Chicago Cubs

At a crossroads, Cubs search for some direction

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At a crossroads, Cubs search for some direction

Theo Epstein faced the Boston media and tried to explain the anatomy of a collapse that might pull him back to the Red Sox. Billy Beane told reporters that he plans to stay in Oakland, meaning Moneyball probably wont be playing at Wrigley Field.

The Cubs didnt have a general manager to do a state of the team address on Thursday.

Eventually, there will be a power grab at Clark and Addison. Whoever takes over will be pulled into the crosscurrents of an organization that hasnt won a World Series title in more than a century.

There will be a battle of ideas. Before Game 162 of another lost season, chairman Tom Ricketts was asked about the patience it will take to get this right.

We look at everything from a long-term perspective, Ricketts said Wednesday in San Diego. So well make the right long-term decisions. And like weve always said, its about player development. Its about putting an organization (in place).

If you are a player angling for a huge contract extension like third baseman Aramis Ramirez you will think that the Cubs can never truly commit to a youth movement. The fans and the pressure inside a big market would never allow it.

If you have worked for years in player development, watching all these minor-league teams go to the playoffs, then you want to see what they can do at the highest level. Why not give the kids a chance?

If you have spent your entire professional life of the road scouting, you will believe in the art of projecting, the database of comparable players in your head. But you dont know who your next boss will be, and how much he will be guided by numbers. Several insiders noticed that stats guy Ari Kaplan became a much more visible presence on the field and in the clubhouse once Jim Hendry got fired.

If you are on the business side of the operation, you have to find new revenue streams, even if it means putting a noodle outside the stadium and letting fans stand behind a rope in right field during batting practice.

If you get ridiculed on Twitter for Undercover Boss, well, it was a free advertisement to build the brand and get more tourists to Wrigley Field.

The Cubs still hit the three-million mark, even though there were so many empty green seats, and that means the overall budget for baseball operations is expected to essentially remain the same next season. The question becomes how much money will be funneled toward major-league payroll.

Our attendance numbers speak for themselves, utility man Jeff Baker said. Thats having a pretty bad year (and) they still came out and supported us. So I really dont think you can ever strip it down and start over here.

The market (and) the history and the tradition it would be really hard to do. Im not sure how tolerable the fans would be if you (did that).

The Wrigley Field renovation plans team executives have been lobbying for quietly could be a game-changer for this franchise.

Carlos Pena the alternative to Prince Fielder or Albert Pujols has played in seven different organizations. The relentlessly optimistic first baseman doesnt think the stadium presents more obstacles to winning.

Everyone plays the same (game), Pena said. Sometimes those things can work to our advantage. The other team has to wake up early, too. The other team also has to play in the cold weather. I hate to make excuses like that. Those are too cheap.

Instead of making excuses, you just need to look at this year, take it all in and learn how to put it behind us.

The Cubs only see Carlos Zambrano in the rearview mirror. Zambrano was placed back on the 40-man roster on Thursday (and Justin Berg and Brian Schlitter were designated for assignment), though it would be shocking to see the enigmatic pitcher in a Cubs uniform again.

In a division without any superpowers, you might not have to make too many dramatic moves.

Add two starting pitchers, even if theyll never get a Cy Young vote, because theyll help you weather the perfect storm of injuries that wrecked this season.

Hope a disappointing year andor a new coaching staff motivates Carlos Marmol and helps the closer refocus and regain his confidence.

Push Starlin Castro and Darwin Barney to get better and anchor the middle infield, knowing that improved defense is a quicker fix. Give top prospect Brett Jackson a chance to live up to the hype.

Those are the kind of incremental moves that could begin the turnaround. But this winter the Cubs will be asking much broader, deeper philosophical questions about how they do business. The answers will shape the franchise for years to come.

The Cubs have come to a crossroads and need to find some direction: What needs to change?

You can say a lot of things, pitcher Matt Garza said, but Im going to keep my nose to that grindstone and let them figure it out. Its going to be an exciting, fun offseason, Ill tell you that.

Patrick Mooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. Follow Patrick on Twitter @CSNMooney for up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

What’s wrong with Jon Lester? And is there enough time for Cubs to fix it?

What’s wrong with Jon Lester? And is there enough time for Cubs to fix it?

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Even in the good times, Jon Lester doesn’t really have great body language, trying to channel his emotions, use that competitive anger and stay focused on the next pitch, so there was no way for him to hide his frustrations this time.

Lester handed the ball to manager Joe Maddon on Wednesday night at Tropicana Field and trudged back toward the visiting dugout with his head down and his team down six runs in the fifth inning of an 8-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays that left the Cubs searching for answers.

What’s wrong with Lester? That question snapped the Cubs out of a seven-game winning streak, the talk about playoff rotations and the computer simulations that project the defending World Series champs as a 90-something percent lock to make the postseason again.

The good news for the Cubs is the Milwaukee Brewers failed to gain ground heading into the four-game showdown that begins Thursday night at Miller Park. The magic number to clinch the National League Central is eight after Milwaukee’s 6-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

But it’s difficult to see the Cubs going on a long October run when Lester – a three-time World Series champion and the Game 1 starter in all three playoff rounds last year – looks this lost. Since coming off the disabled list – the Cubs termed it left lat tightness/general shoulder fatigue – Lester has made four September starts vs. non-contenders and given up 27 hits and 12 walks in 21.1 innings.

“We’re not going to go make excuses and say that’s why I didn’t throw the ball well,” Lester said. “Physically, it’s September. You’re going to have ups and downs. I feel fine. There’s no lingering effects from anything. No, there’s nothing physically wrong.”

Are you convinced Lester is 100 percent healthy?

“He’s not saying anything,” Maddon said. “I don’t see any grimace and I don’t see any like hitch in the giddy-up. I don’t see anything. Since he’s come back, he’s had some wins, but none of them have been necessarily Jon Lester sharp.”

At a time when the $155 million ace is supposed to be building toward October, Lester didn’t have any rhythm – Steven Souza Jr. launched a 92-mph fastball over the fence in left-center field in the first inning – or the stuff to finish off the Rays (zero strikeouts, 23 batters faced).

Lester did his John Lackey impression in the second inning, screaming, stomping and staring when Brad Miller chopped a ball that bounced past first baseman Anthony Rizzo’s glove and into right field for a 2-0 lead.

The Rays have enough history with Lester after their battles against the Boston Red Sox in the American League East and appeared to try to get in his head. Peter Bourjos dropped a perfect bunt, Kevin Kiermaier knocked another RBI single up the middle and Lester escaped only when second baseman Javier Baez started an inning-ending double play on the other side of the bag.

By the fifth inning, Lester was hesitating and making two wobbly throws while Souza stole second and third base. Lester then drilled Evan Longoria’s left foot with a pitch and walked Logan Morrison to load the bases. Wilson Ramos finally knocked out Lester after 86 pitches with a two-run single into right field.

“Obviously, there is some concern,” Maddon said. “I don’t have any reason to give you – other than he had a tough night – and I don’t know why. It just looked different from the side, because we’re normally used to seeing sharp-cornered pitches and a little bit better velocity with everything. It just wasn’t there.”

Lester now has only two regular-season starts left to find it and fix this.

“I’m not worried about it,” Lester said. “When you pitch a long time, and you play this game a long time, you’re going to have the ups and downs. Anybody can have one good year. It’s a matter of going out there and consistently doing it.

“You got to take the good with the bad. We’ll make an adjustment and figure it out. The good thing is it’s not physical. It’s just a matter of getting back to what has been working for me in the past and making those adjustments.”

Can Cubs count on Kyle Schwarber to be the hero again?

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USA TODAY

Can Cubs count on Kyle Schwarber to be the hero again?

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – The Cubs had so much confidence in Kyle Schwarber last year that they made him their World Series designated hitter – less than seven months after major surgery on his left knee and with only two Arizona Fall League games as the warm-up – and expected him to deliver against Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber and a dynamic Cleveland Indians bullpen.

Now? Manager Joe Maddon isn’t quite ready to make that leap of faith with Schwarber, even as the October legend closes in on 30 home runs this season and puts up a .900-plus OPS since his reboot at Triple-A Iowa this summer.

“The thing you’ve got to be willing right now with Schwarbs is understanding that he’s going to do that,” Maddon said Wednesday, pointing toward the right-center field seats where Schwarber launched Chris Archer’s 96-mph fastball the night before at Tropicana Field. “And then he might strike out with a runner on third base. You have to accept both sides.

“You’re playing for that (home run) based on his ability against that pitcher, also knowing that you’re going to see the punch-out in there, too. It’s just part of who he is right now.”

That would appear to be a part-time player, as Maddon went with Jon Jay’s contact skills in the designated-hitter spot against Tampa Bay Rays lefty Blake Snell and continues to think about what will give the Cubs the best chance to win the final stages of the National League Central race.

Looking back on his time with Rays, Maddon explained some of the creative tension within a small-market operation constantly looking for ways to find an edge. Maddon called it buckets of information, how certain data points and sample sizes should be used in free agency and trades, while others informed the daily lineup/bullpen decisions and why you had to look inside the numbers.

How do you assess Schwarber in 2017? During the time of the year when he narrows his focus and becomes extremely calculating, Maddon started talking about Schwarber in terms of player development and the future, which didn’t exactly sound like a vote of confidence.

“Big bucket, everybody’s going to love this guy,” Maddon said. “And then I think the smaller buckets are going to get even more attractive. I do believe the more he plays in the years to come, you’re going to see the strikeouts come back down, a better adjustment when the count gets deeper.

“He’s already trying to choke up. I don’t know if you’ve noticed that from up top – he’s really trying to do different things in counts right now – and I’m starting to see some progress with that, too.

“But, God, the guy missed all of last season, and I still think that we all forget that sometimes. I thought he was a little bit better – when I first met him – at the ball with two strikes. I think that went away for a bit. Now I think he’s really trying to nurture that coming back.

“So I would say next year you’re going to see the same kind of power, but probably more contact when it’s needed. That’s the bucket he’s going to fall into.”

Coming off that dramatic World Series comeback, Schwarber fell into an offensive spiral that got him demoted to the minors three months ago. He’s still managed to blast 28 homers while striking out 31 percent of the time, struggling against left-handed pitching (.663 OPS) and batting .208 overall.

Schwarber also has the type of hard-charging personality that feeds off those doubts, loves the big-game pressure and creates energy for the rest of the team. There will be another chapter to his 2017.

“It is what it is,” Schwarber said. “That first whole part of the season was a wash for me. I was able to go down and just kind of get my head recollected and get some parts of my swing down.

“I can’t worry about the number up on the scoreboard. It’s just stupid to do that. So that’s all I’m worried about every time I go up to the plate – I want to put in a good team at-bat.”