Cubs

The Cubs are in a way better spot than they were a year ago

The Cubs are in a way better spot than they were a year ago

ST. LOUIS — It's night and day watching the 2018 Cubs compared to the 2017 version.

Even with the injury to Javy Baez Sunday night, the Cubs are in a way better spot now than they were a year ago.

On June 17 of last season, the Cubs sat at 33-34 with a run differential of just +6.

They looked flat more often than not. "Hangover" was the word thrown around most and it was true — the Cubs really did have a World Series hangover.

They admit that freely and it's also totally understandable. Not only did they win one of the most mentally and physically draining World Series in history, but they also ended a 108-year championship drought and the weight of that accomplishment was simply staggering. 

The 2018 iteration of the Cubs are completely different. 

Even though they didn't finish off the sweep of their division rivals in St. Louis Sunday night, they're still only a half-game behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central and for the best record in the league. A +95 run differential paced the NL and sat behind only the Houston Astros (+157), Boston Red Sox (+102) and New York Yankees (+98) in the AL.

Through 67 games, the Cubs sat at 40-27, 13 games above .500 compared to a game below .500 at the same point last summer.

What's been the main difference?

"Energy," Joe Maddon said simply. "Coming off the World Series, it was really hard to get us kickstarted. It was just different. I thought the fatigue generated from the previous two years, playing that deeply into the year. A lot of young guys on the team last year.

"We just could not get it kickstarted. This year, came out of camp with a fresher attitude. Not like we've been killing it to this point; we've been doing a lot better, but I didn't even realize that's the difference between last year and this year.

"If anything, I would just pinpoint it on energy."

Of course the physical component is easy to see. The Cubs played past Halloweeen in 2016 and then had so many demands for street namings and talk shows and TV appearances and Disney World and on and on. That would leave anybody exhausted with such a shortened offseason.

There's also the mental component. The Cubs came into 2018 with a chip on their shoulder after running into a wall in the NLCS last fall against the Los Angeles Dodgers. They have a renewed focus and intensity.

But there's still plenty of room for more. The Cubs aren't happy with the best record and run differential in the NL. They know they still haven't fully hit their stride yet, even amidst a 24-13 stretch over the last five weeks.

"I think we've been pretty consistent," Jon Lester said. "We've had some ups and downs on both sides of the ball as far as pitching and hitting. But the biggest thing is our bullpen and our defense has been pretty solid all year.

"That's kept us in those games. When we do lose — you're gonna have the anomalies every once in a while and get blown out — we're in every single game. It's all we can do. Keep grinding it out.

"Our offense will be fine. Our defense and the back end of our bullpen has done an unbelievable job of keeping us in these games. And if we contribute as a starting five, even better. 

"You have the games where our guys get feeling sexy about themselves and score some runs. That's where the snowball effect and we get on that little bit of a run. I feel like we've been on a few runs, it just hasn't been an extended period of time. I don't have any concerns as far as inside this clubhouse."

Lester hit the nail on the head. The Cubs sit at this point with only 1 win from Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood struggling with command and low power numbers from several guys including Kris Bryant.

Throw in the fact that Joe Maddon's Cubs teams always seem to get into a groove in August and September when they're fresher and "friskier" than the rest of the league and this team is currently in very good shape for the remainder of the year. 

If they can get 3 wins away from the World Series after going 33-34, the sky should be the limit for a 2018 squad that's in a much better position 67 games in.

Overheard at Cubs Convention: A collection of the funniest and weirdest moments from the 2019 fan fest

Overheard at Cubs Convention: A collection of the funniest and weirdest moments from the 2019 fan fest

The only Harper in attendance at the Sheraton Grand Chicago over the weekend was the Winter Storm Harper, not that dude named Bryce.

The Cubs seamlessly jumped from Cole Hamels to Kyle Hendricks in the alphabetical introductions at Opening Ceremonies Friday night, crushing the dreams of anybody who believed there would be a surprise visit from the superstar outfielder.

"The sad thing is it's going to be snowing this much in April too," one fan quipped. And it doesn't look like Harper will be in a Cubs uniform by then, either, as Theo Epstein reiterated it's "extremely unlikely" the Cubs sign a mega free agent of any kind this winter.

But that didn't stop Cubs fans, players, coaches and executives from having a blast at the 34th annual Convention.

Here are some of the top moments from the 2019 fan fest:

♦♦Bryant made headlines and pissed off the entirety of Cardinals Nation when he jokingly said St. Louis is "boring" during the late-night show with Ryan Dempster. 

It wound up becoming the talk of the Convention.

♦♦Kyle Hendricks was asked about any pranks he's played on his teammates and he confirmed he is not a big prankster (big surprise there), but did reference one time last year when a teammate hid in Anthony Rizzo's locker with an airhorn and jumped out to scare the Cubs first baseman.

♦♦Daniel Descalso has been the only real addition to the 2019 roster and the former Cardinal wasted no time endearing himself to Cubs fans.

A young fan asked Descalso which convention is better — Cubs or Cardinals? Descalso didn't even let the kid finish his question before he said: "This one."

♦♦This great story about Cubs draft pick Cole Roederer came on the last panel of the weekend Sunday morning with Cubs Senior Vice President of Player Development and Amateur Scouting Jason McLeod and Director of Player Development Jaron Madison:

♦♦As usual, a great hand for Kerry Wood:

♦♦A couple fans were playing a drinking game during Theo Epstein's session, taking a sip every time the Cubs president reminded folks the team actually won 95 games in 2018 or referenced the sense of urgency surrounding the organization this year.

♦♦Kris Bryant: The Hitting Poet

♦♦There are always a lot of random jerseys at any Cubs Convention, but one of the weirdest I've ever seen came this winter: an Arismendy Alcantara shirsey. 

I totally understand wanting to sport your favorite Cubs gear over the weekend — and that may include a Mark Grace jersey, Sammy Sosa button down or even a Corey Patterson shirsey — but Arismendy Alcantara? Dude played only half a season's worth of games in Chicago (81) between 2014-15.

And no, it wasn't actually Arismendy Alcantara wearing his own jersey.

Very odd, but maybe that was the point?

♦♦Somehow, Theo made it through an entire hour-long panel facing somewhere around 20 questions from fans without anybody bringing up Harper by name. 

♦♦Anthony Rizzo wasn't able to attend the Convention this year due to a conflict with his honeymoon, but he Facetimed in anyways:

♦♦Why did Kyle Hendricks decide to become a pitcher?

♦♦One kid has a future in journalism, asking Theo point-blank: "Do you plan on bringing Joe Maddon back as manager next year?"

Theo responded by saying, "I certainly hope so."

♦♦Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease were brought up multiple times by fans in the "Down on the Farm" segment with McLeod and Madison. Two fans asked about the former top prospects in the same span of 5 minutes and each time, McLeod and Madison reiterated the same thing the organization has said for nearly two years now: The Cubs felt it was worth it to make the deal with the White Sox to acquire a stable workhorse in their rotation for years to come in Jose Quintana.

♦♦One fan (looked to be in his mid-20s or so) started off his question to Theo by letting everybody know his cat is named Theo. He then proceeded to ask Theo — a Patriots fan — if he thinks Tom Brady is the GOAT and if so, has he ever seen Aaron Rodgers play?

Theo joked about how he watched Khalil Mack get the best of Rodgers this year before admitting that yes, he believes Brady is the greatest QB of all time. 

♦♦Kyle Farnsworth was in attendance and as Pat Hughes introduced him during Opening Ceremonies, the voice of Cubs radio touted the former relievers' ability to throw the ball 100 mph, prompting this comment from a fan:

"They should bring him back and add him to this year's bullpen."

Farnsworth is 42 and hasn't played professional baseball in years, but the Cubs could certainly use another reliever (even by their own admission), so it's hard to blame the fan.

♦♦Does Ben Zobrist prefer playing outfield or infield?

"Infield," the 37-year-old said because he "doesn't have to run as far."

♦♦KB's got jokes:

♦♦A teenager felt the need to start his "question" by telling a panel of Bryant, Zobrist Willson Contreras and Javy Baez that he has "had trouble getting girls lately" and proceeded to ask for a picture.

♦♦The second fan question of 2019 Cubs Con was a fan who began by thanking Maddon for letting Rizzo pitch last year.

♦♦New Cubs bench coach Mark Loretta joked MLB could speed up pace of play by having a bullpen cart for every reliever coming into the game...or a Harley Davidson for guys to ride to the mound on.

♦♦Towards the end of the coaches panel, a kid got on the microphone to ask Maddon if he still supports the decision to let Pedro Strop hit for himself on that fateful afternoon in Washington D.C. on Sept. 13. (That was the play Strop injured his hamstring on and he went on to make just one appearance the rest of the season — in the NL Wild-Card Game.)

Maddon maintained the same stance he's taken since then — saying any criticism of the decision now is outcome bias and he can't predict injuries on any given play.

♦♦One fan asked Maddon "what he's going to do about" the fact only a few Cubs players show up for the National Anthem at Wrigley Field, calling it "embarrassing" and a "disgrace." 

Maddon handled it well, defending the players and saying the National Anthem often falls at a tough time for most guys when they're still preparing for the game. 

It's worth noting: the Anthem is optional in baseball. Every sport is different, so just because the NHL or NBA players line up and face the flag for those 2-3 minutes doesn't mean MLB will be the same.

Maybe they should, but regardless of where you stand on that issue, it's not Maddon's responsibility to police all 25 of his players to be attentive for the National Anthem. He's got plenty else to worry about.

♦♦Some fans asking questions are just savage:

♦♦One fan told Mark Loretta how excited he was for the new Cubs bench coach to join the staff because the guy's mom is named "Loretta" and his dad is named "Mark." 

Yu Darvish is ready for takeoff

Yu Darvish is ready for takeoff

Yu know the Cubs season is right around the corner when we catch word of a Darvish bullpen.

Darvish still hasn't even been a member of the Cubs organization for a full calendar year, but almost that entire time has been spent with the focus firmly on his health.

That hasn't changed for the 32-year-old pitcher enjoying his first Cubs Convention amid Winter Storm Harper at the Sheraton Grand Chicago this weekend.

Darvish said he is fully healthy now and his offseason program is progressing along slowly after he underwent a debridement procedure on his right elbow in September.

Darvish was slated to throw from 120 feet for the first time Saturday, planning 20 pitches from that distance. From there, he will have a bullpen on Friday.

"His health is everything, clearly," Theo Epstein said. "I know it's not worth anything at this point of the calendar, but the reports are terrific. He's added a lot of good muscle, he's added a lot of flexibility.

"Most importantly, his arm feels terrific. He's experiencing no discomfort whatsoever when throwing and when testing his arm. He's walking around with a little bit of confidence. I think that reflects how he's feeling about himself physically."

Cubs fans might be sick of hearing this narrative, but a healthy Darvish really can do a quite a bit in changing the team's overall fortunes for 2019. This is a guy who strikes out batters at a higher rate than any other starting pitcher in baseball history and even when he was able to pitch in 2018, he sported an ERA more than a run-and-a-half higher than his previous career mark.

The Cubs know their road to success goes through the starting rotation (even nowadays in the world of extreme bullpenning) and Darvish has emerged as the ultimate X-factor.

An offseason of rest and rehab has Darvish and the Cubs feeling confident with less than a month until pitchers and catchers report to spring training.

"Now, the important part starts," Epstein said. "Just taking that into spring training and into the season and being ready for the battle and getting some really good hitters out and being someone we can lean on in that rotation."

The Cubs had enough concerns about their overall state of the rotation (including Darvish) that they picked up Cole Hamels' $20 million option despite a serious budget crunch this winter.

But Hamels — Darvish's former teammate with the Rangers — has something most Cubs fans don't: A firsthand look at how dominating Darvish can be when he's healthy.

"I know he wants to do really well," Hamels said. "And he's capable of so much. You've seen bits and pieces when he was with Texas and the Dodgers for a few games — he's really good. He can carry a game; he can carry a month of starts for a team.

"So to be able to put him in between all of us and all of us working together, it's going to be a lights-out rotation. That's what it takes. I know he's ready to do it. When he's healthy, he's one of the best in the game."