Cubs

How Joe Maddon, Ben Zobrist approached what could be their final game at Wrigley Field

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AP

How Joe Maddon, Ben Zobrist approached what could be their final game at Wrigley Field

There was an odd vibe around Wrigley Field Sunday morning, even before it started raining and Kris Bryant slipped on first base and rolled his ankle and well before the Cubs suffered yet another gut-wrenching loss.

For the first time in Joe Maddon's tenure as Cubs manager and Ben Zobrist's career as a Cubs player, they showed up to "The Friendly Confines" knowing there would likely be no postseason appearance for this team. 

The Cubs are not mathematically eliminated, but they woke up Sunday morning with just an 8.6 percent chance at making the playoffs, according to FanGraphs, and that only went down after the 3-2 loss at Wrigley Field and the Brewers' win in Milwaukee. That puts the Cubs 4 games back in the Wild-Card race with only six to play.

Both Maddon and Zobrist are not under contract after this season and there is a lot of speculation that this could be it for the manager that guided this franchise to its first World Series championship in 108 years and the player who took home the MVP Award in that Fall Classic. Sunday might be the end of an era.

So how did both men approach the day at Wrigley Field?

Zobrist said he was simply focused on the game and the task at hand, though he's been taking little mental snapshots from time to time over his last month here at the corner of Clark and Addison. 

The Eureka, Ill., native will allow himself to think about all this stuff once the season is officially over, but he's never taken it for granted to be able to call Wrigley Field home for the last four seasons. This is the same guy who wears stirrups as a callback to the days of yore and has commuted to the ballpark on a bicycle while wearing his full uniform.

"It's the big leagues of the big leagues," Zobrist said. "That's the way the fans make you feel. The front office, the organization, the way everything's run — it's the top of the top. It's hard to beat the experience of being a Chicago Cubs player, especially when you walk out on that field."

The 38-year-old Zobrist admitted he doesn't know what's next for his career after a season in which he missed four months while tending to his family situation. But the last month has answered the question for himself that he still has what it takes physically to play this game.

As for Maddon, he was maybe a bit more introspective than normal in his Sunday morning press availability, but he's always thoughtful and mindful.

He insisted he did not show up to work Sunday with a mindset to "take it all in" or enjoy the moment any more than normal, which makes sense for a guy who routinely preaches the need to stay in the present tense.

"Honestly, I do that every day," he said. "I don't anticipate that. I haven't really thought about that this whole time through. I always expect a good result."

Maddon's job status is up in the air after Theo Epstein's front office took any talks of an extension off the table last winter and wanted to see how the season went before making a decision one way or the other. 

Since Maddon took over the helm ahead of the 2015 season, only the Dodgers and Astros have more regular season wins than the Cubs (469) and his teams made it to three National League Championship Series from 2015-17. 

As for Sunday morning, Maddon was focused on the weather and how the impending storms could affect his pitching staff with a thin bullpen and the threat of a delay knocking starter Yu Darvish out early. He said he was focused on the game "like I always have" and after the loss, he spoke only about the game and the season and did not have any platitudes about his final Wrigley Field experience.

"When I walk to Wrigley — I've talked about this since I've been here — you always are enthralled and impressed with the fact that you get to work here," he said. "So that's kind of a daily occurrence for me."

Cole Hamels is out to prove the naysayers wrong, whether that's with the Cubs or elsewhere

Cole Hamels is out to prove the naysayers wrong, whether that's with the Cubs or elsewhere

How you evaluate Cole Hamels’ 2019 performance depends on which half of the season you look at.

Hamels was the Cubs’ most reliable starting pitcher through June, putting his name firmly in the conversation to make the All-Star Game. Through his first 17 starts, he held a 2.98 ERA, with 97 strikeouts and 35 walks in 99 2/3 innings.

That 17th start – June 28 against the Reds – represented a turning point for the left-hander, however. After throwing one warmup pitch ahead of the second inning, Hamels took a beeline for the Cubs’ dugout, exiting the game with a left oblique strain.

Hamels quickly detecting the strain was key, as he avoided a more significant injury and only missed one month as a result. However, he never got back to his pre-injury level after returning. In 10 starts, he posted a 5.79 ERA, walking 21 batters in 42 innings as opponents slashed .315/.397/.506 against him.

Which of the two pitchers does Hamels more closely resemble at this point? That’s what teams will have to evaluate this offseason, when the soon-to-be 36-year-old lefty hits free agency for the first time in his career.

On top of his oblique strain, Hamels also missed a start in September with left shoulder fatigue. By the time he returned, the Cubs were eliminated from postseason contention, but he wanted one last chance to show what he’s capable of before free agency.

“I don’t want to put that in the back of teams’ heads of how I finished,” Hamels said the day before his final start of the season. “I think I’m capable of what I was able to do in the first half - that’s who I am - and I can still get those good results for hopefully [the Cubs], if they consider that.

“But also, for other teams to know that I’m not the type of player that’s on the regression. This is what we’re gonna expect. It’s more so what I was able to do in the first half - the type of player that I am and the results that I can get out on the field.”

He certainly backed those words up, shutting down the Cardinals – who hadn’t clinched the NL Central yet – in the second-to-last game of the regular season. Hamels pitched four innings, allowing no runs on just two hits.

Hamels looked stellar in that game, but it doesn’t change the fact that returning from an extended injury absence isn’t easy on pitchers. They need time to regain command of their pitches, plus any amount of arm strength lost during their time on the shelf.

Hamels made two rehab starts at Triple-A before rejoining the Cubs on Aug. 3. He was determined not to return too quickly, as he did so with the Rangers in 2017 after straining his right oblique. That wound up negatively affecting him the rest of the season.

Still, maybe one or two more rehab starts this time around would’ve served him well, though he felt that he could compete at the majors without his best stuff. Plus, it’s not like he was guaranteed to find his groove again by pitching in more minor league games.

Results are all that matter in the big leagues, however, and they show that while the Cubs starting rotation was okay, it wasn’t the difference maker capable of leading the team to October, as anticipated. Cubs starters finished the season with a 4.18 ERA, 10th in MLB and sixth in the National League.

Hamels’ post-injury woes played into those numbers, and he’s determined to bounce back in 2020 to prove his second half performance was a fluke. His first half showed that he still can pitch at a high-level, but he may not be in the Cubs’ plans for next season, regardless.

"There was some injury and regression (especially after injury) that led us to be closer to the pack certainly than we had envisioned,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said of the team’s rotation at his end-of-season press conference. “It’s an accomplished and experienced group, but with experience means that we could stand to add some younger talent, refresh the group as well.

“We certainly need to add depth and we need to add some youth and a little bit of a different look to the staff, as well, going forward.”

Those comments seem to indicate that Hamels won’t be back next season. The Cubs have Adbert Alzolay, Tyler Chatwood and Alec Mills as internal rotation options for 2020 and could look outside the organization for more. Hamels also made $20 million in 2019, so freeing up his salary would help the Cubs address other roster needs.

The Cubs could do a lot worse than having a healthy Cole Hamels in their rotation, though. He’s enjoyed a resurgence since the Cubs acquired him and has had plenty of success against the NL Central and at Wrigley Field overall during his career:

vs. Brewers: 20 starts, 8-5, 3.53 ERA
vs. Cardinals: 17 starts, 5-6, 2.21 ERA
vs. Pirates: 13 starts, 5-4 record, 2.52 ERA
vs. Reds: 20 starts, 11-2 record. 2.30 ERA
at Wrigley Field: 25 starts, 7-4 record, 2.20 ERA

Granted, a large portion of those starts came earlier in his career. But with how competitive the NL Central was in 2019 and will be in 2020, the results can’t be ignored.

“Obviously I do very well at Wrigley, so I hope that’s a consideration - I love to be able to pitch there,” Hamels said about the Cubs possibly re-signing him. “For some reason, it’s just the energy and I’ve mentioned it before, it’s baseball to me. And that’s what I really feed off of and that’s hopefully what they think about.”

But if the Cubs decide to part ways with Hamels, he’ll have his fair share of suitors. The Brewers and Reds each could benefit from adding starting pitching this offseason, and Hamels would bring a ton of experience to two squads that will be competing for postseason spots in 2020.

“Otherwise, I know the other teams in the division are gonna think about it,” Hamels said with a laugh. “If you have to come to Wrigley three different times [as an opponent], I don’t pitch bad there.

“I just want to win. I think that’s it. When you get the taste of it early and then you don’t have it for a while, that’s what you’re striving for. To play this game and in front of sellouts and the energy and the expectation of winning, it’s why I enjoy the game.

“That’s what I want to be able to continue to do for the few years I have left.”

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Javy Baez is now the face of baseball

Javy Baez is now the face of baseball

Javy Baez is one step closer to becoming the unquestioned face of Major League Baseball.

For the next year, El Mago will be the cover boy for video-game-playing baseball fans, as Baez announced on his Twitter Monday morning he is gracing the cover of MLB The Show 2020:

On the eve of Game 1 of the World Series, Playstation released a video depicting why they chose Baez as the new face of the game:

Last year's cover featured Bryce Harper, announced before he even signed with the Phillies. 

Baez also joins the likes of Aaron Judge, Ken Griffey Jr., Chipper Jones, Barry Bonds and David Ortiz as cover athletes for the PS4 game.

The 26-year-old Baez has become one of the most recognizable figures in the game, playing with a flair and swag that includes mind-bending baserunning maneuvers and impossible defensive plays. 

Case in point:

Baez missed the final month of the 2019 season with a fractured thumb, but still put up 29 homers and 85 RBI while ranking second on the team in WAR. In 2018, he finished second in NL MVP voting while leading the league in RBI (111) and topping the Cubs in most offensive categories. 

Theo Epstein said he never deems any player as "untouchable," but Baez is about as close as it gets for this Cubs team right now. He made the switch to shortstop full time this year and wound up with elite defensive numbers to go along with his fearsome offense and an attitude and mindset the rest of the Cubs hope to emulate.

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