Cubs not counting out the 2012 season

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Cubs not counting out the 2012 season

Paul Maholm spent his entire career with the Pirates up until this week, so he knows a thing or two about losing.

But when when he was asked Friday at the Cubs Convention how it felt to go from one struggling franchise to another, he was quick to answer.

"No guarantee on the struggling part," Maholm said of the Cubs' 2012 prospects. "Last year, everybody expected us to lose more than 110 games and we played well in Pittsburgh. It takes 25 guys-plus to come together and play hard and expect to win. From Theo down, we're expecting to do that this year."

Maholm is the newest Cub, but he's preaching the same sentiment as long-tenured veterans.

"We're all tied for first right now. It's our job not to lose it," Ryan Dempster said.

"You may be surprised," catcher Geovany Soto said. "You could see a great team with great chemistry winning ball games. Everybody could be surprised here in August. You never know, that's why you have to come prepared."

To a man, the Cubs are positive. They believe they can conted in 2012.

But what else would they say? Why would they agree that the upcoming season could produce 90-100 losses?

"We'll never tell you that because we don't believe in that," newcomer Ian Stewart said. "We feel like we're going to come out and win games. The goal every game is to come out and win, not just to see how good you can do.

"There's been a lot of teams that have started the season with question marks that have gone on to be good teams, so there's no reason we can't do that here."

And that's the right attitude to have, obviously. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer wouldn't have brought in guys who are content with losing.

But Epstein and Hoyer have also done a good job dismantling the roster.

Last season, the Cubs struggled to a 71-91 record and a fifth place finish in the NL Central.

Gone from that lineup are Aramis Ramirez (26 homers, 93 RBIs, .306 AVG) and Carlos Pena (28 homers, 80 RBIs). Pitchers Sean Marshall, arguably the game's best reliever, Carlos Zambrano and young up-and-comer Andrew Cashner were all dealt and staff ace Matt Garza may very well be next.

Of course, the Cubs have added pieces, but not all -- like Anthony Rizzo -- are expected to have an impact on Opening Day. The ones that will may not be difference-makers. Theo and Hoyer have yet to make a big splash this offseason and one doesn't figure to be coming soon.

It wouldn't be hard to see the 2012 Cubs finish with a worse record than in '11. But the Cubs' Achilles' heel last year was a lack of rotation depth and effectiveness, and Epstein believes that weakness has turned into a strength.

"In baseball, anything can happen," Epstein said. "We might not have the most talent in the division, but I know we're going to play hard and I know we have young players with upside. We have a lot of players entering their prime. When you have that, you can surprise a little bit.

"If we stay healthy and one or two or three or four of the players that we have actually take a big developmental step forward, I think you might look up and be surprised in the middle of the summer. Especially with the depth of the starting pitching we have now.

"We have one advantage over some of the opponents we might face in that we can withstand an injury or two and still throw a very reputable starting pitcher out there every day. If our opponents can't in the division because of injuries or attrition or poor performance, then we might surprise some people."

Pitchers and catchers report to spring training in roughly a month. We'll see then if this is all talk or not.

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.