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.” 

2021 MLB schedule: Cubs open at home against Pirates, play AL Central again

2021 MLB schedule: Cubs open at home against Pirates, play AL Central again

The 2020 Major League Baseball season hasn’t started yet and there’s no telling if the league will complete it in full due to COVID-19. In any case, the 2021 Cubs schedule was officially announced on Thursday.

The Cubs will open at home for the second straight season, taking on the Pirates at Wrigley Field on April 3. It’s the first time since 2011-12 the North Siders will open the season at Wrigley Field and third time in four seasons their home opener is against Pittsburgh.

2021 also marks the second consecutive year the Cubs will play the AL Central in interleague play. This includes six games against the White Sox (Aug. 6-8 at Wrigley; Aug. 27-29 at Guaranteed Rate Field). Their first interleague series is May 11-12 at Cleveland.

The Cubs travel to Minnesota (Aug. 31-Sept. 1) and host the Royals (Aug. 20-22) for the first time since 2015.

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Check out the full schedule:


Why Craig Kimbrel is Cubs' bellwether in short season like no closer before him

Why Craig Kimbrel is Cubs' bellwether in short season like no closer before him

Whether we’ll ever arrive at a time during pandemic baseball to let down our guards long enough to dream on the entirety of a 60-game season and playoffs, the Cubs will be hard pressed to let down their guards when it comes to holding leads late with a new-look bullpen and no margin for error in getting it right.

“Definitely each game’s going to be bigger, each lead change is going to be bigger in 60 games,” said veteran closer Craig Kimbrel — whose performance could be the bellwether for the Cubs fortunes like no other closer in any other season ever has.

“There’s going to be no such thing as a losing streak,” Kimbrel said. “If you’re going to want to be in it at the end, you’re going to have to stay consistent and try not to get in a funk.”

Bullpens already are considered the most inherently volatile position areas in baseball in any season. In a 60-gamer?

“It’s extremely important,” said Cubs manager David Ross, one of Kimbrel’s catchers in Atlanta when the right-hander broke into the majors 10 years ago. “Every aspect of this game is going to be highlighted in a 60-game sprint, and that’s definitely going to be a big part of it.”

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Kimbrel, 32, is a seven-time All-Star, who signed a three-year $43 million deal as a free agent early last season and then struggled down the stretch for the Cubs — allowing a career-high nine home runs in just 23 appearances.

He became a Twitter punchline when he gave up a homer to teammate Willson Contreras in a simulated game Tuesday, but Kimbrel said he was just trying to throw strikes and working on things — like the changeup Contreras hit.

The reality is Tuesday meant next to nothing when imagining Kimbrel’s performance once a season were to start July 24.

But last September — when he gave up four homers in three outings that included a 10th-inning loss and blown save in another loss in the span of three days against the Cardinals — is another matter.

If he starts 2020 like he finished 2019, the Cubs’ short season might be finished before it starts.

Will he recover the tick or two off his once upper-90s fastball to once again get away with location mistakes? Will his breaking ball and developing changeup become bigger weapons to make the fastball look more powerful? Will his location be good enough to make either less of an issue?

“I think he’s got a few things still to iron out, just talking to him, for him to feel comfortable,” Ross said. “And he knows some of his keys, he’s not quite there yet. It’s like any other pitcher. His is heightened by who he is, but every pitcher is looking at the data afterwards, looking at the high-speed cameras, seeing where the hand positioning is, comparing it to the success they’ve had in the past and trying to make small adjustments and get the action that they expect on the baseball.”

The theme often repeated by team officials since last year’s struggles was that Kimbrel suffered from not having a normal spring training last year because of the extended free agency that took his competitive debut into June.

Fast-forward to 2020 and … uh-oh.

But Kimbrel said last year’s experience is “definitely helpful” as he navigates the strangest season anybody in the game has experienced.

Any emotional downside associated with this season’s unusual format might come from the lack of fans in the stands and the natural adrenaline high that brings to the ninth inning with a slim lead.

“It’d be a lot nicer if there was [a crowd],” he said. “I’m just going to have to figure out a way to do it.

“I’ve just got to mentally go to a place and physically be ready to go out there and do what I’ve always done.”

The fact is his success is more likely to simply come down to whatever he gets out of that All-Star fastball — whether through location, sheer velocity or what he can make it look like off his other stuff.

“Obviously, when the fastball’s located and at the velocity you want it, things are great,” he said. “But I think with my offspeed pitches, the better I can control those, the better it makes my fastball.

“So I would honestly say controlling the curveball in the zone and keeping it down is only going to make my fastball play better. That’s really my mindset on that.”

He and the Cubs have two weeks to get it right. Because once the season starts so does the playoff chase — with every ninth- and 10th-inning home run as costly as the last time he took the mound for the Cubs when it counted.