Cubs

Dempster - not Zambrano - to start Opening Day

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Dempster - not Zambrano - to start Opening Day

Monday, Feb. 21, 2011
Posted 11:29 a.m. Updated 5:25 p.m.
By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

MESA, Ariz. Ryan Dempster represents what the Cubs would like to project.

Hes the player that young pitchers model themselves after. Hes an established figure in the community through his charity work. He also had enough clubhouse juice to feel comfortable publicly lobbying for Mike Quade to get the managers job last year.

Quade joked that he would milk this for as long as possible, but pitching coach Mark Riggins needed to know in order to schedule out the next five-plus weeks. So on Monday morning the manager called Dempster, Carlos Zambrano and Matt Garza into his office at Fitch Park.

Quade earned the respect of his players through direct communication and reasoned explanations. He informed them that Dempster would start Opening Day at Wrigley Field on April 1, followed by Zambrano and Garza against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

That was really cool, Dempster said. It would be so easy to talk to us each as individuals. But isnt that what were trying to get away from? I think were trying to be a team and unite as much as possible. I know Z was really happy for me. He told me so himself. That probably meant just as much as Quade telling me.

Theres no doubt Zambrano took pride in making six consecutive Opening Day starts, a franchise record. The last time someone else got the assignment was Kerry Wood in 2004. The numbers 1-2 with a 6.99 ERA seem to suggest what Zambrano has admitted: He got too jacked up for those games.

Quade made the decision in part to line up Zambrano for the seasons third series in Milwaukee, where for his career hes 9-5 with a 3.19 ERA at Miller Park. That includes the 2008 no-hitter he threw there in a game relocated because of Hurricane Ike.

(Zambrano) said that I deserved it, Dempster said. It takes somebody big to say that too, especially when you started that many Opening Days in a row. I know hes excited for his start.

Garza won an ALCS MVP award with Tampa Bay and has pitched at Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park. But Quade feels this will give him a chance to absorb Wrigley Field and a new league for a few days.

Zambrano finished his workouts and left the complex to take his family to the airport before the media had a chance to get his reaction. The Cubs are saying its all good. Its also a window into where Quade feels his relationship is at with Zambrano.

Its a pretty good sign of maturity, and its a sign of a guy that is a good teammate, Quade said. It goes to the three of them and their character and it goes to my feel on Z and how hed handle it. (This) let me emphasize that they are a group."

Dempster said he was surprised by the news, but it wasnt hard to see this coming. This was earned. The reliable right-hander made Opening Day starts in 2001 and 2002 for the Florida Marlins. He went 15-12 with a 3.85 ERA last year and led the team in quality starts (23). He has accounted for 30-plus starts and at least 200 innings in each of the past three seasons.

Last year the Cubs absorbed their worst loss on Opening Day since 1884, a 16-5 defeat in Atlanta that set the tone for all the wrong reasons. They need a good start. Theres no other pitcher in the room that the Cubs would rather follow.

I dont know that Demps status in the clubhouse could really get any better to be honest with you, Quade said. Thats how much respect they have for him and, I think, all three (pitchers). Performance has a lot to do with that. And I hope theyll feed off each other and theyve got each others back when theres a poor performance: Someone picks the next guy up.

PatrickMooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. FollowPatrick on Twitter @CSNMooneyfor up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

Following 2019 'learning process,' Ian Happ's offensive progression key for 2020 Cubs

Following 2019 'learning process,' Ian Happ's offensive progression key for 2020 Cubs

It’s been another quiet offseason for the Cubs.

January is almost over and the Cubs have yet to commit a single guaranteed dollar to the big-league roster. After exceeding MLB’s luxury tax threshold in 2019, Theo Epstein and Co. are looking to get under the figure in 2020 and reset penalties entering 2021.

Barring any major surprises — i.e. a core player getting dealt before Opening Day — the club will return largely the same team from last season. That group has plenty of talent, but there are some question marks, like second base and center field.

A fan made waves at Cubs Convention last Saturday, reciting the definition of insanity to Epstein and Jed Hoyer during a baseball operations panel. With a similar roster in hand, why should fans expect anything different from the Cubs in 2020?

For Epstein, part of the answer lies in the continued development of homegrown players like Ian Happ.

Happ was supposed to be a key cog for the Cubs in 2019, but he was sent to Triple-A Iowa at the end of spring training after striking out 14 times in 52 at-bats. This followed a 2018 season in which he sported a 36.1 percent strikeout rate.

“He was striking out 30 percent of the time and we decided to send him down, because what we were seeing with Ian Happ, in our mind, wasn’t the finished product,” Epstein said Saturday at the Sheraton Grand Chicago. “We believe it’s the same way with a lot of our hitters, that’s there’s tremendous talent in there, but it wasn’t manifesting in major league games — which is all that matters — the way we needed it to.”

Happ was reportedly upset with the move, but his strikeout rate dropped to 26.3 percent with Iowa. After the Cubs recalled him on July 26, he posted a 25 percent rate in 58 games (156 plate appearances), slashing .264/.333/.564. He recognizes the demotion was beneficial.

“I got a lot of at-bats. I used it as a learning process,” Happ told NBC Sports Chicago Friday of his Triple-A stint. “To be able to come back and have success, it was a good way to finish the season.

Happ ended the season on a high note, slashing .311/.348/.672 in September with six home runs. He was tremendous over the season’s final eight games: .480/.519/1.200, five homers and 12 RBIs.

“Just being more aware of the ways guys were gonna pitch me,” Happ said regarding his hot September. “There’s some tweaks. For me, it was more about handling different pitches and when to use two different swings — when to be a little bit more defensive, when to put the ball in play. It led to results.”

Cubs players have been criticized in recent seasons for a seeming unwillingness to shorten up at times to put the ball in play. Their 73.8 percent contact rate in 2019 was last in the National League, though Ben Zobrist’s personal absence contributed to the low figure.

Happ posted a 71.7 percent contact rate, up from his 63.5 percent rate in 2018.

“He went through a really difficult stretch in Iowa, making significant adjustments to his approach and his swing and as a person, growing from some failure,” Epstein said. “When he came back up towards the end of last year, his strikeout rate was under much better control, he had much more contact ability.

“He wasn’t driving the ball quite the same, and then by the end of the year, he had maintained that better contact rate, was starting to drive the ball again, and it looked pretty dynamic and pretty promising for the future.”

It’s not a coincidence Happ made strides with Iowa. He got to work on his swing in an environment where he played every day. This wouldn’t have been the case in the big leagues, especially if his struggles lingered.

Happ started each of the Cubs’ last six games; he said it's huge for his confidence knowing he'd be playing every day. 

“It’s huge, it’s huge. I think that’s what everyone’s striving for in this league, is be able to [play every day],” he said. “For me, after that stretch and being able to finish strong and look back on a solid year, that’s big moving forward.”

The Cubs roster may look the same, but there’s plenty of room for internal improvement. Pitchers will continue adjusting to Happ, but he’s a better player for what he went through last season. He can take what he learned and carry it into 2020.

“So now, same player on the roster — and I understand the definition of insanity — but to expect Ian Happ to grow from what he’s gone through and benefit from the coaching that he’s gotten,” Epstein said, “and the lessons that he’s learned and the adversity that he’s gone through, and go out and be a productive player for us next year in a certain role, I don’t think is insane.”

“It’s just about sticking with the process, understanding that that’s what worked and that’s what you want to do,” Happ said. “It’s not always easy at the beginning of the year at Wrigley. It’s cold, it’s windy. The results don’t always show up. But if you’re true to the process and you keep going, by the end of the year you’ll be at a good spot.”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: It's time for a culture change for the Cubs

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AP

Cubs Talk Podcast: It's time for a culture change for the Cubs

After the Cubs Convention, fans left still uncertain about the team headed into the 2020 season. Host David Kaplan and NBC Sports Chicago Cubs writer Tim Stebbins discuss what they took from Cubs Con, the culture change that is coming to the organization and a realistic possibility that the Cubs are looking into disgruntled star Nolan Arenado.

Listen to the episode here or in the embedded player below.

Cubs Talk Podcast

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