The Rundown: Cubs Focus on Opportunity Hitting, Need Strong Offense to Eliminate Bullpen Concerns, Epstein Says Team in Win-Now Mode

They count now, and let’s hope the Cubs’ offensive onslaught continues into the regular season. If anything can restore my faith in this team after a highly non-eventful season, it will be more games like yesterday’s 16-7 shellacking of the Red Sox at Sloan Park.

I know the team is singular in its mission to change the narrative of last season, but another 40 or so games of scoring one or no runs will stamp it as a failure. That’s not something you generally say of a team coming off a 95-win season. But you can only change coaches so many times before you have to start pointing fingers at your players.

Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and owner Tom Ricketts put the team on notice after last season’s limp finish. Joe Maddon has been given basically the same roster as last season, so a fix from within is the only solution the front office will accept.

That means there will be no excuses this season. Players, coaches, and even Maddon will be held 100 percent accountable for the Cubs’ success or failure this season.

One of the biggest focuses this spring has been on situational hitting, or “opportunity hitting,” as new batting coach Anthony Iapoce refers to it. In yesterday’s game, the Cubs were 10-for-19 with runners in scoring position. That’s the kind of production the team will need now that the games count.

Maddon is at the forefront of the new approach according to Epstein.

“I think [Maddon] taking over the situational hitting has been a great thing for everybody,” Epstein told reporters in Mesa, Arizona, recently. “Players have really enjoyed having him be engaged that intensely in something and that hands-on teaching.”

Going into Thursday’s opener, the team’s biggest questions surround its bullpen. A strong offense will go a long way toward eliminating those concerns.

Cubs News & Notes

  • The Cubs are in win-now mode starting today, according to Epstein.
  • Javy Báez and Kris Bryant hope to return the Cubs to National League supremacy.
  • Kyle Hendricks signed a four-year extension to remain with the team through the 2023 season. There’s also a vesting option for the 2024 season. All in, the deal can max out at $79.8 million. The Professor is 52-33 in his five-year major league career.
  • Randy Rosario won the battle for the last bullpen spot, for now. The Cubs have a cadre of arms ready and on call at Triple-A Iowa.
  • Maddon announced his starting pitchers for the Rangers series starting tomorrow.
  • The Cubs will sink or swim with their rotation. Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Cole Hamels, Hendricks and José Quintana form what could be baseball’s deepest starting staff.
  • Tony Andracki of NBC Sports believes Carl Edwards Jr. will lead the Cubs in saves this year. I swear I said that just the other day.
  • Just my opinion, but I believe Tyler Chatwood could excel if deployed similarly to the way the Astros used Colin McHugh last season. I know $25.5 million over two years is a bloated price to pay for a middle reliever, but if he is worth two wins this season, it’s a nice offset. Believe it or not, the two are comparable pitchers over their seven-year careers based on ERA+.
  • The Daily Herald previewed the NL Central yesterday.
  • You have to really feel for Luke Hagerty. The left-hander will need elbow surgery, likely ending his storied attempt to reach the major leagues after quitting baseball in 2008.
  • The Cubs, along with hospitality partner Levy Restaurants are offering new food options that include “hand-breaded pork strips with house-made Japanese barbecue sauce; beer can chicken sandwiches; loaded fries topped with short ribs braised in-house; and a rotating lineup of limited-time only dishes featuring seasonal ingredients and crafted by Levy’s culinary team,” according to the team’s press release. I laugh when I think of this: “Would you like fries with your hot dog or a selection of seasonal vegetables.”
  • The club will also offer 24-ounce domestic drafts this season, as well as more than a dozen new draft and packaged craft beer selections from breweries with Chicago and Midwest roots.

How About That!

Now that Mike Trout owns baseball’s biggest contract, he’d like to lead the Angels to the World Series.

Dallas Keuchel is committed to waiting for the right offer. It’s hard to fathom that the season will start with Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel still unemployed.

The Mets and Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom have an agreement on a five-year extension worth $137.5 million.

A gruesome injury will end the season of Diamondbacks’ OF Steven Souza Jr.

According to projections by the Associated Press, Opening Day baseball salaries are on track to drop for an unprecedented second straight year. The 872 players on rosters and injured lists on Monday evening averaged $4.36 million, down from $4.41 million at the start of last season and $4.45 million on opening day in 2017.

White Sox OF Eloy Jiménez will make his major league debut on Thursday.

Though most expected Fernando Tatis Jr. to be baseball’s next victim of service time manipulation, the Padres announced that baseball’s number two prospect has made the team’s opening day roster.

Extra Innings

This is the coolest thing ever, at least to me.

How do I get a team in this fantasy baseball league? Some of my favorite indie performers play rotisserie baseball in a league called Oscar Gamble’s Afro — or The OGA as its members commonly refer to it —made up of  legendary musicians and friends of The Baseball Project. Its members include Mike Mills (R.E.M.), Stephen Malkmus (Pavement, Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks), Ira Kaplan (Yo La Tengo), and Steve Berlin (Los Lobos) in its 12-team setup.

They Said It

  • “The big push this camp is really to take fundamentals to heart and to try to play the game properly every night. We’re going to pitch well. We’re going to catch it well. Offensively, I think we’re going to be better than we were last year. We have a lot of guys who have a lot of room for growth. But other teams have gotten better. The concept I’m really trying to promote is that we’ve got to play the game better fundamentally.” – Joe Maddon
  • “October really starts in March. In this case, every game really counts, and we like the way it feels when we go out and show what we can do and play good baseball. And we don’t like the way it feels when we play short of our expectations.” – Theo Epstein
  • “They wanted me to be here, and I felt like I needed to reciprocate and accept it. I love it so much here. I want to be a Cub 100 percent. We finally got to that middle space where it felt right to me.” – Kyle Hendricks

Wednesday Walk Up Song

Chartjunk by Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks. From the album Wig Out at Jagbags. My alarm wakes me to this song every morning and has for four years.

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