Cubs

No guarantees, but Ben Zobrist believes Cubs can live up to ‘super-team’ hype

No guarantees, but Ben Zobrist believes Cubs can live up to ‘super-team’ hype

CINCINNATI – Flooded with offers, Ben Zobrist turned down the New York Mets, San Francisco Giants and Washington Nationals – three teams the Cubs could potentially face in the playoffs – because he believed in The Plan, closing a four-year, $56 million deal by the winter meetings for the chance to make history in Chicago.     

Zobrist has been exactly what the Cubs wanted, a patient switch-hitter to set an example for a young lineup, a versatile defender who can play all over the field and an insightful clubhouse presence. But that contract should really pay off in October, the way the Kansas City Royals added dimensions to last year’s World Series winner with a trade-deadline deal for Zobrist. 

“Talent really doesn’t mean a whole lot,” Zobrist said. “Every team that’s going to be there is talented. But that talent makes less of a difference when you’re playing against those caliber teams. It really comes down to execution. 

“The teams that execute – the teams that make the pitch, make the play, have the good at-bat when they need it – are the teams that win. Regular season is what it is. We’ve had a great season. We know that we’re probably the best team that’s out there regular season. But that doesn’t guarantee us anything for the postseason.” 

One week out from the roar at Wrigley Field and the playoffs Cubs fans have been waiting for since the Mets swept last year’s National League Championship Series, Camp Joe Maddon crossed another day off the bizarro spring-training calendar with Friday night’s 7-3 win over the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park.    

There aren’t many conclusions to be drawn from a 102-win machine rolling over a last-place team, especially when the winning pitcher (Jake Buchanan) throws five scoreless innings in his first appearance in 25 days. But Maddon has seen enough of Zobrist to know when he’s looking “very frisky and ready to roll.”

Zobrist ended Josh Smith’s perfect game by leading off the fifth inning and drilling a ball into the right-field seats. Zobrist nailed another ball in the eighth inning, a two-run homer off Abel De Los Santos that landed in the same general area, the crowd chanting “Let’s go, Cubbies!” as Reds manager Bryan Price walked out toward the mound for a pitching change.

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“He thrives at this time of the year,” Maddon said. “It means a lot. Because when you get guys who have been there, done that – especially (someone) pretty solid regarding his daily approach – it will definitely rub off in a positive way on the other guys.”

It’s one thing to have a strong relationship with Maddon and believe the recruiting pitch from team president Theo Epstein. It’s another to see the vision come to life across 160 games, in an industry where the teams that win the offseason typically buckle under the pressure.

Zobrist – who played in six postseason series with Maddon’s Tampa Bay Rays and put up an .880 OPS in 16 games during Kansas City’s World Series run – believes the Cubs have what it takes to become that special team.   

“For sure,” Zobrist said. “Just based on the mix of personalities and character and players that we have in this room individually. 

“You know that when you put them together, it’s a ‘super-team’ of sorts. We really have to prove our record right, prove people right that we can do it when it counts. And that’s going to be the most important thing going into the postseason.”

Zobrist has lived up to his end of the bargain, with this 3-for-4 night boosting his numbers to 17 homers and 75 RBI and pushing his OPS to .830. He has more walks (95) than strikeouts (80), getting on base almost 39 percent of the time in the middle of what could be an all-or-nothing lineup last year.

“It doesn’t matter who you are,” Zobrist said. “Everybody’s going to be hyped up and excited and a little bit anxious to play that first game in the postseason. 

“Just simplify it. It’s an individual thing to not allow the other stuff to get in your way of doing your job and just trying to focus. And even when you focus, sometimes the other team just executes a little bit better. There’s just a level of consistency and calmness that as a player you have to find to be able to perform at that level. 

“We have a lot of guys that have already done it. We got a lot of guys that already have that in their makeup. They need to feel that and experience that come postseason.”

While Cubs offense struggles, Ian Happ continues his development in Triple-A

While Cubs offense struggles, Ian Happ continues his development in Triple-A

A little bit of Backup Quarterback Syndrome surrounds the Cubs right now.

Just like with the Bears when the starting quarterback isn't playing well, the backup QB often becomes the most popular guy in town.

So with Daniel Descalso, Addison Russell, Albert Almora Jr. and Carlos Gonzalez struggling of late, many fans are wondering where Ian Happ is and why the Cubs haven't called him back up from Triple-A Iowa.

That quartet of players is slashing a combined .180/.269/.245 (.514 OPS) in June with a 28 percent strikeout rate and only 2 homers and 12 RBI over 160 plate appearances. 

But the Cubs didn't send Happ down to the minors because of Almora, Descalso or even Russell. The organization felt he needed to make some adjustments with his swing and offensive approach — namely from the left side of the plate. 

In a perfect scenario, Happ would cut down on strikeouts without losing any of the power that has led him to hit 39 homers in 751 at-bats during his first two big-league seasons. 

However, it hasn't quite worked out that way, as the 24-year-old switch-hitter is hitting just .225 with a .347 on-base percentage and .399 slugging percentage in 72 games for Iowa. He does have 45 walks, but also 85 strikeouts and only 23 extra-base hits (11 homers). 

Even more concerning is much of that damage has come from the right side of the plate (.803 OPS, 4 homers) while he's struggled as a left-handed batter (.207 AVG, .721 OPS, only 7 HRs in 169 at-bats).

Happ's progress also hasn't exactly been linear. His OPS by month:

April: .741
May: .806
June: .667

"I think from a development stage, it's good," Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said last week. "He's been swinging the bat well from the right side. Still working on things from the left side that he's been working on since spring training. But the attitude is fantastic. He's working hard. 

"It just feels like a matter of time until he goes on a run and gets back to where he was before. We're kinda waiting on that a little bit — he's waiting on that. But given the work he's done and where he is mentally, I think that's just a matter of time."

Iowa manager Marty Pevey raved about Happ's work ethic and attitude, but also acknowledged that it hasn't yet clicked for the young switch-hitter and that can be frustrating and difficult to maintain the right mental approach.

Happ admitted that frustration — especially early on — in a conversation with The Athletic's Sahadev Sharma last week

But those around Happ in the Cubs organization haven't lost any faith in him.

"He's 24 years old," Pevey said. "He would almost be the youngest guy on the big-league team still. ... He's got so much talent. When the light comes back on for him and stays on, he's gonna be able to help the big club for a long, long time."

In spring training, the plan was for Happ to play both second base and outfield. But that was before he was demoted, of course.

As he works on his swing, Happ hasn't played second base with Iowa since June 1 and has only started 8 games on the infield this season, spending almost all his time in center field. 

"I think the biggest thing there is we just want him to get his at-bats and not worry about the defensive side of things," Joe Maddon said. "I think that's pretty much it. He can still come in and play second base, but moving it forward, if you could really nail down that swing from the left side and be pertinent in the outfield, that would be the first priority."

Regardless of how those on big-league club is playing or what the roster situation might be, the Cubs are committed to Happ's development and don't want to rush him. 

"The situation with Ian, you really want to make sure that you feel good about that," Maddon said earlier this month. "You don't want to just [call him up] because you think you have to do something like that. You got a young player, still learning his craft and getting better at what he's doing. 

"So you don't want to pull the plug. It's not an experiment, it's a developmental situation — so make sure that that is in place before you actually do bring him back. That's why you sent him there in the first place."

Cubs still searching for answers with Brad Brach

Cubs still searching for answers with Brad Brach

The Cubs have some interesting roster decisions to make in the near future. 

The big-league pitching staff is potentially going to get very crowded very quickly with Tony Barnette now added into the mix, Craig Kimbrel close to making his debut and Kyle Hendricks and Carl Edwards Jr. nearing returns from their respective injuries. Somehow, the Cubs will need to open up multiple spots on their pitching staff.

Fans on Twitter are quick to solve the problem by saying "DFA Brad Brach," but it's hardly that simple and also probably not the best course of action for the franchise to cut ties with the veteran reliever.

Yes, Brach has not pitched well in his first season with the Cubs, especially lately — he has given up runs in eight of his last 12 outings and now carries a 6.14 ERA and 1.84 WHIP on the season. 

But there's more than meets the eye with his numbers and both he and the Cubs feel like they're on the verge of getting things in order.

"The most frustrating part is I feel like I've had some of the best stuff I've had in the last couple years these last five weeks and have just not gotten the results," Brach said. "Unfortunately this is a results-driven game, especially in the bullpen. If you're not getting the job done, you're not gonna be out there when the game matters and that's when I love being out there. 

"[The Cubs have] been really good about coming up to me — 'your stuff's there, just one little thing here or there.' But at the end of the day, I just gotta execute it and get the outs."

Brach has given up 32 hits this season, but only 8 of those have gone for extra bases and just 1 left the yard. He's given up homers at the same rate as Aroldis Chapman and among MLB pitchers with at least 20 innings this season, only six other guys have a better HR/9 rate than Brach.

Brach also woke up Monday morning with a .397 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) against him, which is roughly 100 points higher than the league average this season and 107 points higher than his career average (.290). His FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) is right around his norm (3.73 vs. 3.69 for his career) and has the lowest strand rate of his MLB life so there's an element of bad luck here.

On the other hand, he's also giving up more hard contact and less soft contact than ever before.

After walking 15 batters in his first 12.1 innings, Brach has gotten that under control — he's doled out only 1 free pass over his last nine appearances and 7 total in 17 innings since April.

"It's been really frustrating and it's been waves of frustration," Brach said. "Early in the season, I wasn't throwing strikes, walking a ton of guys and wasn't getting hurt. Now, I'm not walking guys and getting hurt by the single in a year when home runs are dominating the game. 

"It's definitely a frustrating thing. The contact's been pretty weak. Mine was just two rocky games. I just kinda have to look at it like those were two really bad outings and move on and hopefully I can get on a roll here."

Brach has a point there — nearly half of the runs he has given up on the season (8 of 20) came in back-to-back outings against the Rockies on June 5 and June 11, where he was tagged for 4 runs each time while getting only three outs combined.

He also has a long track record of success. Since his rookie season, the 33-year-old has never posted a season ERA over 3.78. From 2012-18, Brach had a 2.92 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 33 saves and averaged more than a strikeout an inning while also spending most of that time as a high-leverage reliever pitching in the AL East.

However, Brach did experience an up-and-down 2018 season (4.85 ERA with the Orioles in the first half, 1.52 ERA with the Braves in the second half) and he has been thinking back to that a lot as he tries to get out of his slump with the Cubs.

"If I didn't have last year's experience, who knows where I'd be right now," Brach said. "Last year was pretty bad, too. Just couldn't get any outs. I was getting hit hard — a lot harder than I have been this year, so at least I know it can turn around."

There's still more than half the season remaining and Brach has exactly the kind of stuff, pedigree and experience to be a valuable bullpen piece for the Cubs down the stretch.

"It's kind of baffling to us from the side," manager Joe Maddon said. "We're trying to really dig into it and see if there's a thread there that we can bring to him. Because you watch him pitch from the side and the stuff is outstanding. It really is — the fastball-changeup-slider mix. 

"It's really hard to wrap your head around it. Some of it, I thought was a little bit of bad luck. Some of it has been late-count hits that he's gotta be a little bit better with 0-2, 1-2 counts. I'm trying to decipher all that. But purely from a physical perspective, he's throwing the ball great and he's not getting the results. And I think maybe then the confidence gets nicked a little bit, also. 

"That's where I'm at with him. I think he's throwing the ball wonderfully, but we gotta figure out — outside of a jam-shot, bad-luck knock every once in a while — what we can do to help him. This guy is such a wonderful team player. Everybody's behind him out there. Every one of us. We gotta figure it out because his stuff's that good."