Cubs year in review: We stinks to Theo-mania

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Cubs year in review: We stinks to Theo-mania

Carlos Zambrano towered over the reporters surrounding his locker inside Dodger Stadium. The postgame interview was just about over when a local blogger who had scored credentials wanted to know what Zambrano was like as a kid in Venezuela.

Have you always been this emotional?

Where you been the last nine years? Zambrano wondered.

Everyone started laughing on May 4 after the Cubs won a getaway game in Los Angeles. Less than 48 hours earlier, Curb Your Enthusiasm star Jeff Garlin had stood outside the clubhouse grumbling about the state of his team, calling it a big bowl of nothing.

Perhaps youve been too busy playing winter ball in Venezuela. Or maybe you stopped listening near the end of spring training, like Carlos Silva (blah, blah, blah).

Really, there wasnt much reason to pay attention. The season was essentially over by the first week of April, when 40 percent of the rotation (Randy Wells and Andrew Cashner) went on the disabled list. But that was only the most obvious and convenient excuse.

The Cubs had already made the wrong bets on big contracts. Ownership instability had forced the front office to cut corners in the draft and player development. There would be a natural regression for an aging core of players.

There would be consequences for the Win one for the Tribune! mentality that came out of the Tower years ago.

Chairman Tom Ricketts fired general manager Jim Hendry and gave Theo Epstein the keys to the kingdom. Epstein fired manager Mike Quade, hired Dale Sveum and told the industry the Cubs were open for business. No player in the clubhouse could feel all that safe anymore.

Where you been? Hopefully, you got that (Bleep) the goat T-shirt you wanted for Christmas. What follows is a look back on a year that may (or may not) change the franchise forever.

We stinks

Zambrano reported to spring training in Arizona and joked that he was cured after anger-management therapy: I got approval from the psychologist that I can be by myself.

Zambrano had no other choice after cleaning out his locker and walking out on his teammates. The Atlanta Braves had planned Aug. 12 to be a night for Bobby Cox, their beloved former manager, but all that was overshadowed once Zambrano got lit up and threw at Chipper Jones.

Zambrano left Turner Field during the middle of the game and headed toward the teams downtown hotel. He was texting and telling people that he felt like he was stealing money and thinking about retirement. The Cubs called his bluff.

Epstein knows this history and has publicly allowed for the possibility of Zambrano earning his way back onto the team. But privately people on both sides would admit that he could use a change of scenery.

With good friend Ozzie Guillen now running the Miami Marlins show, it makes sense for Zambrano to take his talents to South Beach.

You cant fight change

Hendry must have been going through the stages of grief when he suspended Zambrano. Ricketts had already fired his general manager on July 22, leading to what Hendry would later call one of the best-kept secrets in Cubs history.

By the time Zambrano blew up, Hendry was approaching acceptance. In the days leading up to the Aug. 19 announcement, Hendry was holding court at Houstons Minute Maid Park, telling all the old stories and spitting out rapid-fire expletives and one-liners.

Hendry was the guy with the loudest laugh in the dugout. He got his start coaching baseball and teaching English at Columbus High, a Catholic school in Miami. He rose to become the first general manager in franchise history to see the Cubs make the postseason three times during his tenure.

In one role or another, Hendry lasted almost 17 seasons in the Cubs front office. His big personality inspired a tremendous amount of loyalty among the people who worked for him. At the end of the news conference announcing his firing, he stood up inside the Wrigley Field dungeoninterview room.

Hours before first pitch against the St. Louis Cardinals, Hendry jokingly asked the beat writers to deliver a message to interim general manager Randy Bush: Tell Bushie to go hug Albert for me.
Theo-mania

Pujols wasnt going to embrace the Cubs, though that didnt stop the national media and a new front office from feeding the perception that they were in on all the big-ticket items this winter (Prince Fielder? Yu Darvish?).

This came 12 months after the Cubs had to spread Carlos Penas one-year pillow contract across three fiscal years. Ricketts made the splash when he lured Epstein from the Boston Red Sox with a bigger job and a better title.

Ricketts, who had already sat through two forgettable seasons, knew his family had to make a game-changing hire and send a message to a skeptical fan base that was tired of hearing about bison dogs and urinal troughs.

They put up THEOLOGY and In Theo We Trust T-shirts in the storefront windows on Clark Street. The president of baseball operations has already waved goodbye to veterans Aramis Ramirez and Sean Marshall, and shipped out Tyler Colvin and DJ LeMahieu, two homegrown players who were supposed to be part of the youth movement.

A new collective bargaining agreement will limit what the Cubs can spend in the draft and internationally, and you wonder if they found religion too late. Epstein had already begun pooling intellectual capital by bringing his boys Jed Hoyer (general manager) and Jason McLeod (senior vice president) into an expanding front office.

The Red Sox were ahead of the curve almost a decade ago, but the baseball world is now essentially flat. The entire industry is accessing most of the same data and looking at the game through similar prisms. Ricketts has to hope hes paying for future results and not past performance.

Epstein has built up a reservoir of goodwill that should last until the first three-game losing streak. Guillen put it this way: In two years, I hope the fans in Chicago love Theo the way they do now.

Im not a lunatic

Quade was dealt a bad hand after waiting his entire professional life for this chance. No one was going to win big with this roster.

Quade rode the El. He could walk through Wrigleyville with a hat pulled down over his bald head and no one would notice. He was a Chicago guy who could talk about Da Bears. But as the season wore on, he seemed to become an increasingly isolated figure.

The players who once lobbied for their interim manager to keep the job didnt say much near the end. Just before the All-Star break, the television cameras captured a shouting match with Ryan Dempster inside Pittsburghs PNC Park dugout. That was a revealing look behind the curtain.

This was a group that had to separate Silva and Ramirez in the dugout after the first inning of the fourth game in spring training.

Sveum rides motorcycles and has tattoos all over his skin, which will stand out inside the corporate culture at Clark and Addison. The Milwaukee Brewers made him their interim manager for 12 games late in the 2008 season and won the wild card.

Thats the extent of Sveums experience managing at this level, but he has several advantages over Quade: The instant credibility that comes after playing 12 seasons in the big leagues; a stronger voice in assembling his coaching staff; and a secure, stable front office that expects him to grow into the job.

It is what it is, man

For Matt Garza, the year ends exactly where it began, trying to ignore all the trade rumors.

Garza remains under club control for two more seasons and what Epstein does with the 28-year-old pitcher trade or contract extension figures to be a bellwether for this franchise. It could reveal just how long they think this rebuilding process will take.

Garza has already made his bones in the playoffs (and been traded twice). He has electric stuff (and a 52-54 career record). The centerpiece to last winters eight-player deal with Tampa Bay made a strong overall impression during his first season on the North Side.

Teammates appreciated Garzas energy, work ethic and competitiveness (and loved wolfing down Popeyes fried chicken in the clubhouse before his starts).

The two building blocks for the future are Garza and Starlin Castro, a 21-year-old All-Star shortstop who led the National League with 207 hits. But if Epsteins blown away by an offer, he wont hesitate to trade Garza for multiple young players to surround Castro in 2014 and beyond.

We dared to dream

People who never met Ron Santo felt like they knew him just by listening to him on the radio. There was laughter and groaning and none of it was phony. His emotions were always extreme. It was either joy or agony.

One year after his death, his family learned that Santo was voted into the Hall of Fame by a Golden Era veterans committee led by old friend Billy Williams. It was a measure of the man both on and off the field.

It was a bittersweet feeling for Cubs people, who still crack up and double over in laughter telling the same Santo stories.

It was the final chapter for a year in which the players wore No. 10 uniform patches and the organization celebrated his legacy. Fans gathered to see the unveiling of a magnificent Santo statue at the corner of Addison and Sheffield.

Santos widow Vicki found a lesson in the waiting for Cooperstown. It spoke to a fearless style of play and the lives impacted by a rainmaker for juvenile diabetes research.

It should resonate with the romantics who follow this team and the cold-blooded analytical types charged with rewiring this franchise: You cant give up.

Jake Arrieta getting close and message to Cubs is clear: ‘We can’t expect outside help to get us out of this rut’

Jake Arrieta getting close and message to Cubs is clear: ‘We can’t expect outside help to get us out of this rut’

MIAMI – Kyle Schwarber’s offensive spiral had gone on for so long and gotten so deep that the shock value of sending a potential franchise player to Triple-A quickly wore off once the news broke on Twitter.

The Cubs sent their message directly to Schwarber. Even if the bosses wanted to, the Cubs couldn’t put the rest of the clubhouse on edge by demoting a .171 hitter with 260-plus plate appearances in late June. 

The Cubs are in survival mode, not a position to play mind tricks, beginning an 11-games-in-11-days road trip with World Series MVP Ben Zobrist (sore left wrist), Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward (cut left hand) and Cy Young Award finalist Kyle Hendricks (right hand tendinitis) all on the disabled list.   

The Cubs didn’t rebook Schwarber to Iowa so he can be converted into a pitcher. An aging, stressed rotation remains a much bigger concern than the boom-and-bust periods with a young offense. 

All these circumstances made a vintage Jake Arrieta performance during Thursday night’s 11-1 win at Marlins Park so important. Whether or not the Cubs make a blockbuster trade for a pitcher, there are still five-plus weeks left until buyers and sellers will feel the urgency of a deadline.   

“If something presents itself that makes sense, we’ll certainly jump on it,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “But to us, the answers are in that clubhouse. We can’t expect outside help to get us out of this rut. The answers are in there, and we believe in those guys. 

“Will we be active? No question. But that’s not going to happen for a while and there’s a lot of games to be played between now and July 31.”

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On a night where he felt “low energy,” rocked a new buzz cut and covered his right thumb with Dermabond to treat a cut/blister issue that can be traced back to spring training, Arrieta needed only 82 pitches to get through seven innings, completely shutting down a strong Miami lineup except for a Marcell Ozuna home run.

Arrieta’s inconsistencies (7-5, 4.36 ERA) have mirrored a 37-35 team, but he didn’t hesitate when asked where he is at now in a season that has so far not lived up to his Cy Young/All-Star expectations.  

“I’m close,” Arrieta said. “I’m really close.”

The Cubs are still the defending champs. Kris Bryant unleashed an MVP swing when he launched a three-run homer into the left-center field patio deck. Blocking out a messy personal situation, All-Star shortstop Addison Russell almost hit for the cycle (no triple) the day after getting questions about his divorce and a Major League Baseball investigation. This year’s Schwarber – rookie Ian Happ – also went 4-for-5 and gave the team another jolt.  

“It’s tough to see Schwarber go down,” Arrieta said. “We know that he’s going to be one of our mainstays in the lineup eventually. He’s hit a rough patch and it happens to the best of us. 

“I’ve been there. I talked to him yesterday a little bit about just keeping his head down and going to work and getting his at-bats and trying to find that comfort level. He’ll be back soon. He’s a tremendous hitter who’s going through some struggles and he’s going to right the ship. There’s no doubt about that. He’s too good of a hitter.

“A night like tonight where we pitch well and we score 11 runs, it looks easy. But it’s about consistency and trying to build off of a night like tonight. We’ve got the guys necessary to do so. We’re very capable of doing that.”

Especially if Arrieta gets hot again and shows how he can lift an entire team. 

“To get Jake pitching that kind of quality game again is going to be a big boon to us,” manager Joe Maddon said.

Did Cubs start the tailspin by making Kyle Schwarber their leadoff guy?

Did Cubs start the tailspin by making Kyle Schwarber their leadoff guy?

MIAMI – Everything aligned for the Cubs to make Kyle Schwarber their leadoff hitter. Joe Maddon’s gut instincts told him to do it – so the manager asked the Geek Department to run the numbers – and the projections backed him up. A front office raised on Bill James principles endorsed the idea after Dexter Fowler took an offer he couldn’t refuse – five years and $82.5 million – from the St. Louis Cardinals.
   
It all looked good on paper and sounded reasonable in theory. But by the time the Cubs made the Schwarber-to-Iowa move official before Thursday’s game at Marlins Park, the slugger once compared to Babe Ruth in a pre-draft scouting report had devolved into the qualified hitter with the lowest batting average in the majors (.171) and an .OPS 75 points below the league average.  

If Schwarber had been batting, say, sixth since Opening Day, would the Cubs be in a different spot right now?   

“Obviously, I can’t answer that,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “It’s an impossible question to answer. We put him in a leadoff position and he struggled. We obviously moved him out of that position (and) that didn’t work either. I know that’s what people are going to point to, because that’s a variable in his career. 

“Obviously, hitting him leadoff in 2017 didn’t work. Whether or not it caused the tailspin, I have no way to answer that question.”   

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The Cubs also deserve credit for: drafting Schwarber when the industry viewed him as a reach with the No. 4 overall pick in 2014; fast-tracking his development to the point where he could help the 2015 team win 97 games and two playoff rounds; and overseeing a rehab process that allowed him to be a World Series designated hitter less than seven months after reconstructive surgery on his left knee.    
 
The Cubs will have their hitting instructors give Schwarber subtle suggestions, focusing on how he starts his swing and where he finishes, trying to reestablish his balance and confidence during this Triple-A timeout.
    
But deep down, this is a 24-year-old player who never experienced a full season in the big leagues before and wanted so bad to be a huge part of The Cubs Way.

“I do think a lot of the problems are mental,” Hoyer said. “These struggles have kind of beaten him up a little bit. Like anyone would, he’s lost a little bit of his swagger, and I think he needs to get that back. But I think when you look at what a great fastball hitter he’s been – how good he was in ’15, how good he was last year in the World Series – the fact that he hasn’t been pounding fastballs this year is a mechanical/physical issue that we’ll be looking to tweak. 

“This is a guy that has always murdered fastballs and he’s not there right now.”