Kaplan: Reasons for optimism from Cubs camp

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Kaplan: Reasons for optimism from Cubs camp

Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2011
12:56 p.m.

By David Kaplan
CSNChicago.com

While the legions of doubters are out there predicting another long season for the Cubs, there are a handful of reasons for Cubs fans to be optimistic about the 2011 season.

First, the energy and enthusiasm around the ballclub is vastly different from the past two seasons. Gone is the hangover from the 2008-playoff collapse at the hands of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Second, the sideshow that was Milton Bradley is no longer a question that the current Cubs have to deal with. Last spring Bradley was a question that everyone had to answer because he had just been traded to Seattle.

Manager Lou Piniella is no longer here and while he had an outstanding career, there is no denying the fact that he was no longer the right guy to lead the team going into last season. His energy was waning and his players and he did not have the communication that is necessary for a winning club to have.

In Piniellas place is Mike Quade who is a bundle of energy and his players have taken notice and are feeding off of his enthusiasm for the job. Quade is a master at communication and honesty evidenced by the manner in which he announced his selection of Ryan Dempster as the Opening Day starter.

Quade brought all three candidates, Dempster, Carlos Zambrano, and newcomer Matt Garza into his office together so that he could tell them of his plans and the reasons why he made the decision he did. That type of communication, according to several players that I spoke with, is extremely rare in todays game. The current Cubs are buying into what Quades selling and they all appear to be on the same page heading into a season in which not many are giving the Cubs much of a chance to contend.

Obviously every team in baseball feels good about their chances during spring training but the energy and the feel at Cubs camp is a whole lot different this year largely in part because of the attitude of their rookie manager. Add in the leadership of newly acquired first baseman Carlos Pena who has already assumed a large presence on the club and a much improved pitching staff and things are looking up for the Cubs.

Questions still loom large such as what type of seasons will the Cubs get from Aramis Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano, and Zambrano who make a combined 50 million dollars and are all coming off of disappointing seasons. Can any or all of them rebound to perform at their previous levels?

The other major question appears to be defense where the Cubs struggled mightily in 2010. Can second year shortstop Starlin Castro improve his defense? What type of defense will the Cubs get at second base from the tandem of Jeff Baker and Blake DeWitt?

A lot of things have to be improved upon from 2010 for the 2011 Cubs to be contenders but one thing is for sure. Their new manager sure has the enthusiasm and passion for the job to keep working until he gets it right and that is resonating down to his players.

David Kaplan is the host of Chicago Tribune Live on Comcast SportsNet. Follow him on Twitter @thekapman.

It’s World Series or bust for Cubs while carrying Aroldis Chapman’s baggage

It’s World Series or bust for Cubs while carrying Aroldis Chapman’s baggage

Aroldis Chapman is the ultimate baseball mercenary for a team that hasn’t won the World Series since 1908. The Cubs say they are going into this with their eyes wide open, knowing the superstar closer comes with off-the-field baggage and plans to cash in as a free agent this winter.

For all the talking points about being good neighbors and family friendly, the Cubs care about money and winning, which makes them just like any other professional sports franchise.

Chapman behaved in Yankee pinstripes, handled the New York market and performed with game-over efficiency, going 20-for-21 in save chances. The Cubs wanted a lefty with a 105-mph fastball and a 15.2 strikeouts-per-nine-innings-pitched career rate, making a 4-for-1 trade by rationalizing that they would rather be with Chapman in the playoffs than against him.

So the Cubs – and not the first-place Nationals or even-year Giants – had to deal with the bad optics and the lost-in-translation moments before Tuesday’s 3-0 loss to the White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field. Chapman did not make a good first impression while getting questions about domestic violence and the 30-game suspension Major League Baseball imposed to start this season.

But if Chapman gets the last out in October, does it even matter if he’s a good guy?

“Ugh,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Was Ty Cobb wonderful? I mean, I don’t know. All these different people that I’ve read about – something happened with (the Sox) in, what was it, 1919?

“At the end of the day, I’m here to get to know him on our terms – me and him. (And) he’s been a great teammate from everybody I’ve read or discussed (it) with.

“That’s the lenses I’m looking at it through right now.”

[RELATED: Hector Rondon says Cubs had to take chance and close Chapman deal]

Chapman joined a team that began the day with a 98.8-percent chance to make the playoffs on the Baseball Prospectus odds report and a 56-1 record when leading entering the ninth inning. This is all about what Chapman can do in October and how his presence can help the Cubs survive three postseason rounds.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch highlighted that the Cardinals haven’t scored a run off Chapman since September 2011, back when Tony La Russa managed a World Series team.

“Again, he did do his suspension,” Maddon said. “He has talked about it. He’s shown remorse. And then everybody else has their right to judge him as a good or bad person.

“That’s your right. But I know there are times where I’ve been less than perfect. I think we’ve all been less than perfect in particular moments that nobody’s ever known about. 

“I want to get to know Aroldis. I think he can be a very significant member. And he’s got the potential, yes, to throw the last out of the World Series. And if he does, I promise you, I will embrace him.”

[MORE: Cubs make business decision to look beyond Chapman's domestic violence suspension]

Inside baseball’s conservative bubble, Maddon has to be the game’s most liberal manager, a hands-off, big-picture guy who lets his players run the clubhouse. The Cubs believe his positive vibes and presence will help Chapman’s transition.

“I’m probably the most non-judgmental person you’ve ever met,” Maddon said. “I don’t go in that direction. I do get upset sometimes when people jump to conclusions without knowing everything.

“(Gather) all the information for yourself and make your own opinion. Draw your own conclusion, as opposed to maybe hearing one thing and then all of a sudden jumping on a negative bandwagon.

“I want to get to know him, get to understand him, have good conversations with him. And then, maybe at that point, I could draw some conclusions. But never having been around him, it’s very hard for me to do that.”

Chapman’s Wrigley Field debut will be electric, the triple digits lighting up the huge video board. At that point, the focus should shift back onto baseball. But the equation doesn’t change in a bottom-line business. There is only one outcome that will truly make Cubs fans happy with this deal.

“They expect me to come here, do my job and try to guide us to the World Series,” Chapman said through coach/translator Henry Blanco. “Especially in this city, they haven’t won a World Series in a long time, so they want me to do everything I can to help us win.”

How Joe Maddon helped inspire James Shields' gem over Cubs

How Joe Maddon helped inspire James Shields' gem over Cubs

Joe Maddon's mere presence may have hurt the team he manages Tuesday night.

As the Cubs invaded U.S. Cellular Field for the final night on the South Side of this Crosstown series, Maddon's current team was tasked with facing one of his old friends.

James Shields pitched for Maddon in Tampa Bay for seven years and the veteran right-hander took the hill for the White Sox Tuesday night, spinning a gem — 7.2 shutout innings allowing four singles and four walks.

After the game, Shields — nicknamed "Big Game James" by some — credited Maddon for his outing.

"I get amped up every game pretty much. But I always want to get amped up in front of my old manager," Shields said. "I have a lot of respect for Joe. He helped build me into who I am today. 

"I always want to go out there and show him, especially being 34 years old, that I’ve got this thing."

Maddon certainly noticed.

The Cubs manager admitted "that's what he looks like" when talking about Shields' outing.

The Cubs had pursued Shields in free agency prior to the 2015 season and came close to deal before the right-hander opted to sign with the San Diego Padres for four years and $75 million.

Part of the reason was Shields' competitiveness and desire to finish every game he starts.

"During the first part of the game, I went up to [John] Lackey and I said Shieldsy went to John Lackey Junior College at some point in his life," Maddon said. "I said I used to compare Shieldsy to you all the time back in Tampa Bay, whenever James would [refuse to come out of a game].

"So Johnny giggled about that. Very similar guys — highly competitive, believe they can beat anybody on any given day. You gotta love that about him. He's very good."

No late magic as Cubs shut out by White Sox on South Side

No late magic as Cubs shut out by White Sox on South Side

Aroldis Chapman was in uniform for the Cubs Tuesday night, but Joe Maddon never got a chance to employ his shiny new toy.

After posting late rallies the last two games, the Cubs offense was noticeably absent on Chicago's South Side, dropping a second straight game in this Crosstown matchup 3-0 in front of 39,553 fans at U.S. Cellular Field.

White Sox starter James Shields scattered four singles and four walks in 7.2 innings, using 117 pitches to shut down the Cubs lineup.

[RELATED - How Joe Maddon helped inspire James Shields' gem vs. Cubs]

"The guy on the other side, he was pretty good today," Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks said. "I was in here watching a lot of it, mixing speeds, hitting spots. It was kinda fun to watch.

"You never like it against you, but still, you gotta appreciate it."

The first White Sox hitter of the game scored as Adam Eaton drew a walk and was eventually plated on Jose Abreu's RBI single three batters later.

Hendricks settled down from there, allowing only a solo homer to Eaton in the fifth.

After the game, he said he really only felt like he made two bad pitches (both changeups) — the homer to Eaton and Abreu's first-inning single — plus the leadoff walk to Eaton in the first.

But the wheels came off for the Cubs in the sixth inning as Hendricks departed following two quick outs and a bloop hit from Todd Frazier that glanced off the glove of Anthony Rizzo in shallow right field.

Travis Wood came on to relieve Hendricks, but walked the first three hitters he faced to force in Frazier with the third run of the game.

"I've not seen that before," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said of Wood's control issues. "It's really awkward to watch him go through that moment. Here's a guy that really nails down inherited runners as good as anybody.

"Just one of those moments. I don't think it's a trend. I just think it happened tonight."

The Cubs' best opportunity to score came in the second when they loaded the bases with two outs, but Dexter Fowler fouled out behind home plate. After that, only one baserunner reached second base all game for the Cubs.

Over the last four games, each of the opposing starters against the Cubs — Shields, Miguel Gonzalez, Junior Guerra and Zach Davies — has tossed a quality start.

In that span, the Cubs have scored just three earned runs in 27 innings against the starters, totaling 19 hits and only one homer.

Tuesday night, Maddon likened all four starters to each other as sort of finesse guys.

"We're young offensively and when you see pitchers that really know what they're doing," Maddon said. "We've seen guys recently that have a good feel for what they're doing and I think they've taken advantage of our youth.

"Primarily, we have to not expand the strike zone. We've been expanding a little bit against these guys. We gotta keep them in the zone and obviously, when they make a mistake, it's gotta be hit hard and kept fair. We have not done that."

[RELATED - Cubs go into damage-control mode after introducing Aroldis Chapman to Chicago]

Kris Bryant said before the game he was itching at another chance to face Shields after the veteran pitcher welcomed Bryant to the big leagues with a couple of strikeouts in the latter's debut last April at Wrigley Field.

But Shields once again got the best of Bryant Tuesday night, striking out the MVP candidate three times in four trips to the plate.

Bryant is now just 1-for-10 against Shields with seven strikeouts.

"I got myself out a lot tonight," Bryant said. "I mean, when you got a good changeup, tip your cap. He made some really good pitches."

The Crosstown series moves to the North Side Wednesday night for the final two games.