Can Cubs recreate their clubhouse chemistry from last year?


Can Cubs recreate their clubhouse chemistry from last year?

For a franchise that hasn't won a championship in more than a century, the Cubs have an awful lot of World Series rings in their clubhouse.

That's by design.

Theo Epstein's front office already brought in Jon Lester and David Ross (both were on the 2013 World Champion Red Sox team) last year, and this season have reunited the duo with former Boston teammates John Lackey and Shane Victorino.

Add newly-crowned World Series winner Ben Zobrist (2015 Kansas City Royals) and there's suddenly an abundance of championship pedigree in the Cubs' clubhouse.

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That veteran experience - along with Joe Maddon's coaching staff - has helped create a culture with the Cubs that can help mitigate the development and eventual bumps and bruises from a roster jam-packed with fresh-faced kids.

"Anytime you've been through the grind of a season and come out on top, you realize how many twists and turns it's going to take to get there," Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said. "I think that experience is invaluable.

"It wasn't something we talked about - that we had to go out and get guys who have won championships, but I think player after player, as we kept acquiring these veteran guys, these guys have won.

"They've been a big part of championship teams. And especially balancing some of our youth, I think that makes a big difference."

Zobrist joined the Royals midseason last year, but fit in immediately and helped guide the franchise to the promised land.

In Kansas City, Zobrist saw everybody pulling on one rope, caring only about getting back to the World Series and winning it all. He watched as a group of diverse individuals came together for one purpose.

Sabermetricians claim clubhouse chemistry doesn't matter at all, but Zobrist got a firsthand look at how culture plays a big role.

"If you're playing well, you have good chemistry," Zobrist said. "If you have good chemistry, you're more likely to play well. If teams win early on in the season, they feel like the chemistry is amazing, regardless of whether you got a bunch of great guys in the clubhouse or not.

"You just get along better because you're winning and that's the goal and the mindset. That being said, I do think that there's a special group of personalities here that they all seem like they enjoy each other, they're very easy to get along with and those kinds of players tend to want to win for each other more.

"So when you get out there and you're playing for each other, you're more likely to sacrifice yourself in the moment you need to for the team. That's going to help the team win in the end. I think this team has it."

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The Cubs feel chemistry played a huge role in their surprising 2015 season as the team hit stride in August and soared to 97 regular-season victories, a nail-biting wild card win over the Pittsburgh Pirates and dethroned the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Division Series before getting swept out of the postseason by the New York Mets.

With all the new guys in the mix, can the Cubs replicate that chemistry?

"I always believe that chemistry can be created," Maddon said. "After all, if you've never won before, where's the chemistry coming from? The group that says that winning creates chemistry has never had to attempt to create it.

"And what does that mean? We talked a lot about building relationships last year, creating trust, the interactions that creates this open exchange of ideas. If you haven't had it before, how do you do it?

"You just can't say, 'Oh, we're gonna get a bunch of guys in a room, we're gonna win and we're gonna have chemistry.' I don't believe in that. I believe it can be intentionally created."

Maddon said he sees the young players buying into the culture even more now that they're "more comfortable in their major-league skin."

But those veterans are the ones that set the tone.

Ross joked the retirement of a backup catcher with a .228 career batting average shouldn't be a big deal, but it's not the numbers on the back of his baseball card that make Ross so valuable to the Cubs.

"Too many times, you portray players as being clubhouse leaders and that's done too loosely," Maddon said. "With [Ross], it's legitimate. He is a clubhouse leader.

"Why? In spite of not hitting .275 or better, he still creates this stature or maintains this stature in the clubhouse because of the respect people have for him about how he goes about his business. And then when he says something, it's pertinent, it's right on.

"I really don't care what he hits batting-average-wise. His job is totally different. Whatever he hits is gravy for us. I love what he does - how well he interacts with Jon Lester and all the other stuff that he does for the team. It's almost immeasurable. It's that important."

Part of the Cubs' success last season in instituting a successful culture was removing ego from the equation. That's easy to do for unproven rookies and an upstart team that wasn't expected to contend.

But will that mean the same culture will take effect this year?

Maddon has raved about how egoless his players are, with everybody pulling on the same rope. It will be hard to manage throughout the season with the inevitable speed bumps as guys wish they were hitting higher in the order or playing more or pitching in a more prominent role.

Yet the Cubs are confident Maddon can manage all the egos with his laid back, fun-loving style.

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The Cubs also have created a self-policing culture within the clubhouse. So if a guy starts to get upset for selfish reasons, other players step in to hold them accountable and keep everybody in line.

"Theo does such a good job," Anthony Rizzo said. "He doesn't bring in just anyone; he brings in high-character guys. You see it already with [Zobrist], [Jason Heyward] and Lackey coming in.

"They just fit right in. This is a clubhouse where there are no egos. That's what worked for us last year. I don't really plan on anyone having one this year, either."

Regardless of what the numbers and advanced statistics say, the Cubs believe chemistry matters.

"I don't think [chemistry] is overrated at all," Rizzo said. "A lot of these guys get paid to crunch numbers up top, but they know how important it is to have chemistry.

"There are a few teams that might win by their talent. But you look at the Royals last year - those guys have played together for almost 10 years coming up together. They're really good friends and that's what we plan on being."

What the Cubs can learn from the 2019 MLB postseason so far


What the Cubs can learn from the 2019 MLB postseason so far

For the 10 teams that qualify for MLB’s postseason, October represents a chance to climb baseball’s mountain and secure a championship. For the 20 other teams sitting at home, though, October is a chance to evaluate those in the Big Dance.

Less than two weeks into the postseason, here’s some things that the Cubs can take away from the action thus far.

1. Starting pitching matters

With bullpens being relied on more than ever, starting pitchers aren’t used the same way as just a few seasons ago. The Brewers rode their bullpen all the way to Game 7 of the NLCS last season, while the Rays used an “opener” (a reliever who starts a game and pitches 1-3 innings) in Game 4 of the ALDS this season – beating the Astros 4-1.

And yet, the Astros and Nationals are proving how important it is to have a difference-making rotation. The bullpening method can work, but being able to throw Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke at an opponent in a single postseason series is downright unfair.

The Nationals have Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin in their rotation, as formidable of a trio as any in the National League. They also have Anibal Sánchez, who took a no-hitter into the eighth inning of Game 1 of the NLCS against the Cardinals on Friday. No big deal...

And despite getting eliminated, the Rays — Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow, Charlie Morton — and Dodgers — Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler and Hyun-Jin Ryu — have talented rotations, as do the Cardinals and Yankees.

Meanwhile, the Cubs rotation didn’t have as big of an impact this season as they expected, a contributing factor to the team not making it to October.

“We had really high hopes for our starting group this year," Theo Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference. "You looked at it 1-through-5, we had a chance to roll out a really quality starter on a nightly basis, and that might be an area that was a separator for us versus some of the teams we were competing with. While we had a couple guys who had really good years and all our starters had their moments, it didn't prove to be a separator.

"There was some injury and regression (especially after injury) that led us to be closer to the pack certainly than we had envisioned. It’s an accomplished and experienced group, but with experience means that we could stand to add some younger talent, refresh the group as well. We certainly need to add depth and we need to add some youth and a little bit of a different look to the staff, as well, going forward.”

Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester are under contract for 2020, while Jose Quintana has an $11.5 team option. The Cubs don’t have an Astros or Nationals-esque trio, but their rotation can still be good enough to lead the charge in 2020. They’ll need them to do just that if they are to return to the top of the NL Central.

2. Manager decision-making is far more important in October than regular season

The Dodgers’ season came to an abrupt close in Game 5 of the NLDS, with manager Dave Roberts being smack dab in the spotlight.

With the Dodgers leading 3-1 in the seventh inning, Roberts called Clayton Kershaw’s number to get Los Angeles out of a two on, two out jam. Kershaw did just that, but the Nationals opened the eighth with home runs from Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto (on consecutive pitches) to tie the game.

Kershaw is one of the best pitchers in his generation, a three-time Cy Young Award winner and one-time NL MVP. However, his postseason woes are real (4.43 ERA, 32 games/25 starts), and therefore, Roberts made a questionable decision going with Kershaw in that moment. 

Where was Kenta Maeda to face Rendon? Maeda had allowed just a single hit in 3 2/3 innings at this point in the postseason. He took over for Kershaw after Soto’s home run, striking out three-straight Dodgers to end the eighth. 

Roberts also didn't bring in closer Kenley Jansen to start the 10th inning, when the game was still tied 3-3. Instead, he left in Joe Kelly, who allowed a decisive grand slam to Howie Kendrick. Only then did Jansen come in, but the damage was done. Not bringing in your closer in an extra-inning postseason game is inexcusable, and while it may be outcome bias, this game proves why.

Roberts has 393 wins in four seasons as Dodgers manager, leading them to World Series appearances in 2017 and 2018. Even with that experience, though, he made a bad decision at a terrible time. The postseason is a different animal, not only for players, but the coaches in the dugouts, too.

Of the known candidates the Cubs have interviewed for manager — David Ross, Joe Girardi, Mark Loretta and Will Venable — only Girardi has big-league managing experience. And while Epstein noted at his press conference that it isn’t everything, he added that experience is important.

"Lack of experience - and I'm speaking broadly for the group, not necessarily [about Ross] - is always a factor,” Epstein said. “It's not a determining factor, but it's a significant factor. I always have greater comfort level hiring for roles in which the person has done the role before. Especially with manager.

“But I think there are ways for that to be overcome - there are a lot of different ways to get experience in this game - beliefs, skills, personal attributes, those can outweigh a lack of experience, but experience certainly helps.”

3. Winning in the postseason is tough

After the Cubs won the World Series in 2016, there was a feeling that baseball’s next dynasty was underway. After all, the Cubs had a talented, young position player group that reached the promised land early in their time together. It made sense.

Those talks have died down, of course, as the Cubs haven’t even appeared in the World Series since 2016. And while they've had plenty of success since 2015, it feels like they could’ve had more.

The thing about baseball, though, is that it’s extremely hard to sustain those high levels of success. A few teams (Red Sox, Cardinals, Giants) have won multiple World Series this century, none have repeated as champions since the Yankees, who won three-straight from 1998-2000.

The Twins won 101 games this season and were swept out of the ALDS. The Braves won 97, only to lose Game 5 of the NLDS in brutal fashion at home to the Cardinals.

The Dodgers made it to the World Series in 2017 and 2018 and came up empty both times. They won 106 games this season, a franchise record, only to be eliminated in the NLDS by the Nationals — a Wild Card team, nonetheless.

Does that make last few seasons even more frustrating for the Cubs and their fans? Probably. October is a crapshoot, meaning as long as a team gets in, they have a shot at winning it all, no matter their record.

At the same time, the Cubs made things look easy in 2016. They had brilliant injury luck, a historic defense, a deep position player group, a loaded starting rotation and the right manager for their young core. Even so, it took erasing a 3-to-1 series deficit against the Indians to win it all, not to mention a dramatic Game 7 win that nearly didn’t go their way.

This isn’t an excuse for the Cubs shortcomings in 2019, but merely a reminder: they won the 2016 World Series, and that's no small feat. This offseason offers the chance to improve as a team for 2020, when they’ll set out to win again.

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Cubs Talk Podcast: Kap breaks down the Cubs managerial search

USA Today

Cubs Talk Podcast: Kap breaks down the Cubs managerial search

David Kaplan shares his thoughts on the Cubs, the decision to move on from Joe Maddon (0:50), the process in hiring a new manager (2:40), and who should be in the dugout next season (4:05).

Listen here or in the embedded player below. 

Cubs Talk Podcast