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."

Why did Kris Bryant get a first-place vote in this year's National League MVP balloting?

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USA TODAY

Why did Kris Bryant get a first-place vote in this year's National League MVP balloting?

Kris Bryant was the 2016 National League MVP. And despite having what could be considered an even better campaign this past season, he finished seventh in voting for the 2017 edition of the award.

The NL MVP was awarded to Miami Marlins outfielder Giancarlo Stanton on Thursday night, a fine choice, though it was nearly impossible to make a poor choice, that's how many fantastic players there were hitting the baseball in the NL this season.

After Stanton, Cinicinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto finished second, earning the same amount of first-place votes and losing out to Stanton by just one point. Then came Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, Colorado Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado, Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon and Washington Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon ahead of Bryant.

But there was someone who thought Bryant deserved to repeat as the NL MVP. Yes, Bryant earned a first-place vote — as did everyone else mentioned besides Rendon, for that matter — causing a bit of a social-media stir considering the Cubs third baseman, despite his great season, perhaps wasn't as standout a candidate as some of the other guys who finished higher in the voting.

So the person who cast that first-place vote for Bryant, MLB.com's Mark Bowman, wrote up why he felt Bryant deserved to hoist the Kenesaw Mountain Landis Memorial Baseball Award for the second straight year.

"In the end, I chose Bryant because I believe he made the greatest impact, as his second-half production fueled the successful turnaround the Cubs experienced after the All-Star break," Bowman wrote.

"Though I don't believe the MVP must come from a playoff contender, in an attempt to differentiate the value provided by each of these three players (Bryant, Votto and Stanton), I chose to reward the impact made by Bryant, who produced the NL's fourth-best OPS (.968) after the All-Star break, when the Cubs distanced themselves from a sub-.500 record and produced an NL-best 49 wins."

It's easy for Cubs fans and observers to follow that logic, as the Cubs took off after the All-Star break following a disappointing first half. As good as Bryant was all season long, his second-half numbers, as Bowman pointed out, were especially great. He hit .325 with a .421 on-base percentage and a .548 slugging percentage over his final 69 games of the regular season, hitting 11 home runs, knocking out 21 doubles and driving in 35 runs during that span.

Perhaps the craziest thing about this year's MVP race and Bryant's place in it is that Bryant was just as good if not better than he was in 2016, when he was almost unanimously named the NL MVP. After slashing .292/.385/.554 with 39 homers, 102 RBIs, 35 doubles, 75 walks and 154 strikeouts in 2016, Bryant slashed .295/.409/.537 with 29 homers, 73 RBIs, 38 doubles, 95 walks and 128 strikeouts in 2017.

Of course, the competition was much steeper this time around. But Bryant was given the MVP award in 2016 playing for a 103-win Cubs team that was bursting with offensive firepower, getting great seasons from Anthony Rizzo (who finished third in 2016 NL MVP voting), as well as Dexter Fowler and Ben Zobrist. While the Cubs actually scored more runs this season and undoubtedly turned it on after the All-Star break on a team-wide basis, Bryant was far and away the best hitter on the team in 2017, with many other guys throughout the lineup having notably down years and/or experiencing down stretches throughout the season. Hence, making Bryant more, say it with me, valuable.

So Bowman's argument about Bryant's impact on the Cubs — a team that still scored 822 runs, won 92 games and advanced to the National League Championship Series — is a decently convincing one.

Check out Bowman's full explanation, which dives into some of Bryant's advanced stats.

Game on as Jake Arrieta, Wade Davis and Alex Cobb turn down qualifying offers

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AP

Game on as Jake Arrieta, Wade Davis and Alex Cobb turn down qualifying offers

During the middle of Jake Arrieta’s 2015 Cy Young Award campaign, super-agent Scott Boras compared the emerging Cubs pitcher to another client – Max Scherzer – in the first season of a seven-year, $210 million megadeal with the Washington Nationals.

Now don’t focus as much on the money – though that obviously matters – as when Scherzer arrived for that Washington press conference to put on his new Nationals jersey: Jan. 21, 2015.

It might take Boras a while to find a new home for his “big squirrel with a lot of nuts in his trees.” Teams have been gearing up for next winter’s monster Bryce Harper/Manny Machado free-agent class for years. Mystery surrounds Shohei Ohtani, Japan’s Babe Ruth, and the posting system with Nippon Professional Baseball. Major League Baseball’s competitive balance tax may also have a chilling effect this offseason.

As expected, Arrieta, All-Star closer Wade Davis and pitcher Alex Cobb were among the group of free agents who went 9-for-9 in declining the one-year, $17.4 million qualifying offer before Thursday’s deadline.

With that formality out of the way, if Arrieta and Davis sign elsewhere, the Cubs will receive two third-round picks in the 2018 draft.

By staying under the $195 million luxury-tax threshold this year, the Cubs would have to give up a second-round draft pick and $500,000 from their international bonus pool to sign Cobb, an obvious target given their connections to the Tampa Bay Rays, or Lance Lynn, another starter on their radar who turned down a qualifying offer from the St. Louis Cardinals.

That collectively bargained luxury-tax system became a central part of the Boras media show on Wednesday outside the Waldorf Astoria Orlando, where he introduced “Playoffville” as his new go-to analogy at the end of the general manager meetings.

“The team cutting payroll is treating their family where they’re staying in a neighborhood that has less protection for winning,” Boras said. “They’re not living in the gated community of Playoffville. Certainly, they’re saving a de minimis property tax, but the reality of it is there’s less firemen in the bullpen. There’s less financial analysts sitting in the press boxes.

“The rooms in the house are less, so obviously you’re going to have less franchise players. When you move to that 12-room home in Playoffville, they generally are filled with the people that allow you to really achieve what your family – your regional family – wants to achieve. And that is winning.”

Boras also represents four other players who rejected qualifying offers – J.D Martinez, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Greg Holland – another reason why this could be a long winter of Arrieta rumors, slow-playing negotiations and LOL metaphors.