'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 Mailbag: Will Kris Bryant play more at third or in the outfield next year?


Cubs Mailbag: Will Kris Bryant play more at third or in the outfield next year?

Some guys pump iron with personal trainers, eat kale salads and recoup in cryotherapy machines to make room for the gluttony of the holidays. Not me. I'm getting into shape for Thanksgiving the old fashioned way - by carrying the weight of some heavy questions from Cubs fans. So, strap on the old feedbag and let's dig right in.

Q: Do you think the Cubs get Harper? - @intensify

Luke Stuckmeyer: First of all, way to intensify the situation. This question might be in every Cubs mailbag we have until Harper finally finds a home. I'll give you my best guess. Bryce can really mash some taters and the Cubs could obviously use another big bat from the left side. I just don't think they are going to dive *that* deep into the holiday spirit. I'll say 75/25 that he ends up somewhere else. I think another team trying to make a splash will spend an insane amount of money to make Harper the face of their franchise. The Cubs already have three of those players in Bryant, Rizzo and Baez.

Q: Will we see Kris Bryant as a 3rd baseman or in the outfield next season? - @kimsrad

LS: Yes and yes. I think Joe Maddon will use Kris Bryant in both places. Expect the Cubs to have a more consistent batting order next year, but the lineup flexibility will continue in the field. I do think Bryant will play more game in LF than he will at 3B. The Cubs have always envisioned this is where Bryant might eventually end up at some point. I'd like to see former Cubs prospect Josh Donaldson return to the franchise via free agency for a few years and let Bryant take over full-time in left. We'll see how free agency unfolds, but regardless I see more outfield games for KB moving forward.

Q: What do you consider more important, a good top of the lineup hitter or a lockdown closer? - @tscott119

LS: Great question! In my opinion these are the two most important needs for the roster this offseason. I'll vote for the closer because a good dessert is always more important to a great meal than a good appetizer. A true lockdown closer helps shorten the game in the postseason and with Morrow's injury concerns, I want to see the bullpen beefed up. Help the starters by shortening the game. That said, leadoff hitter is still the second most important area of need on this team. The Cubs have been trying to find an answer to this riddle since Dexter Fowler left. So, I'd like a helping of each this offseason.

Q: Are the Cubs going to bring Jesse Chavez back? I sure hope so! #Cubs - @LindsTeach1386

LS: This goes perfectly with the last question. "Build the Bullpen" would be one of my themes of the winter and Chavez was terrific in Cubs uniform with a 1.15 ERA. He throws strikes and the Cubs also need that from relievers, too. He's told teammates that if he's not wearing a Cubs uniform next season he hang up the cleats after 11 seasons. I think he'll be back and it shouldn't be "too expensive."

Q: I'm asking Santa for a Schwarber jersey for Christmas. Does the big guy in the red suit need to put in a good for Schwarbs? #Cubs - @mommymack23

LS: For the record, I think Kap usually wears blue suits. I'd ask for the shirsey. Schwarber's name will be mentioned a lot this winter.

Q: Has this era of Cubs players peaked? - @spiceycentipede3

LS: I don't think so. It will be tough to ever top an historic 2016, but I believe there are more championships in this core group. This is still a young team and a healthy Kris Bryant can completely change the lineup. Now, let's see if Javy can take another step after an outstanding season and if Willson Contreras can bounce back as the best catcher in the NL. Theo preaches that player development isn't always linear in baseball. I hope he's right!

Well, that's six questions. One for every heaping helping that this turkey plans to take down on Thanksgiving. Thanks for all the great questions. Have a great and safe holiday next week. 

How Cubs will determine if this is the time to sell — or hold — stock on young players

How Cubs will determine if this is the time to sell — or hold — stock on young players

Do the Cubs envision Ian Happ as a vital piece of their future or the organization's best trade asset?

What about Kyle Schwarber? Albert Almora Jr.? Victor Caratini? 

We might not get surefire answers to these questions this winter, but we'll at least get an indication in a pivotal offseason for this quartet. (The Cubs already know what they have with their other young position players apart from maybe Willson Contreras, but it's nearly impossible to find another catcher in the same stratosphere as Contreras in terms of physical tools and potential).

The Cubs are at a crossroads of sorts with the development of these four players (and others) as they try to retool for another run at a championship in 2019 after a disappointing end to 2018. There's urgency for production in the lineup and not simply potential and the growing pains that coincide with young players.

So how do the Cubs determine if they should sell stock on players like Happ, Schwarber or Almora when it's still unknown who — or what — they are as players?

"Through evaluation and through a lot of discussion with our most trusted evaluators and the people around the players every day," Theo Epstein said last week at the GM Meetings. "And through conversations with the players, too. Honest discussions about their weaknesses.

"I don't want to generalize, but many players follow a path where they come up from the minor leagues and have some immediate success and as the league finds out more about them, the league makes an adjustment. I've never seen a major-league environment that's more ruthless than the one that exists today. We're going right to a player's weakness, quickly finding it, exploiting it and staying there until they adjust back.

"You have to have honest conversations about the area where players need to improve in order to have the types of careers that they want to have in order to help us win the way they want to help us win. And seeing how players react to that and the plans they come up with and the work ethic to make those adjustments and the trace record to make those adjustments — all that stuff really matters."

We know the Cubs don't operate with any "untouchables" (as was reiterated in a very high-profile way over the last week), but that's also all about how important the word value is.

The Cubs have zero interest in selling low on guys like Schwarber, Almora or Happ because those are three players they've held conviction on for years as first-round draft picks to top prospects to impact players in the big leagues. 

But it's also entirely possible another team around the league values Schwarber more than the Cubs do and offer Epstein's front office a deal that's too hard to pass up. Sure, Schwarber's 2018 was something of a disappointment, but he also drastically increased his walk rate, cut down on strikeouts and improved his defense. Oh yeah, and he'll still only be 26 in March.

We could run the same exercise for Almora, Happ and Caratini, but the main takeaway here is that the evaluations of these players are incomplete as they're still very young/inexperienced with potential.

But if the Cubs trade any of those three guys this winter, it's not necessarily an indication of doom for the player. It's more about finding the right time to pull the trigger.

"That's the nature of it," Epstein said. "Trades happen in this game. A lot of times when trades are made, it doesn't mean you've completely given up on a player. A lot of trades are more about what you're receiving back than what you're giving up in the first place."

There's also value for the Cubs in not necessarily selling one of those young players but choosing to get a little more veteran and diverse with a lineup that "broke" in the second half, as Epstein described it.

Due to the inexperience and youth, the Cubs lineup was more prone to slumps. That was highlighted by the trade for (and subsequent playing time of) Daniel Murphy in August. When the veteran hitter was acquired, the Cubs initially intended to utilize him to help augment the lineup on a fairly regular basis, but with the struggles around him, they instead needed to lean on Murphy to play essentially every day.

When it comes down to it, the Cubs just want production — no matter where it comes from.

"We're setting out to add to the personnel, so I guess in that sense, if we come back with the status quo, it means there are a couple things out there that we would've lovd to have done that we couldn't, but that happens," Epstein said. "But I think ultimately, we should be held accountable for our performance, not for the amount of change in the names. And we will be. This group will be.

"In order to keep this thing going with the realities of the business and what happens as players move through the service time structure and escalating salaries and everything else, the time for that talent to translate into performance is now to get the absolute most out of this group. Or else we're going to be looking at some hard realities and the need for a lot of change going forward."