Cubs

Better than advertised: Cubs roll to 8-1 start

Better than advertised: Cubs roll to 8-1 start

The Cubs don’t believe in billy goats or black cats, but team officials have sort of acknowledged the curse of winning the offseason, how teams slapped together at the winter meetings with big-name free agents and go-for-it trades usually seem to disappoint. 

It won’t be this easy all season. The torn ACL and LCL in Kyle Schwarber’s left knee is part of the game and not an outlier occurrence. The Cincinnati Reds are in the teardown/sell-off phase the Cubs found themselves in while writing off the 2012, 2013 and 2014 major-league seasons.

Still, the Cubs have looked even better than advertised after funneling almost $290 million into a team that won 97 games and two playoff rounds last year.   

“We’re ready to play baseball,” manager Joe Maddon said after Thursday night’s 8-1 win over the Reds at Wrigley Field. “The things you talk about in camp or in meetings, our guys are doing it. That’s about as well as I can explain it – following game plans, great at-bats, playing catch on defense, being in the right spot.”   

The Cubs are 8-1 for only the sixth time in franchise history and off to their best start since 1969, when a Hall of Fame core built around Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Billy Williams and Fergie Jenkins eventually faded down the stretch. 

If that happens to the Cubs, you can probably point to injuries, underperformance and the back of the rotation. But Jason Hammel – who got booed in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series as the New York Mets rolled to a sweep at Wrigley Field – symbolizes the unfinished-business attitude. 

After an offseason body makeover and mechanics breakdown, Hammel looks more like the guy who’s pitched at an All-Star level in the first half of the last two seasons (and not the one recovering from a leg injury that messed up his alignment last summer and had him running on fumes). 

“It was a look-in-the-mirror type of moment,” said Hammel, who threw six scoreless innings, lowered his ERA to 0.75 through two starts and chipped in with a key fifth-inning RBI double that sailed over the head of Reds rightfielder Jay Bruce.

“You got to find out, figure out what’s inside and continue to work hard. I dedicated myself to making some changes this offseason. It was important. I felt bad, obviously, about the way things panned out last year. But that’s last year. I was able to focus on some good things this year and simplify as much as I could.”

Kris Bryant – who didn’t hit his first home run until the 21st game of his Rookie of the Year campaign last season – homered for the second night in a row to give the Cubs a 1-0 lead in the second inning. And this lineup goes for the jugular, with late-February addition/leadoff guy Dexter Fowler getting on base 23 times in his first 39 plate appearances this season.   

The pitching staff fronted by Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta has a 2.34 ERA, a 0.89 WHIP and 69 strikeouts against 17 walks. 

The Cubs also drew more than 112,000 for a three-game series against a team that should be in the running for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 draft – on week/school nights where the temperature was between 48 and 43 degrees at first pitch. 

“The expectations narrative is kind of over,” president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. “I know it’s going to come up from time to time, but that’s more of an offseason thing to have to answer those questions. 

“Now it’s about: How are we winning games? And why aren’t we winning more games? Who’s doing what right on the field in order to get a W? How are we coming together as a team? What kind of adversity do we have to overcome? 

“(It’s) what I need to do better, what we need to do better 162 times. If we stick with that process enough, keep focused on that night’s game enough, then we can maybe get where we want to go. 

“But if we start trying to put everything in the context of the postseason or the World Series or things like that – it’s just not a way a team can operate.”

Good luck with that. Ownership and the front office framed this season with the free agents who turned down bigger guarantees elsewhere, flocking here on the quest to end 1908. And then Maddon unveiled “Embrace The Target” T-shirts in spring training and started walking around with a bull’s-eye on his chest. 

“We all understand each other,” Hammel said. “We’re close-knit and fighting for each other. It makes it easy to go out and have some fun instead of just go out and do your job.

“With long seasons like that, you need to have some guys that can loosen it up a little bit and we got enough of that. We got some professionals here, too. The goal was to get off to a hot start and try and continue that as long as we can.”

There’s also The Celebration Room in the new space-age clubhouse that becomes a Miami nightclub after each win at Wrigley Field.

“They’re going to need to put in new carpeting pretty soon,” Hammel said. 

Podcast: Bold predictions for the Cubs offseason

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USA TODAY

Podcast: Bold predictions for the Cubs offseason

With the MLB offseason about to kick off, we run down the boldest predictions for the Cubs winter from around the NBC Sports Chicago Cubs content team. Topics include where Bryce Harper and Manny Machado will sign, how much money they’ll get, what the Cardinals will do this winter, Cubs offseason trades and how Theo Epstein’s front office may add to the pitching staff.

 

One topic we could all agree on was David Ross' potential as Cubs bench coach if the incumbent Brandon Hyde ends up taking a job as manager for another team around the league.

 

Listen to the entire podcast here and check out all of our bold predictions below:

 

 

David Kaplan

 

—Anthony Rizzo and his new wife, Emily, will adopt Manny Machado, change his last name and see Manny Rizzo playing third base for the 2019 Cubs.

—Because of the Rizzo move, the Cubs will move Kris Bryant to a full-time outfielder.

—The Cubs will trade away Jose Quintana and sign Patrick Corbin.

—The Cubs will sign a pair of former Indians relievers for the back end of the bullpen in Andrew Miller and Cody Allen.

—The Cubs will trade Kyle Schwarber to the Royals for Whit Merrifield, who will start 155 games in the leadoff spot in the order.

—Joe Maddon will be a lot more consistent with the Cubs' lineup and batting order all season.

 

Kelly Crull

 

—Anthony and Emily Rizzo will receive more wedding gifts from Cubs fans than Kris and Jessica Bryan received.

—Anthony Rizzo will train this offseason so he will be able to sing — or play the piano — for the National Anthem at Wrigley in 2019.

—The Cubs will have no money left to remodel the media room at Wrigley Field.

 

Luke Stuckmeyer

 

—The Captain Morgan Club at Wrigley Field is going to be replaced by Kap's Kryo & Keto Korner.

—The Cubs will finally find a solution to the leadoff hitter issue.

 

Tony Andracki

 

—The Cubs sign Bryce Harper for less than $250 million. (He follows 23 people on Twitter)
—Manny Machado does not get a contract for more than $250 million, either.
—The Cardinals will sign Craig Kimbrel and either Machado or Josh Donaldson to play 3B. 

 

Rationale: St. Louis could really use the bat and closer and they have a sense of urgency in the division this winter we haven't seen from them in at least a decade. The Cubs and Brewers have clearly been better for two seasons now and look to have a better chance at contending than the Cardinals in 2019, as well. That can't be sitting well with the "Best Fans in Baseball." 

 

Jeff Nelson, producer

 

—The Cubs will trade 2 of the following players:  Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ, Addison Russell, Albert Almora Jr.

—The Cardinals will sign Manny Machado to play third base.

—Because of construction delays, the visitors’ clubhouse will not be ready for the home opener, forcing the Pirates to dress at their hotel and come to the ballpark in full uniform.

Mike Piff, social media manager

—Cubs sign Nick Markakis.
—Cubs sign Tyson Ross.

Eric Strobel, producer

—The Cubs 2019 saves leader is not currently on the roster.

Rationale: We saw what happened to the bullpen in Brandon Morrow's absence; it got the job done by and large, but was not longer truly feared. Deep 'pens are the norm in October now with lockdown relievers being counted on more and more. The front office knows they can't truly entrust that kind of workload to Morrow with his injury history - Theo admitted as much in his end-of-season press conference. While they probably will not make a big splash, a huge focus of the offseason will be to surround Morrow/Strop/Edwards/etc. with as many talented arms as possible. The Cubs could very well enter next season without a designated closer, but if they do, it will not be Brandon Morrow.

Scott Changnon, multi-platform producer

—The Cubs will sign Bryce Harper.

Rationale: "I dunno, maybe."

Nate Poppen, producer

—Cubs sign Andrew McCutchen, plug him into CF and make Almora a 4th OF (or expendable)
—Bryce Harper signs with Yankees.
—Manny Machado signs with Angels.

Matt Buckman, producer

Non-roster prediction: The Cubs will welcome Sammy Sosa back to Wrigley Field. Sammy turns 50 this winter, and fueled by our wonderful documentary on 1998, the Cubs will finally mend their broken bond with Sammy and bring him back to Wrigley.

Roster prediction: The Cubs will trade Kyle Schwarber for a leadoff hitter. Joe has had to get very creative with the top of his order since Dexter Fowler left. Though the front office has downplayed the importance of a lead-off hitter the last two off-seasons, they will look to add one for 2019 so that Joe doesn’t have to be so creative. They won’t have a place to play Schwarber after they sign Harper so they will swap his power for a new “you go, we go” guy. Look at KC or TB as AL teams that need to add power and also have guys who could potentially lead off for the Cubs. Mallex Smith (TB) or Whit Merrifield (KC) would be interesting options.

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No-brainer: The Cubs should absolutely bring back Jesse Chavez in 2019 bullpen

No-brainer: The Cubs should absolutely bring back Jesse Chavez in 2019 bullpen

Should the Cubs bring Jesse Chavez back for the 2019 bullpen?

This question shouldn't have anywhere near the polarizing effect the Daniel Murphy query had earlier this week, and for good reason.

It's hard to find any real downside for the Cubs working Chavez back into the fold next season. 

Sure, he's 35 and he'll turn 36 in August, but Chavez just had far and away the best season of his 11-year career and all signs point to it being legit.

He won't have a 1.15 ERA forever, of course, but he clearly found something with his mechanics that helped lead to the remarkable consistency he showed in a Cubs uniform (4 saves, 4 holds, 1.15 ERA, 0.79 WHIP, 42 Ks in 39 IP). 

The Cubs will be looking to add some reinforcements to their bullpen this winter and Chavez fits the bill in many areas.

When asked about how to address the bullpen this winter, Theo Epstein said his front office will be "looking for guys who can throw strikes and execute a gameplan and take the ball and pitch in big spots."

The Cubs have publicly placed an emphasis on "strike-throwers" out of the bullpen over the last two winters now and that is right up Chavez's alley.

He threw 68.5 percent first-pitch strikes while with the Cubs, which would've ranked near the top of the league in 2018, right up there with aces like Miles Mikolas, Clayton Kershaw, Aaron Nola and Justin Verlander. Among all relievers, Chavez ranked 5th in baseball in first-pitch strike percentage in the second half.

Expanding further (since the first pitch isn't the only one that matters): Chavez threw the fourth-most strikes in baseball among all MLB relievers after the All-Star Break. Since the day Chavez put on a Cubs uniform, Philadelphia's Tommy Hunter (70.5 percent) was the only reliever in baseball (minimum 30 innings) to throw a higher percentage of pitches for strikes than Chavez (69.8 percent).

If you want strikes, there's no better reliever on the market right now than Chavez.

He also shouldn't be all that expensive at age 35, even despite the breakout and high level of importance placed upon relievers these days. A similar deal to the one Brian Duensing got last winter - $7 million over 2 years - seems appropriate and would be a steal if Chavez can continue to find even a modicum of the success he had since putting on a Cubs uniform.

Speaking of the Cubs uniform, Chavez reportedly doesn't want to wear another logo in 2019, saying this after the NL Wild-Card Game:

That was an emotional time, but Chavez repeatedly raved about the Cubs clubhouse and culture throughout his time in Chicago and really appreciated the way his teammates made him feel comfortable from Day 1.

When the Cubs first acquired Chavez in that under-the-radar trade, they touted his versatility which has become a valuable asset, especially in today's game where relievers are often asked to pitch multiple innings. If necessary, he could also represent depth for the starting rotation, having made 70 starts over his MLB career. 

Unless there's a surprising market that develops for Chavez, bringing him back to the North Side of Chicago on a 1- or 2-year deal is a no-brainer.