The Cubs are in the process of hiring a new translator for Aroldis Chapman, sources said, trying to smooth things over after a rocky introduction to Chicago that left the superstar closer feeling frustrated by his portrayal in the media.
Chapman told Comcast SportsNet Chicago’s Siera Santos that he requested a new translator on Thursday, while a Cubs official said the team had made the offer earlier this week, responding to all the negative coverage from a press conference that made a bad first impression and national headlines for the wrong reasons.
The Cubs understood trading for Chapman – who began this season serving a 30-game suspension under Major League Baseball’s domestic violence policy – would immediately spark controversy.
But the Cubs still didn’t seem completely prepared for the moment, or quite as thorough as advertised, watching Chapman look disengaged on Tuesday, not remembering anything specific about what chairman Tom Ricketts had told him over the phone about off-the-field conduct – a precondition that president of baseball operations Theo Epstein sold as an essential part of the deal with the New York Yankees.
With a large group of reporters gathered before a Cubs-White Sox game, Chapman sat in U.S. Cellular Field’s visiting dugout next to Henry Blanco, the quality-assurance coach and former big-league catcher who’s approved under the new joint program between Major League Baseball and the players’ union that requires every team to have a full-time, Spanish-speaking translator this year.
Blanco has built-in credibility and communication skills after playing for 11 different teams across 16 big-league seasons, but he found himself in a difficult position, given the sensitive nature of the questions and what’s at stake for a World Series favorite and an image-conscious organization.
Chapman later did a one-on-one interview in Spanish with ESPN’s Pedro Gomez. The team’s public-relations department circulated that transcript, with Epstein saying Chapman had been nervous and something got lost in translation.
But the damage had been done, with a visibly upset Chapman initially refusing to speak to the media on Wednesday night after making a spectacular debut in a Cubs uniform, unleashing 13 pitches from his left arm that registered at least 100 mph on the big Wrigley Field video board.
It became an awkward scene after what was supposed to be a feel-good 8-1 victory over the White Sox, creating a new tension in a laid-back clubhouse. Chapman showered, listened to his associates and ultimately agreed to two minutes of questions, with catcher Miguel Montero becoming his translator.
“What I’m trying to do right now is to really build a relationship with this guy so he starts trusting me,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I believe once that occurs, I’m really going to be able to understand exactly what he’s about and what he’s thinking.
“I know there’s been some reticence or pushback regarding him to this point. However, understand where he’s coming from right now. We don’t know him. He doesn’t know us. And he really doesn’t even know the language.”
Chapman – who grew up in Cuba and is now in his seventh season in the big leagues – should be motivated to acclimate given the possibility of a World Series ring and a big free-agent contract this winter.
“I’ve spoken to him only once, at length, just trying to get him to relax,” Maddon said, “(and) have him understand me and what we’re all about here.
“As we all develop better relationships with him, the conversation’s going to flow a lot more easily and you’re going to maybe get the kind of information you’re looking for. But to put myself in his shoes, coming into a new venue, a new city, new everything, it’s a pretty heavy moment to immediately be scrutinized that way. I can almost understand why it’s been difficult for him.”
Aroldis Chapman firing 103 mph fastballs past hitters is going to send the sellout crowds at Wrigley into a frenzy on a nightly basis in the season's final few months.
It also gives the Cubs bullpen a completely different look, something Joe Maddon has referenced several times since Theo Epstein's front office pulled off the blockbuster for the most dominant closer in the game.
With Chapman slamming the door in the ninth, Hector Rondon and his 1.89 ERA now move up to the eighth inning. Pedro Strop — who is having arguably the best season of his career with a 2.79 ERA, 0.82 WHIP and 11.4 K/9 — now slots in as a seventh-inning guy.
It has the look of a trio of relievers that could rival the dominant Kansas City Royals bullpen over the last two World Series runs.
Cubs second baseman/outfielder Ben Zobrist got a firsthand look at the back end of the Royals' bullpen last fall, watching Kelvin Herrera, Ryan Madson and Wade Davis combine for only one unearned run against the New York Mets in 12 World Series innings.
Zobrist isn't ready to crown the Cubs' bullpen in the same category, but he could see how the comparisons could be made.
"I don't know; it just started," Zobrist said before Thursday's Crosstown finale. "I'm not gonna say it's exactly like it. It's different. It's different guys, but it's the same type of makeup.
"You got really hard-throwing guys that know how to spot their pitches and they're really tough pitchers. That's the way it felt last year in Kansas City.
"When you get a guy like Strop or a Kelvin Herrera or whatever that's coming in in like the seventh, you're going, 'This guy can be a closer on just about any other team and yet he's coming in this early in the game.'
"That spells doom for other teams. It's tough to overcome that later in the game."
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With all the days off built into the posteseason, teams can roll with their best relievers on a nightly basis.
Maddon likes to play matchups and ride the hot hand, but come October, he will have three very good options, as Chapman's presence has a domino effect on the rest of the relievers.
"That shortens the game," Zobrist said. "For the other team, when they're going up against that, they know that they only have so much time before the game is over in their minds mentally.
"If we have a lead going into the sixth, seventh inning, they're in trouble because they're going to have to face some of the best relievers in the game the last few innings.
"What [Chapman] does to our bullpen is just takes it to that next level where the game is at least an inning shorter."
Cubs fans got to see that play out in front of them at Wrigley Field Wednesday night as Rondon came in to throw a perfect eighth before Chapman blew the Sox away in the ninth.
"They just know that it's hard to come back from a game when you're winning late in the game like that," Zobrist said. "Even if it's 3-1 like it was last night [before the Cubs tacked on five insurance runs], it seems like an insurmountable lead when you got a couple guys at the back end of the bullpen like that."
There’s been plenty of smoke and trade rumors this week, but Robin Ventura doesn’t get the sense a deal is forthcoming.
The White Sox manager acknowledged on Thursday afternoon his role in trade dealings is minimal as general manager Rick Hahn and his staff have fielded all the phone calls, with Chris Sale and Jose Quintana believed to have drawn the most interest. Jon Heyman reported Thursday the New York Yankees are the latest team to have inquired about Sale’s availability.
As busy as Hahn has been this week, his phone apparently ringing off the hook, Ventura isn’t convinced the White Sox will be sellers come Monday’s 3 p.m. deadline.
While it could simply be another round of posturing as teams angle to best position themselves, the White Sox headed into Thursday’s finale against the Cubs 50-51 with at least a pulse when it comes to the postseason.
“This week probably led to some more phone calls, of people calling just to see what's going on with us,” Ventura said. “I think our guys should look at it as a nice thing that people are calling and asking about you because that means people want you. But I don't want to see anybody go out of here. I don't think that's going to happen.”
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The White Sox managed to stay afloat even though Sale was gone for five games with a 4-1 mark in his absence. That included two walkoff victories over the Detroit Tigers and a pair of wins against the Cubs on Monday and Tuesday. Ventura acknowledged a win behind Sale on Thursday would be a big boost as the club heads into a three-game series at the Minnesota Twins on Friday.
The run comes almost a year after the White Sox rolled off seven straight victories to inch their way back into the wild-card race in 2015. That week of victories convinced the White Sox to hold off from trading free-agent-to-be Jeff Samardzija. The next four games could very well decide the fate of several players as Hahn said last Thursday the club is open-minded in trade talks and sick of being “mired in mediocrity.”
“I hope we do it again,” Ventura said. “That decision isn’t mine and I’m not taking or making any phone calls. For me I hope we do it again.”
Last year the White Sox collapsed after they didn’t trade Samardzija, who fell apart and went 1-8 with a 9.24 ERA in his first eight starts after the deadline. The White Sox rotation is in much better shape than last season’s with the recent success of James Shields and Miguel Gonzalez. The team also is hopeful Carlos Rodon could return on Sunday to accompany Sale and Quintana.
Though the offense has been inconsistent, the group has improved and finally has another much-needed left-handed hitter for the middle of the order in Justin Morneau. So while the White Sox bullpen is beat up pretty good, Ventura thinks his club is better prepared for the stretch run.
“We’re probably better situated of sustaining that than last year,” Ventura said.