Cubs

Love it or hate it, Cubs creating their own identity

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Love it or hate it, Cubs creating their own identity

WASHINGTON — The Loveable Losers are slowly morphing into The Hateable Winners.

Well, the Cubs haven’t actually won anything yet, heading into Nationals Park on Thursday night only three games above .500, slipping to third place in the National League Central. But you could see the fireworks coming with a brash young team that’s trying to create an identity.

“Well, I don’t want us to have the identity of hitting home runs and flipping the bat and doing cartwheels around the bases,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Absolutely not. Act like you’re going to do it again.”

No, this isn’t what Professor Maddon had in mind when he got a $25 million tenure position at The Cub University: Junior Lake pimping it at home plate, shushing Miami’s dugout rounding third base and sparking a bench-clearing incident during Wednesday night’s 7-3 loss at Marlins Park.

[MORE CUBS: Joe Maddon doesn’t like Junior Lake’s ‘punk’ move]

But there was an inevitable sense that stuff like this would happen with Maddon’s liberal-arts approach and anti-rules philosophy. If you want players to be themselves, to show their emotions and not be afraid to make mistakes, then you can’t be surprised when they get carried away in the moment.

“Poor behavior is not part of what we’re looking for,” Maddon said. “There’s not even any correlation between the two at all.

“The risk is if you let them get away with it. That’s the risk for the first time. And if you don’t put a lid on it, then, of course, it can become something more complicated.”

This isn’t picking on Lake, who realized what he did wrong, took full responsibility for his actions and wanted to apologize to Miami pitcher Dan Haren, the rest of the Marlins and the kids who might be watching at home on TV.

[MORE CUBS: Javier Baez Watch is heating up]

It’s just that it’s probably too late to put a lid on all this, because it’s bigger than any one moment or individual personality. It’s the “We Are Good” T-shirts and the Bloomberg Businessweek cover story trumpeting the “sports empire” now “in bloom.”

It’s all the battles with City Hall, the rooftop owners and their Lakeview neighbors in launching the $600 million Wrigleyville development.

It’s the six months it took the Red Sox to finalize compensation after chairman Tom Ricketts and president of business operations Crane Kenney hired Theo Epstein away from Boston to run the baseball side after the 2011 season.

It’s Major League Baseball getting involved again in the Maddon tampering case, with the Rays forcing an investigation that finally cleared the Cubs six months after they fired Rick Renteria and grabbed the star manager out of Tampa Bay.

It’s Anthony Rizzo predicting the Cubs will win the division in January. It’s the natural excitement after five consecutive fifth-place finishes — and what should be the pushback in a pennant race.

[MORE CUBS: Cubs lineup will miss a big presence with Jorge Soler on DL]

“We have no reason to get under people’s skin,” Rizzo said. “We should all be running the ball out hard, like we do, and hustling, like we do. We’re just playing the game hard.”

To be clear, the Cubs will need that edge and a sense of swagger to end this century-and-counting drought. Even Jon Lester — who owns two World Series rings and comes across as all business — seems to understand the postgame dance parties in the clubhouse.  

“You go back to being with the Red Sox and everything is so regimented and serious all the time,” Lester said. “You’re expected to win. And when you do win, there’s really no celebration. It’s just on to the next day. It’s nice to take (the) two minutes out of our day and really enjoy what we just did on the field.

“I haven’t been around these guys for the past couple years and seen how they take losses. But to walk in the clubhouse and see how these guys handle losses is also good. They’re pissed off. They care. That’s obviously a step in the right direction.

“Winning in the big leagues is tough. (But) once those two minutes are over, then it’s on to the next one. And these guys have done a great job of that.”

[MORE CUBS: Cubs could change the equation with Kris Bryant in left field]

The Cubs are also running the risk of retaliation if baseball’s fun police doesn’t like Lake’s act or Starlin Castro’s 30-second home-run trot showing up on “SportsCenter.”

“There’s no comparison between what Castro did and what Junior did,” Maddon said. “One is absolutely, demonstratively unacceptable. And the other one is just a slow stroll around the bases. I don’t see that one as being necessarily upsetting to the other team.”

Jake Arrieta got that question after the Cubs gave Kris Bryant the silent treatment, emptying the dugout in the middle of a game against the Brewers and celebrating his first big-league homer inside Miller Park’s visiting clubhouse.

“None of us here would disrespect the game,” Arrieta said. “Don’t do things that you feel would be disrespectful to teammates (or) to the other team. And we would never do that. But at the same time, you got to have fun.

“(If) we got our ass kicked yesterday, (then) we have to come in the next day with the same mentality. Stay loose (and) confident.

“The looser you stay in the clubhouse, and off the field as a team, the easier it is to kind of turn the page and come back with no apprehension or tentativeness the next day. (You) just come out and play the game.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

Would you rather see your team making enemies or remaining afterthoughts?

“(As for the) baseball purists,” Arrieta said, “the game’s going to change a little bit and you have to expect that. There are 19-, 20-, 21-year-old kids in the big leagues and the millennial fans like that stuff. It creates a little excitement.

“If there is a line and there are boundaries, then we won’t cross those. But we’re still going to have fun.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Manny Machado’s value and other Cubs offseason wish list items

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Manny Machado’s value and other Cubs offseason wish list items

Did Manny Machado’s value take a hit at all after he openly admitted hustling isn’t his “cup of tea”? Our Cubs team (David Kaplan, Kelly Crull, Tony Andracki, Jeff Nelson) debate that, plus the potential fit of Machado or Bryce Harper for the 2019 Cubs and beyond.

[MORE: The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason]

The crew also runs down the top items on the Cubs’ offseason wish list – ranging from bullpen help to infield depth to a set leadoff hitter – in what may be the most impactful winter in Theo Epstein’s tenure in Chicago.

Listen to the podcast here or via the embedded player below:

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

There are plenty of intriguing Cubs storylines to monitor this offseason from their potential pursuit of the big free agents to any other changes that may come to the coaching staff or roster after a disappointing finish to the 2018 campaign.

But there's one question simmering under the radar in Cubs circles when it comes to this winter: How will the team solve the shortstop conundrum?

Just a few years ago, the Cubs had "too many" shortstops. Now, there are several different factors at play here that makes it a convoluted mess, as we discussed on the latest CubsTalk Podcast.

First: What will the Cubs do with Addison Russell? The embattled shortstop is in the midst of a suspension for domestic violence that will keep him off an MLB diamond for at least the first month of 2019.

Has Russell already played his last game with the Cubs? Will they trade him or send him packing in any other fashion this winter?

Theo Epstein mentioned several times he felt the organization needs to show support to the victim in the matter (Russell's ex-wife, Melisa) but also support for Russell. Does that mean they would keep him a part of the team at least through the early part of 2019?

Either way, Russell's days in Chicago are numbered and his play on the field took another big step back in 2018 as he fought through a hand injury and experienced a major dip in power. With his performance on the field and the off-field issues, it will be hard to justify a contract worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 million in his second year of arbitration (prorated, with a month's worth of pay taken out for the suspension).

Even if Russell is on the roster in 2019, Javy Baez is unquestionably the shortstop for at least the first month while Russell is on suspension. 

But what about beyond Baez if the Cubs want to give him a breather or disaster strikes and he's forced to miss time with an injury?

At the moment, there's nothing but question marks on the current Cubs shortstop depth chart throughout the entire organization and they're certainly going to need other options at the most important defensive position (outside of pitcher/catcher). 

There's David Bote, who subbed in for Baez at short once in September when Baez needed a break and Russell was on the disabled list. But while Bote's defense at third base and second base has opened eyes around the Cubs, he has only played 45 games at short across seven minor-league seasons, including 15 games in 2018. There's also the offensive question marks with the rookie, who hit just .176 with a .559 OPS and 40 strikeouts in 108 at-bats after that epic ultimate grand slam on Aug. 12.

The Cubs' other current shortstop options include Mike Freeman (a 31-year-old career minor-leaguer), Ben Zobrist (who will be 38 in 2019 and has played all of 13 innings at shortstop since 2014), Ryan Court (a 30-year-old career minor leaguer) and Chesny Young (a 26-year-old minor-leaguer who has posted a .616 OPS in 201 Triple-A games).

Maybe Joe Maddon would actually deploy Kris Bryant at shortstop in case of emergency like a Baez injury ("necessity is the mother of invention," as Maddon loves to say), but that seems a lot more like a fun talking point than a legit option at this current juncture.

So even if Russell sticks around, there's no way the Cubs can go into the first month of the season with just Baez and Bote as the only shortstop options on a team that with World Series or bust expectations.

The Cubs will need to acquire some shortstop depth this winter in some capacity, whether it's adding to the Triple-A Iowa roster or getting a veteran who can also back up other positions. Right now, the free agent pool of potential shortstops is pretty slim beyond Manny Machado.

Epstein always says he and his front office look to try to mitigate risk and analyze where things could go wrong to sink the Cubs' season and through that lense, shortstop is suddenly right up there behind adding more bullpen help this winter.