Chicago Cubs

GM Jed Hoyer breaks down the season so far and how 2017 Cubs need to create their own identity

GM Jed Hoyer breaks down the season so far and how 2017 Cubs need to create their own identity

The Cubs survived the season's first 15 games without the kind of devastating injury that sidelined Kyle Schwarber last year or the steroid suspension that just took down Starling Marte and might sink the Pittsburgh Pirates. There's value in just avoiding the catastrophic event, like the Toronto Blue Jays starting 2-11 and already sparking speculation about a sell-off. 

The Cubs don't have to worry about their window suddenly closing or wonder if buying would make sense at the trade deadline. There are no free agents in Year 1 of megadeals in the clubhouse, the way Jon Lester and Jason Heyward had to get acclimated to a new team and different expectations. The 108-year drought is finally over.

Maybe 8-7 isn't exactly what the Cubs expected when they left Arizona at the end of spring training. But they also headed out on a 10-day road trip that begins Friday night against the Cincinnati Reds feeling like they already weathered a storm. 

"One of the things about coming off a world championship," general manager Jed Hoyer, "is that I do think there's a tendency to feel like: ‘OK, we have the same group together, the same things are going to happen again.' 

"Every team has to create their own identity. Every team has to go through that process again. Maybe this is good for us, in a way. It forces our guys to realize that just bringing back a lot of the same guys on a really good team — it doesn't just happen overnight. 

"It takes time. It takes building that identity and working through some problems together."    

It's not that the Cubs needed a wake-up call. It's more the reality of a 162-game schedule, the emotions and distractions during that first banner-raising/ring-ceremony homestand at Wrigley Field and the target on their backs. Next weekend's showdown against the Boston Red Sox will be billed as a potential World Series preview, but the Cubs don't need national TV or a backdrop like Fenway Park to know they will be getting everyone's best shot.   

"Even in the games we've won, I don't think we've still been quite as clean or quite as efficient as we were a year ago," Hoyer said. "But one of the nice things about bringing back almost exactly the same team is we know we can do it. Virtually the same group won 103 games last year and obviously was very dominant at times. I think we'll get back to that."

[CUBS TICKETS: Get your Cubs seats right here]

The Cubs have committed 12 errors, while still being a top-seven team in the majors in terms of defensive efficiency. The rotation has made only six quality starts, but that group has an overall 3.60 ERA, even with Kyle Hendricks off to a slow start. The bullpen has blown four saves, but new closer Wade Davis is 2-0 with three saves and a 0.00 ERA.

The Cubs rank 13th in the National League with 13 homers — Bryzzo Souvenir Co. has produced three so far — and have scored more runs than only six other NL teams. But Schwarber (.814 OPS) is a force at the top of the lineup and Heyward is hitting .294 after breaking down and rebuilding his swing. 

"April's difficult — we're drawing big conclusions based on tiny sample sizes," Hoyer said. "That's just the nature of it. That said, I don't think we've played the kind of baseball we played last year, that's for sure. We've been sloppier, at times, than we were last year. We didn't do that last year. We were very clean. We took care of the ball. We didn't give other teams outs. 

"The offensive part — I have zero concerns about that. That's just a matter of time. We have such a talented lineup with guys with track records that actually even have upside beyond what they did last year. The offensive part will come around." 

Back-to-back comeback wins over the Milwaukee Brewers this week at Wrigley Field also gave the Cubs flashbacks to 2016. 

"It's not like we're playing poorly," manager Joe Maddon said. "When you don't hit, sometimes the definition is that you're not playing well. We're just not hitting up to our capabilities yet. The defense, overall, has been really good. The starting pitching, for the most part, has been really good. The bullpen, confidence-wise, (is getting there). 

"We will start to hit. That's going to happen. And then as these bullpen dudes get their confidence…just keep moving it forward. I like where we're at."

The Cubs avoided a last-minute signing this winter to bolster their bullpen, so they could conserve resources for the trade deadline. Prospects like Ian Happ then went out and made a strong impression in spring training, showing the farm system still has high-end talent. 

Happ generated six homers in his first 14 games at the Triple-A level and has already played second base and all three outfield spots for Iowa, with the idea that he might also work out at third base to boost his versatility and marketability. 

But it's too early to tell how the trade market will shake out, where the Cubs might see a match in a deal for pitching or if other unforeseen needs might arise between now and then.  

"We're a long way from that," Hoyer said. "The way the game is, I feel like April and May are sort of evaluation months. People don't try to make massive decisions before Memorial Day. And then once you get into June, trades and transactions become a lot more realistic. But we're still 45 games from that really becoming a reality."

Joe Maddon finally sees Cubs playing with the right 'mental energy'

joe_maddon_cubs.jpg
USA TODAY

Joe Maddon finally sees Cubs playing with the right 'mental energy'

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Joe Maddon looked back on the perfect baseball storm that hit the Tampa Bay Rays and played all the greatest hits for local reporters, waxing poetic about the banners hanging inside Tropicana Field, stumping for a new stadium on the other side of the Gandy Bridge, telling Don Zimmer stories, namedropping Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston and riffing on sabermetrics and information buckets.

But the moment of clarity came in the middle of a media session that lasted 20-plus minutes, Maddon sitting up on stage in what felt like the locker room at an old CYO gym: “We only got really good because the players got really good.”

There’s no doubt the Cubs have the talent to go along with all the other big-market advantages the Rays could only dream about as the have-nots in the American League East. Now it looks like the defending champs have finally got rid of the World Series hangover, playing with the urgency and pitch-to-pitch focus that had been lacking at times and will be needed again in October.    

Maddon essentially admitted it after Tuesday’s 2-1 victory, watching his team beat Chris Archer and work together on a one-hitter that extended the winning streak to seven games and kept the Milwaukee Brewers 3.5 games back in the National League Central.

“You’re really seeing them try to execute in moments,” Maddon said. “When they come back and they don’t get it done, it’s not like they’re angry. But you can just see they’re disappointed in themselves.

“Their mental energy is probably at an all-season-high right now.”

Six days after the Cubs moved him to the bullpen, lefty swingman Mike Montgomery took a no-hitter into the sixth inning, when Tampa Bay’s No. 9 hitter (Brad Miller) drove a ball over the center-field wall. Maddon then went to the relievers he will trust in October – Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Wade Davis – with the All-Star closer striking out the side in the ninth inning and remaining perfect in save opportunities (32-for-32) as a Cub.       

“We want to go out there and prove every day that we’re the best team in baseball,” said Kyle Schwarber, the designated hitter who launched Archer’s 96-mph fastball into the right-center field seats for his 28th home run in the second inning. “The way our guys are just going out there and competing, it’s really good to see, especially this time of year. It’s getting to crunch time, and we just got to keep this same pace that we’re going at.

“Don’t worry about things around us. Just keep our heads down, keep worrying about the game and go from there.”     

In what’s been a season-long victory lap, Maddon couldn’t help looking back when the sound system started playing The Beach Boys and “Good Vibrations” echoed throughout the domed stadium, a tribute running on the video board and a crowd of 25,046 giving him a standing ovation.

“It was cool,” Maddon said. “I forgot about the bird, the cockatoo, I can’t remember the name. Really a cool bird. I told (my wife) Jaye I wanted one of those for a while. But then again, she gets stuck taking care of them.

“I was just thinking about all the things we did. You forget sometimes that snake. I think her name was Francine, like a 19-year-old, 20-footer. And then the penguin on my chair. You forget all the goofy stuff you did. But you can see how much fun everybody had.

“I appreciated it. They showed all my pertinent highlights. There’s none actually as a player. It’s primarily as a zookeeper.”

But within the last week, you can see the Cubs getting more serious, concentrating on their at-bats and nailing their pitches. There is internal competition for roster spots and playing time in the postseason, when Maddon becomes ruthless and doesn’t care at all about making friends. This just might be another perfect storm.

Montgomery – who notched the final out in the 10th inning of last year’s World Series Game 7 – put it this way: “I feel ready for anything after how this year’s gone.” 

Are Cubs lining up Jake Arrieta to start Game 1 vs. Nationals?

Are Cubs lining up Jake Arrieta to start Game 1 vs. Nationals?

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Are the Cubs lining up Jake Arrieta to start Game 1 against the Washington Nationals?

“I’m not even anywhere near that,” manager Joe Maddon said during Tuesday’s pregame media session with the Chicago media, immediately shifting his focus back to the decisions he would have to make that night – how hard to push catcher Willson Contreras coming off the disabled list, what the Cubs would get out of lefty Mike Montgomery, how the bullpen sets up – against the Tampa Bay Rays.

“Players can do that kind of stuff. I don’t think managers can. Honestly, I don’t want to say I don’t care about that. I just don’t worry about that, because there’s nothing to worry about yet. Because first of all, he’s got to be well when he pitches, too.”

Arrieta had just completed a throwing session at Tropicana Field and declared himself ready to face the Milwaukee Brewers on Thursday at Miller Park. That would be the Cy Young Award winner’s first start since suffering a Grade 1 right hamstring strain on Labor Day. It would set him up to face the St. Louis Cardinals next week at Busch Stadium and start Game 162 against the Cincinnati Reds at Wrigley Field.

“The plan is to be out there Thursday,” said Arrieta, who would be limited to 75-80 pitches against the Brewers and build from there, trying to recapture what made him the National League pitcher of the month for August. “The good thing is the arm strength is there – it’s remained there – and I actually feel better for maybe having a little bit of time off.

“The idea is to be able to be out there the last game against Cincinnati – pretty much at full pitch count – and to be ready for the playoffs.”

Five days after that would be the beginning of the NL divisional round and what could be a classic playoff series between the defending champs and Dusty Baker’s Nationals. The Cubs started Jon Lester in Game 1 for all three playoff rounds during last year’s World Series run and their $155 million ace could open a Washington series with an extra day of rest.

“It’s inappropriate to talk about that now,” team president Theo Epstein said. “We have a lot of work to do, and those would be the guys that would help get us there in the first place. If you’re lucky enough to get into that situation, you’d just use all the factors. You guys all know – who’s going the best, who matches up the best, the most experienced – and we figure it out and go from there. But we’re still a good ways away from figuring that one out.”