Chicago Cubs

Cubs focusing more on finding the next great closer than Aroldis Chapman or Kenley Jansen

Cubs focusing more on finding the next great closer than Aroldis Chapman or Kenley Jansen

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – The Cubs are trying to find the next great closer – not repay Aroldis Chapman after an epic World Series celebration or reward Kenley Jansen for what he’s already done with a Mariano Rivera-like cutter.

Chapman is looking for $100 million, said one plugged-in agent posted up at the Omni Scottsdale Resort & Spa during the general manager meetings. If Chapman’s camp can draw the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers into a bidding war, then maybe the 100-mph closer gets a five-year deal and doubles the $50 million guaranteed the Philadelphia Phillies would regret giving Jonathan Papelbon after the 2011 season.

The Cubs will be “targeted” in their approach this winter, GM Jed Hoyer said Tuesday, after essentially combining two offseasons into one as a hedge against a weak overall free-agent class. “I don’t think it will be an extravaganza, as it was last year. We don’t need to do that. But we are going to be looking at a lot of ways to acquire pitching.”

Because manager Joe Maddon could write out a 2017 Opening Day lineup on his iPad Pro tomorrow. And Theo Epstein’s front office sees enough rotation options to feel comfortable declining a $12 million option on Jason Hammel, buying out a 15-game winner for $2 million.

The Cubs will still make their bullpen a priority as they put the finishing touches on the team that will defend the franchise’s first World Series title in 108 years. Just don’t think only in terms of brand-name closers, a group that also includes three-time All-Star Mark Melancon.

“We’re going to explore every avenue,” Hoyer said. “Obviously, there’s an appeal to guys in the free-agent market that have had great track records. But I think closers come from all over. Generally – when you sort of start looking at where those guys come from – some (have) had some bumps along the road and established themselves later on.”

Before Andrew Miller became an American League Championship Series MVP with the Cleveland Indians, he had been a failed starter with the Detroit Tigers and Florida Marlins. Within a matter of weeks after the 2010 season, Epstein’s Boston Red Sox traded Dustin Richardson for Miller, non-tendered him and then signed him to a minor-league deal, allowing the 6-foot-7 lefty to finally blossom.

“Andrew Miller’s the perfect example,” Hoyer said. “Trying to be creative in finding bullpen pieces is something that we should always challenge ourselves to do, because the great reliever of next postseason may be a guy no one’s even thought of right now.”

Hoyer pointed out how Wade Davis had been “a secondary consideration” in the December 2012 trade between the Kansas City Royals and Tampa Bay Rays. While James Shields and Wil Myers made all the headlines, Davis became an integral part of Kansas City’s lights-out bullpen, helping the Royals win back-to-back AL pennants and the 2015 World Series.

The Cubs once discovered Hector Rondon – a 30-save closer last year – through the Rule 5 draft. Rondon didn’t complain when the Cubs acquired Chapman from the Yankees in late July, though a triceps injury and uncertainty about his role would ultimately limit his effectiveness.

It’s a different look, but Maddon already sees right-hander Carl Edwards Jr. as someone with the potential to make a Miller-light impact with his explosive fastball, feel for pitching and ability to throw multiple innings.

The Cubs also completely rebuilt their bullpen on the fly during last year’s 97-win season, acquiring Clayton Richard for a dollar from the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Triple-A affiliate, signing Trevor Cahill to a minor-league deal (after he was released by the Atlanta Braves and Dodgers) and scooping up Fernando Rodney when the Seattle Mariners designated a two-time All-Star for assignment.

“You never know who that guy’s going to be,” Hoyer said. “If you stop thinking that way, you have no chance to find that guy. You always want to think like: ‘OK, who is going to be that next Andrew Miller? Who’s going to be that next Wade Davis?’”

How Carl Edwards Jr. regained his confidence and killer instinct out of Cubs bullpen

How Carl Edwards Jr. regained his confidence and killer instinct out of Cubs bullpen

Carl Edwards Jr. unleashed a big curveball that froze Cincinnati Reds leadoff guy Billy Hamilton with a check swing and forced Cubs catcher Victor Caratini to make a hockey goalie-style block in the dirt with two runners on. They all looked at third base umpire Ron Kulpa, who signaled strike three as the crowd of 36,698 roared on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field.   

The Cubs hope that seventh-inning scene is more of a big-picture look at the rest of their season than the final score in a 2-1 loss. The Cubs believe Edwards can be an Andrew Miller-type presence during the playoffs, maybe their future closer. By striking out all three batters he faced, Edwards kept it a scoreless game and bailed out Kyle Hendricks, who looked more like last year’s major-league ERA leader.   

Edwards screamed and pumped his fist as he walked back to the dugout, an emotional release from the slump that had manager Joe Maddon getting what-do-you-do-with-C.J.? questions.

“It’s more mental than anything,” Edwards said. “I know this game is very humbling. I can look good for 30 straight appearances. And then all of a sudden – four/five big games – I can be hurt again. I just look at it as going out there and having fun.

“I knew in the back of my mind that I would get over it because I’m a strong-minded guy. It wasn’t (anything) physical. I don’t know how I lost confidence, but I lost it. Right now, I'm just slowly getting it back. And I’m feeling more and more comfortable going out there every day.”

After watching Edwards blow the save and give up a grand slam to Matt Wieters during a potential playoff preview against the Washington Nationals in early August, Maddon compared the situation to a great shooter in basketball: “You just keep throwing it back out there.”

“I don’t want to run away from him,” Maddon said. “He’s really good. He had a bad couple days. Hitters go through slumps. Pitchers go through slumps. Managers go through slumps. Writers go through slumps. We all go through slumps.

“I love the guy. I absolutely love him. I love the teammate that he is. He had a couple tough days. Everybody does.”

Edwards actually had a 1.07 ERA and a 0.75 WHIP through his first 27 appearances this season – and then put up a 6.55 ERA and a 1.50 WHIP across his next 25 games. Still, there is so much to work with here, from the swing-and-miss stuff (70 strikeouts in 48.1 innings) to his natural feel for pitching to the internal drive that allowed him to blossom as a former 48th-round draft pick.         

“A big thing has been my dad sending me messages,” Edwards said, “every day telling me to pray and meditate. He knows me like a book. It’s just getting those words from him and seeing those messages before I go out to the game. And taking that message with me: No matter what happens, I’m here for a reason.”

Keep it simple. Don’t overthink it. Be yourself.

“He’s always done that,” Edwards said. “(When) I was struggling real bad, he told me: ‘Every day, just go back to backyard baseball. Say a prayer. Miss you. Meditate and just know, son, you’re there for a reason. And no matter what the outcome is, I’m going to still love you regardless.’ Just my dad being my dad. He basically taught me pitching growing up, so he’s the one that knows me best.”

Cubs: Ben Zobrist breaks down what went wrong this season and how he can still make it right

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Cubs: Ben Zobrist breaks down what went wrong this season and how he can still make it right

Ben Zobrist is a self-made player who feels months behind where he should be, freely admitting: “If we were in September right now, I’d be like: ‘Uh-oh.’”

The Cubs have played that long game all year, hanging around and slowly moving ahead in the National League Central race, hoping they will peak at the right time and the muscle memory will take over in October. That just seems to be getting harder and harder for their World Series MVP.

“We’re still where we need to be,” Zobrist said, “even though I have not played anywhere near my capability this season.”

Zobrist is a man of faith, so he will try not to feel snake-bitten, even as the injuries keep piling up, scratched from Monday’s game with a stiff neck and held back in Tuesday’s 2-1 loss to the Cincinnati Reds at Wrigley Field.

But watching Zobrist work a pinch-hit walk in the eighth inning and line an RBI single off Reds closer Raisel Iglesias in the ninth inning underlined how much the Cubs need him without Dexter Fowler leading off and Willson Contreras hitting in the middle of their lineup. 

Coming off back-to-back World Series runs, there were questions about whether or not a stiff neck would prevent Zobrist from being ready for Opening Day. Playing a doubleheader on May 9 at Coors Field stressed his lower back and sidelined him again. An awkward swing on May 26 at Dodger Stadium would eventually put him on the disabled list with a sore left wrist and force him to miss most of June.

Playoffs? Personal three-peat? The Cubs are a 62-56 team with a 1.5-game lead in the division. Zobrist is also too much of a realist to think that he can just flip a switch when he’s hitting .223 with an OPS that’s roughly 80 points below the league average and he hasn’t homered since the first game after the All-Star break.

[MORE: Cubs don’t see finish line for Addison Russell yet: ‘I don’t think that there’s any rush’  ]

“Right now, I’ve got more important things to worry about and they’re more minute,” Zobrist said. “Am I doing the things I need to do to have a good, quality at-bat? If I can start doing that again, then I’m very confident that when we get to that time, I’ll be able to do what I normally do. But that’s a long ways away for me, still.

“I’m trying to get to the point where I normally am in May. I’m not thinking about playoff time. I need to get back to that May time where I’m getting things where they need to go.”

After getting shut down by the New York Mets’ power pitching and swept out of the 2015 NL Championship Series, the Cubs identified Zobrist as the switch-hitter to diversify their lineup and set an example for their young players.  

Whatever happens from here – the Cubs believed his ability to handle fastballs and play multiple positions would keep him productive through his mid-30s – Zobrist has already been worth every penny of that four-year, $56 million deal.

“I’ve always been a hands/wrists/forearms (hitter),” Zobrist said. “That’s been one of my strengths: Let the pitch get deep and still get my hands to the front of the zone. That’s been really difficult to do. In June, it was impossible for me.

“And when that went, it was like: ‘OK, this is a tough one,’ because I tried to play through it. It just wasn’t healing and I wasn’t able to do the work. That’s when I hit the DL. I had to figure out (that) I have to get the wrists and the hands completely healthy. Or else I shouldn’t be out there, because the pitchers are too good.”

At 36, Zobrist is old enough to remember watching the championship celebrations for Michael Jordan’s Bulls on TV, childhood memories that inspired him to give a speech during that massive Grant Park rally last November, a scene that he envisioned when he took a hometown discount to sign with the Cubs.  

“Age is about figuring out how to take care of you, because every guy is a little bit different,” Zobrist said. “There’s no formula once you get to a certain point. When you’re 25, the formula is nothing. It’s essentially just like: ‘Show up. Do the work. And you’re going to be able to do what you know how to do.’

“But as you get a little bit older, you start kind of going: ‘OK, what is it about me that I have to do to get back to where I feel great on the field?’ That’s a learning experience that’s constantly happening.

“Whereas before, you didn’t really have to do anything to get ready. You could just basically pick up a bat and run down to the cage and start swinging as hard as you want to swing.

“And now it’s like: ‘OK, if you want to go 100 mph, you’re going to have to take longer than 2.whatever seconds to get there.’ You’re going to have to really ramp it up and figure out those particular issues for you as a player that are going to pop up.”

Nights like this – the rest of the team going 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position, almost getting shut out by a last-place team and missing the dimensions their World Series MVP brought to this lineup – make you wonder if there will be enough time for Zobrist and the defending champs to figure it out.