Cubs

The endgame for the Cubs and Marmol

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The endgame for the Cubs and Marmol

Brian Wilson has the big black beard, the tattoos, the Taco Bell commercials and more than 600,000 followers on Twitter. The San Francisco Giants won another World Series without him.

Losing an elite closer is nothing like the Bulls trying to replace Derrick Rose this season. While Wilson recovered from Tommy John surgery, the Giants leaned on a 28th-round pick, a good setup guy with his own sweet beard and fist-pumping routine.

Sergio Romo had saved only three games in his entire big-league career until this year. He closed out the Detroit Tigers three times during a four-game sweep, ending it when he froze Miguel Cabrera with an 89 mph fastball.

Ideally, thats how the Cubs would like to build their bullpen. Their next closer wont be a cult of personality. Theyd prefer to grow one organically, or buy one at a discount, rather than pay top dollar.

Carlos Marmol will earn 9.8 million in the final year of his contract, which makes him an expensive, short-term asset in an organization with a long-range vision. So from next weeks general manager meetings in Indian Wells, Calif., all the way to next summers deadline, his name could be all over MLBTradeRumors.com.

When asked, Theo Epstein said hes comfortable with Marmol as his 2013 Opening Day closer. But the team presidents answer to a hypothetical question Philosophically, how would you go about finding a closer if your roster didnt have one? sounded more revealing.

I would look at it as an opportunity to try to give someone an opportunity, Epstein said recently. Either internally a pitcher that we believed in and liked and exposed them to that role (so he) could maybe develop into that type of asset.

Or go outside the organization and try to buy low on a pitcher that we really liked and then build value by putting him in that role. (Thats) value for the Cubs, and then if our season doesnt turn out the way we want it to potential value in a trade.

It didnt quite work, but Epstein went with the bullpen-by-committee when he took over the Boston Red Sox. He also went year-to-year with Jonathan Papelbon in arbitration at a time when they were locking up other young core players with extensions.

The Cubs are trying to stockpile power arms through the draft and build their bullpen from within. In the future, its hard to see them matching the kind of four-year, 50 million contract the Philadelphia Phillies gave Papelbon almost 12 months ago. They arent going to buy a brand name.

Marmol briefly lost his job and spent time on the disabled list with a hamstring strain in May. By the time he got back on track, no one was really paying attention to the Cubs as they marched toward 101 losses.

When theres something extreme early in the season, it dictates the narrative for the whole season, Epstein said. I think it kind of went unnoticed nationally, just the extent to which this guy turned his year around and was really effective.

Marmol converted 19 straight save chances during one stretch and posted a 1.52 ERA after the All-Star break. Whether or not that will lower heart rates among Cubs fans, or suppress that feeling of "here we go again" after the next leadoff walk at Wrigley Field, or convince a rival executive, his final numbers wound up being pretty good: 3-3 with a 3.42 ERA, 20 saves and 72 strikeouts in 55.1 innings.

Marmol also bought into what the coaching staff kept preaching: Trust your fastball. He threw it 51 percent of the time, seeing his average velocity rise back up to 94 mph, according to the online database at FanGraphs.

Big punch-out rate, more strikes and then really significantly he did it in a completely different way, Epstein said. His fastball was really useable and really effective and that hasnt been seen around here from him, maybe ever. That was a great sign, because I think its more likely to be repeated next year.

Hes got two really viable pitches now. If he had just been a straight-out slider monster and happened to lock in his slider for a couple months and faced some aggressive hitters, I wouldnt be as optimistic about him as I am now, because hes got two weapons to go at hitters with again.

After 13 seasons in the organization, Marmol celebrated his 30th birthday this month. He planned to spend his offseason riding horses, working on his farm in the Dominican Republic and ignoring all the speculation about what the Cubs might do next.

Marmol also considers Chicago to be a second home. He has become acclimated to the pressures of pitching the ninth inning here. Win or lose, he always stands in front of his locker postgame.

The statheads arent going to want to hear about a closers mentality, or being able to do it on a big stage in front of 40,000 fans. But even manager Dale Sveum who uses all the data analysis to guide his decisions thinks theres something different about getting the last three outs. Sooner or later, the Cubs are going to find out if someone else has what it takes.

Cubs still waiting for Willson Contreras' offense to take off, but they know it's coming

Cubs still waiting for Willson Contreras' offense to take off, but they know it's coming

If every Major League Baseball player was thrown into a draft pool in a fantasy-type format, Willson Contreras may be the first catcher taken.

Joe Maddon and the Cubs certainly wouldn't take anybody else over "Willy."

The Cubs skipper said as much in late-May, placing Contreras' value above guys like Buster Posey, Gary Sanchez and Yadier Molina based on age, athleticism, arm, blocking, intelligence, energy and offensive prowess.
 
Contreras strikes out more, doesn't hit for as high of an average and doesn't yet have the leadership ability of Posey, but he's also 5 years younger than the Giants catcher. Molina is possibly destined for the Hall of Fame, but he's also 35 and the twilight of his career is emerging. Sanchez is a better hitter with more power currently than Contreras, but a worse fielder.

Remember, Contreras has been in the big leagues for barely 2 years total — the anniversary of his first at-bat came earlier this week:

All that being said, the Cubs are still waiting for Contreras to display that type of complete player in 2018.

He's thrown out 11-of-32 would-be basestealers and the Cubs love the way he's improved behind the plate at calling the game, blocking balls in the dirt and working with the pitcher. They still see some room for improvement with pitch-framing, but that's not suprising given he's only been catching full-time since 2013.

Offensively, Contreras woke up Saturday morning with a .262 batting average and .354 on-base percentage (which are both in line with his career .274/.356 line), but his slugging (.412) is way down compared to his career .472 mark.

He already has 14 doubles (career high in a season was 21 last year) and a career-best 4 triples, but also only 4 homers — 3 of which came in a 2-game stretch against the White Sox on May 11-12.

So where's the power?

"He's just not been hitting the ball as hard," Maddon said. "It's there, he's gonna be fine. Might be just getting a little bit long with his swing. I think that's what I'm seeing more than anything.

"But I have so much faith in him. It was more to the middle of last year that he really took off. That just might be his DNA — slower start, finish fast.

"Without getting hurt last year, I thought he was gonna get his 100 RBIs. So I'm not worried about him. It will come. He's always hit, he can hit, he's strong, he's healthy, he's well, so it's just a patience situation."

The hot streak Maddon is talking about from last season actually began on June 16 and extended to Aug. 9, the date Contreras pulled his hamstring and went to the disabled list for the next month.

In that 45-game span (40 starts) in the middle of 2017, Contreras hit .313/.381/.669 (1.050 OPS) with 16 homers and 45 RBI.

It looked like the 26-year-old catcher may be getting on one of those hot streaks back in mid-May when he clobbered the Marlins, White Sox and Braves pitching staffs to the tune of a .500 average, 1.780 OPS, 3 homers and 11 RBI in a week's worth of action.

But in the month since, Contreras has only 3 extra-base hits and no homers, driving in just 4 runs in 29 games (26 starts) while spending most of his time hitting behind Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo.

What's been the difference?

"I think it's honestly just the playing baseball part of the game," Contreras said. "You're gonna go through your ups and downs, but I definitely do feel like I've been putting in the work and about ready to take off to be able to help the team."

Contreras admitted he's been focused more on his work behind the plate this season, trying to manage the pitching staff, consume all the scouting reports and work on calling the game. He's still trying to figure out how to perfectly separate that area of his game with his at-bats.

"With my defense and calling games, that's one way that I'm able to help the team right now," Contreras said. "And as soon as my bat heats up, we're gonna be able to take off even more."

On the latest round of National League All-Star voting, Contreras was behind Posey among catchers. The Cubs backstop said he would be honored to go to Washington D.C. next month, but also understands he needs to show more of what he's capable of at the plate.

"If I go, I go," he said. "Honestly, it's not something that I'm really focusing on right now. ... I do think I've been pretty consistent in terms of my average and on-base percentage and helping create situations and keep the line moving, at least.

"But right now, I know my bat hasn't been super consistent so far. It would be a great opportunity and I'd thank the fans."

As a whole, the Cubs have been hitting fewer home runs this season compared to last year. Under new hitting coach Chili Davis, they're prioritizing contact and using the whole field over power and pulling the ball.

Contreras has a 19.3 percent strikeout rate — the lowest of his brief big-league career — while still holding a 9.6 percent walk rate, in line with his career mark (9.9 percent).

Thanks to improved defense, Contreras still boasts a 1.6 WAR (FanGraphs) despite the low power output to this point. Posey (1.7 WAR) is the only catcher in baseball more valuable to his team.

Just wait until his power shows up.

"He hasn't even taken off yet," Maddon said. "He's gonna really take off. Remember last year how hot he got in the second half? That's gonna happen again. You see the pickoffs, what he does behind the plate, how he controls the running game — he's a different cat.

"And he's gonna keep getting better. He's not even at that level of consistency that I think you're gonna get out of him. Great athlete, runs well, does a lot of things well, but it does not surprise me that he's [second in NL All-Star voting at catcher] with Posey."

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

A year ago, the Cubs were struggling to float above .500, sitting 1.5 games behind the first-place Brewers.

Two years ago, the Cubs were10.5 games up on the second-place Cardinals in the division and already in cruise control to the postseason.

As they entered a weekend series in Cincinnati at 42-29 and in a tie for first place, the Cubs are feeling quite a bit more like 2016 than 2017.

The major reason? Energy, as Joe Maddon pointed out over the weekend.

That energy shows up most often on defense.

The 2016 Cubs put up maybe the best defensive season in baseball history while last year they truly looked hungover.

After a big of a slow start to 2018, the Cubs are feelin' more of that '16 swag.

If you watched either of the wins against the Los Angeles Dodgers this week at Wrigley Field, it's clear to see why: the defense.

"I like the defense," Maddon said of his team last week. "I'm into the defense. There's a tightness about the group. There's a closeness about the group. Not saying last year wasn't like that, but this group is definitely trending more in the '16 direction regarding interacting.

"If anything — and the one thing that makes me extremely pleased — would be the continuation of the defense. We've fed so much off our defense in '16. We've been doing that more recently again. We do so much good out there, then we come in and it gets kinda electric in the dugout. I'd like to see that trend continue on defense."

The Cubs scored only 2 runs in 10 innings in the second game against the Dodgers Tuesday night and managed just 4 runs in the finale Wednesday. Yet their gloves helped hold the Dodgers to only 1 run combined between the two games.

Wednesday's game was a defensive clinic, with Jason Heyward throwing out Chris Taylor at home plate with an incredible tag by Willson Contreras while Javy Baez, Albert Almora Jr., Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber all hit the ground to make sprawling/diving plays.

"[Almora] comes in and dives for one and I'm just like, 'OK, I'm done clapping for you guys,'" Jon Lester, Wednesday's winning pitcher, joked. "It's expected now that these guys make these plays. It's fun on our end. It's the, 'Here, hit it. Our guys are really good out there and they're gonna run it down.'"

The Heyward throw, in particular, jacked the team up. 

Maddon compared it to a grand slam with how much energy it provided the Cubs. Almora said he momentarily lost his voice because he was screaming so much at the play.

There was also Baez making plays in the hole at shortstop, then switching over to second base and turning a ridiculous unassisted double play on a liner in the 8th inning.

"That's what we're capable of doing," Maddon said. "In the past, when we've won on a high level, we've played outstanding defense. It never gets old to watch that kind of baseball."

The Cubs are back to forcing opposing hitters to jog off the field, shaking their head in frustration and disbelief.

"It could be so dispiriting to the other side when you make plays like that," Maddon said. "And also it's buoyant to your pitchers. So there's all kinds of good stuff goin' on there."

A lot of that is the play of the outfield, with Almora back to himself after a down 2017 season and Schwarber turning into a plus-rated defensive outfield.

After finishing 19th in baseball in outfield assists last season, the Cubs are currently tied for 6th with 14 outfield assists this year.

Schwarber has 7 alone, which is already as many as he tallied in the entire 2017 season.

"I feel like they'll learn quickly on Schwarber, if they haven't yet," Heyward said. "You gotta earn that respect. You gotta earn that sense of caution from the third base coach.

"But please keep running on me in those situations. I want it to happen."