What we learned about the Cubs in the first half


What we learned about the Cubs in the first half

The Cubs created that here-we-go-again feeling on Opening Night.

The hated St. Louis Cardinals shut out their rivals on national TV, with ESPN driving the conversation that $155 million ace Jon Lester has the yips. The scene at the Wrigley Field construction zone became a national embarrassment for the business side, with photos of the long bathroom lines going viral on social media.

But ToiletGate stopped trending — like everything does in a second-by-second news cycle — and halfway through the season the Cubs are on pace for 88 wins and a wild-card ticket into the playoffs.

“It definitely feels right,” manager Joe Maddon said before Tuesday’s doubleheader against the Cardinals. “It feels like we haven’t hit our real stride yet. I feel like we’ve been really battling through each and every day, which I love. We really haven’t played as good as we’re capable of playing. Put it that way.

“Had we played our best ball to this point — and we’re in this position — I’d be a little more concerned. But we haven’t gotten there yet, so I think there’s a lot to look forward to.”

[MORE CUBS: All-Star future is now for Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant]

With that in mind, here’s what we learned about the Cubs during that 81-game snapshot:

— Theo Epstein’s front office thinks this team is good.

After making a splash in the offseason, the Cubs kept being aggressive and getting creative, sensing the chance to play deep into October. They rebuilt the bullpen on the fly, watching their relievers put up a 1.78 ERA since May 23. They called up Addison Russell after only 11 games at Triple-A Iowa, played a natural shortstop out of position at second base and dismissed the Super Two financial implications. They made Kyle Schwarber, last year’s No. 4 overall draft pick, their designated hitter for a five-game interleague stretch last month, believing he could come back from Iowa as a difference-maker in a pennant race.

— The Maddon Effect is real.

You wonder if any teams regret not firing the manager last October and giving Maddon that five-year, $25 million contract. But it’s also hard to imagine a better match than the star manager and this big-tent franchise.

Who else would invite Simon the Magician to perform in front of the team or have “Curb Your Enthusiasm” star Jeff Garlin sit in on his pregame media session?

Maddon is style and substance. It’s the ability to be hip and cool and allow young players to relax — while still having instant credibility with the veterans. It’s being fluent in analytics and reaching out to the Geek Department for more information. It’s creating diversions for the easily distracted Chicago media when the team isn’t playing well.

[MORE CUBS: Cards make it another frustrating night for Cubs, Jon Lester]

— Anthony Rizzo deserves to be in the MVP conversation.

The face-of-the-franchise first baseman didn’t become satisfied with one All-Star selection, getting voted in this year by the players, which made it even more special. Rizzo doesn’t try to come across as an analytical hitter or the deepest thinker — hey, it’s just baseball — but that’s probably by design.

This is someone who tinkers with his swing, wants to get better and works on his all-around game. It’s probably too soon to expect a Gold Glove, but Rizzo has almost as many stolen bases (12) as home runs (16) and an OPS (.960) that ranked fourth in the league.

The Cubs just hope Rizzo — who’s been drilled 18 times already and refuses to wear body armor — doesn’t get hit by the wrong pitch in the wrong spot.

— Kris Bryant is as good as advertised.

After the war of words in spring training, and all the Boras Corp. rhetoric, Bryant lived up to the hype and will be joining Rizzo at next week’s All-Star Game in Cincinnati. Even with missing eight games while serving his time at Triple-A, the third baseman is on pace for around 25 homers and 100 RBIs.

“He’s got huge power,” New York Mets manager Terry Collins said. “As this guy grows into himself and starts to know what you’ve got to do up here, he’s going to be a good hitter, a real good hitter. He’s got some feet, too. Watching him in the field defensively, he’s got some range. He’s legit.”

[MORE CUBS: Theo, Cubs staying realistic with trade deadline bearing down]

— The Cubs still don’t have nearly enough pitching.

Even in using 80 draft picks on pitchers since the Epstein administration took over after the 2011 season. Even after giving Lester that megadeal, reuniting with Jason Hammel and finding Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks through deadline deals. Don’t let the 3.49 rotation ERA fool you — the Cubs will keep looking to upgrade with at least another starter between now and July 31.

The farm system isn’t close to producing a frontline starter, which explains why Donn Roach, Clayton Richard and Dallas Beeler have entered the mix. That’s the trade-off in spending first-round picks on college hitters for three years in a row (the latest being University of Cincinnati outfielder/second baseman Ian Happ).

“Overall, our bats have been a little bit ahead of our arms, and hopefully that will all balance out,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “We felt like that was the right way to go. There’s a security involved and a confidence in taking hitters at the top of the draft.

“We hope we’re not picking up there again. And when you are doing it, you want to make sure you come away with valuable assets.”

[MORE CUBS: ESPN poll: Cubs' Joe Maddon voted best players manager]

— Starlin Castro isn’t the player we thought he would become.

Maybe it’s too early for that judgment — especially with a three-time All-Star shortstop — but it’s fair to wonder if it’s ever going to happen here when he’s surrounded by young talent, veteran leadership and one of the game’s best managers.

Castro got singled out during those five straight fifth-place finishes and unfairly became a lightning rod for Cubs fans and the Chicago media. The Cubs hoped Castro would raise his game playing on a good team, and at the age of 25 he should have several prime years in front of him.

Yet Castro’s first half (.619 OPS, 15 errors) might have been the worst stretch of his professional career.

— The Cubs play with an edge.

This team can be a nightmare for beat writers on deadline, with 19 one-run victories and nine wins in extra innings. Remember, the Cubs had been 0-79 when trailing entering the ninth inning last season, and players quickly recognized this new sense of momentum: That’s a game we would have lost last year.

This could also become a team that people love to hate, because this is a conservative sport with too many unwritten rules and old-school codes — and not enough personalities.

The Cubs are still walking a fine line with Maddon’s anti-rules philosophy. Playing with emotion — and talking such a big game — will inevitably create friction in a pressurized environment.

“The game has to be fun,” said Curtis Granderson, the Mets outfielder who grew up in Chicago. “It’s the same game we’ve been playing since we were little, and we tend to be at our best when we’re having the most fun.

“Obviously, there’s the focus, the seriousness and attention that you have to put out there. But you can still do all those things and still have fun at the same time. I think people confuse fun with lack of respect or not playing hard.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

— The Cardinals are still in their heads.

Maddon talks about how the Cubs need to get over the “mental hump” at Busch Stadium, where the Cardinals always seem to get the bounces and pounce on mistakes. The Cubs won only two of their first 10 games against the Cardinals, getting outscored 51-26 by the best team in baseball and seeing how much farther they still have to go in this rebuild.

“The guys that have been a part of this organization haven’t won for a long time,” Lester said. “It will take some time to learn (how to win). We’ll be there. Sometimes it only takes one where you’re down (a few runs) and we come back and win. Everybody gets a little bit of confidence, gets a little bit of aura about them, and you take it from there. But until that happens ... we got to figure out a way to combat that.”

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

MESA, Ariz. — “That’s last year, don’t want to talk about that.”

In other words, Addison Russell is so over 2017.

The Cubs shortstop went through a lot last year. He dealt with injuries that affected his foot and shoulder. He had a well-documented off-the-field issue involving an accusation of domestic abuse, which sparked an investigation by Major League Baseball. And then came the trade speculation.

The hot stove season rarely leaves any player completely out of online trade discussion. But after Theo Epstein admitted there was a possibility the Cubs could trade away one or more young position players to bolster the starting rotation, well, Russell’s name came up.

And he saw it.

“There was a lot of trade talk,” Russell said Saturday. “My initial thoughts were, I hope it doesn’t happen, but wherever I go, I’m going to try to bring what I bring to the table here. It’s a good thing that it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m happy being in a Cubs uniform, I want to be in a Cubs uniform, for sure. But there was some talk out there. If I got traded, then I got traded, but that’s not the case.”

No, it’s not, as the Cubs solved those pitching questions with free-agent spending, bringing in Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood to replace the departed Jake Arrieta and John Lackey. It means Russell, along with oft-discussed names like Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Javy Baez, are all still Cubs.

While the outside world might have expected one of those guys to be moved in some sort of blockbuster trade for Chris Archer or some other All-Star arm, the Cubs’ young core remains intact, another reason why they’re as much a favorite to win the World Series as any team out there.

“I’m really not surprised. The core is still here. Who would want to break that up? It’s a beautiful thing,” Russell said. “Javy and I in the middle. Schwarber, sometimes playing catcher but mainly outfield. And then (Kris Bryant) over there in the hot corner, and of course (Anthony) Rizzo at first. You’ve got a Gold Glover in right field (Jason Heyward). It’s really hard to break that up.

“When you do break that down on paper, we’ve got a lineup that could stack up with the best.”

This winter has been about moving on for Russell, who said he’s spent months working to strengthen his foot and shoulder after they limited him to 110 games last season, the fewest he played in his first three big league campaigns.

And so for Russell, the formula for returning to his 2016 levels of offensive aptitude isn’t a difficult one: stay on the field.

“Especially with the injuries, I definitely wanted to showcase some more of my talent last year than I displayed,” Russell said. “So going into this year, it’s mainly just keeping a good mental — just staying level headed. And also staying healthy and producing and being out there on the field.

“Next step for me, really just staying out there on the field. I really want to see what I can do as far as helping the team if I can stay healthy for a full season. I think if I just stay out there on the field, I’m going to produce.”

While the decrease in being on the field meant lower numbers from a “counting” standpoint — the drop from 21 homers in 2016 to 12 last year, the drop from 95 RBIs to 43 can in part be attributed to the lower number of games — certain rate stats looked different, too. His on-base percentage dropped from .321 in 2016 to .304 last year.

Russell also struggled during the postseason, picking up just six hits in 36 plate appearances in series against the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers. He struck out 13 times in 10 postseason games.

Of course, he wasn’t alone. That World Series hangover was team-wide throughout the first half of the season. And even though the Cubs scored 824 runs during the regular season, the second most in the National League and the fourth most in baseball, plenty of guys had their offensive struggles: Schwarber, Heyward and Ben Zobrist, to name a few.

“You can’t take anything for granted. So whenever you win a World Series or you do something good, you just have to live in the moment,” Russell said. “It was a tough season last year because we were coming off winning the World Series and the World Series hangover and all that. This year, we had a couple months off, a couple extra weeks off, and I think a lot of guys took advantage of that. I know I did. And now that we’re here in spring training, we’re going to get back at it.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans


Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

Jon Lester has arrived at Cubs camp, and he’s pleased with the new-look rotation full of potential aces. Kelly Crull and Vinnie Duber discuss the 5-man unit, and where Mike Montgomery fits into the Cubs’ plans.

Plus, Kelly and Vinnie talk Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber, along with the continuing free agent stalemate surrounding Jake Arrieta.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here: