Cubs will have to earn more additions at trade deadline and ‘become the team that everyone loves again’

Cubs will have to earn more additions at trade deadline and ‘become the team that everyone loves again’

BALTIMORE – It’s the middle of July and the Cubs still don’t really know what type of team they have. Sure, their fans streamed into the Inner Harbor, Baltimore’s downtown hotels and Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Most of their players own World Series rings. But trading for Jose Quintana became more about 2018, 2019 and 2020 than the rest of this summer.

What’s next? Who knows? Cubs president Theo Epstein sat behind home plate during Friday’s 9-8 rollercoaster win over the Orioles, the beginning of a post-All-Star break evaluation period that will determine just how aggressive (or not) the front office and ownership will be leading up to the July 31 trade deadline.

“We have to play better,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “That’s it. It’s plain and simple. We just have to play better baseball and become the team that everyone loves again.”

The Cubs got off to a roaring start during the first three innings against Kevin Gausman (6.39 ERA), when Willson Contreras and Kyle Schwarber blasted back-to-back homers into the left-center field bullpen, Ben Zobrist launched one onto the right-field patio deck and Jason Heyward crushed a ball onto Eutaw Street.

Looking like all-in buyers with an 8-0 lead, Mike Montgomery couldn’t finish the fifth inning and the Cubs almost completely trashed the early rough drafts of the feel-good stories. The bullpen that had been such a first-half strength – and needs the Quintana reinforcement and seems due for a regression – watched Mark Trumbo turn it into an 8-8 game in the eighth inning when he hammered a two-run homer off Koji Uehara.

And then Addison Russell delivered in the ninth inning, drilling Brad Brach’s 96-mph, first-pitch fastball into the left-center field seats, showing why the Cubs have so much faith in the core players they didn’t send to the White Sox in the Quintana deal.

“The front office will tell us how it is,” Rizzo said. “They’re consistent. They believe in us, just as much as we believe in ourselves. They don’t blow smoke up us, and they back it up.

“It’s a really good feeling as a player for us to come back with a brand new addition after a nice break. It’s just amazing. It’s a credit to them for pulling that off.”

The issue with this team has been putting it all together night after night after night. Epstein won’t be fooled by one uneven win over a 42-47 Orioles team. The 44-45 Cubs will try to reach the .500 mark for the 21st time this season on Saturday when Jake Arrieta faces the organization that drafted, developed and traded him before he became a Cy Young Award winner.

“It’s been that time,” Arrieta said. “We just haven’t really been able to kind of get a firm grasp on the way we’ve been playing. It’s just been kind of up and down throughout the first half. That seems like the story of the first few months of our season.

“But we obviously need to gain some ground.”

The Milwaukee Brewers won again to remain 5.5 games up in the National League Central, where everyone knows how the Cubs responded to a 97-win season in 2015 (by spending almost $290 million on free agents) and a 98.8-percent chance to make the playoffs last summer (by acquiring All-Star closer Aroldis Chapman). 

“We have a front office that’s willing to make moves if we show them we earn those moves,” Heyward said. “That’s what you have to do if you want things to happen. Whether it’s a trade or whether it’s advancing into the postseason, you got to earn that stuff.” 

Joe Maddon's prime-time message: 'Help or die'

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USA TODAY

Joe Maddon's prime-time message: 'Help or die'

Joe Maddon gave an unforgettable shout-out to his blue-collar hometown during his first press conference as Cubs manager at The Cubby Bear, promising to buy the first round of drinks at the bar opposite the Wrigley Field marquee.

Maddon dropped the microphone for a moment, and then picked it back up to make a final announcement before exiting stage left: “That’s a shot and a beer! That’s the Hazleton way!”

The faded city from Pennsylvania’s coal-mining region that Cubs fans first heard about in November 2014 – and became a go-to reference point during so many of Maddon’s daily media sessions – will get a national spotlight on NBC News’ “Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly.”

NBC correspondent Harry Smith shadowed Maddon and traveled to Hazleton for a magazine-style piece that will air Sunday at 6 p.m., just before the Cubs play the rival St. Louis Cardinals at Wrigley Field.

Maddon – who has visited the White House twice within the last six-plus months and sat down with Charlie Rose while the team was in New York in June – wants a focus on his Hazleton Integration Project and how that community organization is creating educational opportunities and trying to help the next wave of immigrants assimilate.       

“They’re going to save our town,” Maddon tells NBC. “You have two options right here. Either you get on board and help us as we’re moving this thing along or you’re going to die. And when you die and go away, then you’re going to get out of the way. You’re not going to be part of the problem anymore. So, it’s either help or die.”

This is becoming Willson Contreras' team, whether or not Cubs add Alex Avila or another veteran catcher

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USA TODAY

This is becoming Willson Contreras' team, whether or not Cubs add Alex Avila or another veteran catcher

This is slowly becoming more like Willson Contreras’ team, whether or not the Cubs add a veteran catcher like Alex Avila before the July 31 trade deadline. Yadier Molina took the in-game, All-Star photo of Nelson Cruz and Joe West, but Contreras is coming for moments like that, too.

In a Cubs clubhouse filled with calm, serious young players who were fast-tracked to Wrigleyville, Contreras is the one who got left exposed in the Rule 5 draft at the 2014 winter meetings and spent parts of eight seasons in the minors before making his big-league debut.

As much as the Cubs needed that ice-cold demeanor from guys like Kris Bryant and Addison Russell to end the 108-year hex, they will use Contreras’ fire to try to win the World Series again.

“I feel like I’m in the heart of the team,” Contreras said. “I’m behind the plate. I just want to play with my energy, no matter if I hit or not. We need that energy for the second half. And it’s going to be there.”

The Cubs flipped a switch after the All-Star break, sweeping the Baltimore Orioles and Atlanta Braves and moving to within one game of the Milwaukee Brewers, their play screaming at Theo Epstein’s front office to keep buying. Contreras caught the first 45 innings of that six-game winning streak where the rotation finally clicked and hit .409 (9-for-22) with two homers, three doubles and seven RBIs on that road trip.

Contreras is a power source when a 49-45 team talks about going on a run and the defending World Series champs point to all this room to grow in the future. The model will be staring at Contreras this weekend at Wrigley Field when the Cubs try to keep the St. Louis Cardinals down (46-49) and give their front office something to think about (sell?) between now and July 31.

“We look at Yadier Molina,” catching/strategy coach Mike Borzello said. “We know that he’s just an intelligent baseball player. I always try to remind Willson: 'That’s what we’re trying to accomplish, making you not only a threat offensively and defensively, but with your mind.'

“He’s always listening. He wants to learn. He plays with high intensity, high emotion. I always challenge him to be a smart player. That’s the best compliment you can get.”

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After a disappointing first half where it looked like the vaunted pitching infrastructure might collapse — and veteran catcher Miguel Montero went on an epic rant that could have foretold a divided clubhouse in the second half — Contreras seemed to be in the middle of everything.

With Contreras behind the plate, Jake Arrieta began his salary drive toward a megadeal, Jose Quintana dazzled in his Cubs debut, Jon Lester recovered from the worst start of his career and John Lackey pitched well enough to delay any awkward conversations about going home to Texas instead of going to the bullpen.

“It was never tough,” said Arrieta, who has chopped his ERA from 5.44 to 4.17 since the middle of May. “It was just a matter of him getting to understand what we like to do as starters.

“He’s learned really quickly. He’s a tremendous athlete back there. I’m very confident that I can bury a curveball, or I can throw a changeup in the dirt, and I know that guy’s going to block it, even with a guy on first or second base. There’s not a ton of guys around the league that you can feel that much confidence in.

“Willson’s been great, and he’s only going to get better.”

Quintana, who breezed through seven scoreless innings against the Orioles (12 strikeouts, zero walks) after that blockbuster trade with the White Sox, gave this review of Contreras: “We were on the same page really quick, believe me. We talked before the game about how we want to go, how we want to call our pitches. He called a really good game, and I appreciate that.”

The Cubs will still be looking for a more-PC version of Montero, whether it’s someone like Avila, who works for his dad, Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila, or circling back to an old target like Texas Rangers catcher Jonathan Lucroy (essentially off-limits to a division rival when the Brewers shopped him last summer). Dropping Montero in late June forced Victor Caratini up from Triple-A Iowa, making Contreras the senior catcher with a World Series ring at the age of 25.

“It’s almost like a quarterback in the NFL — there’s so much for them to absorb,” manager Joe Maddon said. “When you come from the minors to the major leagues as a catcher, most of the time in the minor leagues, you’re just developing physical abilities, physical tools, blocking, footwork, throwing, maybe pitcher/catcher relationship.

“But understanding the calling of a game — it’s hard to really develop that on the minor-league level. You have the manager, then maybe a pitching coach and there’s a lot going on. You don’t have that time to put into the game plan or to sit down and talk to this guy. It’s a little bit more superficial. I don’t mean that in a disparaging way — it’s just the way it is.”

Whatever the Cubs do next, it will be with the idea of preserving Contreras in mind. Of the six big-league catchers qualified for the batting title, only two other catchers — World Series winners Buster Posey (.917) and Salvador Perez (.824) — have a higher OPS than Contreras (.822) so far this season. Among National League catchers, Contreras also has the most errors (13) and runners thrown out (19). Outside of Bryzzo, Contreras has the highest WAR (2.6) on the team.

If you think Contreras is emotional, energetic and entertaining now, just imagine what he will be like when he really knows what he’s doing.

“He asks all the right questions,” said Borzello, who won four World Series rings as a New York Yankees staffer. “We go over every game, and between every inning, we talk. We’re working in the right direction. I think he wants it as much as anyone I’ve ever been around.”