Cubs ignoring outside negativity after recent rough stretch

Cubs ignoring outside negativity after recent rough stretch

Joe Maddon's message for the Cubs entering the season's second half won't be turned into a T-shirt anytime soon.

"Ignore the outside negativity" doesn't have quite the same ring to it as "embrace the target."

After a stretch in which the Cubs won just six games out of 21 in the three weeks leading up to the All-Star Break, Maddon and Co. insist there's no panic, especially after a much-needed four-day break.

"The only people that are panicking about this team is the media," Anthony Rizzo said. "No offense to [the media], but all the comments coming out of everybody's mouth has been pretty negative except in this clubhouse. We feel great. Everyone feels great to be back together. We're ready to go."

Rizzo is in his fifth season in Chicago and has endured a 100-loss season with the Cubs, so he isn't surprised at the panic in the market.

"I just think it's July whatever the date is and you need stories to write about and what better story to write about than why are the Cubs struggling?" he said. "The only people that are worried about it are outsiders, not what's going on inside this clubhouse."

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Maddon took a more measured approach in response to the recent negativity surrounding the team with baseball's best run differential (+139), saying it makes for better TV and newspaper stories to blow a tough stretch out of proportion. Maddon also thinks it's a fan's right to panic or ride the emotional roller coaster.

The Cubs manager chooses to look at the glass half-full, admitting he gladly would have taken a seven-game lead in the division to kick off the second half if the current scenario was proposed to him in spring training.

"What really matters — and I try to get this point across to [the players] from Day 1 in spring training two years in a row now — I've always believed in the 'circle the wagons' theory," Maddno said. "In other words, it really doesn't matter what's coming from outside to within. It really matters what's happening from within — the clubhouse itself, ownership, front office, coaches, etc.

"The noise coming from outside, that's necessary. It can serve as motivation. It's also fans just being fans who show up and pay money and permit us to do this wonderful thing called playing baseball. I think it's about how you channel all that.

"...It's like any other job, man. What's coming from outside to in; you should feel confident knowing that what you're doing is the right thing. From our perspective, I believe the work's great, the caring's great, the effort's great. All that stuff is in place, so that's all we can control."

Maddon has spent his entire adult life in professional baseball, but said he has never felt as tired and worn out heading into an All-Star Break as he did this season playing 24 games in 24 days.

"Understand how this happened," Maddon said. "We got off to that wonderful start and then there's really reasons why maybe we backed off a little bit prior to the break. Now we've caught our breath, we're still looking to get 100 percent well and we have a lot of confidence we're going to have a really nice run in this second half."

Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein actually sees the team's stretch as a good thing — a way to rise above adversity.

"That's what defines a baseball team is how it responds to adversity that crops up during the season," Epstein said. "That's what defines a baseball player — not when he's going well — but how locked in is he, how does he respond after he goes through a slump? Same thing for teams.

"This is a good opportunity for us to show what we're all about. I think that sort of internal response and adjustment is more significant than whatever the public narrative might be. I don't think people in this organization attach too much meaning to it.

"When we were 25-6 and the media was asking us questions about how we balance players getting their rest and going for the all-time wins record, I attached zero meaning to that and called BS on the questions. The same way if I think that people are getting too down on us when we're not playing well or falsely call us out for stuff, I'll call BS on that, too.

"I just think all that matters is how we respond to that adversity and how we handle that success, not what's being said about us at the time."

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Epstein said the Cubs are focused on getting back to the level they were at coming out of spring training before getting off to that record-breaking start.

"It's undeniable that we didn't play well for a long stretch of time," he said. "So once you go through that as a club, then you know it's possible. So you get to the edge of the abyss, you can stare right in and realize, 'Hey, we're not just gonna rack up the wins because we're good or because we can. We have to go out and earn it.'

"And I think that can be a good thing for a team. The focus that we had when we ended spring training and started Opening Day — how palpable that was — we know we need to tap into that again to get ultimately where we want to get.

"But that's not a surprise. That's life. That's baseball. That's why this season's 162 games long. The season shows you things about yourself that you need to see at times. It's all about how you respond."

Cole Hamels is out to prove the naysayers wrong, whether that's with the Cubs or elsewhere

Cole Hamels is out to prove the naysayers wrong, whether that's with the Cubs or elsewhere

How you evaluate Cole Hamels’ 2019 performance depends on which half of the season you look at.

Hamels was the Cubs’ most reliable starting pitcher through June, putting his name firmly in the conversation to make the All-Star Game. Through his first 17 starts, he held a 2.98 ERA, with 97 strikeouts and 35 walks in 99 2/3 innings.

That 17th start – June 28 against the Reds – represented a turning point for the left-hander, however. After throwing one warmup pitch ahead of the second inning, Hamels took a beeline for the Cubs’ dugout, exiting the game with a left oblique strain.

Hamels quickly detecting the strain was key, as he avoided a more significant injury and only missed one month as a result. However, he never got back to his pre-injury level after returning. In 10 starts, he posted a 5.79 ERA, walking 21 batters in 42 innings as opponents slashed .315/.397/.506 against him.

Which of the two pitchers does Hamels more closely resemble at this point? That’s what teams will have to evaluate this offseason, when the soon-to-be 36-year-old lefty hits free agency for the first time in his career.

On top of his oblique strain, Hamels also missed a start in September with left shoulder fatigue. By the time he returned, the Cubs were eliminated from postseason contention, but he wanted one last chance to show what he’s capable of before free agency.

“I don’t want to put that in the back of teams’ heads of how I finished,” Hamels said the day before his final start of the season. “I think I’m capable of what I was able to do in the first half - that’s who I am - and I can still get those good results for hopefully [the Cubs], if they consider that.

“But also, for other teams to know that I’m not the type of player that’s on the regression. This is what we’re gonna expect. It’s more so what I was able to do in the first half - the type of player that I am and the results that I can get out on the field.”

He certainly backed those words up, shutting down the Cardinals – who hadn’t clinched the NL Central yet – in the second-to-last game of the regular season. Hamels pitched four innings, allowing no runs on just two hits.

Hamels looked stellar in that game, but it doesn’t change the fact that returning from an extended injury absence isn’t easy on pitchers. They need time to regain command of their pitches, plus any amount of arm strength lost during their time on the shelf.

Hamels made two rehab starts at Triple-A before rejoining the Cubs on Aug. 3. He was determined not to return too quickly, as he did so with the Rangers in 2017 after straining his right oblique. That wound up negatively affecting him the rest of the season.

Still, maybe one or two more rehab starts this time around would’ve served him well, though he felt that he could compete at the majors without his best stuff. Plus, it’s not like he was guaranteed to find his groove again by pitching in more minor league games.

Results are all that matter in the big leagues, however, and they show that while the Cubs starting rotation was okay, it wasn’t the difference maker capable of leading the team to October, as anticipated. Cubs starters finished the season with a 4.18 ERA, 10th in MLB and sixth in the National League.

Hamels’ post-injury woes played into those numbers, and he’s determined to bounce back in 2020 to prove his second half performance was a fluke. His first half showed that he still can pitch at a high-level, but he may not be in the Cubs’ plans for next season, regardless.

"There was some injury and regression (especially after injury) that led us to be closer to the pack certainly than we had envisioned,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said of the team’s rotation at his end-of-season press conference. “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.”

Those comments seem to indicate that Hamels won’t be back next season. The Cubs have Adbert Alzolay, Tyler Chatwood and Alec Mills as internal rotation options for 2020 and could look outside the organization for more. Hamels also made $20 million in 2019, so freeing up his salary would help the Cubs address other roster needs.

The Cubs could do a lot worse than having a healthy Cole Hamels in their rotation, though. He’s enjoyed a resurgence since the Cubs acquired him and has had plenty of success against the NL Central and at Wrigley Field overall during his career:

vs. Brewers: 20 starts, 8-5, 3.53 ERA
vs. Cardinals: 17 starts, 5-6, 2.21 ERA
vs. Pirates: 13 starts, 5-4 record, 2.52 ERA
vs. Reds: 20 starts, 11-2 record. 2.30 ERA
at Wrigley Field: 25 starts, 7-4 record, 2.20 ERA

Granted, a large portion of those starts came earlier in his career. But with how competitive the NL Central was in 2019 and will be in 2020, the results can’t be ignored.

“Obviously I do very well at Wrigley, so I hope that’s a consideration - I love to be able to pitch there,” Hamels said about the Cubs possibly re-signing him. “For some reason, it’s just the energy and I’ve mentioned it before, it’s baseball to me. And that’s what I really feed off of and that’s hopefully what they think about.”

But if the Cubs decide to part ways with Hamels, he’ll have his fair share of suitors. The Brewers and Reds each could benefit from adding starting pitching this offseason, and Hamels would bring a ton of experience to two squads that will be competing for postseason spots in 2020.

“Otherwise, I know the other teams in the division are gonna think about it,” Hamels said with a laugh. “If you have to come to Wrigley three different times [as an opponent], I don’t pitch bad there.

“I just want to win. I think that’s it. When you get the taste of it early and then you don’t have it for a while, that’s what you’re striving for. To play this game and in front of sellouts and the energy and the expectation of winning, it’s why I enjoy the game.

“That’s what I want to be able to continue to do for the few years I have left.”

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Javy Baez is now the face of baseball

Javy Baez is now the face of baseball

Javy Baez is one step closer to becoming the unquestioned face of Major League Baseball.

For the next year, El Mago will be the cover boy for video-game-playing baseball fans, as Baez announced on his Twitter Monday morning he is gracing the cover of MLB The Show 2020:

On the eve of Game 1 of the World Series, Playstation released a video depicting why they chose Baez as the new face of the game:

Last year's cover featured Bryce Harper, announced before he even signed with the Phillies. 

Baez also joins the likes of Aaron Judge, Ken Griffey Jr., Chipper Jones, Barry Bonds and David Ortiz as cover athletes for the PS4 game.

The 26-year-old Baez has become one of the most recognizable figures in the game, playing with a flair and swag that includes mind-bending baserunning maneuvers and impossible defensive plays. 

Case in point:

Baez missed the final month of the 2019 season with a fractured thumb, but still put up 29 homers and 85 RBI while ranking second on the team in WAR. In 2018, he finished second in NL MVP voting while leading the league in RBI (111) and topping the Cubs in most offensive categories. 

Theo Epstein said he never deems any player as "untouchable," but Baez is about as close as it gets for this Cubs team right now. He made the switch to shortstop full time this year and wound up with elite defensive numbers to go along with his fearsome offense and an attitude and mindset the rest of the Cubs hope to emulate.

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