Cubs

Miguel Montero likes the edge Cubs have brought into clubhouse

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Miguel Montero likes the edge Cubs have brought into clubhouse

MILWAUKEE — Miguel Montero looks around and realizes: “Wow, I’m the old man now.”

But that’s exactly what Cubs executives had in mind when they traded for Montero, taking on the three years and $40 million left on the All-Star catcher’s contract and sending two lower-level pitchers to the Arizona Diamondbacks.          

That trade closed during the same winter meetings in San Diego, where the Cubs won the Jon Lester sweepstakes and toasted their new $155 million ace. That led to another deal for backup catcher David Ross, reuniting the World Series battery for the 2013 Boston Red Sox.

Theo Epstein’s baseball operations department wanted to change a clubhouse culture that hadn’t really gone bad, but had been filled with too many placeholders, guys waiting to get traded or just fighting for survival. The Cubs needed more of an edge.     

“When you have guys that won in the past, they know how to win and they like to win,” Montero said before Friday’s 7-6 win over the Milwaukee Brewers. “It can be contagious to all the players. That was the main thing for (the front office) — to bring in guys that won in the past like Lester and Ross.

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“I just went to the playoffs — no farther than the playoffs — but this is farther than a lot of other guys (here). I’m competitive. I love to win…even playing video games.”

Montero sat back in his chair inside Miller Park’s visiting clubhouse, chilling at his locker and enjoying being back around a potential contender he tagged with “#wearegood” on his personal Twitter account.

“You got to believe it,” Montero said. “It’s something that I really, truly believe.”

The Cubs wanted that veteran confidence and been-there, done-that perspective for moments like this during the long season, coming off a disappointing series loss to the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium. Montero doesn’t want to be in a rebuilding situation.  

“You’re out of it in the first month of the season, it’s difficult to go to the field,” Montero said. “For what? To play for me? For my numbers? That’s pretty much it. I’m not that guy. I like to win. And I like to play to win. You do that, your numbers are going to be there.

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“You can’t really worry about the numbers. That’s what a lot of people get caught up in. They just care about their numbers. Do this, do that, and at the end of the day, we lost the game, but I had a good game. Does that take you somewhere? No.

“Because if you win and you go 0-for-4, I guarantee at the end of the year, you’re going to have a good season. The numbers are going to be there. Because that’s contagious. Hitting is contagious, so is pitching. It’s going to get to that point.

“We win a couple in a row, get back to winning series and take it from there. You’re going to feel invincible coming into a stadium.”

Montero feels like he did in 2011 and 2012, when he generated 33 homers and 174 RBI combined. His production so far — .286 average, .858 OPS and 13 RBI in 23 games — suggest that the three-catcher rotation could help him stay fresh.

“This year, I feel really good when I play,” Montero said. “Maybe a little off timing, because it’s hard when you’re used to playing every day and then you come here and you’re playing three times a week and every other day, things like that. Which I understand. That’s not part of my job.

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“My job is when they put me in the lineup, be ready to play. But my swing feels good. My approach has been good. I’ve been driving the ball the other way more than the last two years, which is a good sign. Hopefully, it stays like that the whole year. This game is up and down, and I just hope the downs are a little bit shorter than the ups.”

Montero will turn 32 this summer and might feel old when he looks at someone like Addison Russell, who was born in 1994. Time will tell if the Cubs got this chemistry experiment right.

“I feel great,” Montero said. “All the guys have a lot of energy. I’m still a high-energy guy. But being around these guys will pump you up a little more.”

No-brainer: The Cubs should absolutely bring back Jesse Chavez in 2019 bullpen

No-brainer: The Cubs should absolutely bring back Jesse Chavez in 2019 bullpen

Should the Cubs bring Jesse Chavez back for the 2019 bullpen?

This question shouldn't have anywhere near the polarizing effect the Daniel Murphy query had earlier this week, and for good reason.

It's hard to find any real downside for the Cubs working Chavez back into the fold next season. 

Sure, he's 35 and he'll turn 36 in August, but Chavez just had far and away the best season of his 11-year career and all signs point to it being legit.

He won't have a 1.15 ERA forever, of course, but he clearly found something with his mechanics that helped lead to the remarkable consistency he showed in a Cubs uniform (4 saves, 4 holds, 1.15 ERA, 0.79 WHIP, 42 Ks in 39 IP). 

The Cubs will be looking to add some reinforcements to their bullpen this winter and Chavez fits the bill in many areas.

When asked about how to address the bullpen this winter, Theo Epstein said his front office will be "looking for guys who can throw strikes and execute a gameplan and take the ball and pitch in big spots."

The Cubs have publicly placed an emphasis on "strike-throwers" out of the bullpen over the last two winters now and that is right up Chavez's alley.

He threw 68.5 percent first-pitch strikes while with the Cubs, which would've ranked near the top of the league in 2018, right up there with aces like Miles Mikolas, Clayton Kershaw, Aaron Nola and Justin Verlander. Among all relievers, Chavez ranked 5th in baseball in first-pitch strike percentage in the second half.

Expanding further (since the first pitch isn't the only one that matters): Chavez threw the fourth-most strikes in baseball among all MLB relievers after the All-Star Break. Since the day Chavez put on a Cubs uniform, Philadelphia's Tommy Hunter (70.5 percent) was the only reliever in baseball (minimum 30 innings) to throw a higher percentage of pitches for strikes than Chavez (69.8 percent).

If you want strikes, there's no better reliever on the market right now than Chavez.

He also shouldn't be all that expensive at age 35, even despite the breakout and high level of importance placed upon relievers these days. A similar deal to the one Brian Duensing got last winter - $7 million over 2 years - seems appropriate and would be a steal if Chavez can continue to find even a modicum of the success he had since putting on a Cubs uniform.

Speaking of the Cubs uniform, Chavez reportedly doesn't want to wear another logo in 2019, saying this after the NL Wild-Card Game:

That was an emotional time, but Chavez repeatedly raved about the Cubs clubhouse and culture throughout his time in Chicago and really appreciated the way his teammates made him feel comfortable from Day 1.

When the Cubs first acquired Chavez in that under-the-radar trade, they touted his versatility which has become a valuable asset, especially in today's game where relievers are often asked to pitch multiple innings. If necessary, he could also represent depth for the starting rotation, having made 70 starts over his MLB career. 

Unless there's a surprising market that develops for Chavez, bringing him back to the North Side of Chicago on a 1- or 2-year deal is a no-brainer.

Maybe the early exit was just what the Cubs needed

Maybe the early exit was just what the Cubs needed

A year ago, the Cubs world was in essentially the exact same place — trying to find answers for a season that ended earlier than expected.

There was only one difference: Time.

The 2018 Cubs woke up on the morning of Oct. 22 having been out of action almost three full weeks. That's a long time in terms of decompressing, letting your body heal and evaluating what went wrong.

A year ago today, Ben Zobrist was in the midst of trying to heal his ailing wrist after a third straight trip deep into the postseason.

A year ago today, Theo Epstein was roughly 48 hours removed from his annual end-of-season eulogy.

A year ago today, Kris Bryant was trying to catch his breath after what he called the most draining campaign of his life.

Yet we woke up Monday morning 19 full days removed from the latest iteration of Epstein's end-of-season eulogy, Zobrist is making light-hearted Instagram videos and Bryant is already nearly three weeks into the process of letting his left shoulder heal completely and adding strength.

Of course, that trio of Cubs figures would gladly trade in these extra few weeks of time off for another shot at the NL pennant, even if they fell short in the NLCS again.

Still, there's a lot of value in extra time off, especially after three straight falls where they went deep into October playing high-stress baseball. The Cubs absolutely will go in 2019 much fresher than they went into this year's spring training.

For example, Jon Lester threw 8.1 fewer innings this October than 2017 and 29.2 fewer innings than 2016. Zobrist played 8 fewer games this October than 2018 and 16 fewer than 2016 (he also won the World Series in 2015 as a member of the Kansas City Royals). That matters when players' ages start creeping up into the mid-to-late 30s.

It shouldn't take the sting out of the disappointing end to 2018 for the Cubs or their fans, but extra time off for these guys is certainly not a bad thing. 

The Cubs have already gotten the ball rolling on offseason changes, including replacing Chili Davis at hitting coach with Anthony Iapoce

On top of that, each individual player has now had enough time to evaluate why or how they went wrong offensively down the stretch.

"A full winter — especially this extra month that we unfortunately have — is a luxury in baseball," Epstein said. "There are things that come up all the time during the course of the season with teams and with individual players that you say, 'We'd love to address.' But that's so hard to address during the season because there's always another game tomorrow. 

"Guys are surviving. We have to wait 'til the offseason, then we can get right physically, then we can wade into the mental game, then we can address this swing change, then we can handle this fundamental. Well, we now have that luxury — unfortunately — of a full offseason. How do we take full advantage of this so we're never in this position again?

"We don't want to be a part of an offensive collapse in the second half again. We don't want to be part of losing a division lead late again. We don't want to be part of looking back and recognizing that, gosh, maybe a greater sense of urgency from Game 1 through 162 would've led to one more game and then we're still playing. We don't want to be part of that ever again, so we need to make good use of this time."

The early exit also helps to create a chip on the shoulder for each member of the organization. It's hard to see the Cubs spending much time in 2019 lacking the same "urgency" they had this summer. The painful NL Wild-Card loss will leave a bad taste in their mouths that can carry over all the way until next October. 

Like Lester said, sometimes you "need to get your dick knocked in the dirt in order to appreciate where you're at." 

We saw that play out on the North Side of Chicago from 2015 into 2016 and Cole Hamels has seen this script before with a young core of players in Philadelphia.

In 2007, the Phillies made the playoffs, but were swept out of the NLDS by the Colorado Rockies. They rebounded to win the World Series the next fall over Joe Maddon's Tampa Bay Rays.

"That [2007 sweep] really kind of taught us what the postseason experience was and what it was to not just play to the end of the season and instead to play to the end of the postseason," Hamels said. "This is a tremendous experience for a lot of guys and you have to go through the hardships before you get to enjoy the big moments.

"I know there's a lot of players here that have won a World Series, but there's also a lot that didn't have that sort of participation that you would kind of look towards, so I think this is great for them. 

"It's exciting to see what they're gonna be able to do next year and the year after that because this is a tremendous team here with the talent that they have. It's gonna be a great couple years."