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.

How soon before Cubs make Javier Baez an everyday player?

How soon before Cubs make Javier Baez an everyday player?

SAN DIEGO — The airtight defensive alignment for October would have to include Javier Baez, a game-changing force moving in all directions. The Cubs have seen Baez make barehanded plays and laser throws, take charge on bunts and frustrate hitters with an uncanny ability to improvise and make split-second decisions.

Baez and Addison Russell are two of the best athletes in the entire game, Jake Arrieta said after Tuesday night’s win over the San Diego Padres, so put the ball in play and let those two middle infielders take over.

There could be playoff lineups where Baez starts at second base and bumps Ben Zobrist to the outfield. But manager Joe Maddon isn’t about to hand Baez an everyday job, sticking with the super-utility formula and versatile philosophy that’s helped the Cubs become the best team in baseball.

“It depends on how we morph as a group over the next couple years,” Maddon said Wednesday at Petco Park. “Right now, I like the way it’s working out. I like the fact that (Javy’s) getting rested (and) not playing every day. Look at his at-bats — they have gotten better, too. He is making adjustments or adaptations during the at-bat. He’s not just out of control every swing.”

Baez has channeled his aggressiveness, hitting .276 with 13 homers, 47 RBIs and 83 strikeouts through 343 plate appearances, becoming a more mature and well-rounded player at the age of 23.

“You’re seeing a lot of progress,” Maddon said. “Who knows if by playing sporadically this is becoming more part of who he is? As opposed to playing every day, maybe getting caught in the trap of not hitting well, whatever, and all of a sudden he takes it on defense. It’s natural progression. He’s an everyday player, there’s no question, in maybe a couple years.”

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The Geek Department and scouting reports will ultimately influence where Baez plays, because Maddon wants him wherever the ball will most likely be hit most often. When Jon Lester pitches, that can mean Baez starting at third base and Kris Bryant moving to the outfield.

The Cubs promised Zobrist the second-base job when he signed a four-year, $56 million contract, agreeing the focus on one position would help reduce the wear and tear on his body at the age of 35. The Cubs still need Zobrist’s switch-hitting skills and World Series experience in the lineup.

Maddon also wants to keep Jorge Soler involved — because he’s a presence other teams have to account for — and maybe that will mean sacrificing Jason Heyward’s Gold Glove defense in right field at times.

But Baez is the type of defender the Cubs will want to see out there in one-run, low-scoring playoff games.

“He’s unbelievable,” Bryant said. “Any ball hit his way — whether it’s in the air, on the ground, on line — you kind of just expect him to make the play and make it look good. That’s what he’s been doing all year. I certainly think he’s Gold Glove worthy, but he plays all over. I feel like there should be a utility man Gold Glove, because he definitely (deserves it).”

Cubs conserving Jake Arrieta for October and see another Cy Young push coming

Cubs conserving Jake Arrieta for October and see another Cy Young push coming

SAN DIEGO – West Coast atmosphere, late August, almost no-hitter stuff for a Cubs team riding a wave of momentum. Jake Arrieta might be reentering the zone that made him the hottest pitcher on the planet last year. Get your onesies ready.

It felt that way on Tuesday night at Petco Park, where Arrieta shut down the San Diego Padres, allowing only two hits across eight scoreless innings in a 5-3 victory, making another statement in his Cy Young Award defense.

For all the questions about Arrieta’s fastball control and mechanical tweaks – and times where he’s admitted he’s felt a click off – this is still a top-of-the-rotation guy who leads the league with 16 wins and has a 2.62 ERA.

“He should be” in the Cy Young discussion, manager Joe Maddon said. “The only thing that’s been amiss is a little bit of command issues on occasion. Otherwise, stuff is the same. Numbers are fabulous. It’s hard to replicate what he had done last year, because he just nailed it.

“If he gets hot over these last couple weeks…”

It will be up to Arrieta to complete that thought in a World Series-or-bust season for baseball’s first team to 80 wins this year, one that’s now 35 games over .500.  

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This didn’t feel like a perfect game or create any no-hitter drama. The Padres are already 20 games under .500 and years away from being a serious contender. And Arrieta had to bounce back from last week’s ugly win over the Milwaukee Brewers – when he walked a career-high seven batters – and work around a first-inning walk to San Diego leadoff guy Travis Jankowski.

But the Cubs played spectacular defense behind Arrieta, with catcher Willson Contreras making a lightning-quick throw to pick off Jankowski at third base. The Cubs turned three double plays while a thunderous lineup led by Kris Bryant (33rd home run) and Addison Russell (fifth home run in his last five games) lowered the stress level. After Alex Dickerson’s single leading off the second inning, the Padres didn’t get another hit until Christian Bethancourt’s double with two outs in the eighth.

“I really wanted to let my defense work,” said Arrieta, who finished with six strikeouts against three walks. “When you have Addison and (Javier) Baez in the middle of the infield – two of the best athletes in all of baseball – you want the ball to go to those guys.”

At a time when Clayton Kershaw (back) and Stephen Strasburg (elbow) are on the disabled list, leaving potential playoff opponents like the Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals in scramble mode, the Cubs can see Arrieta building toward October.

The way Arrieta did with that Aug. 30 no-hitter last year at Dodger Stadium on national TV, walking into the press conference in a moustache-covered onesie, Maddon going with the pajama theme again for the flight home after this weekend’s series in Los Angeles.

But the Cubs ultimately paid the price for all that effort poured into the wild-card chase, which explains why Maddon pulled Arrieta after 99 pitches with a five-run lead (leaving Aroldis Chapman to clean up Felix Pena’s mess in the ninth inning and get the final two outs, giving him eight saves in a Cubs uniform).

“Yeah, I was mad at Joe taking me out,” Arrieta said. “But at the same time, he came over to me and he said: ‘Hey, just remember last year and let’s conserve some things for October.’

“That’s our game plan. We want to be as strong and as dominant as we can be, but still in the back of our mind understanding that late September, early October, mid-October is really the most important time for us.

“Could I have finished the game? Yes. Does it play in our favor to maybe conserve that for later? Yeah. Joe’s a really smart guy. He knows what he’s doing. I feel like he makes the right moves in the right situations. And that’s why we’ve been playing as well as we have.”

No doubt, Addison Russell is becoming a star for Cubs

No doubt, Addison Russell is becoming a star for Cubs

SAN DIEGO – On a team bursting with MVP frontrunners and Cy Young Award candidates – and in a clubhouse with louder, flashier personalities – Addison Russell can emerge as an All-Star shortstop and not become the center of attention.

But here at Petco Park last month, Russell drew scrutiny for his spot in the all-Cub infield, patiently answering questions from reporters about whether or not he deserved to be the National League starter the fans voted for in that popularity contest.

Russell might actually be developing into a superstar now, a Gold Glove-caliber defender with legitimate middle-of-the-order power, someone absolutely essential to what the Cubs are doing now. Russell crushed the San Diego Padres again on Tuesday night, opening up a two-run game with a two-run homer in the fifth inning of a 5-3 victory.

“Just watch me over the course of a year,” Russell said. “My numbers may not be great or whatever, but I contribute to my team every single day. I play my heart out for my team.”

Super-agent Scott Boras, posted up at Petco Park to see clients and watch Jake Arrieta pitch, pointed out that Russell is now only one of five shortstops within the last 40 years to have at least 19 homers during his age-22 season, joining Cal Ripken Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Troy Tulowitzki and Corey Seager.

Russell is the first Cubs shortstop to reach the 80-RBI mark since Ernie Banks did it in 1961. For all the comparisons to Barry Larkin, he didn’t make his big-league debut with the Cincinnati Reds until the age of 22, and didn’t exceed 12 homers in a season until five years later.

Russell has homered five times in his last five games, leads the best team in baseball with 23 multi-RBI games and exemplifies a no-panic approach that should translate in October.

“I’ve said all year, we have guys on our team that get on base and it’s my job to get them over or get them in,” Russell said. “I’ve taken that role to heart. It’s a lot of fun out there. I challenge myself whenever I’m in that situation.”

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Russell’s highlight-reel play during Monday night’s victory inspired manager Joe Maddon to give him a bottle of Justin Isosceles wine with a “6-3” written on it. Imagine the reward if Russell wins a Gold Glove.  

“Defensively, it’s as good as there is being played right now,” Maddon said. “It’s getting to the point where there’s nobody else like that right now.”

Whether or not Russell can stay healthy and remain productive enough to become another Mr. Cub – or come close to matching Larkin’s Hall of Fame numbers – you don’t get the sense he will be a one-time All-Star.

“I’m very happy for him, because I know prior to being selected, that was an issue,” Maddon said. “I’m so proud of him, how he came out and confronted it in his own way, very quietly, but in a distinguished manner. That’s who he is.

“Now he’s showing everybody how good he is. And I also believe that event has pretty much catapulted him to the point he’s at right now (with) the status that he felt by being here. In some ways, there was this negative dialogue going on. He’s turned it into a very positive one. Good for him.”