Cubs proving they have the right kind of fight


Cubs proving they have the right kind of fight

The Cubs may not have proved themselves to be playoff contenders yet, not with a team four games over .500 that’s still prone to mistakes.

But in playing close games against established contenders in Washington and Kansas City over the last week at Wrigley Field, they’ve proved something else — at least to themselves.

“Listen man, you have to love the fight,” manager Joe Maddon said after David Ross’ 11th inning walk-off bloop single earned the Cubs a 2-1 win over Kansas City Sunday. “If you’re standing or sitting in the captain’s chair and you have a bunch of guys who can fight like that, what else could you possibly want? We’re not going to be perfect every night, we’re going to mistakes, of course we are. But if you have that kind of fight, I’ll take it.”

[MORE: Cubs: Joe Maddon embraces loss of September off day]

The Cubs won two of those five games against the Nationals and Royals, but weren’t blown out in any of them. A 3-0 loss on May 27 to Washington was largely the doing of Max Scherzer’s mastery, while a four-run loss to Kansas City on Friday was close until Dexter Fowler misjudged a soft line drive in the eighth. And even in that loss Friday, the Cubs battled back from an early deficit and tied things up when Addison Russell homered off lights-out Royals righty Kelvin Herrera.

Maddon characterized the homestead as “not bad,” and it’s worth repeating the Cubs still lost more games than they won on it. But through two months, the Cubs have already played in 24 one-run games, more than any team in baseball.

And in those games, despite an often-suspect defense and inconsistent bullpen, the Cubs are 14-10. That’s helped grow the kind of mentality that the club hopes pays off as the pressure builds over the summer.

“Everyone’s believing more,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “It’s nice. We stayed afloat through April and May, and now we can really take off and that’s what we want to do.”

[RELATED: Blackhawks or Lightning? Joe Maddon conflicted for Stanley Cup Final]

On Sunday, the Cubs fell behind 1-0 and had to find a way to scratch across a run as Yordano Ventura’s 100 mile per hour fastball and electric arsenal of offspeed pitches cleaved through the batting order. But after a seemingly-innocuous one-out walk and a wild pitch in the seventh, Chris Coghlan — who had three of the Cubs’ four hits off Ventura — laced a game-tying single to left.

The Cubs were poised to break through in the ninth inning off Royals reliever Wade Davis, who hadn’t allowed a run all season. But with runners on the corners and one out, David Ross was unable to successfully lay down a safety squeeze, instead bunting into an out at first and ultimately stranding Rizzo at third as the game careened into extra innings.

But Ross came back in the 11th and blooped a Jason Frasor changeup between left fielder Alex Gordon and shortstop Alcides Escobar in left for a walk-off single.

“Luckily I drove that ball in the gap right there at the end,” Ross smiled.

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“… This was a tough homestand as far as playing really good competition and I thought we were in every game,” he said. “We believe we have a good team here, guys have a lot of confidence and they don’t give up. That’s the one thing about this team that has been really great to see these guys compete night in and night out.”

While Maddon said after the Cubs’ loss Friday his team wasn’t ready to compete for a World Series — as the Royals did in 2014 — he has seen the kind of signs from his players that make him believe they could get to that point this season. The Cubs aren’t where they need to be in terms of the concepts Maddon wants them to have nailed down, but what he sees his team have team has is that nebulous fighting spirit that any playoff contender ultimately needs.

“Once you get that engrained in the fabric of your culture, all of a sudden it can become the fabric of the day,” Maddon said. “Obviously Kansas City has that, Tampa Bay had it, I believe we got it. It’s there to be nurtured. It’s right there.”

Cubs Mailbag: Will Kris Bryant play more at third or in the outfield next year?


Cubs Mailbag: Will Kris Bryant play more at third or in the outfield next year?

Some guys pump iron with personal trainers, eat kale salads and recoup in cryotherapy machines to make room for the gluttony of the holidays. Not me. I'm getting into shape for Thanksgiving the old fashioned way - by carrying the weight of some heavy questions from Cubs fans. So, strap on the old feedbag and let's dig right in.

Q: Do you think the Cubs get Harper? - @intensify

Luke Stuckmeyer: First of all, way to intensify the situation. This question might be in every Cubs mailbag we have until Harper finally finds a home. I'll give you my best guess. Bryce can really mash some taters and the Cubs could obviously use another big bat from the left side. I just don't think they are going to dive *that* deep into the holiday spirit. I'll say 75/25 that he ends up somewhere else. I think another team trying to make a splash will spend an insane amount of money to make Harper the face of their franchise. The Cubs already have three of those players in Bryant, Rizzo and Baez.

Q: Will we see Kris Bryant as a 3rd baseman or in the outfield next season? - @kimsrad

LS: Yes and yes. I think Joe Maddon will use Kris Bryant in both places. Expect the Cubs to have a more consistent batting order next year, but the lineup flexibility will continue in the field. I do think Bryant will play more game in LF than he will at 3B. The Cubs have always envisioned this is where Bryant might eventually end up at some point. I'd like to see former Cubs prospect Josh Donaldson return to the franchise via free agency for a few years and let Bryant take over full-time in left. We'll see how free agency unfolds, but regardless I see more outfield games for KB moving forward.

Q: What do you consider more important, a good top of the lineup hitter or a lockdown closer? - @tscott119

LS: Great question! In my opinion these are the two most important needs for the roster this offseason. I'll vote for the closer because a good dessert is always more important to a great meal than a good appetizer. A true lockdown closer helps shorten the game in the postseason and with Morrow's injury concerns, I want to see the bullpen beefed up. Help the starters by shortening the game. That said, leadoff hitter is still the second most important area of need on this team. The Cubs have been trying to find an answer to this riddle since Dexter Fowler left. So, I'd like a helping of each this offseason.

Q: Are the Cubs going to bring Jesse Chavez back? I sure hope so! #Cubs - @LindsTeach1386

LS: This goes perfectly with the last question. "Build the Bullpen" would be one of my themes of the winter and Chavez was terrific in Cubs uniform with a 1.15 ERA. He throws strikes and the Cubs also need that from relievers, too. He's told teammates that if he's not wearing a Cubs uniform next season he hang up the cleats after 11 seasons. I think he'll be back and it shouldn't be "too expensive."

Q: I'm asking Santa for a Schwarber jersey for Christmas. Does the big guy in the red suit need to put in a good for Schwarbs? #Cubs - @mommymack23

LS: For the record, I think Kap usually wears blue suits. I'd ask for the shirsey. Schwarber's name will be mentioned a lot this winter.

Q: Has this era of Cubs players peaked? - @spiceycentipede3

LS: I don't think so. It will be tough to ever top an historic 2016, but I believe there are more championships in this core group. This is still a young team and a healthy Kris Bryant can completely change the lineup. Now, let's see if Javy can take another step after an outstanding season and if Willson Contreras can bounce back as the best catcher in the NL. Theo preaches that player development isn't always linear in baseball. I hope he's right!

Well, that's six questions. One for every heaping helping that this turkey plans to take down on Thanksgiving. Thanks for all the great questions. Have a great and safe holiday next week. 

How Cubs will determine if this is the time to sell — or hold — stock on young players

How Cubs will determine if this is the time to sell — or hold — stock on young players

Do the Cubs envision Ian Happ as a vital piece of their future or the organization's best trade asset?

What about Kyle Schwarber? Albert Almora Jr.? Victor Caratini? 

We might not get surefire answers to these questions this winter, but we'll at least get an indication in a pivotal offseason for this quartet. (The Cubs already know what they have with their other young position players apart from maybe Willson Contreras, but it's nearly impossible to find another catcher in the same stratosphere as Contreras in terms of physical tools and potential).

The Cubs are at a crossroads of sorts with the development of these four players (and others) as they try to retool for another run at a championship in 2019 after a disappointing end to 2018. There's urgency for production in the lineup and not simply potential and the growing pains that coincide with young players.

So how do the Cubs determine if they should sell stock on players like Happ, Schwarber or Almora when it's still unknown who — or what — they are as players?

"Through evaluation and through a lot of discussion with our most trusted evaluators and the people around the players every day," Theo Epstein said last week at the GM Meetings. "And through conversations with the players, too. Honest discussions about their weaknesses.

"I don't want to generalize, but many players follow a path where they come up from the minor leagues and have some immediate success and as the league finds out more about them, the league makes an adjustment. I've never seen a major-league environment that's more ruthless than the one that exists today. We're going right to a player's weakness, quickly finding it, exploiting it and staying there until they adjust back.

"You have to have honest conversations about the area where players need to improve in order to have the types of careers that they want to have in order to help us win the way they want to help us win. And seeing how players react to that and the plans they come up with and the work ethic to make those adjustments and the trace record to make those adjustments — all that stuff really matters."

We know the Cubs don't operate with any "untouchables" (as was reiterated in a very high-profile way over the last week), but that's also all about how important the word value is.

The Cubs have zero interest in selling low on guys like Schwarber, Almora or Happ because those are three players they've held conviction on for years as first-round draft picks to top prospects to impact players in the big leagues. 

But it's also entirely possible another team around the league values Schwarber more than the Cubs do and offer Epstein's front office a deal that's too hard to pass up. Sure, Schwarber's 2018 was something of a disappointment, but he also drastically increased his walk rate, cut down on strikeouts and improved his defense. Oh yeah, and he'll still only be 26 in March.

We could run the same exercise for Almora, Happ and Caratini, but the main takeaway here is that the evaluations of these players are incomplete as they're still very young/inexperienced with potential.

But if the Cubs trade any of those three guys this winter, it's not necessarily an indication of doom for the player. It's more about finding the right time to pull the trigger.

"That's the nature of it," Epstein said. "Trades happen in this game. A lot of times when trades are made, it doesn't mean you've completely given up on a player. A lot of trades are more about what you're receiving back than what you're giving up in the first place."

There's also value for the Cubs in not necessarily selling one of those young players but choosing to get a little more veteran and diverse with a lineup that "broke" in the second half, as Epstein described it.

Due to the inexperience and youth, the Cubs lineup was more prone to slumps. That was highlighted by the trade for (and subsequent playing time of) Daniel Murphy in August. When the veteran hitter was acquired, the Cubs initially intended to utilize him to help augment the lineup on a fairly regular basis, but with the struggles around him, they instead needed to lean on Murphy to play essentially every day.

When it comes down to it, the Cubs just want production — no matter where it comes from.

"We're setting out to add to the personnel, so I guess in that sense, if we come back with the status quo, it means there are a couple things out there that we would've lovd to have done that we couldn't, but that happens," Epstein said. "But I think ultimately, we should be held accountable for our performance, not for the amount of change in the names. And we will be. This group will be.

"In order to keep this thing going with the realities of the business and what happens as players move through the service time structure and escalating salaries and everything else, the time for that talent to translate into performance is now to get the absolute most out of this group. Or else we're going to be looking at some hard realities and the need for a lot of change going forward."