Cubs

With Fowler signing, Cubs make another statement that future is right now

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With Fowler signing, Cubs make another statement that future is right now

MESA, Ariz. - Jake Arrieta walked up to Theo Epstein, extended a fist-pound and simply said, "Nice job."

In a sense, that was the perfect way to sum up Thursday at Cubs camp.

Of course, Arrieta was talking about Dexter Fowler's return to the Cubs and the dramatic, thrilling way in which the veteran centerfielder was announced to the team before the second official day of full team workouts.

[MORE - Cubs players react to Fowler's surprise arrival: 'Theo got us all']

To say the move was stunning is an understatement.

In the world of Twitter, nothing is kept secret for long. Yet in this case, the reporters were just as stunned as most of the Cubs organization when Epstein and Fowler stalked across a path between two practice fields.

In one fell swoop, Epstein's front office added a leadoff hitter and centerfielder and erased a potential issue in the clubhouse - Chris Coghlan was not happy with his playing time at the end of last season and his role wasn't exactly going to expand anytime soon. (Plus, $4.8 million for a guy who figures to be a backup is a pretty hefty price tag.)

[RELATED - Cubs deal Chris Coghlan to make room for Dexter Fowler signing]

Fowler's presence means Jason Heyward can move back to his more natural position of right field and it also gives Joe Maddon's lineup a bonafide leadoff hitter, setting the table - something Fowler excels at - and lengthens the order.

We're not Maddon and there are so many things that are bound to happen before the first regular season game April 4, but as it stands right now, this could be the Cubs' lineup against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim on Opening Day:

1. Dexter Fowler - CF
2. Ben Zobrist - 2B
3. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
4. Kris Bryant - 3B
5. Jason Heyward - RF
6. Jorge Soler - LF
7. Kyle Schwarber - DH
8. Miguel Montero - C
9. Addison Russell - SS

Quite a bit different from the lineups Dale Sveum wrote out in the first years under Epstein's administration, eh?

Even when the Cubs move to National League games, Schwarber can catch or else he and Soler can platoon in left field. Maddon can give guys days off to keep them fresh and if there's an injury in the outfield, the Cubs now have quality options.

Maddon's message all spring so far has been for the Cubs to embrace the target on their backs as World Series favorites.

[SHOP: Gear up for the 2016 season, Cubs fans!]

Adding Fowler to the mix only makes that target larger.

"It's not even a consideration," Epstein said. "If it is, it is. We had the chance to add a really, really good player on a one-year contract to provide talent and depth and address a potential vulnerability on the team.

"It would be irresponsible not to make that move, in my opinion, given where we are. ... Our players are embracing the target. They are completely united. They're here for the right reasons. They have one goal in mind.

"They're having a blast. It's fun to just be around this group and even more so now."

It's only February, and the 2016 Cubs have already shown a flair for the dramatic. But will the season end in drama in late October/early November?

Only time will tell.

Podcast: Cubs pass the first test in midst of crucial stretch

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Scott Changnon

Podcast: Cubs pass the first test in midst of crucial stretch

On the latest CubsTalk Podcast Scott Changnon and Tony Andracki discuss the state of the Cubs offense, the value of Javy Baez and Addison Russell and what it means now that the starting rotation looks to be finding its form.

With 17 games in 17 days (most of which come against contending teams), the Cubs started things off right with a series victory in St. Louis.

Listen to the entire podcast here:

The Cubs are in a way better spot than they were a year ago

The Cubs are in a way better spot than they were a year ago

ST. LOUIS — It's night and day watching the 2018 Cubs compared to the 2017 version.

Even with the injury to Javy Baez Sunday night, the Cubs are in a way better spot now than they were a year ago.

On June 17 of last season, the Cubs sat at 33-34 with a run differential of just +6.

They looked flat more often than not. "Hangover" was the word thrown around most and it was true — the Cubs really did have a World Series hangover.

They admit that freely and it's also totally understandable. Not only did they win one of the most mentally and physically draining World Series in history, but they also ended a 108-year championship drought and the weight of that accomplishment was simply staggering. 

The 2018 iteration of the Cubs are completely different. 

Even though they didn't finish off the sweep of their division rivals in St. Louis Sunday night, they're still only a half-game behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central and for the best record in the league. A +95 run differential paced the NL and sat behind only the Houston Astros (+157), Boston Red Sox (+102) and New York Yankees (+98) in the AL.

Through 67 games, the Cubs sat at 40-27, 13 games above .500 compared to a game below .500 at the same point last summer.

What's been the main difference?

"Energy," Joe Maddon said simply. "Coming off the World Series, it was really hard to get us kickstarted. It was just different. I thought the fatigue generated from the previous two years, playing that deeply into the year. A lot of young guys on the team last year.

"We just could not get it kickstarted. This year, came out of camp with a fresher attitude. Not like we've been killing it to this point; we've been doing a lot better, but I didn't even realize that's the difference between last year and this year.

"If anything, I would just pinpoint it on energy."

Of course the physical component is easy to see. The Cubs played past Halloweeen in 2016 and then had so many demands for street namings and talk shows and TV appearances and Disney World and on and on. That would leave anybody exhausted with such a shortened offseason.

There's also the mental component. The Cubs came into 2018 with a chip on their shoulder after running into a wall in the NLCS last fall against the Los Angeles Dodgers. They have a renewed focus and intensity.

But there's still plenty of room for more. The Cubs aren't happy with the best record and run differential in the NL. They know they still haven't fully hit their stride yet, even amidst a 24-13 stretch over the last five weeks.

"I think we've been pretty consistent," Jon Lester said. "We've had some ups and downs on both sides of the ball as far as pitching and hitting. But the biggest thing is our bullpen and our defense has been pretty solid all year.

"That's kept us in those games. When we do lose — you're gonna have the anomalies every once in a while and get blown out — we're in every single game. It's all we can do. Keep grinding it out.

"Our offense will be fine. Our defense and the back end of our bullpen has done an unbelievable job of keeping us in these games. And if we contribute as a starting five, even better. 

"You have the games where our guys get feeling sexy about themselves and score some runs. That's where the snowball effect and we get on that little bit of a run. I feel like we've been on a few runs, it just hasn't been an extended period of time. I don't have any concerns as far as inside this clubhouse."

Lester hit the nail on the head. The Cubs sit at this point with only 1 win from Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood struggling with command and low power numbers from several guys including Kris Bryant.

Throw in the fact that Joe Maddon's Cubs teams always seem to get into a groove in August and September when they're fresher and "friskier" than the rest of the league and this team is currently in very good shape for the remainder of the year. 

If they can get 3 wins away from the World Series after going 33-34, the sky should be the limit for a 2018 squad that's in a much better position 67 games in.