Fenway Park

An underrated factor that brought Craig Kimbrel to Chicago

An underrated factor that brought Craig Kimbrel to Chicago

At the end of the day, money makes the baseball world go round and the dollars and years were there to Craig Kimbrel's liking on the Cubs' offer.

But you can't discount the allure of playing at Wrigley Field in front of this fanbase and the kind of impact it can have on a player who's already performed on the highest stage the game has to offer.

Kimbrel said he had conversations with other MLB teams throughout the free agency process, but things moved quickly last week when the Cubs stepped up to the table because of the fit from both sides.

"One thing that's important to me as well is being able to play in front of a fanbase that is as passionate about this game as I am," Kimbrel said in his introductory press conference Friday morning. "I did get to experience that in Boston and it'd be hard to leave that kind of passion each and every night — especially in the role that I am [as closer].

"I'm a very adrenaline-based player. And knowing that each and every night, those seats are gonna be full, it definitely played a huge part in the decision."

It would be easy to just write a statement like that off and chalk it up as fan service, but Kimbrel offered that up unprompted and it makes a lot of sense. 

The last time he played competitive baseball, he was part of a World Series-winning Red Sox team that got to celebrate with a parade in front of one of the most passionate fanbases in all of American sports. And if you're going to leave Fenway Park, what better stadium to call your home park than Wrigley Field — another iconic place to play?

Kimbrel played with Jason Heyward for five years in Atlanta and the two came up through the Braves system together. The rapport with Heyward and David Ross played a big role in Kimbrel signing with the Cubs, as it allowed him to get a lay of the land on the non-money topics — how the Cubs take care of players' families, what it's like to play for this organization, the clubhouse vibe...and what it's like to play in front of these fans at Wrigley Field.

As Kimbrel and his camp were discussing terms with Theo Epstein and the Cubs, Heyward sent his former teammate a long text.

"It's an awesome thing because you know it's his decision solely — he and his family," Heyward said. "I respected that space — I just let him know a little bit about what's going on here and what it would be like and told him he deserved to play for a place like this. 

"... In that one text, I told him — a place like this, he'll see. I just told him about the winning culture, what we're trying to get done — family, ownership, front office, the city to play for."

Once upon a time, Heyward was also a coveted free agent weighing his options and the best fit for the next stage of his playing career. When he was talking with the Cubs, he reached out to Ross and fellow former teammate Eric Hinske (who was on the Cubs coaching staff at the time) and used them as resources to see what things were really like with the team. 

Heyward believes the familiarity Kimbrel has with some of the guys already on the Cubs will only make it easier to gel and the veteran outfielder is looking forward to the team's new closer feeding off the vibe in the ballpark.

Those around baseball have long said the final three outs are the toughest to get in a game. The ninth inning in a close contest carries all kinds of pressure with it and a ballpark jam-packed with 40,000-plus screaming fans only intensifies that. For the Cubs to acquire a closer that not only thrives on that type of environment, but actually believes he NEEDS that energy to be successful, that's an ideal fit.

Joe Maddon spent nearly a decade managing in the AL East, so he knows all about the type of environment Kimbrel is coming from at Fenway and what he's about to step into here at Wrigley in a few weeks.

"The fact that he's thrived there — back to the mind once stretched theory — it's no different," Maddon said. "Having been successful there, he knows he can be successful anywhere. ... His answer did not surprise me — the adrenaline gig.

"Think about it: How many times have we talked about it in the past where you put a closer in the game when it's not a close situation and he does not perform well? It's all based on adrenaline, man. [The top closers are] good, plus they're adrenaline junkies. They really need that fix to get them over the top with their stuff.

"Love it. Absolutely love it. And then there's guys that just can't deal with that. The fact that he's dealt with it where he's dealt with it and the fact that he seeks it, I think is outstanding."

How Theo Epstein sees Chili Davis making a difference for Cubs

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USA TODAY

How Theo Epstein sees Chili Davis making a difference for Cubs

The Cubs can’t send Chili Davis out to face Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw, but team president Theo Epstein believes his presence will help the franchise’s young hitters next October.

Those pronounced playoff struggles against the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers — on top of the way the New York Mets power pitchers overwhelmed the Cubs during that 2015 National League Championship Series sweep — led to a major shakeup of Joe Maddon’s coaching staff.

Firing hitting coach John Mallee isn’t really about what he didn’t do, because he worked nonstop across the last three years, overseeing an offense that actually scored more runs this season than the 2016 World Series team.

It’s more the instant credibility that Davis brings as a switch-hitter who made three All-Star teams and earned World Series rings with the 1991 Minnesota Twins and the last New York Yankees dynasty (1998-99).

Epstein initially brought Davis into the Boston Red Sox organization, hiring him as an overqualified hitting coach for Triple-A Pawtucket in 2011, the last season before sweeping changes would hit Fenway Park.

Davis spent the next six years as the big-league hitting coach for the Oakland A’s and Red Sox, working with players like Josh Donaldson, Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Reddick, Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Andrew Benintendi.

“Chili’s well-established as one of the very best hitting coaches in the game,” Epstein said after Thursday’s staff announcements. “His philosophy and approach happened to fit with what we hope will be the next step for many of our hitters. We talked after the season about hoping to get better with situational hitting, with our two-strike approach, with using the whole field, with having competitive, team-based at-bats.

“That happens to be Chili’s core philosophy — hitting line drives to the middle of the field. Your line drives will turn into home runs. He’s excellent at teaching a two-strike approach and teaching situational hitting. He’s really good at helping to get hitters to understand when an elite pitcher’s on his game, you have to sometimes take what he gives you, and have an adjustable swing, an adjustable approach for those situations.

“He’s got the gravitas of a 19-year career, 350 homers, over 1,300 RBIs. That combined with his excellent manner and ability to communicate with players makes him a really impactful figure.”

Mallee — who grew up as the son of a Chicago cop and graduated from Mount Carmel High School — brought stability to a position that used to have the job security of the drummer for Spinal Tap.

The Cubs wanted Mallee’s data-driven approach and the ability to explain heat maps and cold zones and how pitchers would attack each at-bat. Mallee also gave the Cubs a very accurate scouting report on Dexter Fowler before making that January 2015 trade with the Houston Astros.

During Mallee’s tenure, Kris Bryant became the fourth player in major-league history to be named MVP the season after winning Rookie of the Year honors. Ian Happ kept making enough adjustments to hit 24 home runs during his rookie season (with only 26 games of experience at Triple-A Iowa). Javier Baez made great strides this year — 23 homers, 75 RBI, .796 OPS — before an 0-for-20 tailspin to start the playoffs.

In one way, the Cubs even endorsed Mallee’s methods by promoting minor-league hitting coordinator Andy Haines to work with Davis as the assistant hitting coach. Mallee and Haines have a Miami connection after working in the Marlins organization.

“I would like to thank the Chicago Cubs for the amazing opportunity to be part of a great tradition and organization for the last three years,” Mallee wrote in a statement. “I left a great Houston Astros organization to be closer to home with my family and to help my hometown team win a World Series.

“We did that. I have no regrets and stand by my work. I wish nothing but the best for the Cubs organization and all the amazing people I met along the way, especially my hitters. See you from across the field.”

When the Cubs talk up their culture and the first-class organization they’ve built, there’s also an unspoken, underlying coldness to it all, even while making justifiable decisions. The Cubs publicly hailed Ricky Renteria basically up to the moment Maddon opted out of his contract with the Tampa Bay Rays and someone better came along.

Whether or not that will always be sustainable, Davis does have a great resume, no doubt. The Cubs are hoping Davis can help salvage the $184 million investment in Jason Heyward and rewire an offense that ranked last in batting average (.168) and on-base percentage (.240) among the 10-team playoff field. Outside of that unforgettable 9-8 thriller at Nationals Park, the Cubs scored 16 runs in nine postseason games.

“John Mallee is an outstanding hitting coach and we would not be in the position we’re in now with rings on our finger without him,” Epstein said. “Chili just happens to be, in our opinion, uniquely qualified for this group, at this moment in time, to help us get to the next level.”

Jon Lester already delivered on free-agent promise with Cubs: Can Max Scherzer do the same for Nationals?

Jon Lester already delivered on free-agent promise with Cubs: Can Max Scherzer do the same for Nationals?

If you worked for a billionaire family, would you recommend signing Jon Lester or Max Scherzer for the future? If your season depended on it, would you rather have Lester or Scherzer on the mound?

The Cubs and Washington Nationals already answered those questions after the 2014 season, committing $365 million combined to two different aces at two different points in their construction projects, making the free-agent decisions that helped shape this National League Division Series.

Both franchises are pleased with the returns on the investments – and aware of the checkered history for pitchers with nine-figure contracts. But only Lester has looked out from a Grant Park stage at the endless sea of people and announced into the microphone: “How about this s---?”

The Nationals are still waiting for their first ever playoff series win – much less a championship parade down Pennsylvania Avenue in a city where the Senators last won the World Series in 1924.  

All those dynamics make Scherzer’s hamstring “tweak” – in the right leg where he pushes off and generates so much power – such an X-factor on Monday in a Game 3 that will leave one team nine innings away from elimination.    

“I feel like I’m good to go,” Scherzer said. “Hey, we’re in the playoffs. Every game is a must-win. This is going to be a crazy atmosphere here at Wrigley. I can’t wait to toe the rubber.”

Coming off a fifth straight fifth-place finish, Lester vs. Scherzer wasn’t much of an internal debate in the team’s old Clark Street headquarters.

Lester had formed solid relationships with Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer and the Cubs executives knew which buttons to push during the recruiting pitch after their years together with the Boston Red Sox.

The Cubs already had an in-depth understanding of Lester’s medical history and clubhouse reputation and an appreciation for a smooth left-handed delivery they believed would help him age gracefully.

[MORE: With time running out at Wrigley, Jake Arrieta chases another World Series ring

The Red Sox insulting Lester with a lowball offer in spring training and shipping him to the Oakland A’s at the trade deadline opened his eyes to the world beyond Fenway Park and exempted the Cubs from having to pay a draft pick as compensation on top of the six-year, $155 million contract.

“For us, such a big part of that process was our comfort with Jon as a person, as a competitor, as a teammate,” Hoyer said. “That was sort of our first big commitment in free agency. Without knowing Jon so well, it may have been a different calculus.

“But given that relationship, it just made the most sense to go after the guy we respected and knew as well as you’re going to know any free agent.”

Scherzer is a baseball unicorn, the outlier stretching beyond the preconceived notions about his violent delivery and when he might break down, making at least 30 starts in nine straight seasons and working toward a third Cy Young Award.

The Nationals knew all about Scherzer’s bulldog mentality, because general manager Mike Rizzo had overseen scouting when the Arizona Diamondbacks made him the No. 11 overall pick in the 2006 draft. Super-agent Scott Boras – who represents Scherzer and several other high-profile Nationals – also has an unusually close relationship with principal owner Ted Lerner.     

Scherzer believes he can will himself through 100 pitches and overpower a Cubs lineup that outside of Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo is 5-for-44 with one RBI and 15 strikeouts through two playoff games against Washington.

“The thing I admire the most about Scherzer is he’s constantly evolving, improving pitches, developing pitches,” Hoyer said. “The best guys in any sport continue to get better and better each season.

“Jordan evolved his game and ended up with the fadeaway. In every sport, you think of different examples of a guy who’s really willing to make changes. And I think Scherzer is that guy.

“Every time he starts, you watch him compete and you feel like this is a guy who lays it all out there every single time.”

Scherzer is also 33 years old and guaranteed four more seasons on a $210 million megadeal that contains a significant amount of deferred money. It may not be now or never for the Nationals, but the window won’t stay open forever, and you never know if you will ever have a better opportunity.  

“In this day and age, there’s not much that guys don’t hear about,” Lester said, “with social media and MLB Network and ESPN and all this other stuff. Yeah, I’m sure it was in our heads. We all knew about it. It’s hard to run away from it.

“The guys that signed here – that was the reason why we signed here – to break that curse and win a World Series for the city of Chicago.

“On their side, I don’t know if it’s in their head. I know for us, every day, you heard about a goat or you heard about Bartman or you heard about a black cat or 1908 or whatever.”

The questions won’t stop until the Nationals deliver in October – and it’s hard to see that happening if a “tweak” compromises everything that turns Scherzer into Mad Max.  

“You’ve got to eliminate that stuff and go out and play the game,” Lester said. “The game does not change. In the postseason, yeah, it probably speeds up. (But) once you step on that rubber, it’s still 60 feet, 6 inches. You still have to execute a pitch. You still have to have good at-bats and catch the ball.

“That’s kind of how I’ve always looked at it. And you try to eliminate the goats and all that other stuff.”