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.

Cubs closing in on Aroldis Chapman deal with Yankees

Cubs closing in on Aroldis Chapman deal with Yankees

MILWAUKEE – The Cubs are in the final stages of a blockbuster deal that could bring superstar closer Aroldis Chapman to Chicago and would involve sending elite shortstop prospect Gleyber Torres to the New York Yankees, sources familiar with the situation said Sunday night.

The exact details aren’t clear, but the talks reached a point where the Cubs pulled Torres from the lineup at advanced Class-A Myrtle Beach, at least sensing the strong possibility of a trade that would add a 105-mph closer to a first-place team that entered the year as World Series favorites.

Chapman, 28, began this season serving a 30-game suspension covered by Major League Baseball’s new domestic violence policy after a dispute with his girlfriend in South Florida last fall. In absorbing a supremely talented player with real baggage, the Cubs would believe in manager Joe Maddon’s personality and a strong clubhouse culture, figuring it might only be a two-month-plus rental before Chapman cashes in as a free agent. 

That incident scared the Cubs away during the offseason, when a Chapman trade between the Cincinnati Reds and Los Angeles Dodgers collapsed at the winter meetings as those police reports surfaced. The Yankees waited for the price to drop, acquired the flame-throwing lefty at a steep discount and weathered the PR storm. 

Chapman enjoyed the bright lights and performed in New York, converting 20-of-21 save chances and striking out 44 batters in 31-plus innings. Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo – who once challenged the Cincinnati dugout to a fight after Chapman buzzed two 100-mph pitches near a teammate’s head – said last month: “The game’s over when he comes in.”

That would be the idea for Theo Epstein’s front office, creating a dominant force that could help carry the Cubs to their first World Series title since 1908. 

Even Hector Rondon – who’s developed into a very good closer while the Cubs rebuilt their organization (77 saves since 2014) – recently admitted he would understand if the Cubs decided to trade with the Yankees.

“If they bring in a Chapman or (an Andrew) Miller, if they put him in my spot, whatever, s--- happens,” Rondon said last week. “I can’t control that. The most important thing for me is to come into the game, pitch my inning – whatever inning they put me in – and do my job.
    
“If we get one of those guys, I’m fine. It’s better for us.”

Torres is only 19 years old and a consensus top prospect, showing up in the midseason rankings on ESPN (No. 26), Baseball America (No. 27) and Baseball Prospectus (No. 34). The Cubs had signed Torres out of Venezuela during the summer of 2013, giving him a $1.7 million bonus and trying to stockpile enough assets to create a perennial contender. It sounds like it’s almost time to cash in one of those huge trade chips.

While Cubs try to deal for Aroldis Chapman, White Sox deal with Chris Sale fallout

While Cubs try to deal for Aroldis Chapman, White Sox deal with Chris Sale fallout

MILWAUKEE – A franchise sensitive to being the other team in town is catching the Cubs at the worst possible time, another you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up story coming out of the White Sox clubhouse. 

While the Cubs moved toward closing a deal with the New York Yankees for superstar closer Aroldis Chapman on Sunday night, the White Sox dealt with the fallout from Chris Sale’s “insubordination.”

As Sale continues serving his five-game suspension for playing with scissors, on Monday night the Cubs will start Jake Arrieta, the National League’s reigning Cy Young Award winner. A lineup built around MVP candidates Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant will get to swing away at U.S. Cellular Field.

The perception will be hot-seat manager Robin Ventura has lost control over this White Sox season, while Manager of the Year Joe Maddon actually answered a question this weekend about how the Cubs might align their playoff rotation.

One week out from the Aug. 1 trade deadline, the debates will be about which players White Sox executives Kenny Williams and Rick Hahn should sell off, and which Cubs prospects Theo Epstein’s front office should put down to buy the big-ticket item for a World Series run (with Gleyber Torres expected to be included in any Chapman trade with the Yankees). 

Optics, marketing and promotional throwback jerseys aside, the Cubs also appear to be hitting their stride again after a much-needed vacation, winning their third straight series out of the All-Star break with Sunday afternoon’s 6-5 win over the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park. 

The Cubs did it with their $155 million ace (Jon Lester) throwing only four innings, getting charged with four runs and giving up five walks and five stolen bases. The Cubs could also absorb one quarter of their All-Star infield (Addison Russell) leaving in the middle of the game with a left heel contusion and come back during a five-run seventh inning. That’s when the lineup looked more like its relentless April version with Tommy La Stella (3-for-3, walk, RBI double), Rizzo (three-run, bases-loaded double) and Ben Zobrist (2-for-3, two RBI).

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Trading for Chapman as a potential final piece to the World Series puzzle would at least shift some of the crosstown focus off Sale.

“I’m sure there were some things that transpired that we’re not hearing about,” Lester said. “I don’t know him too well, but I know Chris a little bit. I don’t think that really sounds like him too much. I’m sure there were some other things involved. 

“We’re all weird. Pitchers are all weird. We all like our comfort of different things. It just doesn’t really sound like him. I’m sure there’s some information in there that we’re not being told.”

Three sellout crowds in Milwaukee this weekend watched the Cubs welcome back All-Star leadoff guy Dexter Fowler, give the ball to six-time All-Star closer Joe Nathan in his return from a second Tommy John surgery and keep the St. Louis Cardinals seven games out of first place heading into Sunday night and what should be a gut check for the entire White Sox organization.

“I anticipate that same wonderful crosstown rivalry kind of atmosphere, which I love,” Maddon said. “It’s great for the city. It’s great for the sport. I don’t think fans really care much about records at that particular moment. They just care about your team winning.”

Cubs: Joe Maddon trolls White Sox and explains why trade rumors would bother Chris Sale

Cubs: Joe Maddon trolls White Sox and explains why trade rumors would bother Chris Sale

MILWAUKEE – The Cubs won’t walk onto U.S. Cellular Field on Monday night wearing black “Try Not To Cut” T-shirts with a scissors image replacing the manager’s iconic glasses. But Joe Maddon still couldn’t resist trolling the White Sox after Chris Sale’s temper tantrum.

With an AWOL pitcher, a manager on the hot seat and a front office under siege, the Cubs will see what they used to look like in a rivalry that sometimes brought out the worst in them.

This is Carlos Zambrano-level bizarre on the South Side, the White Sox suspending Sale for five days after their franchise player cut up 1976 throwback jerseys, creating a feeding frenzy in the middle of trade-deadline-rumor season. That speculation apparently bothered Sale, who got sent home before Saturday’s scheduled start against the Detroit Tigers, leaving the bullpen to cover for his unprofessionalism.

“It’s not easy,” Maddon said before Sunday’s 6-5 win over the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park. “Obviously, it’s only going to occur if your team’s struggling a bit. 

“If you’re doing well, that doesn’t happen. So you have the struggle of the group, and then a really good player being mentioned as a trade piece. From the manager’s perspective, it’s not as difficult as the player himself – and then the inter-politics of the clubhouse. That’s where it becomes more difficult. 

“You don’t even know what those conversations sound like and how that cuts at the fabric of what you’re attempting to do. No pun intended.”

Maddon’s presence as the team’s smirking ringmaster helps a rivalry that missed larger-than-life personalities like Lou Piniella and Ozzie Guillen. The Cubs won’t see Sale until Thursday night at Wrigley Field in this season’s fourth and final crosstown game between two franchises heading in opposite directions. 

“I know it was entertaining from a distance,” Maddon said. “I’m sure being in the organization not so much. And I get that. I’ve never heard that one before. 

“The dentist used to send us every six months things for a checkup. And I threw that away so my mom would not take me to the dentist. That’s the closest I could relate to what happened.”

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Maddon remembered the end of an era with the Tampa Bay Rays, when David Price got traded to the Detroit Tigers in a three-team deal at the 2014 deadline. Within the next three months, Rays executive Andrew Friedman jumped for a president’s job with the Los Angeles Dodgers, triggering an escape clause in Maddon’s contract and giving Cubs fans a new costume for that Halloween. 

“It was hard for David,” Maddon said. “It really was difficult, especially if it’s your first organization. I think if you bounced (around) a little bit, it’s not so difficult. But if it’s your first time being included in trade conversations, it’s hard for the guy. 

“Regardless of knowing that you could end up in a good spot, or you’re going to be wanted, (because) there’s really actually a lot of positives attached to it. It’s still the negative – you might really like where you’re at, it’s your first organization, you have a lot of friendships. 

“Awkward. It’s an awkward feeling. You adjust. Everybody does. But there’s still all this unknown stuff that is unsettling.”

Like what the media circus and the fan atmospherics will be like during those two first two games at U.S. Cellular Field. So much for the White Sox bonding after Adam LaRoche’s retirement in the middle of spring training and using that money to reinvest at the trade deadline. Or Sale smoothing everything over after torching executive vice president Kenny Williams for the way he handled Drake LaRoche’s clubhouse access.

“I’m sure it will be entertaining,” Maddon said. “The South Siders have a wonderful sense of humor that we can definitely all appreciate.”