Cubs

As 2019 gets underway, can the Cubs turn the clock back to 2016?

Cubs

Chicago, welcome to Texas.

This opening day, the Cubs will be in Arlington, Texas for a three-game set against the Rangers, marking an interleague start to the season.

Cole Hamels and I share a major league path that made the same stops with the Texas Rangers, Philadelphia Phillies, and the Chicago Cubs. Hamels was traded from Texas to Chicago near the trade deadline last year just as I was in 2003. Hamels found his best stuff again, contributing to the Cubs’ 95-win season. 

With the gift of a long career, players try and make sense of the distant past. What did each stop mean? What did I gain from this organization, this coach, this opportunity? Hamels was having the kind of season in Texas last year that brought on the questions about his future in decline, the end of the road, which was not supported by the radar gun, but in his feel for pitching. The angles, the touch, the confidence, the location. The plan.

Before they acquired him, the Cubs scouts saw enough to believe his struggles were in his execution and by working with him on a better plan, they could be beneficiaries of his finding his World Series MVP stuff. He rewarded their faith by creating a new hope in a short period of time. One that both parties decided to build on for 2019.

Despite the excitement of looking ahead into the new season, the 162-game climb up the MLB mountain inspires players to reflect on the body of work from last season, which helps to provide ways to make better adjustments.

 

My time in Texas was built on the first time in a ten-year professional career that I could choose my employer. Free agency. I left the comforts of my college town in Philadelphia, a less than 2-hour drive from where I grew up, to find a starting job - one that was steadily slipping through my fingers in Philly. I chose my change. A challenge where you are not only adapting from prior years’ experience on the field, but to a new environment, a new coaching staff and philosophy.

With the Cubs, over the last three years, manager Joe Maddon has seen significant changes in his coaching staff, which besides learning new styles of coaching for players, requires trust that takes some time for all involved. All players understand that change is part of the game, but experienced players who have both elected to leave or have been traded understand it more. 

Unlike with Hamels, most of the 2019 Cubs view Texas as just another major league opponent. One that has been scouted and planned for. Homegrown talents like Kris Bryant, Javy Baez, Kyle Schwarber or Willson Contreras have known no other home than Chicago, while others, like veterans Ben Zobrist or Steve Cishek, have worn their share of uniforms. 

Whether a lifelong Cub or a Cub by way of trade and transaction, this one special day will bring experience together. It will tie the journeys of a roster of players together into one dugout, one sensibility. The beginning of a championship season to see if last year was the rule or the exception, the truth or the illusion, the cracked or the closed window. 

One year is not a lot of time, but in a baseball life, it is an eternity, pushing one more year onto the now 28-year-old Anthony Rizzo, who will soon be one year from 30 this August. A young man, but in baseball, suddenly sliding from young leader to veteran in the blink of an eye.

As Javy Baez explained at the end of the season last year, the Cubs “struggled” to 95 wins in 2018. Scrapped, bumped, and fought through a roller coaster season that led to a sharp fall in September just as the Brewers found their best two-week run of their season. Opening Day grants everyone permission to start over, to clean the slate where you can stop talking about last year and start talking about this year. 

This year, the Cubs as an organization have shown confidence in that 2018 roster. A trust in the core of players that only just need to find their best work for this confidence to be rewarded. It has been determined that advancement must come from assets that already exist. Internal. Kris Bryant returning to health and MVP form, while being one step closer to lifelong security as a pillar of the Cubs. Willson Contreras, who found all-star stardom only to lose his offensive swagger and impact in the second half, can find it again. Tyler Chatwood, Pedro Strop, David Bote, all are still here, opportunity knocking again in 2019 to either do it again or find it again. Some of that simply means to stay healthy.

 

The Cubs this season are basically the same team as a year ago. Lester, Darvish, Hendricks, Hamels remain the big four of the rotation. A new coach here, a different lefty off the bench there, but there is a clear endorsement that 2019 will just be a wiser, more consistent 2018 simply by talent finding the success they already had before. Personnel stays, culture shifts.

Hamels can relate to that. A Texas Ranger against the ropes, battling for his future and struggling to find it for the vast majority of 2018. Then with one phone call, one trade to a contender, he found it, and became a different pitcher inside the same body. Scouting and development met talent and history in only the long and patient way that baseball can.

This is the hope of the 2019 team. It all comes together, before the contracts explode the lid off the budget, before the first number in the ages of some key players goes from a 2 to a 3, before the window closes on all of our fingers.

If spring training is any measure, we saw Contreras re-focus, we saw Bote remind us that he can be a weapon, we saw Victor Caratini continue to do the little things to be a big back-up catcher, and we saw the near future come to life in Nico Hoerner’s performance, planting a seed in a garden that will be fruitful for years to come. 

This is opening day. The beginning but also the culmination of years of development, scouting, timing, good health, hopes, dreams, adjustments. 

It may start with a bang like it did off Ian Happ’s bat last year, or it may begin more quietly, but either way there is no turning back - only turning forward, even with the past hitching a ride. The question remains, will 2016 be riding with them?

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