Cubs

Men vs. Boys: How Nationals showed Cubs the way to build a heavyweight contender

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AP

Men vs. Boys: How Nationals showed Cubs the way to build a heavyweight contender

WASHINGTON – What are the odds the Cubs would win the World Series and Donald Trump would become president before the Washington Nationals won a playoff series?

We can only imagine the reaction if Dale Sveum heard that apocalyptic postgame question on Sept. 6, 2012, when the Cubs manager summed up a four-game sweep at Nationals Park like this: “That’s just men playing against boys right now.”

This was nearing the end of Year 1 for the Theo Epstein administration, when the light at the end of the tunnel felt more like a bridge to nowhere.

Now the Cubs are the defending World Series champs. Epstein’s baseball operations group continues a tradition of playing pickup basketball before each playoff series, posing for pictures on Thursday with Patrick Ewing on the Georgetown campus. And Washington is the team that has to prove it can handle the pressure in the best-of-five National League Division Series that begins Friday night at Nationals Park.

That alternative reality would have sounded absolutely bonkers while watching the Cubs and Nationals that September.

“I showed (Kyle) Schwarber like three days ago,” said catching/strategy coach Mike Borzello, his face lighting up with recognition. “We gave up 15 homers in four games. We watched every homer the other day. I said: ‘This is where we were.’”

Sveum got fired, in part, for his brutal honesty after another fifth-place finish in 2013. But he knew all about talent and preparation after: playing with Hall of Famers Robin Yount and Paul Molitor; being on the 1998 New York Yankees team that won 114 games and the first of three straight World Series titles; and helping coach up the iconic “Band of Idiots” on the 2004 Boston Red Sox.

Set aside Jeff Samardzija’s 2-1 loss on Labor Day — another sign the Notre Dame football star could become a 200-inning pitcher and anchor a flip deal for future All-Star shortstop Addison Russell — and the Cubs got outscored 29-8 in three games started by Chris Rusin, Chris Volstad and Justin Germano.

“I’ve never been part of three consecutive games that you were just beyond overmatched,” said Borzello, a Sveum hire who earned four World Series rings as a Yankee staffer. “These homers were not fence-scrapers. It was like: ‘Boom! Boom! Boom!’ It wouldn’t stop. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

General manager Jed Hoyer fired off a long internal memo after that series, detailing how the Nationals were built and how they timed their big moves. In the middle of the 2009 season, as an up-and-coming Red Sox employee, Hoyer had multiple interviews with Nationals ownership for the GM job that went to Chicago guy Mike Rizzo as an internal promotion.

“It was like smacking us in the face,” Hoyer said. “This is what we wanted to become when we were good. We were looking at an adult version, or basically a late-teenage-years version of what we were trying to be.

“Getting destroyed by those guys, I thought, was actually like a great thing for our mentality. Like: ‘Oh, OK, this is how far we are away.’

“But also in 2009, when I was interviewing there, they were dead last, so it doesn’t have to take forever.”

Indeed, the Nationals turned 102- and 103-loss seasons in 2008 and 2009 into No. 1 overall picks Stephen Strasburg (Game 1 starter) and Bryce Harper (2015 NL MVP). Though it hasn’t yet translated into October glory, the Nationals have won between 95 and 98 games and division titles in 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2017.

Out of that 101-loss season in 2012, the Cubs found their own future NL Rookie of the Year/MVP from Las Vegas: Kris Bryant, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 draft, part of a run on hitters that includes Schwarber, the 2014 first-round selection who’s 3-for-3 in playoff appearances and already an October legend.

“It’s crazy,” Schwarber said. “I was lucky enough to come here when we made the playoffs. That’s all I know – winning right now.

“I’m sure there’s other guys in this room that have been part of losing teams, and they don’t ever want to have that feeling again. I know for a fact I don’t ever want to have that feeling of being on a losing team.

“It’s the competitive nature of this game. You want to make it to the playoffs. You want to win the World Series. I’m lucky. I’m fortunate to be a part of this. We just want to keep it going.”

In the same way that the Nationals gave outfielder Jayson Werth a seven-year, $126 million contract after a 93-loss season in 2010 — to change their culture and add championship experience — the Cubs signed big-game pitcher Jon Lester to a six-year, $155 million megadeal after a last-place finish in 2014.

Now Werth is appreciating his final days in a Washington uniform, super-agent Scott Boras will market Harper as a free agent after next season, the Nationals don’t know how long Strasburg and Max Scherzer can reasonably stay healthy and the Cubs feel like they are just getting started.

“This team has an opportunity to do something that hasn’t been done for a while,” said Ben Zobrist, last year’s World Series MVP. “There’s been some teams that have dominated those few years in a row. This team, because of all the young players, and because of the resources the club has going forward, has the opportunity to do that for years to come.

“You’re entering the smack-dab middle of a time where you got a lot of young, exciting Cubs players that are going to make their mark for years and years to come. So this is the time to be a Cub fan. If you want to jump on the bandwagon, do it now.”

But to fully appreciate the scope of this teardown, rebuild and potential dynasty, you have to understand “Men vs. Boys.”

“Don’t forget this series, because this is the one that’s going to keep you pushing,” Borzello remembered thinking at the time. “You never want to experience that again.

“It’s more an appreciation of where we are. But to appreciate where we are, you can’t forget where you’ve been. And that is the series that I’ll never forget. That’s where we were.”   

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.