Theo Epstein amplifies Joe Maddon’s message: Cubs are looking at internal solutions, not a big shake-up

Theo Epstein amplifies Joe Maddon’s message: Cubs are looking at internal solutions, not a big shake-up

SAN DIEGO – Cubs fans hoping to see a shake-up that might jolt a .500 team will have to settle for this: Joe Maddon buying a leisure suit and an embroidered leather jacket for the “Anchorman”-themed flight home and slotting contact hitter Jon Jay fifth in Tuesday night’s lineup against the Padres.

After Maddon stocked up at Flashbacks, a local vintage clothing store, Theo Epstein projected a sense of calm in his own way, stopping by Petco Park to face the media and take some heat off the defending World Series champs. The president of baseball operations and his manager aren’t looking to make any dramatic personnel moves.  

“Not right now,” said Epstein, who’s on a West Coast scouting trip for the amateur draft. “Keep an open mind to everything. But when you have belief in certain guys’ talent – not just potential but talent – then you want to find a way for it to manifest, because it’s really valuable for guys to work through things up here.

“But you can’t be stubborn about it. If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen, then you got to look to other ways to get guys going. It’s happened throughout baseball history. But certainly the preferred course is for guys to work through things up here and come out the other end stronger.”

Those conversations would presumably revolve around two recent first-round picks: Kyle Schwarber (.173 average) and Ian Happ (2-for-22 with 13 strikeouts in his last seven games). But Epstein sent this message loud and clear: “Our solutions with hitters are on the 25-man roster right now.”

Maddon also signaled that he’s not planning to drop Schwarber toward the bottom of the lineup, the way he eventually moved Jason Heyward, trying to stop what still became a season-long offensive spiral.

“I know he hasn’t gotten hits, but I’ve liked his at-bats recently,” Maddon said. “There’s a tremendous difference between what Jason went through last year and what he’s gone through. Last year, Jason was more based on the mechanics of his swing. Right now, with Kyle, it’s more the mental process, because his swing physically is really good, so I see it as two different problems to consider.

“I’m not saying I won’t. But for right now, I thought the at-bats have been good.”

Maddon is focused on restoring the confidence that made Schwarber believe he could impact a 97-win team during his first full season in professional baseball – and make a dramatic comeback from major knee surgery to rake in last year’s World Series.   

“Of course, it’s been dented a little bit,” Maddon said. “It’s not easy when you look up and you see that number (on the scoreboard) and you’ve never really struggled like this before. With anybody, their confidence is going to take a hit.

“Listen, every time I write his name down, I get excited. I think it’s a good thing. It’s going to happen. He’s going to come back. He’s going to show what he can do. There are certain things we’ve talked about regarding just approach in general. And I think I’ve been seeing better with that the last couple games.”

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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