Why the Cubs are confident the best is yet to come in 2019

Why the Cubs are confident the best is yet to come in 2019

As the Cubs limp into the All-Star Break, they know full well they're not playing their best brand of baseball.

Despite another listless loss — this time a 3-1 defeat at the hands of Eloy Jimenez and the White Sox Sunday afternoon — the Cubs are also exuding an unwavering confidence that things will turn and this year will be different than the end of last season.

The Cubs woke up Sunday morning in sole possession of first place in the National League Central and they are also wrapping up a stretch in which they played 52 games in 54 days dating back to the middle of May. 

This four-day break will be a nice physical reprieve for the Cubs, but it will also be a mental breather for a team that has been making uncharacteristic mistakes the last couple weeks.

"I don't care what you do [as a job] — you do that for how many days straight, you get sick of your colleagues," Anthony Rizzo said. "We knew that was our toughest stretch and after the break, we're gonna pretty much get regular off-days. Those off-days are crucial, especially towards the end of the year."

Rizzo joked that even Friday's day off followed by a night game on the South Side felt like an All-Star Break given the way the schedule has been for this team the last couple months.

The Cubs can also take solace in the fact that they are 189-103 after the All-Star Break under Joe Maddon. That's a .647 winning percentage and 16 games better than the next closest team in the NL (Dodgers) since the start of 2015. 

"I think as a team, we do well [after the break] and I think a lot of players here individually have really good second halves, too," Kris Bryant said. "But you can't always lean on your track record. Each year's different. Every team's coming for us. Our division's more competitive. Just the bottom line. We just have to play better. I don't think what we've done in the first half is gonna be good enough."

Before Sunday's Crosstown series finale, Maddon talked up his team's resiliency and believes the Cubs' best baseball is ahead of them.

When asked why he's so confident, the veteran manager explained how much he believes in the guys in the clubhouse and considers it more of a "feel" thing than something tangible he can point to.

"On a daily basis, I know what I feel. I know what this group feels like. I watch the rest of the league. I know what they feel like. I know how we're capable of competing and playing," Maddon said. "We're in a decent spot right now and have not come anywhere close to playing our best baseball. And I really want to believe that's around the corner. 

"We need to tighten things up. Defensively, [Saturday], you saw a couple perfect examples of what I'm talking about, which is definitely within our realm of being able to take it to another level. So to be in a spot we're in, it's not horrible and I know we're gonna play better. 

"I trust our guys, I believe in our guys and you're gonna see a better brand of all this in the second half. The rest of the league's good; they've gotten better. But I still believe our best ball is ahead of us, which is gonna carry us."

It's fair to assume the Cubs are going to play better baseball given a track record of success that's approaching a half-decade and a clubhouse filled with a mix of battle-tested veterans and young players who experienced the pinnacle of success early in their careers.

It's also easy to empathize with the "sky is falling" section of the fanbase given how the Cubs played in the second half of last season and then followed that with a rocky first half of the current campaign.

So what makes Rizzo feel like the Cubs will be fine over the final 72 games of the season?

"Kris Bryant. Jason Heyward. Addison Russell. Jon Lester. Cole Hamels. Kyle Schwarber. Craig Kimbrel. Javy Baez. The whole 25-man roster," Rizzo said as he went around the visiting locker room at Guaranteed Rate Field and picked out any name he saw at that moment. 

Rizzo and Maddon both stressed the need for the Cubs to play looser and worry more about having fun than placing undue pressure on themselves to be afraid of making mistakes. That's been something Maddon has been discussing for the last couple weeks while his team has struggled to stay afloat in a tough division and league.

"We just haven't played as well as we're capable of, but we've hung together pretty well and I think that's important," Maddon said. "...The group in general — the way we interact — is a strong point. Overall, the starting pitching has been pretty good. The team on the field — some really impressive offensive numbers. But we're still looking for the consistent at-bat where we force the pitcher to throw the ball over the plate. 

"That, to me, is what we need to really become the elite team we're capable of being."

Cubs free agent focus: Dallas Keuchel

Cubs free agent focus: Dallas Keuchel

With Hot Stove season underway, NBC Sports Chicago is taking a look at some of MLB’s top free agents and how they’d fit with the Cubs.

With Cole Hamels off to Atlanta, the Cubs officially have an opening in their 2020 starting rotation.

Hamels signed a one-year, $18 million deal with the Braves on Wednesday, similar to the $17.8 million qualifying offer the Cubs elected not to tender him a month ago. That salary would’ve put the budget-conscious Cubs in a tight position, similar to when they picked up Hamels’ $20 million option for 2019 last offseason.

The Cubs could address their rotation vacancy with internal candidates Adbert Alzolay, Tyler Chatwood or Alec Mills. But if they look to the open market, Braves’ free agent sinkerballer Dallas Keuchel is an intriguing possibility.

Keuchel boasts an impressive résumé featuring two All-Star Game appearances, four Gold Gloves, a Cy Young and a championship — all coming from 2014-18 with the Astros. He’s reliable and durable, holding a 3.33 ERA, 3.58 FIP and 1.198 WHIP since 2014 while making at least 26 starts in four of those seasons. The lone exceptions are 2017 (23 starts) and 2019 (19).

Keuchel missed time in 2017 with a pinched neck nerve, the only time he’s hit the injured list as a big leaguer. He remained a free agent into June last season, like Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel. Both signed deals after the draft pick compensation attached to them — due to being tendered a qualifying offer last offseason — was lifted.

After his extended free agency last offseason, Keuchel is more likely to accept a multi-year deal this time around. He made $13 million with Atlanta in 2019, though the deal was prorated, so it was worth about $21 million for a full season.

$13 million annually seems reasonable for Keuchel’s next contract and it'd also be more affordable for the Cubs than what Hamels earned from Atlanta. Keuchel has been good since his 2015 Cy Young season (3.77 ERA, 102 starts), but he’s not an annual candidate to win the award like fellow free agents Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg. He also isn’t a strikeout pitcher (career 7.2 K/9), something the Cubs lack among their starters outside of Yu Darvish.

Starting pitchers are always in demand on the open market. Good-not-great Zack Wheeler got five years and $118 million from the Phillies on Wednesday, so someone could be willing to pay Keuchel closer to $15-20 million a season. This would likely put him out of the Cubs’ price range, if they were interested in him.

As is the case with every free agent this winter, it’ll come down to whether or not the Cubs can afford Keuchel. But if they're able to add him, they'd be rounding out their rotation with a solid, experienced arm.

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Cole Hamels signs one-year deal with Braves


Cole Hamels signs one-year deal with Braves

It didn’t seem like Cole Hamels was likely to return to the Cubs considering they didn’t tender him a qualifying offer, but it is now reality that Hamels is leaving the North Side.

ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported that Hamels has agreed to a one-year, $18 million deal with the Braves. The deal has since become official.

The qualifying offer he would have received from the Cubs would have been $17.8 million, just under what he ended up getting from the Braves.

This now leaves the Cubs with a question as to who will be the team’s fifth starter next season. Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester, and José Quintana are under contract and figure to lock in the top four rotation spots. Tyler Chatwood, Adbert Alzolay and Alec Mills all figure to be candidates for that spot.

Hamels turns 36 two days after Christmas and an oblique injury limited him in the second half of last season. He had a 2.98 ERA before the All-Star break and a 5.79 ERA in 42 innings after it.

Hamels was a big part of the Cubs’ push in 2018 when he had a 2.36 ERA in 12 starts after arriving from Texas just before the trade deadline.

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