How Cubs built a bigger and better version of last year’s NLCS team

How Cubs built a bigger and better version of last year’s NLCS team

The Cubs are a bigger, better version of the team the New York Mets swept aside in last year’s National League Championship Series, no longer just happy to be here and now fully expecting to beat the Los Angeles Dodgers this time.

“A lot of us have a sour taste in our mouth from last year,” Kris Bryant said. “We’ll be ready for it. I definitely can’t wait.”

That doesn’t guarantee the franchise’s first NL pennant since the year World War II ended, or its first World Series title since the Theodore Roosevelt administration. But the Cubs upgraded a 97-win team in all phases of the game, not overreacting to that four-game sample against the Mets as much as reinforcing what they already knew.

Those young players who kept hearing how special they are – and how good this team should be for a long time – didn’t take the opportunity for granted and played with passion and focus. The media crush and every-pitch intensity won’t be intimidating or a shock to the system during Game 1 on Saturday night at Wrigley Field.

“It’s great to have that experience,” said Jason Heyward, who played on the 100-win St. Louis Cardinals team the Cubs bounced from last year’s playoffs. “And not the ‘wow factor’ of doing it for the first time. And then it’s like: ‘Hey, we expect to be here.’

“Nobody’s surprised to be here.”

To get back here, the final bill for free agents came in at almost $290 million, an itemized list that had a meet-the-Mets-again feel to it.

Suffocated by New York’s power pitching, the Cubs added two switch-hitters to their lineup by winning the Ben Zobrist sweepstakes (without making the highest offer) and bringing back Dexter Fowler (in a shocking stealth-mode deal days after the you-go, we-go leadoff guy reportedly reached an agreement with the Baltimore Orioles).

Stretched thin in the rotation, the Cubs signed John Lackey – the most valuable pitcher on that St. Louis team – and can now use the two-time World Series champion as a Game 4 starter. Shaky in the outfield, the Cubs added a three-time Gold Glove winner in Heyward to change their defensive identity.

[RELATED: Cubs in 'better place' after 2015 NLCS experience]

Vulnerable in the running game, the Cubs fast-tracked Willson Contreras after only 55 games at Triple-A Iowa, promoting the dynamic catcher in the middle of June. By late July, the Cubs finalized a blockbuster deal with the New York Yankees for Aroldis Chapman, giving manager Joe Maddon a game-changer like Mets closer Jeurys Familia. 

“You just look up and down,” Bryant said. “This team’s a whole lot better. Just look at each individual player and how much better we are than we were last year.

“I can say that for myself – I’m a way better player than I was last year. Look at Kyle Hendricks – unbelievable. Look at Jon Lester – he’s having a way better season than he had last year, too.

“That just gives us all the confidence in the world knowing that each individual guy in here has done something this year to get better than they were last year.”

Bryant topped his Rookie of the Year campaign with a 39-homer, 102-RBI MVP-caliber season. Hendricks went from a being a nominal fifth starter to winning the ERA title. Lester, the Game 1 starter, looked and acted far more comfortable during Year 2 of that $155 million megadeal, which might translate into a Cy Young Award.  

Addison Russell – who didn’t make last year’s NLCS roster while dealing with a strained hamstring – became a 21-homer, 95-RBI All-Star shortstop at the age of 22. Javier Baez, who looked rattled at times while filling in for Russell against the Mets, became the breakout star of this year’s NL Division Series, delivering big hits, making spectacular defensive plays and getting under the skin of the San Francisco Giants.  

“It’s hard to focus in the postseason with the loudness of the fans, but I’ve been working on slowing the game down,” Baez said. “That has been big for me (since) I was coming up to the big leagues. Now, I’m really good at it. Obviously, there’s still a little pressure and nerves. But you still have to play the game and keep slowing it down.”

In a hypothetical best-of-seven series between the 2015 Cubs and the 2016 version, Bryant said, “We’d crush that team.” Now let’s see if these Cubs can handle another playoff-tested cast featuring Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen, Corey Seager, Justin Turner and Adrian Gonzalez.

“Expectations and pressure,” Maddon said, “that’s the baseball fossil fuel right there.

“My initial message to the boys was: Why would you ever want to be in a situation that doesn’t require a little bit of pressure added to it, or expectations? I would not want to go into a season having zero expectations and zero pressure applied to you because you’re going to finish fourth or fifth in a division. I mean, that’s a bad way to live.

“Listen, if you hear the word pressure, you got to run toward it. That’s a good thing. That means we’re good and something good is attached to it.”

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."