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."

Cubs still waiting for Willson Contreras' offense to take off, but they know it's coming

Cubs still waiting for Willson Contreras' offense to take off, but they know it's coming

If every Major League Baseball player was thrown into a draft pool in a fantasy-type format, Willson Contreras may be the first catcher taken.

Joe Maddon and the Cubs certainly wouldn't take anybody else over "Willy."

The Cubs skipper said as much in late-May, placing Contreras' value above guys like Buster Posey, Gary Sanchez and Yadier Molina based on age, athleticism, arm, blocking, intelligence, energy and offensive prowess.
Contreras strikes out more, doesn't hit for as high of an average and doesn't yet have the leadership ability of Posey, but he's also 5 years younger than the Giants catcher. Molina is possibly destined for the Hall of Fame, but he's also 35 and the twilight of his career is emerging. Sanchez is a better hitter with more power currently than Contreras, but a worse fielder.

Remember, Contreras has been in the big leagues for barely 2 years total — the anniversary of his first at-bat came earlier this week:

All that being said, the Cubs are still waiting for Contreras to display that type of complete player in 2018.

He's thrown out 11-of-32 would-be basestealers and the Cubs love the way he's improved behind the plate at calling the game, blocking balls in the dirt and working with the pitcher. They still see some room for improvement with pitch-framing, but that's not suprising given he's only been catching full-time since 2013.

Offensively, Contreras woke up Saturday morning with a .262 batting average and .354 on-base percentage (which are both in line with his career .274/.356 line), but his slugging (.412) is way down compared to his career .472 mark.

He already has 14 doubles (career high in a season was 21 last year) and a career-best 4 triples, but also only 4 homers — 3 of which came in a 2-game stretch against the White Sox on May 11-12.

So where's the power?

"He's just not been hitting the ball as hard," Maddon said. "It's there, he's gonna be fine. Might be just getting a little bit long with his swing. I think that's what I'm seeing more than anything.

"But I have so much faith in him. It was more to the middle of last year that he really took off. That just might be his DNA — slower start, finish fast.

"Without getting hurt last year, I thought he was gonna get his 100 RBIs. So I'm not worried about him. It will come. He's always hit, he can hit, he's strong, he's healthy, he's well, so it's just a patience situation."

The hot streak Maddon is talking about from last season actually began on June 16 and extended to Aug. 9, the date Contreras pulled his hamstring and went to the disabled list for the next month.

In that 45-game span (40 starts) in the middle of 2017, Contreras hit .313/.381/.669 (1.050 OPS) with 16 homers and 45 RBI.

It looked like the 26-year-old catcher may be getting on one of those hot streaks back in mid-May when he clobbered the Marlins, White Sox and Braves pitching staffs to the tune of a .500 average, 1.780 OPS, 3 homers and 11 RBI in a week's worth of action.

But in the month since, Contreras has only 3 extra-base hits and no homers, driving in just 4 runs in 29 games (26 starts) while spending most of his time hitting behind Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo.

What's been the difference?

"I think it's honestly just the playing baseball part of the game," Contreras said. "You're gonna go through your ups and downs, but I definitely do feel like I've been putting in the work and about ready to take off to be able to help the team."

Contreras admitted he's been focused more on his work behind the plate this season, trying to manage the pitching staff, consume all the scouting reports and work on calling the game. He's still trying to figure out how to perfectly separate that area of his game with his at-bats.

"With my defense and calling games, that's one way that I'm able to help the team right now," Contreras said. "And as soon as my bat heats up, we're gonna be able to take off even more."

On the latest round of National League All-Star voting, Contreras was behind Posey among catchers. The Cubs backstop said he would be honored to go to Washington D.C. next month, but also understands he needs to show more of what he's capable of at the plate.

"If I go, I go," he said. "Honestly, it's not something that I'm really focusing on right now. ... I do think I've been pretty consistent in terms of my average and on-base percentage and helping create situations and keep the line moving, at least.

"But right now, I know my bat hasn't been super consistent so far. It would be a great opportunity and I'd thank the fans."

As a whole, the Cubs have been hitting fewer home runs this season compared to last year. Under new hitting coach Chili Davis, they're prioritizing contact and using the whole field over power and pulling the ball.

Contreras has a 19.3 percent strikeout rate — the lowest of his brief big-league career — while still holding a 9.6 percent walk rate, in line with his career mark (9.9 percent).

Thanks to improved defense, Contreras still boasts a 1.6 WAR (FanGraphs) despite the low power output to this point. Posey (1.7 WAR) is the only catcher in baseball more valuable to his team.

Just wait until his power shows up.

"He hasn't even taken off yet," Maddon said. "He's gonna really take off. Remember last year how hot he got in the second half? That's gonna happen again. You see the pickoffs, what he does behind the plate, how he controls the running game — he's a different cat.

"And he's gonna keep getting better. He's not even at that level of consistency that I think you're gonna get out of him. Great athlete, runs well, does a lot of things well, but it does not surprise me that he's [second in NL All-Star voting at catcher] with Posey."

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

A year ago, the Cubs were struggling to float above .500, sitting 1.5 games behind the first-place Brewers.

Two years ago, the Cubs were10.5 games up on the second-place Cardinals in the division and already in cruise control to the postseason.

As they entered a weekend series in Cincinnati at 42-29 and in a tie for first place, the Cubs are feeling quite a bit more like 2016 than 2017.

The major reason? Energy, as Joe Maddon pointed out over the weekend.

That energy shows up most often on defense.

The 2016 Cubs put up maybe the best defensive season in baseball history while last year they truly looked hungover.

After a big of a slow start to 2018, the Cubs are feelin' more of that '16 swag.

If you watched either of the wins against the Los Angeles Dodgers this week at Wrigley Field, it's clear to see why: the defense.

"I like the defense," Maddon said of his team last week. "I'm into the defense. There's a tightness about the group. There's a closeness about the group. Not saying last year wasn't like that, but this group is definitely trending more in the '16 direction regarding interacting.

"If anything — and the one thing that makes me extremely pleased — would be the continuation of the defense. We've fed so much off our defense in '16. We've been doing that more recently again. We do so much good out there, then we come in and it gets kinda electric in the dugout. I'd like to see that trend continue on defense."

The Cubs scored only 2 runs in 10 innings in the second game against the Dodgers Tuesday night and managed just 4 runs in the finale Wednesday. Yet their gloves helped hold the Dodgers to only 1 run combined between the two games.

Wednesday's game was a defensive clinic, with Jason Heyward throwing out Chris Taylor at home plate with an incredible tag by Willson Contreras while Javy Baez, Albert Almora Jr., Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber all hit the ground to make sprawling/diving plays.

"[Almora] comes in and dives for one and I'm just like, 'OK, I'm done clapping for you guys,'" Jon Lester, Wednesday's winning pitcher, joked. "It's expected now that these guys make these plays. It's fun on our end. It's the, 'Here, hit it. Our guys are really good out there and they're gonna run it down.'"

The Heyward throw, in particular, jacked the team up. 

Maddon compared it to a grand slam with how much energy it provided the Cubs. Almora said he momentarily lost his voice because he was screaming so much at the play.

There was also Baez making plays in the hole at shortstop, then switching over to second base and turning a ridiculous unassisted double play on a liner in the 8th inning.

"That's what we're capable of doing," Maddon said. "In the past, when we've won on a high level, we've played outstanding defense. It never gets old to watch that kind of baseball."

The Cubs are back to forcing opposing hitters to jog off the field, shaking their head in frustration and disbelief.

"It could be so dispiriting to the other side when you make plays like that," Maddon said. "And also it's buoyant to your pitchers. So there's all kinds of good stuff goin' on there."

A lot of that is the play of the outfield, with Almora back to himself after a down 2017 season and Schwarber turning into a plus-rated defensive outfield.

After finishing 19th in baseball in outfield assists last season, the Cubs are currently tied for 6th with 14 outfield assists this year.

Schwarber has 7 alone, which is already as many as he tallied in the entire 2017 season.

"I feel like they'll learn quickly on Schwarber, if they haven't yet," Heyward said. "You gotta earn that respect. You gotta earn that sense of caution from the third base coach.

"But please keep running on me in those situations. I want it to happen."