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."

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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."

Even the Indians can't deny the lasting impact Cubs have on Progressive Field

Even the Indians can't deny the lasting impact Cubs have on Progressive Field

CLEVELAND — Even the Indians can't deny the lasting impact Cubs have on Progressive Field.

Namely, the impact the Cubs left on the floor of the visiting locker room.

With 18 months in between visits, one of the first things the Cubs noticed about their clubhouse at Progressive Field was the new carpet.

"It's probably necessary," Joe Maddon said with a smile. "So some good things have come from all that stuff, too, for the visitors. You get new interior decorating."

After the Indians blew a 3-1 lead in the 2016 World Series, the Cubs — and Bill Murray — dumped an awful lot of champagne and Budwesier on the old carpets.

Like, A LOT. 

"Oh yeah," Addison Russell said, "I think we messed it up pretty good."

It'd be hard to fault the Cubs for an epic celebration to honor the end of a 108-year championship drought, especially the way in which they accomplished the feat with maybe the most incredible baseball game ever played.

As the Cubs returned to the emotional, nostalgic-riddled scene of that historic fall, the parallels were striking.

Exactly 18 months before Tuesday, the Cubs walked into Progressive Field for the start of the World Series in 54 degree Cleveland weather with overcast skies and a pestering little drizzle.

Tuesday, the Cubs walked back into Progressive Field in 54 degree Cleveland weather with overcast skies and a pestering little drizzle.

A bunch of Cubs also found their lockers in the same place in that visiting locker room.

Russell, Ben Zobrist, Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward, Anthony Rizzo and Jon Lester all have their lockers in the same spots this week as they had for the 2016 Fall Classic.

Some clubhouses go in numerical order, some go based on position groups. The Indians don't really seem to fall under either camp, considering Lester was surrounded by all position players in the corner of the locker room, where — before Tuesday —was last seen giving a heartfelt "thank you" to the media for "putting up with him" all season.

"Just walking back into the stadium from the bus into the clubhouse, you get the sense of nostalgia," Russell said. "I see that they replaced the carpet, which is nice. But yeah, the weight room, the food room, I just remember walking around here having that World Series Champs shirt on.

"It's a great memory. I think this is the same locker I had as well. Everything's just fitting like a puzzle piece right now and it's pretty awesome."

Kyle Schwarber is basically Superman in Cleveland

Kyle Schwarber is basically Superman in Cleveland

CLEVELAND — Kyle Schwarber LOVES hitting in Cleveland.

It's like he morphs into a superhero just by stepping foot into the left-handed batter's box at Progressive Field.

Playing in Cleveland for the first time since his legendary return to the field in the 2016 World Series, Schwarber went absolutely bonkers on a Josh Tomlin pitch in the second inning Tuesday night:

That wasn't just any homer, however. 

The 117.1 mph dinger was the hardest-hit ball by any Cubs hitter in the era of exit velocity, aka since Statcast was invented in 2015:

Schwarber followed that up with another solo blast into the right-field bleachers in the fourth inning off Tomlin.

Schwarber — an Ohio native — collected his first MLB hit at Progressive Field back on June 17, 2015 in his second career game. He went 6-for-9 in that series with a triple, homer and 4 RBI.

Couple that with his World Series totals and the first two times up Tuesday and Schwarber has hit .500 with a .545 on-base percentage and .900 slugging percentage in his first 33 trips to the plate in Cleveland.