Cubs

Why Joe Maddon and The Geek Department think this Cubs lineup could be more explosive than last year’s team

Why Joe Maddon and The Geek Department think this Cubs lineup could be more explosive than last year’s team

MESA, Ariz. – The Geek Department has spoken, reaffirming Cubs manager Joe Maddon's belief that Kyle Schwarber should be the leadoff guy atop another monster lineup projected to score more runs than the 2016 World Series champions.

"I'm all about the geeks," Maddon said. "Everybody should have their own geek."

Before the Cubs even reported to Arizona for camp, Maddon assigned a project to the research-and-development wing inside Theo Epstein's front office, asking what the simulations looked like with Schwarber at leadoff and the pitcher hitting eighth in front of Jon Jay or Albert Almora Jr.      

"Really hot, really hot," Maddon said. "If that number's right, I'll take it."

Would that projection be north of 800 runs?

"I didn't get an actual overall number," Maddon said. "I got a per-game number. That's what I like."

Maddon sort of smirked when asked if the per-game average would be north of five: "I don't know. It's a good number." The Cubs led every National League team except for the Colorado Rockies with 808 runs scored last season. Pitcher Mike Montgomery batted eighth in Sunday's prime-time lineup against the Kansas City Royals at Sloan Park, where 2 through 7 the Cubs looked like an Opening Night cast: Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Addison Russell, Willson Contreras and Jason Heyward.   

The Cubs are banking on a full season/good health with Schwarber, Heyward not being one of the worst hitters in the majors and continued growth from their young talent. Even with Dexter Fowler taking his you-go, we-go act to the St. Louis Cardinals, the internal forecast has the 2017 Cubs scoring more runs than last year's 103-win team.

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"With Schwarber hitting first, yeah," Maddon said. "I think that's accurate. I don't remember that number being on last year's lineup. They gave me a sheet with different scenarios. It was pretty heavy. 

"Dexter was awesome, obviously. But (it's) Schwarber with the power potential, the home runs coming out of that spot with the extra at-bats, the natural rebounding of Jason. You just think that Jason's going to be a better hitter, production-wise, than last year, (plus) some of the younger guys, like Willson as an example, in his second year in the big leagues. 

"I've been talking about bearing down on defense and pitching, because I think naturally the hitting's going to get better, based on these guys are good and they have more experience. 

"All those things indicate that if we set it up this way, we should have a pretty good offensive year, especially against a right-handed pitcher."

Schwarber might get the day off against tough lefties, which would push the pitcher back down to the ninth spot. But the Cubs aren't an NL West team that will regularly have to face a Clayton Kershaw or a Madison Bumgarner. And the facts on the ground are constantly changing.

"I talk to the guys upstairs: 'This is what I'm thinking. Tell me where I'm wrong,'" Maddon said. "Like I said a couple years ago when Schwarber finally came up, I thought of hitting Schwarber first there and Dexter second. But they insisted the other way around. They were right. 

"So, listen, I have no problem with that stuff. Believe me, that's the one thing I have learned: You can have all the great feelings in the world. It still might not be the right thing. Like a guy comes up to me and says: 'I have a good feeling about today.' Oh my God, I want to run. 

"How do you know? There are so many times I've come to the ballpark, felt like crap, and we'll play the best game of the year. That has no correlation. You can feel all you want. (But) they gave me some solid information. I'm open for all that stuff."

While "Bryzzo," an American League-style lineup and a franchise built around hitters drew more attention, the Cubs rolled up a plus-252 run differential last year with consistent pitching and the best defensive unit in the majors, meaning this could actually be a different dimension for the defending champs.

"Everybody talked about the offense," Maddon said. "We pitched and caught the ball so well that the differential spread based on that. It wasn't just purely beating people up offensively."

Dusty Baker takes the fall for Nationals meltdown against Cubs

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USA TODAY

Dusty Baker takes the fall for Nationals meltdown against Cubs

The Washington Nationals must have been sitting at home, watching the National League Championship Series and wondering: How did we lose to this team?

The Cubs poured so much physical effort, mental focus and emotional energy into those five playoff games against the Nationals that they didn’t have much left in the tank for the bigger, better Los Angeles Dodgers team that dominated the defending World Series champs in every phase and captured the NL pennant on Thursday night at Wrigley Field.

By midday Friday, the Nationals announced that manager Dusty Baker will not return for the 2018 season, while the contracts for the big-league coaching staff have also expired, leaving a franchise with chain-of-command issues in damage-control mode.

This is a bitter disappointment for Baker, who needs a World Series ring as a manager to put the final bullet point on a Hall of Fame resume and still grumbles about how things ended in 2006 after four up-and-down years managing the Cubs.

Baker, 68, a former Marine, All-Star player and all-around Renaissance man with a great feel for dealing with people and managing the clubhouse, apparently couldn’t overcome last week’s elimination-game meltdown at Nationals Park, where the Cubs hung on for a 9-8 victory and forced Washington into its fourth first-round playoff exit since 2012.

Baker’s in-game decision-making was already under the microscope and his teams have now lost 10 straight postseason close-out games, a major-league record, according to Elias Sports Bureau.

The Nationals also needlessly subjected Stephen Strasburg to withering criticism when Baker said the $175 million pitcher was feeling under the weather — maybe because of Chicago mold and hotel air-conditioning units — and being saved for Game 5. Only to flip-flop and watch Strasburg throw seven scoreless innings in a dominant Game 4 performance at Wrigley Field.

That unforced error and yet another manager search is not a good look for the Nationals, who made the announcement through the Lerner family ownership group after general manager Mike Rizzo repeatedly signaled that he expected to reach a new agreement with Baker after winning 192 games combined in two years and back-to-back division titles.

Since the franchise relocated from Montreal and abandoned the Expos logo in 2005, the Nationals have employed seven different managers and will be starting all over again in 2018, when Bryce Harper will be in his last season before becoming a free agent and probably wondering if Washington can finally get its act together.

What now for the Cubs?

What now for the Cubs?

OK, time to turn the page.

Nah, it doesn't have to be that sudden.

The 2017 Cubs season may not have resulted in a World Series, but it was absolutely a smashing success. There was a time not long ago that playing — and even losing — in the fifth game of the NLCS was a huge step.

But the Cubs now have a World-Series-or-bust mentality now and the 2017 season did not live up to those expectations.

"We're capable of more than we showed in the postseason," Ben Zobrist said.

So what now? What's next for these Cubs?

Well, quite literally: Rest. Rest is next.

"For those guys that are playing every day, they need to take the time that they need to take," Zobrist said. "Take the three weeks, month to let your body relax and heal up.

"I think from there, it's listening to your body for them. For me, I'm in a different place. I didn't play as many games as I normally play. I feel like my stamina, I have to work on my endurance and stamina to get back up to where it needs to get to where I'm capable of playing more games and not getting injuries and things like that like I had this year.

"...[Kris Bryant] and [Anthony] Rizzo, they were our horses and so they need to take more time than somebody like me does going into the offseason. They deserve to get some rest and relaxation. I think we're all very motivated going into the offseason to get back to where we're capable of playing as a team."

Other players have a different attitude as they approach the winter.

Albert Almora Jr., after his first full season in the big leagues, is anxious to get better. Immediately.

The young outfielder is planning on spending a lot of time hanging out with his wife and one-year-old son, but he isn't interested in all that much rest right now.

"[I plan] to get back to work," Almora said. "I think we have a big chip on our shoulder coming into next year."

Rizzo and Bryant, meanwhile, played 167 and 161 games, respectively, including the postseason. They combined for over 1,500 plate appearances from April 2 through Oct. 19.

Neither player has much interest in watching the Los Angeles Dodgers play either the Houston Astros or New York Yankees in the World Series.

So what will they do?

"It's always tough," Rizzo said after the Cubs were officially eliminated. "You start a journey with all these guys and at the end of the day, these last couple days, you don't take anything for granted at all.

"The stretch, the cage work. Yesterday could've been our last day. Today's obviously our last day. We gotta enjoy these moments because you don't know how long they last.

"But you make a lot of friendships along the way. This next week will be tough and kinda scratching your head on what to do."