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?’”

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.

[MORE CUBS: Have the Cubs found their new leadoff hitter in Ben Zobrist?]

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.

[RELATED: Cubs can't complete another miracle comeback against Giants bullpen]

“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.”