Cubs

Two months into season, Cubs looking like buyers and contenders

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Two months into season, Cubs looking like buyers and contenders

MIAMI — Two months into the season, it’s not like the Cubs are playing way over their heads or doing this with smoke and mirrors.

Besides the Washington Nationals and St. Louis Cardinals — and the West Coast arms race between the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants — are there any National League teams out there that really impress you?

Besides the Cubs, the New York Mets and Pittsburgh Pirates were the only other NL teams that woke up above .500 on June 1, meaning this could be a wide-open race into October.

The Miami Marlins and Milwaukee Brewers have already fired their managers. The Philadelphia Phillies should be obvious sellers. The Cincinnati Reds keep dealing with trade rumors and hot-seat speculation, the kinds of distractions that had followed the Cubs for the last five years.

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Now the conversation is starting to revolve around the actual games again, who the Cubs could add before the July 31 deadline and which big-time prospects might come to the North Side and influence a pennant race.

“I’ve said it all along: I really believe we can play with anybody,” manager Joe Maddon said before Monday’s 5-1 victory at Marlins Park. “I’m not just trying to stretch that. I’m not trying to sell anybody a bill of goods. I really believe that we can.”

There’s not enough time to list all the ways this year feels different around this team. But Jason Hammel is a good place to start after last season’s sign-and-flip guy limited the Marlins (20-32) to one run across 6 2/3 innings, notching a career-high 11 strikeouts and throwing 117 pitches in Little Havana.

Hammel never wanted to leave, but he didn’t have a choice when the Cubs included him in last summer’s blockbuster Jeff Samardzija trade with the Oakland A’s, the forward-looking deal that brought Addison Russell into the organization.

[MORE CUBS: Cubs proving they have the right kind of fight]

Hammel (4-2, 2.82 ERA) made Chicago his No. 1 priority in free agency and has responded by putting up 69 strikeouts against seven walks in 67 innings, strengthening a rotation that has looked top-heavy with Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta.

“I felt good here last year,” Hammel said. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?”

That’s not how Cubs executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer will look at it, knowing this 27-22 team could use another starter, some bullpen help and a veteran hitter.

“We’re always looking to add,” Epstein said. “We recognize that part of the benefit of having a deep farm system is to make moves to improve your big-league team during any relevant season.

“We’re constantly looking for ways to get better. We know that some answers will come from within through good player development, through young talent acquisition and doing it the way that we’ve done it.

“Some answers — both this year and in the future — will come from outside the organization, converting some of the prospects we have to more mature, more advanced solutions.”

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This is still a flawed team. On June 1, the Cubs led the majors in strikeouts (476), hitting .223 with runners in scoring position. They now have 43 errors through 49 games. Their bullpen has eight blown saves.

The Cubs will keep watching rookies like Russell and Jorge Soler go through their ups and downs, expecting improvements as they learn the league while also wondering if/when they will hit the wall.

The Cubs have stayed relatively healthy, outside of injuries to key relievers (Neil Ramirez, Justin Grimm) and bench players (Chris Denorfia, Tommy La Stella). Their luck could begin to change in the medical department or one-run games (14-10).

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

“We’ve played a lot of close ballgames,” Hammel said. “This season could (have seen) a big difference in both directions. We could have lost a lot (of those games), and we could have won a lot, too. (But) we’re in the middle of it.

“We’re going to have to start winning those games. But we’re in it. I’m very excited about where we’re at.”

The Cubs also have Anthony Rizzo forcing his way into the MVP conversation, Kris Bryant making a Rookie of the Year case and a front office that’s not afraid to think big and take risks.

“Once Theo and Jed came in, they had their plan,” reliever James Russell said. “Everybody talked about their plan and how it would kind of transpire. It’s nice to see the wheels in motion and the plan is taking its course. Right now, we got one thing on our mind: That’s winning ballgames and bringing the playoffs to Chicago.”

Report: Giants interested in Cubs first base coach Will Venable for manager opening

Report: Giants interested in Cubs first base coach Will Venable for manager opening

The Giants' search for a successor to now-retired manager Bruce Bochy has led them to the North Side.

According to NBC Sports Bay Area's Alex Pavlovic, the Giants are interested in Cubs first base coach Will Venable for their own managerial opening. San Francisco's interest is intriguing, as Venable went to high school just outside San Francisco in nearby San Rafael. His father — Max Venable — played for the Giants from 1979-83. 

Venable also interviewed for the Cubs' manager job earlier this month, telling the Chicago Sun-Times that his interest is in the "organization in general." He is one of several internal candidates for the Cubs' job, along with bench coach Mark Loretta and front office assistant David Ross.

The Cubs also interviewed Joe Girardi and are set to meet with Astros bench coach Joe Espada and former Phillies manager Gabe Kapler.

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Former Cub Mark Prior likely to take over as Dodgers pitching coach in 2020

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USA TODAY

Former Cub Mark Prior likely to take over as Dodgers pitching coach in 2020

Mark Prior's big-league playing career unfortunately fizzled out due to recurring injury woes, but he's making a name for himself in the coaching realm.

With Dodgers current pitching coach Rick Honeycutt transitioning into a new role, Prior is expected to takeover the position starting next season.

Cubs fans know the story of Prior's playing career all too well. The Cubs drafted him second overall in the 2001, with Prior making his MLB debut just a season later. He went on to dominate in 2003, posting an 18-6 record, 2.43 ERA and 245 strikeouts in 30 starts, a season in which he made the All-Star Game and finished third in the NL Cy Young Award voting.

However, Prior's season ended on a sour note, as he was on the mound during the Steve Bartman incident in Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS. Prior exited the game with a 3-1 lead, but the Cubs surrendered seven more runs that inning, eventually falling to the Marlins 8-3 before losing Game 7 the next day. 

Prior struggled to stay healthy after 2003, eventually retiring in 2013 after multiple comeback attempts. While many blame his injury-riddled career on former Cubs manager Dusty Baker, Prior does not. 

While we can only wonder what could've been with Prior to the pitcher, it's good to see him still making an impact in baseball in some fashion.

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