Ten things to watch for this Cubs season

642318.png

Ten things to watch for this Cubs season

MESA, Ariz. Theo Epsteins reserved parking spot is clearly marked by the entrance to the main building at Fitch Park.

Even if the compensation issue with the Boston Red Sox still isnt resolved word from commissioner Bud Selig is expected soon theres obviously no turning back now.

The baseball operations staff is here in Arizona for organizational meetings, where they will try to define and explain The Cubs Way. Several groups of players were working out on Thursday at the teams complex in Mesa, including Marlon Byrd, Darwin Barney, Jeff Samardzija, Bryan LaHair and Tony Campana.

That morning, the front page of USA Todays sports section featured a photo collage of 10 players Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder and Jose Reyes among them. But Epstein was at the center of the spring training preview, standing in front of the Wrigley Field marquee.

The new president of baseball operations doesnt really want to be the face of the franchise, so here are 10 other story lines to consider before pitchers and catchers officially report on Saturday:

1. Camp Sveum

Dale Sveum doesnt want his players to take the easy way out and slide. He believes catchers should fear you when youre coming into home plate. He doesnt want to see any dogs or hear about any excuses. Win or lose, he figures, at least make it a fistfight.

Sveum met with Red Sox ownership last November in Milwaukee, sensing hed be getting an offer to manage a win-now team that never came. Instead of answering questions about fried chicken and beer in the clubhouse, hell be on the ground floor of Epsteins rebuilding project. The first-year manager will be given every opportunity to develop into the next Terry Francona. This is Sveums time to put his stamp on the team.

2. The next big thing

The Cubs were shocked by the changes to the collective bargaining agreement, which limit the amount of money teams can spend in the draft and on the international market. Jorge Soler wouldnt count against that cap if hes signed before July 2, one reason why the 19-year-old Cuban defector could spark a bidding war.

The Cubs own the sixth overall choice in the June draft, plus supplemental picks for losing Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena. Now,their talking point is that its going to become a scouting contest. New executive Jason McLeod who once ran drafts for the Red Sox that produced impact players like Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Clay Buchholz and Daniel Bard becomes one of the most influential people in the organization.

3. Strength up the middle?

At the age of 21, Starlin Castro made the All-Star team and led the National League in hits, but the gifted shortstop still has much to prove. The Cubs expressed support while his lawyers had to deny sexual assault allegations last month. But even without the negative publicity, hed still have to show that hes learned what it takes at this level. This will be his third season in the big leagues, time to cut down on the careless errors and improve his focus. Because of his personality and big smile, there will be many people rooting for him to become a franchise player.

4. Whos on first?

It is LaHairs job heading into spring training. Last years Pacific Coast League MVP will get a chance to show that he belongs in the majors, where he has only 195 at-bats on his resume. The Cubs insist that Anthony Rizzo will begin the season at Triple-A Iowa, where the top prospect will try to erase last years audition with the San Diego Padres (18-for-128 with 46 strikeouts). At 22, Rizzo is seven years younger than LaHair, and projected as someone who will be a force in the lineup and the clubhouse when the Cubs see their next window to contend.

5. Coach em up

Sveum knew exactly who he wanted to be his pitching coach, and this might be the most important relationship in the dugout for a first-year manager. Chris Bosio pitched more than 1,700 innings in the majors, and that should give him some instant credibility. It will be on Bosio to unlock the potential in former first-round picks Travis Wood and Chris Volstad, and help push Matt Garza and Randy Wells to their next levels. The Cubs have talked a lot about the depth theyve added to their pitching staff. Bosio will have to sort it all out.

6. Endgame

Twelve months ago, Carlos Marmol was rewarded with a three-year, 20 million deal. It was a nice story about the 16-year-old kid the Cubs once signed out of the Dominican Republic, who eventually had to be talked into pitching and emerged as a dominating closer. Marmol didnt live up to the contract in 2011. No one in the majors finished with more than his 10 blown saves. Between the return of Kerry Wood and the progress shown by Samardzija and James Russell, the bullpen could be a real strength. But it starts with the closer regaining the feel for his slider, and then his confidence.

7. Follow the money

Local television deals helped juice the baseball economy this winter and shift the balance of power to the American League. Fox Sports regional networks helped bankroll the Los Angeles Angels and Texas Rangers, who combined spent more than 425 million to sign Pujols, C.J. Wilson and Yu Darvish. The Cubs have multiyear broadcasting commitments to both WGN and CSN, and their business executives are no doubt wondering: Wheres ours?

8. Your ad here

The newsiest item out of last months Cubs Convention was the plan to steal business away from the surrounding rooftops by building a patio deck in the right-field bleachers and installing a big LED board to show game information and advertisements. Skeptics will wonder where this is all heading (Jumbotron?) and how it could change the look and feel of Wrigley Field. Either way, this should be a pivotal year for finding a way to finance those stadium renovation plans, which hopefully wont include any yellow noodles outside the building.
9. Ready for prime time?

The crosstown series against the White Sox wont be nearly as explosive without Ozzie Guillen and Carlos Zambrano, who took their talents to South Beach, but there are still dates to circle on the calendar, like April 17-19 in Little Havana. The Cubs will be there at Busch Stadium when the St. Louis Cardinals unveil their World Series banner and hand out championship rings (April 13-15).

Fielder will swing away at Clark and Addison, but only in a Detroit Tigers uniform (June 12-14). The bars around Wrigleyville will be jam-packed when Red Sox Nation invades (June 15-17). By then, it could be time to count down the days until the trade deadline, to see how the market develops for Garza, if a contender needs Byrd and if anyones desperate enough to take on a fraction of Alfonso Sorianos contract.
10. Are we there yet?

Epstein joked that the Cubs led the league in press conferences. The narrative now will be how they stick to their plan, and if everyone will really have the patience to see it through.

What we want to do is create a sustainable team that every single year has a chance to make the playoffs, general manager Jed Hoyer said last month. Its like taking a shot on goal. The teams that win World Series are teams that make the playoffs year after year.

The Florida Marlins' model of making the playoffs and winning the World Series every time they do itthats not really one to follow. We need to get to the point where we make the playoffs every single year and once we do that, a championship should follow. How long its going to take to build that sustainable team? I cant tell you. But I can tell you thats what were working on and, hopefully, it will come sooner rather than later.

Theories on why Cubs haven’t played up to their defensive potential yet

Theories on why Cubs haven’t played up to their defensive potential yet

“That’s what we’re supposed to look like,” Joe Maddon said Monday night after a 6-4 loss where the San Francisco Giants scored the first six runs and Wrigley Field got loudest for the David Ross “Dancing with the Stars” look-in on the big video board, at least until a late flurry from the Cubs.

But for a manager always looking for the silver linings, Maddon could replay Addison Russell’s diving stop to his right and strong throw from deep in the hole at shortstop to take a hit away from Christian Arroyo. Or Albert Almora’s spectacular flying catch near the warning track in center field. Or Anthony Rizzo stealing another hit from Brandon Belt with a diving backhanded play near the first-base line.

The highlight reel became a reminder of how the Cubs won 103 games and the World Series last year – and made you wonder why the 2017 team hasn’t played the same consistently excellent defense with largely the same group of personnel.

“Concentration?” Jason Heyward said, quickly dismissing the theory a defensive decline could boil down to focus or effort. “No shot. No shot. It is what it is when it comes to people asking questions about last year having effects, this and that. But this is a new season.

“The standard is still high. What’s our excuse? We played later than anybody? That may buy you some time, but then what?

“The goals stay the same. We just got to find new ways to do it when you have a different team.”

FiveThirtyEight.com, Nate Silver’s statistical website, framed the question this way after the Cubs allowed the lowest batting average on balls in play ever last season, an analysis that goes all the way back to 1871: “Have the Cubs Forgotten How to Field?”

Even if the Cubs don’t set records and make history, they should still be better than 23rd in the majors in defensive efficiency, with 37 errors through 43 games. The Cubs have already allowed 28 unearned runs after giving up 45 all last season.

“We just got to stay on it and keep focusing and not let the miscues go to our head,” Ben Zobrist said. “We just have to keep working hard and staying focused in the field. A lot of that’s the rhythm of the game. I blame a lot of that on the early parts of the season and the weather and a lot of difficult things that we’ve been going through.

“If we’re not hitting the ball well, too, we’re a young team still, and you can carry that into the field. You don’t want to let that happen, but it’s part of the game. You got to learn to move beyond miscues and just focus on the next play.”

Heyward, a four-time Gold Glove winner, missed two weeks with a sprained right finger and has already started nine times in center field (after doing that 21 times all last season). Zobrist has morphed back into a super-utility guy, starting 16 games at second base and 15 in two different outfield spots.

[MORE CUBS: Have the Cubs found their new leadoff hitter in Ben Zobrist?]

Maddon has tried to drill the idea of making the routine play into Javier Baez’s head, so that the uber-talented second baseman can allow his natural athleticism and instincts to take over during those dazzling moments.

The Cubs are basically hoping Kyle Schwarber keeps the ball in front of him in left and setting the bar at: Don’t crash into your center fielder. Like Schwarber and Almora, catcher Willson Contreras hasn’t played a full season in The Show yet, and the Cubs are now hoping rookie Ian Happ can become a Zobrist-type defender all over the field.

“I’m seeing our guys playing in a lot of different places,” Heyward said. “It’s not just been penciling in every day who’s going to center field or right field or left field. We did shake things up some last year, but we did it kind of later in the season. We had guys settle in, playing every day. This year, I feel like we’re having guys in different spots.

“It’s May whatever, (but) it seems like we haven’t really had a chance to settle in yet. Not that we’re procrastinating by any means, but it’s just been a lot of moving pieces.”

The Giants won World Series titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014 with a formula that incorporated lights-out pitching, airtight defense and just enough clutch hitting. The Cubs are now a 22-21 team trying to figure it out again.

“Defense comes and goes, just like pitching,” said Kris Bryant, the reigning National League MVP, in part, because of his defensive versatility. “I feel like if you look at last year, it’s kind of hard to compare, just because it was so good. We spoiled everybody last year. Now we’re a complete letdown this year.”

Bryant paused and said: “Just kidding. Different years, things regress, things progress, and that’s just how it goes sometimes.”

For Joe Maddon, Cubs winning World Series came down to Giant comeback in SF and avoiding Johnny Cueto in elimination game

For Joe Maddon, Cubs winning World Series came down to Giant comeback in SF and avoiding Johnny Cueto in elimination game

Jon Lester vs. Johnny Cueto at Wrigley Field – the playoff matchup the Cubs dreaded in an elimination game – will happen more than seven months later under far different circumstances.

The Cubs have a 2016 championship banner flying next to the iconic center-field scoreboard – the ultimate response to any questions about their slow start to this season. The San Francisco Giants can’t have Madison Bumgarner saunter out of the bullpen when he’s recovering from a dirt-bike accident, another reason why an odd-year team is much closer to last place than first in an improved National League West.

The Giants don’t have the same aura, because the Cubs staged an epic comeback to end a best-of-five division series last October, scoring four runs again five different relievers in the ninth inning at AT&T Park.

“I’m telling you, man, Game 4 pretty much won the World Series,” Joe Maddon said. “I did not want to see Mr. Cueto pitching back here again. I’ll get to see him (Tuesday night), but that’s OK, compared to whatever that day would’ve been.”

Maddon has admitted this already, but it is still telling from a manager who always tries to stay in the moment and ignore the negativity. It says something about a Giant franchise that had won 10 straight postseason elimination games and World Series titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014 – and a fan base that used to expect things to go wrong in Wrigleyville after more than a century of losing.

“That whole Game 4 in San Francisco, I did focus on that a lot,” Maddon said. “Just trying to understand Game 5 back at home – how this is going to play out – and do whatever we possibly can to win that game there that night in San Francisco.

“That was the game for me – out of the entire postseason. To have to play the Giants where they were battle-tested – Game 5, back here with (Cueto) pitching – I did not like that at all. I thought that pretty much the postseason hinged on that one game in San Francisco.”

Even though the Cubs still had to survive a 21-inning scoreless streak against the Los Angeles Dodgers before winning their first NL pennant in 71 years. And come back from a 3-1 deficit in the World Series and beat the Cleveland Indians on the road in a 10-inning Game 7 for the ages.

[RELATED: Cubs can't complete another miracle comeback against Giants bullpen]

“That’s what good teams do,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. “They’re a very talented club, very solid all around. You don’t win the World Series unless you are.

“Look back at our success, how many times were we looking at elimination? No, you’re never surprised in the postseason. Anything those teams do, it’s because they’re there for a reason. They’re very good.”

Lester beat Cueto in a 1-0 instant classic when Javier Baez lifted a 3-2 quick pitch into the basket beneath the video ribbon in the left-field bleachers. Cueto kept the Cubs so off-balance in Game 1 that Baez actually walked up to home plate in the eighth inning thinking bunt.

The Giants reacted to that Game 4 meltdown by giving All-Star closer Mark Melancon a four-year, $62 million contract at the winter meetings, trying to fix a bullpen that led the majors with 30 blown saves last season.

“It was close,” Bochy said. “Three outs from taking it to Game 5 with a pretty good pitcher going. We can speculate all we want. There’s no point in that. It didn’t happen.

“But, sure, you look back. That’s how tight that series was. Unfortunately, we couldn’t hold on. Give them credit – great job coming back. We’re a team that plays very well under pressure, and we did there. Just couldn’t hold on to that ninth inning.”