Cubs

Are the Cubs pressing right now? 'We gotta chill out a little bit'

Are the Cubs pressing right now? 'We gotta chill out a little bit'

The Cubs are in the midst of a rough few weeks, yet will head to Cincinnati still in sole possession of first place after Thursday's storybook 9-7 win over the Braves. 

That's because the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals have also endured midseason lulls of their own while the Cubs have gone 13-13 in June. 

As a whole, the Cubs have a +13 run differential since June 1, thanks in large part to the 4.00 ERA they've put up this month (which ranks 7th in Major League Baseball). Overall, the pitching hasn't been the problem for the Cubs, even without Kyle Hendricks for a couple weeks. 

But the offense has not picked up its end of the bargain, entering play Thursday with a slash line of .244/.314/.415 in June — which ranks 23rd, 21st and 22nd in baseball, respectively. They're hitting .251 with runners in scoring position this month, but have also had stretches where that part of their game disappears. 

For weeks, manager Joe Maddon has preached the need for his team to become more "offensive" and find ways to win games 6-5 or 9-7 every once in a while. They finally accomplished that Thursday, rallying back from an early 6-1 deficit to set Craig Kimbrel up with a save on his first day in the Cubs bullpen.

On top of the general offensive woes, the Cubs have been making uncharacteristic mistakes defensively and on the basepaths of late, which Maddon believes might stem from trying to do too much.

"Well, that's why we've been so pedestrian," Maddon said. "I mean, we have not [played a clean game lately]. We started out slowly based on the bullpen having a hard time and then we got that straightened out and we kinda got it together. Since then, we've been up and down way too often. 

"I would like to see us go out there and kinda let it fly a little bit — not worry so much. In some ways, our guys are maybe proverbially trying too hard to be perfect. I don't want that. We have such wonderful talent — I never want to inhibit that. 

"The [hot stretch] is gonna come from consistency on offense, I believe, but in order to do that, we gotta kinda chill out a little bit out there and just go out there and play."

Defense has been a staple of this team since its championship season of 2016 and it's the one facet of the game that doesn't necessarily slump throughout the marathon of a season — though the Cubs are admittedly in a bit of a down moment in the field.

On the season, the Cubs are 25-14 when they play mistake-free baseball defensively, but they're only 19-23 when they commit at least one error. 

That was on display early Wednesday night as the Cubs made an error before even recording an out when Willson Contreras' throw skipped past Addison Russell on a Ronald Acuna stolen base. 

"I think the mistakes that we're making sometimes, it's trying to not make mistakes," Maddon said. "I don't like that method. I like the method where you go play fearlessly. When you do that, you're making less mistakes."

That fearless style of play is exactly how Javy Baez can help transform this team. He makes mistakes, but they almost always stem from being extra aggressive and not from worrying about messing up. 

The Cubs now have to go back out on the road — where they've struggled this year — to finish the first half of the season after failing to come through with a winning record on a 10-game homestand.

All nine of the upcoming games are against teams that are currently under .500, but the Cubs know all too well not to overlook the Cincinnati Reds or Pittsburgh Pirates and the White Sox just forced a series split at Wrigley last week.

This would've been a key opportunity for the Cubs to separate themselves from the pack in the division, but instead they're searching just to find consistency on a day-to-day basis. 

"We do talk about [the struggles]," Jason Heyward said. "We do talk about that stuff, but the game is what it is. We know we gotta keep working, we know we gotta keep pushing. We got an opportunity and we’re not trying to waste it. 

"It's not like we come out here and think we’re gonna play flat. We don’t show up and expect to win; we don’t expect anyone to roll over. We come out there and give it our best."

Cubs 'open-minded' on where Nico Hoerner fits in 2020 equation

Cubs 'open-minded' on where Nico Hoerner fits in 2020 equation

The MLB offseason is a month old, but we still don't have any clear answers on what the 2020 Cubs roster will look like.

So much of that depends on the trade market and who Theo Epstein's front office deals away and what they get in return. 

One of the other major contributing factors is Nico Hoerner and how the Cubs view him. Will the impressive rookie make the Opening Day roster? Will he see more work at second base or center field or both? 

At some point next year, it seems likely Hoerner will be the everyday second baseman with Javy Baez manning shortstop. That path was made simpler when the Cubs parted ways with Addison Russell earlier this week. 

But will the Cubs want Hoerner to start the year in Triple-A Iowa — a level he skipped over in September when he was tasked with filling in for the injured Baez — to continue his development?

"It's a great question and I don't think one that I can answer that well right now," Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said last month. "All I can say is that his timetable obviously was faster than we ever expected being in a pennant race and necessity of Javy going down and Addy going down, it sort of forced our hand to do that. And Dixon Machado was injured. We put Nico in a really challenging spot and he couldn't have responded better. His makeup, competitiveness is fantastic; his poise was really impressive. 

"Clearly he exceeded our expectations in that spot. What that means going forward, I can't answer at this point. But I think it's safe to say we hold him in incredibly high regard and whatever number of games in September that he played in — I'm still incredibly impressed that he can go from being at home to starting the next night and performing the way he did."

The 22-year-old former first-round pick hit .282 with 3 homers and 17 RBI in his first 20 big-league games while playing solid defense at shortstop and earning praise from veterans in the clubhouse for his energy, work ethic and the spark he provided the team down the stretch. 

If Hoerner was a shoo-in to make the Opening Day roster, that would change the equation for the Cubs this winter as they look to build their 26-man squad. But 20 games isn't a huge sample size and he may well need more time down in the minor leagues to refine his offensive approach and defensive versatility.

"We haven't figured that out yet," Epstein said at the GM Meetings. "I think you could make strong arguments on both sides, whether he should be part of the club on Opening Day or a little bit more seasoning [in the minors]. I think a lot will depend on what else we do and yeah, sure, what type of spring training you have might be a factor as well. We're not at the point where we're ready to make that decision yet, but we're open-minded."

As it stands right now, the Cubs' position player group is pretty locked down everywhere but second base and center field. Barring a trade that opens up another hole on the roster, those are the two spots Epstein's front office will look to upgrade this winter after subpar production in 2019. If they felt confident enough in Hoerner to pencil him in as the starting second baseman, that would erase a need and allow the front office to focus on outfield and the pitching staff.

Hoerner might also be a factor in the center field equation. He got some work there in the minors last season and started a game in center on the final weekend of the MLB season in St. Louis.

The Cubs still have Albert Almora Jr. and Ian Happ on the roster to play center field and they can also shift Jason Heyward over there if there's a corner outfielder that makes sense to add this winter. 

At second base, there's still a long list of names even after Russell's departure — David Bote, Daniel Descalso, Tony Kemp, Robel Garcia and maybe even Happ could be in the second base picture. 

Hoerner has the most upside out of that group (the Cubs don't view Happ's long-term position on the infield), but the rookie is also currently the top backup to Baez at shortstop and figures to play multiple positions under new manager David Ross.

"He needs more reps," Hoyer said. "Obviously there's rough edges that we can smooth out there, but the fact that he's willing to [play multiple positions] says a lot about who he is as a competitor. I think he has a chance to be good at one position, but he also has a chance to move around the diamond and really help us in a lot of ways that way, too.

"He's not a finished product and defensively, he'll continue to get better and better. Defense in the big leagues is something that keeps improving with instruction and reps. But I thought he handled himself really well."

Offensively, Hoerner is exactly the type of hitter the Cubs are looking for as they attempt to diversify the lineup. He is contact-oriented with elite hand-eye coordination and an ability to battle with two strikes and put the ball in play. Hoerner also uses the whole field and has a line-drive approach — skills that should help an offense that has too often been all-or-nothing the last couple seasons.

That all adds up to Hoerner slotting in as an important long-term piece of the puzzle and the Cubs eventually handing him the keys to an everyday role, though that might not be from Day 1 of the 2020 season.

Brewers set to add catcher Omar Narváez as replacement for Yasmani Grandal

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USA TODAY

Brewers set to add catcher Omar Narváez as replacement for Yasmani Grandal

The Brewers have found their replacement for catcher Yasmani Grandal, who left Milwaukee in free agency for the White Sox.

Thursday, Milwaukee acquired catcher Omar Narváez from the Mariners in exchange for No. 24 prospect Adam Hill (per MLB Pipeline) and their competitive balance pick. 

Narváez is one of the game’s better offensive catchers and posted a .278/.353/.460 slash line with 22 home runs in 132 games last season. However, he’s widely considered as one of the games worst defensive catchers (-20 Defensive Runs Saved in 2019) and pitch framers. Grandal, meanwhile, is one of the best pitch framers in baseball, so the Brewers will see a significant drop off there in 2020.

In addition to Grandal, the Brewers saw third baseman Mike Moustaskas sign a four-year deal with the Reds on Monday. Grandal and Moustakas were two of Milwaukee’s key offensive players in 2019, so they needed to replace that production somehow. Narváez fills a need offensively, and despite his defensive shortcomings, all it took was a low-ranked prospect.

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