Cubs

Cubs had to think big to keep up with National League elite

theo-epstein-cubs-1-17-16.png

Cubs had to think big to keep up with National League elite

Could the Cubs win 90 games and still be sitting home in October?

The Cubs understood there would be no sneaking up on anyone or sneaking into the playoffs this year. There are no guarantees in a National League where so many teams are focused on either going all-in to win a World Series in 2016 — or writing off big-league seasons to build for the future, the way the Cubs and Houston Astros reconstructed their franchises.

Super Bowl 50 is over, which means attention will soon shift to pitchers and catchers reporting to Florida and Arizona, where the Cubs will be hyped as a World Series favorite.

The Cubs don’t believe their window is closing — the way the Denver Broncos did with Peyton Manning — but there is still a sense of urgency to win now. The Cubs don’t have a move-the-needle star quite like Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, but they think they have the right mix of big personalities needed for a championship-caliber team.

“The dynamics of the National League this year will mean that it will take a lot of wins to make the playoffs,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “We know that.”

The Cubs committed more than $276 million to outfielder Jason Heyward, second baseman Ben Zobrist, pitcher John Lackey and swingman Trevor Cahill, leading the majors in spending on free agents this winter, according to ESPN’s tracker.

[MORE: Cubs, Jake Arrieta agree to $10.7 million deal, avoid arbitration]

Of the next 11 biggest spenders on that list, seven are NL teams, including the San Francisco Giants, Arizona Diamondbacks, Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Mets, St. Louis Cardinals, Miami Marlins and Washington Nationals.

The Cubs also can’t dismiss the Pittsburgh Pirates, an exemplary small-market team coming off a 98-win season and their third consecutive playoff appearance. President of baseball operations Theo Epstein understood nothing could be taken for granted after the Mets swept the Cubs out of the NL Championship Series.

“There are many great teams — great, not just good — in the National League,” Epstein said during his state-of-the-team press conference in October. “The Cardinals aren’t going anywhere. They haven’t for a hundred years. They won 100 games. They have a pretty young core.

“Pittsburgh has had three outstanding seasons in a row and have the building blocks in place to be good for a really long time. The Giants are three-time World Series champs (since 2010) and I’m sure are going to add a number of key pieces this winter.

“The Dodgers are extremely talented and extremely rich. They’re not going anywhere. The Nationals’ window hasn’t necessarily ended at all. They’re still really, really good and I’m sure will bounce back.

“The Mets — if they can keep their rotation healthy and performing the way it is now — are going to be dangerous as can be for a long period of time.”

At the same time, FanGraphs projects the Milwaukee Brewers, Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves will be the three worst teams in the majors, forecasting between 91 and 95 losses, with negative run differentials ranging from -97 to -126.

FanGraphs also predicts the Colorado Rockies, Cincinnati Reds and San Diego Padres will be bottom-third teams, finishing with around 86 losses this season.

“Obviously, you don’t want to have too many teams in a rebuilding cycle at one time in one league, and I accept that,” Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred told ESPN.com for a column headlined “The odd and troubling state of the National League.”

“But the fact of the matter is, when you have 30 teams, it’s not unusual that you have five or six in a rebuilding cycle. I think if you look back historically, that would not be a number that’s out of line.”

So far, the Reds, Brewers and Phillies haven’t spent a penny on a major-league free agent this offseason. Combined, the Cubs will play the Reds and Brewers 38 times this season as those small-market teams try to follow the tanking blueprint and collect as many long-term assets as possible.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Since July, the Reds and Brewers have traded away Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, Todd Frazier, Aroldis Chapman, Carlos Gomez, Mike Fiers, Aramis Ramirez, Jonathan Broxton, Gerardo Parra, Francisco Rodriguez, Adam Lind and Jean Segura.

The Cubs will have to capitalize on those big-league talent drains in Cincinnati and Milwaukee, knowing 97 wins was only good enough for third place in the Central last season.

“It’s an incredibly competitive landscape in the National League, and that motivates us,” Epstein said. “There are some years you can just sit back and say: ‘Ah, you know, there aren’t that many great opportunities to get better. Let’s take our chances. Let’s build a team that can win between 86 and 88 games and we’ll find ourselves in the wild-card mix and maybe we can improve during the course of the season and see where we (are at).’

“Now, with what’s going on in the National League, it’s a better approach (to) say: ‘Hey, in order to compete with teams just in our division — like the Cardinals and Pirates — we have to try to attain a really high standard. We have to put ourselves in a position where we have a chance to be great. So that we can win the division and not have to go through the coin flip of the wild-card game.’

“Certainly, we need to raise the bar as far as the type of team we want to build and the path to being a great club — not just a good club.”

Joe Maddon wants Cubs fans to cheer for Gleyber Torres and Eloy Jimenez

Joe Maddon wants Cubs fans to cheer for Gleyber Torres and Eloy Jimenez

Why can't a trade be looked at as a win-win? 

There doesn't always have to be a clear winner and loser.

Prior to Jose Quintana taking the ball for Saturday's game against the San Francisco Giants at Wrigley Field, Joe Maddon was asked about the players (Eloy Jimenez, Dylan Cease) the Cubs gave up to acquire Quintana as well as the deal with the Yankees for Aroldis Chapman in July 2016.

Gleyber Torres is absolutely killing it in New York, hitting .323 with a 1.014 OPS, 9 homers and 24 RBI in only 29 games. Six of those homers have come in the last week alone. 

With the White Sox, both Jimenez and Cease have found success in Double-A and Advanced Class-A, respectively.

Jimenez is hitting .331 with a .992 OPS, 9 homers and 35 RBI in 35 games. Cease is 6-2 with a 2.83 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and 57 strikeouts in 47.2 innings.

As the Cubs work to get their offense settled into a consistent groove, some Cubs fans have been looking at what might've been with guys like Torres and Jimenez.

"You can't have it both ways, man," Maddon said. "I'm happy for Gleyber. When he left, we talked about it. And we talked about the kids that went to the White Sox. It's good stuff. 

"I'm really disappointed if anybody's disappointed in the fact we won the World Series in 2016 and the fact that the guy we're talking about that we had to give up Gleyber for was so instrumental in that happening. That's bad process if you're gonna get stuck on something like that. Be happy for Gleyber. Be happy for him."

Maddon has been a fan of Torres' since he saw him in spring training in 2015, Maddon's first year in the Cubs organization.

"This kid's 21, with high, high baseball intellect," Maddon said. "He's very similar to Javy on the field. I've had some great conversations with him in the past. 

"The first time I saw him in spring training, I thought this guy's for real. It was like one at-bat, line drive to RF, I said who is this guy? And then you have a conversation with him. He's solid."

Maddon's point is a great one — would Cubs fans prefer to still have Torres and NOT have the 2016 World Series championship? Because that title doesn't happen without Chapman, regardless of how you feel about him as a person or what the Cubs had to give up to acquire him.

"Don't play that game," Maddon said. "Be happy for [Torres]. I'm gonna be happy when Eloy and Dylan make it up here. All these dudes, I want them to get here and be really good. And the guys that we get, I want them to be really good. 

"I don't understand why somebody's gotta lose all the time. This is an absolute classic example of what was good for both teams."

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 12th + 13th homers in 1998

sammy_sosa_1998_wrigley_hr.jpg
AP

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 12th + 13th homers in 1998

It's the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Sammy, when Sosa and Mark McGwire went toe-to-toe in one of the most exciting seasons in American sports history chasing after Roger Maris' home run record. All year, we're going to go homer-by-homer on Sosa's 66 longballs, with highlights and info about each. Enjoy.

An off-day did nothing to slow down the 1998 National League MVP as Sosa collected his second straight 2-homer game May 27 of that season.

He went deep in the eighth and ninth innings of a Cubs' 10-5 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies at Wrigley Field, driving in 3 runs. 

The first homer - off Darrin Winston - was an absolute blast, traveling an estimated 460 feet. The second shot was tame in comparison with only 400 feet as a recorded distance.

In a matter of two games, Sosa raised his season OPS from .930 to .988 and his slugging percentage from .521 to .577 thanks to a pair of 2-homer contests.

Fun fact: Doug Glanville - former Cubs outfielder and current NBC Sports Chicago analyst - was the Phillies leadoff hitter that day in 1998, collecting three hits and scoring a pair of runs.