Cubs

How Cubs see Ben Zobrist, Javier Baez and all the other pieces fitting together

How Cubs see Ben Zobrist, Javier Baez and all the other pieces fitting together

Ben Zobrist is a three-time All-Star and a World Series MVP with a $56 million contract, no-trade protections and enormous respect inside the clubhouse. Zobrist is secure enough to admit that the Cubs will need to play Javier Baez more this year, even if it means shifting back to more of a super-utility role.
 
Baez became a breakout star as the Cubs won their first World Series title since 1908, starting all 17 playoff games at second base, making highlight-reel plays look routine, turning tagging into an art form and showcasing his confident personality. Baez has no doubt that he should be an everyday player.
 
The Cubs are built with depth, flexibility and the 162-game marathon in mind. A potential six-man rotation – with the Brett Anderson deal becoming official on Thursday – and a collection of versatile defenders should help keep them fresh for October (and lead to inevitable grumbling about messing with routines and timing).
 
After a winter where he faced repeated questioning about the way he managed Games 6 and 7 in the World Series, Joe Maddon will again have to massage egos, entertain/inform/distract the media and not lose sight of the big picture. Bench coach Dave Martinez and pitching coach Chris Bosio should at least expect to have some difficult conversations with frustrated players, putting out fires before it gets back to Maddon's office.
 
Zobrist vs. Baez will be one of countless variables when Maddon sits down at a Starbucks and writes out the lineup on his iPad.
 
"There's all kinds of stuff going on there," Maddon said. "Of course, you've got to keep everybody involved. (With Kyle) Schwarber being well, you look at Schwarber a lot in left field. And then you look at Javy at second base with Zo. You can even think about Zo in the outfield in right when you want to put Jason (Heyward) in center.
 
"I'm not worried about that right now."
 
In part because the Cubs went through this in spring training last year, when Dexter Fowler shocked the baseball world by taking a one-year, $13 million guarantee and showing up at the team's Arizona complex.
 
"It was kind of right around this time last year that we started having sort of more serious dialogue with Dexter about possibly coming back," general manager Jed Hoyer said at Cubs Convention in mid-January. "Up on the white board in my office, we all sat around and tried to figure out the playing time.
 
"We had (Jorge) Soler up there. We had Schwarber up there. We had Heyward up there. And (with) Dexter, we were trying to figure out how we could get him enough at-bats.

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"We kept saying: ‘If all the guys are healthy, it's going to be tight, but we can figure this out. And that's going to be Joe's problem.'"
 
By Game 3, Fowler and Schwarber had crashed into each other in Chase Field's left-center gap. The violent collision forced Schwarber to get major surgery on his left knee, setting the stage for a dramatic World Series return.
 
"It's a great lesson on depth," Hoyer said.
 
Zobrist will turn 36 in May and already has a World Series ring from the 2015 Kansas City Royals. He's a patient switch-hitter with contact skills and the ability to play all over the infield and outfield for a team that will be pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle, tailoring lineups for the opposing pitcher and setting specific defensive alignments behind that game's starter.
  
Beyond the 39 homers and 102 RBI, Kris Bryant won last year's National League MVP award with his strong defensive play all over the field, allowing Maddon to get more and more creative with his lineup decisions and in-game adjustments. Bryant, Heyward, Jon Jay, Albert Almora Jr. and Matt Szczur have the athleticism to play center field this season. Schwarber and Willson Contreras have experience in the outfield and behind the plate.
 
Maddon watched Baez develop last year and again brought up the idea of awarding a Gold Glove to a super-utility guy. When figuring out where to play Baez defensively – at least before that spectacular playoff performance – Maddon would take into account that game's starting pitcher and information from The Geek Department and try to figure out where the ball should be hit most often.
 
"He does some things on the field that you just don't teach," third base coach Gary Jones said. "He's one of the most instinctive guys that I've ever been around in my 30-plus years in this game. He just does things on the field that make you go: ‘Wow.'"
 
That's why Zobrist understood Maddon's decision to let Baez take over second base in October and early November.
 
"I'm going to talk about rest from Day 1," Maddon said. "I really think it's important, whether it's pitchers or position players to really be aware of giving guys rest.
 
"Zo's another year older. The last two years, he's played very deep into the year. (And) it's a long spring training with the WBC (World Baseball Classic) going on. Just try to get a pulse of everybody, where they're at, what you think they might need.
 
"Like last year, we were all worried about how we were going to figure out the outfield – and then two guys run into each other in Arizona. All of a sudden, it takes care of itself. I don't want that to happen that way. But I really believe that we'll be able to parcel the work out, based on conversation and just giving guys rest."

It's safe to say Kyle Hendricks has figured 'it' out

It's safe to say Kyle Hendricks has figured 'it' out

It was only a matter of time before Kyle Hendricks figured it all out. 

It appears Friday was that day. 

The 29-year-old right-hander was off to a slow start to the season, surrendering 24 hits and 8 earned runs in 13.1 innings across his first three starts, good for a 5.40 ERA and 2.18 WHIP. 

Things looked a little better last time out — only 2 earned runs allowed on 6 hits in 5 innings last Saturday against the Angels — but even after that start, Hendricks admitted he still feels like he's fighting himself and searching for his fastball command.

"You can't rush it," he said after that outing. "You can't rush the process. But it definitely gets frustrating. I need to do a better job and give the team a better chance to win when I'm out there regardless. And set a better tone — be more aggressive with my fastball and set a better tone for the game. You want it to come quick, but at least I'm seeing something, so I just gotta stick with what I'm doing."

Whatever he was seeing with his mechanics came to pass in Friday afternoon's 5-1 Cubs win, as he completely baffled the Diamondbacks in a brilliant performance — 7 shutout innings, permitting only 3 singles while striking out 11. It was his first double-digit strikeout game since he whiffed 12 Cardinals on Aug. 13, 2016 en route to his ERA title that season.

"Yeah, like I said, you kinda always want it to come, but I didn't think it was gonna come this quick," Hendricks admitted after Friday's game. "So to go out and make that many good pitches, yeah it helps the confidence a lot. It solidifies the things we've been working on, so I just told the guys this was just one good day, so tomorrow, gotta get right back at it with another good work day and hopefully get on a roll here."

It was also the Cubs' third straight appearance from a starting pitcher of 7 shutout innings, after Cole Hamels and Jose Quintana turned the trick in the final two games in Miami earlier in the week.

The one pitch Hendricks felt good about last time out — his changeup — was his bread and butter Friday, too. He threw it 30 times out of his 100 pitches and induced 8 swings and misses.

"That was kinda classic Kyle," Joe Maddon said. "Great changeup, again. A lot of called strikes, pitching on the edges. ... That first inning or so, still seeking and then once he found it, he got into a nice groove."

Part of the success of the changeup was due to Hendricks' command with his fastball, which he apparently figured out — for one start, at least. He threw 66 percent of his pitches for strikes throughout the game and 35 of his 56 fastballs went for strikes. 

"From the get-go, I just felt more comfortable in my mechanics, so it just freed everything up," Hendricks said. "From there, I just used my fastball a lot better — kinda like what I was talking about. Fastball command and just establishing it early. Everything else worked off that and it just had good action today. Kept it down, made a lot of good pitches, so it worked out."

Hendricks even saw 17 pitches at the plate despite an 0-for-4 performance, as the Cubs offense put 19 runners on base throughout the course of the afternoon.

However, his day was not without negatives. He took a 110 mph liner off the left leg in the seventh inning, but stayed in the game and finished off the last two hitters he faced.

He also snapped his fascinating personal streak, as he threw his first wild pitch since Sept. 5, 2016 — a span of 6,662 pitches:

"I had no idea; I came in the clubhouse and someone brought that to my attention," Hendricks said, laughing. "Time to start a new streak."

In all, Hendricks picked up his first win of 2019 and lowered his season ERA to 3.54 and WHIP to 1.67 with his performance. He also helped pitch his team back to the .500 level (9-9) for the first time since the opening weekend of the season.

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Joe Maddon weighs in on the bat-flip debate

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USA TODAY

Joe Maddon weighs in on the bat-flip debate

You won't be finding Joe Maddon among Tim Anderson's defenders, but he's also not using this week's incident as a teaching moment for his players.

Maddon is still under the belief that it's better not to create a list of rules in the clubhouse to govern the players, but he also isn't into the whole show of celebration, of which bat-flips are at the forefront.

When Anderson flipped his bat on a home run Wednesday against the Royals, Kansas City pitcher Brad Keller responded by drilling Anderson the next time up. That resulted in a benches — and bullpens — clearing incident and then on Friday afternoon, both Anderson and Keller were hit with suspensions (Anderson was suspended for using a racial slur in his response to Keller). 

This is just the latest — and maybe one of the most charged — examples of the whole bat-flip/unwritten rules ordeal. Baseball's long tradition of punishing players for "showing up" a pitcher is alive and strong, and that's true even in the younger generation (Keller is only 23 years old). 

At 65, Maddon has been in the game of baseball since decades before Keller was even born, but he subscribes to a similar line of thinking as the Royals right-hander.

"I know my first year [with Cubs in 2015], I got upset at Junior Lake down in Miami [for flipping his bat]," Maddon said. "At that time, my being upset was about trying to flip the culture here — being more professional-looking and act like you're gonna do it again. That was my whole point about that.

"For me, I would prefer our guys didn't do that. I would prefer that the younger group right now doesn't need to see demonstrations like that in order to feel like they can watch baseball or that baseball is more interesting because somebody bat-flips really well and I kinda dig it and if I watch, I might see a bat-flip. 

"I would prefer kids watch baseball because it's a very interesting game, it's intellectually stimulating and when it's played properly, it's never too long. I prefer kids learn that method as opposed to become enamored with our game based on histrionics. I really would prefer that, but it seems to be that we are catering to that a bit.

"...When somebody choose to [bat-flip] and somebody gets hit in the butt because of it, that's what you're looking at. Regardless if you're old or new school, if you're a pitcher, I think you're gonna be offended by that. Act like you're gonna do it again would be the method that I would prefer with our guys. I want to believe we're not gonna do that, but it may happen here, too. And then we're just gonna have to wait and see how the other team reacts."

Though Maddon is not a fan of bat-flips and excessive celebration for big moments, he has not coached his players into avoiding such moments. 

That's why you still see Javy Baez out there being his typical flashy self and David Bote with an epic bat-flip on his walk-off grand slam (though that was obviously a much bigger moment than a run-of-the-mill fourth-inning homer) and Pedro Strop nearly dislocating his shoulder with some aggressive fist-pumps after nailing down a big out late in games.

But if anything does get out of line, Maddon prefers the policing comes from the players within the Cubs clubhouse or from the other team. Think back to last year when Baez tossed his bat in frustration after a pop-out against the Pirates at Wrigley Field and Strop pulled Baez aside to let him know "we don't do that here."

"I think the tried-and-true method of policing the group — whether it's the team policing itself or the industry and players doing the same thing," Maddon said. "I'd be curious to see if [Anderson] ever does that again, based on the result the other day." 

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