Cubs: 12 defining moments in 2012

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Cubs: 12 defining moments in 2012

The games just blended together as the Cubs morphed into a version of Triple-A Iowa and headed toward 101 losses.

The team wasnt up for sale. The big free agent didnt sign a megadeal. The manager didnt have to worry about getting fired. No one wondered who was in charge inside the front office.

But even if we didnt see the cataclysmic changes that have reshaped this franchise across the past several years, there were markers along the way.

Team president Theo Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer, scoutingplayer development executive Jason McLeod and manager Dale Sveum began putting their imprints on the organization.

Here are 12 defining moments from 2012:

Being Big Z

The culture change had already started by the time Carlos Zambrano agreed to accept a trade to the Miami Marlins and a reunion with old friend Ozzie Guillen. The Cubs kicked in more than 15 million to complete the Jan. 5 deal and restore a sense of order in their clubhouse.

The optics wouldnt have looked good for Epstein if he kept Zambrano around. There was also the idea that maybe the enigmatic pitcher would relax and mature in a place where he wouldnt feel the pressure of Being Big Z.

We always thought Zambrano would burn out instead of fade away, but he was pretty quiet, even while losing his spot in the rotation and finishing at 7-10 with a 4.49 ERA. The Marlins became a reality show rocked by distractions, but this time you couldnt point the finger at Big Z.

Rizzo Watch

The day after announcing the Zambrano deal, the Cubs completed the Anthony Rizzo trade, sending Andrew Cashner to the San Diego Padres and beginning the countdown. Team executives felt Cashner would max out as a reliever and questioned whether he could stick in the rotation.

They loved Rizzos makeup from their time together in San Diego and the Boston Red Sox organization. They believed he could be their first baseman for the next decade. Rizzo made several adjustments and tore it up in the Pacific Coast League before finally getting called up on June 26. Sitting inside the cramped Wrigley Field interview roomdungeon that afternoon, he told reporters: Im here to stay.

Call me, maybe?

Talk about bad timing: The New York Times unveils political activities bankrolled by family patriarch Joe Ricketts while his son Tom is trying to lobby Mayor Rahm Emanuel for help renovating Wrigley Field. The Times ran this headline on May 17 G.O.P. Super PAC Weighs Hard-Line Attack on Obama and the story went viral and killed any momentum in those negotiations.

Kid K retires

For a player whose career had been defined by what could have been, Kerry Wood scripted a perfect ending. Kid K never won the multiple Cy Young awards that once seemed possible, nor did he get to ride on a World Series float down Michigan Avenue.

But with the city tuned in for Cubs-White Sox on May 18, Wood seemed at peace. After striking out Dayan Viciedo, his young son Justin popped out of the dugout and collapsed into his arms. The organ at Wrigley Field played My Way.

Another day in The Show, babe!

You dont have to pull out a particular moment, because Alfonso Soriano is the same guy every day, showing up with a big smile on his face. Brian Urlacher can make petty comments about Bears fans and the Chicago media. The 136 million man just shrugs off all the criticism.

Soriano is the type of player who got booed during player introductions before the 2010 home opener, roughly 18 months after winning a second straight division title. Yet Soriano still enjoys the interaction with the bleacher bums, and always stands in front of his locker willing to answer questions.

Win or lose, no matter how his legs feel, Sori wants to be in the lineup, and that drive helped him generate 32 homers and 108 RBI. Hopefully, the young players in the clubhouse took notice.

Target acquired

There was so much intrigue and hype surrounding Jorge Soler that you wondered if the architects would just put his statue next to the Triangle building. The Cubs had targeted the Cuban defector for months, and went all-out because a new collective bargaining agreement would change the rules of engagement and restrict spending on the international market. They beat the deadline and finally announced a nine-year, 30 million major-league deal on June 30. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound outfielder has been described as a beast with good speed, raw power and a strong arm, though hes still years away from Wrigley Field.

Hopefully, I wake up tomorrow. You never know.

Matt Garza couldnt guarantee it, but he hoped hed be able to muscle up and make his next start. Once Garza walked off the mound in the fourth inning on July 21 at Busch Stadium, you wondered if the Cubs were about to pull off a blockbuster deal with a contending team like the Texas Rangers.

The Cubs initially described it as cramping in Garzas right triceps. Further tests revealed a stress reaction in his right elbow. Either way, it killed all trade value. Garza didnt throw another pitch all season.

Dude, were so traded.

As part of the Superheroes theme for the flight from St. Louis to Pittsburgh, Jeff Baker and Reed Johnson (in a wig) dressed up as Epstein and Hoyer on July 22 khaki pants, blue Cubs polo shirts, phones pressed to their ears.

Yes, they both got traded, but those genius costumes reminded you that you need veteran glue guys in the room and cant completely surrender to a youth movement. Seeing Sveum dressed as Hellboy underlined how much the manager connected with the players in the clubhouse and walled off the negativity.

Eh, maybe thats a stretch, but what else do you remember from a 101-loss season? Twitpics are forever.

Dempstergate

Its always better to be the hammer than the nail, as Ryan Dempster said, before getting crushed on social media.

By now, youve already heard all about the deal with the Atlanta Braves that collapsed once it leaked on Twitter, Dempster hanging around the Golden Tee arcade game inside the teams Clark Street headquarters in the final minutes before the July 31 trade deadline and the buzzer-beater decision to accept a trade to Texas. That shouldnt damage Dempsters image forever (especially if the Cubs are right on Arodys Vizcaino from the Paul Maholm deal).

Dempster will be remembered as a great clubhouse guy, a pretty good pitcher, someone who flipped the switch every fifth day and could go off on a dugout tantrum. His impact on younger guys like Jeff Samardzija the breakthrough player in 2012 cant be quantified. He also genuinely appreciated playing in Chicago. This felt like the end of an era.

The commitment

There usually isnt much middle ground with Starlin Castro. All the noise sometimes makes it seem like hes either a franchise player headed toward 3,000 hits or trade bait because of his attention span.

In truth, the Cubs noticed a sharper focus from their All-Star shortstop, and expect him to grow more disciplined and decisive at the plate. During a year that began with Castros camp denying sexual assault allegations, the Cubs committed in August with a seven-year, 60 million extension that includes a club option for 2020.

Everybody knows Im the best defensive second baseman.

Brandon Phillips made that declaration when he came to Wrigley Field in September, looking to clinch a division title with the Cincinnati Reds.

The managers and coaches disagreed, voting for Darwin Barney, who on Oct. 30 became the first Cubs second baseman to win a Gold Glove since Ryne Sandberg. Some scouts loved the intangibles Barney once showed in helping Oregon State University win back-to-back College World Series titles. But the analytics crowd began to appreciate Barney his 3.6 defensive win above replacement rating led all National League players at any position. This looks like a core player now.

The right player at the right time

This front office always kicks the tires. Last winter, the Cubs analyzed the big names Prince Fielder, Yoenis Cespedes, Yu Darvish to see if any would make sense.

This time, they didnt walk away. One week after losing the Anibal Sanchez sweepstakes, Epstein and Hoyer gave fans an early Christmas present. Edwin Jackson signed a four-year, 52 million contract, the biggest outlay for a free agent so far in this rebuilding project.

Theories on why Cubs haven’t played up to their defensive potential yet

Theories on why Cubs haven’t played up to their defensive potential yet

“That’s what we’re supposed to look like,” Joe Maddon said Monday night after a 6-4 loss where the San Francisco Giants scored the first six runs and Wrigley Field got loudest for the David Ross “Dancing with the Stars” look-in on the big video board, at least until a late flurry from the Cubs.

But for a manager always looking for the silver linings, Maddon could replay Addison Russell’s diving stop to his right and strong throw from deep in the hole at shortstop to take a hit away from Christian Arroyo. Or Albert Almora’s spectacular flying catch near the warning track in center field. Or Anthony Rizzo stealing another hit from Brandon Belt with a diving backhanded play near the first-base line.

The highlight reel became a reminder of how the Cubs won 103 games and the World Series last year – and made you wonder why the 2017 team hasn’t played the same consistently excellent defense with largely the same group of personnel.

“Concentration?” Jason Heyward said, quickly dismissing the theory a defensive decline could boil down to focus or effort. “No shot. No shot. It is what it is when it comes to people asking questions about last year having effects, this and that. But this is a new season.

“The standard is still high. What’s our excuse? We played later than anybody? That may buy you some time, but then what?

“The goals stay the same. We just got to find new ways to do it when you have a different team.”

FiveThirtyEight.com, Nate Silver’s statistical website, framed the question this way after the Cubs allowed the lowest batting average on balls in play ever last season, an analysis that goes all the way back to 1871: “Have the Cubs Forgotten How to Field?”

Even if the Cubs don’t set records and make history, they should still be better than 23rd in the majors in defensive efficiency, with 37 errors through 43 games. The Cubs have already allowed 28 unearned runs after giving up 45 all last season.

“We just got to stay on it and keep focusing and not let the miscues go to our head,” Ben Zobrist said. “We just have to keep working hard and staying focused in the field. A lot of that’s the rhythm of the game. I blame a lot of that on the early parts of the season and the weather and a lot of difficult things that we’ve been going through.

“If we’re not hitting the ball well, too, we’re a young team still, and you can carry that into the field. You don’t want to let that happen, but it’s part of the game. You got to learn to move beyond miscues and just focus on the next play.”

Heyward, a four-time Gold Glove winner, missed two weeks with a sprained right finger and has already started nine times in center field (after doing that 21 times all last season). Zobrist has morphed back into a super-utility guy, starting 16 games at second base and 15 in two different outfield spots.

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Maddon has tried to drill the idea of making the routine play into Javier Baez’s head, so that the uber-talented second baseman can allow his natural athleticism and instincts to take over during those dazzling moments.

The Cubs are basically hoping Kyle Schwarber keeps the ball in front of him in left and setting the bar at: Don’t crash into your center fielder. Like Schwarber and Almora, catcher Willson Contreras hasn’t played a full season in The Show yet, and the Cubs are now hoping Ian Happ can become a Zobrist-type defender all over the field.

“I’m seeing our guys playing in a lot of different places,” Heyward said. “It’s not just been penciling in every day who’s going to center field or right field or left field. We did shake things up some last year, but we did it kind of later in the season. We had guys settle in, playing every day. This year, I feel like we’re having guys in different spots.

“It’s May whatever, (but) it seems like we haven’t really had a chance to settle in yet. Not that we’re procrastinating by any means, but it’s just been a lot of moving pieces.”

The Giants won World Series titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014 with a formula that incorporated lights-out pitching, airtight defense and just enough clutch pitching. The Cubs are now a 22-21 team trying to figure it out again.

“Defense comes and goes, just like pitching,” said Kris Bryant, the reigning National League MVP, in part, because of his defensive versatility. “I feel like if you look at last year, it’s kind of hard to compare, just because it was so good. We spoiled everybody last year. Now we’re a complete letdown this year.”

Bryant paused and said: “Just kidding. Different years, things regress, things progress, and that’s just how it goes sometimes.”

For Joe Maddon, Cubs winning World Series came down to Giant comeback in SF and avoiding Johnny Cueto in elimination game

For Joe Maddon, Cubs winning World Series came down to Giant comeback in SF and avoiding Johnny Cueto in elimination game

Jon Lester vs. Johnny Cueto at Wrigley Field – the playoff matchup the Cubs dreaded in an elimination game – will happen more than seven months later under far different circumstances.

The Cubs have a 2016 championship banner flying next to the iconic center-field scoreboard – the ultimate response to any questions about their slow start to this season. The San Francisco Giants can’t have Madison Bumgarner saunter out of the bullpen when he’s recovering from a dirt-bike accident, another reason why an odd-year team is much closer to last place than first in an improved National League West.

The Giants don’t have the same aura, because the Cubs staged an epic comeback to end a best-of-five division series last October, scoring four runs again five different relievers in the ninth inning at AT&T Park.

“I’m telling you, man, Game 4 pretty much won the World Series,” Joe Maddon said. “I did not want to see Mr. Cueto pitching back here again. I’ll get to see him (Tuesday night), but that’s OK, compared to whatever that day would’ve been.”

Maddon has admitted this already, but it is still telling from a manager who always tries to stay in the moment and ignore the negativity. It says something about a Giant franchise that had won 10 straight postseason elimination games and World Series titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014 – and a fan base that used to expect things to go wrong in Wrigleyville after more than a century of losing.

“That whole Game 4 in San Francisco, I did focus on that a lot,” Maddon said. “Just trying to understand Game 5 back at home – how this is going to play out – and do whatever we possibly can to win that game there that night in San Francisco.

“That was the game for me – out of the entire postseason. To have to play the Giants where they were battle-tested – Game 5, back here with (Cueto) pitching – I did not like that at all. I thought that pretty much the postseason hinged on that one game in San Francisco.”

Even though the Cubs still had to survive a 21-inning scoreless streak against the Los Angeles Dodgers before winning their first NL pennant in 71 years. And come back from a 3-1 deficit in the World Series and beat the Cleveland Indians on the road in a 10-inning Game 7 for the ages.

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“That’s what good teams do,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. “They’re a very talented club, very solid all around. You don’t win the World Series unless you are.

“Look back at our success, how many times were we looking at elimination? No, you’re never surprised in the postseason. Anything those teams do, it’s because they’re there for a reason. They’re very good.”

Lester beat Cueto in a 1-0 instant classic when Javier Baez lifted a 3-2 quick pitch into the basket beneath the video ribbon in the left-field bleachers. Cueto kept the Cubs so off-balance in Game 1 that Baez actually walked up to home plate in the eighth inning thinking bunt.

The Giants reacted to that Game 4 meltdown by giving All-Star closer Mark Melancon a four-year, $62 million contract at the winter meetings, trying to fix a bullpen that led the majors with 30 blown saves last season.

“It was close,” Bochy said. “Three outs from taking it to Game 5 with a pretty good pitcher going. We can speculate all we want. There’s no point in that. It didn’t happen.

“But, sure, you look back. That’s how tight that series was. Unfortunately, we couldn’t hold on. Give them credit – great job coming back. We’re a team that plays very well under pressure, and we did there. Just couldn’t hold on to that ninth inning.”