Cubs finally starting to see ‘wins don’t just happen because you’re talented and you show up’

Cubs finally starting to see ‘wins don’t just happen because you’re talented and you show up’

WASHINGTON – If the Cubs hadn’t just won the World Series less than eight months ago – and Theo Epstein and Joe Maddon didn’t already have Hall of Fame resumes – this indictment would sound a lot like the team president putting the manager on the hot seat.

“I don’t think we’ve found our edge yet that we’ll need to play with to win games,” Epstein said after dumping veteran catcher Miguel Montero. “Wins don’t just happen because you’re talented and you show up.

“You have to come to the park with an edge every day and come together as a team every day and play to win. You have to play with a certain edge that we’re striving for as a group.”

It would look a lot like this 5-4 comeback win on Thursday at Nationals Park: Jon Lester delivering as the $155 million ace, a B lineup scraping together a two-out, three-run, ninth-inning rally against an awful Washington bullpen and Wade Davis slamming the door on a first-place team.

There are only so many buttons left to push and Epstein clearly wanted to rattle the clubhouse, because Jake Arrieta isn’t the sensitive type and didn’t really care about or disagree with Montero’s scathing comments about his inability to control the running game.

But for all the drama so far, the Cubs are 4-4 on a road trip that began with the Kyle Schwarber-to-Iowa news and now a game over .500 as the season nears the halfway point this weekend in Cincinnati.

“We’ve never been able to get on a roll, and with that comes that edgy kind of a feeling,” Maddon said. “We’ve underachieved offensively. And our starting pitching has not been as good as we thought. So we’ve been playing from behind a lot. It’s hard to create edginess under those circumstances.

“We’re missing some folks from last year, and we’ve been injured a little bit. So, again, I understand the comment. And to a certain extent I totally agree with it. But it’s not for a lack of effort or lack of caring.”

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With reigning National League MVP Kris Bryant resting a sprained right ankle, Jeimer Candelario launched his first big-league homer in the seventh inning off Joe Ross and started the ninth-inning comeback when Blake Treinen’s 99-mph fastball smashed into his left knee (the X-rays were negative).

“We got some underclassmen playing right now,” Maddon said. “We’re breaking in that group, so it’s different. It’s hard to accuse these guys of not quite getting it, because they’re still trying to figure some stuff out.

“There’s a difference from last year to this year, I think. And, again, in spite of all the maladies to this point, thank God we’re in this division right now."

The Cubs are running out of shock-value moves – and not playing like a team that will force the front office to pick up rental players or win an insane bidding war for a top-of-the-rotation starter.

Whatever that “edge” is, the Cubs will either find it and have Wrigleyville rocking in October or slowly turn this into a developmental season.

“We’re right there,” said Lester, who gave up one run in six innings and got the no-decision. “The record and the way we’ve been playing is not ideal. We all can admit to that here in this clubhouse.

“But at the end of the day, we’re one (Milwaukee) loss away from being in first place. That’s what you’re playing for during the season – to make the playoffs – no matter how you get in.”

Why Cubs core's desire to sign extensions might not matter anymore

Why Cubs core's desire to sign extensions might not matter anymore

The day after Kris Bryant suggested that first-time fatherhood and the dramatic reality of world events have changed how he looks at his future with the Cubs, general manager Jed Hoyer outlined why it might be all but moot.

Setting aside the fact that the Cubs aren’t focusing on contract extensions with anyone at this time of health and economic turmoil, the volatility and unpredictability of a raging COVID-19 pandemic in this country and its economic fallout have thrown even mid-range and long-term roster plans into chaos.

“This is without question the most difficult time we’ve ever had as far as projecting those things,” Hoyer said. “All season in projecting this year, you weren’t sure how many games we were going to get in. Projecting next season obviously has challenges, and who knows where the country’s going to be and the economy’s going to be.”

Bryant, a three-time All-Star and former MVP, is eligible for free agency after next season. He and the club have not engaged in extension talks for three years. And those gained little traction while it has looked increasingly likely since then that Bryant’s agent, Scott Boras, would eventually take his star client to market — making Bryant a widely circulated name in trade talks all winter.

MORE: Scott Boras: Why Kris Bryant's free agency won't be impacted by economic crisis

The Cubs instead focused last winter on talks with All-Star shortstop Javy Báez, making “good” or little progress depending on which side you talked to on a given day — until the pandemic shut down everything in March.

Báez, Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber are both also eligible for free agency after next season, with All-Star catcher Willson Contreras right behind them a year later.

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None has a multiyear contract, and exactly what the Cubs are willing to do about that even if MLB pulls off its 60-game plan this year is hard for even the team’s front office executives to know without knowing how hard the pandemic will continue to hammer America’s health and financial well-being into the winter and next year.

Even with a vaccine and treatments by then, what will job markets look like? The economy at large? The economy of sports? Will anyone want to gather with 40,000 others in a stadium to watch a game anytime soon?

And even if anyone could answer all those questions, who can be sure how the domino effect will impact salary markets for athletes?

“There’s no doubt that forecasting going forward is now much more challenging from a financial standpoint,” Hoyer said. “But that’s league-wide. Anyone that says they have a feel for where the nation’s economy and where the pandemic is come next April is lying.”

The Cubs front office already was in a tenuous place financially, its payroll budget stretched past its limit and a threat to exceed MLB’s luxury tax threshold for a second consecutive season.

And after a quick playoff exit in 2018 followed by the disappointment of missing the playoffs in 2019, every player on the roster was in play for a possible trade over the winter — and even more so at this season’s trade deadline without a strong start to the season.

Now what?

For starters, forget about dumping short-term assets or big contracts for anything of value from somebody’s farm system. Even if baseball can get to this year’s Aug. 31 trade deadline with a league intact and playing, nobody is predicting more than small level trades at that point — certainly not anything close to a blockbuster.

After that, it may not get any clearer for the sport in general, much less the Cubs with their roster and contract dilemmas.

“We have a lot of conversations about it internally, both within the baseball side and then with the business side as well,” Hoyer said. “But it’s going to take a long time and probably some sort of macro things happening for us to really have a good feel for where we’re going to be in ’21 and beyond.”


Cubs GM Jed Hoyer: Everyone in MLB has to take COVID-19 'equally' serious

Cubs GM Jed Hoyer: Everyone in MLB has to take COVID-19 'equally' serious

Veteran umpire Joe West made waves Tuesday downplaying the severity of COVID-19 in an interview with The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal. 

“I don’t believe in my heart that all these deaths have been from the coronavirus," West said. "I believe it may have contributed to some of the deaths.”

As far as the Cubs are concerned, those comments don’t represent how to treat the virus. In fact, they’ve gone out of their way to ensure everyone treats it with equal severity.

“That’s one of the things we've really tried internally to instill in our players and our coaches,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said Tuesday, “[that] everyone here has to take it equally [serious].”

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Hoyer noted like the world, MLB isn’t immune to people having different viewpoints on the virus — those who show concern and those who don’t. This echoes comments made by manager David Ross earlier on Tuesday, and Hoyer said those he’s talked to with the Cubs don’t feel the same way as West.

The Cubs had an up close and personal look at pitching coach Tommy Hottovy’s battle with COVID-19 during baseball’s shutdown. It took the 38-year-old former big leaguer 30 harrowing days to test negative, and in the past week many Cubs have said watching him go through that hit home. 

“When you get a 38-year-old guy in wonderful health and he talks about his challenges with it,” Hoyer said, “I think that it takes away some of those different viewpoints.”

To ensure everyone stays safe and puts the league in the best position to complete a season, MLB needs strict adherence to its protocols.

“I think that's one of our goals and one of the things that we feel is vital is that we have to make sure everyone views this the same way, because we can't have a subset of people within our group that don't view it with the same severity,” Hoyer said.

“That’s not gonna work. We're not gonna be successful."