'De-peat': Cubs believe their defense can keep winning championships

'De-peat': Cubs believe their defense can keep winning championships

Joe Maddon is the kind of self-promoter and free-association thinker who can use a West Wing media stakeout to plug his restaurant in Tampa, Fla. The Cubs manager name-dropped Ava after President Barack Obama's final official White House event honoring the World Series champs.

Maddon isn't quite Pat Riley, who filed for a "Three-Peat" trademark as coach of the "Showtime" era Los Angeles Lakers and kept cashing in while running the Miami Heat. But Maddon does have a few ideas about marketing and messaging, whether or not this becomes a ubiquitous T-shirt in the clubhouse.

"If we catch the ball and pitch the ball like we did last year," Maddon said, "we shall 'De-peat.'"

Cubs officials knew they had a good team with a chance to win it all in 2016. But if you told them after last year's Super Bowl that they would win 103 games and survive three playoff rounds, the assumptions would have been that a thumping American League-style lineup bludgeoned opponents, an elite starting pitcher moved to Chicago at the trade deadline and a deep bullpen owned October the way the Kansas City Royals did in 2015.

The Cubs couldn't have done it without "Bryzzo Souvenir Co." or Dexter Fowler's "you go, we go" routine or Ben Zobrist's clutch hitting or Kyle Schwarber's dramatic return in the World Series. But Maddon's run-prevention point is that the Cubs truly thrived as a pitching-and-defense unit, even if flashier aspects of their games and personalities generated more attention.

"You could argue it was the single element at which we excelled the most," team president Theo Epstein said of the athletic, versatile group that led the majors in defensive efficiency. "It's not always obvious. I think some of our guys were so good that it was obvious.

"But it can be a subtle thing, and it really supports your pitching staff over the long season. And it wins you a ton of games without it being the obvious reason why you won. You just have to look a little deeper."

Defensive metrics can be incomplete or misleading, but look at these spreads as a baseline. The Cubs led the majors with 82 defensive runs saved, according to FanGraphs, while the Houston Astros finished second at 51. The Cubs also posted a 73 Ultimate Zone Rating on FanGraphs — the San Francisco Giants ranked second at 47.7 and wound up as the only other team that graded out higher than 36.5.

First baseman Anthony Rizzo and outfielder Jason Heyward won Gold Gloves, with Rawlings also naming pitcher Jake Arrieta and shortstop Addison Russell as finalists at their positions. The Fielding Bible recognized Rizzo's steady presence and tarp-jumping, balance-beam flair and gave playoff star Javier Baez an award for multi-position excellence.

Individual skills combined with a sophisticated scouting-and-game-planning system helped Kyle Hendricks evolve into a Cy Young Award finalist and an ERA leader and make Jason Hammel a 15-game winner. Compare the Cubs' rotation ERA (2.96 ERA) to the next-best team in the National League (the Washington Nationals at 3.60) and the NL average (4.28).

"Once you get there, you never really want to go backwards on defense," Epstein said. "Once you're there, it's such an important part of your identity and a big part of the backbone of your pitching staff."

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The Cubs put their money where their mouth was last winter, giving Heyward the biggest contract in franchise history and not even necessarily making the highest bid with that eight-year, $184 million megadeal.

"Jason Heyward is the best outfielder I've ever seen," said Dave Martinez, who played 16 seasons in the big leagues and has worked as Maddon's bench coach since 2008. "It's incredible to see him, the way he moves. We never have to tell him where to play hitters or when to move in counts. He does it.

"It was almost like having two center fielders out there. We had a tough time with Dexter, at times, moving. When Heyward was out there and Heyward moved, Dexter moved with him.

"Look, granted, everybody knows he didn't have a great year hitting. But what this guy brought every day to our clubhouse (was) irreplaceable."

Paying a complementary player like a middle-of-the-order superstar might have foreshadowed this offseason, when teams appeared to prioritize youth, defense and overall contributions, perhaps undervaluing home runs and the intimidation factor within a lineup.

It can't all be supply-and-demand dynamics and luxury-tax concerns when the Cleveland Indians can swoop in just before Christmas and sign Edwin Encarnacion to a three-year, $60 million contract and Jose Bautista essentially returned to the Toronto Blue Jays for the qualifying offer he rejected in November. Mark Trumbo blasted 47 homers last season and had to circle back to the Baltimore Orioles in late January for a three-year, $37.5 million deal.

The entire industry saw a Cubs Way blueprint that will now be banking on: the Albert Almora Jr./Jon Jay combination being a defensive upgrade over Fowler in center; that Heyward-led alignment compensating for Schwarber's learning curve in left; Baez taking on a more prominent role after his breakout performance during the playoffs; Maddon tailoring lineups around matchups and Zobrist and Kris Bryant's unique flexibility; and Miguel Montero mentoring Willson Contreras behind the plate.

During a Cubs Convention panel last month, Maddon said he's been studying the Seattle Mariners team that won 116 games in 2001 — without getting to the World Series — and then finished in third place in the AL West with 93 victories in 2002.

"They came crashing back to reality, and a big part of that was their defense faltered the next year," Maddon said, shifting his focus to hitting coaches John Mallee and Eric Hinske, who were sitting on the same stage inside a hotel ballroom in downtown Chicago. "So for me, this spring training, I know you love offense and it's on the back of the baseball cards. It's wonderful, it's beautiful, all that stuff. However, really, the sexy part of the game to me, John and 'Ske…"

Hinske then interrupted his boss: "Wait, you can't win if you don't score, Joe."

"I know that," Maddon said, turning his attention back to the audience. "He likes to use the word 'score' a lot."

Maddon also understands that fielding shouldn't go into slumps and knows firsthand that defense can win championships. That will be part of the overall message when pitchers and catchers officially report to Arizona next week: "The part that's repeatable — we got to do it."

Cubs bullpen gets another reinforcement with Craig Kimbrel activated


Cubs bullpen gets another reinforcement with Craig Kimbrel activated

The Cubs bullpen has had its share of struggles in recent days, but the team’s new closer is coming back from the injured list.

Craig Kimbrel was activated off the IL ahead of Sunday’s game against the Pirates. The game will be played in Williamsport, Pa., as the Little League Classic.

Kimbrel took the spot of Duane Underwood Jr., who heads back to Triple-A Iowa. Outfielder Mark Zagunis also joined the Cubs roster as the 26th man for Sunday’s game.

Kimbrel joined the Cubs as a free agent in the middle of the season and debuted on June 27. He made 14 appearances before going to the IL with right knee inflammation. He last pitched on Aug. 3.

In 12 2/3 innings, Kimbrel has 17 strikeouts, eight walks and 13 hits for a 5.68 ERA. He has nine saves.

The Cubs suffered back-to-back walk-off losses on Thursday and Friday with the bullpen blowing late leads. Three of the team’s most experienced relievers, Kimbrel, Brandon Kintzler and Steve Cishek were all on the IL at the same time. Kintzler was activated Friday, but promptly blew a lead in Pittsburgh on Friday in his first game back.

Kimbrel’s return gives Joe Maddon another option in the bullpen after going through a rough stretch with relievers.

With Cubs reeling, Jon Lester comes up big and plays stopper

With Cubs reeling, Jon Lester comes up big and plays stopper

The last three games have been more than forgettable for the Cubs.

From Wednesday’s 11-1 drubbing at the hands of the Phillies to back-to-back walk-off losses on Thursday and Friday, the Cubs’ current road trip has looked much like those that preceded it. At various times, the offense has scuffled, the rotation has pitched a clunker and the bullpen has cracked.

The solution to the latest road trip woes? Give the ball to Jon Lester and get the hell out of the way.

Lester —  who pitched a clunker himself Aug. 6 against the A’s — did what the Cubs have become so accustomed to see him do over the past four seasons. The 35-year-old tossed 6+ shutout innings, allowing just four hits, leading the Cubs to a 2-0 win.

Lester had no room for error on Saturday, as the Cubs offense went hitless for the first 4 1/3 innings. While the Cubs bats were asleep, the Pirates threatened to break the game on open multiple times, loading the bases with one out (first inning), no outs (fifth) and getting runners on first and second with no outs in the sixth.

The latter two of those instances were assisted by errors by third baseman Kris Bryant, but that’s neither here nor there. Point being, with how the Cubs looked offensively, any Pirates runs could have proved critical on Saturday. Instead, Lester worked out of every jam, stymying the Pirates bats to an 0-for-12 line with RISP.

Winning Saturday’s game was obviously important for the Cubs, as it puts them a game ahead of the Cardinals in the win column (pending the outcome of St. Louis' game against the Reds later Saturday). But it was equally important for Lester, who called himself the “weakest link” in the Cubs starting rotation after that tough outing against the A’s.

The beautiful thing about baseball is that the regular season is 162 games long. Each day presents teams with a new slate, a chance to forget about what happened in the previous game and move forward.  If Saturday’s start shows anything, it’s that Lester and the Cubs are more than capable of putting a tough game in the rearview mirror and keep moving forward.

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