Cubs

Joe Maddon knows Cubs have nowhere to hide: ‘We are the target’

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Joe Maddon knows Cubs have nowhere to hide: ‘We are the target’

HAZLETON, Pa. – Not even Joe Maddon can talk his way around this. Not when the Cubs just dropped $272 million on Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and John Lackey. For a team that smashed all expectations by winning 97 games last season, there will now be nowhere to hide.

“Of course, we are the target,” Maddon said. “Of course, you are, so why deny that you are? You’re the target, OK? Embrace it. Seriously, embrace the target. And process it properly and move on. But to deny it? To say that’s not true? It is true.

“But that shouldn’t really alter the way we think. It shouldn’t alter our preparation. It shouldn’t alter anything except, I think, once you admit to it, then you kind of disarm it a bit. If you want to constantly push it back and say it’s not true, then you give it more power.”

Of course, this is exactly what Maddon signed up for when he scored a five-year, $25 million contract, a deal that immediately gave the franchise a new sense of swagger.

To be on the other side of the David vs. Goliath story after nine seasons managing the Tampa Bay Rays. To work at Wrigley Field and take advantage of everything that Chicago has to offer. To use the louder megaphone and bigger platform for his Hazleton Integration Project, the nonprofit organization staging “Thanksmas” this week in his old working-class neighborhood in Pennsylvania.

[MORE CUBS: Theo Epstein feels like Cubs are selling themselves now]

The national media already crowned the Cubs winners of the winter meetings by adding a big-game pitcher Maddon has compared to John Wayne (Lackey) and a Swiss Army knife that can hit anywhere in the lineup and play all over the field (Zobrist).

Now here comes the online headline from USA Today’s coverage of Tuesday’s press conference at Spiaggia on Michigan Avenue: “Jason Heyward gives Cubs the next great dynasty.”

“People are really going to be looking at us now,” Maddon said. “Of course, people are going to be predicting all these grandiose things for us. And that’s great, cool, because that probably means we are pretty good. But then how do you go about achieving those (things)? That’s why you can’t get caught up in this outcome society. You have to just really focus on today.”

Maddon exhaled while making his next point, which is pretty much the same thing he’s been saying since his “Hazleton Way” shot-and-a-beer press conference at The Cubby Bear on Nov. 3, 2014.

“And then when you do that,” Maddon said, “that pressure lightens up. Because all you got to do is win Monday. And then all you got to do is win Tuesday. And then you got to win on Wednesday. As opposed to trying to win 2016.

“I really believe a combination of me, the coaches, (sports psychologist) Ken Ravizza – all the people we have at our disposal – will be able to get that message out there.

[MORE CUBS: Joe Maddon feels like Cubs won baseball lottery again with Jason Heyward]

“Believe me, man, I’m going to pound that home again. Because if we can really adopt that attitude – which I know we can – that’s our best way to really win eight more games next year.”

The last time the Cubs advanced to the National League Championship Series, Sports Illustrated responded by putting Kerry Wood on the cover of its 2004 baseball preview: “Hell Freezes Over: The Cubs Will Win the World Series.” That team won 89 games but finished in third place and missed the playoffs.

The last time the Cubs won 97 games, the team was still up for sale, the window to contend started to close and Milton Bradley poisoned the clubhouse during a miserable follow-up season in 2009.

The Cubs will need good health, good fortune and good chemistry in a division where the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates won’t be conceding anything. At a time when the New York Mets will be defending their pennant, the Washington Nationals are reloading and the NL West has the Arizona Diamondbacks jumping into the arms race between the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants.

[MORE CUBS: Why Jason Heyward chose Cubs over Cardinals]

Jake Arrieta threw almost 250 innings – including three draining playoff starts – during his Cy Young Award campaign. Jon Lester will be 32 next season, or five years younger than Lackey.

That’s why Maddon appreciates team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer preparing for worst-case scenarios in the rotation with Adam Warren, Trevor Cahill, Clayton Richard and Travis Wood.

Whether or not Addison Russell can stay healthy and play shortstop for seven months, the front office is also giving Maddon two potential super-utility guys in Zobrist and Javier Baez.

The message to young, middle-of-the-order stars like Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber should be: Don’t get too comfortable.

Heyward certainly comes across as someone who gets it, but he will have to deal with the pressure of signing the biggest contract in franchise history (eight years, $184 million) and the transition from right to center at Wrigley Field.

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

Forget “Do Simple Better.” It sounds like Maddon now has the perfect slogan for his next T-shirt idea: “Embrace The Target.”

“Regardless of how good we are on paper, theory and reality are two different things,” Maddon said. “We’re going to go through bad stretches next year, regardless of these beautiful names. We’re still going to go through problems. How do we react to them? And how do we keep those windows of failure to a minimum?

“Because it’s going to happen. It happens to everybody every year. So how do you process that? How do you get to the next moment that makes it better?”

Reds acquisition of Sonny Gray is the latest notable addition to the NL Central

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USA TODAY

Reds acquisition of Sonny Gray is the latest notable addition to the NL Central

The NL Central keeps getting better this offseason.

According to multiple reports, the Reds have traded for pitcher Sonny Gray from the Yankees.

The Reds have been active this offseason and adding a former all-star to their rotation would be another big step towards turning the Reds into contenders in what is shaping up to be a very tough NL Central in 2019. They already added Alex Wood, Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp in a blockbuster deal with the Dodgers.

Gray is 29 and has a career ERA of 3.66, but isn't coming off a good year. With the Yankees he had a 4.90 ERA, the second-highest of his career, and didn't pitch in the postseason. The last time Gray had a bad year, he bounced back. Gray had a 5.69 ERA in 2016, the year after his breakout all-star campaign in 2015, but was solid in 2017 with the A's and Yankees.

Coming off a 95-loss season, the Reds had a long way to go, but look to be improved on paper with those additions.

Elsewhere in the division, the Cardinals already added Paul Goldschmidt and Andrew Miller and the defending division champion Brewers added marquee free agent catcher Yasmani Grandal.

Meanwhile, it has been mostly crickets for the Cubs this offseason. Owner Tom Ricketts recently defended the team's financial situation, which has led to the team appearing to be less aggressive this winter.

It looks like the Cubs will face increased competition in the division this season. Will that force the team's hand to be more aggressive before spring training?

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Cole Hamels is healthy and ready to be the ace of the 2019 Cubs

Cole Hamels is healthy and ready to be the ace of the 2019 Cubs

Ask any Cubs player about 2019 and it's hard not to notice the urgency in their voice. 

After just about the least-enjoyable summer that 95 wins and a playoff appearance can buy, the normal winter platitudes that they tend to reel off have taken on additional weight. Rosters with as much potential as the Cubs don't come around often, and most of those players aren't going to get any cheaper down the road. Things can change quickly in baseball. 

Perhaps no one on the Cubs knows this quite like Cole Hamels, a World Series champion who has been a part of multiple different playoff-caliber rosters. Hamels revived his career after a disappointing tenure in Texas ended with a late-July trade, posting a 2.36 ERA over 76 innings on the North Side. The lefty went 4-0 with a 0.78 ERA in his first five games here (all of which they won), a far cry from the dreadful performances he was putting up with the Rangers. Sometimes a change of scenery is needed, but getting healthy always helps too. 

"I had a really tough time with the oblique injury I had two years ago and trying to get my mechanics back on track," Hamels said. "I just don’t think I was able to identify and correct what was going on. I was fighting it the whole season, until I kind of looked at a little bit deeper film and then really just made some more drastic changes, and went with it."

His oblique injury in 2017 derailed Hamels for the better part of a calendar year. The strain originally landed him on the 15-day DL, but he actually ended up missing eight weeks of games. In the 19 starts after, Hamels posted a 4.42 FIP with a 1.22 WHIP, walking over three batters per nine innings. He admitted to pitching through lingering discomfort at times, instead choosing to try and grit through a game - even if that meant ignoring how it would derail his healing process. As a result, the start of 2018 didn't treat him much better. It wasn't until a longer-than-usual film study with the Cubs that Hamels found his fix. 

"Basically, I was coming out of my whole front side," he added. "My hips - you know I was really landing open. I don’t do that - I’m a closed-off guy that really kind of hides the ball. It also maintains my distance down the mound and allows me to have a little bit more velocity. So I think that was really the big change and what I’ve been focusing on this offseason." 

Looking at the numbers, the adjustment is clear as day:

Adding three miles an hour to your fastball, midseason, is pretty significant. The reinvention of his fastball was one of the driving forces behind his turnaround last season, and there's no reason to believe Hamels -- now with a full offseason of healthy workouts under his belt -- can't be that type of pitcher for an entire season. If he can, the Lester-Hamels-Darvish rotation the Cubs dreamed of might be one step closer to fruition. 

As it stands now, however, there are *plenty* of questions about the Cubs' rotation. Their youngest starter is 29. Lester had his worst season in almost a decade and the year-by-year trends don't look great. Health AND regression have dogged Yu Darvish. Jose Quintana's been fine, but is a 4.05 FIP and 1.25 WHIP in 258 innings worth losing Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease?

"I think we all know how to get ready for a game and what’s expected out of us," Hamels said. "We know how to get good results and if we have a bad game we have guys that will pick of the pieces the next day and that’s comforting. I don’t think there are going to be too many bad stretches because we have guys that are going to be able to take care of business and stop streaks and we’re going to see some pretty fun winning streaks because of what we’re going to be doing as a pitching staff." 

Being an ace certainly wouldn't hurt, but if Hamels wants to live up to the $20 million option the Cubs picked up, he'll need to fill a larger void as one of the team's leaders. ("I think in general, MLB is doing pretty well for themselves," he replied when asked if the decision financially hamstrings the Cubs. "So I don’t necessarily buy it as much, but I understand people have to work within the certain system that they set.") Though this is still a tightly-knit clubhouse, many players and coaches admitted that there needs to be a new approach to leadership in 2019. Hamels, a World Series MVP and four-time All Star, fits the bill. It can be uncomfortable for players of even his pedigree to come into a new team and immediately be a leader, and Hamels knows how far a full spring around the same group of guys will go towards fixing that. 

"I’m 35, I’ve been in this game a long time, so I think that’s where I need to be. That’s sort of the role that’s directed towards you if you’ve played the game long enough. That’s kind of where you fit. I understand that, I’ve had a couple years to really do what I need to do in order to be that leader, and I guess now that means be a little more vocal instead of just letting the play out on the field be the leader."