Cubs

Cubs will be forced out of their comfort zone

683506.png

Cubs will be forced out of their comfort zone

MESA, Ariz. Alfonso Soriano had nearly lost track: This is what? Number three?

Soriano had a smile on his face he usually does but hes on his third manager since signing that 136 million contract, a different one in each of the last three years.

Whether its Soriano expecting everyone to give 100 percent now, or chairman Tom Ricketts saying people are working a little harder, its not difficult to read between the lines.

This offseason blew up nearly every assumption you could make about the Cubs organization. Ricketts found his voice as an owner and hired Theo Epstein to run baseball operations.

Epstein didnt look for a celebrity manager and hired Dale Sveum, who doesnt seem to care at all about the television cameras. The Cubs could sit on the sidelines while Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder got their megadeals and hand the first-base job to a Pacific Coast League MVP (Bryan LaHair).

Carlos Zambrano and Milton Bradley arent taking up all the oxygen in the room. This front office traded away several top picks who were supposed to be part of the future (Andrew Cashner, Tyler Colvin, DJ LeMahieu), and wont be as loyal to certain veterans in the clubhouse.

The Cubs are starting over. Again.

Its a breath of fresh air, utility man Jeff Baker said. Sometimes I felt like there was a comfort zone people got in and guys never really got out of that comfort zone. I think a lot of guys are going to be more on edge, which I think is a good thing.

Baker was acquired from the Colorado Rockies on July 2, 2009, when Aramis Ramirez was on the disabled list and first place was still within reach (2 12 games out by days end). So Baker has seen the crash up close, and perhaps the first steps out of it.

Everyone has a clean slate, whether youve got 10 years in the league or you got zero days, Baker said. You know everyones going to be treated the same. Thats been made very clear and its about performance and production. I think a lot of guys can appreciate that. What you see is what you get. Players respect that.

Reliever James Russell made his big-league debut on Opening Day 2010 in Atlanta. Zambrano got four outs in a 16-5 loss to the Braves. A historian would note that the Cubs had never before allowed that many runs in an opener, the most since a 15-3 loss to the New York Gothams in 1884, when they were called the Chicago White Stockings.

So Russell has seen Lou Piniella in tears, the rise and fall of Mike Quade and all the enthusiasm generated by the Epstein hire.

Its kind of crazy, Russell said. Youre a rookie and you think everythings perfect and then all of a sudden Lou had his situation and had to leave. (Then) we get Q and thought everything was going to be great. Of course, that didnt really pan out, so now maybe third times the charm.

Russell loved playing for Piniella: Its a privilege playing for a guy thats going to be in the Hall of Fame. And Russell had a good relationship with Quade: It was just sad to see how everything kind of unfolded, but it might have worked out for the better.

Camp Sveum is all about the details. There is the yellow string running in front of the catchers during bullpen sessions, so the pitchers focus on that part of the strike zone. There are multiple cameras filming it behind the fence.

There are blue marks on the bases to show where your foot should touch. There are tape marks on the screen where outfielders make practice throws, almost a box that creates a target.

Every teams going to win 60 games and lose 60 games, Sveum said. Whatever happens those other 42 games depends on how you run the bases, how you play fundamentally, how you catch the ball, how you throw strikes. All these things come into play.

Its hard to imagine another teardown or change in philosophy anytime soon. Thats what lured Epstein from the Red Sox, a chance to build another organization in his image. No one should get too comfortable.

Hes just a straight shooter. Hes going to tell you like it is, third baseman Ian Stewart said. Our goal is to win the World Series and really nothing less. Its not about winning a wild card or getting to the playoffs. We want to win the whole thing, similar to what he did in Boston, and theres no reason why we cant do it here.

Cubs' starting pitching a reasonable discussion topic, but Jon Lester's no fan of 'nitpicking' this first-place team

0717-jon-lester.jpg
USA TODAY

Cubs' starting pitching a reasonable discussion topic, but Jon Lester's no fan of 'nitpicking' this first-place team

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Cubs are in first place, they own the best record in the National League at the All-Star break and remain as much a World Series contender as any team out there.

But things are never 100 percent rainbows and lollipops for a team with this high a profile.

No, instead of a simple thumbs up from fans and observers, a pat on the back and a “job well done,” there’s been quite a bit of focus on what’s not going well for the North Siders. Mostly, that’s meant starting pitching, as four of the team’s five Opening Day starters owns an ERA north of 3.90.

If all you’ve heard this season is “What’s wrong with Yu Darvish? What’s wrong with Jose Quintana? What’s wrong with Kyle Hendricks? What’s wrong with Tyler Chatwood?” you might think the Cubs are woefully underachieving. Instead, they’re 55-38, a first-half record not far off from what they owned at the break back in 2016, a season that ended in a curse-smashing World Series championship.

The lone Cubs starting pitcher at the All-Star Game, Jon Lester, isn’t happy with what he calls the “nitpicking” that’s come with the Cubs’ otherwise excellent start to the season.

“We’re kind of pulling at hairs,” he said before the Midsummer Classic on Tuesday night. “We’re splitting hairs right now as far as things that we’re looking for negatively on our team. And that can kind of rub wrong in the clubhouse as far as guys looking around going, ‘Wait a second, we’re doing pretty good and we’re getting nitpicked right now.’

“I don’t like nitpicking. So I feel like we’ve been doing really well and just stay with the positives of everything that we’ve been playing really good baseball.”

Lester’s got a point, though at the same time it’s an understandable discussion topic: If the Cubs aren’t getting consistent results from four of their five starting pitchers, what kind of effect will that have in a playoff series? There’s a long way to go before things get to that point, but Cubs players made their own expectations known back in spring training: It’s World Series or bust for these North Siders.

Lester has been phenomenal, unquestionably worthy of his fifth All-Star selection. He posted a 2.98 ERA in 19 first-half starts. But the rest of the rotation wasn’t nearly as pretty. Hendricks finished his first half with a 3.92 ERA, Quintana with a 3.96 ERA, Chatwood with a 5.04 ERA and Darvish, who made only eight starts before going on a seemingly never-ending DL stint, with a 4.95 ERA. Mike Montgomery, who’s made nine starts, has a 3.91 ERA overall and a 3.20 ERA as a starter.

None of that’s exactly end-of-the-world bad, and there are plenty of pitching staffs across baseball that would probably make a trade for those numbers in a heartbeat. But is it the elite, best-rotation-in-baseball type stuff that so many projected for this team before the season started? Of course not. And Lester knows it. He, like team president Theo Epstein, just looks at that fact a little differently than the fans and observers who are so quick to push the panic button.

“Can we pitch better? Absolutely. As a collective unit, yeah we can. And that’s a positive,” Lester said. “I think guys are ready for runs. You kind of saw Kyle put together a couple starts there where he’s back to being Kyle. Q’s been throwing the ball pretty well for us.

“I think this break will do Chatwood a lot of good. This is a guy, he’s pounding his head against the wall, beginning of the season he wasn’t giving up any runs but everybody’s talking about walks. I look at the runs, I don’t care about the walks.

“We get these guys back to relaxing and being themselves, we’ll be fine. Our bullpen’s been great, our defense has been great. Offense is going to come and go, as we’ve seen in the game. As starters, we’ve got to keep our guys in the game the best we can, at the end of the day our bullpen and our defense is going to pick us up.”

The fretting will likely never end unless the Cubs have five starters throwing at an All-Star level, that's just the way things go. Something’s got to fill all that time on sports radio, after all, and for a team with postseason expectations, it’s perfectly reasonable to talk about how they might fare in the postseason, where those starting-pitching inconsistencies will most definitely come into play.

But Tuesday night, Cubs fans will see three players representing their club. Lester will be a happy observer with one of the best seats in the house, and Javy Baez and Willson Contreras will deservedly start among the best in the game. And they’ll have bragging rights over all their NL teammates because nitpicking or not, they’ve got the best record in the league.

Cubs Talk Podcast: Are the Cubs World Series bound? Dan Plesac says yes!

jaaaaaavy.jpg
USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Are the Cubs World Series bound? Dan Plesac says yes!

Where does MLB Network's Dan Plesac place the Cubs in his current power rankings and what's the key to their World Series dreams? Plus, which three star athletes mix to make Javier Baez? The conductor of the Big Blue train is back for a mid-summer breakdown of the Northsiders with Luke Stuckmeyer on this edition of the Cubs Talk Podcast presented by Wintrust.  

Listen to the full episode here or via the embedded player below: