Cubs

Why Cubs are still winning big after winning the offseason

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Why Cubs are still winning big after winning the offseason

The national media crowned the Cubs and White Sox as the kings of the winter meetings, teasing fans with the idea Chicago could become the epicenter for October baseball.

One team woke up on Sunday with a 91.8 percent chance to make the playoffs, while Baseball Prospectus projected the other at 1.9 percent.

The Cubs saw their nine-game winning streak end against Chris Sale’s freak-of-nature stuff in a 3-1 loss that didn’t even feel that close at U.S. Cellular Field.

It was 94 degrees at first pitch, and the Cubs finally cooled down after winning 15 of their previous 16 games, moving ahead of the San Francisco Giants and pulling to within 2 1/2 games of the Pittsburgh Pirates for the first wild-card spot.

“The whole winning-the-offseason (thing) is completely overrated,” catcher David Ross said. “There (are) all these teams that always have all this hype going into the season and it doesn’t work out.

“I don’t think you’ll ever be able to put together an All-Star team and then just run away with anything. It takes a group of guys to know their role and know what they’re good at, what they bring to the table and be able to do that unselfishly.”

[MORE CUBS: Cubs trying to find a way to unlock Jorge Soler's power]

So many teams that made a splash during the offseason appear to be sinking this summer. The White Sox are now five games under .500 and began the day just as close to holding a wild-card spot as having the worst record in the American League.

The Boston Red Sox are looking at their third last-place finish within the last four seasons (wrapped around a World Series title in 2013). The Miami Marlins and San Diego Padres fired their managers and combined are almost 30 games under .500.

“When you have a massive overhaul, it’s tough to win because of the chemistry,” outfielder Chris Coghlan said. “You have a lot of newness. People don’t understand: You got to pick up and move your family. You got a different city. Your routine is all jacked. We’re built on routine. So now all of a sudden, it changes.”

Coghlan remembered being part of the 2012 Marlins, a reality-show team that hired Ozzie Guillen, signed Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell, traded for Carlos Zambrano, moved into a taxpayer-funded stadium ... and lost 93 games.

“I saw it in Miami,” Coghlan said. “I was like: ‘Man, we’re either going to win the pennant or we’re just going to be terrible.’

“You just had too many (moving pieces). A lot of people don’t pay attention to the chemistry. When you got to go a whole season, you got to blend together and you got to learn to be a family.

“It’s one thing to have one, three, five (new) guys. But when you got like seven to nine different players — or you have five significant everyday players — it’s very difficult.”

[MORE CUBS: Cubs bats disappear as Sale, White Sox halt winning streak]

The Cubs haven’t bombed because Theo Epstein’s front office lucked into their dream manager and didn’t hesitate once Joe Maddon became a free agent, locking up another piece to a well-thought-out plan.

The Epstein administration convinced Jon Lester to become a $155 million anchor for the rotation after building the pipeline that’s produced Jorge Soler, Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber. By Year 4, those big-picture deals around the trade deadline have yielded major contributors like Jake Arrieta, Pedro Strop, Addison Russell, Kyle Hendricks and Justin Grimm.

Smaller moves like signing reliever Jason Motte and outfielder Chris Denorfia to one-year deals have paid off, and it’s impossible to miss the loose-but-professional vibe in the clubhouse.

“Teams have to jell,” Ross said. “It has to do with personalities, too. It’s not just talent. You got to bring in people that are good teammates and care about one another. It’s hard to come into a new place and fit in. It takes a little while. Some players do that a little easier than others.”

The Cubs have stayed relatively healthy, with Lester, Arrieta, Hendricks and Jason Hammel each making 20-plus starts. Anthony Rizzo has now been hit 24 times, but fortunately those pitches haven’t knocked out the All-Star first baseman.

[MORE CUBS: Kyle Schwarber finds out what Cubs-White Sox is all about]

Even Miguel Montero’s sprained thumb just before the All-Star break allowed Schwarber to spark the team and possibly jump into the National League’s Rookie of the Year conversation.

“It’s hard to win big-league games consistently,” Lester said. “We’ve tried to minimize the lows and ride the highs as long as we can. (And) these guys do a great job of turning the page (while) being so young, whether they were 0-for-4 or have a Kyle Schwarber day.”

The Cubs have embraced Maddon’s quirks and accepted the manager’s unconventional methods. The relievers have checked their egos at the bullpen door, with seven different guys notching saves. Starlin Castro hasn’t pouted since being moved off shortstop.

There is also a certain amount of luck and mental toughness involved, with the Cubs going 27-17 in one-run games and winning 11 in extra innings.

“It’s about coming together as a team,” said Ross, who has lasted 14 years in the big leagues, playing in seven postseason series and winning a World Series ring with Lester and the 2013 Red Sox.

“It always depends on the guys in the clubhouse. The winning teams I’ve been on, it’s about bringing your best on a daily basis and playing your team brand of baseball — whatever that is — and not individualized baseball or selfish baseball. It’s about team. It always will be.”

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

Carmen DeFalco (ESPN 1000) and Jordan Bernfield join Kap on the panel. Anthony Rizzo returns to the Cubs after an emotional weekend home while Tom Ricketts expects another World Series parade. Plus Hall of Famer Andre Dawson joins Kap to talk about his Cubs reunion and how the current crop unsigned free agents compares to his experiences with collusion. 

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

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USA TODAY

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.