Chicago Cubs

Cubs set out to create a new identity

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Cubs set out to create a new identity

MESA, Ariz. Theo Epstein leaned on the batting cage, standing in between Billy Williams and Rick Sutcliffe. This was the past and present, shoulder to shoulder at HoHoKam Stadium, and spring training is all about seeing into the future.

The Cubs have been able to sell sunshine and beer for a long time. It was 78 degrees at first pitch, and 10,366 fans rolled in for their Cactus League opener. Before a 12-10 loss to the Oakland As, the president of baseball operations signed autographs by the dugout.

This is what were all here for, to play the game on the field, Epstein had said at the beginning of camp. Sometimes a winter can stretch on and you forget what you do for a living. You feel like an accountant or something.

The Cubs are trying to create a new identity, and it will have more of a corporate feel, from the computer system they designed with Bloomberg Sports to the increased emphasis on video and statistical analysis.

Baseball staffers from every level of the organization assembled at a Mesa hotel in the middle of February to build what Epstein has called the scouting and player development machine, which will come with manuals that run hundreds of pages.

The idea is that something as simple as a bunt play will be run the same in the Dominican summer league as it is inside Wrigley Field, and on and on and on. The Cubs Way.

Weve got better cooks, pitcher Matt Garza said when asked about the difference now.

Yes, the Cubs have even overhauled the kitchen, using a food service company that has cut out red meat from the spread and caters for several teams throughout the Valley. No detail is too small just check out the blue corners on the bases at Fitch Park where your foot is supposed to hit.

After years of ownership instability that handcuffed the previous administration and once new revenues start flowing out of a renovated Wrigley Field this could be the superpower of the Midwest. The empire should include game-changing TV deals and new facilities in Arizona and the Dominican Republic.

Pitcher Andy Sonnanstine recalled a team meeting early in camp where Epstein talked about how its a little bit different when you put the Yankees uniform on the Red Sox and the Cubs are right up there with them. Can you handle the pressure?

The Red Sox model that Cubs executives have long coveted will include a strong, steady manager. Dale Sveum emerged from the same intense interview process that revealed two finalists in Terry Francona and Joe Maddon, who certainly werent stars almost 10 years ago at Fenway Park.

Sveum wont be tossing bases, or entertaining everyone in the interview room with great stories. He may not be loud or show much emotion, but he has presence after lasting 12 seasons in the big leagues, even after a horrific leg injury.

I just try to be myself and whatever happens, happens, Sveum said. But I do believe a team does take on the personality of their managernot that I have any kind of personality.

You just try to harp on the little things. And at the same time, theyve got to know that you know how difficult this game is. Im not the guy where if somebody strikes out with the bases loaded, Im going to be throwing things. I completely understand that.

I wasnt a very good player, so I completely understand the trials and tribulations of this game and the pressures theyre under and all that stuff. My goal is to get them to prepare like its the seventh game of the World Series every day. So when they do fail, (they) can look (into) the mirror and say: I did everything I could today to make myself a better player.

Its not like the other 29 teams are ignoring fundamentals and spending spring training eating fried chicken, drinking beer and playing video games. And check the clips: Around this time last year, everyone was writing stories about the good vibes in Camp Quade (at least until Carlos Silva and Aramis Ramirez almost got into a fight in the dugout).

But the days are longer now, one player said, and at least 10 were out taking extra batting practice in front of hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo after Sundays game ended.

Ramirez and Carlos Zambrano are gone, but there was Alfonso Soriano that morning, walking from one end of the clubhouse to the other, bobbing his head and smiling: Hey babehey babehey babe.

I dont like to be the leader, Soriano said. My teammates can see how I play hard and how I work. I think they can take that to the field. I dont like to talk much. Just work hard and try to be better every day and try to win. Thats what I can take to the young guys here.

You can already see the bonds forming, top prospects Anthony Rizzo and Brett Jackson relaxing in chairs by their lockers. Cubs executives think theyll be glue guys for their lineup and clubhouse.

The things I can control are what I do every day, Jackson said. Im not going to make the team right now today. But every days a piece to that puzzle. Im going to keep working every day until that day comes, and when that day comes Im going to keep working there.

I believe in big things for the Cubs and its something I want to be a part of.

What’s wrong with Jon Lester? And is there enough time for Cubs to fix it?

What’s wrong with Jon Lester? And is there enough time for Cubs to fix it?

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Even in the good times, Jon Lester doesn’t really have great body language, trying to channel his emotions, use that competitive anger and stay focused on the next pitch, so there was no way for him to hide his frustrations this time.

Lester handed the ball to manager Joe Maddon on Wednesday night at Tropicana Field and trudged back toward the visiting dugout with his head down and his team down six runs in the fifth inning of an 8-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays that left the Cubs searching for answers.

What’s wrong with Lester? That question snapped the Cubs out of a seven-game winning streak, the talk about playoff rotations and the computer simulations that project the defending World Series champs as a 90-something percent lock to make the postseason again.

The good news for the Cubs is the Milwaukee Brewers failed to gain ground heading into the four-game showdown that begins Thursday night at Miller Park. The magic number to clinch the National League Central is eight after Milwaukee’s 6-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

But it’s difficult to see the Cubs going on a long October run when Lester – a three-time World Series champion and the Game 1 starter in all three playoff rounds last year – looks this lost. Since coming off the disabled list – the Cubs termed it left lat tightness/general shoulder fatigue – Lester has made four September starts vs. non-contenders and given up 27 hits and 12 walks in 21.1 innings.

“We’re not going to go make excuses and say that’s why I didn’t throw the ball well,” Lester said. “Physically, it’s September. You’re going to have ups and downs. I feel fine. There’s no lingering effects from anything. No, there’s nothing physically wrong.”

Are you convinced Lester is 100 percent healthy?

“He’s not saying anything,” Maddon said. “I don’t see any grimace and I don’t see any like hitch in the giddy-up. I don’t see anything. Since he’s come back, he’s had some wins, but none of them have been necessarily Jon Lester sharp.”

At a time when the $155 million ace is supposed to be building toward October, Lester didn’t have any rhythm – Steven Souza Jr. launched a 92-mph fastball over the fence in left-center field in the first inning – or the stuff to finish off the Rays (zero strikeouts, 23 batters faced).

Lester did his John Lackey impression in the second inning, screaming, stomping and staring when Brad Miller chopped a ball that bounced past first baseman Anthony Rizzo’s glove and into right field for a 2-0 lead.

The Rays have enough history with Lester after their battles against the Boston Red Sox in the American League East and appeared to try to get in his head. Peter Bourjos dropped a perfect bunt, Kevin Kiermaier knocked another RBI single up the middle and Lester escaped only when second baseman Javier Baez started an inning-ending double play on the other side of the bag.

By the fifth inning, Lester was hesitating and making two wobbly throws while Souza stole second and third base. Lester then drilled Evan Longoria’s left foot with a pitch and walked Logan Morrison to load the bases. Wilson Ramos finally knocked out Lester after 86 pitches with a two-run single into right field.

“Obviously, there is some concern,” Maddon said. “I don’t have any reason to give you – other than he had a tough night – and I don’t know why. It just looked different from the side, because we’re normally used to seeing sharp-cornered pitches and a little bit better velocity with everything. It just wasn’t there.”

Lester now has only two regular-season starts left to find it and fix this.

“I’m not worried about it,” Lester said. “When you pitch a long time, and you play this game a long time, you’re going to have the ups and downs. Anybody can have one good year. It’s a matter of going out there and consistently doing it.

“You got to take the good with the bad. We’ll make an adjustment and figure it out. The good thing is it’s not physical. It’s just a matter of getting back to what has been working for me in the past and making those adjustments.”

Can Cubs count on Kyle Schwarber to be the hero again?

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USA TODAY

Can Cubs count on Kyle Schwarber to be the hero again?

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – The Cubs had so much confidence in Kyle Schwarber last year that they made him their World Series designated hitter – less than seven months after major surgery on his left knee and with only two Arizona Fall League games as the warm-up – and expected him to deliver against Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber and a dynamic Cleveland Indians bullpen.

Now? Manager Joe Maddon isn’t quite ready to make that leap of faith with Schwarber, even as the October legend closes in on 30 home runs this season and puts up a .900-plus OPS since his reboot at Triple-A Iowa this summer.

“The thing you’ve got to be willing right now with Schwarbs is understanding that he’s going to do that,” Maddon said Wednesday, pointing toward the right-center field seats where Schwarber launched Chris Archer’s 96-mph fastball the night before at Tropicana Field. “And then he might strike out with a runner on third base. You have to accept both sides.

“You’re playing for that (home run) based on his ability against that pitcher, also knowing that you’re going to see the punch-out in there, too. It’s just part of who he is right now.”

That would appear to be a part-time player, as Maddon went with Jon Jay’s contact skills in the designated-hitter spot against Tampa Bay Rays lefty Blake Snell and continues to think about what will give the Cubs the best chance to win the final stages of the National League Central race.

Looking back on his time with Rays, Maddon explained some of the creative tension within a small-market operation constantly looking for ways to find an edge. Maddon called it buckets of information, how certain data points and sample sizes should be used in free agency and trades, while others informed the daily lineup/bullpen decisions and why you had to look inside the numbers.

How do you assess Schwarber in 2017? During the time of the year when he narrows his focus and becomes extremely calculating, Maddon started talking about Schwarber in terms of player development and the future, which didn’t exactly sound like a vote of confidence.

“Big bucket, everybody’s going to love this guy,” Maddon said. “And then I think the smaller buckets are going to get even more attractive. I do believe the more he plays in the years to come, you’re going to see the strikeouts come back down, a better adjustment when the count gets deeper.

“He’s already trying to choke up. I don’t know if you’ve noticed that from up top – he’s really trying to do different things in counts right now – and I’m starting to see some progress with that, too.

“But, God, the guy missed all of last season, and I still think that we all forget that sometimes. I thought he was a little bit better – when I first met him – at the ball with two strikes. I think that went away for a bit. Now I think he’s really trying to nurture that coming back.

“So I would say next year you’re going to see the same kind of power, but probably more contact when it’s needed. That’s the bucket he’s going to fall into.”

Coming off that dramatic World Series comeback, Schwarber fell into an offensive spiral that got him demoted to the minors three months ago. He’s still managed to blast 28 homers while striking out 31 percent of the time, struggling against left-handed pitching (.663 OPS) and batting .208 overall.

Schwarber also has the type of hard-charging personality that feeds off those doubts, loves the big-game pressure and creates energy for the rest of the team. There will be another chapter to his 2017.

“It is what it is,” Schwarber said. “That first whole part of the season was a wash for me. I was able to go down and just kind of get my head recollected and get some parts of my swing down.

“I can’t worry about the number up on the scoreboard. It’s just stupid to do that. So that’s all I’m worried about every time I go up to the plate – I want to put in a good team at-bat.”