Cubs

How the Cubs built a World Series contender

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How the Cubs built a World Series contender

Whether or not the Cubs got here a year ahead of schedule, they have a star manager, a dynamic lineup anchored by MVP and Rookie of the Year candidates and the hottest pitcher on the planet.

Making it to a one-game playoff as the second wild-card team by Year 4 would have sounded completely reasonable when the Cubs put Theo Epstein’s name in lights on the Wrigley Field marquee and gave him the keys to the kingdom as the new president of baseball operations.

But winning 97 games, having the third-best record in baseball and doing it with a middle-of-the-pack payroll? After finishing in fifth place for five years in a row and firing two handpicked managers? By leaning on as many as four rookies in the everyday lineup and turning a fringe pitcher like Jake Arrieta into a potential Cy Young Award winner?

No chance.

But here come the Cubs on Wednesday night at PNC Park, trying to knock out the Pittsburgh Pirates and forever change the balance of power in the National League.

“Nobody set out to just get into the playoffs,” Epstein said. “We want to win a World Series. I think you need to build a great organization to do that. But I feel like we’re real close to having that now. Great organizations play well in October. I hope we’re going to give ourselves a lot of chances to do that in the coming years. But it starts right here, right now in this October.”

[MORE CUBS: Joe Maddon is perfect manager at perfect time for Cubs]

Faced with a new collective bargaining agreement that changed the rules of engagement in the draft and on the international market — and restricted by the leveraged partnership between the Ricketts family and Sam Zell’s Tribune Co. (in a deal that included a stake in Comcast SportsNet Chicago) — the Cubs lost 286 games and wrote off three major-league seasons.

Internally, the Cubs point to 10 major trades engineered during those three years. Within that churn, they gave up 13 players (average age: 31) and eight years of future control for 17 prospects (average age: 22 1/2) and 95 years of future control.

Dale Sveum didn’t take the Cubs from Point A to Point B to Point C, but he did hire pitching coach Chris Bosio, his old buddy from the Milwaukee Brewers, and help establish the sign-and-flip program, a competitive attitude and a sophisticated game-planning system.

“I don’t like losing, and it was very difficult,” Bosio said. “But I believed in what Theo and Jed (Hoyer) were talking about. They believed in what me and (coaches Mike Borzello and Lester Strode) brought to the table. And when we had the opportunity to get these guys, we were going to make the most of it.

“It really doesn’t matter if it’s a Jason Berken or a Jake Arrieta, our job is to try to get everything we can out of these guys at that given moment.”

[MORE CUBS: Baseball’s toughest division ever made Cubs better faster]

Wrigleyville became a land of opportunity. The Cubs bought low on first baseman Anthony Rizzo, a former Boston Red Sox prospect who had bombed with the San Diego Padres in 2011 and had a close relationship with general manager Hoyer and vice president Jason McLeod.

Hector Rondon — a Tommy John case in the Cleveland Indians system — could gradually develop from a Rule 5 guy to a 30-save closer this year.

Chris Coghlan — a former Rookie of the Year with the Florida Marlins — could sign a minor-league deal and work his way out of Triple-A Iowa and put up 25 homers, 53 doubles and an OPS around .800 across the last two seasons.

Luis Valbuena — a utility infielder claimed off waivers from the Toronto Blue Jays on April 4, 2012 — could show enough to become a centerpiece in last winter’s deal with the Houston Astros that yielded centerfielder/leadoff guy Dexter Fowler (102 runs).

Another secret to Arrieta’s success after that Scott Feldman trade with the Baltimore Orioles in the middle of the 2013 season:

“It just so happens when we got Jake, we were in need of bodies,” Bosio said. “It was hard for us to fill out a pitching staff that could compete. And slowly we started getting the position players, and then we started acquiring more pitching. And we’re not done yet, by no means. This is not the finished product. I hope everybody understands that.”

[MORE CUBS: Why Cubs believe Jake Arrieta will be unstoppable in October]

“Of course,” Arrieta said, that trade became a career-defining moment that set the stage for his first playoff start on Wednesday night. “It was approaching that period of time when I was with Baltimore that I knew things might happen. And they did.

“I was embraced by everybody. Everybody made me feel extremely welcome, and the comfort level was there from the get-go. It was like a seamless transition.

“I came over here and started doing some things I knew I was capable of doing to help me be more consistent. The momentum just continued to roll.”

But the seemingly constant turnover made it difficult to create a cohesive clubhouse culture or build a sturdy rotation for October.

So the Cubs overpaid for Jon Lester — partially financing the $155 million megadeal with money leftover from the Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes — and signed glue guys like catcher David Ross and outfielder Chris Denorfia.

Chairman Tom Ricketts authorized Epstein’s front office to bank the Tanaka funds, basically creating a more general fund for baseball operations, a firewall unavailable to the Jim Hendry administration.

[MORE CUBS: Ready for Pittsburgh: Cubs storm into playoffs with 97 wins]

Ricketts had a long-term vision, a genuine interest in scouting and a very optimistic view of player development. The chairman personally visited with Jorge Soler’s family during a trip to the Dominican Republic before the Cuban outfielder signed in the summer of 2012, getting $30 million guaranteed.

Without tanking, the Cubs never would have had access to Kris Bryant, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 draft and an All-Star third baseman already.

Between the 2013 and 2014 drafts, teams spent 80 first-round picks on prospects. Twelve players have made it to the big leagues already — two while wearing a Cubs uniform — and most making a minimal impact.

Bryant is a 6.0 WAR player while Kyle Schwarber — an Indiana University catcher/outfielder viewed as a reach with the No. 4 overall pick in 2014 — just put up 16 homers and 43 RBIs in 69 games.

“All the heavy lifting was done prior to me coming in here,” said Joe Maddon, who might win his third Manager of the Year award anyway. “The infrastructure was set up. They took a beating doing the right things. And then all of a sudden our guys are playing like they are.”

After Game 162 last season, Rizzo declared it was time to compete and predicted a division title in January. Why was the All-Star first baseman so confident when no one else seemed to be that bullish?

“You just felt it,” Rizzo said. "That (Jeff) Samardzija/(Jason) Hammel trade (for Addison Russell), you just felt kind of the winds turn. We went into spring training all prepared with our expectations to win the World Series. And we got to keep going for that."

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.”