How's the D-peat going? Cubs see improving defense but know things can be better

How's the D-peat going? Cubs see improving defense but know things can be better

Remember Joe Maddon’s proposed “D-peat”?

The Cubs skipper preached defensive dominance in spring training, pitching it as one of the most important aspects of the team repeating as World Series champions as a follow up to smashing that curse in 2016.

“That’s what the Chicago Cubs are kind of made out of,” outfielder Albert Almora Jr. said Saturday. “When we’re at our best, our defense is impeccable. So that’s kind of something that we strive for. We want to stick to the fundamentals and make the play.”

So how’s that D-peat going?

A casual observer might’ve been horrified to tune in Friday and see the Cubs commit three errors in a 6-1 win over the visiting Pittsburgh Pirates. Ian Happ collided with Kyle Schwarber in left-center field, resulting in no one catching a fly ball. Addison Russell allowed a base runner to advance to second when he lobbed what he believed to be a dead ball over the head of pitcher Eddie Butler. And Kris Bryant chucked a ball well wide of home plate trying to nab a runner.

The Pirates made three errors, too. It was an ugly fielding day all around at the Friendly Confines.

“The one is a communication thing,” Maddon explained, going through the mistakes from Friday’s game. “I don’t want to downgrade it, but that’s just guys talking to each other. You’ve got two young outfielders that have not played together. Now, Addison just has to know, ‘I’ve got to get permission from the umpire to throw the ball (back to the pitcher).’ That, to me, is under (the) mental component.

“We’re doing a lot of good things on defense that I don’t want to get confused with the mental mistake, the collision, the miscommunication. I’m not defending it, I’m just saying that should be easily cleaned up. (The Russell mistake) should never happen again, never.”

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Of course, Friday’s error-filled performance was just one game in a long season. The Cubs aren’t committing three errors on a daily basis, but they are committing a lot of them compared to the rest of the National League. They rank second out of 15 teams with 59. Take that stat as you will, as the Milwaukee Brewers, the team the Cubs are chasing in the NL Central standings, have made the most errors in the league, 69.

The D-peat was one of the topics brought up by Maddon in his annual midseason meeting Thursday, though the manager was quick to explain that fielding isn’t the team’s biggest problem. Getting consistency from the starting rotation and hitting better with runners in scoring position are higher on Maddon’s to-do list.

But obviously he’s paying attention to his defense and is seeing some improvement, particularly as his team gets healthier.

“Overall, I think we’ve been playing a better level of defense more recently,” Maddon said. “Addy’s been great at short, he’s been consistent. Javy (Baez), I think, at second had been outstanding. (Willson) Contreras behind the plate, my goodness, he’s among the best right now as far as I can tell. And it’s always good to have (Jason Heyward) back in right.

“I think we’ve gradually gotten back into the scheme of things defensively. The next two things to me are consistency among starting pitchers, that’s what’s going to get us there, and then solid situational offense. Those are the two areas to me. The defense is gradually ascending to the point where I want to see it. But we have to pitch like we can daily, and we have to — runner on third, less than two outs, we’ve got to get better at scoring that run. We’ve got to accumulate those runs, and that’s going to put us in a better position in the middle and the latter part of the game.”

As you can tell, there are more pressing things on Maddon’s mind when it comes to getting the Cubs back on track, out of their season-long hover around .500 and back on the road toward a World Series repeat.

But defense is a big piece of the puzzle, a puzzle that the Cubs are still looking to solve as the All-Star break arrives.

“I feel like every game we play, we’re in it. I don’t feel like we’ve lost a game or a couple games because of key errors,” Almora said. “I feel like we’re doing a good job, but I know we can do way better in every aspect of the game, offensively and defensively.”

On and off the field, Nico Hoerner proved he should be a big part of 2020 Cubs

On and off the field, Nico Hoerner proved he should be a big part of 2020 Cubs

Even before his surprise mid-September call-up, things were shaping up for Nico Hoerner to be a big part of the 2020 Cubs.

Now it looks like a certainty after the way he played in his 20-game cup of coffee in the final few weeks of 2019.

The organization's top prospect excelled at every level after the Cubs made him a first-round pick (24th overall) in June 2018. A broken wrist cost him two months this summer, but when he returned to Double-A Tennessee, the Cubs had him playing second base and center field in addition to shortstop, his natural position. That only boosted his value, as the Cubs clearly have holes at both center and second that they need to address this winter.

When he was pressed into duty after injuries to Javy Baez and Addison Russell, Hoerner proved the moment was certainly not too big for him. He hit .282 with a .741 OPS and 17 RBI in 20 games while playing solid defense at shortstop and displaying his great contact skills. 

While it's not unheard of for 22-year-olds to come up and immediately make an impact in the big leagues, Hoerner's case was particularly impressive given he played just 89 minor-league games and had not taken an at-bat above the Double-A level.

And Hoerner didn't just turn in solid production on the field — he was actually credited with helping provide a spark to the rest of the club, even though the season ultimately didn't end up the way the Cubs wanted. 

"He's been a little bit of a spark plug for us," Jon Lester said at the beginning of the Cubs' final homestand. "Any time you add energy like that, especially the naiveness of it — just not knowing what to expect and just going and playing baseball. Sometimes we all need to get back to that. Sometimes we all need to get back to just being baseball players and not worry about what else is going on surrounding us."

His former manager, Joe Maddon, called Hoerner a "differencemaker" down the stretch and felt confident he could stick at shortstop long-term.

It was also Hoerner's attitude and temperament that really drew rave reviews. Everybody — from Maddon to Theo Epstein to fellow teammates — were blown away by his sense of calm and confidence even while playing in pressure-packed big-league games. Those are the intangibles the Cubs have loved about Hoerner since they drafted him and don't expect that to change anytime soon.

"This is the type of human being he is," Epstein said. "He processes things really well he has strong character, he's in it for the right reasons, he's got a great family. He's really an invested member of the organization, a teammate and a winner."

This is the way he's always been, as his mom, Keila Diehl, explained to Kelly Crull in an interview on NBC Sports Chicago's broadcast on Sept. 14.

"He's just not full of himself," Diehl said. "He could be, and he's just not. ... He's just like this nice, ordinary guy — no attitude. Always brings a lot of energy and positivity to any team he's on."

That's exactly the guy we saw in Chicago in the final three weeks of the season. 

So as he recovers from his first full season of professional ball, Hoerner is in a position to forge a huge role for himself in Chicago next year. At the moment, it's reasonable to expect that to come at second base, but his ability to play shortstop might very well make Russell expendable this winter, especially with MLB Trade Rumors projecting the latter would be due $5.1 million in arbitration in 2020. 

The Cubs made it a point to get Hoerner some playing time at both second base and center field in the final two games of the 2019 season and he could at the very least offer a depth option in the outfield. 

His versatility, intangibles, and competitive drive present an intriguing package and his offensive skillset can help bring some diversity to the Cubs lineup. Hoerner is not really a power hitter at this point in his career but his hand-eye coordination and contact ability provide a refreshing style to this offense.

Simply put, Hoerner is just a good *baseball* player and profiles as the type of guy that can help any winning team in some capacity. 

The only question now is: Will the Cubs stash him in the minors for the early part of the season or let him continue to develop at Wrigley Field?

“We don’t ever draw it up that a player’s gonna skip Triple-A," Epstein said at his end-of-season presser. "It’s not determined yet where Nico’s gonna start next season, but given his mental makeup, given his skillset, who he is as a person, we felt that was something under the extraordinary circumstances that he could handle. I think it’s important that player development continues at the major-league level. 

"These days, it’s becoming a younger player’s game. If you look around baseball, the best teams have young players dominating. Yes, it’s not linear. There’s gonna be regression at the major-league level. But our players have had some real regression that’s taken them a while to dig out from. That’s something that we have to solve — finding ways to finish development off as best you can in the minor leagues, but understanding too that you need to create an environment at the major-league level with players who are expected to perform night after night are still developing, still working on their weaknesses, still making adjustments to the league." 

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Report: Giants interested in Cubs first base coach Will Venable for manager opening

Report: Giants interested in Cubs first base coach Will Venable for manager opening

The Giants' search for a successor to now-retired manager Bruce Bochy has led them to the North Side.

According to NBC Sports Bay Area's Alex Pavlovic, the Giants are interested in Cubs first base coach Will Venable for their own managerial opening. San Francisco's interest is intriguing, as Venable went to high school just outside San Francisco in nearby San Rafael. His father — Max Venable — played for the Giants from 1979-83. 

Venable also interviewed for the Cubs' manager job earlier this month, telling the Chicago Sun-Times that his interest is in the "organization in general." He is one of several internal candidates for the Cubs' job, along with bench coach Mark Loretta and front office assistant David Ross.

The Cubs also interviewed Joe Girardi and are set to meet with Astros bench coach Joe Espada and former Phillies manager Gabe Kapler.

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