Six things we learned about the Cubs in July

Six things we learned about the Cubs in July

If you thought Cubs fans were panicking in June, then July was clearly a rude awakening. The All-Star break came at a perfect time for Joe Maddon’s group, cutting off a stretch of 24 games in 24 days that made them look awfully weary. Of course, losing will do that to a team, too.

After ending June on a down note, the Cubs carried that right over into July, dropping eight of the first 10 games, including the last three of a four-game sweep in New York.

So the Cubs are not superhuman, but they still entered August with the high from one of the craziest wins in franchise history and the best record in baseball.

Let's run down what else we learned about the Cubs in July:

1. Rest is a top priority.

The Cubs showed that no matter how much talent a team possesses, these are still human beings who get tired, banged up and worn out.

That stretch of 24 games in 24 days - which veteran Ben Zobrist thinks is the longest he's ever played without a break in his 11-year career - was tough to watch for a fan base that may have started taking things for granted a little bit after such a hot start.

But that happens. Almost no team can cruise through a 162-game season without any extended down stretch, and the front office and coaching staff knew that even before July.

So the Cubs are prioritizing rest. Maddon is giving pretty much everybody regular days off, including two in a row for Zobrist during the first weekend after the All-Star break.

The Cubs brought up Brian Matusz to start Sunday night in an attempt to give their starting rotation an extra day off, and while that experiment was short-lived, the thought still remains the same - rest is key.

The Cubs aren't just focused on the regular season. They have their eyes fixed firmly on the World Series and they want to be healthy and fresh entering October. Which leads to the next point...

2. They are going all-in for a shot at a title.

The Cubs are pulling out all the stops, sending arguably their top prospect (Gleyber Torres), a big-league pitcher who had already served as a sixth man in the rotation (Adam Warren) and two minor-league outfielders for a rental closer who will become a free agent this winter.

Aroldis Chapman came to Chicago in the final week of July with some baggage, but he also brought the lightning rod of a left arm that makes him a "Game Over" closer.

The Cubs also traded away a couple of prospects for Mike Montgomery in the middle of July and dealt a minor-leaguer to the Los Angeles Angels before the Aug. 1 deadline to get right-hander Joe Smith.

The moves sent a clear message from Theo Epstein. As the president of baseball operations said after acquiring Chapman: "If not now, when?"

3. The bullpen is now a major strength.

Maddon is heralded as one of the best bullpen managers in the game, and he has plenty of options now.

With Chapman as the anchor, Maddon can roll out Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop as the top setup men while Montgomery and Smith can work as a lefty/righty tandem in the middle innings.

Oh, and then there's Carl Edwards Jr. (who is hitting his stride and looking dominant during his second stint in the big leagues), plus the always-reliable Travis Wood (who has also emerged as a valuable outfield glove in a pinch) and veteran Joe Nathan (who has 377 career saves and has not allowed a run - despite allowing four baserunners - in his first three appearances since returning from his second Tommy John surgery).

Who knows if Nathan can hold up, or if Edwards can keep this up? Montgomery and Smith have had their struggles this season. But this bullpen has all the makings of a major asset in the postseason.

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4. Dexter Fowler is one of the most valuable players on the roster.

Fowler's "you go, we go" approach as the leadoff hitter was sorely missed during that tough stretch, but the center fielder returned and has immediately brought another presence to the lineup.

When he's seeing pitches and drawing walks atop the order, it sets a tone for the rest of the Cubs.

It also allows Maddon to slot the rest of the hitters in behind Fowler, with Kris Bryant second, Anthony Rizzo third and Ben Zobrist fourth.

Fowler was the last player to sign - during the first week of spring training - but his stabilizing presence begs the question: Where would the Cubs be without him this season?

5. Depth is everywhere.

Despite trading for Chapman, Montgomery and Smith, the Cubs didn't feel any pressure to make any other moves at the trade deadline to add to their starting rotation or group of position players.

As it is, the Cubs have had some tough roster squeezes lately to accommodate the guys already on the team.

Tommy La Stella - a valuable role player with an .846 OPS - was sent down to the minor leagues to make room for veteran Chris Coghlan.

Justin Grimm - a reliever who has made 180 appearances for the Cubs over the last three seasons - was demoted to the minors to make room for Matusz (since designated for assignment).

Outfielder Jorge Soler and pitcher Trevor Cahill are on rehab assignments. Where will all these guys fit?

These kinds of roster moves have a way of working themselves out between injuries and performance, and the September roster expansion is just a few weeks out. But depth will be key for a team that is hoping to have another three months of baseball left to play in 2016.

6. They have another nice run in them.

The Cubs got off to a scorching hot start and have since fallen back to Earth, but they strongly feel that another long stretch of winning is just around the corner.

"We always believe we're capable of doing it," Zobrist said. "We don't think about a run of 30 games in a row. We think about today, and today only.

"But you have to get hot. We haven't been hot since May. We've been cold for a while. So we know that we've got it in us to get hot and get hot for a long time.

"We hope that's coming. We just have to play one game at a time."

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

When Ben Zobrist rejoined the Cubs active roster on Sept. 1, it was fair to wonder how much he could provide offensively. After all, he spent the previous four months on the restricted list while tending to a family matter, last playing a big-league game on May 6.

Zobrist did no baseball activities from May to mid-July, only working out to stay in shape. Although he eventually ramped things up, he played in just 12 minor league rehab games in August before returning to the Cubs, a small number compared to the length of his absence.

Even Zobrist admitted upon his big-league return that his timing at the plate wasn’t where he wanted it to be. And yet, what he did in September was nothing short of impressive. In 21 games, he posted a .284/.377/.388 slash line, performing at a level many couldn’t have expected, considering the circumstances.

Zobrist's impact on the Cubs' lineup goes beyond what you see in the box score, however. Not only is he a switch hitter with some pop, but he has a keen eye for the strike zone and frequently puts together professional at-bats.

On a Cubs team that tends to expand the zone, Zobrist’s presence mattered. In his second game back, for example, he went 3-for-3 with two walks, helping the Cubs beat the Brewers 10-5. After the game, Brewers starter Chase Anderson pointed out how different the Cubs' lineup looks with Zobrist in it.

"They play the matchups really well and Zobrist makes that team so much better," Anderson said on Sept. 5. "Just bringing his presence to the top of the lineup, it changes their dynamic a little bit."

Where Zobrist stands entering 2020, though, is currently unclear.

Zobrist is set to hit free agency after the World Series and will turn 39 next May. Therefore, it’s possible that he’s played his last game in the big leagues, as he has little, if anything, left to prove at this stage in his career.

Ahead of the Cubs’ season finale on Sept. 29, Zobrist told reporters in St. Louis that he hasn’t thought about how much time he’ll take before deciding what’s next for him. His family situation will obviously play a big role in his decision, but if September showed anything, it's that he still has something left in the tank.

“I’m 38 but I got that feeling all over again,” Zobrist said following the Cubs’ season finale, a 9-0 loss to the Cardinals in which he pitched a scoreless inning. “Just really fun, you know? It’s a fun game. Sometimes you don’t come out on the winning end, but you still gotta have fun with it and enjoy it. I enjoyed it today."

The Cubs roster is expected to undergo changes this offseason, with center field, second base and the leadoff spot being just a few areas the team will look to address. The latter two spots became revolving doors during Zobrist’s absence, as the Cubs struggled to replace what he brought offensively.

Zobrist is past the point in his career of being an everyday player. However, he still could be a useful asset for the Cubs in a supporting role, bringing his veteran approach to the lineup when he plays while still offering an experienced voice in the clubhouse.

“I take a lot of joy in that role, just being a supporting guy and being a part of winning clubs and part of winning atmospheres and cultures,” Zobrist said on Sept. 29. “The Chicago Cubs have been that since I’ve been around. This year we didn’t make the playoffs — we still have a winning record — (but) the kind of relationships that are built here and the culture that’s been built here is definitely a winning one.”

After the Cubs announced that they wouldn’t retain Joe Maddon for 2020, Zobrist acknowledged that more changes were likely coming in the offseason. Only time will tell what that means for the veteran utilityman — should he continue playing.

Whether he retires or joins a different team for 2020, though, Zobrist will look back on his four seasons with the Cubs fondly.

“(They’re) just the most passionate fans I’ve ever met,” he said of Cubs fans. “They’re very loyal, very passionate and it’s been such a pleasure to be a part of that team that beat the curse back in ’16, so I feel that still, when I see Cubs fans, there’s a lot of them that hug me and thank me for being a part of that.

“I’ll always look back at [my] time here — I don’t know what’s going to happen in the offseason — but look back at these four years and [be] very grateful to be able to be part of a group like this and be able to do what we did while I was here.”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

USA Today

Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Tony Andracki, Kelly Crull, Scott Changnon and Jeff Nelson give us their memories of Joe Maddon's time with the Cubs and discuss David Ross and Joe Espada's candidacy to be the next manager.

01:30 Kelly's memories of Joe from the perspective of a reporter

06:00 Going back to Hazleton with Joe

07:45 Joe's legacy as manager of the Cubs

16:00 How Joe impacted Javy Baez' career

18:00 David Ross and Joe Espada may be the leaders to replace Joe Maddon.

Listen here or via the embedded player below:


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