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Baseball’s toughest division ever made Cubs better faster

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Baseball’s toughest division ever made Cubs better faster

Major League Baseball had never seen a division like the National League Central in 2015. It’s officially the best ever, and it helped make the Cubs who they are now.

Since the wild-card era began, no division has seen a third-place team finish with more than 93 wins. The 2002 American League West had the Oakland A's with 103 wins, followed by the Los Angeles Angels at 99 and the Seattle Mariners with 93 victories.

The St. Louis Cardinals finished this year with 100 wins and the Pittsburgh Pirates came in at 98 victories, meaning the Cubs and their 97 wins got stuck in third place.

[RELATED - Ready for Pittsburgh: Cubs storm into playoffs with 97 wins]

Since divisional play began in 1969, these Cubs and the 1977 Boston Red Sox are tied with the most wins for a third-place team in baseball history.

The Cubs earned the third-best record in the majors and were rewarded with a one-game playoff against Gerrit Cole and the Pirates on Wednesday night at PNC Park.

"I think it's actually good for us long-term," general manager Jed Hoyer said. "I'd be lying if I said there aren't times where you're frustrated looking at other divisions and you think to yourself that we'd be leading that division and guaranteed a five-game playoff series. But I think it's going to make us a lot better."

Hoyer worked with Theo Epstein when the Red Sox front office had to take down the New York Yankees’ "Evil Empire" in the AL East.

"The Yankees made us a ton better in Boston," Hoyer said. "Having to go up against them, there was no shortcut, no years of backing into winning a division.

"We know the [Pirates and Cardinals] are going to be good for a long time. And we're going to be good. I think we're going to go at each other for a long time. It's going to make all three teams better. We have to realize that.

"You can look at it as a negative, but also I know that if we advance a long way in the playoffs, it's environments like [playing them at Wrigley Field in late September] and environments like we've had in St. Louis and Pittsburgh that made our guys a lot tougher."

Joe Maddon has been making that point at least since spring training, remembering his first last-place season with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 2006.

[MORE: Why Cubs believe Jake Arrieta could be unstoppable in October]

“That was common fodder when I got there: The fact that they had to get out of this division in order to become successful,” Maddon said. “Otherwise, we can’t compete with the Yankees and Red Sox. And that’s all I heard.

“No, no, no, that’s wrong. We’re only going to get good this way. (And) I’ve said that from the beginning, man. You had to win in Boston at Fenway. You get to play there nine (or) 10 times a year. Good.

“Same thing with Yankee Stadium. You had to feel good about walking in that door, and then you could beat them there. And once you do that, then you could win anywhere. Not to go Frank Sinatra right there.”

After losing 96 games in 2007, the Rays won 97 the next year and made it to the World Series.

“It was exciting to play in that division, man,” Maddon said. “It was hot. It was really hot. It was pretty firm. And I think that’s why we got good fast, playing in those venues. Adversarial, tough fans, good teams, you better show up.”

The Cubs weren't expected to contend so soon, not after five straight seasons of fifth-place finishes and a roster packed with young, inexperienced players.

But with an everyday lineup that could feature four rookies, Maddon guided a team that improved 24 games on its 2014 record (73-89).

[SHOP: Buy Cubs playoff gear]

"I love playing in what is perceived to be the best division in baseball," Maddon said. "It's about the end of the season - the last game of the season - and getting to that particular moment. Sometimes, it takes a different route to get there.

"But I really respect what both [the Cardinals and Pirates] have done. I like to believe we've pushed them a bit, too, in this particular season. There was no let-up for anybody.

"That's kinda cool. It's great for baseball. It's great for us. And it really has aided us in getting better."

Cubs reportedly ‘exceptionally impressed’ by Joe Espada in managerial search

Cubs reportedly ‘exceptionally impressed’ by Joe Espada in managerial search

As the Cubs peruse over their list of managerial candidates, one name reportedly made a strong impression following his interview with the team.

According to NBC Sports Chicago’s David Kaplan, Astros bench coach Joe Espada left the Cubs front office “exceptionally impressed” following his interview on Monday.

Espada, 44, has spent the last two seasons as Astros bench coach following three seasons as Yankees third base coach. He is one of MLB’s more sought after managerial candidates this winter and one of three known external candidates for the Cubs’ opening, along with Joe Girardi and Gabe Kapler.

Former Cubs catcher and current front office assistant David Ross has been the presumed front runner for the Cubs' opening. But based on Kaplan’s report, Espada clearly has given Epstein and Co. something to think about, which makes sense, considering Espada is coming from an innovative Astros organization.

Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference that there’s no timeline for the Cubs’ managerial search. However, MLB prefers teams to not make big announcements during the World Series, which kicks off on Oct. 22. Thus, the Cubs may not make an announcement for little while longer, though this is purely speculation.

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The curious case of Brad Wieck and his unique opportunity with the Cubs

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The curious case of Brad Wieck and his unique opportunity with the Cubs

If anybody thought the Cubs' 2019 season was a roller coaster, it was nothing compared to what Brad Wieck has gone through this year.

Wieck — the 6-foot-9 left-handed reliever — went from a cancer diagnosis to a Padres cast-off and wound up finishing the year carving through the heart of the Cardinals order in the eighth inning of a must-win game in late-September for the Cubs.

Wieck began 2019 with a testicular cancer diagnosis in January and underwent surgery shortly after. That left him playing catch-up all spring training, unable to lift, run or throw off a mound for a month after the surgery. He only ended up facing live hitters twice before the regular season started and was never able to recover with the Padres, putting up a 5.71 ERA in 34.2 MLB innings. 

Then the Cubs came calling.

While the rest of Cubdom was understandably occupied on Trade Deadline Day celebrating the Nick Castellanos move, Theo Epstein's front office made a smaller move with the San Diego Padres. And Wieck wasn't even the central focus of that trade, as more of the emphasis was on the departure of Carl Edwards Jr. — a polarizing figure in the Cubs bullpen the last few seasons, including throughout the 2016 World Series run.

Yet Epstein's front office didn't treat Wieck like a throw-in. From Day 1 with the organization, the Cubs handled the southpaw more like a first-round draft pick.

Right after the trade, Wieck was immediately assigned to Triple-A Iowa, where he made a pair of appearances against the Tacoma Rainiers. From there, he was invited to Chicago to meet with the Cubs front office and throw a bullpen off the Wrigley Field mound.

"So I got here and they had a whole presentation of what my current curveball looked like and what they would like the shape of it to look like and so we just started messing around with grip," Wieck said. "I went to a spike curveball grip and we got in the lab and we started throwing it more and we came up with consistent break of what we thought was gonna be a better break than the curveball that I had.

"Just trial and error, honestly. We just looked at Rapsodo stuff and saw what spin efficiency is doing and spin rate and trying to get my curveball spin to replicate the exact opposite of my fastball. That's what our goal was."

That led to a trip to the "Pitch Lab" in Arizona where Wieck worked with Josh Zeid, the Cubs' pitching analyst, to continue to mess around with the new curveball grip and add a new, consistent weapon to his arsenal. 

If the term "spike curveball" sounds familiar, it should. It's become the unofficial pitch of the Cubs (you know, if organizations defined themselves by just one pitch). Rowan Wick — Wieck's former roommate in the Padres system — broke out as a trusted big-league reliever in large part because of the emergence of his spike curve. Craig Kimbrel throws one and also taught the pitch to Yu Darvish, who added it to the plethora of options already at his disposal. 

Wieck's time in Arizona was about getting comfortable with the new pitch and not worrying about facing hitters or pitching in a game. After a couple weeks in the desert, the Cubs threw him back out on the mound in Iowa, where he made four appearances before getting the call to the big leagues when rosters expanded in September. 

Right off the bat, we got a look at that spike curve and there is no doubt it can play at Wrigley Field, especially when the shadows roll in:

Just like that, a new weapon was born and Wieck developed more confidence in that reshaped curveball.

"I like that they're forcing me to throw it more because I've been a fastball-heavy pitcher my whole life," Wieck said. "I trust my fastball with my life. To have a catcher get back there and make you throw it, that's really good."

The Cubs' confidence in Wieck also grew as the month went on. He emerged alongside his buddy Wick as vital pieces of the late-season bullpen while Kimbrel and Brandon Kintzler dealt with injuries. It got to the point where Joe Maddon kept Wieck in to face the Cardinals' big boppers (Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna — both right-handed hitters) with a 1-run lead in the eighth inning on that final homestand. We all know how that game ended (Kimbrel served up homers on back-to-back pitches for another gut-wrenching Cubs loss), but Wieck did his job and proved he's far more than just a lefty specialist.

This fall was the first time Wieck had been a part of a playoff push and that outing against the Cardinals was only the 46th MLB appearance of his young career. Moving into 2020, the 28-year-old southpaw looks to be one of only a few arms penciled into the Cubs bullpen. 

The Cubs had their eyes on Wieck for a while before they were able to trade for him and they don't plan on rolling out a big presentation for each acquisition or ask every new arm to start throwing a brand new pitch or completely remake one of their existing pitches. This was a unique situation, but it's one that already paid dividends in a short period of time and could help set up the bullpen for the future. 

It's also another indicator that the "Pitch Lab" can work, as Wieck joins Wick and Kyle Ryan as products of the Cubs' new model they hope to fine-tune and grow. Epstein will hire a director of pitching for the organization this winter and the Cubs are hoping to change the narrative surrounding their shocking lack of pitching development under this front office. 

In Wieck's case, it was a group effort from the Cubs — the front office, research and development department, big-league coaching staff (led by pitching coach Tommy Hottovy), the pitching analytics unit based in Arizona and minor league pitching coordinator Brendan Sagara all teamed up to make it happen for the tall lefty in only a month's time.

It's a model the organization will attempt to duplicate moving forward, beginning this winter.