Cubs

Joe Maddon breaks down Wade Davis vs. Aroldis Chapman as Cubs ramp up for another World Series run

Joe Maddon breaks down Wade Davis vs. Aroldis Chapman as Cubs ramp up for another World Series run

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – The Cubs downplayed expectations after spending almost $290 million on free agents during their 2-for-1 offseason.

Trading for one season of Wade Davis at $10 million – and betting his right arm can withstand another deep playoff run – feels logical and measured in an environment where the New York Yankees just gave Aroldis Chapman a five-year, $86 million contract that smashed the record for closers.

Giving up Jorge Soler – an immense Cuban talent who looks like an NFL linebacker and once sparked a bidding war among big-market teams like the Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers – seems painless. The Cubs have a roster crunch and obvious concerns about Soler’s ability to stay healthy and can’t turn him into the part-time designated hitter the Kansas City Royals envision.

But don’t confuse acting rational at the winter meetings with thinking small. Everything becomes clearer once you escape the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center bubble and head toward Reagan National Airport. Make no mistake, the Cubs left Washington on Thursday after acquiring the closer they believe will get the final out of the 2017 World Series.

“The Wade Davis move is an aggressive move,” team president Theo Epstein said. “It’s not like a hedge or a cautious move. We traded a longer-term asset for a short-term asset. But if you do that, you have to make sure the short-term asset is an impact one. And that was the case with Chapman. And that’s now the case with Davis.

“I see that as an aggressive move of an organization that’s hungry to win another World Series.”

After the Cubs handed manager Joe Maddon a shiny new toy – and gave up uber-prospect Gleyber Torres in that blockbuster Chapman deal with the Yankees in late July – Epstein asked: “If not now, when?”

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The Cubs viewed Chapman strictly as a rental and showed no interest in bringing him back to Chicago. The end would always have to justify the means after trading for a player who began the season serving a 30-game suspension under Major League Baseball’s domestic-violence policy. The Cubs got that championship parade down Lake Shore Drive and Michigan Avenue, so it won’t really matter if Torres becomes a star in The Bronx.

Beyond the enormous financial commitment and off-the-field concerns with Chapman, the Cubs are now getting an All-Star closer who worked at his craft by first making 88 starts in the big leagues. Where dealing with Chapman presented a language barrier and his preference to work one clean inning at a time, Maddon managed Davis during his first four seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays.

“They’re just different kinds of pitchers,” Maddon said. “I mean, Aroldis is pretty great. There’s several guys out there right now that everybody would like to have – and the guys that are out there as free agents are obvious. Guys like Wade Davis – ask around the industry – how many people would like to have him also?

“I can’t tell you he’s better. He’s just different. Like I said, Aroldis pretty much relies on his fastball and he’s got a great slider, whereas Wade, growing up as a starter, pitches.

“It’s just a different method of closing.”

Chapman is an athletic freak who created a buzz throughout Wrigley Field as fans looked up at the 3,990-square-foot LED video board for the velocity readings. He will turn 29 in spring training, but at some point the question will inevitably become: Can he pitch with something less than a 103-mph fastball?

Instead of waiting to pounce at the trade deadline, having Davis from Opening Day through possibly October should help protect Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr. and Justin Grimm from a manager who wants to win every pitch and pushes his relievers hard.

Credit Chapman for evolving in the World Series and throwing 97 pitches in Games 5, 6 and 7 combined. But adding Davis shows the Cubs want to be a dynasty.

“He’s definitely a difference-maker,” Maddon said. “His stuff is that good. He’s high velocity, great cutter, very good curveball. He knows how to pitch, too, so part of the allure with him is he’s just not a thrower out there.

“He has other things other than his fastball. He gets out righties and lefties. So he pretty much does it all.”

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."

Brandon Morrow has a healthy sense of humor about his pants-related injury

Brandon Morrow has a healthy sense of humor about his pants-related injury

Brandon Morrow's body may not be healthy, but his sense of humor sure isn't on the disabled list.

The Cubs closer had to go on the DL Wednesday after he injured his back changing out of his pants early Monday morning when the Cubs returned home to Chicago after a Sunday night game in St. Louis.

The story made national rounds, not only in the baseball world, but resonating with non-sports fans, as well. After all, it's not every day a guy who gets paid millions for his athletic endeavors injures himself on a mundane every day activity.

But it's all good, because even Morrow can find the humor in the situation, Tweeting this out Thursday afternoon:

Morrow's back tightened up on him and didn't loosen up enough the next two days, making him unavailable for the Cubs doubleheader Tuesday at Wrigley Field.

The team decided to put him on the shelf Wednesday morning so an already-gassed bullpen wouldn't have more pressure during this stretch of 14 games in 13 days.

The Cubs are in Cincinnati this weekend for a four-game series with the Reds. Morrow is eligible to return from the DL next Wednesday in Los Angeles as the Cubs once again take on the Dodgers — Morrow's old team.

The 33-year-old pitcher is 16-for-17 in save chances this year while posting a 1.59 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 25 strikeouts in 22.2 innings. He's only given up a run in 2 of his 26 outings as a Cub.