Six things we learned about the Cubs in July

Six things we learned about the Cubs in July

If you thought Cubs fans were panicking in June, then July was clearly a rude awakening. The All-Star break came at a perfect time for Joe Maddon’s group, cutting off a stretch of 24 games in 24 days that made them look awfully weary. Of course, losing will do that to a team, too.

After ending June on a down note, the Cubs carried that right over into July, dropping eight of the first 10 games, including the last three of a four-game sweep in New York.

So the Cubs are not superhuman, but they still entered August with the high from one of the craziest wins in franchise history and the best record in baseball.

Let's run down what else we learned about the Cubs in July:

1. Rest is a top priority.

The Cubs showed that no matter how much talent a team possesses, these are still human beings who get tired, banged up and worn out.

That stretch of 24 games in 24 days - which veteran Ben Zobrist thinks is the longest he's ever played without a break in his 11-year career - was tough to watch for a fan base that may have started taking things for granted a little bit after such a hot start.

But that happens. Almost no team can cruise through a 162-game season without any extended down stretch, and the front office and coaching staff knew that even before July.

So the Cubs are prioritizing rest. Maddon is giving pretty much everybody regular days off, including two in a row for Zobrist during the first weekend after the All-Star break.

The Cubs brought up Brian Matusz to start Sunday night in an attempt to give their starting rotation an extra day off, and while that experiment was short-lived, the thought still remains the same - rest is key.

The Cubs aren't just focused on the regular season. They have their eyes fixed firmly on the World Series and they want to be healthy and fresh entering October. Which leads to the next point...

2. They are going all-in for a shot at a title.

The Cubs are pulling out all the stops, sending arguably their top prospect (Gleyber Torres), a big-league pitcher who had already served as a sixth man in the rotation (Adam Warren) and two minor-league outfielders for a rental closer who will become a free agent this winter.

Aroldis Chapman came to Chicago in the final week of July with some baggage, but he also brought the lightning rod of a left arm that makes him a "Game Over" closer.

The Cubs also traded away a couple of prospects for Mike Montgomery in the middle of July and dealt a minor-leaguer to the Los Angeles Angels before the Aug. 1 deadline to get right-hander Joe Smith.

The moves sent a clear message from Theo Epstein. As the president of baseball operations said after acquiring Chapman: "If not now, when?"

3. The bullpen is now a major strength.

Maddon is heralded as one of the best bullpen managers in the game, and he has plenty of options now.

With Chapman as the anchor, Maddon can roll out Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop as the top setup men while Montgomery and Smith can work as a lefty/righty tandem in the middle innings.

Oh, and then there's Carl Edwards Jr. (who is hitting his stride and looking dominant during his second stint in the big leagues), plus the always-reliable Travis Wood (who has also emerged as a valuable outfield glove in a pinch) and veteran Joe Nathan (who has 377 career saves and has not allowed a run - despite allowing four baserunners - in his first three appearances since returning from his second Tommy John surgery).

Who knows if Nathan can hold up, or if Edwards can keep this up? Montgomery and Smith have had their struggles this season. But this bullpen has all the makings of a major asset in the postseason.

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4. Dexter Fowler is one of the most valuable players on the roster.

Fowler's "you go, we go" approach as the leadoff hitter was sorely missed during that tough stretch, but the center fielder returned and has immediately brought another presence to the lineup.

When he's seeing pitches and drawing walks atop the order, it sets a tone for the rest of the Cubs.

It also allows Maddon to slot the rest of the hitters in behind Fowler, with Kris Bryant second, Anthony Rizzo third and Ben Zobrist fourth.

Fowler was the last player to sign - during the first week of spring training - but his stabilizing presence begs the question: Where would the Cubs be without him this season?

5. Depth is everywhere.

Despite trading for Chapman, Montgomery and Smith, the Cubs didn't feel any pressure to make any other moves at the trade deadline to add to their starting rotation or group of position players.

As it is, the Cubs have had some tough roster squeezes lately to accommodate the guys already on the team.

Tommy La Stella - a valuable role player with an .846 OPS - was sent down to the minor leagues to make room for veteran Chris Coghlan.

Justin Grimm - a reliever who has made 180 appearances for the Cubs over the last three seasons - was demoted to the minors to make room for Matusz (since designated for assignment).

Outfielder Jorge Soler and pitcher Trevor Cahill are on rehab assignments. Where will all these guys fit?

These kinds of roster moves have a way of working themselves out between injuries and performance, and the September roster expansion is just a few weeks out. But depth will be key for a team that is hoping to have another three months of baseball left to play in 2016.

6. They have another nice run in them.

The Cubs got off to a scorching hot start and have since fallen back to Earth, but they strongly feel that another long stretch of winning is just around the corner.

"We always believe we're capable of doing it," Zobrist said. "We don't think about a run of 30 games in a row. We think about today, and today only.

"But you have to get hot. We haven't been hot since May. We've been cold for a while. So we know that we've got it in us to get hot and get hot for a long time.

"We hope that's coming. We just have to play one game at a time."

Cubs' World Series expectations are no surprise, but they show how radical transformation from Lovable Losers has been


Cubs' World Series expectations are no surprise, but they show how radical transformation from Lovable Losers has been

MESA, Ariz. — Tom Ricketts sure doesn’t sound like the guy who met his wife in the bleachers during the century-long tenure of the Lovable Losers.

“Everyone knows that this is a team that has the capability to win the World Series, and everyone will be disappointed if we don’t live up to that capability.”

Yeah, the Cubs have been among baseball’s best teams for three seasons now. That curse-smashing World Series win in 2016 was the high point of a three-year stretch of winning that’s seen three straight trips to the National League Championship Series and a combined 310 wins between the regular season and postseason.

But it’s still got to come as a strange sound to those who remember the Cubs as the longtime butt of so many baseball jokes. This team has one expectation, to win the World Series. The players have said it for a week leading up to Monday’s first full-squad workout. The front office said it when it introduced big-time free-agent signing Yu Darvish a week ago. And the chairman said it Monday.

“We very much expect to win,” Ricketts said. “We have the ability to win. Our division got a lot tougher, and the playoff opponents that we faced last year are likely to be there waiting for us again.

“I think at this point with this team, obviously that’s our goal. I won’t say a season’s a failure because you don’t win the World Series, but it is our goal.”

The confidence is not lacking. But more importantly, success drives expectations. And if the Cubs are going to be one of the best teams in baseball, they better keep winning, or they’ll fail to meet those expectations, expectations that can sometimes spin a little bit out of control.

During last year’s follow-up campaign to 2016’s championship run, a rocky start to the season that had the Cubs out of first place at the All-Star break was enough to make some fans feel like the sky was falling — as if one year without a World Series win would be unacceptable to a fan base that had just gone 108 without one.

After a grueling NLDS against the Washington Nationals, the Cubs looked well overmatched in the NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers, and that sparked plenty of outside criticism, as well as plenty of offseason activity to upgrade the club in the midst of baseball’s never-ending arms race.

“I think people forget we’ve won more games over the last three years than any other team. We’ve won more playoff games than any other team the last three years. And we’ve been to the NLCS three years in a row,” Ricketts said. “I think fans understand that this is a team that if we stay healthy and play up to our capability can be in that position, be in the World Series. I don’t blame them. We should have high expectations, we have a great team.”

On paper, there are plenty of reasons for high expectations. Certainly the team’s stated goals don’t seem outlandish or anything but expected. The addition of Darvish to a rotation that already boasted Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana makes the Cubs’ starting staff the best in the NL, maybe the best in the game. There were additions to the bullpen, and the team’s fleet of young star position players went untouched despite fears it might be broken up to acquire pitching.

“I think this is, on paper, the strongest rotation that we’ve ever had,” Ricketts said. “I think that being able to bring in a player of (Darvish’s) caliber reminds everyone that we’re intending to win our division and go all the way.

“We’ve kept a good core of players together for several years, and this year I think our offseason moves have really set us up to be one of the best teams in baseball.

“Just coming out of our team meeting, the vibe feels a lot like two years ago. Everybody’s in a really good place. I think everyone’s really hungry and really wants to get this season off to a great start and make this a memorable year.”

There should be no surprise that the team and its players and its executives and its owners feel the way they do. The Cubs are now expected winners, even if that’s still yet to sink in for the longtime fans and observers of the team they once called the Lovable Losers.

Anthony Rizzo declines role as an activist, says trip to Florida 'was the hardest thing I've ever had to do'

Anthony Rizzo declines role as an activist, says trip to Florida 'was the hardest thing I've ever had to do'

MESA, Ariz. — Anthony Rizzo’s gone above and beyond for his community in the wake of one of the worst mass shootings in United States history, when 17 people lost their lives last week at Marjory Douglas Stoneman High School in Parkland, Florida, Rizzo’s alma mater.

His actions and words have carried plenty of weight in the last week, but Rizzo’s comments upon returning to Arizona were more focused on the general need for change rather than specific actions related to the issue of gun violence in America.

The Cubs’ first baseman, who returned to spring training on Monday after spending several days being with his community in Florida, repeatedly voiced the opinion — though it’s ridiculous to think there’s a counter argument that could actually qualify as someone’s opinion — that these mass shootings need to stop happening with such an incomprehensible amount of frequency.

But he stopped short of taking a full step into the national debate on the issue, clarifying that his comments made on Twitter the day of the shooting were not referencing gun control or that specific debate at all.

“Obviously, there needs to be change,” Rizzo said. “I don’t know what that is, I don’t get paid to make those decisions. I can sit back and give opinions, but you just hope somewhere up the line of command, people are thinking are thinking the same things that a lot of innocent kids are thinking: ‘Why? Why am I scared to go to school? Why am I scared to say goodbye to my son or daughter?’ God forbid someone was in an argument with someone they loved that day, how bad — it’s a bad time right now in the country with what’s going on with all these shootings.

“My opinion is my opinion. I don’t think it’s fair to my teammates and everyone else if I come out and start going one way or the other. I think, my focus is on baseball. My focus is definitely on Parkland and the community there and supporting them and whatever direction that they go. But for me it’s hard enough to hit a baseball, and it’s definitely going to be hard enough to try to be a baseball player and a politician at the same time.”

Rizzo has no more of an obligation to be a spokesman on this issue than any other American does, and his presence at his old school last week, his words at a vigil for the victims of this tragedy were powerful. Rizzo has established himself as a remarkable member of his community in Chicago, and he won the Roberto Clemente Award last season for his charitable efforts off the field. His willingness to leave Arizona and be with members of his community was reflective of the type of person Cubs fans and Chicagoans have gotten to know.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. Just going back, you don’t what to say. There’s nothing you can say,” Rizzo said. “When people get shot, you’re grateful that they’re alive. When they pass away, you’re grateful that you knew them, to look at the bright side of things if you can. But just to see how real it is, it’s sad.

“The more I just sat and thought about it, I felt helpless here. That’s where I grew up, in Parkland. I got in trouble there, I succeeded there, I learned how to be who I am because of Parkland, because of Stoneman Douglas. So to be across the country and not be there and then to find out some very close people have lost loved ones, to be there to help them and support them was very important to me.”

Rizzo repeatedly said how proud he is of the students of Stoneman Douglas, who have been outspoken on social media, directing their comments toward the president and other members of the government and sharing their opinions that gun control is necessary for the violence to stop.

But Rizzo refrained from wading into that debate and even chastised those who mischaracterized his Twitter comments as a call for gun regulation.

“To be very clear I did not say the word ‘gun’ one time,” he said. “Anyone out there who wrote gun control, saying I called for gun control, I think is very irresponsible and I did not say that once.

“I don’t know what needs to be done, I don’t know. I don’t know enough about it. I know there are a lot of shootings. I know they are done with a specific make, but I don’t know what needs to be done. But something, some type of change needs to happen for the better because I’m sure people in here have kids. No one right now feels very comfortable on a daily basis sending their kid to school and not knowing if they’re going to see them again.”

That kind of message might not be as declarative as some would have hoped. But it remained a powerful one, showing that even if he wasn’t ready or willing to declare himself an activist, Rizzo shares the feelings of many Americans who are simultaneously numb to the news of these shootings and completely and entirely fed up with their frequency and the lack of action taken to stop them.

“As a human being, probably everyone in here when they first the initial (reports of a) shooter, I took my next golf swing, because that’s how numb this country is to it,” Rizzo said. “Until something crazy happens, when you hear ‘open shooter’ nowadays, it’s like, ‘OK,’ take your next breath and keep going. Then I found out it was at Douglas, you get a little more concerned, ‘OK, what’s going on.’ At first it’s a few people injured, then you found out it was what it was, and it’s just — it’s gut-wrenching. You just go numb.

“I stand behind my community, and I’m really proud of how everyone’s coming together. Obviously I said there needs to be change, I don’t know what the change needs to be. I’m just really proud of those kids and how they’re coming together and becoming one in Parkland. It’s really inspiring to see, and it makes me proud.”