Cubs

Two months into season, Cubs looking like buyers and contenders

jason-hammel-0601.png

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.

[MORE CUBS: Will Cubs use Kyle Schwarber or Javier Baez as interleague DH?]

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.”

[MORE CUBS: MLB Power Rankings: Twins make puzzling leap into Top 5]

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.”

Forget 2015, the Brewers are more like 2016 Cubs

Forget 2015, the Brewers are more like 2016 Cubs

With the Milwaukee Brewers about to kick off the NLCS, many Cubs fans and pundits have taken to comparing them to the 2015 Cubs.

At first glance, it's easy to see why — they're in the playoffs for the first time as something of an underdog and "surprise" team — but that's not the recent Cubs squad we should be comparing the 2018 Brewers to.

This Milwaukee team is a lot more like the 2016 Cubs.

Here's why:

1. They're not a surprise.

Nobody expected the 2015 Cubs to win 97 games and wind up in the NLCS. They were expected to compete very soon, but everything went right in a red-hot August, they rode Jake Arrieta's right arm to the NLDS and then toppled the Cardinals to get to the LCS, where they ran into the brick wall that was Matt Harvey and and the Mets pitching staff.

The 2018 Brewers are not — and should not be — a surprise. Anybody who was caught off guard by this team being so good hasn't been paying much attention. The Brewers were leading the NL Central in 2017 for much of the year before a late-season fade that coincided with the Cubs' late-season surge.

This Milwaukee squad was always supposed to be one of the top teams in the NL in 2018 and they really hit their groove in September to chase down the Cubs. Still, it took a Game 163 to force a changing of the guard atop the division.

2. They greatly improved expectations with a big free-agent OF signing over the winter.

The Cubs had Jason Heyward in between 2015 and '16. The Brewers had Lorenzo Cain.

Cain has provided quite a bit more offense in the first season of his 5-year, $80 million contract but both Cain and Heyward provided leadership in the clubhouse and elite defense in the outfield in the first years with their new teams.

3. The Brewers have the NL MVP.

This one's an easy comparison to make, though Cubs fans will hate it.

Christian Yelich is this season's NL MVP. Sorry, Javy Baez fans. "El Mago" had a great season, but it's impossible to give the award to anybody but Yelich.

Yelich winning the league's most coveted accolade would be another perfect tie-in to the 2016 Cubs, who had Kris Bryant take home NL MVP.

4. They have a dominant LHP out of the bullpen.

Josh Hader has been doing his best Aroldis Chapman impression in 2018 as an absolutely dominant southpaw out of the bullpen. Unlike Chapman, Hader's spent all season with the Brewers, but like Chapman in '16, Hader will be leaned on heavily for multiple innings throughout the rest of the playoffs.

5. They picked up some valuable in-season assets.

The 2016 Cubs dealt for Chapman, but they also traded for reliever Joe Smith and called up Willson Contreras in the middle of the year, who provided a spark for the offense.

The 2018 Brewers have acquired plenty of valuable assets along the way this season from Mike Moustakas to Jonathan Schoop to Erik Kratz (more on him later) to Gio Gonzalez. But one of their most important additions (especially in October) was the promotion of top prospect Corbin Burnes, a flame-throwing right-hander who posted a 2.61 ERA in 30 regular-season games and allowed only 1 hit in 4 shutout innings in the DS.

6. They're on a mission with a chip on their shoulder.

The 2015 Cubs had a little bit of a chip on their shoulder as they attempted to take down the divisional powerhouse that was the St. Louis Cardinals. But again, they were a surprise contender - even within that clubhouse (especially early in 2015). But after falling short in the NLCS, the Cubs retooled over the winter and came back with one goal in mind - to win the World Series.

It was a goal they accomplished. We'll see if the Brewers will be able to do the same, but they certainly came to play in 2018 with a chip on their shoulder and the ultimate goal of winning the final MLB game of the year.

The Brewers didn't lead the division from Day 1 and weren't able to coast into October, but they still wound up with homefield advantage throughout the NL playoffs.

7. They have journeyman catcher who is winning over fans' hearts.

This is a fun one.

The 2016 Cubs had David "Grandpa" Rossy who still elicts deafening cheers whenever he's shown on the giant video board at Wrigley Field. The 2018 Brewers have Kratz, who has become a fan favorite recently and was mic'd up for the final out of the NLDS.

Ross was 39 when he helped lead the Cubs to the 2016 World Series and Chicago was his eighth stop (seventh different team) along his MLB journey. Kratz is 38 and on his ninth stop (seventh different team) along his MLB journey.

In fact, Ross and Kratz are so intertwined, they've already been compared to each other by MLB.com.

But the major difference is Kratz has zero postseason playing experience until a week ago. Will he be able to ride off into the sunset with a championship ring on his finger the way Ross did?

We'll have an answer to that over the next few weeks in the final chapter of the Brewers' 2018 season, though Cubs fans surely wouldn't be too happy to see their division rivals celebrating with a World Series parade just 90 minutes north of Wrigley Field.

Cubs bench coach Brandon Hyde interviewed for Rangers' manager opening

hyde-1011.jpg
USA TODAY

Cubs bench coach Brandon Hyde interviewed for Rangers' manager opening

The Cubs just lost one coach with hitting coach Chili Davis getting fired. Another opening on Joe Maddon's coaching staff could also open up.

According to report from MLB.com's T.R. Sullivan, bench coach Brandon Hyde interviewed with the Rangers on Thursday.

Rangers farm director Jayce Tingler was the first candidate the club interviewed, but Hyde and Astros bench coach Joe Espada were also interviewed.

The 45-year-old Hyde has been with the Cubs since 2014. He was a bench coach in 2014 under Rick Renteria before moving to first base coach from 2015-17. This past season he moved back to his original role as bench coach.

He played four seasons in the minors for the White Sox.

The Rangers job opened up when Jeff Banister was fired on Sept. 21. Banister won AL Manager of the Year in 2015 and guided the Rangers to back-to-back playoff appearances in 2015 and 2016, but couldn't get out of the ALDS either year. A 78-84 season in 2017 was followed by an even worse 2018, which led to his firing late this season.