Cubs

Setting the 'Panic City' scene for Cubs vs. Mets: Is this it for the defending NL champs?

Setting the 'Panic City' scene for Cubs vs. Mets: Is this it for the defending NL champs?

The tabloids are already asking the questions, even before the Fourth of July traffic starts, two weeks out from the All-Star Game. It’s on the New York Post’s website: “Is there anything else that can go wrong for the Mets?” And there’s this Daily News headline: “Will this week be the downfall of the 2016 Mets?”

Mets general manager Sandy Alderson delivered his “Panic City” line to the New York media last summer, right around the time Cubs manager Joe Maddon green-lit “Simon the Magician” for a performance inside Citi Field’s visiting clubhouse.

At the time, this looked like a potential National League Championship Series matchup, a made-for-TV, big-market battle between power pitchers and power hitters…maybe in 2017.

On July 2 last year, the Cubs finished off a three-game sweep in New York, giving them a 7-0 regular-season record against the Mets, who dropped to 40-40 before heading out to the West Coast to face Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke at Dodger Stadium and the defending World Series champs in San Francisco.   

The Cubs responded to getting swept by the Mets in the NLCS with a spending spree in free agency that approached $290 million, fueling World Series-or-bust, Embrace-The-Target expectations, moving to 25 games over .500 with a 9-2 win over the Cincinnati Reds on Wednesday at Great American Ball Park.

The Cubs (51-26) and Mets (40-37) will now play seven times between Thursday night in Queens and July 20 at Wrigley Field, which should give us a better idea of whether or not Alderson can pull another rabbit out of his hat at the trade deadline, if Maddon should be pressing the panic button on his bullpen phone and how realistic an October rematch might be. Setting the scene for this four-game series at Citi Field:

• The “Panic City” state of mind returned with this week’s revelations that Steven Matz and Noah Syndergaard have been pitching through bone spurs in their elbows, showing how fragile New York’s championship hopes might be. This is why the Cubs have been so focused on building with young hitters, the idea that it’s too unpredictable to plan around elbows and shoulders and when pitchers might feel healthy.

The presence of Cubs coaches Chris Bosio, Mike Borzello and Lester Strode has almost created a cavalier attitude toward pitching and an extremely optimistic view of change-of-scenery guys and bounce-back candidates. And the Cubs understood Jon Lester had a bone chip in his left elbow when they signed him to a six-year, $155 million megadeal after the 2014 season.

But the Cubs have prioritized spending so much capital on their lineup – first-round picks, trade chips, free-agency dollars – because Theo Epstein’s regime sees hitters as more robust investments.

• The Mets saw what Ben Zobrist did for the Kansas City Royals in the World Series last October, toured him around the affluent suburbs in Westchester County and Connecticut during the offseason and even offered him a four-year contract that came with more guaranteed money ($60 million) than the deal the Cubs put together ($56 million).

Zobrist has cooled off in June (.672 OPS) after a red-hot May (1.137 OPS), but is in position to be the NL’s starting All-Star second baseman. The Mets quickly shifted gears at the winter meetings, trading a spare pitcher (Jon Niese) to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Neil Walker, who’s already hit 14 homers in his final season before free agency. The balance of power in the NL East, however, might have shifted when Daniel Murphy (.349 average, .964 OPS) – the Mr. October who crushed the Cubs in the playoffs – signed a three-year, $37.5 million deal with the Washington Nationals (who just swept a three-game series against the Mets).

• A full season of Yoenis Cespedes (18 homers, 45 RBI through 70 games this year) hasn’t dramatically changed New York’s offensive profile. The Mets entered Wednesday ranking 13th out of the NL’s 15 teams in runs scored (274, or 129 less than the Cubs). Corner infielders David Wright (neck surgery) and Lucas Duda (stress fracture in his lower back) are on the disabled list while catcher Travis d’Arnaud missed almost two months with a strained rotator cuff.

• The owners of professional sports franchises and the executives running those teams always talk about doing things the right way – and then act out of self-interest. It will be that way if the New York Yankees actually sell and the Cubs put a second-chance spin on closer Aroldis Chapman, who began this season serving a 30-game suspension for violating Major League Baseball’s new domestic violence policy.

The Mets already felt desperate enough to bring back Jose Reyes on a minor-league deal after he was arrested on domestic violence charges, served a 52-game suspension and got released by the Colorado Rockies. Reyes – a homegrown Met who turned 33 this month and is five years removed from his last All-Star selection – could join the team this weekend in New York.

• As a polished, left-handed college hitter, Michael Conforto certainly fit the profile as the Cubs weighed their options with the fourth overall pick in the 2014 draft. But the Cubs wanted Kyle Schwarber, with Epstein in particular developing a man crush on the Indiana University catcher/outfielder. The Mets grabbed Conforto with the No. 10 pick and watched the fast-track outfielder from Oregon State University become a catalyst for last year’s World Series surge. 

Well, the Mets just demoted Conforto to Triple-A Las Vegas over the weekend, another reminder to appreciate how many young players the Cubs have graduated to the big-league level, without taking it for granted (see Schwarber’s recovery from season-ending knee surgery).

“This year, I think we have a little more confidence, a little more swagger,” said Kris Bryant, the Rookie of the Year/All-Star third baseman who has lived up to the hype. “But the Mets are going to be a really good team for a long time, especially with that staff.”

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.”