Cubs

Theo Epstein backs Javy Baez, feels Cubs lacked 'sense of urgency' in 2018

Theo Epstein backs Javy Baez, feels Cubs lacked 'sense of urgency' in 2018

Theo Epstein treats his press conferences in the same even-keeled way baseball players aim to treat the regular season, without getting too high or low.

The Cubs president of baseball operations is thoughtful and measured in his responses and almost never says anything by accident.

So when his voice started changing in inflection, it made the makeshift interview room in the bowels of Wrigley Field perk up. The passion was palpable.

In his end-of-season presser Wednesday afternoon, Epstein was asked about Javy Baez's comments after the Cubs' Wild-Card loss Tuesday night where the NL MVP candidate said his team was too often focused on the wrong things amid a year that ended abruptly in disappointing fashion for the Cubs.

Epstein agreed with Baez's assessment and explained it in a different way.

The Cubs were forced to endure a stretch where they had just one off-day over the final 43 days of the season and wound up losing the division and the No. 1 seed in the NL on Game 163 Monday before getting ousted from the playoffs Tuesday.

Yet if they had taken care of business earlier in the season before that brutal stretch began, the Cubs would still be playing baseball right now.

"There were players who were looking at it a little differently like Javy, for example, talking about how - in some ways - we struggled all year and - in some ways - something was off a little bit off all year," Epstein said. "We never got on that roll and we have to own that. I agree with that.

"Jon Lester putting it in his own way - dragging body parts through the dirt - leading to an acknowledgement of where we are or where we aren't and maybe that's a good thing in the long run. It will lead to the universal recognition that nothing will be given to us.

"...If we're being totally honest, this is a theme that has come up a little bit with some of the players as we talked to them and we felt through the course of the year, there was a lot to grind through and there was a lot to be proud of, but we could have done more from Day 1 through 162 as far as complete sense of urgency every day, being completely on a mission every day, showing up with that assertiveness and that edge every single day to win.

"Again, 95 wins is tremendous. But sometimes divisions aren't lost on that last day of the season when you only score one run and you don't get in. They're not lost in that last week-and-a-half when the other team goes 8-0 and you go 4-3 and you needed to go 5-2. Sometimes they're lost early in the season when you have an opportunity to push for that sweep, but you've already got two out of three and you're just not quite there with that killer instinct.

"You know what that makes us? Human."

The Cubs often bring up 2016 - both because it resulted in the first world championship for the franchise in 108 years and because the Cubs cruised from start to finish because they had that edge.

Everything Epstein's talking about that the 2018 team lacked at times, the 2016 squad had.

Which is why he and the Cubs players referenced 2016 countless times between the final out of the NL Wild-Card Game and the end of Epstein's 70-minute presser.

"The guys who have been here that whole time acknowledge that," Epstein said. "From Game 1 through 162, we had that sense of urgency. There was no complacency. We were completely on a mission and we showed up to assert ourselves and to win every single day.

"That might win you that one extra game. Or in the case of 2016, it puts you in a position where you can really rest and prepare down the stretch for the playoffs. We have to own this. We have to be honest about that - it's been a little bit different since 2016. We have to get back to that.

"In 2017, we didn't show up for the first half of the season and that put us in a 5.5-game hole at the All-Star Break and we had to expend so much energy in the second half to get back on top of the division that we were fried by October and exhausted and we didn't accomplish our goal in October.

"This year, I think we all admit - and talking to the players - that we all know that we had our chances to put away the division. Whether it was things that happened in the first half or when we started to get some momentum, building a bigger lead. Or you get to a Labor Day series in Milwaukee and all you have to do is win that series and you might symbolically kind of end it right there.

"Then you have another crack at Milwaukee and you can't win that series, either. Or going 5-2 instead of 4-3 down the stretch. Those two Pirate games during the last homestand will haunt us. Or those three games - Saturday, Monday and Tuesday, where all you have to do is score two runs - score more than the one - and you got it."

Epstein went back and referenced a stat he discussed earlier in the press conference - the Cubs scored 2 or more runs in a game just 50 times out of their 70 games after the All-Star Break.

In those 50 contests, the Cubs went a remarkable 37-13.

If the Cubs had managed to turn in one of those performances in either of those three games Epstein mentioned - Saturday, Monday or Tuesday - they'd still have a chance to win their second title in a three-year span instead of trying to come up with answers to what went wrong.

"Look, I don't think there's some sort of fatal flaw - at all - in the clubhouse," Epstein said, his voice dripping with emotion. "If we're being honest about it - as Jon Lester said - maybe this will be good for us because if you just show up, playing it cool, knowing you're talented, knowing it's a long season and trusting that the talent will manifest over the course of 162, sometimes you end up one game short.

"That's not who we are. That's not who we want to be. That's not what we're all about. I think we have to own that and we have to recognize it. I think our players do, from talking to them today. Maybe that feeling in the clubhouse last night - which was a whole lot of pissed off and disappointed and frustrated - will be our rallying cry for next year.

"...Show up every single game as much as you can and get back on a mission the entire length of the season. That's something. There's no fingers pointed, that's all of us collectively in that.

"But if there's one thing we can change besides the sort of fundamentals next year, we will remember that feeling of falling one game short and try to apply it through the course of a 162-game season."

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."

5 Takeaways From Diving Into the Cubs' ZiPS Projections

5 Takeaways From Diving Into the Cubs' ZiPS Projections

/clears throat
/turns on bullhorn
/deeply inhales: 

MOORRREEEEEEE PROJECTIONNNSSSSS

It will never end, friends. Here we are, a good week or so after PECOTA came through and stomped all over everyone's optimism, and the timing could *not* be better. PECOTA was old news; the jokes were stale. Now our second wind is here, ready to fuel us all into rage tweeting at a computer, from a computer, with renewed purpose. We have been given a gift, and there are still three whole corners of the Cubs' workout guide available and looking to rent. I give you: FanGraphs' ZiPS Projections for the 2019 Cubs. 

Now, I cannot say I'd blame you if you hard-passed the hell out of these. Getting Mad Online seems exhausting, and pointing out that the games are played on the field is not actually something anyone needs clarification on. They are, in the end, just predictions. While they may be based in a smarter reality than your buddy's 3-beer rant about how honestly Mike Trout in a Cubs uniform isn't THAT unrealistic, they are both just predictions. No one knows what's going to happen. Sports! 

So what's worth noting about the Cubs' ZiPS projections? A bunch! Let's take a look: 

1. ZiPS thinks Kris Bryant is back, kinda

Here's what FanGraphs sees for Bryant this year: .270/.365/.493 with a 123 OPS+ and 28 dingers - all good for a 4.5 WAR. That'd be the 4th-highest WAR of his 5-year career, which, on the surface, doesn't look great. WAR is not without flaws though, and some of Bryant's other projections paint a rosier picture. A .222 ISO is encouraging - last year, some hitters with a similar ISO included Anthony Rendon, Edwin Encarnacion, and Kyle Schwarber. He's projected to post a career-low in walks and get close to his career-high in strikeouts, so there's a red flag. With all that said, if there's one player the ZiPS might swing-and-miss on (ha!), it's Bryant; his injury-plagued 2018 makes forecasting trickier. 

2. Javy Baez's power is for real?

I guess predicting another 30 home run season for Baez shouldn't be that wild, but considering he'd only ever hit 20 once before last year, it feels notable that FanGraphs is in on his power. On a team with Bryant, Schwarber, and Anthony Rizzo, it's Baez that's predicted to be the Cubs' preeminent power hitter. Strangely enough, Baez is only projected to be a 3-win player, and worth almost two whole wins less than he was last season. WAR has a hard time with players who are uber-reliable at several positions, but this writer isn't quite sure how someone can be the team's best hitter and fielder yet not their most valuable position player. WAR, man. It makes sense until it doesn't. 

3. The rotation might be in real trouble 

More than any other offseason narrative, this one seems to be where Cubs fans and baseball analysts butt heads most often. 

Most Fans: Jon Lester doesn't need to prove anything to anyone, a change of scenery is giving Cole Hamels new life, Yu Darvish is finally healthy and motivated, and Jose Quintana is underrated at this point. 
Most Analysts: All 4 are on the wrong side of 30, with peripherals headed in the wrong direction. Maybe one or two reaches their ceiling again, but all 4? 

As is usually the case in baseball, reality probably falls somewhere in the middle. Terrific insight, I know. Early reports from camp are bullish on Darvish, and he seems like the obvious choice for a bounceback year. FanGraphs disagrees with that, pointing to Quintana (3.75 FIP, 3.6 WAR) as the Cubs sneaky-good starter while being rather gloomy about Darvish's 2019 (3.82 FIP, 2.5 WAR).
The bigger red flag is the pitching staffs' production as a whole. All 5 starters are projected to have ERAs close to 4 -it's hard to feel much outside of apathy when perusing their numbers. The NL might be stupid good this  year, so can the Cubs cut it with merely good-but-not-great pitching? TUNE IN

4. The bullpen has potential?

The Cubs deserve the flack they get for not spending this offseason. That's not to say that they should have signed Bryce Harper -- though they should have signed Bryce Harper -- but it's not like they've been making other moves left and right either. However, the moves they did make in the bullpen are ... rather encouraging? 
They got Brad Brach on a one-year deal and FanGraphs loves him. We might be looking back in July and wondering why we didn't pay more attention to the Xavier Cedeno signing. FanGraphs loves him too. As Chris Kamka pointed out, both are great candidates to be specialists, as Brach destroys righties just like Cedeno destroys lefties. They may be versatile enough to handle expanded roles, but if Maddon wants to keep them in those roles, it wouldn't be the worst idea. Pedro Strop is a bonafide stud and it's not unrealistic to think the Cubs have a ground ball wizard in Brandon Kintzler, either. There's reason to believe: of all 5 NL Central bullpens, FanGraphs ranks the Cubs (a very, very close) 2nd. Bullpen management is nothing more than an informed dice roll, but the Cubs' late-inning arms might surprise people. 

5. Miscellaneous tidbits that I couldn't blend into a narrative

- Kris Bryant's closest current comp is Ryan Zimmerman
- Jason Heyward's predicted to be a 2-win player once again. The contract is what it is, but after the first two seasons, anything is an improvement. 
- Anthony Rizzo is predicted to slash .277/.383/.492 and be worth 4 wins. This is not news, but his consistent excellence at the plate probably deserves more recognition than it gets. 
- Ian Happ, Victor Caratini, and Daniel Descalso are projected as the worst defenders of Cubs players who will get semi-consistent ABs. 
- David Bote and Wilson Contreras are projected to hit the same number of dingers (14). That'd more than double Bote's total from 2018 and would be the 2nd-best season of Contreras' career. 
- Wynton Bernard is pegged to lead the Cubs in steals this season, with 21. Javy Baez is the only starter with more than 10 projected steals. Basically the Cubs aren't going to steal bases.
- Ben Zobrist's closest current comp is Wade Boggs.