Cubs

Cubs will ride out boom-and-bust cycles with Javier Baez because the upside is so great

Cubs will ride out boom-and-bust cycles with Javier Baez because the upside is so great

The Cubs will live with the boom-and-bust cycles for Javier Baez, because he can still be a game-changing presence with his swim moves and freakish sense for tagging, whether or not he looks out of control at home plate.

“Not so much,” manager Joe Maddon said Wednesday when asked if Baez is at that point in his career where he has to earn his at-bats. “I’m just trying to balance everything out right now, honestly. I even told him: ‘Go and strike out as often as you need to. Go ahead, I don’t care. I really don’t care.’

“I just want to see him play with that focus and passion. That’s all I want. I totally expect him to strike out. I totally expect him to swing at balls in the dirt and over his head, absolutely.

“I do eventually believe it’s going to go away. But the only way it’s going to go away is if he keeps getting a chance to do that.”

Baez boosted his batting average 66 points (up from .203) during the first two games of this week's series with the Philadelphia Phillies at Wrigley Field, drilling his second and third home runs this season and almost hitting for the cycle on Tuesday night.

Baez oozes style, but Maddon also loves the substance to his game. When hitting at the bottom of the lineup, Baez has made first-inning flip drills with assistant hitting coach Eric Hinske part of his routine. Baez also seems to be getting the message from the coaching staff and trying to reduce his leg kick.

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Baez is no longer the all-or-nothing hitter who blasted nine homers and struck out 95 times during his 52-game audition with the Cubs in 2014. But this is also a player who has drawn comparisons to Gary Sheffield, Manny Ramirez and Giancarlo Stanton.

In terms of an offensive ceiling, Maddon said, “I don’t think it’s going to be revealed to us for another couple years.

“I think it’s very high, absolutely. You’re still going to see him go through these kinds of moments, up and down. The difference with him is that even during the down moments offensively he can still help you win with his defense and his baserunning.

“So I fully anticipate seeing those offensive swings in a sense — up and down — but the reward’s going to be great. When he really figures it out, the reward is going to show up and it’s going to be outstanding to watch.”

Starting Baez at second base over World Series MVP Ben Zobrist for all 17 playoff games last season is a clear indication of what Maddon is thinking. So is sticking with Baez through a slow start (.601 April OPS) and the Cubs listing him as their second baseman on the All-Star ballot.

“I think everybody knows how good I am,” Baez said. “I don’t have to show anybody anything. I control the things that I can control.

“I’m always going to play with passion and try to do my best out there, whether it’s on defense or on offense.”

The transition from part-time player and age-24 learning curve for Baez is emblematic of a team where leadoff guy Kyle Schwarber, catcher Willson Contreras and center fielder Albert Almora Jr. all own World Series rings but still haven’t completed a full season in The Show yet.

“It just happens everywhere,” Maddon said. “These guys are young and they’re learning on the fly on the major-league level with a lot of scrutiny going on, so just wait a couple years. This guy is going to really show you how good he is.”

2021 MLB schedule: Cubs open at home against Pirates, play AL Central again

2021 MLB schedule: Cubs open at home against Pirates, play AL Central again

The 2020 Major League Baseball season hasn’t started yet and there’s no telling if the league will complete it in full due to COVID-19. In any case, the 2021 Cubs schedule was officially announced on Thursday.

The Cubs will open at home for the second straight season, taking on the Pirates at Wrigley Field on April 3. It’s the first time since 2011-12 the North Siders will open the season at Wrigley Field and third time in four seasons their home opener is against Pittsburgh.

2021 also marks the second consecutive year the Cubs will play the AL Central in interleague play. This includes six games against the White Sox (Aug. 6-8 at Wrigley; Aug. 27-29 at Guaranteed Rate Field). Their first interleague series is May 11-12 at Cleveland.

The Cubs travel to Minnesota (Aug. 31-Sept. 1) and host the Royals (Aug. 20-22) for the first time since 2015.

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Check out the full schedule:

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Why Craig Kimbrel is Cubs' bellwether in short season like no closer before him

Why Craig Kimbrel is Cubs' bellwether in short season like no closer before him

Whether we’ll ever arrive at a time during pandemic baseball to let down our guards long enough to dream on the entirety of a 60-game season and playoffs, the Cubs will be hard pressed to let down their guards when it comes to holding leads late with a new-look bullpen and no margin for error in getting it right.

“Definitely each game’s going to be bigger, each lead change is going to be bigger in 60 games,” said veteran closer Craig Kimbrel — whose performance could be the bellwether for the Cubs fortunes like no other closer in any other season ever has.

“There’s going to be no such thing as a losing streak,” Kimbrel said. “If you’re going to want to be in it at the end, you’re going to have to stay consistent and try not to get in a funk.”

Bullpens already are considered the most inherently volatile position areas in baseball in any season. In a 60-gamer?

“It’s extremely important,” said Cubs manager David Ross, one of Kimbrel’s catchers in Atlanta when the right-hander broke into the majors 10 years ago. “Every aspect of this game is going to be highlighted in a 60-game sprint, and that’s definitely going to be a big part of it.”

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Kimbrel, 32, is a seven-time All-Star, who signed a three-year $43 million deal as a free agent early last season and then struggled down the stretch for the Cubs — allowing a career-high nine home runs in just 23 appearances.

He became a Twitter punchline when he gave up a homer to teammate Willson Contreras in a simulated game Tuesday, but Kimbrel said he was just trying to throw strikes and working on things — like the changeup Contreras hit.

The reality is Tuesday meant next to nothing when imagining Kimbrel’s performance once a season were to start July 24.

But last September — when he gave up four homers in three outings that included a 10th-inning loss and blown save in another loss in the span of three days against the Cardinals — is another matter.

If he starts 2020 like he finished 2019, the Cubs’ short season might be finished before it starts.

Will he recover the tick or two off his once upper-90s fastball to once again get away with location mistakes? Will his breaking ball and developing changeup become bigger weapons to make the fastball look more powerful? Will his location be good enough to make either less of an issue?

“I think he’s got a few things still to iron out, just talking to him, for him to feel comfortable,” Ross said. “And he knows some of his keys, he’s not quite there yet. It’s like any other pitcher. His is heightened by who he is, but every pitcher is looking at the data afterwards, looking at the high-speed cameras, seeing where the hand positioning is, comparing it to the success they’ve had in the past and trying to make small adjustments and get the action that they expect on the baseball.”

The theme often repeated by team officials since last year’s struggles was that Kimbrel suffered from not having a normal spring training last year because of the extended free agency that took his competitive debut into June.

Fast-forward to 2020 and … uh-oh.

But Kimbrel said last year’s experience is “definitely helpful” as he navigates the strangest season anybody in the game has experienced.

Any emotional downside associated with this season’s unusual format might come from the lack of fans in the stands and the natural adrenaline high that brings to the ninth inning with a slim lead.

“It’d be a lot nicer if there was [a crowd],” he said. “I’m just going to have to figure out a way to do it.

“I’ve just got to mentally go to a place and physically be ready to go out there and do what I’ve always done.”

The fact is his success is more likely to simply come down to whatever he gets out of that All-Star fastball — whether through location, sheer velocity or what he can make it look like off his other stuff.

“Obviously, when the fastball’s located and at the velocity you want it, things are great,” he said. “But I think with my offspeed pitches, the better I can control those, the better it makes my fastball.

“So I would honestly say controlling the curveball in the zone and keeping it down is only going to make my fastball play better. That’s really my mindset on that.”

He and the Cubs have two weeks to get it right. Because once the season starts so does the playoff chase — with every ninth- and 10th-inning home run as costly as the last time he took the mound for the Cubs when it counted.

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