Cubs

Cubs and Alex Cobb keep looking like a match in free agency

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USA TODAY

Cubs and Alex Cobb keep looking like a match in free agency

It’s too easy to connect the dots between the Cubs and Alex Cobb, a team that needs to replace 40 percent of its rotation and a pitcher who came up with Joe Maddon’s Tampa Bay Rays.

The day after new pitching coach Jim Hickey went on the team’s flagship radio station and told WSCR-AM 670 that he would recommend the free agent to Theo Epstein’s front office – “I would say, ‘Go ahead, good job, yeah, I’m onboard’ – Cobb appeared on MLB Network Radio and sounded ready to follow Maddon to Chicago.

“As much of an honor as it is to be given a qualifying offer,” Cobb said Friday, “to hear your name floating around (in) rumors with potential teams, and the magnitude or the (reputations) that some of these teams have for success, year in and year out, even the smallest inkling or the thought that they want you is even more of a humbling experience.

“I don’t hide the fact that I’ve got the most respect for Joe Maddon and what he did for me coming up as a player. Not so much as a pitcher on the mound, but as a professional athlete and a professional baseball player, and how to deal with the mental side of the game. And how to deal with the stresses that come with a big-league lifestyle.

“There’s nobody better in the game to control (that) and deal with people.”

Cobb is expected to decline the one-year, $17.4 million qualifying offer from the Rays, tipping his hand by telling MLB Network Radio: “You’re talking about, hopefully, a decision that’s going to impact the next five years of your life.”

That framework sounds a year or two too long for a guy who underwent Tommy John surgery on his right elbow in 2015 and has never made 30 starts in a season or come close to reaching 200 innings. But Cobb just turned 30 last month, has only 700 innings on his major-league odometer and went 12-10 with a 3.66 ERA and a Gold Glove nomination this year.

Hickey can help fill in the blanks for the Cubs because he was there for Cobb’s rise through the Tampa Bay system, injuries issues and recovery process.

“I can’t say enough good things about him,” Cobb said. “He’s become – not only a pitching coach – but a real close friend of mine. Obviously, if we move down the line and we’re able to have some discussions with them, I’d be very honored to be able to talk with them and hopefully come to a deal.”

In the same way that Maddon may have gotten restless managing the small-market Rays, Cobb sounded eager to play for the kind of built-to-last team that won the 2016 World Series and advanced to the National League Championship Series in three consecutive seasons.

“You kind of make a ranking system of what is most important to you and your family,” Cobb said. “No. 1 and foremost – and me and my wife are both onboard with this – is that we’re going to go to a place that we feel is going to be winners for the length of the contract.

“I’ve been through both. I’ve been through losing seasons and I’ve been through winning seasons. And the amount of joy that winning brings to us – it can’t be replaced by a dollar figure.”

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

A year ago, the Cubs were struggling to float above .500, sitting 1.5 games behind the first-place Brewers.

Two years ago, the Cubs were10.5 games up on the second-place Cardinals in the division and already in cruise control to the postseason.

As they entered a weekend series in Cincinnati at 42-29 and in a tie for first place, the Cubs are feeling quite a bit more like 2016 than 2017.

The major reason? Energy, as Joe Maddon pointed out over the weekend.

That energy shows up most often on defense.

The 2016 Cubs put up maybe the best defensive season in baseball history while last year they truly looked hungover.

After a big of a slow start to 2018, the Cubs are feelin' more of that '16 swag.

If you watched either of the wins against the Los Angeles Dodgers this week at Wrigley Field, it's clear to see why: the defense.

"I like the defense," Maddon said of his team last week. "I'm into the defense. There's a tightness about the group. There's a closeness about the group. Not saying last year wasn't like that, but this group is definitely trending more in the '16 direction regarding interacting.

"If anything — and the one thing that makes me extremely pleased — would be the continuation of the defense. We've fed so much off our defense in '16. We've been doing that more recently again. We do so much good out there, then we come in and it gets kinda electric in the dugout. I'd like to see that trend continue on defense."

The Cubs scored only 2 runs in 10 innings in the second game against the Dodgers Tuesday night and managed just 4 runs in the finale Wednesday. Yet their gloves helped hold the Dodgers to only 1 run combined between the two games.

Wednesday's game was a defensive clinic, with Jason Heyward throwing out Chris Taylor at home plate with an incredible tag by Willson Contreras while Javy Baez, Albert Almora Jr., Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber all hit the ground to make sprawling/diving plays.

"[Almora] comes in and dives for one and I'm just like, 'OK, I'm done clapping for you guys,'" Jon Lester, Wednesday's winning pitcher, joked. "It's expected now that these guys make these plays. It's fun on our end. It's the, 'Here, hit it. Our guys are really good out there and they're gonna run it down.'"

The Heyward throw, in particular, jacked the team up. 

Maddon compared it to a grand slam with how much energy it provided the Cubs. Almora said he momentarily lost his voice because he was screaming so much at the play.

There was also Baez making plays in the hole at shortstop, then switching over to second base and turning a ridiculous unassisted double play on a liner in the 8th inning.

"That's what we're capable of doing," Maddon said. "In the past, when we've won on a high level, we've played outstanding defense. It never gets old to watch that kind of baseball."

The Cubs are back to forcing opposing hitters to jog off the field, shaking their head in frustration and disbelief.

"It could be so dispiriting to the other side when you make plays like that," Maddon said. "And also it's buoyant to your pitchers. So there's all kinds of good stuff goin' on there."

A lot of that is the play of the outfield, with Almora back to himself after a down 2017 season and Schwarber turning into a plus-rated defensive outfield.

After finishing 19th in baseball in outfield assists last season, the Cubs are currently tied for 6th with 14 outfield assists this year.

Schwarber has 7 alone, which is already as many as he tallied in the entire 2017 season.

"I feel like they'll learn quickly on Schwarber, if they haven't yet," Heyward said. "You gotta earn that respect. You gotta earn that sense of caution from the third base coach.

"But please keep running on me in those situations. I want it to happen."

Brandon Morrow has a healthy sense of humor about his pants-related injury

Brandon Morrow has a healthy sense of humor about his pants-related injury

Brandon Morrow's body may not be healthy, but his sense of humor sure isn't on the disabled list.

The Cubs closer had to go on the DL Wednesday after he injured his back changing out of his pants early Monday morning when the Cubs returned home to Chicago after a Sunday night game in St. Louis.

The story made national rounds, not only in the baseball world, but resonating with non-sports fans, as well. After all, it's not every day a guy who gets paid millions for his athletic endeavors injures himself on a mundane every day activity.

But it's all good, because even Morrow can find the humor in the situation, Tweeting this out Thursday afternoon:

Morrow's back tightened up on him and didn't loosen up enough the next two days, making him unavailable for the Cubs doubleheader Tuesday at Wrigley Field.

The team decided to put him on the shelf Wednesday morning so an already-gassed bullpen wouldn't have more pressure during this stretch of 14 games in 13 days.

The Cubs are in Cincinnati this weekend for a four-game series with the Reds. Morrow is eligible to return from the DL next Wednesday in Los Angeles as the Cubs once again take on the Dodgers — Morrow's old team.

The 33-year-old pitcher is 16-for-17 in save chances this year while posting a 1.59 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 25 strikeouts in 22.2 innings. He's only given up a run in 2 of his 26 outings as a Cub.