Chicago Cubs

Theo Epstein riding the wave, preparing for when Cubs might crash: ‘Baseball karma is real’

Theo Epstein riding the wave, preparing for when Cubs might crash: ‘Baseball karma is real’

Sports Illustrated splashed the Cubs across another regional cover, this time calling them “The Last Great American Sports Story.” There’s Javier Baez, arms raised in triumph, about to jump onto home plate and into the awaiting mosh pit after a walk-off win on Mother’s Day at Wrigley Field.       

Sweeping the Pittsburgh Pirates and Washington Nationals – two battle-tested, playoff-caliber teams the Cubs might face in October – heightened the delirious feelings out in the bleachers, on social media and within certain segments of the media.

But Theo Epstein’s job is to ignore the hype and prepare for the crash, especially when the president of baseball operations watches a 25-6 team exceed even the sky-high preseason expectations.

“This is not baseball reality,” Epstein said before Tuesday’s 8-7 victory over the San Diego Padres. “Baseball reality is it’s really hard to win a single major-league game. That’s why we celebrate it so much.” 

The Cubs are handling all phases of the game right now and must be wearing out the new Celebration Room in their tricked-out clubhouse, getting to the middle of May without back-to-back losses and pushing their run differential to plus-103.

The National League’s deepest, most patient lineup knocked out a rookie starter (Cesar Vargas) after four innings and 92 pitches, generating 12 hits and five walks against an overmatched last-place team. Jon Lester (4-1, 1.96 ERA) didn’t have his best stuff and had to grind through six innings, but he pieced together another quality start for a rotation that began the day leading the majors with a 2.26 ERA. 

The night before a doubleheader, star manager Joe Maddon pulled the bullpen levers, using six different relievers, including Pedro Strop (who got Matt Kemp to fly out to right field with the bases loaded to end the seventh inning) and Hector Rondon (now 7-for-7 in save chances with 20 strikeouts against 41 batters faced). It looked like a much closer game than it actually felt after pinch-hitter Alex Dickerson hit a grand slam off Adam Warren with two outs in the eighth inning. 

“We know we’re in a stretch right now where winning seems far easier than it actually is,” Epstein said. “We know there’s going to be a stretch – probably a long stretch this year – where winning even one game seems virtually impossible. That’s just the nature of baseball. We’re not blinded by it. 

“We’ve been saying in the office: ‘We’re in a tree right now.’ We want to stay up there as long as we can, but we’re going to get down at some point.”

The Cubs didn’t stop after shocking the baseball world last year, winning 97 games and two playoff rounds and then doubling down by spending almost $290 million on free agents. The trade deadline won’t be a time to be cautious and worry too much about the future when this team has a chance to make history. 

“We still have vulnerabilities,” Epstein said. “We still have areas where we need to get better. We still have challenges and more adversity to come. We’re going to suffer injuries. We’re going to suffer downturns in performance. We’re going to be stretched thin. We’re going to go through stretches of bad luck. We’re going to go through stretches of bad performance. We’re going to run into really hot teams. 

“We want to stay as locked in as we are right now. But the game is very humbling and we’re aware that time is coming when there are going to be great challenges. And we almost look forward to it, because I think that’s when you find out what you’re made of.”

Where last season felt like a joyride for a front office that projected around 85 wins if everything broke right, a group of rookies that didn’t know any better and a $155 million pitcher who expected 2016 to be the year where the Cubs went all-in, only a World Series title will satisfy them now.            

“Baseball karma is real,” Epstein said. “When you see some of the stuff written about us in the winter, and you see some of the World Series odds and things like that for a team that is a defending third-place team and hasn’t done anything yet, and there are some individuals who haven’t proven they can accomplish certain things back-to-back seasons, and we’re still a losing team during my tenure overall in Chicago (322-357), you get uncomfortable. 

“Hopefully, at the end of the year, we’ll look up and say: ‘Hey, we earned what people are saying about us.’”

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.”

Untouchable: Javier Baez showed why Cubs built around him during takeover at shortstop

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AP

Untouchable: Javier Baez showed why Cubs built around him during takeover at shortstop

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Imagine Javier Baez wearing a New York Mets uniform or playing in an empty Tropicana Field and where the Cubs would be without their backup shortstop.

The trade speculation still lingered into this season, even after Baez blossomed into a National League Championship Series co-MVP and a World Series champion. Maybe it was just out of habit since Theo Epstein’s front office spent years collecting hitters and planning to deal for pitching, or a perception issue for a prospect who wasn’t drafted by this regime and has a “flashiness” to his game that recently got this unfair, narrow-minded label from a Pittsburgh Pirates broadcaster: “A difficult player for me to root for.”

But the Cubs never traded Baez to the Tampa Bay Rays for one of those starters who usually seems to be on the rumor mill – Chris Archer, Alex Cobb, Jake Odorizzi, Matt Moore – and that decision continues to look better and better in hindsight.   

Baez again showed why he is essentially untouchable while Addison Russell slowly recovered from a strained right foot and plantar fasciitis, starting 41 of 42 games at shortstop between Aug. 3 and Sept. 16 and hitting .282 with eight homers and 27 RBI during that stretch.  

Deep down, Baez still views himself as a shortstop – “yeah, for sure, if I get the (chance)” – while deferring to Russell (who was activated over the weekend) and understanding that the Cubs can again have an elite defensive unit when he moves back to second base.

“When I play short every day, obviously, I’m going to be ready for it and making all the adjustments to be there,” Baez said. “I do my best to help the team. Addie’s a big part of the team.”

Remember how shaky the defense looked up the middle when Russell missed the 2015 NLCS with a hamstring injury and the Mets swept the Cubs out of the playoffs?  

The Cubs created enough depth – and room to grow – to stash an All-Star shortstop on the disabled list on Aug. 4 and go from being a 57-50 team with a 1.5-game lead in the division to running a season-high 17 games over .500 heading into Tuesday night at The Trop.  

Even though Joe Maddon lobbied for Baez to make the Opening Day roster during his first post-Rays spring training in 2015, the manager also made a point to say he didn’t run an entitlement program.

Maddon would not anoint Baez as an everyday player heading into this season, even after he started all 17 games at second base during last year’s playoffs and starred for Team Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic.

“If you had done that with him two years ago, he would have buried himself,” Maddon said. “Absolutely. I don’t think he would have made the same adjustments at the plate. You would have seen a lot more mistakes on defense. You would have seen a lot more routine plays not handled routinely. You would not have seen the same base running. Even though he had it in his back pocket, I just think that he’s learned how to really pick his moments there, too. He wasn’t ready for all that.”

There is something to the idea of taking the good with the bad with Baez. Except there are no perfect players and so few have his mind-blowing combination of skills, love for the game and sixth sense for highlight-reel moments.    

“You don’t teach those things – that’s just God-given talent,” catcher Alex Avila said. “He’s been able to put it together. You see those plays. But the work that goes into it – as far as being in the right spot, having the right first step, anticipating the ball, things like that – all that kind of gets you the result.

“(It’s not only) making sure he’s making the routine plays, but he has the athleticism and the wherewithal to be able to make the spectacular plays as well.”

Instead of focusing on the tattoos or the hairstyles or a swing that can get out of control at times, remember that this is someone who already has 22 homers and 70 RBI in the middle of September – and a .791 OPS in his age-24 season that represents a 54-point jump from the year before – for an iconic team with World Series expectations.

“You could see there was a lot of stuff for Javy to iron out,” Maddon said. “He’s worked them out. It’s a lot of repetition. It’s a lot of good coaching. But it’s about the player himself, being able to make those adjustments. I honestly think his path has been a good one. And I think the way we did it last year was perfect.

“Everything’s happened as it should organically for him."