Cubs start out 2019 on the right foot: 'October begins in March'

Cubs start out 2019 on the right foot: 'October begins in March'

ARLINGTON, Texas — A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

The Cubs may not actually be traveling a thousand miles by foot, but the old Chinese proverb still applies — the only way the Cubs could go out and walk the walk on Opening Day was by picking up a decisive win over the rebuilding Rangers.

That's exactly what they did after all spring — and winter — of talking the talk.

Nobody should overreact to one game and declare the Cubs "fixed" or state with any sort of definitive proof that all the offseason changes to add more urgency and edge have taken ahold.

But all the Cubs could do was win the day at hand — get out to a 1-0 start and look good doing so in a 12-4 victory.

As Theo Epstein met with the media before the game, he spoke glowingly of the Cubs players and how they've stepped up to respond to the challenge for more urgency all spring following last fall's disappointment. 

"Instead of hearing about the marathon of the season — which it is — we're hearing a lot about showing up every single day, about October begins in March," Epstein said. "That's really something that's coming out in our player group and I think it's the best possible way to react to a disappointing end to last year's season. I'm proud of them, but now that the season's starting, we have to prove it.

"Talk is talk. Them showing up everyday with a strong desire to win and assert ourselves on the field, take the game to our opponents, we'll all know it when we see it. I feel good about this group and their attitude."

Manager Joe Maddon lauded his players for their offensive approach, believing they carried over the same quality at-bats they were having from spring training to the regular season.

"That was a pretty nice performance," Maddon said. "I thought we played well. We played with a lot of energy, man. A lot of energy. And it was really fun to watch."

Again, it's just one game and it's very easy to get up and play with energy on Opening Day.

But after Elvis Andrus deposited Jon Lester's pitch into the Cubs bullpen in right-center in the bottom of the third inning, the Cubs responded with 12 unanswered runs. 

They lulled the Rangers to sleep with a bunch of groundballs up the middle and patience (drawing 8 walks), but also asserted their authority over the Texas pitchers with a multi-homer game from Javy Baez as well as a 426-foot opposite-field dinger off the bat of the now-healthy Kris Bryant.

Every Cubs starter scored a run, including rookie Mark Zagunis making his first Opening Day roster. Baez, David Bote and Ben Zobrist all scored twice. It was the first time the Cubs had scored at least 12 runs in the season opener since 2006.

So this offense that "broke" down the stretch last season is all fixed, right?

"Yep,that's all we needed," Bryant joked, before turning serious. "I think offensively that was better than any game we had last year, so that's a good start. Hopefully we can continue with it. Great game to be a part of. Not stressful at all — just going out there, scoring a lot of runs."

The Andrus homer was the only blemish on Lester's line as he recorded a quality start en route to picking up his first win of the season. 

"Every year you have an opportunity to win, you want to take full advantage of it," Epstein said. "We have a special group of players, this is a special era of Cubs baseball and each year we want to make sure we leave nothing undone in our pursuit to make the most of it and win. 

"This group has won and I believe they'll continue to win, but we want no regrets, we want to put our best foot forward and that's how we should all approach our jobs and that's what this group is all about. It doesn't mean we're not gonna have adversity along the way. 

"I believe that this group has responded the right way to the adversity we faced at the end of last season."

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Astros have shown interest in Willson Contreras, report says

Astros have shown interest in Willson Contreras, report says

As the Cubs look to retool their roster and improve a depleted farm system, it’s evident a member of the team’s core position player group may get traded this offseason. That player could be catcher Willson Contreras.

Thursday, The Athletic’s Patrick Mooney and Sahadev Sharma (subscription required) reported the Astros “went into this offseason” with interest in Contreras.

Majority of Houston’s core position players are under contract for 2020 — like the Cubs — though the Astros currently lack a catcher. Both starter Robinson Chirinos and backup Martin Maldonado — who briefly was a Cub in 2019 — are free agents.

Chirinos hit .238 in 2019 with a solid .347 on-base percentage and 17 home runs. Maldonado is limited offensively (.213/.293/.378 in 2019) but has a cannon for an arm and won a Gold Glove Award in 2017. He finished 8th in MLB last season in Defensive Runs Saved (8) among all catchers. Chirinos (3) tied for 20th and has built great rapport with 2019 AL Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander. 

The Astros could look to bring Chirinos and/or Maldonado this offseason. Neither will command long-term deals on the open market and they don't come with expensive price tags. The tandem worked well for the Astros in 2019, but they could stabilize the position for the future by acquiring someone like Contreras. He’s only 27 — younger than Chirinos (35) and Maldonado (33) — and is one of the top offensive catchers in baseball. Contreras also has a cannon, but his defense (-1 DRS in 2019) and pitch-framing are works in progress.

Contreras has plenty of value for the Cubs, so they won't just trade him for the sake of doing so. The return package would have to be sufficient, whether it includes prospects, big league players or both. And as a reminder, trade rumors are referred to as such for a reason. One shouldn't overreact every time a Cubs player pops up in a report.

"The nature of any offseason, there are gonna be rumors about your major-league players and even your best players and that doesn't necessarily mean they're true," Cubs president Theo Epstein said at last month's GM Meetings. "No one knows how this winter's going to evolve. Even us. We have no idea who will be available for us, so I think taking any name that comes up in a trade rumor with a mouthful of salt is appropriate — not just a grain because I think they're usually untrue."

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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.