The Chicago Cubs started out their season with a shutout loss to the St. Louis Cardinals with Jon Lester on the hill, and they finished off the first half of the campaign in identical fashion as they dropped a 6-0 decision on Monday night at rain-soaked Wrigley Field.
Aside from the crazy similarities between games 1 and 81, the fact remains that the Cubs are in a pretty good spot. They are nine and a half games behind the Cardinals in the NL Central, but they do hold a two and a half game lead over the New York Mets for the second wild card spot in the National League, they have gotten some tremendous pitching as of late, and young stars like Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo have been playing very well for a team that is looking to be a serious contender for the first time in nearly a decade.
Even with those positives, there are still plenty of reasons for concern. The team has one of the worst offenses in the National League, ranking near the bottom of the heap in the senior circuit in terms of runs scored (11th), batting average (13th), and strikeouts (most in the NL). They haven’t gotten the type of production they’ve needed from guys like Miguel Montero and Dexter Fowler, and players like Starlin Castro still aren’t quite living up to expectations.
Add to that the fact that Jon Lester has had difficulty performing consistently (although measures like Fielding Independent Pitching and others indicate that he is better than he’s been given credit for) and the fact that the Cubs are just 2-8 against the Cardinals this season, and there are some reasons for concern and pessimism after the halfway mark of the season.
Despite those negatives, the positives far outpace them. Joe Maddon’s team has developed a never say die attitude, going 19-15 in one-run games so far this season. They may be striking out a lot, but they’re walking a lot too, with the fifth-most free passes of any team in baseball. They are stealing bases at an excellent rate, converting on over 73% of their attempted steals. They have found ways to win even as their offense has sputtered, winning thanks to creative tactics and tremendous pitching over the last month or so of play.
Most importantly of all, the Cubs have persevered through injuries and the second-toughest schedule in baseball this season and still are in prime position to secure a playoff spot. Maddon has this group believing in themselves, and with all of his techniques and little tweaks to the lineup and the strategy of the team, he really has effected a serious culture and attitude change within the 25 men on the roster.
That, perhaps more than any other factor, represents why Cubs fans should be optimistic after the first half of the season. This team has fully bought into what Maddon has been preaching, and although their offense has struggled and the final order of the bullpen hasn’t been established (although adding Rafael Soriano to the mix will make an already strong bullpen even better), this team has found ways to win, and that’s the key ingredient if a team wants to make an October run.
The Chicago Cubs have started out their season with a series split against the St. Louis Cardinals, getting shutout on Opening Night and then shutting out the redbirds during their first day game of the season on Wednesday.
Before the team starts out their next series against the Colorado Rockies (which we will be previewing this afternoon), we had some thoughts we wanted to share on the opening series of the season.
Jake Arrieta Still Rolling As He Opens Year With a Bang
He looked wild in the first inning of the game, but he settled down in a big way on Wednesday afternoon as he pitched seven scoreless innings, striking out seven batters and walking three in a 2-0 victory for the Cubs.
Arrieta is a player that is going to be a big key for the Cubs’ pitching rotation this season. A lot of attention is being paid to Jon Lester, and rightfully so, but the fact remains that Arrieta has the potential to make this rotation into a much stronger one if he can maintain his 2014 form, and if his effective performance against St. Louis is any indication, he’s hellbent on making sure there’s no regression on his part.
Lester’s Inability to Keep Runners Honest a Concern
A lot was made in the run-up to Opening Night about the fact that Lester hasn’t made a pick-off throw to first base since April of 2013, and that narrative gained a bit of steam on Sunday night as the Cardinals swiped three bases off of the Cubs’ hurler in the 3-0 victory.
To his credit, Lester brushed off criticism of his approach to handling base runners.
“This really wasn’t a big issue until someone brought it up on TV,” he said. “So I’m standing here answering your questions about it. Like I said, I think I had eight or nine or 10 stolen bases allowed (in 2014).”
Lester is the type of pitcher that is going to emphasize changing speeds in his delivery in order to keep baserunners off balance, but it still does seem like he should at least consider throwing over every once in a while to help keep things under control. It’s definitely a story worth keeping an eye on.
Offense Will Heat Up As Weather Does
In two games, the Cubs are now 1-for-16 on the season with runners in scoring position, with their lone hit coming on Starlin Castro’s seventh inning single that knocked in Anthony Rizzo to give the Cubs the lead. Miguel Montero also lifted a sacrifice fly to right field in the game, and Castro scored to give the Cubs their second run of the season.
Even though some fans are concerned about the team’s offensive woes so far, they have to remember two things: in the warm weather of Arizona, the ball carries farther, and the Cubs’ team power came to the forefront. The same thing should happen here. The other thing to remember is that Joe Maddon is still experimenting with lineups, and once he hits on the right combination, the team should score more runs.
Panic is premature at this point. Obviously.
Jorge Soler’s Triple a Sight to Behold
Soler stepped up to the plate in the fourth inning of Wednesday’s game with no one on base, but that didn’t stop him from putting a huge charge into the ball and picking up a splendid triple:
Accordding to JJ Cooper of Baseball America, it only took Soler 11.7 seconds to get from home plate to third on the play. About the only way he could’ve gotten there faster would have been if he had run up the third base line instead.
In Part One of our conversation with new Chicago Cubs pre-and-postgame host Mark Grote, we discussed what the interview process was like, and what drew him to the job. In Part Two, we’ll discuss the on-field issues that the team will have to address in the coming year.
WCH: Now that we’ve covered the broadcast part of the equation, let’s talk a bit about the team. After seeing Javier Baez make his debut last season, what are your expectations for him in the new year?
Grote: Baez is that guy that took your breath away at times when he connected with that ferocious and wonderfully untamed swing, but the strikeouts are too much. I think the Cubs’ coaching staff has a very delicate task as it pertains to Baez. You don’t want to turn this guy into a doubles hitter, but striking out half the time is unacceptable. He could be a monster at Wrigley Field if he makes slight changes to his approach.
WCH: The other big prospect story with the Cubs concerns whether or not Kris Bryant will start the season at the big-league level. Do you think he’ll be on the team’s roster when they leave Mesa, or do you see him going back to triple-A?
Grote: I believe that Kris Bryant will be on the Cubs’ opening day roster IF he tears it up in spring training. I respect and understand the money clock, but there is a point where a baseball player becomes undeniable. Where the player means actual wins at the big league level now. And, if this is to be the next phase of the Cubs’ “rebuild,” they are going to have to act accordingly.
WCH: When he does make his way up here, do you see him staying at third base or shifting to the outfield?
Grote: I’d like to see him get a crack at third base. I realize his height is not ideal for the position, but it would be easy to rearrange pieces if necessary.
WCH: Out of the Cubs’ big offseason moves, which one do you think is the one that will make the biggest impact?
Grote: The answer is Jon Lester. Not just because of his immense skills, but because he allows the rest of the rotation to fall into place. He legitimizes things, as I like to say. Remember last year when everybody was asking if Jake Arrieta was a number one guy? No need for further inquiry.
A comfortable number two spot is where he can thrive. The jovial Jason Hammel seems tailor-made for the three, and where Lester really works his magic is with Kyle Hendricks, who was a pleasant surprise in his first year. Now he can continue to play it cool and perhaps take the next step without everybody EXPECTING him to take the next step.
It also puts Travis Wood in a perfect spot, and I do believe Wood will have a turnaround season (assuming he’s not traded).
WCH: What do you think this team’s biggest need is as they head to Mesa for spring training?
Dexter Fowler smoothed out the outfield situation, but what about left field? My vote is to give Chris Coghlan a shot. The former rookie of the year was fantastically consistent last season. I really like him, and not every position has to be ‘Cubs super-prospect.’ Coghlan could be one of those guys who is just now figuring it out. It happens.
WCH: Outside of the big stars and hotshot prospects, which player do you see being a surprise for the team this year?
Grote: I already alluded to my faith in Chris Coghlan to be something real. The other I keep thinking that may be ready to pounce is Jason Motte. He had 42 saves in 2012, and Joe Maddon is uniquely qualified to make those bullpen guys jump.
WCH: There’s one last question that absolutely has to be asked: do you, Mark Grote, think that the Cubs will win the World Series in 2015?
Grote: Let’s see. I was just named the Cubs pre and postgame host. I’m going to be on the team plane, and around these guys 24/7.
OF COURSE THE CUBS ARE GOING TO WIN THE WORLD SERIES IN 2015!!
The real answer is that I would not predict the Cubs to win the World Series this season, but there is life. Real life. What one can begin to predict again is good things. It is safe to go back into the water.
With teams preparing to head to their respective spring training facilities in Florida and Arizona this week, there is a palpable excitement in the air as fans prepare for baseball season to finally arrive.
With those preparations taking place, Las Vegas is ratcheting up its game as well, as website and sports books come out with their projections for how the baseball season will shake out. Bovada is one such place, and they released their over/under win projections for all 30 teams on Monday.
The Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals top the list, with both teams seeing their win totals set at 92 ½. The Los Angeles Angels follow close behind at 89 ½, and the St. Louis Cardinals, Boston Red Sox, and Seattle Mariners round out the top five (the Red Sox and Mariners are tied at 86 ½ wins).
Sitting just outside of the top 10 are the two Chicago teams, with the Cubs at 82 ½ wins and the White Sox just behind them at 81 ½. Both teams made some significant moves this offseason, with the Cubs bringing in guys like Jon Lester, Miguel Montero, and Joe Maddon and the Sox adding Melky Cabrera, David Robertson, and Jeff Samardzija. Both teams are optimistic that their farm systems will begin yielding talent this year. Hopes are, needless to say, high on both sides of town.
The question then is whether or not we would bet the over or the under on those win totals. For the Cubs, that number seems about dead on with what we’re expecting from them this season (we’ll delve more into that as spring training begins and we really start to hammer out our predictions), but the under seems like a safer bet. They could end up going way over that win total if the prospects they’re calling up have good seasons, but we still have questions about the pitching staff and whether or not guys like Javier Baez will perform as advertised, so we’ll put our money on the under.
As for the White Sox, the over seems like the better bet. Their pitching rotation is really solid at the top, and their offense should be pretty good as well with Jose Abreu and Alexei Ramirez leading the way. Questions do arise with their bullpen even after the acquisitions of Robertson and Zack Duke, but in a weak division, we’ll go with the over on their win total.
The Chicago Cubs were late to the part on the bidding for free agent pitcher James Shields, but in a radio interview in San Diego today as he discussed his decision to sign with the Padres, the hurler said that it was still a two-horse race despite the Cubs’ tardiness.
“In all reality, it came down to the Cubs and the Padres – two great managers,” he said. “I think I made the right decision here. I’m really happy about it. I’m really happy to be a Padre.”
Shields, who signed a four-year deal earlier this week with an option for a fifth year, was one of the big three free agent pitchers available on the market when this offseason began, but as time wore on and Jon Lester and Max Scherzer were snapped up, Shields remained on the market much longer than anticipated. With that factor, and a dwindling number of teams interested in him, the Cubs ramped up their efforts late last week to land him, but ultimately their bid fell short.
One other interesting note from Dennis Lin’s recap of the Shields interview was the tidbit about how much the Cubs ended up offering the pitcher. According to Lin, the Cubs offered Shields a three-year deal worth a total of $60 million. While that money number is pretty high for a pitcher who is 33 years old and likely going to start declining in the near future, the fact is that the term was exactly in line with the Cubs’ front office philosophy: pay for future results, not past ones.
Despite the Cubs missing out on Shields, they still made it a competitive race, and they did their due diligence. You can’t ask for much more in a situation like this, and from our perspective, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer handled the situation well.
It appeared that it would happen all weekend long, but early Monday morning the news became all but official as reports came out that James Shields had agreed to a four-year deal with the San Diego Padres.
The report, which comes from Chris Cotillo of SB Nation, puts to an end a potential run by the Chicago Cubs to nab the starter off the free agent market. Originally the Cubs were priced out on Shields’ contract demands, but when the asking price started dipping and the amount of term being offered followed suit, the Cubs did their due diligence and “kicked the tires,” as just about every reporter following the situation said.
With Shields now off the market (unless something drastic) changes, it leads to an interesting question: do the Cubs continue to pursue another starting pitcher, or should they stand pat? There are still options via the trade market, with the Washington Nationals potentially looking to unload a starter after signing Max Scherzer to a massive deal. A guy like Jordan Zimmermann or Stephen Strasburg would look great in the Cubs’ rotation, although the cost in prospects may be something that Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer would hesitate to pay.
Another possibility is a fresh push to get Cole Hamels from the Philadelphia Phillies. There are likely still teams out there interested in acquiring him, including the St. Louis Cardinals, but getting a guy with his track record and skill set for a somewhat discounted price (trading for him with fewer years and money than they would have to pay him on the open market) could be an intriguing possibility for the Cubs.
If neither of those options proves to be feasible, the Cubs could simply go into spring training with what they have and still have an improved rotation. Adding Jon Lester and Jason Hammel via free agency bolstered the rotation in a big way, and having guys like Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks, and Travis Wood in the mix for starting spots means that the Cubs will have some healthy competition out in Mesa to determine how the rotation shakes out.
The Chicago Cubs have been picked by The Sporting News to win the World Series, and guys like Joe Maddon and Jon Lester are talking championships on the north side, so it’s not surprising that some fans are going to extra lengths to get fired up for the 2015 season.
With that preface in mind, here is one such video that should get you good and amped for the season to start:
The callbacks to Harry Caray, as well as video of Ernie Banks and Ron Santo, definitely hammer home what it would mean to see the Cubs return to relevance this year, and with young players and new faces, it’s going to be a fun year to be a Cubs fan, and it all gets started this week when the team begins reporting to Mesa for spring training.
The Chicago Cubs are done adding pitchers with hefty price tags this offseason, but with the price tag on one free agent dropping down to more reasonable levels, the team could be pulling the trigger on a move after all.
For those that can’t read the tweet, here’s the gist of Kaplan’s argument: the Cubs have been waiting for the market to take shape for Shields, and it’s becoming apparent at this point that he’s not going to get a contract worth more than $100 million this close to spring training. With teams preparing to report in two weeks (!), he’s looking to make a decision by the end of the week, and his history with Joe Maddon could make Chicago an attractive landing spot.
With those things in mind, a Shields signing would make perfect sense for the Cubs under the right parameters. If the deal is going to be in the three year range, the Cubs should jump on it and offer him as much money yearly as they want. A four-year deal would still work too, but going over $20 million per season would probably be a bit much.
The reason for an aggressive push if the term of the deal is right is simple: the Cubs don’t have a ton of salary on the books for the next few years as some of their impact players have cheap deals. Guys like Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, and Addison Russell are all on really cheap deals during that time, and if two or three of them pan out as advertised (still a sizable if, but a much more reasonable thought than the notion that all four will be stars), having a guy like Shields added to the rotation could make the Cubs a serious contender during that time.
If Shields was paired up with Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta, the Cubs would have a rotation that would rival anything that an NL Central foe could throw out there, and they’d likely have one of the top five or six rotations in all of baseball. When coupled with the offense that the team is potentially going to have with guys like Miguel Montero added to the fold, and their dreams of making Back to the Future 2 could be much closer to reality than fans dare hope.
* = Kaplan is fairly plugged in with the Cubs, but he also has occasional misses (as do most reporters), so take this and all reports of activity on the North Side with a grain of salt.
The Chicago Cubs trotted out their biggest free agent acquisition in nearly a decade on Monday as they introduced Jon Lester to the media.
You know the numbers (6 years, $155 million, $30 million in signing bonuses), but if you didn’t watch the press conference, here are the five most important things we learned about what the Lester signing means for the Cubs.
Lester Hungry for New Challenge
The Cubs’ sales pitch was much different than that of the Boston Red Sox or San Francisco Giants. While those teams could point to past results (Red Sox) or the fact that they have won World Series in three of the past five seasons (Giants), either one of the destinations would have been a safe one for Lester to go to.
As for the Cubs, their pitch was that they are on the verge of something great, but sometimes that isn’t enough to convince a free agent to come to town (see: Masahiro Tanaka). For Lester, it was.
“I believe in the plan they have in place for the future of the Cubs,” Lester said of Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer. “Leaving a place you’ve already won is difficult, but also relishing the chance of winning a World Series in a place that never has adds that little extra for me.”
Lester’s grasp of history isn’t quite where it should be (the Cubs have won two World Series titles), but his heart is in the right place.
Epstein Feels that Rebuild Was “Quick”
While the last three years have felt like an eternity for Cubs fans, it hasn’t felt like that long of a process for Epstein.
“It’s been a pretty quick rebuild,” Epstein said. “It wasn’t perfect, but thanks to a lot of the good decisions in the draft and trades, and the hard work of our scouts and our player development, we had a competitive team on the field (toward the end) of 2014. If it weren’t for those things, I don’t think Jon Lester would be choosing the Cubs.”
Epstein did also thank Cubs fans for their patience, but the point is clear. He looks at the whole rebuild as a long-term process, and three years really feels like a drop in the bucket compared to the long-term success that he envisions for the team.
Theo, Cubs Occasionally Do Appreciate the Role of Tradition
The Cubs are a tradition-rich team, and while you may be forgiven for thinking that they’ve been ignoring that tradition in recent years, thanks to new signage all over the ballpark and the big renovations occurring, there is still an element that persists in this front office.
When Lester was introduced to the media on Monday, he was given a jersey with the number 34 on it. Lester says the jersey was meant to honor Walter Payton and Nolan Ryan, but it also immediately brought up memories of Kerry Wood, who struck out 20 batters in a game while wearing the number.
According to reports, Epstein texted Wood and asked him for his blessing to use the number, and the former Cubs hurler said he would be “honored” for Lester to wear it.
Kudos to Wood for agreeing to it, and kudos to Epstein for reaching out to the pitcher about using the number. It wasn’t a requirement by any stretch, but it was a nice gesture.
Samardzija, Hammel Played a Role in Recruiting Lester
The Cubs may have traded away Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel during the regular season, but even while they were in Oakland they played a role in selling Lester on the benefits of playing in Chicago.
“I asked a lot of questions to a lot of different guys about different teams and organizations, and I wanted to get their feel for Chicago and what made them happy here,” Lester said. “They weren’t the only guys I questioned, but obviously playing with them I had the privilege of talking to them more often about it.”
Now, both players are back in Chicago along with Lester, although Samardzija will be plying his craft on the south side with the White Sox while Hammel returns to the Cubs.
Love of Hunting Bonded Lester, Ricketts
While Joe Maddon bonded with Epstein and Hoyer at an RV park in Pensacola, Florida, Cubs majority owner Tom Ricketts used a different tactic: talking to him about hunting.
According to Epstein, Lester and Ricketts discussed the sport at dinner in Chicago while the team was courting the free agent pitcher. Epstein also added the helpful mental image of him soaked in deer urine, which he said he was willing to do if it meant that he would land Lester.
If there has been a dominant theme at baseball’s Winter Meetings over the past few days, it’s been tinged with blue stripes and red stars. The city of Chicago is absolutely holding court on one of MLB’s biggest stages, with both the Cubs and the White Sox addressing major needs and making huge splashes all over the place.
Now, with the Winter Meetings close to concluding, we have an opportunity to evaluate where each of the teams stands in terms of their offseason to-do lists. Which one is having the better time of restructuring their roster? Let’s find out.
Addressing Needs – Edge: White Sox
The Cubs came into the offseason needing to add a top of the rotation pitcher, and they also wanted to add a different, more defensively proficient catcher to the mix. They’ve done both of those things, signing Jon Lester to a rich contract and trading for Miguel Montero from the Arizona Diamondbacks.
While they will still be making moves as the offseason wears on, the White Sox have done a better job of addressing more of their needs. Right-handed pitcher to slot between Chris Sale and Jose Quintana? Done. Relief pitchers to shore up a horrendous bullpen? Done and done. A left-handed bat to help protect Jose Abreu in the lineup? Done.
The Cubs have really done a great job of addressing some of their needs, but Rick Hahn has really done some great work in shoring up the Sox roster.
Star Power – Edge: Cubs
While names like Adam LaRoche and David Robertson certainly move the meter in terms of what they can do for a team, they are no match for the talent that the Cubs have brought in. Montero is a pretty big name (at least from a catching perspective), but Lester was the top of the heap in terms of available pitchers, and landing Joe Maddon went a long way toward showing the baseball world that the Cubs mean business.
Bang for Your Buck – Edge: White Sox
The Cubs shelled out a ton of money for both Maddon and Lester, and the White Sox really paid a ton for Robertson to come protect the back end of the bullpen. They did get some really nice value in signing LaRoche for two years, but the one that’s most intriguing is adding Zach Duke for $5 million per season. He could be an excellent eighth inning guy, and the Sox could presumably use him in closing duty if Robertson is injured or needs a day off.
Having that kind of an arm in the bullpen is a huge asset, and while neither team has been particularly frugal this offseason, the Sox hold a narrow edge.
Long-Term Impact – Edge: Cubs
The Sox made a big move by trading for Jeff Samardzija on Monday at the Winter Meetings, but there is no guarantee that they will be able to sign him to a long-term extension before he hits free agency after the 2015 season. LaRoche is also signed for just two years, and while Duke (three years) and Robertson (four years) are signed for slightly longer, none of them figures to be a player that the White Sox build themselves around for the next five or more years.
On the other side of town, the Cubs’ additions have the potential to be those kinds of cornerstones. Of course, you get what you pay for in that regard, with Lester being signed for seven years, but the real thing that pushes this category into the Cubs’ column is Maddon. Adding him to the mix not only signals a seriousness of purpose on the part of the north siders, but it also means that the team will be able to get the most out of the young players working through their system, and by proxy means he’ll make a larger long-term impact than any other acquisition by either team this offseason.
Overall – Edge: Cubs
Both teams have made big splashes and important moves that have them poised to be a lot better in 2015, but we have to give the narrow edge to the Cubs in terms of the quality of their offseason. Maddon and Lester are a formidable combo that is tough to beat, but the White Sox and their additions of Samardzija, LaRoche, and Robertson do come very close.
It’s a tight race, but it looks like the north siders win by a nose.