Cubs

Theories on why Cubs haven’t played up to their defensive potential yet

Theories on why Cubs haven’t played up to their defensive potential yet

“That’s what we’re supposed to look like,” Joe Maddon said Monday night after a 6-4 loss where the San Francisco Giants scored the first six runs and Wrigley Field got loudest for the David Ross “Dancing with the Stars” look-in on the big video board, at least until a late flurry from the Cubs.

But for a manager always looking for the silver linings, Maddon could replay Addison Russell’s diving stop to his right and strong throw from deep in the hole at shortstop to take a hit away from Christian Arroyo. Or Albert Almora’s spectacular flying catch near the warning track in center field. Or Anthony Rizzo stealing another hit from Brandon Belt with a diving backhanded play near the first-base line.

The highlight reel became a reminder of how the Cubs won 103 games and the World Series last year – and made you wonder why the 2017 team hasn’t played the same consistently excellent defense with largely the same group of personnel.

“Concentration?” Jason Heyward said, quickly dismissing the theory a defensive decline could boil down to focus or effort. “No shot. No shot. It is what it is when it comes to people asking questions about last year having effects, this and that. But this is a new season.

“The standard is still high. What’s our excuse? We played later than anybody? That may buy you some time, but then what?

“The goals stay the same. We just got to find new ways to do it when you have a different team.”

FiveThirtyEight.com, Nate Silver’s statistical website, framed the question this way after the Cubs allowed the lowest batting average on balls in play ever last season, an analysis that goes all the way back to 1871: “Have the Cubs Forgotten How to Field?”

Even if the Cubs don’t set records and make history, they should still be better than 23rd in the majors in defensive efficiency, with 37 errors through 43 games. The Cubs have already allowed 28 unearned runs after giving up 45 all last season.

“We just got to stay on it and keep focusing and not let the miscues go to our head,” Ben Zobrist said. “We just have to keep working hard and staying focused in the field. A lot of that’s the rhythm of the game. I blame a lot of that on the early parts of the season and the weather and a lot of difficult things that we’ve been going through.

“If we’re not hitting the ball well, too, we’re a young team still, and you can carry that into the field. You don’t want to let that happen, but it’s part of the game. You got to learn to move beyond miscues and just focus on the next play.”

Heyward, a four-time Gold Glove winner, missed two weeks with a sprained right finger and has already started nine times in center field (after doing that 21 times all last season). Zobrist has morphed back into a super-utility guy, starting 16 games at second base and 15 in two different outfield spots.

[MORE CUBS: Have the Cubs found their new leadoff hitter in Ben Zobrist?]

Maddon has tried to drill the idea of making the routine play into Javier Baez’s head, so that the uber-talented second baseman can allow his natural athleticism and instincts to take over during those dazzling moments.

The Cubs are basically hoping Kyle Schwarber keeps the ball in front of him in left and setting the bar at: Don’t crash into your center fielder. Like Schwarber and Almora, catcher Willson Contreras hasn’t played a full season in The Show yet, and the Cubs are now hoping rookie Ian Happ can become a Zobrist-type defender all over the field.

“I’m seeing our guys playing in a lot of different places,” Heyward said. “It’s not just been penciling in every day who’s going to center field or right field or left field. We did shake things up some last year, but we did it kind of later in the season. We had guys settle in, playing every day. This year, I feel like we’re having guys in different spots.

“It’s May whatever, (but) it seems like we haven’t really had a chance to settle in yet. Not that we’re procrastinating by any means, but it’s just been a lot of moving pieces.”

The Giants won World Series titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014 with a formula that incorporated lights-out pitching, airtight defense and just enough clutch hitting. The Cubs are now a 22-21 team trying to figure it out again.

“Defense comes and goes, just like pitching,” said Kris Bryant, the reigning National League MVP, in part, because of his defensive versatility. “I feel like if you look at last year, it’s kind of hard to compare, just because it was so good. We spoiled everybody last year. Now we’re a complete letdown this year.”

Bryant paused and said: “Just kidding. Different years, things regress, things progress, and that’s just how it goes sometimes.”

Brandon Morrow, Craig Kimbrel and the 'puzzle' that is the Cubs bullpen

Brandon Morrow, Craig Kimbrel and the 'puzzle' that is the Cubs bullpen

From potential trades to payroll to their exact offseason checklist, the Cubs are playing things close to the vest early this offseason.

Which makes sense, as it doesn't do them any good to publicly talk about which players they're hoping to trade or exactly how much they have to spend to reshape a roster that missed the playoffs for the first time in a half-decade. 

But one thing is certain: The bullpen ranks very high on the Cubs priority list this winter.

At MLB's GM Meetings last week, Theo Epstein acknowledged the bullpen is a major focus for his front office and said, "we need to hit on a number of relievers this winter."

If the season started today, the Cubs bullpen might look something like this:

Craig Kimbrel (closer)
Rowan Wick
Kyle Ryan
Brad Wieck
Tyler Chatwood
Alec Mills
Danny Hultzen
Duane Underwood Jr.
Adbert Alzolay

That also doesn't take into account the potential of Chatwood, Mills or Alzolay getting a shot at the starting rotation (plus Colin Rea, who was added to the 40-man roster earlier this month).

There's not a whole lot of MLB experience in that projected bullpen beyond the closer. Kimbrel has 565 career big-league appearances under his belt, but the other eight names on that list have combined for only 329 relief appearances spanning 374.2 innings. 

That's not to say there's no promise in this group — Wick, Ryan and Wieck all impressed in varying degrees of sample size in 2019 while Mills and Chatwood also performed admirably in swingman roles — but there's simply not much of a track record. 

To some degree, the Cubs are going to be counting on guys from the aforementioned group (plus other internal candidates like James Norwood and Dillon Maples) in 2020, but there's also clearly a lot of work to do for a unit that struggled mightily in high-leverage spots last season.

"That's a puzzle we're going to be putting together all winter," Jed Hoyer said. "We'll look at every possible angle to do it — minor-league free agency, major-league free agency, trades. We're gonna be creative in how we put a bullpen together, but right now, there's a lot of flexibility.

"It's hard to picture that painting right now, but I think we'll be creative and try to put together a good bullpen."

As Hoyer indicated, there is no one way to put together a quality relief corps.

For example, the Cubs signed Kimbrel to $43 million deal, acquired Wick and Mills in under-the-radar minor-league trades, moved Chatwood from the rotation to the bullpen, drafted Underwood and picked up former second-overall pick (2011) Hultzen on a minor-league deal as he made his way back from a laundry list of injuries. Wieck is the most recent acquisition, quietly coming over from the Padres in exchange for Carl Edwards Jr. while everybody was focused on the Nicholas Castellanos deal.

One such unconventional option could be Brandon Morrow, the oft-injured former closer who initially signed with the Cubs prior to the 2018 season, but was only able to pitch for a few months before missing the last year-and-a-half with ongoing arm issues. The Cubs declined his $12 million 2020 earlier this month and thus owe him a $3 million buyout.

Morrow, 35, is reportedly healthy and has expressed interest in making a comeback. If he doesn't manage to land a big-league deal (which is unlikely given his recent elbow issue and track record of injuries), he is open to signing a minor-league deal with the Cubs, as first reported by the Chicago Sun-Times' Gordon Wittenmyer

The Cubs would be interested in that, as well, as it's a low-risk, high-upside move. When he's been able to get on a mound over the last four seasons, Morrow is 7-0 with a 1.79 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 24 saves and 12 holds.

"When healthy, he can certainly be a big part of the solution," Epstein said. "We appreciate his sentiments about if he's gonna sign a minor-league deal, he feels a responsibility that it should be here. That certainly seems like the type of thing that makes sense for both sides down the road."

The Cubs are already probably going to have to get creative to fit all their desired moves into the 2020 budget, so a reunion with Morrow makes sense as a potential piece of the bullpen puzzle. But obviously the Cubs cannot go into the season expecting Morrow to stay healthy all season or relying on him as a key cog.

The biggest key to the success of the 2020 bullpen will be Kimbrel, who had a very forgettable debut season in Chicago. 

Kimbrel went 0-4, posted a 6.53 ERA, gave up 9 homers in 20.2 innings and blew 3 saves in 16 chances with the Cubs after signing midseason. He also missed roughly a month of action between a knee injury and then an elbow injury that lingered into September.

Will a typical offseason and spring training be enough to get the 31-year-old back to his Hall of Fame-caliber form?

"Some of the injuries may well have been because of the lack of spring training, ramping up too quickly," Hoyer said. "Of course there's a lot of variables. I don't think we know exactly why he struggled. I thought there were some moments where he looked like he was about to take off and he looked really good and some injuries held him back. 

"Hopefully a really good spring training and he can get back on track, really stabilize our bullpen and allow us to build a bullpen without having to worry about the last three outs."

Regardless of how the Cubs build the bullpen this winter, all eyes will be on Kimbrel. If he can't regain his form, it's going to make life a lot more difficult on Epstein's front office and new manager David Ross. 

However, it does help that Wick, Wieck and Ryan got valuable experience pitching in high-leverage moments in the midst of a pennant race last season. All three figure to be big parts of that bullpen puzzle moving forward. 

Before a minor shoulder issue cut his season short, Chatwood was dialing it up to 99 mph out of the bullpen and impressing in short spurts or in a long relief role. After a long road, Hultzen finally made his MLB debut in 2019 while Underwood struck out all six batters he faced in his season debut in August and showed some promise.

If the Cubs are going to have to lean heavily on the group of relievers without much track record, at least they got a bit of a head start.

"Yeah, it gives us some comfort," Hoyer said. "We have a lot of uncertainty, a lot of moving parts in the bullpen. But the way some of those guys pitched at the end of the year does give us hope that we can find some diamonds in the rough and some of those guys that we found last year can continue to make strides and help us." 

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Christian Yelich to Yu Darvish on Twitter, 'Nobody needs help facing you'

Christian Yelich to Yu Darvish on Twitter, 'Nobody needs help facing you'

In the wake of the cheating allegations surrounding the Houston Astros, multiple parties have weighed in with their takes on the situation, and this includes Cubs starter Yu Darvish. He stated that this past season, he had noticed "weird behavior" from batters. Bleacher Nation then tweeted out a video showing Darvish stepping off the mound in a matchup against Christian Yelich and the Milwaukee Brewers, stating that he stepped off the mound because Yelich's "eyes move first...I'm not sure what he is trying to do."

Darvish then went on to elaborate that he wasn't trying to accuse the Brewers of stealing signs, rather that he was just stating what he had noticed in terms of batter behavior. Darvish made a minor grammar mistake, saying "your" instead of "you're" and when he responded to try to clarify that, it may have accidentally caused more confusion, as some mistakenly thought he was saying that Yelich indeed was stealing signs, but this was not the case.

That didn't stop Yelich from sounding off on Darvish with quite a harsh response, a response that was so harsh that some were shocked at the nature of it.

MLB free agent Josh Donaldson chimed in, humorously stating that he could definitely  use some help hitting off of Darvish and jokingly asked for what tips Yelich might have. 

Darvish then retweeted a few tweets that illustrated the point he was trying to make. 

Darvish also responded to Donaldson, saying that he doesn't think the third baseman needs any help hitting off of him either. 

At the end of the Darvish seems to be in a good place, and from his Twitter interactions, it is clear that he was not as upset or offended over the situation as Yelich was. 

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