Cubs

Defense wins championships: Joe Maddon sees Gold Glove potential all over Wrigley Field

Defense wins championships: Joe Maddon sees Gold Glove potential all over Wrigley Field

When Joe Maddon looks out from his spot in the home dugout, the Cubs manager sees five potential Gold Glove winners all around Wrigley Field, a defensive makeover that has become part of the identity for a team with World Series ambitions.

“That’s legit,” Maddon said before Wednesday night’s crisp 3-1 victory over the Los Angeles Angels, “without trying to oversell our guys.”

All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo is already playing at that level and has the eye-popping offensive numbers to help win that popularity contest: “For sure,” Maddon said. “There’s no doubt in my mind.”

Jason Heyward has already won three Gold Gloves and is living up to his defensive reputation — while underperforming offensively — in the first season of a $184 million contract: “Right field is spectacular,” Maddon said.

All-Star shortstop Addison Russell “should be,” Maddon said, given his range, explosiveness and steady up-the-middle presence during his second year in the big leagues.

“I think if (Willson) Contreras played enough, he’d have that opportunity to be considered, too,” Maddon said, praising the rookie catcher with a rocket arm who has gone 5-for-14 in throwing out runners (while veteran Miguel Montero is only 2-for-50 in those situations).

Javier Baez makes highlight-reel plays all over the infield: “If Javy played every day, he would,” Maddon said, agreeing with the idea that there should be Gold Glove recognition for super-utility players.

“I’d love that,” Maddon said. “I love the Super-U everything. That should be a position on the All-Star team. There should actually be somebody voted as that guy. I’ve thought that since 2009 with (Ben) Zobrist. The fact that we have so many guys that have played varied positions well — that’s got to start happening in other places (with) other organizations.

“It’s so beneficial game in progress, the things that you can do, whether it’s the pinch-hit, accelerate your defense, make it stronger for the last play of the game. We’re able to do all these different things because of the athleticism and the adaptability. Of course, Javy really sets that up.”

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Meaning an All-Star third baseman (Kris Bryant) or an All-Star second baseman (Zobrist) can move to the outfield and the Cubs don’t feel like they are sacrificing anything defensively or playing anyone out of position.

“We’re almost spoiled everywhere,” winning pitcher Jason Hammel said after shutting down the Angels for seven innings. “The guys go out there, and they play nine hard innings for us and they take hits away. As long as we’re in the zone, throwing strikes, putting the ball in play, guys are going to make plays.”

The Cubs lead the majors in defensive efficiency, according to Baseball Prospectus. FanGraphs also measures this group as the leaders in Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Above Average.

“Addison is just playing with so much confidence now that you’re actually seeing how good he can be,” Maddon said. “‘KB’ no longer pats the ball. Dexter (Fowler’s) just playing deeper and now is considered a better center fielder.

“I think just through natural progression maturity-wise, some guys have just gotten better because they’re good. We’re making the routine play routinely, and we’ve made some pretty spectacular plays almost all around the field.”

Along with current coaches Chris Bosio and Mike Borzello, ex-manager Dale Sveum helped design the game-planning system that once relied heavily on defensive shifts. Maddon had also been an early proponent of shifting as Mike Scioscia’s data-friendly bench coach with the Angels and the small-market manager for a Tampa Bay Rays franchise trying to compete with the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees.

“We don’t shift, obviously, nearly as much,” Maddon said. “But, again, I think that’s a product of the league and the teams in the division that we’re playing against, not necessarily that we don’t want to.”

The Cubs don’t need to get by with gadget plays and smoke and mirrors.

“They’re young, athletic,” Maddon said. “They work. They care. Our coaches do a great job in the prep. We keep everything simple. You’ve heard me say that a thousand times. I really think a big part of our success is the simplicity with which we do things out there. There’s nothing complicated, I promise you.

“So if everybody likes us in the metrics, whatever, that’s great. I just think from an old-school perspective — technically — I really like the way we mechanically are moving. The feet have gotten better. The arm strokes have gotten shorter. Addison’s arm has gotten stronger. I’m seeing all these different things this year.”

Nationals 'love' Kris Bryant but potential holdup could stymie trade talks

Nationals 'love' Kris Bryant but potential holdup could stymie trade talks

With Anthony Rendon officially joining the Angels, the Nationals have a vacancy at third base.

Washington has options to replace Rendon; Josh Donaldson is still available in free agency, and Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant could potentially be had via trade.

The Nationals have reportedly inquired with the Cubs about Bryant, and while they “love” the 27-year-old, their focus is on Donaldson, according to MLB Network’s Jon Heyman. The Cubs would likely seek center fielder Victor Robles in a deal, a holdup on Washington's end, Heyman said.

From the Cubs perspective, it would make all the sense in the world to ask for Robles. He’s 22 years old, plays excellent defense (22 DRS in 2019, No. 1 in MLB by center fielders) and is only scratching the surface as a big-leaguer. Robles is projected to be a star, but Bryant already is one. If the Nationals want Bryant badly enough, they’ll have to sacrifice talent in a deal.

On the other hand, it’s easy to understand why Washington would be unwilling to trade Robles, who's under team control through 2024. Bryant will hit free agency after 2021, but if he wins his ongoing grievance case, he'll hit the open market after next season.

Nonetheless, if the Nationals do engage in Bryant trade talks, you can bet the Cubs will at least ask for Robles in return. A trade could be worked out without him, but for a Cubs team searching better center field production, you've got to wonder who could be more enticing than Robles.

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Willson Contreras and his boundless energy join Cubs All-Decade Team

Willson Contreras and his boundless energy join Cubs All-Decade Team

With the 2010s coming to a close, NBC Sports Chicago is unveiling its Cubs All-Decade Team, highlighting the players who made the biggest impacts on the organization from 2010-19.

It didn’t take long for Willson Contreras to introduce himself to Major League Baseball. On the first pitch he saw as a big-leaguer, the Cubs catcher cranked a two-run home run to center field — on Sunday Night Baseball, nonetheless.

That moment was a sign of things to come for Contreras, who has since established himself as one of the best catchers in baseball. The 27-year-old holds a career .267/.350/.470 line with a 117 wRC+ and 67 home runs in four seasons. He’s started back-to-back All-Star Games, the first Cubs catcher to do so since Gabby Hartnett (1937-38).

Contreras offers so much to the Cubs besides his bat. His cannon of an arm and athleticism behind the plate are integral to the Cubs controlling opposing run games. His pitch framing is a work in progress, and admittedly, he could improve in this area by throwing behind runners less, ensuring he gets strikes called.

However, back-picking is part of Contreras’ value. He may lose some strike calls by not sticking a frame, but there've been plenty of occasions where Contreras' arm has provided the Cubs with a spark. His boundless energy is unmeasurable, but its importance to the Cubs — who feed off of it — cannot be overstated.

There are areas where Contreras can improve, and that's a scary thought. But he's already is one of the best backstops in baseball and has earned the starting catcher spot on our Cubs All-Decade Team.

Also considered: Welington Castillo, Miguel Montero, David Ross, Geovany Soto