Cubs

Cubs put the pressure back on Cardinals with Jake Arrieta up next

10-10-fowler-soler-cubs.png

Cubs put the pressure back on Cardinals with Jake Arrieta up next

ST. LOUIS – You should already know this by now, but these aren’t the same old Cubs. They might be too young and too inexperienced to win it all this year, but don’t pretend they’re too tight or too tense to wreck the St. Louis Cardinals’ playoff hopes.   

The tortured-history stuff and handle-the-pressure storylines are tired now, good space-fillers for the national media, but not really rooted in reality anymore.     

The Cubs escaped Busch Stadium with a split after Saturday’s 6-3 Game 2 victory, the end of a champagne-soaked road trip that saw them beat the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League wild-card game and grab the momentum in this historic best-of-five division series.    

“We don’t plan on coming back here,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “We can’t. We plan on playing a good game on Monday. Obviously, we’re very confident. But we want to do this now.”

[MORE: Cubs capitalize on Cardinals mistakes, even up NLDS]

Cardinal Nation had already been looking for the flaws beneath a 100-win team, and now the St. Louis lineup will have to deal with a modern-day Bob Gibson on Monday at Wrigley Field.

Jake Arrieta is ready and waiting for Game 3, and it’s been 11 weeks since the Cubs lost a “Snake” start, when it took Cole Hamels throwing a no-hitter for the Philadelphia Phillies.

Did all the pressure just shift back onto the Cardinals?

“It’s going to be a tough task,” Arrieta said. “But the same goes for us. This is kind of what we envisioned at the start of the season. And now we’re here.”

At times, the Cardinals looked like the Cubs during the dark days of the rebuild – rattled, indecisive, in a hurry. This is how the Cardinals beat teams inside Busch Stadium, playing small ball when necessary, pouncing on mistakes and staying cool under pressure. 

Jaime Garcia’s brain freeze led to five unearned runs in the second inning. The Game 2 starter fielded Kyle Hendricks’ sacrifice bunt, turned away from the play at home plate and threw wildly to first base, maybe giving Cubs fans Matt Garza flashbacks. 

Garcia ultimately left the game after two innings with what the Cardinals called a stomach virus, creating more questions about an iffy rotation that’s already been hit with injuries.

[RELATED: Cubs reaping the benefits of Manny Ramirez's influence on Jorge Soler

The Cubs are still a flawed, interesting team without much margin for error in the postseason. But they have the perfect manager in Joe Maddon, who always uses his pregame news conferences to send messages to his team, believing his words filter back into the clubhouse.   

“The fans should always worry,” Maddon said before Game 2, repeating back the end of the question. “It’s always the prerogative of a fan to worry. I absolutely believe in that. That’s what barrooms are for. That’s what little forums are for online in this 21st-century stuff. The fans should always worry. I’m always about fans worrying. Go ahead and worry as much as you’d like.

“From our perspective, we have to just go out and play the game like we always do. I’m here to tell you, man, I just can’t live that way. The line I’ve used is I don’t vibrate at that frequency. It has nothing to do with anything. It really doesn’t.” 

It’s not like the Cardinals – with those 11 World Series titles and so much muscle memory in the postseason – will concede anything against Arrieta or fold because the Cubs manager enjoys being The Most Interesting Man in the World in the interview room.

But the Cubs won’t get down if the Cardinals take an early lead in Game 3 or played scared if they do have to come back here for a do-or-die situation on Thursday at Busch Stadium.  

“The process is fearless,” Maddon said. “If you want to always live your life just based on the outcome, you’re going to be fearful a lot. And when you’re doing that, you’re really not living in a particular moment.

“I’m 60, I’ll be 80, and if by the time I’m 80 20 years from now I’ve just been worried about outcomes, I’m going to miss a lot. So you’ve really got to get involved in the process. And from our players’ perspective, that’s all I talk about. I’ve not even mentioned about winning one time to these guys during this whole time.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!] 

“It’s just about…if you take care of the seconds, the minutes, the hours in a day take care of themselves. So for our fans back home, please go ahead and be worried. That’s OK. But understand that from our perspective in the clubhouse, we’re more worried about the process than the outcome.”

Think it will be loud in Wrigleyville on Monday? After sitting through five straight fifth-place seasons and paying some of the highest ticket prices in baseball, Cubs fans haven’t watched a home playoff game in seven years. 

The Cubs haven’t won a playoff game at Wrigley Field since the beginning of the 2003 NLCS against the Florida Marlins. 

The Cubs have been playing at Clark and Addison since 1916 and have never clinched a playoff series at Wrigley Field.

“Well, there’s never been a team like this before,” Rizzo said. “We have something here – something special – so we just got to keep it going.”

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

bryant-1114.jpg
USA TODAY

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."