Cubs will have to earn more additions at trade deadline and ‘become the team that everyone loves again’

Cubs will have to earn more additions at trade deadline and ‘become the team that everyone loves again’

BALTIMORE – It’s the middle of July and the Cubs still don’t really know what type of team they have. Sure, their fans streamed into the Inner Harbor, Baltimore’s downtown hotels and Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Most of their players own World Series rings. But trading for Jose Quintana became more about 2018, 2019 and 2020 than the rest of this summer.

What’s next? Who knows? Cubs president Theo Epstein sat behind home plate during Friday’s 9-8 rollercoaster win over the Orioles, the beginning of a post-All-Star break evaluation period that will determine just how aggressive (or not) the front office and ownership will be leading up to the July 31 trade deadline.

“We have to play better,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “That’s it. It’s plain and simple. We just have to play better baseball and become the team that everyone loves again.”

The Cubs got off to a roaring start during the first three innings against Kevin Gausman (6.39 ERA), when Willson Contreras and Kyle Schwarber blasted back-to-back homers into the left-center field bullpen, Ben Zobrist launched one onto the right-field patio deck and Jason Heyward crushed a ball onto Eutaw Street.

Looking like all-in buyers with an 8-0 lead, Mike Montgomery couldn’t finish the fifth inning and the Cubs almost completely trashed the early rough drafts of the feel-good stories. The bullpen that had been such a first-half strength – and needs the Quintana reinforcement and seems due for a regression – watched Mark Trumbo turn it into an 8-8 game in the eighth inning when he hammered a two-run homer off Koji Uehara.

And then Addison Russell delivered in the ninth inning, drilling Brad Brach’s 96-mph, first-pitch fastball into the left-center field seats, showing why the Cubs have so much faith in the core players they didn’t send to the White Sox in the Quintana deal.

“The front office will tell us how it is,” Rizzo said. “They’re consistent. They believe in us, just as much as we believe in ourselves. They don’t blow smoke up us, and they back it up.

“It’s a really good feeling as a player for us to come back with a brand new addition after a nice break. It’s just amazing. It’s a credit to them for pulling that off.”

The issue with this team has been putting it all together night after night after night. Epstein won’t be fooled by one uneven win over a 42-47 Orioles team. The 44-45 Cubs will try to reach the .500 mark for the 21st time this season on Saturday when Jake Arrieta faces the organization that drafted, developed and traded him before he became a Cy Young Award winner.

“It’s been that time,” Arrieta said. “We just haven’t really been able to kind of get a firm grasp on the way we’ve been playing. It’s just been kind of up and down throughout the first half. That seems like the story of the first few months of our season.

“But we obviously need to gain some ground.”

The Milwaukee Brewers won again to remain 5.5 games up in the National League Central, where everyone knows how the Cubs responded to a 97-win season in 2015 (by spending almost $290 million on free agents) and a 98.8-percent chance to make the playoffs last summer (by acquiring All-Star closer Aroldis Chapman). 

“We have a front office that’s willing to make moves if we show them we earn those moves,” Heyward said. “That’s what you have to do if you want things to happen. Whether it’s a trade or whether it’s advancing into the postseason, you got to earn that stuff.” 

Will Cubs clubhouse come together or completely collapse?

Will Cubs clubhouse come together or completely collapse?

This was hours after the Cubs dumped Miguel Montero for ripping Jake Arrieta, becoming the viral national story during a dead spot on the hot-take calendar with the NFL on hiatus and the NBA in between the draft and the start of free agency.

Roughly half the team skipped an optional trip to the White House, where that afternoon board member Todd Ricketts told Donald Trump the Washington Nationals would “crumble” against the Cubs in October. The Nationals at that point had a 98-percent chance to make the playoffs while the defending World Series champs were stuck around .500 and hadn’t been in first place in three weeks. That’s Cub.

Surrounded by reporters on June 28, star manager Joe Maddon sat on the bench in the visiting dugout at Nationals Park, knowing his team would also be playing shorthanded with a World Series MVP (Ben Zobrist), Gold Glove outfielder (Jason Heyward) and Cy Young Award finalist (Kyle Hendricks) already on the disabled list and a World Series legend (Kyle Schwarber) demoted back to Triple-A Iowa the week before.

With his eyes shielded by sunglasses, Maddon listened to the question during his pregame media session: Are you concerned about the clubhouse starting to splinter?

“No,” Maddon said, pausing and leaning in as if he would launch into a filibuster or a philosophical dissertation or some story from his days as a minor-league instructor and instead going silent.

Why not?

“Because there’s no reason to,” Maddon said.

OK then, maybe we’re talking to the wrong guy here, because bench coach Dave Martinez usually runs interference and handles a lot of difficult conversations with players.

Just ask John Lackey, who responded this way after a 6-1 loss on June 12 when a reporter mentioned Maddon’s pregame suggestion that the veteran pitcher might change his approach this time against the New York Mets: “Joe doesn’t have much to do with the pitching. I don’t know what he’s talking about there.”

Lackey — who has a history with Maddon, three World Series rings and a 5.20 ERA that ranks 66th out of 74 qualified big-league pitchers — would later crush a softball question about Jon Jay after the super-sub delivered a pinch-hit, game-tying, three-run homer in a comeback win over the Tampa Bay Rays on July 5: “He’s been everything we needed this year. Honestly, I can’t believe he doesn’t play more.”

It’s hard to believe, but there are times where it feels closer to 108 years than eight-plus months since the Cubs last won the World Series.

For all the talk about this 43-45 team getting hot and having a run in them, the Cubs should also be concerned about the possibility of the bottom falling out and this second half turning ugly.

For all the speculation about Theo Epstein’s front office riding to the rescue at the July 31 trade deadline, this post-All-Star break window could be about making sure the Cubs don’t overreact and give up on the wrong young player and do something that blows up The Foundation for Sustained Success. 

That day in Washington, Maddon circled back to his belief in the clubhouse culture and the positive attitude and hands-off style that’s made him a three-time Manager of the Year and a future Hall of Famer. 

“Primarily, again, there’s a lot of guys missing,” Maddon said. “That’s the biggest thing. You’re not going to find splintering among (Albert) Almora and (Javier) Baez and (Addison) Russell and Willson (Contreras) and (Kris) Bryant, to answer your question specifically.

“It’s not about splintering. It’s about youthful players finding their way to the major-league level. We’re missing a lot of the key components that drove us to the World Series last year, and now we’re building another group of components that are going to take us back there again.”

Russell became the subject of a Major League Baseball investigation last month after a third party leveled an abuse allegation on social media, responding to his wife’s since-deleted Instagram post that accused him of infidelity and foreshadowed her divorce filing.

Baez started all 17 playoff games at second base last year and then starred for Team Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic, but Maddon didn’t feel comfortable anointing him as the everyday second baseman. Baez has signed endorsement deals worth $2 million in the last six months, according to USA Today, joining forces with Nike, Toyota, Apple and David sunflower seeds and getting on the cover of ESPN The Magazine’s body issue. 

Almora, Contreras and Ian Happ haven’t gone through a full season in the majors yet. Backup catcher Victor Caratini made his big-league debut after the Montero fiasco. 

“Splintering is not it at all,” Maddon said. “For me, it’s a patient, consistent approach with me doing my job as the manager and the coaches doing what they’re supposed to do in regards to bringing the message out there on a daily basis.

“It’s a different path. We’re fortunate we are in this division right now, based on the record and we’re still very solvent. (But) it’s an entirely different group — entirely different. I mean, to try to connect the dots between last year and this year, to me, is impossible.”  

Except it’s impossible to ignore after making history. A player agent once described meeting his client on the road last year and noticing the flocks of Cubs fans gathering and growing bigger and bigger as they walked through a mall near the team hotel. This is life after “Embrace The Target.”  

“That’s where you want to be,” said catching/strategy coach Mike Borzello, who won four World Series rings with the New York Yankees. “You want to be that team. It’s this rock-star aura around this club now with all the young guys. Good players, good-looking guys – men, women, everyone wants to be around the team. It was the same way in New York.”

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Schwarber — who now has the lowest batting average (.178) among all qualified big-league hitters — became part of a Gatorade ad campaign, a face of the New Era hat company and a regular on WMVP-AM 1000. That’s the same station where Anthony Rizzo used his radio gig to either stick up for a teammate or do some of management’s dirty work, burying Montero before the DFA news leaked.

The Twitter account for Rizzo’s charitable foundation — which does admirable work for cancer patients and recently donated $3.5 million to Lurie Children’s Hospital — retweeted Rizzo’s ESPN 1000 comments: “When you point fingers you’re a selfish player. We have another catcher that throws everyone out.” The message above that since-deleted tweet: “Win together, lose together.”

“I think we have a great clubhouse,” Rizzo said. “Guys get along really well. We’re all joking around. We’re all having a good time. We’re just not 25 games over .500. We got to keep playing (and) come together and continue to fight.”

While Bryzzo Souvenir Co. didn’t get the ideal All-Star Game placement, Bryant and Rizzo still combined for 38 homers, 94 RBI and an OPS range between .894 and .928 in the first half. Yet the Cubs are still a stunningly mediocre team with 399 runs scored and 399 runs allowed and 61 errors through 88 games.

The Cubs keep talking about searching for their identity, because that beats the alternative of admitting they’ve already found it.

“It’s a hard thing to define,” Epstein said. “It’s like culture. You can go on and on trying to define it, but it’s like what the Supreme Court said about pornography: You know it when you see it.

“I think our identity last year was all our guys got to the point where they felt like they were part of something bigger than themselves. They felt completely connected with one another. They felt like they were on a mission to win the World Series for the first time in 108 years.

“I think part of their identity was they were keenly aware of how talented they were — and what a special opportunity it was — and how as long as they had each other’s backs, things would work out really well for this group. That meant maybe playing multiple positions or taking less playing time or backing up a teammate rather than playing a leading role.

“Nothing was going to get in the way of the group working together to make history and take advantage of the special opportunities that they had. Every year, the landscape is different. The environment is different. The challenge is different. The circumstances are different. And the group is different.

“Every year, a new identity has to emerge. And I think it just so happens that we’re still in the process of that happening. Again, it’s kind of been a stop-and-start first half of the season for us. We haven’t gotten on any kind of roll.”

Combined, the Cubs are 2-6 against the American League East and 6-11 vs. the Nationals, Los Angeles Dodgers and Colorado Rockies, a reality check that means the next 74 games could become more and more about player development, 2018 auditions and planning for the future, even while trying to make up that 5.5-game deficit against the Milwaukee Brewers.

“Guys have been around enough, for the most part, to understand that tomorrow if something happens and I don’t walk in this clubhouse, the game will still be played,” Jon Lester said, the $155 million ace looking back on the churn rate. “Regardless of what moves that Theo and the front office and ownership and management feel we need to make, the game will still be played.

“That’s kind of how you have to look at it. There’s a lot of moving parts. It’s not too often that you have a team that doesn’t make a move through the entire course of a season. Some of them as a player you don’t like, and some of them as a player you agree with or whatever, but that’s not our job. Our job is to go out and play with who’s in this clubhouse and make the best of it. That’s all we can control.”

That starts again Friday night at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore, where the Cubs will either begin to finally click or continue this slow-motion collapse. As Lackey said: “Winning makes everything better.”

Why Cubs believe Kyle Schwarber is ready to do damage again: 'I'm not a pouter'

Why Cubs believe Kyle Schwarber is ready to do damage again: 'I'm not a pouter'

In some ways, it felt like Kyle Schwarber never left.

Schwarber’s image loomed in New Era advertisements on the Wrigley Field video boards, the team store at the stadium’s Waveland Avenue entrance and on the side of Clark Street Sports. Schwarber Watch ran for multiple news cycles during his 11-game sabbatical with Triple-A Iowa.

The Cubs remained the same underachieving team: 36-35 on June 21 when Schwarber was told to take a few days off to decompress before reporting to Des Moines — and 42-42 when he walked back through the clubhouse on Thursday at 10:15 a.m.

Wearing jeans, cowboy boots and a camouflage hat, Schwarber dropped his backpack at his locker, where more than a dozen media types loitered, waiting around for the optimistic sound bites. Schwarber gave Ben Zobrist a bear hug and playfully punched Willson Contreras in the stomach, all smiles around guys who wouldn’t have that World Series ring without him.

“I’m not a pouter,” Schwarber said with a laugh before going 0-for-4 with two strikeouts in an 11-2 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers that had none of the bounce the Cubs hoped for. “I’m pretty dang confident in myself. I’ve overcome a lot of different things.

“I feel like that was a really big learning experience for me. Now knowing what I have to do to get back — if things start going wrong again, whatever it is — I feel really confident.”

The doubts still crept in as Schwarber stunningly withered from playoff legend the last two Octobers (and part of November) into one of the worst hitters in the big leagues this season (.171 average, .673 OPS) for a majorly disappointing team.

“When the guys look up at the scoreboard, you see all these numbers,” manager Joe Maddon said. “It’s impactful when you see your number being so low and you want to get it back by next Wednesday. And it’s not going to be done by next Wednesday, so you start trying to do more and more and more, where it’s really appropriate to try and do less.

“‘Try easier’ is a really good phrase. It’s really difficult to get highly competitive young players to try easier at times. But that’s exactly what he needs to do.”

Where the Cubs completely overhauled Jason Heyward’s swing during the offseason, team president Theo Epstein framed Schwarber’s program as “more about a reset for him than it was a rebuilding.”

“Everything got a little bit too big for me,” Schwarber said, talking specifically about his mechanics and not the post-World Series victory lap and all the off-the-field attention the 2016 Cubs have enjoyed. “Just my moves and everything like that.

“It wasn’t drastic. It was just being able to focus on some little things. I was just missing my pitch. It’s being able to shorten things down and now get back on my pitch. It’s feeling good.”

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Schwarber didn’t just lose all this talent overnight, the skills that made him the No. 4 overall pick in the 2014 draft, a monster hitter for a 97-win team in 2015 and the World Series X-factor coming back from major knee surgery. The Cubs also realize that a good run with Iowa — 12-for-35 with four homers and eight walks — won’t suddenly change everything back to the way it was.

“His body language is more typical of what we’ve seen,” Epstein said. “When he’s right, he’s kind of stalking the pitcher from the on-deck circle. He controls the at-bat from the batter’s box. And that’s what we’ve seen down there.

“Obviously, it’s baseball. You’re not necessarily going to see results right away and that’s not what we’re asking of him. Just a consistent approach and maintaining confidence and a positive attitude — which he has right now — and we know the results will come eventually.”

The Cubs are running out of buttons to push and levers to pull here, once again hoping “The Legend of Schwarber” can help save them, the way he delivered in the 2015 playoffs and an epic World Series.

“He’s a big part of our culture here,” Maddon said. “He’s a highly accountable young man. He knew he needed it. He was probably kind of expecting it in advance. It was probably somewhat of a relief, just being able to do that, so you could go there, away from the maddening crowd, and attempt to get yourself back together.”