Cubs

With lineup trending in wrong direction, Cubs seeing issues Mets exposed in NLCS

With lineup trending in wrong direction, Cubs seeing issues Mets exposed in NLCS

NEW YORK — For all of Joe Maddon’s present-tense happy talk, the Cubs manager had a flashback in Citi Field’s visiting dugout, thinking about how the New York Mets dominated his team during that National League Championship Series sweep.

“The primary pitfall last year was just the lack of contact when it mattered,” Maddon said. “I was standing in that corner last year when it was freezing. To see (Matt) Harvey command his changeup in the first inning with 30-degree weather and the wind howling — I took that as a bad sign.”

Even Maddon didn’t put a completely positive spin on a lineup that’s trending in the wrong direction on July 1 (though the Cubs still have a double-digit lead in the division and probably wouldn’t trade their overall group of hitters with any other franchise in the game).

Since dropping a series against the Washington Nationals in the middle of June, the Cubs have swept the Pittsburgh Pirates, got swept by the St. Louis Cardinals and lost another series to the Miami Marlins. Those swing-and-miss issues resurfaced in Thursday’s 4-3 loss to the Mets, giving the Cubs seven defeats in their last eight games against playoff contenders (excluding this week’s sweep of the Cincinnati Reds, who are playing for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 draft).

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The Cubs clearly miss leadoff guy Dexter Fowler — who might not return from a hamstring injury until after the All-Star break — and giving at-bats to rookies Willson Contreras and Albert Almora Jr. against New York’s power pitching could pay dividends in October.

“That was the one thing last year that bummed me out — their pitching was so on point at that time of the year,” Maddon said. “That’s really why they beat us. And they had one hitter (Daniel Murphy) that was unworldly. That’s what happened.

“Our primary problem last year was the inability to make contact against a group of pitchers that really were on top of their game.

“For the most part, we were really good this April at making contact and not striking out as much. May was not as kind. June — we’re falling backwards.

“We got to get back to where we were in April. That’s my biggest concern, if I had one. That and just keeping the bullpen right.”

The bullpen is a different story and probably a bigger issue, because the Cubs have already built their lineup and aren’t waiting on Triple-A Iowa guys and hoping for Tommy John recoveries. Beyond Fowler’s absence and the youth movement, the Cubs look like a different team when Ben Zobrist cools off in June (.707 OPS) after a red-hot May (1.136 OPS).

A new-and-improved lineup led the majors in walks (121) in April, ranking second in on-base percentage (.364) and 26th in strikeouts (167). The Cubs crept up to seventh in strikeouts (214) in May, while remaining second in on-base percentage (.349) and ranking third in walks (113). In June, the Cubs dropped to 10th in on-base percentage (.336) while rising to second in strikeouts (267) and staying at third in walks (107).

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The Cubs responded to that playoff disappointment by spending almost $290 million on free agents, swooping in to sign Zobrist (who handled New York’s power pitching and helped the Kansas City Royals win the World Series), stealing Jason Heyward away from the Cardinals and bringing back Fowler in spring training, reinforcing their lineup with veterans who had career on-base percentages between .353 and .363.

“NLCS alone (had) very little (to do with it),” president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. “But some of the priorities we laid out this winter were a reaction to some areas of concern on the team last year. Some of those were exploited in the playoffs and to a certain extent in the NLCS.

“We wanted to add a couple more professional hitters, guys with high-contact rate (against) good pitching. We did that and wanted to improve our outfield defense, because we saw it becoming a concern throughout the year, not just during the NLCS.

“I don’t think it’s possible to make good decisions if you’re reacting to a four-game sample. But (it’s) to the extent that four games can underscore larger trends that reveal themselves (over time).”

The Cubs will leave New York on Sunday night at the halfway point of their schedule, 81 games to go before we find out if this team is as good as advertised, or if the Mets already exposed some of the issues covered up by such a fast start and all this star power.

Cubs expected to hire Mike Napoli — David Ross' former teammate — as quality assurance coach

Cubs expected to hire Mike Napoli — David Ross' former teammate — as quality assurance coach

David Ross will not only be managing former teammates with the Cubs in 2020, but he'll be coaching alongside one, too.

The Cubs are expected to add former MLB catcher Mike Napoli to Ross' coaching staff, per multiple reports. Napoli will assume the title of quality assurance coach, vacated by Chris Denorfia, who held the position for one season.

Napoli played in parts of 12 big-league seasons from 2006-17 with the Angels, Rangers, Red Sox and Indians. He won the 2013 World Series with Boston — alongside Ross and Cubs starter Jon Lester — and was also a key figure with the 2016 Indians, whom the Cubs defeated in the World Series. He finished his career with a .246/.346/.475 slash line with 267 home runs. 

According to MLB Network's Jon Heyman, the Cubs pursued Napoli last winter, though the 38-year-old wanted to take a short break from baseball before jumping into coaching. He'll join a Cubs coaching staff that is almost finalized, with the exception of one vacant base coach spot. Here's what the group looks like right now:

Manager — David Ross
Bench coach — Andy Green
Pitching coach — Tommy Hottovy
Associate pitching coach, catching and strategy coach — Mike Borzello
Hitting coach — Anthony Iapoce
Assistant hitting coach — Terrmel Sledge
Bullpen coach — Chris Young
Base coach — Will Venable
Base coach — open
Quality assurance coach — Mike Napoli

Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said Tuesday the organization hopes to have the coaching staff finalized by the end of the week. With Napoli on board, the Cubs are one step closer to making that goal a reality.

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Fans apologize to Yu Darvish following Astros cheating allegations

Fans apologize to Yu Darvish following Astros cheating allegations

When the Dodgers acquired Yu Darvish at the 2017 trade deadline, he was expected to be one of the final pieces to their championship puzzle.

After a solid nine-start regular season with Los Angeles, Darvish was stellar early in the postseason. In two starts (one in the NLDS, one in the NLCS), he allowed two runs across 11.1 innings, racking up 14 strikeouts compared to a single walk.

Things went downhill for Darvish in the World Series, where he surrendered nine runs in 3.1 innings across two starts. This includes Game 7, when he threw 47 pitches in 1.2 innings, allowing five runs in a 5-1 series-clinching win for the Astros.

Darvish became a scapegoat for the Dodgers' World Series loss and faced heavy backlash from fans. Consequentially, he had concerns about re-signing with the Dodgers when he became a free agent that offseason, according to Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times, due to fears of how the city's anger towards him would affect his family.

Two years later, fans are now apologizing for directing their anger at Darvish for his World Series performance. Why?

Tuesday, The Athletic's Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich reported the Astros stole opposing teams' signs electronically during the 2017 season. This conflicts with the notion of Darvish tipping his pitches in the World Series, which an anonymous Astros player told Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci was the case.

The notion of Darvish tipping his pitches is now in question altogether:

As has often been the case this offseason, Darvish had a brilliant reaction to the whole situation on Twitter:

Darvish joined the Cubs in 2018 on a six-year deal. After an injury-riddled debut season with the Cubs, he took off post-All-Star break in 2019 and is expected to be the team's Opening Day starter in 2020. Although what happened in 2017 can't be changed, it's nice to see he's moved forward.

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