Why Theo Epstein believes Cubs offense will click on all cylinders

Why Theo Epstein believes Cubs offense will click on all cylinders

What if the “hitting young” theme Cubs manager Joe Maddon keeps talking about lasts all season? What if team president Theo Epstein doesn’t see that anticipated growth until late in the year or this even drags into 2018?

“I hope not,” Maddon said with a laugh.

“You’d really have to roll snake eyes,” Epstein said skeptically.

This is a 95- or 100-win team on paper that has already been at the .500 mark at 10 different points this season and hasn’t yet pulled away in the weakest division in Major League Baseball. Between going 0-for-6 on a West Coast trip and then sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals, the overreactions swing from “World Series hangover” to “The Cubs are back.”

There doesn’t need to be any sweeping conclusions after Tuesday night’s 10-2 blowout where the Cubs beat an underwhelming starter (Jeff Locke) and a flawed Miami Marlins team to extend their winning streak to five games at Wrigley Field.

As Epstein said without sarcasm — more of a reminder that the solutions will come from within rather than a trade-deadline deal or the shock treatment of demoting guys to the minors: “These players won the World Series.”

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The Cubs (30-27) always look better when Anthony Rizzo drills a three-run homer into the right-field bleachers, but this diversified approach also saw them score six runs on six hits in the seventh inning and finish at 6-for-16 with runners in scoring position Tuesday.

Still, more than one-third of the way through the 162-game marathon, the Cubs have already been shut out five times, beginning the day ranked 10th in the National League in OPS (.730) while hitting .216 with runners in scoring position (or next to last in the majors).

Some of this is cyclical and a reflection of how Big Data can stifle offense. There are elements of bad luck and bad weather when you still need a winter coat in Wrigleyville in early June. But roughly 54 percent of the team’s 2,000-plus plate appearances this season have gone to seven players between the ages of 22 and 25: Ian Happ, Addison Russell, Albert Almora Jr., Kyle Schwarber, Javier Baez, Willson Contreras and Kris Bryant.

Could this learning curve stretch through most — or all — of 2017?

“I mean, it can,” Epstein said. “Usually not collectively. Teams are 25 individuals. You’d really have to roll snake eyes, regardless of age, for players to underperform their projections or their talent level that uniformly over the course of a whole season.

“Could it happen? Yes, it could happen. We don’t think it’s going to happen. We also have a lot of good players. We have a lot of different lineups that we can put out there. We have a lot of different players that we can lean on to carry us.

“We don’t need everyone to get hot. We don’t need everyone to hit their projection. We don’t need everyone to have a nice, steady progression building off of where they were last year. We just need a few guys to get going to make our offense really viable.”

Russell (.636) and Schwarber (.635) are among the bottom 10 percent of all qualified big-league hitters in terms of OPS. Baez has walked three times since the beginning of May. Happ now has almost as many career games in The Show as he does on the Triple-A level (26) and will have to keep making adjustments. Contreras is in the middle of his first full season in the majors. Maddon is trying to make sure that Almora doesn’t get lost in the shuffle.

“We need time,” Epstein said. “Over time, our guys are going to continue to progress. And when that gap (between talent and performance) exists, it’s a better position to be in than not having the talent, because then you’re fighting and scratching and clawing to get more talent because you’re not good enough.

“But we are plenty talented. It’s on us to figure it out, sooner rather than later.”

Cubs' Tommy Hottovy: 'Scary part' of COVID-19 is how fast deadly virus spreads

Cubs' Tommy Hottovy: 'Scary part' of COVID-19 is how fast deadly virus spreads

Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy is home in Kansas City for a couple rare days during the baseball season. His mom wants to meet him for lunch, and his sister, a grade-school teacher in town, just had a baby that he hasn’t had a chance to see yet.

“How much would I love to go get to see her and my new nephew?” Hottovy said. “Can’t do it. Just can’t.”

Not this time. Not with what’s at stake. Not when possible threats to health and professional purpose lurk in every unfamiliar hallway, byway and unmasked face while the Cubs navigate their first multi-city road trip of the season.

Don’t believe the risk of spread and large-scale COVID-19 team outbreaks are that sensitive, extreme and potentially swift? Just ask the Marlins and Cardinals, whose outbreaks in the first week of play put their seasons on hold and threatened the status of the league’s season.

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“I’m not leaving the hotel. I told my family and friends and everybody [in Kansas City],” Hottovy said. “We all signed up for this, to make sure that for this to work we all have to make those kinds of sacrifices. I love my family to death and would love to get to see them, but right now this is our home.”

The Cubs second trip, which started with a 6-1 victory Wednesday in Kansas City and continues to St. Louis before finishing in Cleveland next week, coincides with stepped-up COVID-19 protocols from Major League Baseball following the Marlins and Cardinals outbreaks.

The Cubs already had protocols in place that exceeded MLB’s original mandates and that are in compliance with the new mandates. And a month into the league’s restart they remained the only team without a player having tested positive for the virus.

RELATED: Cubs better prepared than MLB to finish COVID-19 season — which is the problem

In fact, Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant decided on his own to start wearing a protective mask on the bases when the Cubs played last week in Cincinnati, where three Reds players were sidelined either by positive tests or self-reported symptoms as that series opened. And first baseman Anthony Rizzo told ESPN 1000 on Tuesday that he plans to keep a mask in his pocket while in the field in St. Louis and will consider wearing it when somebody reaches base.

“No matter what measures you put in place, when you’re trying to pull off a season that requires travel in the middle of a global pandemic, it ultimately does come down to personal responsibility,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said. “And everyone is at the mercy of the least responsible person because of the nature of the spread of this disease.”

Nobody knows that more than Hottovy and many of the Cubs who watched their pitching coach deteriorate in real time during daily Zoom sessions in May and June until the worst symptoms of his frightening monthlong bout with the virus forced him to hand off his job duties.

Whether Hottovy’s experience led directly to the Cubs’ more extreme safety policies or the individual players’ apparent hyper diligence, MLB’s recent coronavirus outbreaks and other cases at least raise questions about whether some teams and players — or even the league — respect the potential severity of a virus that has killed more than 158,000 Americans in five months.

“I don’t think people underestimate that aspect of it; I think they underestimated how easy it was to spread,” Hottovy said of the outbreaks — including a Cardinals outbreak that reportedly was traced to one asymptomatic, outside individual familiar with the team.

Hottovy called the highly contagious nature of the virus “the scary part of this,” both in terms of the potential to quickly render an organization unable to field a team as well as the subsequent, inherent risk that poses to family members and others who might, in turn, be among those who then become severely impacted by the virus.

And the hardest part, he said, is not letting down your guard within the team bubble when it’s easy to trust that when it’s only teammates in the room that it’s OK to disregard masks, distancing and other safety measures.

“That’s when it gets dangerous,” said Hottovy, whose team talks often about assuming everyone — including each other — has the virus.

So just like in Cincinnati, neither he nor anyone else in the Cubs’ traveling party plans to go anywhere but to and from hotels and ballparks during their trip.

“Listen, you don’t have to search too far for a reason to take it serious,” Cubs second baseman Jason Kipnis said.

“I have three of my close friends who got it, that are over it. But the symptoms are as real as it gets from the sounds of it. And I think you have guys who are risking stuff coming and playing this season, whether it’s Craig [Kimbrel] and his daughter [heart condition] or Anthony [Rizzo] and Jon [Lester] with their [cancer] history.

“You’re paying respect to them and doing your teammate justice by not being the one to kind of go out,” Kipnis added. “It’s one of those years where, hey, you’ve got to buckle down and stay the course. I think everybody’s going through it, so you don’t want to be the one that kind of screws this one up.

The Cubs’ 10-2 start to a 60-game season seems to further incentivize that discipline — some players in recent days even suggesting the discipline in following the protocols has carried into the professionalism on the field.

It’s impossible to know if any of it will be enough for the Cubs to keep their moving bubble secure, much less whether the two outbreaks that MLB seems to have withstood will provide the significant enough wakeup call that MLB and team officials have suggested.

“The vast, vast majority of everyone involved in this enterprise, the players and staff, are doing a solid job so far in making a lot of sacrifices,” Epstein said. “And we just have to get everybody on board. And hopefully these two outbreaks are enough to get everyone to the point where we have essentially perfect execution going forward, because that’s largely what it will take.”


Cubs' David Ross defends Javier Báez, doesn't 'nitpick' baserunning lapse

Cubs' David Ross defends Javier Báez, doesn't 'nitpick' baserunning lapse

Cubs shortstop Javier Báez recognizes he should have run out of the batter’s box.

“It was my mistake,” Báez said after Wednesday’s 6-1 Cubs win over the Royals. “I thought that ball was foul.”

With two on and no out in the fourth inning Wednesday, Báez hit a towering pop fly down the right field foul line. He hesitated in the batter’s box for a few moments, leaving shortly before the ball dropped in fair just inside the line.

“I kind of lost it, but the wind started bringing it back,” Báez said. “Even [Royals catcher Salvador Pérez] was kind of surprised and he was like, ‘I think it’s gonna be fair,’ so I started running.”

Báez wound up with an RBI single, scoring Kris Bryant from second and moving Anthony Rizzo to third with no outs. He likely could have wound up at second base with a double, setting up the Cubs with two runners in scoring position and no outs. 

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The inning ended shortly after, as Willson Contreras grounded into a 6-4-3 double play, scoring Rizzo to take a 2-1 lead, and David Bote struck out two batters later. In the end, the moment didn’t hurt the Cubs, who never trailed after taking that fourth inning lead.

After the game, Cubs manager David Ross defended Báez and said he didn’t talk to him about running that ball out.

“I think that’s a really close play,” Ross said. “If I want to be the type of manager that nitpicks every little thing... These guys go out and play their butt off every single night for me and for this group. 

“If I feel like they’re dogging it, we’ll have a conversation. I feel like that’s a play that he may have assumed was foul. I think Javy’s one of the most exciting players and he plays hard every time I see him out there on the field. 

“So, I don’t have a problem with a guy that brings it every single day.”