Cubs

Cubs and Alex Cobb keep looking like a match in free agency

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USA TODAY

Cubs and Alex Cobb keep looking like a match in free agency

It’s too easy to connect the dots between the Cubs and Alex Cobb, a team that needs to replace 40 percent of its rotation and a pitcher who came up with Joe Maddon’s Tampa Bay Rays.

The day after new pitching coach Jim Hickey went on the team’s flagship radio station and told WSCR-AM 670 that he would recommend the free agent to Theo Epstein’s front office – “I would say, ‘Go ahead, good job, yeah, I’m onboard’ – Cobb appeared on MLB Network Radio and sounded ready to follow Maddon to Chicago.

“As much of an honor as it is to be given a qualifying offer,” Cobb said Friday, “to hear your name floating around (in) rumors with potential teams, and the magnitude or the (reputations) that some of these teams have for success, year in and year out, even the smallest inkling or the thought that they want you is even more of a humbling experience.

“I don’t hide the fact that I’ve got the most respect for Joe Maddon and what he did for me coming up as a player. Not so much as a pitcher on the mound, but as a professional athlete and a professional baseball player, and how to deal with the mental side of the game. And how to deal with the stresses that come with a big-league lifestyle.

“There’s nobody better in the game to control (that) and deal with people.”

Cobb is expected to decline the one-year, $17.4 million qualifying offer from the Rays, tipping his hand by telling MLB Network Radio: “You’re talking about, hopefully, a decision that’s going to impact the next five years of your life.”

That framework sounds a year or two too long for a guy who underwent Tommy John surgery on his right elbow in 2015 and has never made 30 starts in a season or come close to reaching 200 innings. But Cobb just turned 30 last month, has only 700 innings on his major-league odometer and went 12-10 with a 3.66 ERA and a Gold Glove nomination this year.

Hickey can help fill in the blanks for the Cubs because he was there for Cobb’s rise through the Tampa Bay system, injuries issues and recovery process.

“I can’t say enough good things about him,” Cobb said. “He’s become – not only a pitching coach – but a real close friend of mine. Obviously, if we move down the line and we’re able to have some discussions with them, I’d be very honored to be able to talk with them and hopefully come to a deal.”

In the same way that Maddon may have gotten restless managing the small-market Rays, Cobb sounded eager to play for the kind of built-to-last team that won the 2016 World Series and advanced to the National League Championship Series in three consecutive seasons.

“You kind of make a ranking system of what is most important to you and your family,” Cobb said. “No. 1 and foremost – and me and my wife are both onboard with this – is that we’re going to go to a place that we feel is going to be winners for the length of the contract.

“I’ve been through both. I’ve been through losing seasons and I’ve been through winning seasons. And the amount of joy that winning brings to us – it can’t be replaced by a dollar figure.”

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.