Cubs

Will Dave Martinez's inside knowledge on Cubs impact this weekend's series?

Will Dave Martinez's inside knowledge on Cubs impact this weekend's series?

When the Arizona Diamondbacks were in town last month, a couple Cubs players pointed out how well veteran catcher Alex Avila knew the lineup.

Avila played in just two games in that series and he only spent two months with the Cubs late last season, but that was apparently enough for the 31-year-old to build up a cache of important scouting intel.

The Cubs rallied to split that series with the NL West leaders thanks to ninth inning heroics from David Bote and Anthony Rizzo, but the Avila angle was still something that stuck with me after the D-Backs left town.

With all the advanced scouting, camera angles and info at teams' disposals nowadays, how much can one guy like Avila really impact the gameplan?

The Cubs are about to truly find out this weekend at Wrigley with Davey Martinez in town, though Game 1 went in favor of the North Siders 3-2 in yet another come-from-behind victory.

Martinez spent the last three years as the Cubs bench coach before graduating on to this managerial gig with the Washington Nationals. He has spent a ton of time in the clubhouse and coaching this Cubs roster — 18 of the 25 players active Friday played under Martinez.

Going beyond just the players on the field, Martinez has been working alongside Joe Maddon for over a decade, dating back to their days with the Tampa Bay Rays.

"Obviously he knows us pretty well," Maddon said. "Not just me, he knows eveybody in that room pretty well. But at the end of the day, really what it comes down to is Kyle [Hendricks] pitching well, us hitting the ball when we can and catching it on defense.

"It really is about the players themselves. There might be a moment now and then, but it's just that he would know personalities really well. ... It's about your guys and once you get over it and realize it's about your players, that's really what it is.

"I just think it's a great experience for him to come back to Wrigley and managing in this ballpark and managing against the group that he had been a part of. That's the part that's different."

Martinez mostly brushed aside any notion that he could have an inside edge on scouting his former team, but he did allow a moment to be coy.

"They're still gonna compete and try to beat us," Martinez said. "Yeah, I do know them, but we gotta execute. The biggest thing is execution. We can see a lot of things during scouting, but if you don't execute, it doesn't matter. 

"It's nice to have some tidbits and know these guys and we want to win at the end of the day. We might exploit some things that I know, but we'll see."

Martinez's first season as a manager has had his fair share of adversity, as the uber-talented Nationals roster came into the weekend series with just a 58-56 record and a 5.5 game deficit in the NL East.

Still, he said managing has been everything he thought it would be and more and enjoyed catching up with former players and colleagues that he won a championship with.

"He's been a big part of my career, because of being around in the Tampa Bay days and everything," Ben Zobrist said. "He did a lot of teaching. When I was young in my career, he was the guy when I would come off the field and I knew I made a mistake, he helped me kinda figure out what could've been done differently and how to continue to grow as a player.

"All those teaching moments for me, he was right in the middle of them and I'm grateful for that. He always had a smile on his face, he always had that bubbly laugh around the clubhouse and everything. 

"So great teacher, great coach, but I think everybody was happy for him to finally get an opportunity to manage. I'm glad to see he's getting to do what he's always been wanting to do."

Following 2019 'learning process,' Ian Happ's offensive progression key for 2020 Cubs

Following 2019 'learning process,' Ian Happ's offensive progression key for 2020 Cubs

It’s been another quiet offseason for the Cubs.

January is almost over and the Cubs have yet to commit a single guaranteed dollar to the big-league roster. After exceeding MLB’s luxury tax threshold in 2019, Theo Epstein and Co. are looking to get under the figure in 2020 and reset penalties entering 2021.

Barring any major surprises — i.e. a core player getting dealt before Opening Day — the club will return largely the same team from last season. That group has plenty of talent, but there are some question marks, like second base and center field.

A fan made waves at Cubs Convention last Saturday, reciting the definition of insanity to Epstein and Jed Hoyer during a baseball operations panel. With a similar roster in hand, why should fans expect anything different from the Cubs in 2020?

For Epstein, part of the answer lies in the continued development of homegrown players like Ian Happ.

Happ was supposed to be a key cog for the Cubs in 2019, but he was sent to Triple-A Iowa at the end of spring training after striking out 14 times in 52 at-bats. This followed a 2018 season in which he sported a 36.1 percent strikeout rate.

“He was striking out 30 percent of the time and we decided to send him down, because what we were seeing with Ian Happ, in our mind, wasn’t the finished product,” Epstein said Saturday at the Sheraton Grand Chicago. “We believe it’s the same way with a lot of our hitters, that’s there’s tremendous talent in there, but it wasn’t manifesting in major league games — which is all that matters — the way we needed it to.”

Happ was reportedly upset with the move, but his strikeout rate dropped to 26.3 percent with Iowa. After the Cubs recalled him on July 26, he posted a 25 percent rate in 58 games (156 plate appearances), slashing .264/.333/.564. He recognizes the demotion was beneficial.

“I got a lot of at-bats. I used it as a learning process,” Happ told NBC Sports Chicago Friday of his Triple-A stint. “To be able to come back and have success, it was a good way to finish the season."

Happ ended the season on a high note, slashing .311/.348/.672 in September with six home runs. He was tremendous over the season’s final eight games: .480/.519/1.200, five homers and 12 RBIs.

“Just being more aware of the ways guys were gonna pitch me,” Happ said regarding his hot September. “There’s some tweaks. For me, it was more about handling different pitches and when to use two different swings — when to be a little bit more defensive, when to put the ball in play. It led to results.”

Cubs players have been criticized in recent seasons for a seeming unwillingness to shorten up at times to put the ball in play. Their 73.8 percent contact rate in 2019 was last in the National League, though Ben Zobrist’s personal absence contributed to the low figure.

Happ posted a 71.7 percent contact rate, up from his 63.5 percent rate in 2018.

“He went through a really difficult stretch in Iowa, making significant adjustments to his approach and his swing and as a person, growing from some failure,” Epstein said. “When he came back up towards the end of last year, his strikeout rate was under much better control, he had much more contact ability.

“He wasn’t driving the ball quite the same, and then by the end of the year, he had maintained that better contact rate, was starting to drive the ball again, and it looked pretty dynamic and pretty promising for the future.”

It’s not a coincidence Happ made strides with Iowa. He got to work on his swing in an environment where he played every day. This wouldn’t have been the case in the big leagues, especially if his struggles lingered.

Happ started each of the Cubs’ last six games; he said it's huge for his confidence knowing he'd be playing every day. 

“It’s huge, it’s huge. I think that’s what everyone’s striving for in this league, is be able to [play every day],” he said. “For me, after that stretch and being able to finish strong and look back on a solid year, that’s big moving forward.”

The Cubs roster may look the same, but there’s plenty of room for internal improvement. Pitchers will continue adjusting to Happ, but he’s a better player for what he went through last season. He can take what he learned and carry it into 2020.

“So now, same player on the roster — and I understand the definition of insanity — but to expect Ian Happ to grow from what he’s gone through and benefit from the coaching that he’s gotten,” Epstein said, “and the lessons that he’s learned and the adversity that he’s gone through, and go out and be a productive player for us next year in a certain role, I don’t think is insane.”

“It’s just about sticking with the process, understanding that that’s what worked and that’s what you want to do,” Happ said. “It’s not always easy at the beginning of the year at Wrigley. It’s cold, it’s windy. The results don’t always show up. But if you’re true to the process and you keep going, by the end of the year you’ll be at a good spot.”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: It's time for a culture change for the Cubs

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AP

Cubs Talk Podcast: It's time for a culture change for the Cubs

After the Cubs Convention, fans left still uncertain about the team headed into the 2020 season. Host David Kaplan and NBC Sports Chicago Cubs writer Tim Stebbins discuss what they took from Cubs Con, the culture change that is coming to the organization and a realistic possibility that the Cubs are looking into disgruntled star Nolan Arenado.

Listen to the episode here or in the embedded player below.

Cubs Talk Podcast

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Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Chicago Cubs easily on your device.