The St. Louis Cardinals talked about how hard they played until the end against the Cubs, claiming a moral victory, yet another sign of how much this rivalry has changed.
“Do something!” is always the natural reaction when a team struggles, even one with the best record in baseball, even when a three-time Manager of the Year fills out the lineup card, and even coming off a 97-win season and an all-out winter.
But scoring 21 runs within 23 hours against the Cardinals on Tuesday and Wednesday again showed how the Cubs were built (and how much St. Louis might miss John Lackey). The next time the Cubs fail to hit with runners in scoring position, or get shut out by a Madison Bumgarner, or experience a three-game losing streak, those offensive answers will have to come from within.
“No question,” general manager Jed Hoyer.
Between the final out of the National League Championship Series and getting swept by the New York Mets last October – and their first Cactus League game this spring – the Cubs committed $253 million combined to Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward and Dexter Fowler.
The Cubs have gone 4-for-4 with hitters in their top draft picks – Albert Almora, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ – every year since president Theo Epstein took over baseball operations at Wrigley Field. Plus taking Javier Baez with the ninth overall pick in the 2011 draft during the final weeks of the Jim Hendry regime.
The Cubs invested $30 million in the Cuban market to sign Jorge Soler and used pitching trade chips (Andrew Cashner and Jeff Samardzija) to acquire half of their infield (Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell) potentially through the 2021 season.
Rizzo is coming off a 3-for-35 road trip where the Cubs lost series to the Milwaukee Brewers and San Francisco Giants before closing strong in St. Louis. But Rizzo is also so much more mature and competitive than the overmatched hitter Hoyer rushed to the big leagues in 2011 with the San Diego Padres.
“As he goes, sometimes offensively we go,” Hoyer said. “With Anthony, when he’s good, he can carry you for a week to 10 days. He’ll get it going again. He knows he’s good now. He knows he can do it. When he goes to bed at night, he knows he’s an All-Star first baseman.
“That’s important when a guy’s going through a slump, that they have that confidence in themselves. (Now) it’s just a matter of that one swing that’ll click.”
Imagine what manager Joe Maddon described as “the butterfly effect” on the lineup once Heyward (.596 OPS) starts hitting the ball with authority to augment all the other subtle aspects of his game.
“He’s just a winning player,” Hoyer said. “Our players know that. He has that presence. Offensively, he’s been a slow starter like three of the last four years. There’s no question he’ll get it going.
“Once he (does), I think everyone will see the kind of player he’s been for most of his career. Everyone appreciates the defense and the baserunning. But the offense is a big part of that, too, and it will come here very shortly.”
If Heyward can’t be measured by batting average and RBIs, then the Cubs also dug into Zobrist’s peripheral numbers and underlying performance and found the super-utility guy had actually gotten better with age.
Zobrist turned 35 on Thursday and is hitting .346 and leading the majors with a .453 on-base percentage in the first season of a four-year contract.
“We love youth, (but) having some veterans is important,” Hoyer said. “With Ben, we felt like his skill set matched us perfectly. But we did really dig into the numbers to make sure that was the case.
“One of the things we look at is his ability to hit fastballs – it’s kind of gotten better and better throughout his career. Guys that can still hit a really good fastball don’t show a lot of signs of aging.”
It will be impossible to match the infusion of youth and energy Schwarber brought to the Cubs last summer, when he hit 16 homers in 69 games plus five more during the playoffs.
The Cubs are 31-14 with Schwarber getting only five plate appearances during the first week of the season and now recovering from major knee surgery.
Schwarber comparisons are unrealistic/unfair, but the next wave at Triple-A Iowa includes Almora, a potential Gold Glove center fielder who’s hitting .326 and top catching prospect Willson Contreras (.933 OPS).
“We knew we were going to miss Kyle,” Hoyer said. “There’s no question about that. You take a guy like Kyle (away) – that’s like taking Michael Conforto out of the Mets’ lineup.
“He’s that good a left-handed hitter. He kills right-handed pitching. We knew we were going to miss it. I think our guys have done a great job of filling that hole.
“As for Contreras and Almora, I look at those two guys and I think there’s a little development left. We know that they’re doing a great job at Triple-A. If the need arises, those are guys that might get forced into action.
“But right now, we want those guys developing. Obviously, if the major-league team needs that player at that moment, (Kyle) will be the precedent. But right now, I think they’re still developing, still learning.”
A 10-game homestand begins Friday afternoon against the rebuilding Philadelphia Phillies at Wrigley Field. As the Cardinals know by now, the Cubs are no longer a franchise that keeps score with minor-league updates or prospect rankings or moral victories.