Cubs

Cubs need to step up their defensive game

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Cubs need to step up their defensive game

SAN DIEGO — The Cubs will eventually have to figure out how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together.

How long do you keep Starlin Castro at shortstop? Does Javier Baez become trade bait or a core player (at shortstop, second base or third base)? Do you move Kris Bryant off third base to left field? Or will Kyle Schwarber have to play there if the catching experiment doesn’t work?

Addison Russell is a natural shortstop learning how to play second base. He’s 21 years old, the second-youngest player in the National League, with broad shoulders and big legs that made one rival scout wonder if he will outgrow the middle infield.

What seems obvious is the Cubs aren’t good enough to keep having these defensive breakdowns and become real contenders this season.

[MORE CUBS: Cubs could shake things up with Javier Baez and Kris Bryant]

“We’ve given too many games away this year,” manager Joe Maddon said, “whether it’s pitches out of the bullpen or (our) defense. We got to tighten it up all the way around.

“That’s how you stay hot. That’s how you really get to that record where you go from five over to 10 over to 15 over .500. You got to get to those numbers. And you got to play a complete game nightly to accomplish those goals.”

Maddon likes to say he comes from The Land of Run Prevention. The Tampa Bay Rays did it with pitching and defense and on a small-market budget.

The Cubs are making sacrifices while breaking in rookies and trying to generate more offense, building their team around a younger generation of power hitters. Defensive stats can also be inherently flawed or misleading, representing a next frontier in the age of Big Data.

[MORE CUBS: Cubs should be in position to make much bigger moves]

But even in giving all those concessions, this is still a team with question marks across the board, unless you ignore the eye test and think all the defensive metrics have an anti-Cub bias.

Only four teams in the majors had committed more errors than the Cubs (30) heading into Wednesday, while only three had a worse fielding percentage (.979). In its defensive efficiency ratings, Baseball Prospectus ranked the Cubs at No. 22. This is also a bottom-10 team when it comes to double plays turned.

You couldn’t miss it during Tuesday’s 4-3 loss to the San Diego Padres at Petco Park, where Bryant, Castro and Russell combined for three errors that led to three unearned runs.

“It’s pretty frustrating,” Russell said. “I know the type of baseball I’ve been playing is not the baseball that I’m used to playing (while) being at this new position. But I can’t be so hard on myself. I’m learning how to play second base at the big-league level. So I’m trying to cut myself a break.”

[MORE CUBS: Cubs trade Welington Castillo to Mariners for Yoervis Medina]

All these issues are magnified for a pitching staff working off the basic philosophy of throwing away from slugging percentage, trying to get as many groundballs as possible and using the data to shift defenders into the right positions. The bullpen also has to compensate for a rotation that’s only made 20 quality starts through 38 games.

“It’s about pitches that you make a pitcher throw because you don’t make a play,” Maddon said. “Why are starters able to go more deeply into games? Because you play good defense. That’s not just about errors. It’s about making plays you’re supposed to make.

“When you make plays you’re supposed to make, pitchers throw less pitches, thus they pitch deeper into games. People always talk about pitch counts and all this other kind of crap. It’s about making plays.

“They’re definitely interrelated. They’re connected. So when you make plays, your pitchers pitch more deeply, thus the bullpen gets less stressed. And that’s what we’re shooting for.”

[MORE CUBS: Cubs are seeing The Kris Bryant Effect]

The pitch-framing metrics are kind to Miguel Montero and David Ross and grade out those veteran catchers as good receivers. The Cubs had only thrown out four of 32 runners trying to steal, but the pitchers deserve some blame in that department.

Dexter Fowler has good range and a 2.5 Ultimate Zone Rating after finishing at -21.8 last season with the Houston Astros, but that probably says more about the fleeting nature of defensive statistics than some major breakthrough in center field.

But the defense should inevitably see some improvement across the next several weeks and months as Russell and Bryant gain more experience (and maybe with the addition of Baez from Triple-A Iowa).

“Oh yeah,” Russell said. “It’s new faces this year in this organization here at the big-league level. We’re just going to have to keep communicating, keep working. And we’ll see how that works out for us.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

The Cubs also seem to have the right manager for the job, someone who won’t single out young players and rip them publicly.

“I don’t get bummed out or worried about this,” Maddon said. “Our guys are going to make mistakes. People have to understand that. (But) you got to cover through your offense sometimes.

“Sometimes your pitcher can pitch through a rough moment, too. But I don’t expect these guys to be perfect. I ask them to be present. I don’t ask them to be perfect.”

Forget 2015, the Brewers are more like 2016 Cubs

Forget 2015, the Brewers are more like 2016 Cubs

With the Milwaukee Brewers about to kick off the NLCS, many Cubs fans and pundits have taken to comparing them to the 2015 Cubs.

At first glance, it's easy to see why — they're in the playoffs for the first time as something of an underdog and "surprise" team — but that's not the recent Cubs squad we should be comparing the 2018 Brewers to.

This Milwaukee team is a lot more like the 2016 Cubs.

Here's why:

1. They're not a surprise.

Nobody expected the 2015 Cubs to win 97 games and wind up in the NLCS. They were expected to compete very soon, but everything went right in a red-hot August, they rode Jake Arrieta's right arm to the NLDS and then toppled the Cardinals to get to the LCS, where they ran into the brick wall that was Matt Harvey and and the Mets pitching staff.

The 2018 Brewers are not — and should not be — a surprise. Anybody who was caught off guard by this team being so good hasn't been paying much attention. The Brewers were leading the NL Central in 2017 for much of the year before a late-season fade that coincided with the Cubs' late-season surge.

This Milwaukee squad was always supposed to be one of the top teams in the NL in 2018 and they really hit their groove in September to chase down the Cubs. Still, it took a Game 163 to force a changing of the guard atop the division.

2. They greatly improved expectations with a big free-agent OF signing over the winter.

The Cubs had Jason Heyward in between 2015 and '16. The Brewers had Lorenzo Cain.

Cain has provided quite a bit more offense in the first season of his 5-year, $80 million contract but both Cain and Heyward provided leadership in the clubhouse and elite defense in the outfield in the first years with their new teams.

3. The Brewers have the NL MVP.

This one's an easy comparison to make, though Cubs fans will hate it.

Christian Yelich is this season's NL MVP. Sorry, Javy Baez fans. "El Mago" had a great season, but it's impossible to give the award to anybody but Yelich.

Yelich winning the league's most coveted accolade would be another perfect tie-in to the 2016 Cubs, who had Kris Bryant take home NL MVP.

4. They have a dominant LHP out of the bullpen.

Josh Hader has been doing his best Aroldis Chapman impression in 2018 as an absolutely dominant southpaw out of the bullpen. Unlike Chapman, Hader's spent all season with the Brewers, but like Chapman in '16, Hader will be leaned on heavily for multiple innings throughout the rest of the playoffs.

5. They picked up some valuable in-season assets.

The 2016 Cubs dealt for Chapman, but they also traded for reliever Joe Smith and called up Willson Contreras in the middle of the year, who provided a spark for the offense.

The 2018 Brewers have acquired plenty of valuable assets along the way this season from Mike Moustakas to Jonathan Schoop to Erik Kratz (more on him later) to Gio Gonzalez. But one of their most important additions (especially in October) was the promotion of top prospect Corbin Burnes, a flame-throwing right-hander who posted a 2.61 ERA in 30 regular-season games and allowed only 1 hit in 4 shutout innings in the DS.

6. They're on a mission with a chip on their shoulder.

The 2015 Cubs had a little bit of a chip on their shoulder as they attempted to take down the divisional powerhouse that was the St. Louis Cardinals. But again, they were a surprise contender - even within that clubhouse (especially early in 2015). But after falling short in the NLCS, the Cubs retooled over the winter and came back with one goal in mind - to win the World Series.

It was a goal they accomplished. We'll see if the Brewers will be able to do the same, but they certainly came to play in 2018 with a chip on their shoulder and the ultimate goal of winning the final MLB game of the year.

The Brewers didn't lead the division from Day 1 and weren't able to coast into October, but they still wound up with homefield advantage throughout the NL playoffs.

7. They have journeyman catcher who is winning over fans' hearts.

This is a fun one.

The 2016 Cubs had David "Grandpa" Rossy who still elicts deafening cheers whenever he's shown on the giant video board at Wrigley Field. The 2018 Brewers have Kratz, who has become a fan favorite recently and was mic'd up for the final out of the NLDS.

Ross was 39 when he helped lead the Cubs to the 2016 World Series and Chicago was his eighth stop (seventh different team) along his MLB journey. Kratz is 38 and on his ninth stop (seventh different team) along his MLB journey.

In fact, Ross and Kratz are so intertwined, they've already been compared to each other by MLB.com.

But the major difference is Kratz has zero postseason playing experience until a week ago. Will he be able to ride off into the sunset with a championship ring on his finger the way Ross did?

We'll have an answer to that over the next few weeks in the final chapter of the Brewers' 2018 season, though Cubs fans surely wouldn't be too happy to see their division rivals celebrating with a World Series parade just 90 minutes north of Wrigley Field.

Cubs bench coach Brandon Hyde interviewed for Rangers' manager opening

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USA TODAY

Cubs bench coach Brandon Hyde interviewed for Rangers' manager opening

The Cubs just lost one coach with hitting coach Chili Davis getting fired. Another opening on Joe Maddon's coaching staff could also open up.

According to report from MLB.com's T.R. Sullivan, bench coach Brandon Hyde interviewed with the Rangers on Thursday.

Rangers farm director Jayce Tingler was the first candidate the club interviewed, but Hyde and Astros bench coach Joe Espada were also interviewed.

The 45-year-old Hyde has been with the Cubs since 2014. He was a bench coach in 2014 under Rick Renteria before moving to first base coach from 2015-17. This past season he moved back to his original role as bench coach.

He played four seasons in the minors for the White Sox.

The Rangers job opened up when Jeff Banister was fired on Sept. 21. Banister won AL Manager of the Year in 2015 and guided the Rangers to back-to-back playoff appearances in 2015 and 2016, but couldn't get out of the ALDS either year. A 78-84 season in 2017 was followed by an even worse 2018, which led to his firing late this season.