Cubs

Joe Maddon may not be Manager of the Year — or a Game 7 hero — but Cubs still see a future Hall of Famer

Joe Maddon may not be Manager of the Year — or a Game 7 hero — but Cubs still see a future Hall of Famer

Dave Roberts deserved to be the National League’s Manager of the Year because the Los Angeles Dodgers exceeded preseason expectations, overcame a wave of injuries and made so many different clubhouse pieces fit together.

The Dodgers used 15 different starting pitchers while getting fewer than 150 innings out of Clayton Kershaw. Roberts worked with a sprawling front office, creatively manipulating the lineup and the bullpen while incorporating young talent like Rookie of the Year Corey Seager, guiding the Dodgers to 91 wins and a division title.

The Cubs woke up on Opening Day as Major League Baseball’s most talented team on paper. Except for Kyle Schwarber shredding his left knee in early April — which would heighten the World Series drama later — the Cubs stayed remarkably healthy. Winning 103 games looked more like a continuation of 2015, when Maddon won the Baseball Writers’ Association of America award.

When the BBWAA revealed the voting on Tuesday night, Maddon (70 points) finished a distant second behind a first-year manager (108 points) in a contest that has a lot to do with perception and external factors and closes before the playoffs even start. Roberts received 16 of the 30 first-place votes, with Washington Nationals manager/ex-Cub Dusty Baker placing third with 66 points.

It also says something about the fundamental nature of the job — particularly in the age of Twitter and Big Data — that Maddon could guide the Cubs to their first World Series title since 1908 ... and still get criticized and second-guessed for how he handled that classic Game 7 victory over the Cleveland Indians.

“Listen, we won the World Series,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “I know there’s a zero-percent chance we win 200 games over two years and win the World Series without Joe.

“That’s the nature of the postseason. The managers take on almost an oversized persona because the camera’s on them the entire game. Every move they make is going to be dissected.”

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Like pulling Cy Young Award contender Kyle Hendricks with two outs in the fifth inning at Progressive Field — to bring in Jon Lester with a runner on first base and intensify the focus on his yips. Or having superstar closer Aroldis Chapman throw 97 pitches in Games 5, 6 and 7 combined. Watching Javier Baez fail to execute an assigned squeeze bunt in the top of the ninth inning compelled Jason Heyward to call a players-only meeting in the weight room during a 17-minute rain delay.

“Listen, I’ll be the first person to admit,” Hoyer said, “when Chapman came in with a man on first and two outs in the eighth inning, nowhere in my psyche was the game going to be tied two batters later (on Rajai Davis’ homer). Chapman hadn’t given up a home run as a Cub. So I think, in a lot of ways, what happened was something that was totally anomalous to what had happened throughout the season.

“But Joe is a world-champion manager for the first time — and he’s going to be in the Hall of Fame someday.”

Maddon clearly deserves credit for helping create the environment where all these hyped prospects could become All Stars, deflecting attention away from his players with his money quotes and long media sessions and deflating some of the pressure around the team with his “Embrace The Target” mentality.

It’s also so much easier to write about an 8-7 World Series Game 7 in the press box — or make those decisions from your couch — than actually deal with the human beings in the dugout. On Wednesday night, a Cub will win the Cy Young Award for the second straight year, unless Washington’s Max Scherzer beats Hendricks and Lester in a three-man race that didn’t have a clear-cut frontrunner like Jake Arrieta in 2015. It would be a shocking upset on Thursday night if Kris Bryant doesn’t follow up his Rookie of the Year campaign with an MVP award.

Maddon had been a two-time Manager of the Year with the Tampa Bay Rays, a small-market franchise that couldn’t keep its young core intact or win bidding wars for elite free agents. Maddon’s managerial resume already includes six playoff appearances in 11 years, including seven seasons with at least 90 wins, and the Cubs still feel like this is just the beginning of their run. Those crazy 10 innings in Cleveland should be good material for a Cooperstown speech.

“It was an amazing game,” Hoyer said. “I’m sort of glad that’s how we won the game. I think it was an appropriate way to end a 108-year-drought. We sort of stared into the abyss for 45 minutes or so — and ended up coming out the other side.

“It’s a more appropriate way than having a nice, clean 6-3 win. But I think I probably have more gray hair now. I probably have ulcers. And it probably took some minutes off my life. But I do think it was probably more appropriate.”

Cubs still owning second place in the NL All-Star vote standings

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USA TODAY

Cubs still owning second place in the NL All-Star vote standings

One Cubs player is within shouting distance of starting at the 2018 MLB All-Star game. But this time around, as compared to last week, the vote deficit is a bit larger.

MLB updated its second round of All-Star ballots for the National League. Catcher Willson Contreras trails Giants catcher Buster Posey by 90,000 votes. The margin was only 22,000 votes at this time last week.

And for other Cubs players such as Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and others, the margin is a little more substantial.

Rizzo is behind Braves first basemen Freddie Freeman by nearly 870,000 votes. Baez trails Braves second basemen Ozzie Albies by 148,000 votes.

Bryant trails Rockies third basemen Nolan Arenado by 447,000 votes. At shortstop, Addison Russell is in third place, trailing the Dansby Swanson of the Braves and Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford.

In the outfield, Jason Heyward moved up to the seventh spot with 447,359 votes, dropping Kyle Schwarber to eighth with 442,471 votes, and Ben Zobrist ranks ninth with 434,943 votes.

There will be another All-Star ballot update for the NL next Monday, and voting ends on July 5 at 11 p.m. Central.

 

Addison Russell may be polarizing, but he's also one of the Cubs' most important players

Addison Russell may be polarizing, but he's also one of the Cubs' most important players

ST. LOUIS — Addison Russell is the most polarizing player on the 2018 Cubs.

Now that Jason Heyward has found his groove again at the plate, Ian Happ isn't striking out every other at-bat and Yu Darvish has spent the last month on the disabled list, it's Russell's cross to bear.

Mind you, Russell is still 24 and far from a finished product as a Major League Baseball player.

But he's had such an up-and-down run with the Cubs over the last year and a half, ever since the 2016 World Series. That includes an accusation of domestic violence last spring, though Russell denited it and MLB's investigation into the matter ended when his ex-wife declined to participate with the league.

This is the guy who collected 4 hits in the weekend series in St. Louis, including a pair of doubles, a homer and 2 walks. He's also hitting .333 with a .395 on-base percentage and .882 OPS in June.

But then again, this is also the same guy who had throwing issues in the sixth and eighth innings Sunday night (including not throwing to third base for the force out in the sixth inning) and struck out looking with runners on second and third and only one out Saturday night.

Russell currently boasts career best marks in walk rate, strikeout rate, batting average, on-base percentage, line drive rate and opposite field hit percentage. He's also sporting a 104 wRC+ (which measures runs created per plate appearance and takes into account league and park factors, with 100 being average), which is the best mark of his career.

All told, Russell is in the midst of his best offensive season. 

Then again, he still only has a .744 OPS and is on pace for just 7 homers and 38 RBI, down numbers for a guy who hit 21 bombs with 95 RBI as a 22-year-old in 2016.

Over the weekend in St. Louis, Russell said he feels good at the plate, both mentally and physically. He liked where his head was at and can feel the progression he's made as a hitter since last season.

With or without Javy Baez (who just took a 90 mph fastball off the elbow in Sunday night's game), Russell is one of the Cubs' most important players.

He's so integral to what the Cubs do on defense and currently ranks as the second-best defender in baseball with 13 Defensive Runs Saved, behind only Oakland's Matt Chapman.

Russell also has the power to completely change the landscape of a Cubs lineup that is still searching for consistency on a daily basis.

Right now, he's doing exactly what the Cubs want him to do at the plate: Walking more, striking out less and using the whole field.

"When he came in after that line drive down the right-field line [Friday], I gave him a high five twice," Joe Maddon said. "That's the whole thing with these young hitters that we have. As they learn the opposite field on a consistent basis, they'll be able to sustain high numbers. They'll also be able to sustain high walk rates.

"When you're doing that, you're giving yourself more time to make a decision. Ball inside that you're pulling, you have a longer swing to get to with less time to make up your mind. Ball away that you're gonna go the other way with, you have a shorter swing to get to it with more time to make a decision. 

"It's all part of the equation. As our guys learn the value of the middle and opposite field from a hitter's perspective, their numbers are going to continue to increase."

As it stands right now, Russell is a Gold Glove caliber shortstop with a .277 batting average and .351 on-base percentage. That's a pretty solid player, even with the low power.

With the way the Cubs' roster is currently constructed, Russell will play a huge part in whether or not the Cubs can win their second World Series in a three-year span.

But he will also have to continue to maneuver through the mental hurdle of seeing his name thrown about as part of trade rumors this summer (and possibly beyond). And he'll have to stay mentally checked in during every at-bat or play in the field.

Russell's main takeaway roughly 40 percent of the way through the 2018 campaign?

"That it's a long season," he said. "We had a really good run in 2015, '16 and '17 as well, but this year, I'm really taking my time.

"Patience is the real thing in the clubhouse — on the road, at home, doing my routine, knowing that it's all gonna work out over time."