Cubs

Maybe the early exit was just what the Cubs needed

Maybe the early exit was just what the Cubs needed

A year ago, the Cubs world was in essentially the exact same place — trying to find answers for a season that ended earlier than expected.

There was only one difference: Time.

The 2018 Cubs woke up on the morning of Oct. 22 having been out of action almost three full weeks. That's a long time in terms of decompressing, letting your body heal and evaluating what went wrong.

A year ago today, Ben Zobrist was in the midst of trying to heal his ailing wrist after a third straight trip deep into the postseason.

A year ago today, Theo Epstein was roughly 48 hours removed from his annual end-of-season eulogy.

A year ago today, Kris Bryant was trying to catch his breath after what he called the most draining campaign of his life.

Yet we woke up Monday morning 19 full days removed from the latest iteration of Epstein's end-of-season eulogy, Zobrist is making light-hearted Instagram videos and Bryant is already nearly three weeks into the process of letting his left shoulder heal completely and adding strength.

Of course, that trio of Cubs figures would gladly trade in these extra few weeks of time off for another shot at the NL pennant, even if they fell short in the NLCS again.

Still, there's a lot of value in extra time off, especially after three straight falls where they went deep into October playing high-stress baseball. The Cubs absolutely will go in 2019 much fresher than they went into this year's spring training.

For example, Jon Lester threw 8.1 fewer innings this October than 2017 and 29.2 fewer innings than 2016. Zobrist played 8 fewer games this October than 2018 and 16 fewer than 2016 (he also won the World Series in 2015 as a member of the Kansas City Royals). That matters when players' ages start creeping up into the mid-to-late 30s.

It shouldn't take the sting out of the disappointing end to 2018 for the Cubs or their fans, but extra time off for these guys is certainly not a bad thing. 

The Cubs have already gotten the ball rolling on offseason changes, including replacing Chili Davis at hitting coach with Anthony Iapoce

On top of that, each individual player has now had enough time to evaluate why or how they went wrong offensively down the stretch.

"A full winter — especially this extra month that we unfortunately have — is a luxury in baseball," Epstein said. "There are things that come up all the time during the course of the season with teams and with individual players that you say, 'We'd love to address.' But that's so hard to address during the season because there's always another game tomorrow. 

"Guys are surviving. We have to wait 'til the offseason, then we can get right physically, then we can wade into the mental game, then we can address this swing change, then we can handle this fundamental. Well, we now have that luxury — unfortunately — of a full offseason. How do we take full advantage of this so we're never in this position again?

"We don't want to be a part of an offensive collapse in the second half again. We don't want to be part of losing a division lead late again. We don't want to be part of looking back and recognizing that, gosh, maybe a greater sense of urgency from Game 1 through 162 would've led to one more game and then we're still playing. We don't want to be part of that ever again, so we need to make good use of this time."

The early exit also helps to create a chip on the shoulder for each member of the organization. It's hard to see the Cubs spending much time in 2019 lacking the same "urgency" they had this summer. The painful NL Wild-Card loss will leave a bad taste in their mouths that can carry over all the way until next October. 

Like Lester said, sometimes you "need to get your dick knocked in the dirt in order to appreciate where you're at." 

We saw that play out on the North Side of Chicago from 2015 into 2016 and Cole Hamels has seen this script before with a young core of players in Philadelphia.

In 2007, the Phillies made the playoffs, but were swept out of the NLDS by the Colorado Rockies. They rebounded to win the World Series the next fall over Joe Maddon's Tampa Bay Rays.

"That [2007 sweep] really kind of taught us what the postseason experience was and what it was to not just play to the end of the season and instead to play to the end of the postseason," Hamels said. "This is a tremendous experience for a lot of guys and you have to go through the hardships before you get to enjoy the big moments.

"I know there's a lot of players here that have won a World Series, but there's also a lot that didn't have that sort of participation that you would kind of look towards, so I think this is great for them. 

"It's exciting to see what they're gonna be able to do next year and the year after that because this is a tremendous team here with the talent that they have. It's gonna be a great couple years."

Mike Montgomery nearing a return after minor shoulder injury

Mike Montgomery nearing a return after minor shoulder injury

MESA, Ariz. - We haven't seen Mike Montgomery throw off a mound yet this spring, but that should be coming very soon.

The veteran southpaw was dealing with some shoulder stiffness at the start of camp and was slightly delayed because of that.

But Montgomery has been throwing on flat ground of late, including another session Wednesday that went well.

He said his arm feels "perfect" after the recent work and the plan from here is to throw a bullpen off the mound Friday. The Cubs will want him to go through a couple sessions on the mound and then a couple live bullpens against hitters before getting into a game, so Montgomery is behind schedule this spring, but not by much.

The 29-year-old said he initially felt the shoulder stiffness a couple weeks ago during a throwing session on his own. He said it wasn't a big deal and normally would've powered through it, but felt no need to push it before spring training even began.

It was just a matter of trying to do too much too soon, Montgomery said. He was excited and wanted to keep throwing because he loved the feel he had snapping off his curveball right at that moment, so wanted to keep getting more reps the same way hitters want to take swing after swing.

"This isn't like basketball, where you can take 1,000 shots in a row if you wanted to," Montgomery said.

The swingman is entering his fourth season in a Cubs uniform and is being counted on as a valuable piece of the pitching staff. He gave the Cubs a huge boost in the middle of last season, joining the rotation when Yu Darvish went down to injury.

Montgomery wound up making 19 starts and 19 relief appearances last year and was projected to start the season as the long guy in the bullpen and next man up in the rotation if injuries strike.

 

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Javy Baez is going to make sure the Cubs learned their lesson last fall

Javy Baez is going to make sure the Cubs learned their lesson last fall

MESA, Ariz. — Javy Baez has a way of holding his teammates accountable without throwing anybody under the bus.

That's because he's always internalizing it, pointing the thumb first and then the finger.

2018 will go down as Baez's true breakout, finishing second in National League MVP voting and almost singlehandedly keeping the Cubs afloat at various times during a trying season.

But he wasn't only successful on the field. Baez is also finding a way to lead the Cubs — both by example and with his words.

After the Cubs were stunned by the Rockies at Wrigley Field for the NL Wild Card-Game last fall, Baez stood at his locker and held court for a half-hour, passionately discussing how the team needed a better sense of urgency from Day 1. He made similar comments before the game, showing a little fire when talking about how the Cubs need to stop worrying about anything outside the clubhouse and just focus on what they do.

Long before Theo Epstein or Joe Maddon talked about "urgency" and "edge," it was Baez's voice that echoed through the Cubs locker room. And he backed it up with his play all year long, including driving in the Cubs' only run in that lone playoff game.

"After the season was over, after the last game, we started saying what we were missing," Baez said Tuesday at Cubs spring camp. "It kinda bothered me because that's what this game is — to make adjustments and get better.

"We waited for the season to be over to look at it and to try to make adjustments when there was no tomorrow. I think this offseason, we had a lot of time to think about it to see how we're gonna react this year."

And how will they react? How will Baez make sure the Cubs learned their lesson last fall?

He knows he can't do it alone.

"I think it's the little things," Baez said. "Last year, one example — I didn't run full speed to first base. I used to get back to the dugout and nobody would say anything. This year, I'm sure if I don't do it, someone hopefully would say something. It's not to show you up, it's to make our team better."

It's a brand new year, and Baez looms as probably the biggest X-factor on the Cubs. If he can build on last year's MVP-level season, the Cubs are in a fantastic spot with regards to their lineup as Kris Bryant is back healthy and the other young hitters are potentially taking a step forward after refocusing and making adjustments over the winter.

Baez is emerging as a vocal leader and he certainly has the skillset and talent to back up his words.

But will he be able to duplicate his 2018 numbers or even expand upon them? Even as he led the league in RBI while hitting 34 homers, scoring 101 runs, stealing 21 bases and posting a .290/.326/.554 slash line, Baez still has plenty of room for development.

For starters, he has work to do on his plate discipline and he knows that. 

"I'm just trying to get more walks," he said. "Obviously people are talking about my walks and strikeouts. It's only gonna make me better if I walk more and see the ball better.

"Obviously I hope [to maintain that MVP level]. I'm trying to have a better year than last year."

Over the last two seasons, Baez has walked only 59 times vs. 311 strikeouts. And of those 59 free passes, 23 were intentional, which means the star infielder's "natural" walk rate is only 3.19 percent in that span. For perspective, the worst walk rate in the big leagues since the start of 2017 is Dee Gordon with 2.7 percent. No other qualified hitter had a walk rate lower than 3.3 percent.

Joe Maddon always says whenever Baez figures out how to organize the strike zone better, he can turn into Manny Ramirez as a hitter

But even beyond that, 2018 was a great learning season for the 26-year-old. He now has a better understanding on how to keep from wearing down at the end of a long season and came into camp looking even stronger.

"I kinda did get a little tired because a lot had to do with running the bases — I was trying to get 30 [stolen] bases and in the first half, other teams started spreading word about me on the bases," Baez said.

"I was kinda working a little bit more and I had a little bit of pressure on me. I was trying to do too much in the last month. Just trying to make an adjustment on that."