Mooney: Five questions facing Cubs this spring

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Mooney: Five questions facing Cubs this spring

Saturday, Feb. 12, 2011
Posted 10:12 p.m.

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

The Cubs didnt go out and sign the free agent that will automatically sell tickets, drive television ratings and change the direction of the franchise. And they didnt hire a celebrity manager to create more buzz.

Quietly, Jim Hendry and his staff executed their plan this winter. The general manager looked to the past by bringing Kerry Wood home, and not too far into the future with Carlos Penas one-year pillow contract. It was a coherent, disciplined approach at a roster that last year had too many mismatched parts.

Players have already begun to assemble in Mesa, Ariz., where on Sunday pitchers and catchers will officially report. The next day Matt Garza the teams biggest offseason get will go through his first formal workout in a Cubs uniform at Fitch Park. By then, a new deal for closer Carlos Marmol could be announced.

You cant guarantee that Wood wont go on the disabled list for the 15th time in his career. We dont know if Pena, who will turn 33 in May, will make us forget his .196 average last year, or how Garzas numbers will translate outside the American League East.

Those answers will come, as this season slowly reveals itself through baseballs relentless daily rhythms. But here are five big questions hanging over the Cubs this spring.

Who is Mike Quade?

A baseball lifer was given six weeks to audition for the job. That amount of time wont even take us to Opening Day. Quade earned the right to stay on as manager with a 24-13 finish, but he really won over the organization with the way he handled young pitchers and pushed the veterans. This is a chance for Quade to put his imprint on the team.

Its time to take over, outfielder Marlon Byrd said. He showed at the end of last season what he can do. (You) need the players and he has (them). Were going to go out there and do it for him.

Where does the rotation turn?

Amazingly, the Cubs led the National League in quality starts (96) last season, and yet never spent a minute above .500. The best competition in camp will be for the fourth- and fifth-starter spots behind Ryan Dempster, Carlos Zambrano and Garza. Randy Wells could cement his place in the rotation, but knows several prospects are coming after it.

Casey Coleman, the third-generation big-leaguer, has impressed club officials with his poise. Carlos Silva looked like an All-Star at one point in 2010, but injuries limited him to only 5.1 innings combined in August and September. Braden Looper, a non-roster invitee, is trying to get back into baseball.

Can the kids handle the spotlight?

From ownership to baseball operations to the marketing department, the Cubs are heavily invested in the idea that Andrew Cashner, Starlin Castro and Tyler Colvin are about to become stars.
Starlin Castro certainly appears to have superstar potential, but can he handle the glaring spotlight and high expectations? The Cubs present, and certainly its future, rely heavily on the young shortstop. (AP)
Cashner will be given every opportunity to make the rotation. Castro and Colvin will need to make adjustments at the plate during their second year around the league. These three homegrown players have to show growth. Every level of the organization is counting on it.

Will an older core stay strong?

The effects of age cant be ignored. Aramis Ramirez has missed nearly 120 games the past two seasons. Byrd emerged as an All-Star last year, but faded in the second half. They will turn 33 and 34 this summer. At 35, Alfonso Soriano is only halfway through his 136 million contract.

A lot of times when people think hes not giving full effort, Hendry said, he really is trying to stay healthy and hit those home runs to stay productive. We all feel that Soris got some solid years left. Will he ever be the guy that can steal 45 bags again? Absolutely not. Hell never be that kind of guy as a threat, but I think hes very capable of still hitting 30 home runs.
Should Albert Pujols start looking at real estate in Chicago?

Once Pena signed a one-year deal, speculation immediately focused on Pujols heading to Wrigley Field in 2012. The rumors wont stop, not with the Red Sox (Adrian Gonzalez), Yankees (Mark Teixeira) and White Sox (Paul KonerkoAdam Dunn) having long-term answers at first base.

Between the McCourt divorce and Bernie Madoffs Ponzi scheme, scandals have created long-term questions about ownership of the Dodgers and the Mets and their financial health.

That leaves the Cubs, with several big contracts coming off the books, as a team well-positioned to gather all of their large-market resources to sign the best player of his generation.

Tom Ricketts has stressed player development and repeatedly praised Hendry, but hes also mentioned that hed like his general manager to be smarter with contract structures. Its unclear whether the chairman has the appetite for the 250 to 300 million it might take to convince Pujols to leave St. Louis should he hit free agency.

But its certain that Cubs and Cardinals fans will be arguing over this for the next nine months.

PatrickMooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. FollowPatrick on Twitter @CSNMooneyfor up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

With season's final month looming, Cubs will apply lessons learned from 2015 playoff run

With season's final month looming, Cubs will apply lessons learned from 2015 playoff run

What a difference a year makes.

Last season, the Cubs put the pedal to the metal in advance of a four-game series with the San Francisco Giants at Wrigley Field in August and never looked back until they ran into the brick wall that was the New York Mets in the NLCS.

This season, with another four-game set with the Giants at the "Friendly Confines" on tap this week, the Cubs are in a completely different position.

There is no need for Joe Maddon to step on the gas and floor it into the postseason.

The Cubs entered play Monday 14 games up in the NL Central and they've already started counting down their magic number before the calendar has even flipped to September.

This year, it's going to be about rest and keeping guys sharp and fresh entering October, which the Cubs learned is key after last season.

Right now, the Cubs don't need to lean on Jake Arrieta to come close to a complete game each time out or utilize relievers on three straight nights in tight ballgames.

"I think our guys understand where we're at and it's going to be important to get where we want to go to be at their best," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said Monday at Wrigley. "Last year's stretch and playoffs especially was instructive.

"I think we pushed guys hard during the year and it'd be nice for them to be at their absolute best during the most important time of year down the stretch and hopefully into October."

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

The Cubs also have some reinforcements on the way with rosters expanding to 40 players Thursday.

Tommy La Stella continues to work out in the minor leagues and Epstein acknowledged Monday the left-handed role player could be back in Chicago as soon as this week.

"The guys coming up will get some playing time," Maddon said. "I've always talked about in a bad game or even in a really good game, to get guys off their feet, that's important.

"Whoever we're going to bring up right now, they're going to be pertinent people that are going to help us win also right now."

Hector Rondon (triceps) and Pedro Strop (knee) are progressing "really well," Maddon said, with Rondon nearing a return while Strop threw in Chicago during the Cubs' recent road trip and reported no issues. 

"We're just trying to really play it smart, not push them to come back too quickly," Maddon said. "But they're both making great progress."

John Lackey (strained shoulder) is slated to throw a pair of bullpens this week and could return from the disabled list on the current homestand if all goes well.

When Lackey does come back, the Cubs could keep Mike Montgomery as a starter and go with a six-man rotation to keep everybody fresher down the stretch.

With all the rest in mind, Maddon isn't worried about his players getting rusty or losing their edge at all.

[RELATED: With John Lackey ramping up for return, could Cubs go to six-man rotation?]

Maddon admitted he's never been in a position like this where the Cubs are close to locking up a playoff spot and still have a month to play. But he compared the idea of taking the foot off the gas to the same way teams handle pitchers at the end of spring training before the regular season starts.

"You're trying to conserve their moments for the most important time of the year," Maddon said. "Regardless of any kind of pushback you might get from the players themselves, I still think you can do it and control it and not worry about the rust component.

"I think by this time of year, rest in a more intelligent manner - limiting innings or number of pitches thrown - I don't think that's going to cause a negative downturn in their abilities by the end of September."

Of course, just because the Cubs are prioritizing rest doesn't mean they're going to take their foot off the gas completely.

Epstein, Lackey and Jon Lester saw firsthand how quickly a large lead can evaporate with the 2011 Boston Red Sox

"I think once you go through a year in which you have a double digit lead right before Labor Day and screw it up and don't even get into October, you don't take anything for granted," Epstein said. "I guess that's the only good thing to come out of September 2011 for me - I'll never look too far ahead and I'll never take anything for granted.

"You have to have a broad perspective and look ahead and understand what might lie ahead, but you have to go earn it. That's been our team's approach from the very beginning - not to accept some of the praise that's come our way. It's to go out and try to earn it with our play and that's definitely true in the month of September."

Why Dodgers could be a playoff problem for Cubs

Why Dodgers could be a playoff problem for Cubs

LOS ANGELES – Imagine a Los Angeles Dodgers team doing more with less getting Clayton Kershaw back to start Game 1 of a playoff series. That could become a nightmare matchup for the Cubs, if Rich Hill stays healthy and continues his late-career renaissance, and if rookie phenom Julio Urias saves enough bullets for October.   

“They would be a tough team,” said Ben Zobrist, a World Series hero last year with the Kansas City Royals, the switch-hitter the Cubs signed with October specifically in mind. “We would have our hands full because of all the lefties they have. 

“We have to do a better job against lefties overall – and figuring out how to just get more runners on base. We tend to rely on the homer a little bit too much. And in those situations, (we) have to find a way to just take our hits and hit line drives around the park.”

On Sunday afternoon at Dodger Stadium, the Cubs didn’t have any answers for Brock Stewart, a 24-year-old right-hander out of Illinois State University who matched $155 million lefty Jon Lester for five scoreless innings. The Dodgers manufactured a 1-0 victory, and might have swept the best team in baseball out of Chavez Ravine if not for Kris Bryant’s MVP game on Friday night.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]   

“They have a veteran group on the field,” manager Joe Maddon said. “They’re always able to come up with another pitcher somehow. They got a really good bullpen. For right now, they’ve been utilized a lot, so I don’t know how that’s going to hold up, but they are good.”

Maddon couldn’t resist taking a few passive-aggressive shots, but he did compare this Los Angeles bullpen to the 2002 Anaheim Angels team that won the World Series and gave him a championship ring as Mike Scioscia’s bench coach.
  
Kershaw (11-2, 1.79 ERA) appeared to be rolling toward his fourth National League Cy Young Award when he went on the disabled list with lower back pain in late June.

“Kershaw coming off a back injury, you just don’t know,” Maddon said. “Hill’s good. He’s reinvented. He’s a curveball pitcher and all that kind of good stuff. So, of course, they can be good.”

Maddon wondered how Urias – who settled down after a rocky start to win a 3-2 game on Saturday – would hold up at the age of 20 after throwing only 80-plus innings combined last year at four different minor-league affiliates. 

“The biggest concern would probably be that he would run out of gas,” Maddon said, “not being used to pitching that late into a year. And I know they’re mindful. I know they’re going to do things to restrict him, whatever. But that would be the biggest concern there.”

[RELATED: With John Lackey ramping up for return, could Cubs go to six-man rotation?] 

The Dodgers (73-57) built a lineup around professional hitters like Justin Turner, Adrian Gonzalez, Chase Utley and Howie Kendrick. They have a two-way catcher (Yasmani Grandal), their own 22-year-old All-Star shortstop (Corey Seager) and a lights-out closer (Kenley Jansen).

“They’re in first place,” Lester said. “I don’t see why they should be overlooked. I don’t feel like they’re overlooked. Being a part of West Coast baseball for a couple months (with the Oakland A’s), I think really everything on the West Coast gets overlooked. I think it’s the time difference and a lot of other factors that are going on. But they’re a good team. They’ve been a good team.”

Maybe the Dodgers will expend too much energy trying to fend off the San Francisco Giants, and there are conditionals to Kershaw, Hill and Urias. But that left-handed-heavy rotation could mean the Cubs will be slamming their bats and helmets in frustration in October.  

“I’m not there yet,” Maddon said. “I’m not worried about the Dodgers. I’m worried about getting our guys healthy and us playing the game properly. If it comes to that, I would be more than happy. I would be ecstatic about facing them in the latter part of the season. They can throw as many lefties as they want. They’re good, but I can’t worry about the Dodgers.” 

Theme trip: Cubs break down at Dodger Stadium with miscommunication between Javier Baez and Ben Zobrist

Theme trip: Cubs break down at Dodger Stadium with miscommunication between Javier Baez and Ben Zobrist

LOS ANGELES – Joe Maddon watched John Lackey board the team bus on Sunday morning wearing a Team USA onesie. The Cubs manager later noticed Aroldis Chapman in pajamas in the clubhouse on his way out to the dugout for his pregame media session at Dodger Stadium.
 
“We’ve created our own little culture, our own little identity,” Maddon said. “I just love the fact that they buy into those moments. Your stars are buying into it.”
 
The Cubs are in their own world, followed like rock stars on the road, freed from baseball’s unwritten rules and checked out from the daily anxiety and scoreboard-watching stress during a normal pennant race. 

But the Cubs weren’t in a playful mood after a 1-0 loss, even as they changed into their onesies – Mr. Peanut, Yoda, Stars and Stripes, camouflage – for the flight home from the West Coast. Almost exactly a year after Jake Arrieta threw his no-hitter here, the Cubs had their in-house TV crew shooting the postgame scene inside the locker room – look at us! – while Dodger Stadium security kicked out the Chicago reporters waiting to take pictures outside the clubhouse.   

The Cubs got a reminder that the Dodgers are a team to be reckoned with, that every-pitch focus matters, that communication will be essential in tight playoff games. That’s what this felt like, a crowd of 44,745 erupting in the eighth inning after a replay review that lasted 96 seconds confirmed the call on the field.

The Cubs lost their composure, Trevor Cahill hitting Andrew Toles with a pitch and then jamming Howie Kendrick. Cahill fielded the groundball and threw it into right field. An intentional walk to Corey Seager loaded the bases, setting up a battle between Carl Edwards Jr. and the heart of the Los Angeles lineup.

The rookie unleashed a 97-mph fastball and struck out Justin Turner on a foul tip. Edwards then went right back at Adrian Gonzalez, inducing a chopper toward third baseman Javier Baez, who made the split-second decision to throw to second, where Seager’s right foot crashed into second just before Ben Zobrist’s left foot touched it.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!] 

“We just didn’t communicate,” Baez said. “I completely forgot about who was running down the line. We weren’t holding at first with the bases loaded. Obviously, he had like a huge lead. But in the moment, I was going back with the groundball and I saw Zo going full speed to the bag.”

But Zobrist had been playing deeper in right field to defend Gonzalez, a left-handed slugger and a slow runner. The margin for error is razor-thin when the Cubs needed 10 innings to secure a comeback win on Friday night – and the Dodgers responded by winning one-run games on Saturday and Sunday afternoon.

“I feel like the responsibility falls on me being the veteran,” Zobrist said. “It’s a tough play. It’s a reaction play. It’s a feel play. But if we communicate ahead of time, then he knows right away when he catches the ball, you go to first base with it. 

“He can’t (put) the blame on himself. It’s everybody out there. It’s more my responsibility being the older guy out there. He’s still very young and playing all over the place. And sometimes we can all get, I guess, a little bit lackadaisical with our communication.”  

If anything, Maddon was more bothered by Baez not running out a pop-up in the fifth inning, part of an 0-for-4 day and a 3-for-27 road trip that to this point had highlighted his Gold Glove defense. 

“This kid has as much instinct for the game as anybody I’ve ever been around,” Maddon said. “He just misread the moment right there. I would like to believe they’re going to communicate in the future.”

The Cubs would still leave Los Angeles with a 14-game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals, their magic number to clinch the division down to 20 after a 5-4 road trip. With such a huge cushion, the Cubs also got a chance to remember what it’s like to play in front of a huge crowd where every pitch has consequences.  

“I don’t think that really matters,” said Jon Lester, who got the no-decision after six scoreless innings and didn’t look thrilled to be wearing a onesie. “Everybody here has been in playoff situations now. It’s kind of like we don’t really have to prep for anything anymore. These are situations now that guys are used to. Just go play.”