Cubs

Cubs hope Jorge Soler can again be the hitter who crushed St. Louis last October

Cubs hope Jorge Soler can again be the hitter who crushed St. Louis last October

ST. LOUIS – When the playoff ride finally ended for the Cubs last October, Jorge Soler told Dave Martinez: “This is the guy I want to be. This is the guy I should be.”

The St. Louis Cardinals witnessed that monster performance in the National League divisional round, watching Soler become the first player in major-league history to reach base safely in his first nine postseason plate appearances.  

This is what the Cubs envisioned when they won the bidding war in the summer of 2012 and finalized a nine-year, $30 million major-league contract: Soler hitting two homers, driving in four runs and drawing six walks in those four pressure-packed games against the Cardinals.  

As manager Joe Maddon’s bench coach, Martinez has to put out fires in the clubhouse, use his bilingual skills and sometimes tell players what they might not want to hear.

In this case, Martinez recalled this week at Busch Stadium, “I (told Soler): ‘Absolutely, no question.’ The next thing you got to ask yourself is: ‘Why?’

“That’s what we’re doing now with him, making sure that he understands that you are that guy. There’s no ‘can’ or ‘will.’ You are that guy. Believe it – and that guy will happen.” 

The Cubs are going with positive reinforcement after Kyle Schwarber’s season-ending knee injuries created an opportunity in left field for Soler, who admitted he drifted at times before finding a higher level of concentration during the playoffs.      

“He’s getting there,” Maddon said. “His focus is improving. He’s understanding what it takes to be a regular player on the major-league level. The talent is prodigious. We all know that. But he needs to understand the mental side of this thing. And he’s working very hard at it. I give him credit.”  

There are certain matchups where the Cubs will sit Soler and Maddon likes to keep everyone involved anyway. The breaks might help keep Soler healthy after a series of injuries limited him to only 151 minor-league games between 2012 and 2014. 

Maddon also sees Matt Szczur as a late-inning defensive replacement for Soler, who isn’t quite comfortable making plays at the wall and sometimes gets caught in between, not sure when to stay back and when to charge the ball.      

Soler – who had a reputation for being a patient hitter with a plan as an amateur player coming out of Cuba – is hitting .200 (8-for-40) with two homers and six walks against 11 strikeouts through 14 games.

“The biggest thing for him is accepting his walks,” Martinez said. “If he starts doing that consistently, we really feel like he’s going to hit and the power’s going to come. People see him and they (project) with that tremendous physique. But in reality, he’s still very young (24) and he’s learning.

“He’s got so much potential to do so many different things. We’re just excited that he’s actually now really focusing on taking his walks and swinging at pitches that he can hit.”

The Cardinals know what that could mean if Soler gets locked in again hitting behind Dexter Fowler, Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist, Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.  

“(When) you talk about the way (our) lineup is – the relentless at-bats – that’s a mental component,” Maddon said. “That’s not physical. You can stay in the cage as long as you want – or take as many swings as you want – that ain’t gonna matter. 

“It’s about what you’re thinking and those are really well-thought-out at-bats by our group. And we got to get George (going) because he’s very capable of that. We’ve seen it in the past.

“If we get him there with those really strong mental at-bats, the sky’s the limit for him.”

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

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USA TODAY

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

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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

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