Cubs

Joe Maddon’s messaging to Cubs before the 2017 campaign

Joe Maddon’s messaging to Cubs before the 2017 campaign

Joe Maddon's Washington itinerary didn't include an hour-long sit-down with Chuck Todd for NBC's "Meet the Press." There would be no rehashing the manager's Game 7 decisions as he stood outside the West Wing, though the second question during the media stakeout involved "last year's team" and how the 2017 Cubs are prepared to defend a World Series title.

"You're already there, huh?" Maddon said to a CNN reporter, minutes after President Barack Obama's final official White House event ended on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. 

But last year's team is gone — preserved now in highlight films and the hearts and minds of generations of Cub fans — even if so many familiar faces will be in Mesa when pitchers and catchers officially report to Arizona on Valentine's Day.

It would be impossible to replicate everything that made the 2016 Cubs so special. Baseball has its own relentless pace and the dynamics are constantly shifting. (Remember when players were passive-aggressively complaining about Maddon's spring-training approach during the final week of a 103-win regular season?) The clubhouse chemistry will inevitably feel different after climbing a Mount Everest of professional sports.

"A mind once stretched has a very difficult time going back to its original form," Maddon said. "We're motivated by it. We want to do it again, of course. There's no question we're trying to do that.

"I'm really leaning on the phrase or the thought of being uncomfortable. I want us to be uncomfortable. I think the moment you get into your comfort zone after having such a significant moment in your life like that, the threat is that you're going to stop growing.

"So I really want us to be uncomfortable. I really want to continue (to see) a pattern of growth and really try to get at them very quickly again."

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Can Jason Heyward recover from one of the worst offensive seasons in the majors last year? Is Willson Contreras ready to be a frontline catcher? Will Javier Baez have to adjust back to being a role player after becoming a playoff superstar? Does Kyle Schwarber in the leadoff spot and Albert Almora Jr. and Jon Jay in a center-field timeshare represent an upgrade over Dexter Fowler?

If healthy, Wade Davis should be a trusted, lower-maintenance closer than Aroldis Chapman, with an advanced approach to pitching and more clubhouse presence. As a staff, the Cubs will have to bounce back from pitching into early November (or not, in the case of the relievers Maddon didn't trust during the playoffs).

As it stands, Jon Lester (33) and John Lackey (38) have already combined to throw almost 5,000 innings in The Show (including the postseason). Jake Arrieta will have to deal with the pressure of playing for his megadeal in his final season before becoming a free agent.

The drop-off after Mike Montgomery — and it's still mostly projected potential with the No. 5 starter — appears to be very steep in an organization that doesn't have any high-end pitching prospects in the upper levels of the farm system.

After painting the bull's-eye on the chest and turning "Embrace The Target" and "Try Not To Suck" into viral T-shirts, a guy who hates meetings is still working on his themes for this campaign.

"I'm really rotating around the thought of authenticity," Maddon said. "I talked about it a lot last year, the fact that I think authenticity has a chance to repeat itself without even trying. It's part of who you are. It's not fabricated. It's real.

"I've talked about our guys a lot the last couple years. I think one of our strongest qualities is the authentic component of our players. So I'm really focusing on that word right now. Again, that's a great word to bring an entire message from (when) you get in front of the group that first day in spring training.

"I kind of just think like authenticity happens. And let's work it from there."

The costumes should be in midseason form with Maddon planning a house party around Tampa's Gasparilla Pirate Festival before driving his RV from Florida to Arizona.

Maddon will turn 63 on Feb. 8 and have to keep evolving, just like his players, who might outgrow some of those gimmicks. But the Cubs are still a reflection of their future Hall of Fame manager.

Amid all the uncertainty in Washington, Maddon wouldn't touch a question about what advice he would give Donald Trump before Friday's inauguration.

"I'm not even going to go anywhere close to that," Maddon said. "I will say this: I have a lot of respect of the office.

"At the end of the day, just have a lot of respect for the office, regardless of your political persuasion. My point would be to encourage people to really respect the office and let's see what we get done here over the next four years."

Amid rough patch, Cubs shake up their bullpen

Amid rough patch, Cubs shake up their bullpen

The Cubs bullpen has been under the microscope recently as they've hit another rough patch.

With Pedro Strop on the injured list, Cubs relievers have combined for a 5.04 ERA and 1.72 WHIP over the last week, allowing 32 hits and 11 walks against only 15 strikeouts in 25 innings.

The Cubs are shaking things up, sending veteran left-hander Xavier Cedeno to the injured list with left wrist inflammation and promoting right-hander Rowan Wick from Triple-A Iowa.

The Cubs acquired Wick, 26, from the Padres back in November for minor leaguer Jason Vosler. Wick has pitched well in Triple-A Iowa this season — in 13 outings, he has a 2.84 ERA and 1.11 WHIP while striking out 25 batters in 19 innings. 

Of his 13 appearances, 7 have been of a multi-inning variety and he hasn't allowed a run in his last 3 games (6.2 innings).

Wick made 10 appearances for the Padres in San Diego last year, sporting a 6.48 ERA in 8.1 innings.

Cedeno, 32, signed with the Cubs just before spring training started, but has been hampered by the same wrist issue all spring. He was first activated off the injured list less than two weeks ago and did not give up a run in 5 appearances, though he surrendered 4 hits and 3 walks in just 2 total innings of work.

With Wick in tow, the Cubs bullpen now looks like this:

Steve Cishek
Brad Brach
Brandon Kintzler
Kyle Ryan
Mike Montgomery
Tyler Chatwood
Carl Edwards Jr.
Rowan Wick

Strop is working his way back from a hamstring injury and threw a 25-pitch bullpen Monday, so his return may not be far off. 

Brandon Morrow resumed his throwing program Monday, as well, but is still weeks away from returning even in a best-case scenario.

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2019 MLB Power Rankings: The AL West is weird, man

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USA Today

2019 MLB Power Rankings: The AL West is weird, man

Sometimes, making these rankings can get repetitive. The Astros were the best team last week and they're the best team this week and they'll be the best team next week. When there's not a lot of variety, it can be more fun to focus in on who was the loser of the week. This week's definitive loser? The Mets. Congrats to you, the Mets. It's low hanging fruit, but sometimes you want to conserve energy. How'd everyone else do? To the rankings! 

CLICK HERE TO SEE THIS WEEK'S MLB POWER RANKINGS