Cubs

Forget 2015, the Brewers are more like 2016 Cubs

Forget 2015, the Brewers are more like 2016 Cubs

With the Milwaukee Brewers about to kick off the NLCS, many Cubs fans and pundits have taken to comparing them to the 2015 Cubs.

At first glance, it's easy to see why — they're in the playoffs for the first time as something of an underdog and "surprise" team — but that's not the recent Cubs squad we should be comparing the 2018 Brewers to.

This Milwaukee team is a lot more like the 2016 Cubs.

Here's why:

1. They're not a surprise.

Nobody expected the 2015 Cubs to win 97 games and wind up in the NLCS. They were expected to compete very soon, but everything went right in a red-hot August, they rode Jake Arrieta's right arm to the NLDS and then toppled the Cardinals to get to the LCS, where they ran into the brick wall that was Matt Harvey and and the Mets pitching staff.

The 2018 Brewers are not — and should not be — a surprise. Anybody who was caught off guard by this team being so good hasn't been paying much attention. The Brewers were leading the NL Central in 2017 for much of the year before a late-season fade that coincided with the Cubs' late-season surge.

This Milwaukee squad was always supposed to be one of the top teams in the NL in 2018 and they really hit their groove in September to chase down the Cubs. Still, it took a Game 163 to force a changing of the guard atop the division.

2. They greatly improved expectations with a big free-agent OF signing over the winter.

The Cubs had Jason Heyward in between 2015 and '16. The Brewers had Lorenzo Cain.

Cain has provided quite a bit more offense in the first season of his 5-year, $80 million contract but both Cain and Heyward provided leadership in the clubhouse and elite defense in the outfield in the first years with their new teams.

3. The Brewers have the NL MVP.

This one's an easy comparison to make, though Cubs fans will hate it.

Christian Yelich is this season's NL MVP. Sorry, Javy Baez fans. "El Mago" had a great season, but it's impossible to give the award to anybody but Yelich.

Yelich winning the league's most coveted accolade would be another perfect tie-in to the 2016 Cubs, who had Kris Bryant take home NL MVP.

4. They have a dominant LHP out of the bullpen.

Josh Hader has been doing his best Aroldis Chapman impression in 2018 as an absolutely dominant southpaw out of the bullpen. Unlike Chapman, Hader's spent all season with the Brewers, but like Chapman in '16, Hader will be leaned on heavily for multiple innings throughout the rest of the playoffs.

5. They picked up some valuable in-season assets.

The 2016 Cubs dealt for Chapman, but they also traded for reliever Joe Smith and called up Willson Contreras in the middle of the year, who provided a spark for the offense.

The 2018 Brewers have acquired plenty of valuable assets along the way this season from Mike Moustakas to Jonathan Schoop to Erik Kratz (more on him later) to Gio Gonzalez. But one of their most important additions (especially in October) was the promotion of top prospect Corbin Burnes, a flame-throwing right-hander who posted a 2.61 ERA in 30 regular-season games and allowed only 1 hit in 4 shutout innings in the DS.

6. They're on a mission with a chip on their shoulder.

The 2015 Cubs had a little bit of a chip on their shoulder as they attempted to take down the divisional powerhouse that was the St. Louis Cardinals. But again, they were a surprise contender - even within that clubhouse (especially early in 2015). But after falling short in the NLCS, the Cubs retooled over the winter and came back with one goal in mind - to win the World Series.

It was a goal they accomplished. We'll see if the Brewers will be able to do the same, but they certainly came to play in 2018 with a chip on their shoulder and the ultimate goal of winning the final MLB game of the year.

The Brewers didn't lead the division from Day 1 and weren't able to coast into October, but they still wound up with homefield advantage throughout the NL playoffs.

7. They have journeyman catcher who is winning over fans' hearts.

This is a fun one.

The 2016 Cubs had David "Grandpa" Rossy who still elicts deafening cheers whenever he's shown on the giant video board at Wrigley Field. The 2018 Brewers have Kratz, who has become a fan favorite recently and was mic'd up for the final out of the NLDS.

Ross was 39 when he helped lead the Cubs to the 2016 World Series and Chicago was his eighth stop (seventh different team) along his MLB journey. Kratz is 38 and on his ninth stop (seventh different team) along his MLB journey.

In fact, Ross and Kratz are so intertwined, they've already been compared to each other by MLB.com.

But the major difference is Kratz has zero postseason playing experience until a week ago. Will he be able to ride off into the sunset with a championship ring on his finger the way Ross did?

We'll have an answer to that over the next few weeks in the final chapter of the Brewers' 2018 season, though Cubs fans surely wouldn't be too happy to see their division rivals celebrating with a World Series parade just 90 minutes north of Wrigley Field.

Ben Zobrist working to be a more vocal leader for Cubs in 2019

Ben Zobrist working to be a more vocal leader for Cubs in 2019

MESA, Ariz. — The Cubs are kind of the hipsters of the leadership committee world.

Before the Bulls got so much attention for their leadership council under coach Jim Boylen, the Cubs held their own closed-door meeting between the front office and the players.

The leadership narrative has been right up there with the payroll as far as top offseason storylines for the Cubs, with Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer often discussing their desire to find more veterans for the clubhouse to help keep guys "accountable," enforce the "urgency" needed throughout a long season and avoid any sort of "complacency" that may set in. (You can now cross those three buzzwords off your Cubs Bingo cards.)

The Cubs felt like they lacked that edge last season and pointed to it as one of the reasons why they were caught from behind by the Brewers in the final week of the season and wound up at home, barbecuing in the first week of October instead of on another march toward a potential championship.

So to learn from that situation and improve upon it, Zobrist was among the group discussion.

"We've had some very candid conversations with the leadership," he said Friday when he showed up at camp after a four-day excused absence for personal reasons. "I was really grateful to see how Theo, Jed sat several of us down and just asked a lot of questions to us — 'what do you think?' When you feel like you have a voice and you feel like you could potentially have say in what could happen as the new year comes in, you jump in.

"I've thought about it a lot over the course of this offseason. I'm excited about the potential of how things will change and the mindset moving forward. I can't wait to see it play itself out."

Zobrist turns 38 in May and in the final season of his contract, but he's been everything the Cubs could've wanted when they inked him to a four-year deal before the 2016 season. He stabilized the lineup that year, won the World Series MVP and has generally been a great example of the type of plate approach and work ethic the organization wants young players to model themselves after.

But "leader" was not a word attached to Zobrist often because he's not the David Ross type who continually lends advice in the clubhouse and chirps in the dugout.

"I'm just not an out-loud leader," Zobrist said. "I'm not that kinda guy. I'm not gonna try and go out and get in guys faces in any regard. I'm just gonna do my job. I think I was always just so focused on doing my job that I didn't worry too much about what's going on around me.

"But now at this point, you kinda see how things went last year. We all feel a collective responsibility. For me, not knowing what my future is next year, I definitely want to take my full responsibility and give whatever I can to the guys and give to this group so we can get back to where we want to be."

Like Jon Lester, Zobrist may not be all that comfortable with a role as a vocal leader, but the Cubs are challenging their experienced veterans to take more of a responsibility in helping keep this young core in line and nudge them in the right direction.

Zobrist feels veteran leadership is undervalued in the game right now and believes that's reflected in free agency, where so many older players have found difficulty finding homes.

He's entering his 14th season in the big leagues and has more than 1,600 games and 6,600 plate appearances under his belt. 

"I do think that it's necessary to speak up when you have something to say, but there's also a necessary tact that it takes, especially with younger players and guys that are great players in their own right," Zobrist said. "But the experience does give you something. You have been through a few things that maybe some of the young guys haven't.

"You see how the game changes, you see it from different eyes and so hopefully as I see things that are changing and I see little things within our clubhouse atmosphere, I do plan on saying something in the right way, just encouraging guys. I really believe that can do a lot for a ballclub."

Young players like Willson Contreras, Kris Bryant and Ian Happ have directly mentioned Zobrist and how they watch the way he goes about his business, prepares and can put together a professional at-bat regardless of the situation, where he's hitting in the order, what position he's playing, etc.

But again, the Cubs feel the team has a strong need for more vocal leadership in the clubhouse, which was a big reason why they picked up Cole Hamels' $20 million option and brought in veteran Daniel Descalso. 

Descalso is about all they could manage this winter with a strict budget that didn't allow much wiggle room, but the Cubs also spent the offseason internalizing the disappointment from last fall. They worked to try to improve what they had and pushing Lester and Zobrist to become more vocal leaders falls under that umbrella.

"I'm excited to kind of own my position, but also do a little bit more ownership of the entire group," Zobrist said. "I think everybody's kinda there. Everybody's like — 'how can we build each other up as a group?' instead of, 'how can I develop as a player?' I've been getting there for the last few years of my career, no doubt, but this year, probably even moreso."

Joe Maddon is just fine with Zobrist continuing to lead by example.

"Zo has always had this quiet leadership about him," Maddon said. "He's not really a vocal guy. I don't even know if he's gonna be able to get to that point. He really sets a great example. After the game, he'll be in the weight room with [strength coach Tim Buss] at least an extra hour before he even goes home.

"A lot of it depends on whether he's gonna play the next day or not. But he always has, by example, been a wonderful leader as far as I'm concerned. Just be more apt or possibly say something to somebody that he may see that he normally wouldn't have done in the past. It would take a lot to have Zo approach you about a specific moment. 

"He'd prefer showing you how it's done by just watching me. So all that stuff, it's wonderful and it'll all play organically. I think it's gonna play its way out. For me, he's done that for a while."

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MLB announces pitch clocks will be used in spring training; no decision made for regular season

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USA TODAY

MLB announces pitch clocks will be used in spring training; no decision made for regular season

Pitch clocks are coming to a ballpark near you in 2019.

Friday, MLB announced that a 20-second pitch timer will be used during 2019 spring training games. The decision comes on the heels of MLB commissioner Ron Manfred saying earlier this month that the league is focused more on pace-of-play initiatives rather than drastic rule changes.

No decision has been made on whether the timer will be implemented for the 2019 regular season. However, ESPN's Jeff Passan said that it such a move is "a very real possibility."

Both pitchers and batters share responsibility for a pitch getting delivered ahead of the timer's expiration. While the timer will not be used ahead of the first pitch of an at-bat, it will start the moment the pitcher receives the ball back from his catcher.

From there, the rule requires:

-Batters to be in the batter's box and alert to the pitcher with at least five seconds left on the timer

-A pitcher to begin his motion/windup before the timer's expiration — the pitch does not have to be released before the timer expires

The 20-second timer will be implemented in three phases during spring training. They are as follows:

1. In order for players and umpires to adjust to the change, the timer will operate without enforcement for the first spring training games.

2. Early next week, umpires will begin issuing reminders to players and hitters who violate the rule, albeit without assessing a penalty. Umpires will inform managers, pitching coaches and/or hitting coaches after the inning ends of any violations.

3. Later in spring training (depending on MLB's negotiations with the MLBPA) umpires will begin assessing ball-strike penalties to teams for any violations.

Like it or not, pace-of-play initiatives are coming to MLB. For fans, players and umpires alike, spring training offers the chance to get used to baseball's new normal. 

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