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 catcher Willson Contreras looks ready for prime time

Cubs catcher Willson Contreras looks ready for prime time

SAN DIEGO – Within 24 hours at Petco Park, Cubs catcher Willson Contreras handled the wild movement of Jake Arrieta’s pitches and framed the edges of the strike zone for Kyle Hendricks, showing the dexterity to handle a playoff rotation.

Contreras looked ready for prime time on Tuesday night and Wednesday afternoon, helping shut down the San Diego Padres and complete a three-game sweep where two National League Cy Young Award candidates found a rhythm while throwing to a rookie catcher.

“Everything’s a lot easier,” Contreras said after a 6-3 victory. “I’m way more comfortable right now, because my first week everything was speeding up on me. But now I’m able to slow down the game and do my job.” 

The day after Arrieta fell one inning short of a two-hit, complete-game shutout, Hendricks credited Contreras for calling more curveballs and getting him through a stretch where the Padres put the leadoff man on base in each of the first four innings. 

“From the get-go, I wasn’t shaking him off,” Hendricks said. “We’ve been rolling for the last five, six starts, at least. It’s been easy.” 

Contreras has now caught Arrieta twice, and got one-start exposure to Jon Lester, while developing chemistry with Hendricks, John Lackey and Jason Hammel, which means veteran catcher Miguel Montero might not have a spot on the postseason roster if this continues.

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Contreras is a dynamic presence, launching his eighth home run on Wednesday afternoon and keeping the Padres stationary after Tuesday night’s laser throw to pick off a runner at third base. 

“I was waiting for somebody to run,” Contreras said. “But they didn’t run, so I’ll have to save it for another game.”

The Cubs are nearing the point where a 24-year-old player who didn’t make his big-league debut until June 17 could be behind the plate for the biggest games in franchise history.

“In this clubhouse, we are like a family,” Contreras said. “Once you get here, you start feeling comfortable the first day. You don’t even know that you are a rookie who just came up.”

Kyle Hendricks keeps rolling as Cubs sweep away Padres

Kyle Hendricks keeps rolling as Cubs sweep away Padres

SAN DIEGO – Kyle Hendricks reported to spring training as a fifth starter, leads the majors in ERA in late August and could pitch Game 1 in a playoff series. That gradual evolution from possible question mark at the back of the rotation into a National League Cy Young Award candidate highlights how the Cubs have transformed from a team that won the offseason to one that owns the summer and maybe this fall. 

In his own understated way, Hendricks smashed any perceptions of that ceiling, performing at a level and with a consistency that matches the franchise’s young hitting stars, mirroring their baseball IQ and grounded nature, without the billboards and flair for social media. 

Hendricks kept rolling on a beautiful Wednesday afternoon at Petco Park, knocking the San Diego Padres off-balance and finishing the three-game sweep with a 6-3 victory. That pushed the Cubs to 36 games over .500 for the first time since finishing their 1945 pennant-winning season at 98-56. The best team in baseball could play a little over .500 (19-17) down the stretch and still reach 100 wins.

A Dartmouth College graduate with an Ivy League degree in economics helped create all this momentum – and certainly knows what he wants to do on the mound – but Hendricks as an ace still seems beyond the wildest internal preseason projection.

“I thought he ended really well last year and that there was a lot to look forward to,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He’s just taken it to another level right now. He’s in that 26-27-year-old range where a young pitcher who’s had some major-league experience can really find his next level. And I think that’s what’s going on. He’s such a wonderful student. The difference between last year and this year is the confidence thing: ‘I belong here. I can do this. I’m one of the best.’ 

“A lot of our guys are going through that moment right now. And I think that’s what you’re seeing out of Kyle. I’ve talked about the couple tweaks he’s made regarding the four-seam fastball and curveball usage. That makes him a little bit different. But more than anything, I think he believes he’s among the best right now.”

The Padres (53-74) looked a little checked out and didn’t really put much pressure on a Cubs team that should get an adrenaline boost this weekend at Dodger Stadium. Dexter Fowler and Kris Bryant opened the game with back-to-back doubles before Ben Zobrist lined a two-run triple into the right-center field gap. Within six minutes of Paul Clemens’ first pitch, Jorge Soler’s sacrifice fly made it 3-0.

Hendricks hasn’t allowed more than three earned runs in a start since May 17, a run of 17 straight outings that has sliced his ERA from 3.51 to 2.19 while pushing his record to 12-7.

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Hendricks hides his emotions and didn’t get flustered when the Padres put the leadoff man on base in each of the first four innings, working around the traffic to limit San Diego to two runs and finish with eight strikeouts. 

Hendricks made it through six innings – he’s now gone at least five in each of his 24 starts this year – after beginning the day with a FanGraphs soft-hit rate (26 percent of batted balls) that led the majors and would be the highest mark in the last five seasons.

Hendricks has to pitch a different game than Jake Arrieta, but with an 8-1 record and a 1.38 ERA in his last 13 starts, he might be this year’s breakthrough performer who helps carry the Cubs into October.

“I’m just trying to stay where I’m at and keep the consistency,” Hendricks said. “Keep my pitches feeling good, keep my command. It’s just staying in my routine and really not doing too much – not doing less – just kind of riding it out until I feel something change.”

How soon before Cubs make Javier Baez an everyday player?

How soon before Cubs make Javier Baez an everyday player?

SAN DIEGO — The airtight defensive alignment for October would have to include Javier Baez, a game-changing force moving in all directions. The Cubs have seen Baez make barehanded plays and laser throws, take charge on bunts and frustrate hitters with an uncanny ability to improvise and make split-second decisions.

Baez and Addison Russell are two of the best athletes in the entire game, Jake Arrieta said after Tuesday night’s win over the San Diego Padres, so put the ball in play and let those two middle infielders take over.

There could be playoff lineups where Baez starts at second base and bumps Ben Zobrist to the outfield. But manager Joe Maddon isn’t about to hand Baez an everyday job, sticking with the super-utility formula and versatile philosophy that’s helped the Cubs become the best team in baseball.

“It depends on how we morph as a group over the next couple years,” Maddon said Wednesday at Petco Park. “Right now, I like the way it’s working out. I like the fact that (Javy’s) getting rested (and) not playing every day. Look at his at-bats — they have gotten better, too. He is making adjustments or adaptations during the at-bat. He’s not just out of control every swing.”

Baez has channeled his aggressiveness, hitting .276 with 13 homers, 47 RBIs and 83 strikeouts through 343 plate appearances, becoming a more mature and well-rounded player at the age of 23.

“You’re seeing a lot of progress,” Maddon said. “Who knows if by playing sporadically this is becoming more part of who he is? As opposed to playing every day, maybe getting caught in the trap of not hitting well, whatever, and all of a sudden he takes it on defense. It’s natural progression. He’s an everyday player, there’s no question, in maybe a couple years.”

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The Geek Department and scouting reports will ultimately influence where Baez plays, because Maddon wants him wherever the ball will most likely be hit most often. When Jon Lester pitches, that can mean Baez starting at third base and Kris Bryant moving to the outfield.

The Cubs promised Zobrist the second-base job when he signed a four-year, $56 million contract, agreeing the focus on one position would help reduce the wear and tear on his body at the age of 35. The Cubs still need Zobrist’s switch-hitting skills and World Series experience in the lineup.

Maddon also wants to keep Jorge Soler involved — because he’s a presence other teams have to account for — and maybe that will mean sacrificing Jason Heyward’s Gold Glove defense in right field at times.

But Baez is the type of defender the Cubs will want to see out there in one-run, low-scoring playoff games.

“He’s unbelievable,” Bryant said. “Any ball hit his way — whether it’s in the air, on the ground, on line — you kind of just expect him to make the play and make it look good. That’s what he’s been doing all year. I certainly think he’s Gold Glove worthy, but he plays all over. I feel like there should be a utility man Gold Glove, because he definitely (deserves it).”