Cubs

Cubs shouldn’t take their window to contend for granted

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Cubs shouldn’t take their window to contend for granted

The Cubs shouldn’t take their window to contend for granted.

That will mean pouring resources back into the on-field product and restoring the payroll to a big-market level, giving up draft picks to sign free agents, sacrificing precious prospects in win-now trades and not getting too comfortable while everyone tells them how great this team should be.

That’s not being a hater or not understanding The Plan.

The Cubs know they will have to be aggressive across the next five years if they want to keep playing meaningful games in September and producing binge-watching episodes like Tuesday’s huge doubleheader against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park.

Just ask Chris Coghlan – the National League’s 2009 Rookie of the Year with the Florida Marlins – about how fragile this business can be.

Coghlan tore the meniscus in his left knee during a postgame pie-to-the-face celebration in the middle of a TV interview in 2010, got non-tendered after the 2013 season and had to sign a minor-league deal and go to Triple-A Iowa before rebuilding his career with the Cubs.

“It’s very easy for people to just think they’re a genie and that they just know the future,” Coghlan said. “That’s natural, because you look at the pieces, you go: ‘Whoa, we’re good this year and look at this – we have control of X-amount of (players) for the next (several) years.’

“People don’t understand that there are very few people in the game that put up consistent numbers and continually produce and stay healthy.”

As much as the Cubs want to become a bigger, badder version of the St. Louis Cardinals, that franchise is a total outlier with 15 winning seasons since 2000.

Remember how the Washington Nationals laid out the blueprint for a steady, smart rebuild? The Nationals invested $210 million in Max Scherzer, adding a Cy Young Award winner to a 96-win team, only to watch their playoff odds shrink to 0.3 percent by Monday morning on Baseball Prospectus.

“It’s very hard,” Coghlan said. “Look at the Nationals and how many injuries they have. It’s very hard to do (it) consistently like what the Cardinals have done. You have to have a deep farm system. You have to have the right pieces. You got to have professionals. And you have to have really good talent.

“That’s a model for success.”

[MORE: Cubs will take their shot at Pirates in potential playoff preview]

The Cubs will play four games in three days against the Pirates, the team they trail by four games for home-field advantage in the wild-card playoff. Right now, it looks this runway will go on forever, with Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber all potentially under club control through the 2021 season. Javier Baez (age: 22) and Jorge Soler (age: 23) should also have their best years in front of them.

The Cubs might have the best manager in the game (Joe Maddon) and a president of baseball operations who helped build two World Series winners with the Boston Red Sox (Theo Epstein).

If only it was that simple.

With the Cubs “playing stupid” and running at a 93-win pace, the surface-level comparison has been Maddon’s 2008 Tampa Bay Rays, a last-place team the year before that won the American League pennant.

But the postscript to that narrative is the Rays haven’t gone back to the World Series, winning one wild-card game and zero postseason series since then.

“We kept winning 90 games and it’s not a bad thing to do,” Maddon said. “If we could sort of create that same culture here and get into that 90-wins-on-an-annual-basis mindset – and actually do it – what happens is in a shortened five-game series almost anything can happen.

“Sometimes it is a little bit of luck involved. A bounce there, the starting pitching, how it plays. But we’ll take our chance that we could eventually turn into that kind of a team.”

The Nationals converted 100-loss seasons into No. 1 overall picks Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, using trade chips to get a leadoff guy (Denard Span), rebuild their pitching staff (Gio Gonzalez and Doug Fister) and continue augmenting their homegrown core.

Washington overpaid Jayson Werth (seven years, $126 million) to strengthen its lineup and change its clubhouse culture the same way the Cubs overpaid Jon Lester (six years, $155 million) to anchor their rotation and lead by example.

“The Nationals really did everything right,” pitcher Dan Haren said. “But some teams (have) cracks in them that you don’t see at the beginning of the season and they end up showing.”

[MORE: Ready or not, Cubs will find out if bullpen is ready for October]

After the Cubs killed the Carlos Marmol trade with the Los Angeles Angels, Haren signed with a Washington team coming off a 98-win season. The Nationals dropped to 86 wins and out of the playoffs in 2013.

For all of its savvy trades and scouting-and-player-development success stories, Washington hasn’t won a postseason series since shutting down Strasburg in September 2012.

“It should show people that you should never take for granted any time a team gets to the playoffs,” Coghlan said. “We’re not guaranteed we’re going to be back here tomorrow. Because I don’t know if this guy’s going to stay healthy next year and I don’t know if he’s going to put up the same year that he put up this year.

“Everybody just assumes you’re just going to continue to get better and better and better. That’s the hope for everybody. But everybody has a plateau. And nobody knows their plateau.”

Haren pitched for the Cardinals in the 2004 World Series the Red Sox owned. He got back to the playoffs two years later with the Oakland A’s – and hasn’t thrown a pitch in the postseason since then. Even while making 30 starts for a 2012 Angels team that featured Albert Pujols and Mike Trout and finished in third place with 89 wins.

The Los Angeles Dodgers put Haren on a playoff roster last year and watched the Cardinals beat Cy Young/MVP winner Clayton Kershaw twice in a series that only went four games.

Haren will turn 35 on Thursday and is leaning toward retirement after this season – whenever it ends for your 2015 Cubs.

“Every team is different – (this) team is going to look different next year,” Haren said. “Players change. And I think that the best way to look at it is that this is going to be the only time that this group is going to be together. So try to make it as special as you can.”

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

When Ben Zobrist rejoined the Cubs active roster on Sept. 1, it was fair to wonder how much he could provide offensively. After all, he spent the previous four months on the restricted list while tending to a family matter, last playing a big-league game on May 6.

Zobrist did no baseball activities from May to mid-July, only working out to stay in shape. Although he eventually ramped things up, he played in just 12 minor league rehab games in August before returning to the Cubs, a small number compared to the length of his absence.

Even Zobrist admitted upon his big-league return that his timing at the plate wasn’t where he wanted it to be. And yet, what he did in September was nothing short of impressive. In 21 games, he posted a .284/.377/.388 slash line, performing at a level many couldn’t have expected, considering the circumstances.

Zobrist's impact on the Cubs' lineup goes beyond what you see in the box score, however. Not only is he a switch hitter with some pop, but he has a keen eye for the strike zone and frequently puts together professional at-bats.

On a Cubs team that tends to expand the zone, Zobrist’s presence mattered. In his second game back, for example, he went 3-for-3 with two walks, helping the Cubs beat the Brewers 10-5. After the game, Brewers starter Chase Anderson pointed out how different the Cubs' lineup looks with Zobrist in it.

"They play the matchups really well and Zobrist makes that team so much better," Anderson said on Sept. 5. "Just bringing his presence to the top of the lineup, it changes their dynamic a little bit."

Where Zobrist stands entering 2020, though, is currently unclear.

Zobrist is set to hit free agency after the World Series and will turn 39 next May. Therefore, it’s possible that he’s played his last game in the big leagues, as he has little, if anything, left to prove at this stage in his career.

Ahead of the Cubs’ season finale on Sept. 29, Zobrist told reporters in St. Louis that he hasn’t thought about how much time he’ll take before deciding what’s next for him. His family situation will obviously play a big role in his decision, but if September showed anything, it's that he still has something left in the tank.

“I’m 38 but I got that feeling all over again,” Zobrist said following the Cubs’ season finale, a 9-0 loss to the Cardinals in which he pitched a scoreless inning. “Just really fun, you know? It’s a fun game. Sometimes you don’t come out on the winning end, but you still gotta have fun with it and enjoy it. I enjoyed it today."

The Cubs roster is expected to undergo changes this offseason, with center field, second base and the leadoff spot being just a few areas the team will look to address. The latter two spots became revolving doors during Zobrist’s absence, as the Cubs struggled to replace what he brought offensively.

Zobrist is past the point in his career of being an everyday player. However, he still could be a useful asset for the Cubs in a supporting role, bringing his veteran approach to the lineup when he plays while still offering an experienced voice in the clubhouse.

“I take a lot of joy in that role, just being a supporting guy and being a part of winning clubs and part of winning atmospheres and cultures,” Zobrist said on Sept. 29. “The Chicago Cubs have been that since I’ve been around. This year we didn’t make the playoffs — we still have a winning record — (but) the kind of relationships that are built here and the culture that’s been built here is definitely a winning one.”

After the Cubs announced that they wouldn’t retain Joe Maddon for 2020, Zobrist acknowledged that more changes were likely coming in the offseason. Only time will tell what that means for the veteran utilityman — should he continue playing.

Whether he retires or joins a different team for 2020, though, Zobrist will look back on his four seasons with the Cubs fondly.

“(They’re) just the most passionate fans I’ve ever met,” he said of Cubs fans. “They’re very loyal, very passionate and it’s been such a pleasure to be a part of that team that beat the curse back in ’16, so I feel that still, when I see Cubs fans, there’s a lot of them that hug me and thank me for being a part of that.

“I’ll always look back at [my] time here — I don’t know what’s going to happen in the offseason — but look back at these four years and [be] very grateful to be able to be part of a group like this and be able to do what we did while I was here.”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

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USA Today

Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Tony Andracki, Kelly Crull, Scott Changnon and Jeff Nelson give us their memories of Joe Maddon's time with the Cubs and discuss David Ross and Joe Espada's candidacy to be the next manager.

01:30 Kelly's memories of Joe from the perspective of a reporter

06:00 Going back to Hazleton with Joe

07:45 Joe's legacy as manager of the Cubs

16:00 How Joe impacted Javy Baez' career

18:00 David Ross and Joe Espada may be the leaders to replace Joe Maddon.

Listen here or via the embedded player below:

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