Cubs

Covering the Cubs: A crazy summer rollercoaster

Covering the Cubs: A crazy summer rollercoaster

Thursday, Aug. 26, 2010
6:58 PM

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

WASHINGTON When the Cubs show up for work on Friday afternoon at Great American Ball Park, there will be 38 days remaining in the season, almost 21 percent of their paychecks still to be earned.

That doesnt sound like much time left for the pitchers and catchers who began reporting to the teams complex in Mesa, Ariz., about a week after the New Orleans Saints won Super Bowl XLIV.

But then you flash back to all that has happened in the previous 38 days. It all started on July 20, when Lou Piniellas agent leaked the news that the Cubs manager would be retiring.

New York Daily News columnist Bill Madden a former Yankees beat writer who would be honored that weekend at the Hall of Fame ceremonies in Cooperstown, N.Y. broke the story online.

It was published hours before the Cubs planned to make a relatively low-key announcement, without any advance warning to the media outlets that wouldnt normally rush to Wrigley Field for a Tuesday night game against the Houston Astros.

Piniella broadcast his intention to finish the season, but would be pulled back home twice within the next two weeks. He traveled to Tampa, Fla., for his uncles funeral, and to tend to his ailing mother, a family situation that ultimately led to his resignation and Sundays teary farewell.

As an emotional Piniella wrestled with this decision, Derrek Lee was making his own calculations. On July 28 the Cubs first baseman explained why he used his no-trade rights to block a deal to the Los Angeles Angels.

With a home in Southern California and good friends in the Angels clubhouse, that represented something close to an ideal situation. But Lee didnt want to move his family. The timing wasnt right, the Angels werent a sure thing and the expectation was that he would complete the final year of his contract in a Cub uniform.

After the Cubs landed at OHare International Airport on Aug. 15, general manager Jim Hendry approached Lee about a new opportunity. The Atlanta Braves scouted Lee during a three-game series in St. Louis, where he crushed four home runs in three games.

The next day Lee signaled his approval. Two days later the trade became official. And two days after that he drove his car into his normal parking space at Wrigley Field and walked into the visiting clubhouse, where he hadnt stepped inside since celebrating with the Florida Marlins after the 2003 National League Championship Series.

By then, the Cubs seemed almost numb to all the changes. Laid-back first basemanoutfielder Xavier Nady who has already been traded three times in his career and is playing for his fifth team essentially shrugged his shoulders.

Thats the nature of the game, Nady said. Guys are going to be departing here and there and there will be a lot of new faces. But from our standpoint, you got to come ready to play.

Lee socialized with every corner of the clubhouse, and his ex-teammates understood his change of heart. They had already said their goodbyes to Ted Lilly and Ryan Theriot at the July 31 non-waiver deadline the day after Carlos Zambrano apologized to the entire team but at least they had a flight to catch.

A television camera tracked Mike Fontenot on Aug. 11 as he walked from one AT&T Park clubhouse to the other after he was dealt to the San Francisco Giants.

More than one Cub has said that he hopes to get a chance to play with Lilly again at some point. Both parties left the door open to the veteran left-hander possibly re-signing as a free agent. But the organization is also trying to find in-house solutions and will continue to audition young pitchers.

Left-handed reliever Scott Maine is set to become the 16th rookie to appear for the Cubs this season and the 10th to make his major-league debut. Since July 20, the Cubs have brought up a player from Triple-A Iowa 11 times. Theyve optioned a player down to the minors eight times during that stretch.

Rookie reliever Andrew Cashner sort of shook his head and laughed.

Its been a crazy year, he said. Its definitely been kind of a whirlwind season, not really knowing what to expect.

There was Carlos Silva having trouble breathing on Aug. 1 and being taken to Denvers Saint Joseph Hospital in an ambulance. Eight days later, he underwent cardiac ablation at Northwestern Memorial Hospital to fix an irregular heartbeat.

Like Silva, Carlos Zambrano thought about his family during what might have been his best start of the season on Tuesday night in Washington.

Zambranos postgame news conference lasted about six minutes, and during that time he was confrontational, thoughtful, cocky and philosophical before leaving to see his nephew at a hospital in Venezuela.

Anything close to deathsometimes people shouldnt leave until theyre old, Zambrano said, but when God has something in mind, He calls us to Him. What can we do?

The Cubs will regroup with Thursdays off day in Cincinnati, not exactly a world-class city if you are a millionaire with time on your hands. But the timing couldnt be better after 20 games in 20 days and 17 against teams with legitimate hopes of being soaked in champagne at some point in September or October.

They are on their third manager in the past two weeks. Randy Wells played for Mike Quade in Iowa in 2006 and says hes the same high-strung, funny guy that gets along with everybody.

Quade loves horseracing, but the past 38 days have shown that its impossible to handicap how this all will end.

Its no secret he can say what he wants, and you guys can say what you want, Wells said, but youd be stupid not to try to take this opportunity and show what you can do for possibly a managers job down the road.

You never know whats going to happen.

Patrick Mooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. Follow Patrick on Twitter @CSNMooney for up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

Cubs still waiting for Willson Contreras' offense to take off, but they know it's coming

Cubs still waiting for Willson Contreras' offense to take off, but they know it's coming

If every Major League Baseball player was thrown into a draft pool in a fantasy-type format, Willson Contreras may be the first catcher taken.

Joe Maddon and the Cubs certainly wouldn't take anybody else over "Willy."

The Cubs skipper said as much in late-May, placing Contreras' value above guys like Buster Posey, Gary Sanchez and Yadier Molina based on age, athleticism, arm, blocking, intelligence, energy and offensive prowess.
 
Contreras strikes out more, doesn't hit for as high of an average and doesn't yet have the leadership ability of Posey, but he's also 5 years younger than the Giants catcher. Molina is possibly destined for the Hall of Fame, but he's also 35 and the twilight of his career is emerging. Sanchez is a better hitter with more power currently than Contreras, but a worse fielder.

Remember, Contreras has been in the big leagues for barely 2 years total — the anniversary of his first at-bat came earlier this week:

All that being said, the Cubs are still waiting for Contreras to display that type of complete player in 2018.

He's thrown out 11-of-32 would-be basestealers and the Cubs love the way he's improved behind the plate at calling the game, blocking balls in the dirt and working with the pitcher. They still see some room for improvement with pitch-framing, but that's not suprising given he's only been catching full-time since 2013.

Offensively, Contreras woke up Saturday morning with a .262 batting average and .354 on-base percentage (which are both in line with his career .274/.356 line), but his slugging (.412) is way down compared to his career .472 mark.

He already has 14 doubles (career high in a season was 21 last year) and a career-best 4 triples, but also only 4 homers — 3 of which came in a 2-game stretch against the White Sox on May 11-12.

So where's the power?

"He's just not been hitting the ball as hard," Maddon said. "It's there, he's gonna be fine. Might be just getting a little bit long with his swing. I think that's what I'm seeing more than anything.

"But I have so much faith in him. It was more to the middle of last year that he really took off. That just might be his DNA — slower start, finish fast.

"Without getting hurt last year, I thought he was gonna get his 100 RBIs. So I'm not worried about him. It will come. He's always hit, he can hit, he's strong, he's healthy, he's well, so it's just a patience situation."

The hot streak Maddon is talking about from last season actually began on June 16 and extended to Aug. 9, the date Contreras pulled his hamstring and went to the disabled list for the next month.

In that 45-game span (40 starts) in the middle of 2017, Contreras hit .313/.381/.669 (1.050 OPS) with 16 homers and 45 RBI.

It looked like the 26-year-old catcher may be getting on one of those hot streaks back in mid-May when he clobbered the Marlins, White Sox and Braves pitching staffs to the tune of a .500 average, 1.780 OPS, 3 homers and 11 RBI in a week's worth of action.

But in the month since, Contreras has only 3 extra-base hits and no homers, driving in just 4 runs in 29 games (26 starts) while spending most of his time hitting behind Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo.

What's been the difference?

"I think it's honestly just the playing baseball part of the game," Contreras said. "You're gonna go through your ups and downs, but I definitely do feel like I've been putting in the work and about ready to take off to be able to help the team."

Contreras admitted he's been focused more on his work behind the plate this season, trying to manage the pitching staff, consume all the scouting reports and work on calling the game. He's still trying to figure out how to perfectly separate that area of his game with his at-bats.

"With my defense and calling games, that's one way that I'm able to help the team right now," Contreras said. "And as soon as my bat heats up, we're gonna be able to take off even more."

On the latest round of National League All-Star voting, Contreras was behind Posey among catchers. The Cubs backstop said he would be honored to go to Washington D.C. next month, but also understands he needs to show more of what he's capable of at the plate.

"If I go, I go," he said. "Honestly, it's not something that I'm really focusing on right now. ... I do think I've been pretty consistent in terms of my average and on-base percentage and helping create situations and keep the line moving, at least.

"But right now, I know my bat hasn't been super consistent so far. It would be a great opportunity and I'd thank the fans."

As a whole, the Cubs have been hitting fewer home runs this season compared to last year. Under new hitting coach Chili Davis, they're prioritizing contact and using the whole field over power and pulling the ball.

Contreras has a 19.3 percent strikeout rate — the lowest of his brief big-league career — while still holding a 9.6 percent walk rate, in line with his career mark (9.9 percent).

Thanks to improved defense, Contreras still boasts a 1.6 WAR (FanGraphs) despite the low power output to this point. Posey (1.7 WAR) is the only catcher in baseball more valuable to his team.

Just wait until his power shows up.

"He hasn't even taken off yet," Maddon said. "He's gonna really take off. Remember last year how hot he got in the second half? That's gonna happen again. You see the pickoffs, what he does behind the plate, how he controls the running game — he's a different cat.

"And he's gonna keep getting better. He's not even at that level of consistency that I think you're gonna get out of him. Great athlete, runs well, does a lot of things well, but it does not surprise me that he's [second in NL All-Star voting at catcher] with Posey."

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

A year ago, the Cubs were struggling to float above .500, sitting 1.5 games behind the first-place Brewers.

Two years ago, the Cubs were10.5 games up on the second-place Cardinals in the division and already in cruise control to the postseason.

As they entered a weekend series in Cincinnati at 42-29 and in a tie for first place, the Cubs are feeling quite a bit more like 2016 than 2017.

The major reason? Energy, as Joe Maddon pointed out over the weekend.

That energy shows up most often on defense.

The 2016 Cubs put up maybe the best defensive season in baseball history while last year they truly looked hungover.

After a big of a slow start to 2018, the Cubs are feelin' more of that '16 swag.

If you watched either of the wins against the Los Angeles Dodgers this week at Wrigley Field, it's clear to see why: the defense.

"I like the defense," Maddon said of his team last week. "I'm into the defense. There's a tightness about the group. There's a closeness about the group. Not saying last year wasn't like that, but this group is definitely trending more in the '16 direction regarding interacting.

"If anything — and the one thing that makes me extremely pleased — would be the continuation of the defense. We've fed so much off our defense in '16. We've been doing that more recently again. We do so much good out there, then we come in and it gets kinda electric in the dugout. I'd like to see that trend continue on defense."

The Cubs scored only 2 runs in 10 innings in the second game against the Dodgers Tuesday night and managed just 4 runs in the finale Wednesday. Yet their gloves helped hold the Dodgers to only 1 run combined between the two games.

Wednesday's game was a defensive clinic, with Jason Heyward throwing out Chris Taylor at home plate with an incredible tag by Willson Contreras while Javy Baez, Albert Almora Jr., Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber all hit the ground to make sprawling/diving plays.

"[Almora] comes in and dives for one and I'm just like, 'OK, I'm done clapping for you guys,'" Jon Lester, Wednesday's winning pitcher, joked. "It's expected now that these guys make these plays. It's fun on our end. It's the, 'Here, hit it. Our guys are really good out there and they're gonna run it down.'"

The Heyward throw, in particular, jacked the team up. 

Maddon compared it to a grand slam with how much energy it provided the Cubs. Almora said he momentarily lost his voice because he was screaming so much at the play.

There was also Baez making plays in the hole at shortstop, then switching over to second base and turning a ridiculous unassisted double play on a liner in the 8th inning.

"That's what we're capable of doing," Maddon said. "In the past, when we've won on a high level, we've played outstanding defense. It never gets old to watch that kind of baseball."

The Cubs are back to forcing opposing hitters to jog off the field, shaking their head in frustration and disbelief.

"It could be so dispiriting to the other side when you make plays like that," Maddon said. "And also it's buoyant to your pitchers. So there's all kinds of good stuff goin' on there."

A lot of that is the play of the outfield, with Almora back to himself after a down 2017 season and Schwarber turning into a plus-rated defensive outfield.

After finishing 19th in baseball in outfield assists last season, the Cubs are currently tied for 6th with 14 outfield assists this year.

Schwarber has 7 alone, which is already as many as he tallied in the entire 2017 season.

"I feel like they'll learn quickly on Schwarber, if they haven't yet," Heyward said. "You gotta earn that respect. You gotta earn that sense of caution from the third base coach.

"But please keep running on me in those situations. I want it to happen."