Cubs

Starting over, Zambrano wins for his nephew

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Starting over, Zambrano wins for his nephew

Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2010
10:55 PM

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

WASHINGTON For all their differences, Carlos Zambrano and Lou Piniella have this in commonboth are emotional men who value the importance of family.

Zambrano spoke with his brother on Tuesday and left the Cubs that night to travel back home to Venezuela to visit his 11-year-old nephew, who was hospitalized and placed in intensive care with whats believed to be a bacterial infection.

He told me to dedicate that game to his son, Zambrano said. In the first inning I was thinking about him. And I was throwing all the pitches saying: This is for my nephew.

With all that weighing on his mind, Zambrano went out and dominated the Washington Nationals in a 5-4 victory. And in a way the enigmatic pitcher is starting over, playing for a new manager and with a group of new teammates.

Maybe you are struggling with how to pronounce Mike Quades last name, or you cant tell one rookie reliever apart from another.

But there were still two familiar sights on Tuesday night at Nationals Park, Zambrano raising his head and pointing to the sky, and Alfonso Soriano lingering near home plate, admiring his three-run homer as it soared into the left-field seats.

Combined Zambrano and Soriano will make almost 36 million this season, enough to bankroll an entire 25-man roster for a small-market team. They will not fade easily into the background, and not just because they have no-trade clauses and approximately 108 million remaining on their contracts.

Soriano bounces around the clubhouse with a constant smile. Zambrano declined to comment after Piniella announced that Sunday would be his final game in uniform. They are two of the most recognizable faces left in this franchise.

For all the talk about developing young players for 2011, Quade has stressed that he needs the veterans to carry the Cubs (53-74) through to the end of this season. Zambrano is 2-0 with a 2.25 ERA in his four starts since returning to the rotation.

Well take that fresh start and just run with it for the next six weeks, Quade said.

After limiting the Nationals (53-73) to one run across 7 13 innings, Zambrano has the same outlook.

Q (is more) hyper than Lou, Zambrano said. He has more energy, but we need to do our job anyway, either being with Lou or Q or (Alan) Trammell. (We) need to play for our team.

Soriano can get hot and carry a team, and he now has hit at least 20 homers in nine consecutive seasons. Even if hes a flawed player, hes in elite company. Only four other players are on similar runs: Alex Rodriguez (15 seasons); Albert Pujols (10); Adam Dunn (nine); and David Ortiz (nine).

Zambrano (5-6, 4.64) hasnt produced like an elite pitcher, but feels like he is improving each time out, building from one start to the next. Last week against the San Diego Padres he walked six batters and struck out one. This time he finished with eight strikeouts and only one walk.

If Zambrano remains a Cub, whoever the manager is next season will want to cultivate a relationship with him. Piniella reached breaking points with Zambrano, and it helped lead to his suspension and time on the restricted list.

Lou was very special to me. He was honest, Zambrano said. Any time he had to say something to me, he said it. He wasnt afraid.

When he calls somebody into the office, it doesnt matterthat guy could be making 18 million. (He) knows how to speak. He didnt say much, but when he spoke, he knew what to say. He knew how to come to you and say the proper words.

In the same interview, Zambrano can be dismissive and engaging with the media. He began to answer two separate questions Tuesday night with: What do you think? Yes, he thinks hes getting better, and that he would have been in a groove if he remained in the rotation the entire season.

Zambrano described his bullpen experiment this way: We got too desperate too soon. He then reflected on his nephew, and vowed to make his next start, likely Monday at Wrigley Field.

Its pretty sad, Zambrano said. He is in bad condition (and) I will be with my family for a few days and come back to work.

Patrick Mooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. Follow Patrick on Twitter @CSNMooney for up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

Following 2019 'learning process,' Ian Happ's offensive progression key for 2020 Cubs

Following 2019 'learning process,' Ian Happ's offensive progression key for 2020 Cubs

It’s been another quiet offseason for the Cubs.

January is almost over and the Cubs have yet to commit a single guaranteed dollar to the big-league roster. After exceeding MLB’s luxury tax threshold in 2019, Theo Epstein and Co. are looking to get under the figure in 2020 and reset penalties entering 2021.

Barring any major surprises — i.e. a core player getting dealt before Opening Day — the club will return largely the same team from last season. That group has plenty of talent, but there are some question marks, like second base and center field.

A fan made waves at Cubs Convention last Saturday, reciting the definition of insanity to Epstein and Jed Hoyer during a baseball operations panel. With a similar roster in hand, why should fans expect anything different from the Cubs in 2020?

For Epstein, part of the answer lies in the continued development of homegrown players like Ian Happ.

Happ was supposed to be a key cog for the Cubs in 2019, but he was sent to Triple-A Iowa at the end of spring training after striking out 14 times in 52 at-bats. This followed a 2018 season in which he sported a 36.1 percent strikeout rate.

“He was striking out 30 percent of the time and we decided to send him down, because what we were seeing with Ian Happ, in our mind, wasn’t the finished product,” Epstein said Saturday at the Sheraton Grand Chicago. “We believe it’s the same way with a lot of our hitters, that’s there’s tremendous talent in there, but it wasn’t manifesting in major league games — which is all that matters — the way we needed it to.”

Happ was reportedly upset with the move, but his strikeout rate dropped to 26.3 percent with Iowa. After the Cubs recalled him on July 26, he posted a 25 percent rate in 58 games (156 plate appearances), slashing .264/.333/.564. He recognizes the demotion was beneficial.

“I got a lot of at-bats. I used it as a learning process,” Happ told NBC Sports Chicago Friday of his Triple-A stint. “To be able to come back and have success, it was a good way to finish the season."

Happ ended the season on a high note, slashing .311/.348/.672 in September with six home runs. He was tremendous over the season’s final eight games: .480/.519/1.200, five homers and 12 RBIs.

“Just being more aware of the ways guys were gonna pitch me,” Happ said regarding his hot September. “There’s some tweaks. For me, it was more about handling different pitches and when to use two different swings — when to be a little bit more defensive, when to put the ball in play. It led to results.”

Cubs players have been criticized in recent seasons for a seeming unwillingness to shorten up at times to put the ball in play. Their 73.8 percent contact rate in 2019 was last in the National League, though Ben Zobrist’s personal absence contributed to the low figure.

Happ posted a 71.7 percent contact rate, up from his 63.5 percent rate in 2018.

“He went through a really difficult stretch in Iowa, making significant adjustments to his approach and his swing and as a person, growing from some failure,” Epstein said. “When he came back up towards the end of last year, his strikeout rate was under much better control, he had much more contact ability.

“He wasn’t driving the ball quite the same, and then by the end of the year, he had maintained that better contact rate, was starting to drive the ball again, and it looked pretty dynamic and pretty promising for the future.”

It’s not a coincidence Happ made strides with Iowa. He got to work on his swing in an environment where he played every day. This wouldn’t have been the case in the big leagues, especially if his struggles lingered.

Happ started each of the Cubs’ last six games; he said it's huge for his confidence knowing he'd be playing every day. 

“It’s huge, it’s huge. I think that’s what everyone’s striving for in this league, is be able to [play every day],” he said. “For me, after that stretch and being able to finish strong and look back on a solid year, that’s big moving forward.”

The Cubs roster may look the same, but there’s plenty of room for internal improvement. Pitchers will continue adjusting to Happ, but he’s a better player for what he went through last season. He can take what he learned and carry it into 2020.

“So now, same player on the roster — and I understand the definition of insanity — but to expect Ian Happ to grow from what he’s gone through and benefit from the coaching that he’s gotten,” Epstein said, “and the lessons that he’s learned and the adversity that he’s gone through, and go out and be a productive player for us next year in a certain role, I don’t think is insane.”

“It’s just about sticking with the process, understanding that that’s what worked and that’s what you want to do,” Happ said. “It’s not always easy at the beginning of the year at Wrigley. It’s cold, it’s windy. The results don’t always show up. But if you’re true to the process and you keep going, by the end of the year you’ll be at a good spot.”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: It's time for a culture change for the Cubs

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Cubs Talk Podcast: It's time for a culture change for the Cubs

After the Cubs Convention, fans left still uncertain about the team headed into the 2020 season. Host David Kaplan and NBC Sports Chicago Cubs writer Tim Stebbins discuss what they took from Cubs Con, the culture change that is coming to the organization and a realistic possibility that the Cubs are looking into disgruntled star Nolan Arenado.

Listen to the episode here or in the embedded player below.

Cubs Talk Podcast

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