Cubs

Why Joe Maddon won’t hit the panic button with slow-starting Cubs

Why Joe Maddon won’t hit the panic button with slow-starting Cubs

“If we haven’t reached rock bottom with this, we’re pretty damn close.” – Mike Quade, May 17, 2011.

If only all Cubs managers could have experienced Joe Maddon problems. Hit the panic button if Jon Lester wrecks his left shoulder while racing a dirt bike on his day off, or Jake Arrieta blows off an MRI and gets shut down with a torn lat muscle, or Kyle Hendricks parties to the point of a suspension for violation of team rules.

The San Francisco Giants might already be nearing a point of no return with Madison Bumgarner in 2017 and forced to think about selling at the trade deadline. The New York Mets are a three-ring circus, desperately trying to restore order with Noah Syndergaard and Matt Harvey and now closer Jeurys Familia diagnosed with an arterial clog in his right shoulder.

So while the Cubs never expected to be 17-17 and in fourth place in the National League Central by the middle of May, FanGraphs still gives them a 91.5-percent chance to make the playoffs. If you’re hoping for Maddon to publicly rip his players and storm out of a press conference, well, you haven’t been paying attention.

“Starting pitching drives the engine,” Maddon said. “When you’re doing that right, everything else has a better opportunity or chance. Your defense gets bigger. Contact is not as hard. Hitters don’t have to battle from behind all the time. There’s more pressure on the other side. All those things are interchangeable. They’re interconnected. So as we pitch better, we’ll play better.”

The next great hope for the pitching infrastructure is Eddie Butler, the change-of-scenery guy who will face the first-place St. Louis Cardinals on Friday night at Busch Stadium. Butler is a promising right-hander with top-prospect pedigree who pitched well at Triple-A Iowa – and put up a 6.50 ERA across parts of three seasons with the Colorado Rockies.

Whether or not Butler clicks, the turnaround will have to happen with Lester, Arrieta, Hendricks and John Lackey – the top four starters from the rotation that led the majors with a 2.96 ERA last season (while no other starting group dropped below 3.60).

The 2017 Cubs have a 4.56 rotation ERA with 13 quality starts through 34 games, putting an enormous strain on a much stronger bullpen and exposing some of the learning-on-the-job issues with the lineup.

The defending World Series champs deserve the benefit of the doubt. But if the stress from back-to-back playoff runs finally catches up to 30-something pitchers and a rotation that has stayed remarkably healthy, then the Baseball Prospectus playoff odds that are less bullish (77 percent) will plummet and Cubs fans will really have something to worry about.

“I have so much confidence in these hitters,” Maddon said. “If we were hitting like on all cylinders – literally hitting on all cylinders – and these starting pitchers were pitching to their optimal situations and you’re playing sort of like this, I would be upset or concerned.

“But I’m not. All these guys are going to play to their normal levels. We’ll pitch better. We’re definitely going to hit better. Overall, the defense, I think, is holding its own.”

Eh, “D-Peat” is an area where the Cubs aren’t playing with the same focus or sharpness. By Thursday morning, only two teams in the big leagues had committed more errors than the Cubs (27). The team that led the majors in defensive efficiency last year now ranks 20th in that category. The Cubs have already allowed 23 unearned runs after giving up 45 all last season.

Within the NL, the Cubs are still a middle-of-the-pack offensive team. Even with leadoff guy Kyle Schwarber striking out almost 30 percent of the time. Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward, Addison Russell and Willson Contreras are also at a sub-.700 OPS level (or anywhere from 32 to 100 points lower than the big-league average).

“You need to fail on the major-league level in order to understand how to dig yourself out of that hole,” Maddon said. “I really expect fully and anticipate struggles, and even with guys that had shown a lot of success last year. We have a really young and inexperienced team still.

“Even in spite of having two good seasons – and in spite of winning a World Series – we are young and inexperienced on a lot of different levels. So I really know we’re going to have problems. I know we’re going to mess up. I know we’re going to chase pitches. I know the process isn’t going to be right all the time. We might not think it all the way through.

“It’s part of the process, man. We’re still in good shape, record-wise. We’re still in good position. And we haven’t even played near our best baseball.”

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The talking points about being young and tired will get old and tired if the Cubs don’t start playing up to their own expectations. But the Cubs didn’t make Maddon one of the highest-paid managers in the game because of his Xs and Os. This isn’t about breaking down arm slots and launch angles or making more T-shirts or calling up Simon the Magician again. The sense of calm will radiate out from the manager’s office. 

“I read the newspapers,” Maddon said. “I read the front pages. I have kids. I have grandkids. I have a foundation where we deal with a lot of people in very difficult situations.

“At the end of the day, it’s a game. Listen, I want to win as badly as anybody. And I hate when we lose. I do carry it home sometimes. But I like to meditate in the morning. I like to get my thoughts together. Evaluate exactly what’s going on here. 

“Let’s not get carried away. Hyperbole has no place in all this stuff. But it has a tendency to creep in. Understand exactly what’s going on. Don’t exaggerate your plight.

“If you really want to get wrapped up and be a finger-pointer constantly, it’s a tough way to live your life.” 

Cubs reportedly interested in Troy Tulowitzki

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USA TODAY

Cubs reportedly interested in Troy Tulowitzki

According to MLB Insider Jon Heyman, the Cubs are one of the teams interested in free agent shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. The 5-time All-Star will be holding a workout soon, with Chicago being one of the six teams reported to have a scout present at his workout.

Heyman did mention that while the Cubs aren’t necessarily the favorites right now, we will know how good of a chance they will have soon. Tulowitzki and his team are reported to be narrowing down their list to (at least) 6 teams.

Last season Tulowitzki played 66 games for the Blue Jays, batting .249 with 7 home runs and 26 RBI. For his career he is a .290 hitter and is looking for a bounce-back season after dealing with complications from bone spur injuries in both heels over the years.

Toronto has to pay the $38 million left on Tulowitzki's contract, freeing up other teams to sign the veteran to a more reasonable deal. Since the Blue Jays went the route of cutting him, teams can offer Tulowitzki a league minimum salary.

For the Cubs, he represents-however small-a chance to extract great value from a veteran player, which would be a big bonus considering how the Yu Darvish signing backfired in year one.

Tulowitzki is likely to be searching for playing time on a legit title contender, so if he can provide any solid offensive production going forward, he and the Cubs could be a solid match.

Cubs Talk Podcast: Winter Meetings recap

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Winter Meetings recap

When nothing happens in Vegas, it stays in Vegas. Luke, Kap and Tony talk about the Cubs lack of moves during the Winter Meetings.

In this episode of the Cubs Talk Podcast with Luke Stuckmeyer, David Kaplan and Tony Andracki:

00:10 - What happen in Vegas stays in Vegas and this year that means nothing. Luke, Kap & Tony talk Cubs lack of moves at Winter Meetings.

00:50 - Where the heck is all the money? This was supposed to be a wide-open window - we step on the accelerator.

01:25 - Cubs keep throwing money at the problem (Chatwood, Darvish) and it has become a cautionary tale.

02:50 - Are the Cubs playing at the shallow end of the kiddie pool?

03:50 - Tony talks about the volatility of the relief market.

05:15 - Where is the bullpen market? Brewers are making moves, but it's still "crickets" for the Cubs.

06:20 - Tony: Other than bullpen - Cubs have to address backup middle infielder most of all.

06:57 - Daniel Descalso rumors. Kap describes him as a grinder who fits the leadership mold.

07:47 - Luke is a little worried about Steve Cishek. He threw a career-high 70 innings last season.

09:34 - The guys talk about the possibility of a "second deadline" for the Winter Meetings to force clubs to make more moves.

11:06 - Luke: "I wanted to see Machado and Harper walking down the strip and making it rain!"

12:45 - Cubs still have so much to address. Some Cubs fans are starting to get a little itchy. Teams in the division are making moves. What about us?

14:45 - Question: Is Anthony Rizzo the third-best 1st baseman in the Central Division?

15:50 - Prediction time: What's biggest move the Cubs will make before opening day? Kap believes that Ian Happ will not be a Cub before the regular season starts.

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below:

Cubs Talk Podcast

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