Cubs

This is the identity of the 2017 Cubs so far: 'Up and down, up and down'

This is the identity of the 2017 Cubs so far: 'Up and down, up and down'

MIAMI – The Cubs are the defending champs, but at the moment they really don’t have much of an identity beyond that, unsure what they can count on from one game to the next, waiting to get healthy and still searching for that sense of rhythm 45 percent into the season.

This is a 37-36 team dealing with injuries near the top of the rotation (Kyle Hendricks), the middle of the lineup (Ben Zobrist) and the heart of the defense (Jason Heyward) while a World Series legend (Kyle Schwarber) gets a few days to clear his head before reporting to Triple-A Iowa.

Just when it looks like the rotation is gathering strength, the offense went missing again during Friday’s 2-0 loss at Marlins Park, the night after the Cubs scored 11 runs in Miami and talked about it as the type of game that can create momentum.

“The difference 24 hours can make,” manager Joe Maddon said.

But this has been building for almost three full months. The Cubs have been shut out six times already and at the .500 mark at 15 different points this season.

The good news: John Lackey hit 94 mph and has put together back-to-back quality starts for a starting five with a 2.35 ERA the last two turns through the rotation. The 10 games before that, the Cubs rotation put up a 5.65 ERA, but neither trend has really changed the overall picture in a weak National League Central. 

“That’s where it all starts, for sure,” Lackey said. “If you’re going to be a consistent winning team, you got to have good starting pitching, because the offense can kind of come and go.

“You got to remember they’re pretty young. We got a lot of guys still learning, still making adjustments in the game. But the talent’s there, so you like our chances in the end for those guys to do good stuff.”  

The bad news: Lackey had no margin for error as the Marlins needed only three hits to score two runs (one earned). Lackey gave up his 21st home run – he allowed 23 in almost 190 innings last year – in the third inning when Giancarlo Stanton launched an 83-mph pitch 458 feet beyond the garish pink-flamingos-and-palm-trees sculpture.   

Defense was supposed to be the constant with this team, but the Marlins manufactured an insurance run in the sixth inning when Dee Gordon stole second base off Lackey and catcher Miguel Montero threw the ball away, setting up Christian Yelich’s sacrifice fly.   

“I certainly have all the confidence in the world in everybody here,” reigning NL MVP Kris Bryant said. “Last year was a great year for us. Everybody just seemed to be hitting at the right time, pitching good at the right time. Everything clicked.

“This season hasn’t been that way. You look at many players – and many Hall of Fame players – they’ve had some down years here and there. It just kind of seems like as a group we’re a little down right now, but plenty of time to turn it around.”

Ian Happ and Javier Baez accounted for four of the six hits against right-hander Jose Urena and three different relievers as the Cubs hit into three double plays, struck out seven times and followed the same pattern.  

“Our offense is just like you saw – up and down, up and down,” Maddon said. “It is youthful. Listen, I don’t want to keep saying that, but it’s true. It just is. These guys need more at-bats to figure out what to not swing at and how to battle.”

Cubs still trying to break through on extension talks with current players

Cubs still trying to break through on extension talks with current players

SAN DIEGO — While the rest of the baseball world is occupying their time on free agent signings and trades, the Cubs have been waiting for their number to be called.

They've been trying to nail down extensions with key players that are only a couple years away from free agency, though nothing appears imminent on that front. 

Kris Bryant, Javy Baez, Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber are all free agents after the 2021 season, leaving the Cubs two years to work out a deal or trade the player before losing them for nothing but a compensation pick. Willson Contreras is a free agent after 2022. Theo Epstein's front office reached a four-year, $55.5 million deal with Kyle Hendricks in spring training, extending his team control through the 2023 season.

The Cubs won't comment specifically on the current extension talks, but they'd ideally hope to wrap anything before spring training this year, so the players can focus solely on baseball by then.

"We always take the position of not commenting on extensions, but are we having those discussions? Yes," Jed Hoyer said Tuesday. "People focus so much on trades and free agent signings at these meetings, but all the agents are under the same roofs, also, and allows us to have those kinds of discussions. I'm not gonna specify who or what, but yeah certainly those conversations are ongoing."

Bryant has long been thought of as the toughest of the group to lock up long-term given that his agent, Scott Boras, typically advises clients to hit the open market and maximize their value. Boras reiterated Tuesday afternoon at the Winter Meetings he and Bryant are still open to extension talks with the Cubs.

Baez and Rizzo loom as the two most likely to extend their Wrigley Field stays, with the two emerging as the faces of the franchise in their own ways.

As the Cubs try to navigate an offseason where they're "serving two masters" (trying to compete in 2020-21 while also enhancing the long-term future of the franchise), a potential extension would check both boxes in a major way. If Hoyer and Theo Epstein knew Baez would be locking down shortstop and the middle of the lineup for the next six seasons, they could breathe a bit easier thinking about the big picture and long-term health of the franchise. 

At the same time, they can't operate as if anything is a certainty. Bryant could decide he likes the Cubs' offer and make Chicago his forever baseball home. Baez could conclude the opposite. 

It's what makes this particular offseason so tricky for the Cubs.

"We have to be able to have parallel tracks in our mind," Hoyer said. "We have to be able to do multiple things at once. It doesn't make it more difficult. We have a lot of really good players. We've had them for a long time. When we talk to these players about contracts, there's no player that we talk to that we haven't had a conversation with at some point before about a contract. 

"We've talked about these players for five years in some way, shape or form. When we sit down with these players, we're not covering a ton of new ground. We've already been over a lot of it. I think we're able to have parallel tracks."

Two MLB moves that changed the landscape of Kris Bryant's trade market

Two MLB moves that changed the landscape of Kris Bryant's trade market

Two reported transactions Tuesday may not have drawn much attention from Cubs fans, but both directly impact the North Siders.

First, The Athletic’s Fabian Ardaya reported the Angels are trading third baseman Zack Cozart to the Giants for cash and a player to be named later. Soon thereafter, free agent shortstop Didi Gregorius agreed to a one-year deal with the Phillies, as Joel Sherman of the New York Post reported.

From a Cubs perspective, the Angels' and Phillies' moves impact a potential Kris Bryant trade market. According to Ardaya, the Giants are picking up the remaining $12.67 million on Cozart’s deal. This clears payroll space for Los Angeles to make a run at a superstar free agent, like third basemen Anthony Rendon and Josh Donaldson.

The Phillies inquired with the Cubs regarding a potential Bryant trade, according to multiple reports. However, Bryant’s unresolved grievance case is a holdup in any trade talks, should the Cubs entertain offers. If he wins, he'll become a free agent next winter. If he loses, he'll remain under team control through 2021.

Gregorius will slot into shortstop for Philadelphia, while incumbent Jean Segura will move to second base, according to NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Jim Salisbury. The Phillies are less likely to pursue Bryant — should the Cubs shop him — than they were entering Tuesday. Things can change, but they have less of an infield need as they did on Monday.

On the other hand, the Angels and new manager Joe Maddon suddenly could be a candidate to pursue Bryant. Acquiring him would bring less certainty than Rendon or Donaldson, as Bryant is only under contract for two seasons more, max. Furthermore, acquiring Bryant will cost the Angels prospect capital, while adding Rendon and Donaldson will 'only' entail paying them handsomely as free agents.

In short, Philadelphia is less likely to pursue Bryant than they were entering Tuesday; the possibility of the Angels doing so is stronger than it was entering the day. The Angels haven't been directly connected to Bryant at this point, but that now could change.