Cubs

Embrace the Target: Joe Maddon wants Cubs to run into the fire

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Embrace the Target: Joe Maddon wants Cubs to run into the fire

MESA, Ariz. - Forget "Respect 90" or "Do simple better."

"Embrace the target" is the axiom for the 2016 Chicago Cubs.

Joe Maddon doesn't want the Cubs to ignore or deny all the talk of this team entering the 2016 season as the World Series favorites. 

He wants the opposite, actually.

"I'm really a big believer of running towards the fire as opposed to away from it," Maddon said Friday as Cubs pitchers and catchers officially reported. "I really want our guys to get comfortable with the concept of everybody speaking so glowingly of us and embracing the target.

"The target's gotten bigger. We have to embrace the target and while you're doing that, understand what that means. That's what I'm going to do tomorrow with the guys and when the whole group gets in - apply a definition with that that they can wrap their minds around."

[MORE CUBS: Cubs will open spring training with World Series-or-bust mindset]

Maddon talks all the time about how baseball legends — whether it be former coaches or players — helped mold his coaching strategy, but "Embrace the Target" didn't come from anybody in real life.

Instead the inspiration came from Jack Ryan - the fictional character created by author Tom Clancy. 

In "Clear and Present Danger," Ryan (played by Harrison Ford) convinces the president to "embrace the target" instead of running away from a possible scandal.

Maddon doesn't want the Cubs to pretend like their goal is not to win the World Series or top last year's result, when they were swept out of the National League Championship Series by the New York Mets.

After all, this is the same guy that took over an 89-loss Cubs team and talked realistically about playoffs at The Cubby Bear during his introductory press conference in November 2014.

"I don't want us to become outcome-biased or outcome-based," Maddon said. "Yes, talk about playoffs. Yes, talk about winning the division. Yes, talk about playing the last game of the season and winning it. But you don't want to just get caught up in that thought.

"And 'Embrace the Target' - what does that mean? You talk about expectations and the word 'pressure' that are attached to it, which I believe are really positive words. So you take those concepts and those thoughts and what does that lead to?

"To me, that leads to really focusing on the day, focusing on the process of the day. And the process needs to be our anchor.

"... There's nothing to be upset about. People are saying really nice things about us. That's good. But at the end of the day, we have to take care of our own business and that is about utilizing the processes and the anchor on a daily basis."

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

Maddon spends a major part of his day focused on getting his players right mentally, easing all that internal — and external — pressure. 

That's where you see all those gimmicks, like zoo animals at Wrigley Field, a magician in the clubhouse, a super hero-themed road trip.

What does "The Mad Scientist" have in store to keep the Cubs loose in 2016?

"That's the real pressure," Maddon joked. "The other stuff is fabricated, but that's real pressure right there."

Reds acquisition of Sonny Gray is the latest notable addition to the NL Central

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USA TODAY

Reds acquisition of Sonny Gray is the latest notable addition to the NL Central

The NL Central keeps getting better this offseason.

According to multiple reports, the Reds have traded for pitcher Sonny Gray from the Yankees.

The Reds have been active this offseason and adding a former all-star to their rotation would be another big step towards turning the Reds into contenders in what is shaping up to be a very tough NL Central in 2019. They already added Alex Wood, Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp in a blockbuster deal with the Dodgers.

Gray is 29 and has a career ERA of 3.66, but isn't coming off a good year. With the Yankees he had a 4.90 ERA, the second-highest of his career, and didn't pitch in the postseason. The last time Gray had a bad year, he bounced back. Gray had a 5.69 ERA in 2016, the year after his breakout all-star campaign in 2015, but was solid in 2017 with the A's and Yankees.

Coming off a 95-loss season, the Reds had a long way to go, but look to be improved on paper with those additions.

Elsewhere in the division, the Cardinals already added Paul Goldschmidt and Andrew Miller and the defending division champion Brewers added marquee free agent catcher Yasmani Grandal.

Meanwhile, it has been mostly crickets for the Cubs this offseason. Owner Tom Ricketts recently defended the team's financial situation, which has led to the team appearing to be less aggressive this winter.

It looks like the Cubs will face increased competition in the division this season. Will that force the team's hand to be more aggressive before spring training?

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Cole Hamels is healthy and ready to be the ace of the 2019 Cubs

Cole Hamels is healthy and ready to be the ace of the 2019 Cubs

Ask any Cubs player about 2019 and it's hard not to notice the urgency in their voice. 

After just about the least-enjoyable summer that 95 wins and a playoff appearance can buy, the normal winter platitudes that they tend to reel off have taken on additional weight. Rosters with as much potential as the Cubs don't come around often, and most of those players aren't going to get any cheaper down the road. Things can change quickly in baseball. 

Perhaps no one on the Cubs knows this quite like Cole Hamels, a World Series champion who has been a part of multiple different playoff-caliber rosters. Hamels revived his career after a disappointing tenure in Texas ended with a late-July trade, posting a 2.36 ERA over 76 innings on the North Side. The lefty went 4-0 with a 0.78 ERA in his first five games here (all of which they won), a far cry from the dreadful performances he was putting up with the Rangers. Sometimes a change of scenery is needed, but getting healthy always helps too. 

"I had a really tough time with the oblique injury I had two years ago and trying to get my mechanics back on track," Hamels said. "I just don’t think I was able to identify and correct what was going on. I was fighting it the whole season, until I kind of looked at a little bit deeper film and then really just made some more drastic changes, and went with it."

His oblique injury in 2017 derailed Hamels for the better part of a calendar year. The strain originally landed him on the 15-day DL, but he actually ended up missing eight weeks of games. In the 19 starts after, Hamels posted a 4.42 FIP with a 1.22 WHIP, walking over three batters per nine innings. He admitted to pitching through lingering discomfort at times, instead choosing to try and grit through a game - even if that meant ignoring how it would derail his healing process. As a result, the start of 2018 didn't treat him much better. It wasn't until a longer-than-usual film study with the Cubs that Hamels found his fix. 

"Basically, I was coming out of my whole front side," he added. "My hips - you know I was really landing open. I don’t do that - I’m a closed-off guy that really kind of hides the ball. It also maintains my distance down the mound and allows me to have a little bit more velocity. So I think that was really the big change and what I’ve been focusing on this offseason." 

Looking at the numbers, the adjustment is clear as day:

Adding three miles an hour to your fastball, midseason, is pretty significant. The reinvention of his fastball was one of the driving forces behind his turnaround last season, and there's no reason to believe Hamels -- now with a full offseason of healthy workouts under his belt -- can't be that type of pitcher for an entire season. If he can, the Lester-Hamels-Darvish rotation the Cubs dreamed of might be one step closer to fruition. 

As it stands now, however, there are *plenty* of questions about the Cubs' rotation. Their youngest starter is 29. Lester had his worst season in almost a decade and the year-by-year trends don't look great. Health AND regression have dogged Yu Darvish. Jose Quintana's been fine, but is a 4.05 FIP and 1.25 WHIP in 258 innings worth losing Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease?

"I think we all know how to get ready for a game and what’s expected out of us," Hamels said. "We know how to get good results and if we have a bad game we have guys that will pick of the pieces the next day and that’s comforting. I don’t think there are going to be too many bad stretches because we have guys that are going to be able to take care of business and stop streaks and we’re going to see some pretty fun winning streaks because of what we’re going to be doing as a pitching staff." 

Being an ace certainly wouldn't hurt, but if Hamels wants to live up to the $20 million option the Cubs picked up, he'll need to fill a larger void as one of the team's leaders. ("I think in general, MLB is doing pretty well for themselves," he replied when asked if the decision financially hamstrings the Cubs. "So I don’t necessarily buy it as much, but I understand people have to work within the certain system that they set.") Though this is still a tightly-knit clubhouse, many players and coaches admitted that there needs to be a new approach to leadership in 2019. Hamels, a World Series MVP and four-time All Star, fits the bill. It can be uncomfortable for players of even his pedigree to come into a new team and immediately be a leader, and Hamels knows how far a full spring around the same group of guys will go towards fixing that. 

"I’m 35, I’ve been in this game a long time, so I think that’s where I need to be. That’s sort of the role that’s directed towards you if you’ve played the game long enough. That’s kind of where you fit. I understand that, I’ve had a couple years to really do what I need to do in order to be that leader, and I guess now that means be a little more vocal instead of just letting the play out on the field be the leader."