Extra wild card plays right into Epsteins hands

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Extra wild card plays right into Epsteins hands

MESA, Ariz. Theo Epstein envisions Wrigley Field in October, sellouts night after night, year after year, until theres a parade down Michigan Avenue.

That was part of the lure in leaving the Boston Red Sox for a presidents job with the Cubs. There are game-changers on the horizon at Clark and Addison, potential stadium renovations and monster television deals that should pump up revenue and fuel an annual contender.

But the landscape changed immediately on Friday with the announcement that Major League Baseball and the players union had agreed to add an extra wild card in each league for 2012 and beyond.

The goal always has to be to win the division, Epstein said. When you set out, thats the only sure-fire way to get in and now it comes with a significant added advantage of getting to avoid single-game elimination.

We still set out with the same goal of winning the division, but clearly it makes the bar of qualifying for postseason play lower and more attainable for teams that are kind of in that building phase. Its a good thing.

Epstein is trying to create another sustainable model. The Red Sox won 95 games or more six times during his nine seasons as general manager. When they reversed the curse in 2004, winning their first World Series in 86 years, they did it as a wild card. Its all about getting in the tournament.

We got more chances now, outfielder Alfonso Soriano said. We have a lot of talent here, so I think if everybody stays healthy and we play the game the right way, well be fine.

The players arent supposed to wear their (Bleep) the Goat T-shirts anymore. Instead, theres more of a quiet optimism around camp, because no one on the outside thinks theyll contend. They know they wont be playing with bulls-eyes on their backs.

I think everybody in here believes that we can win the World Series, pitcher Randy Wells said. If you didnt, then you shouldnt be here. If you do have a season where you can get hot at the right time, and jump in that extra wild card, itll help anybody.

The fans and the media dont think this is the year the Cubs will win their first World Series since 1908. This season will be about identifying core players for a championship contender.

Epstein didnt like how Billy Beane revealed all those industry secrets in Moneyball. But Epstein generally agrees with the Oakland As executive in that the playoffs can be a crapshoot.

But there are things that you can do to increase your chances in that tournament, Epstein said. Like being healthy, being rested, being prepared, advance scouting your tails off to make sure youre better prepared than the opponent.

(Its) having a really strong top of your rotation, a really strong closer, a really strong defense, certain things that sort of show up even more in the postseason than they do over the course of 162 games.

The postseason is less of a meritocracy than the regular season. (But) there are still things that you can do to hedge your bets.

Thats an insight into how Epstein plans to build this organization. The Moneyball references misrepresent Epstein because hes so heavily invested in scouting and believes in character and chemistry, intangibles that are supposed to help form The Cubs Way.

The self-proclaimed band of idiots in 2004 had guts, grinders and huge personalities: Curt Schilling; Pedro Martinez; Johnny Damon; David Ortiz; Jason Varitek; Kevin Millar; Bill Mueller; Keith Foulke; even Manny Ramirez before the fall.

Big games and big spots always boil down to players stepping up (and) overcoming adversity and performing, Epstein said. A lot of factors go into that. Theres always some randomness in the results. But (it helps) when you have guys who are really motivated and play as a team.

This is my personal experience. Ive seen guys who have come through in big spots when its more for the team and for themselves. (If) you have a bunch of guys who go out there playing as individuals, I dont know how many of those teams end up having a lot of success.

Then again, Epstein thought of the in-fighting on teams in the 1970s and 1980s that still won titles, like the As and New York Yankees: So I dont think you can draw any bright lines.

All that history attracted Epstein to the North Side, but his views on baseball can also be cold and calculating. The odds just got a little better at the casino. An extra wild card will play right into his hands.

As much as Im a traditionalist (and) a purist, its hard to argue with this, Epstein said. It seems to be the right move at the right time for the game.

Have the Cubs found their new leadoff hitter in Ben Zobrist?

Have the Cubs found their new leadoff hitter in Ben Zobrist?

Ben Zobrist doesn't yell and scream like John Lackey, but the veteran utility player still has a way of cutting right to the chase and not mincing words.

Zobrist — who's about to turn 36 — is refreshingly honest, even when admitting his new role as the Cubs' leadoff hitter comes with his challenges.

On the one hand, Zobrist seems like the perfect fit for the one-spot in the Cubs lineup: He's ultra patient, barely swings at pitches outside the strike zone and even has some pop to start a game off with a bang (as he did Sunday afternoon).

And while he acknowledged he needs to keep the same approach regardless of where he's hitting in the lineup, Zobrist still has a level of discomfort leading off.

"Leading off is not easy because of that first at-bat," he said. "You feel like, 'Well maybe I should be patient,' but then you don't want to let the ball right down the middle go by. There's just that question in your mind. You gotta weigh it based on the pitcher you're facing that day and really try to zone up on the first pitch.

"You don't get to see any of the previous pitches. Sometimes, it's harder to time the pitcher when you haven't seen anybody else batting in front of you in the lineup. That's the only difference. Besides that, I just consider it one of the other spots in the lineup."

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Monday marked Zobrist's 154th start in the leadoff spot in his career, which ranks fifth in frequency behind second (319 starts), third (267), fourth (229) and fifth (185).

Zobrist's numbers at leadoff are the lowest of any of those five lineup positions — .237 average, .328 on-base percentage and .708 OPS.

Hitting second through fifth in the order, Zobrist has career marks of .273 average, .368 on-base percentage and an .806 OPS.

Entering Monday night, Zobrist has made 24 starts at leadoff for the Cubs and carries a .220 average and .322 on-base percentage.

But he set the tone Sunday afternoon with a leadoff homer and came just a few feet shy of two more longballs later in the game.

Monday night, he put together a 12-pitch at-bat before striking out looking to lead off against Giants starter Ty Blach. Through his first three plate appearances Monday, Zobrist had seen 20 pitches.

Even though he admitted there are challenges in the leadoff spot, Zobrist isn't putting any added pressure on himself to set the table for the Cubs' big bats.

"It's just about being consistent," he said. "If I can be consistent and I can get on base, then I'll be doing my job in that spot. Although [Kyle] Schwarber hasn't hit as well as he wants to hit at the start of the year, he still got on base a lot in that spot. 

"We as an offense will continue to play better. It doesn't really matter who's [leading off] as long as we're getting on base."

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Maddon also liked the idea of Zobrist and his career .358 on-base percentage possibly forcing the opposition to shift less against Schwarber.

The thinking goes, if Zobrist reaches base ahead of Schwarber (hitting second), the defense will have to account for a baserunner and thus not be as able to load up the right side of the infield with defenders.

Zobrist is already a Swiss Army Knife for Maddon with his ability to play multiple positions. But the veteran has also been a key cog in the lineup, though mostly as protection to Anthony Rizzo the last two years, hitting cleanup. 

Maddon and the Cubs knew exactly what they were getting with Zobrist's versatility.

But now can he give the Cubs lineup a consistent presence atop the order in the vein of Dexter Fowler the last two years?

"Probably his best asset — two things — are that he knows the strike zone as well as he does and the fact that he's able to play a variety of different positions," Maddon said. "I say switch-hitting's also a part of that, but he's been this guy for a while. 

"He's got this recognition in the latter part of his career, but he's always been this type of player.

"All he wants to do is win. That's who he is."

Cubs in no rush to make Brett Anderson/Eddie Butler rotation decision

Cubs in no rush to make Brett Anderson/Eddie Butler rotation decision

Brett Anderson had been the only player on the 25-man Opening Day roster without a World Series ring or the equity built up from being part of last year’s championship team. The Cubs viewed him as a relatively low-risk, high-reward gamble at the back of their rotation.

Anderson got booed off the Wrigley Field mound in the first inning his last time out, walking away from a blowout loss to the New York Yankees on May 6 that spiked his ERA to 8.18 and put him on the disabled list with a strained muscle in his lower back.

“I still have confidence in myself that when everything’s healthy, and when everything’s right, I can get people out,” Anderson said. “I just got to get there.”

A significant step will be Tuesday’s bullpen session, but the Cubs are in no rush with a lefty who’s been on the disabled list 10 times since 2010 and already undergone two surgical procedures on his lower back. Anderson said he’s pain-free and relieved that this got diagnosed as a muscle issue and not the kind of disc problem he’s dealt with before.     

The Cubs are clearly intrigued by Eddie Butler’s immediate upside and long-term potential. But the change-of-scenery guy also followed up a great Cub debut – six scoreless innings in a win over the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium – by needing 92 pitches to get through three innings against the Milwaukee Brewers in an ugly, rain-soaked loss last week.    

“That’s an evaluation,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Hopefully, nobody gets hurt, either. There are so many different variables involved. For me, the biggest thing is for him to be well, to go pitch, to be pitching well and then you make that decision.”   

Maddon said Anderson – who’s working on a one-year, $3.5 million, incentive-laden deal tied to starts – “absolutely” will need to go on a rehab assignment. 

“But we haven’t put pencil to paper or whatever in regards to doing that yet,” Maddon said. “He’s doing well. It shouldn’t be too long. It’s just a matter of him getting everything together and getting some work back in. So I don’t have a finish line. But I think he’s in pretty good shape moving forward.”