Chicago Cubs

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.

Joe Maddon finally sees Cubs playing with the right 'mental energy'

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USA TODAY

Joe Maddon finally sees Cubs playing with the right 'mental energy'

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Joe Maddon looked back on the perfect baseball storm that hit the Tampa Bay Rays and played all the greatest hits for local reporters, waxing poetic about the banners hanging inside Tropicana Field, stumping for a new stadium on the other side of the Gandy Bridge, telling Don Zimmer stories, namedropping Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston and riffing on sabermetrics and information buckets.

But the moment of clarity came in the middle of a media session that lasted 20-plus minutes, Maddon sitting up on stage in what felt like the locker room at an old CYO gym: “We only got really good because the players got really good.”

There’s no doubt the Cubs have the talent to go along with all the other big-market advantages the Rays could only dream about as the have-nots in the American League East. Now it looks like the defending champs have finally got rid of the World Series hangover, playing with the urgency and pitch-to-pitch focus that had been lacking at times and will be needed again in October.    

Maddon essentially admitted it after Tuesday’s 2-1 victory, watching his team beat Chris Archer and work together on a one-hitter that extended the winning streak to seven games and kept the Milwaukee Brewers 3.5 games back in the National League Central.

“You’re really seeing them try to execute in moments,” Maddon said. “When they come back and they don’t get it done, it’s not like they’re angry. But you can just see they’re disappointed in themselves.

“Their mental energy is probably at an all-season-high right now.”

Six days after the Cubs moved him to the bullpen, lefty swingman Mike Montgomery took a no-hitter into the sixth inning, when Tampa Bay’s No. 9 hitter (Brad Miller) drove a ball over the center-field wall. Maddon then went to the relievers he will trust in October – Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Wade Davis – with the All-Star closer striking out the side in the ninth inning and remaining perfect in save opportunities (32-for-32) as a Cub.       

“We want to go out there and prove every day that we’re the best team in baseball,” said Kyle Schwarber, the designated hitter who launched Archer’s 96-mph fastball into the right-center field seats for his 28th home run in the second inning. “The way our guys are just going out there and competing, it’s really good to see, especially this time of year. It’s getting to crunch time, and we just got to keep this same pace that we’re going at.

“Don’t worry about things around us. Just keep our heads down, keep worrying about the game and go from there.”     

In what’s been a season-long victory lap, Maddon couldn’t help looking back when the sound system started playing The Beach Boys and “Good Vibrations” echoed throughout the domed stadium, a tribute running on the video board and a crowd of 25,046 giving him a standing ovation.

“It was cool,” Maddon said. “I forgot about the bird, the cockatoo, I can’t remember the name. Really a cool bird. I told (my wife) Jaye I wanted one of those for a while. But then again, she gets stuck taking care of them.

“I was just thinking about all the things we did. You forget sometimes that snake. I think her name was Francine, like a 19-year-old, 20-footer. And then the penguin on my chair. You forget all the goofy stuff you did. But you can see how much fun everybody had.

“I appreciated it. They showed all my pertinent highlights. There’s none actually as a player. It’s primarily as a zookeeper.”

But within the last week, you can see the Cubs getting more serious, concentrating on their at-bats and nailing their pitches. There is internal competition for roster spots and playing time in the postseason, when Maddon becomes ruthless and doesn’t care at all about making friends. This just might be another perfect storm.

Montgomery – who notched the final out in the 10th inning of last year’s World Series Game 7 – put it this way: “I feel ready for anything after how this year’s gone.” 

Are Cubs lining up Jake Arrieta to start Game 1 vs. Nationals?

Are Cubs lining up Jake Arrieta to start Game 1 vs. Nationals?

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Are the Cubs lining up Jake Arrieta to start Game 1 against the Washington Nationals?

“I’m not even anywhere near that,” manager Joe Maddon said during Tuesday’s pregame media session with the Chicago media, immediately shifting his focus back to the decisions he would have to make that night – how hard to push catcher Willson Contreras coming off the disabled list, what the Cubs would get out of lefty Mike Montgomery, how the bullpen sets up – against the Tampa Bay Rays.

“Players can do that kind of stuff. I don’t think managers can. Honestly, I don’t want to say I don’t care about that. I just don’t worry about that, because there’s nothing to worry about yet. Because first of all, he’s got to be well when he pitches, too.”

Arrieta had just completed a throwing session at Tropicana Field and declared himself ready to face the Milwaukee Brewers on Thursday at Miller Park. That would be the Cy Young Award winner’s first start since suffering a Grade 1 right hamstring strain on Labor Day. It would set him up to face the St. Louis Cardinals next week at Busch Stadium and start Game 162 against the Cincinnati Reds at Wrigley Field.

“The plan is to be out there Thursday,” said Arrieta, who would be limited to 75-80 pitches against the Brewers and build from there, trying to recapture what made him the National League pitcher of the month for August. “The good thing is the arm strength is there – it’s remained there – and I actually feel better for maybe having a little bit of time off.

“The idea is to be able to be out there the last game against Cincinnati – pretty much at full pitch count – and to be ready for the playoffs.”

Five days after that would be the beginning of the NL divisional round and what could be a classic playoff series between the defending champs and Dusty Baker’s Nationals. The Cubs started Jon Lester in Game 1 for all three playoff rounds during last year’s World Series run and their $155 million ace could open a Washington series with an extra day of rest.

“It’s inappropriate to talk about that now,” team president Theo Epstein said. “We have a lot of work to do, and those would be the guys that would help get us there in the first place. If you’re lucky enough to get into that situation, you’d just use all the factors. You guys all know – who’s going the best, who matches up the best, the most experienced – and we figure it out and go from there. But we’re still a good ways away from figuring that one out.”