Why Cubs believe winning the offseason won't be a curse


Why Cubs believe winning the offseason won't be a curse

Theo Epstein hasn’t been on an offseason roll like this since ... the Boston Red Sox traded Anthony Rizzo to the San Diego Padres in the Adrian Gonzalez deal and signed Carl Crawford to a $142 million contract?

“Expectations got so high,” Epstein remembered. “People were speculating: ‘Is this the greatest team of all-time? A super-team? An uber-team?’”

The 2011 Red Sox started out 0-6 and 2-10, finished August in first place in the American League East and then lost 20 games in September, missing the playoffs in a spectacular collapse that led to manager Terry Francona being forced out and The Boston Globe publishing the fried-chicken-and-beer story.

Tired of the power struggles at Fenway Park and looking for a new challenge, Epstein bolted to Chicago that October for a president’s title with the Cubs and a direct report to ownership.

“It is an unbelievable dynamic the last few years,” Epstein said, “how the winners of the offseason tend to be miserable the following September.”

[MORE CUBS: How Cubs wound up spending big on Jason Heyward]

Epstein said that during the general managers meetings in the middle of November, when the idea of spending $272 million on bulldog pitcher John Lackey, super-utility guy Ben Zobrist and Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward sounded completely unrealistic given the franchise’s financial limitations.

But Epstein’s front office lobbied chairman Tom Ricketts and Crane Kenney’s business operations department, and the Cubs got creative, pulling off some accounting tricks and reinvesting money generated during a surprising trip to the National League Championship Series. A franchise that usually seems so focused on the future and risk management thought big and acted decisively, trying to win a World Series.

After Heyward agreed to an eight-year, $184 million contract and started trending on Twitter on Friday, Jason Hammel set the bar for the 2016 Cubs at “#162-0.” So there would be no confusion, the veteran pitcher clarified his tweet three minutes later: “Strike that. Reverse it. Let’s make that 173-0.”

After being the fun-loving, out-of-nowhere team that won 97 games last season, the Cubs will now be the hunted.

“The target’s going to be bigger, and I want us to embrace the target,” manager Joe Maddon said during the winter meetings. “The pressure is going to be possibly greater, and I want us to embrace the pressure.

“The bigger target, the greater pressure, I think, equals a grander chance for success. So I’m all about that, and I definitely will bring that to our guys’ attention.

“(With) the accountability of our young players — combined with our veterans — I really believe we could avoid those kind of pitfalls.”

[MORE CUBS: What the Jason Heyward deal means for Jorge Soler and Javier Baez]

Who knows if this means more or less zoo animals, but the Cubs do have the perfect manager to distract the media, keep the clubhouse loose and make rapid-fire decisions in the dugout.

At least the Cubs haven’t been thrown together like Ozzie Guillen’s reality-show Miami Marlins. The Cubs have their thin-skin moments and certainly try to shape public opinions, but they really don’t care what you think about this trade or that contract or make baseball decisions based on TV ratings or the next morning’s headlines.

The Cubs also have a foundation that appears to be stronger than the White Sox and Padres teams that won last year’s winter meetings — and wound up finishing 37 games out of first place combined.

Lackey probably won’t be amused by the Chicago media or have patience for nonsense questions. It was also interesting to see the mixed reactions to the Lackey signing on Twitter from Cubs fans ready to rubber-stamp any Theo move.

But Maddon worked as Mike Scioscia’s Anaheim Angels bench coach when Lackey beat the San Francisco Giants in Game 7 of the 2002 World Series. Epstein already drew up a five-year, $82.5 million contract with Lackey in Boston, where he reshaped his image after the fried-chicken-and-beer stuff and Tommy John surgery by helping the Red Sox win the 2013 World Series.

Maddon and Epstein insist Lackey brings an edge to the clubhouse, takes charge of the rotation in between starts and pushes teammates to get better.

Zobrist is one of Maddon’s favorite players ever after spending nine seasons together with the Tampa Bay Rays and transforming a last-place team into a World Series contender.

Heyward is getting paid like a superstar now, but the Cubs really just need him to be a supporting player who does the little things, grinding out at-bats, getting on base, going first-to-third and performing at a Gold-Glove level.

The idea of “don’t try to be something you’re not” probably appealed to Heyward after being surrounded by so much hype with the Atlanta Braves. This lineup already has 40-homer threats in Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber.

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

This didn’t create a splash, but the Cubs are feeling optimistic about Adam Warren — the swingman acquired from the New York Yankees in the Starlin Castro trade — and insurance policies like Trevor Cahill, Clayton Richard and Travis Wood. Because, as Epstein said: “We’ve been walking a tightrope with our lack of starting-pitching depth.”

The Cubs still haven’t really mortgaged their farm system yet, meaning there should be plenty of trade chips available to get whatever they need leading up to the July 31 deadline.

“Organizations that are the healthiest,” Epstein said, “(with) the most talent coming through the pipeline, the fewest holes, the most areas of surplus and depth, tend to have the least active offseasons. And those organizations tend to win.

“It means they’re doing something right. It means they have ways to address their needs internally. It means they have a lot of talent spread out in different areas of the organization. The teams that sometimes quote-unquote ‘win the offseason’ do so in response to a glaring need to infuse talent in a number of different areas.

“A healthy organization is not made by virtue of one busy offseason. It’s really years and years and years of planning, hiring scouts and development people and putting processes into play and seeing that approach manifest over time.”

Whether or not the Cubs are paper tigers, the only guarantee is they will be the biggest story in the baseball world in 2016.

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

A year ago, the Cubs were struggling to float above .500, sitting 1.5 games behind the first-place Brewers.

Two years ago, the Cubs were10.5 games up on the second-place Cardinals in the division and already in cruise control to the postseason.

As they entered a weekend series in Cincinnati at 42-29 and in a tie for first place, the Cubs are feeling quite a bit more like 2016 than 2017.

The major reason? Energy, as Joe Maddon pointed out over the weekend.

That energy shows up most often on defense.

The 2016 Cubs put up maybe the best defensive season in baseball history while last year they truly looked hungover.

After a big of a slow start to 2018, the Cubs are feelin' more of that '16 swag.

If you watched either of the wins against the Los Angeles Dodgers this week at Wrigley Field, it's clear to see why: the defense.

"I like the defense," Maddon said of his team last week. "I'm into the defense. There's a tightness about the group. There's a closeness about the group. Not saying last year wasn't like that, but this group is definitely trending more in the '16 direction regarding interacting.

"If anything — and the one thing that makes me extremely pleased — would be the continuation of the defense. We've fed so much off our defense in '16. We've been doing that more recently again. We do so much good out there, then we come in and it gets kinda electric in the dugout. I'd like to see that trend continue on defense."

The Cubs scored only 2 runs in 10 innings in the second game against the Dodgers Tuesday night and managed just 4 runs in the finale Wednesday. Yet their gloves helped hold the Dodgers to only 1 run combined between the two games.

Wednesday's game was a defensive clinic, with Jason Heyward throwing out Chris Taylor at home plate with an incredible tag by Willson Contreras while Javy Baez, Albert Almora Jr., Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber all hit the ground to make sprawling/diving plays.

"[Almora] comes in and dives for one and I'm just like, 'OK, I'm done clapping for you guys,'" Jon Lester, Wednesday's winning pitcher, joked. "It's expected now that these guys make these plays. It's fun on our end. It's the, 'Here, hit it. Our guys are really good out there and they're gonna run it down.'"

The Heyward throw, in particular, jacked the team up. 

Maddon compared it to a grand slam with how much energy it provided the Cubs. Almora said he momentarily lost his voice because he was screaming so much at the play.

There was also Baez making plays in the hole at shortstop, then switching over to second base and turning a ridiculous unassisted double play on a liner in the 8th inning.

"That's what we're capable of doing," Maddon said. "In the past, when we've won on a high level, we've played outstanding defense. It never gets old to watch that kind of baseball."

The Cubs are back to forcing opposing hitters to jog off the field, shaking their head in frustration and disbelief.

"It could be so dispiriting to the other side when you make plays like that," Maddon said. "And also it's buoyant to your pitchers. So there's all kinds of good stuff goin' on there."

A lot of that is the play of the outfield, with Almora back to himself after a down 2017 season and Schwarber turning into a plus-rated defensive outfield.

After finishing 19th in baseball in outfield assists last season, the Cubs are currently tied for 6th with 14 outfield assists this year.

Schwarber has 7 alone, which is already as many as he tallied in the entire 2017 season.

"I feel like they'll learn quickly on Schwarber, if they haven't yet," Heyward said. "You gotta earn that respect. You gotta earn that sense of caution from the third base coach.

"But please keep running on me in those situations. I want it to happen."

Brandon Morrow has a healthy sense of humor about his pants-related injury

Brandon Morrow has a healthy sense of humor about his pants-related injury

Brandon Morrow's body may not be healthy, but his sense of humor sure isn't on the disabled list.

The Cubs closer had to go on the DL Wednesday after he injured his back changing out of his pants early Monday morning when the Cubs returned home to Chicago after a Sunday night game in St. Louis.

The story made national rounds, not only in the baseball world, but resonating with non-sports fans, as well. After all, it's not every day a guy who gets paid millions for his athletic endeavors injures himself on a mundane every day activity.

But it's all good, because even Morrow can find the humor in the situation, Tweeting this out Thursday afternoon:

Morrow's back tightened up on him and didn't loosen up enough the next two days, making him unavailable for the Cubs doubleheader Tuesday at Wrigley Field.

The team decided to put him on the shelf Wednesday morning so an already-gassed bullpen wouldn't have more pressure during this stretch of 14 games in 13 days.

The Cubs are in Cincinnati this weekend for a four-game series with the Reds. Morrow is eligible to return from the DL next Wednesday in Los Angeles as the Cubs once again take on the Dodgers — Morrow's old team.

The 33-year-old pitcher is 16-for-17 in save chances this year while posting a 1.59 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 25 strikeouts in 22.2 innings. He's only given up a run in 2 of his 26 outings as a Cub.