Cubs

Why Anthony Rizzo has so much confidence in the 2017 Cubs

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USA TODAY

Why Anthony Rizzo has so much confidence in the 2017 Cubs

PITTSBURGH – Late last September, almost two full weeks after clinching the division, Cubs manager Joe Maddon made PNC Park feel like spring training, writing out Cactus League lineups and following bullpen scripts.

Unprompted, a defensive and agitated Jake Arrieta wondered why the Cubs were substituting catchers in the middle of his start against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Miguel Montero, of course, took the bait, saying it would be up to the players to trick themselves and maintain their edge. Even clubhouse diplomat Ben Zobrist acknowledged the simmering frustrations with disrupted routines.

Cubs fans and the Chicago media questioned whether a 103-win team that had a double-digit lead in the National League Central since the first week of August could just flip a switch in the playoffs.

The counterargument became the 2015 Cubs storming into the wild-card game, beating the Pirates and silencing the blackout crowd here – and then running out of gas during an NL Championship Series sweep where they never led the New York Mets at any point.

Anthony Rizzo has the perspective of someone who lived through the highs and lows of the rebuilding years – and as a cancer survivor and a Roberto Clemente Award nominee who’s making sure his family gets to Chicago before Hurricane Irma roars through South Florida.

The inner confidence and competitive attitude that made Rizzo a 30-homer, 100-RBI force three years running applies here now: Forget about the last at-bat and focus on the next pitch. It doesn’t matter that the Cubs were a .500 team for three-plus months and still haven’t shaken the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals yet.

“We learned from 2015 how to control winning,” said Rizzo, who drew the ninth-inning walk that set up Alex Avila’s two-out, broken-bat RBI triple, the Cubs outlasting Gerrit Cole in Wednesday’s 1-0 victory. “Because by then, by the finish line, the emotion of the wild-card game, that (whole) emotional rollercoaster, it just wore us all out and we all hit a wall.

“In ’16, we were way more prepared. We boat-raced. Everyone was like: ‘Are they going to be able to do it? Are they going to be able to do it?’ And a few balls fell our way, and we did.

“Everyone has the experience now to know that, OK, we’ve had the outside noise of everything thrown at us. So I don’t think in here you’re going to find much panic. We know we’re in first place coming after a championship season, which is unheard of the last 10 years.”

Rizzo has a point in that the Cubs were the first defending World Series champions to be in first place on Labor Day since the 2010 New York Yankees. And built the largest Labor Day division lead for a defending World Series champion since the 2009 Philadelphia Phillies.

“We’re in a winning position,” Rizzo said. “We’re in position to do it. And we all want it.”

The young, inexperienced Brewers – who just got swept by the last-place Cincinnati Reds – are 4.5 games back now and in unchartered territory. The Cubs also believe they have grown from the adversity and will weather injuries that have hit the top of their rotation (Arrieta and Jon Lester) and the middle of their defense (Willson Contreras and Addison Russell).

“Two years ago, we didn’t know,” Maddon said. “We didn’t know anything until we got right outside the All-Star break and then all of a sudden found our traction. And then last year was a different narrative entirely. We took it from wire to wire, which is unusual, too.

“This year, again, everybody’s got a different opinion of you and everybody’s shooting for you. And then we’re playing with a different kind of a group, also, and still trying to maintain that level of excellence.

“So there’s three different roads that we’ve had over the last three years – ’15, ’16 and now ’17 – and it’s good to experience some different methods and understand that it’s not always going to be the same. You’re going to meet with different resistance and you just have to fight through it.

“I’m happy that the guys have responded the way they have, because nobody is out there making excuses at all.”

Rizzo also isn’t making guarantees anymore, because the Cubs already made history and understand what it takes to win in October.

“We’re in first place with a few weeks to go,” Rizzo said. “You got to get to that postseason and anything can happen.”

Would trading Kyle Schwarber begin to solve pitching issues that run much deeper than Chris Bosio?

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USA TODAY

Would trading Kyle Schwarber begin to solve pitching issues that run much deeper than Chris Bosio?

The Cubs now apparently believe they are a stronger organization without Chris Bosio, firing a pitching coach known for his strong convictions, brutal honesty and bottom-line results in a move that doesn’t seem like an actual solution.

Hiring Jim Hickey – who has a good reputation from his years with the Tampa Bay Rays, a close friendship with Joe Maddon and what looks like a slam-dunk interview lined up for Monday – might make the manager feel more comfortable and less isolated.

But the new-voice/different-direction spin doesn’t fundamentally address the pitching issues facing a team that needs to replace 40 percent of the rotation and find an established closer and has zero expectations those answers will come from within the farm system.

This is an operation that won a seven-game World Series last year without a homegrown player throwing a single pitch.     

If the Cubs can say thanks for the memories and dump “Boz,” what about “Schwarbs?”

Advancing to the National League Championship Series in three straight seasons doesn’t happen without Bosio or Kyle Schwarber. But the fastest way for the Cubs to dramatically improve their pitching staff isn’t finding someone else who thinks it’s important to throw strikes. It could mean breaking up The Core and severing another emotional attachment.   

Theo Epstein saw Schwarber play for Indiana University and used the Fenway Park frame of reference, envisioning him as a combination of David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia with his left-handed power and energizer personality.

Epstein wasn’t the only Cubs official to develop a man-crush on Schwarber, but he’s the only one with ultimate control over baseball operations. Epstein’s style isn’t pounding the table as much as the ability to frame questions in the draft room, gather as many opinions as possible before the trade deadline and at the winter meetings, trying to form a consensus.

“I will say that it’s really an organization-wide evaluation of this player, but I’m not skirting responsibility,” Epstein said. “I’ll happily endorse him as the type of player that we want to win with here at the Cubs, and have won with. I don’t know, the fact that he hit 30 bombs in a bad year is a good start.

“But power is not everything. I think he fell into this year becoming more of a slugger and less of a hitter than he really is. It’s important for him to get his identity back as a dangerous hitter. Honestly, I think we feel he has the potential to be an all-around hitter on the level of an Anthony Rizzo. When he reaches his prime, that’s what he could be.”

Where will that be? As a designated hitter in the American League? That’s obvious speculation, but Schwarber has improved as an outfield defender – his strong throw at Dodger Stadium led to another NLCS Maddon Moment where the manager compared the Buster Posey Rule to the Chicago soda tax.      

A 43-45 record at the All-Star break also exposed some of the weaknesses in the clubhouse and downsides to Maddon’s methods. The Cubs flipped a switch in the second half, got hot in September and had the guts to beat the Washington Nationals in the playoffs. But that doesn’t completely wipe away the concerns about a group that at times seemed too casual and unfocused and didn’t play with enough edge. For better or worse, Schwarber approaches the game like a blitzing linebacker.

“He’s got a certain toughness and certain leadership qualities that are hard to find,” Epstein said, “and that we don’t necessarily have in surplus, in abundance, running around in this clubhouse, in this organization.

“A certain energy and grit and ability to bring people together – that’s important and we rely on it. But the biggest thing is his bat. We think he’s the type of offensive player that you build around, along with a couple other guys like him.”

Maddon would never admit it, but was the Schwarber leadoff experiment a mistake?

“I’ll judge that one based on the results and say yeah,” Epstein said. “I think we can talk about the process that went into it. Or in an alternate universe: Does it pan out? But those are just words. It didn’t work.

“Everything that went into Kyle’s really surprising and difficult first half of the season, we should look to correct, because that shouldn’t happen. He’s a way better hitter than that. What he did after coming back from Iowa proves it.”

In the same way that Maddon should own what happens with the next pitching coach, Epstein will ultimately have to decide Schwarber’s future.

Schwarber didn’t complain or pout when he got sent down to Triple-A Iowa this summer, finishing with 30 homers, a .782 OPS, a .211 batting average and a 30.9 strikeout percentage.    

Trading Schwarber would mean selling lower and take another team having the same gut instincts the Cubs did in the 2014 draft – and offering the talented, controllable starting pitcher that sometimes seems like a unicorn.

Is Schwarber still the legend from last year’s World Series? An all-or-nothing platoon guy? An intriguing trade chip? A franchise player? Eventually, the Cubs are going to find out.

“We have to look to do everything we can,” Epstein said, “and more importantly he has to look to do everything he can to get him to a point where he’s consistently the quality hitter and tough out and dangerous bat in the middle of the lineup that we know he can be.

“He wasn’t for the first half of this year – and he knows it and he feels awful about it. He worked his tail off to get back to having a pretty darn good second half and getting some big hits for us down the stretch.”

And then the offseason was only hours old by the time the Cubs showed they will be keeping an open mind about everything this winter, not afraid to make big changes.

Jake Arrieta shaved his beard again and he keeps looking younger

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USA TODAY

Jake Arrieta shaved his beard again and he keeps looking younger

It's become a tradition that Jake Arrieta shaves his beard after the season ends.

The 31-year-old did it again days after the Cubs were eliminated from the 2017 postseason, and it's still a sight we'll never be used to seeing.

Check it out:

Weird, right?

Here's how he looked following the Cubs' World Series win in 2016:

And again in 2015:

It's crazy how much younger he looks.