Cubs still waiting to make a big statement in NL Central


Cubs still waiting to make a big statement in NL Central

MILWAUKEE — The Cubs have done a lot of talking but haven’t backed it up yet.

Of course, there is plenty of time to live up to the Bloomberg Businessweek cover — “a sports empire is in bloom” — with more than 80 percent of the schedule remaining and all this blue-chip talent waiting to mature. 

But after Sunday afternoon’s 11-inning walk-off loss to the worst team in baseball, the Cubs left Miller Park with a 15-15 record and no real sense of momentum.

The Cubs have now lost two series to the Milwaukee Brewers in early May — one before they fired their manager, one after — missing an opportunity to make a big statement in the National League Central. 

A 3-2 loss and another blown save left the Cubs with a negative run differential (-9) this season. A young lineup still getting used to split-second recognition at this level got shut down by ex-Cub Matt Garza and struck out 16 times overall. This team also woke up on Mother’s Day leading the league with 27 errors.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

“We’re a lot better than a .500 team, absolutely,” Kyle Hendricks said. “We know that. We’ve been losing some ballgames we shouldn’t have been losing and we’re all part of it. I am. The whole team’s part of it.

“That’s how baseball goes. You get in a tough patch, you got to get out of it. We know we can beat these teams. And we know we’re going to once we get rolling.”

With breakdowns across the board magnifying every move, even Joe Maddon sounded a little defensive during the manager’s postgame media session.

Hendricks, a feel pitcher without much margin for error, looked sharper this time, throwing 5.1 scoreless innings, though Maddon trusted him to throw only 85 pitches.    

“Before we took him out,” Maddon said, “(Elian) Herrera hit the ball hard, Garza hit the ball hard, (Carlos) Gomez hit the ball hard, (Scooter) Gennett hit the ball hard, (Ryan) Braun hit the ball hard, (Adam) Lind hit the ball hard…for those that are paying attention.”

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Justin Grimm finished the sixth inning cleanly, but Maddon got burned in the seventh with lefty Zac Rosscup, who gave up back-to-back homers to Martin Maldonado and Herrera, the seventh and eighth hitters who both began the day batting under .200.   

“I’m still 100 percent confident that we’re going to bounce back,” catcher Miguel Montero said. “Obviously, it’s part of the game. We’re going through a rough time. But with that being said, we got to make better pitches overall. That’s it.”

Montero – who homered off Garza in the sixth inning — understood why Maddon pinch-hit for him with a runner on third base in a tie game. Montero had gone 0-for-5 with five strikeouts in his career against Brewers lefty Will Smith, who struck out Matt Szczur to end the eighth.    

“I have no complaints about our group,” Maddon said. “We’re going to keep getting better in certain areas. A lot of them, they’re frustrated, they don’t want to swing at the slider outside of the strike zone, either. They’ll stop doing that. Once we stop doing that, man, heads up.” 

After a 2-5 road trip through St. Louis and Milwaukee — and a 9-10 stretch within the division — it won’t get any easier.

Sections of the bleachers will finally reopen on Monday night as the New York Mets and their young power pitchers come into Wrigley Field for a four-game series that will test the franchise’s Big Bat Theory.

The first-place Mets will start with Jacob deGrom, the NL Rookie of the Year in 2014. Noah Syndergaard, Baseball America’s No. 11 prospect heading into this season, will make his big-league debut on Tuesday. The next night, Matt Harvey, a 2013 All-Star Game starter, will face the young power hitters the Cubs have collected during their own slow, big-market rebuild.

The Cubs are hanging around, sensing an opportunity, but still waiting for everything to click. 

“You can be with a group of people (where) you know you might be at your limits,” Maddon said. “You might be at your Waterloo, in a sense: This is as good as we’re going to get. But I know that’s not the case with us, and that’s really the encouraging part of the whole thing.” 

Following 2019 'learning process,' Ian Happ's offensive progression key for 2020 Cubs

Following 2019 'learning process,' Ian Happ's offensive progression key for 2020 Cubs

It’s been another quiet offseason for the Cubs.

January is almost over and the Cubs have yet to commit a single guaranteed dollar to the big-league roster. After exceeding MLB’s luxury tax threshold in 2019, Theo Epstein and Co. are looking to get under the figure in 2020 and reset penalties entering 2021.

Barring any major surprises — i.e. a core player getting dealt before Opening Day — the club will return largely the same team from last season. That group has plenty of talent, but there are some question marks, like second base and center field.

A fan made waves at Cubs Convention last Saturday, reciting the definition of insanity to team president Epstein and Jed Hoyer during a baseball operations panel. With a similar roster in hand, why should fans expect anything different from the Cubs in 2020?

For Epstein, part of the answer lies in the continued development of homegrown players like Ian Happ.

Happ was supposed to be a key cog for the Cubs in 2019, but he was sent to Triple-A Iowa at the end of spring training after striking out 14 times in 52 at-bats. This followed a 2018 season in which he sported a 36.1 percent strikeout rate.

“He was striking out 30 percent of the time and we decided to send him down, because what we were seeing with Ian Happ, in our mind, wasn’t the finished product,” Epstein said Saturday at the Sheraton Grand Chicago. “We believe it’s the same way with a lot of our hitters, that’s there’s tremendous talent in there, but it wasn’t manifesting in major league games — which is all that matters — the way we needed it to.”

Happ was reportedly upset with the move, but his strikeout rate dropped to 26.3 percent with Iowa. After the Cubs recalled him on July 25, he posted a 25 percent rate in 58 games (156 plate appearances), slashing .264/.333/.564. He recognizes the demotion was beneficial.

“I got a lot of at-bats. I used it as a learning process,” Happ told NBC Sports Chicago Friday of his Triple-A stint. “To be able to come back and have success, it was a good way to finish the season.

Happ ended the season on a high note, slashing .311/.348/.672 in September with six home runs. He was tremendous over the season’s final eight games: .480/.519/1.200, 5 homers and 12 RBIs.

“Just being more aware of the ways guys were gonna pitch me,” Happ said regarding his hot September. “There’s some tweaks. For me, it was more about handling different pitches and when to use two different swings — when to be a little bit more defensive, when to put the ball in play. It led to results.”

Cubs players have been criticized in recent seasons for a seeming unwillingness to shorten up at times to put the ball in play. Their 73.8 percent contact rate in 2019 was last in the National League, though Ben Zobrist’s personal absence contributed to the low figure.

Happ posted a 71.7 percent contact rate, up from his 63.5 percent rate in 2018.

“He went through a really difficult stretch in Iowa, making significant adjustments to his approach and his swing and as a person, growing from some failure,” Epstein said. “When he came back up towards the end of last year, his strikeout rate was under much better control, he had much more contact ability.

“He wasn’t driving the ball quite the same, and then by the end of the year, he had maintained that better contact rate, was starting to drive the ball again, and it looked pretty dynamic and pretty promising for the future.”

It’s not a coincidence Happ made strides with Iowa. He got to work on his swing in an environment where he played every day. This wouldn’t have been the case in the big leagues, especially if his struggles lingered.

Happ started each of the Cubs’ last six games; he said it's huge for his confidence knowing he'd be playing every day. 

“It’s huge, it’s huge. I think that’s what everyone’s striving for in this league, is be able to [play every day],” he said. “For me, after that stretch and being able to finish strong and look back on a solid year, that’s big moving forward.”

The Cubs roster may look the same, but there’s plenty of room for internal improvement. Pitchers will continue adjusting to Happ, but he’s a better player for what he went through last season. He can take what he learned and carry it into 2020.

“So now, same player on the roster — and I understand the definition of insanity — but to expect Ian Happ to grow from what he’s gone through and benefit from the coaching that he’s gotten,” Epstein said, “and the lessons that he’s learned and the adversity that he’s gone through, and go out and be a productive player for us next year in a certain role, I don’t think is insane.”

“It’s just about sticking with the process, understanding that that’s what worked and that’s what you want to do,” Happ said. “It’s not always easy at the beginning of the year at Wrigley. It’s cold, it’s windy. The results don’t always show up. But if you’re true to the process and you keep going, by the end of the year you’ll be at a good spot.”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: It's time for a culture change for the Cubs


Cubs Talk Podcast: It's time for a culture change for the Cubs

After the Cubs Convention, fans left still uncertain about the team headed into the 2020 season. Host David Kaplan and NBC Sports Chicago Cubs writer Tim Stebbins discuss what they took from Cubs Con, the culture change that is coming to the organization and a realistic possibility that the Cubs are looking into disgruntled star Nolan Arenado.

Listen to the episode here or in the embedded player below.

Cubs Talk Podcast


Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Chicago Cubs easily on your device.