come around." 

Back-to-back comeback wins over the Milwaukee Brewers this week at Wrigley Field also gave the Cubs flashbacks to 2016. 

"It's not like we're playing poorly," manager Joe Maddon said. "When you don't hit, sometimes the definition is that you're not playing well. We're just not hitting up to our capabilities yet. The defense, overall, has been really good. The starting pitching, for the most part, has been really good. The bullpen, confidence-wise, (is getting there). 

"We will start to hit. That's going to happen. And then as these bullpen dudes get their confidence…just keep moving it forward. I like where we're at."

The Cubs avoided a last-minute signing this winter to bolster their bullpen, so they could conserve resources for the trade deadline. Prospects like Ian Happ then went out and made a strong impression in spring training, showing the farm system still has high-end talent. 

Happ generated six homers in his first 14 games at the Triple-A level and has already played second base and all three outfield spots for Iowa, with the idea that he might also work out at third base to boost his versatility and marketability. 

But it's too early to tell how the trade market will shake out, where the Cubs might see a match in a deal for pitching or if other unforeseen needs might arise between now and then.  

"We're a long way from that," Hoyer said. "The way the game is, I feel like April and May are sort of evaluation months. People don't try to make massive decisions before Memorial Day. And then once you get into June, trades and transactions become a lot more realistic. But we're still 45 games from that really becoming a reality."

Jason Heyward predicts he will be the MVP of 2018 Cubs

Jason Heyward predicts he will be the MVP of 2018 Cubs

“Who will be the Cubs’ 2018 team MVP?”

Jason Heyward: “Me!”

No hesitation, no pause. Just an honest answer from a confident 28-year old with a $184 million contract.

Nobody wants to succeed more at the plate than the Cubs’ two-time Gold Glove award winner, but the offense has been downright ugly (.243, 18 HR, 108 RBI in 268 games).

Despite not performing up to a megadeal, Heyward has no problem talking about his contract:

“It is what it is, I earned it," Heyward said. "I earned that part of it. For me, it’s awesome. To be where I want to be, that’s the most important thing.”

After spending time talking at Cubs Convention speaking with Heyward, his manager and six of his other teammates, it’s no surprise that it was Heyward who delivered the now-famous Game 7 “Rain Delay Speech.”

His teammates adore him.

Question to Ben Zobrist: “Who’s your favorite teammate of all-time at any level?”

After a 10-second pause: “Jason Heyward.”

That definitely says something coming from a 36-year-old, three-time All-Star and World Series MVP.

For the true blue Cubs fans that can’t stand Heyward and his untradeable contract, sorry, his teammates and manager have nothing but good things to say. 

By all accounts, Heyward is a quality human being despite his shortcomings in the batter’s box the last two seasons.

And his goals for an offensive renaissance in 2018 are simple and basic:

“Just being in the lineup every game.”

His teammates will be behind him 100 percent, even if the fans are not.

How Addison Russell plans to keep nagging arm/foot injuries at bay in 2018

How Addison Russell plans to keep nagging arm/foot injuries at bay in 2018

Addison Russell doesn't have time to think about whether or not Javy Baez is coming for the starting shortstop gig.

Russell is too busy making sure he's able to perform at his physical peak for as much of 2018 as possible after a rough few years in that regard.

The soon-to-be-24-year-old only played in 110 games last year as he missed more than a month with a foot injury. He also has a history of hamstring injuries (including the one that kept him out of the 2015 NLCS) and a sore throwing arm that has cropped up at times throughout the last few years (though whether the arm is an issue or not depends on who you ask).

Russell admits his arm has been an issue and he has a new plan of attack this winter that will carry into the spring.

"I've been doing a throwing program," Russell said. "I feel like in the past, with my arm, I started throwing a little bit too early in spring training.

"This year, in the offseason, just kinda ease into it a little bit. In the offseason last year, I feel like I threw a little bit too much. Once midseason hit, it was all the downward effect of me throwing too early in the offseason.

"Having that in mind, taking things easier in the offseason and then going into spring training and then once the season's here, maybe around a quarter of the way through the season, start revving it up and that way, I'll be able to last with both my foot and my arm."

Russell had a bad case of plantar fasciitis last summer that also affected his ability to throw the ball to first base.

He joked he feels like an old man because he is happy he can now wake up without any pain in the foot, but still makes sure he rolls his foot on a golf ball to keep things loose.

With regards to his offseason workouts, Russell is prioritizing quality over quantity and he's taken full advantage of the longer offseason that featured far less distractions than a year ago when the Cubs were coming off the first World Series championship in 108 years.

"I'm getting a little bit older and I think a little wiser when it comes to training and knowing my body," Russell said. "With that being said, it's just kinda being in tune to my body more than pounding out weights.

"Definitely running and cardio is something that has been beneficial to my career in the past. I'm keeping up with that."

Between the foot and arm modifications to his training regimen, Russell is hoping to cut down on some of his throwing errors that plagued him in 2017 and try to get back to the hitter he was when he clubbed 24 homers and drove in 108 runs in 168 games between the 2016 regular season and postseason.

"Definitely I want to be in the All-Star Game this next year," Russell said. "I feel like with the type of skillset that I have and the type of guys around me, I think that could be a goal that I could hit.

"Smaller goals as far as staying consistent with my workouts. Remaining flexible is a huge goal that I wanna hit this year. I see a lot of veteran guys after ballgames stretching and they've been playing for quite a while, so it definitely works out for them.

"Just taking something from veteran guys and kinda incorporating it into my game and picking their ear and listening to how they prepare and how to keep your body in shape is beneficial, for sure."

To make the All-Star Game, Russell would need to get out to a hot start, which is something the Cubs and their fans would love to see. His steady presence in the lineup and as a defensive anchor contributed to the inconsistencies of the 2017 Cubs.

Entering a pivotal season in his development, Russell has emerged as one of the biggest X-factors surrounding the Cubs entering 2018. 

The entire Addison Russell 1-on-1 interview will air Friday night on NBC Sports Chicago.