By Jay Cohen, AP Sports Writer
CHICAGO (AP) — After four consecutive playoff appearances and the 2016 World Series title, the Chicago Cubs are way past playing for Joe Maddon’s future.
They also know what’s going on, too.
Maddon is entering the final year of his contract after the team declined to offer an extension to its 65-year-old manager. While president of baseball operations Theo Epstein has said he thinks the relationship will continue past this season, the situation with Maddon hovers over the Cubs as they try to bounce back from last year’s disappointing finish.
“I love Joe. He’s created a culture here that can’t be beat anywhere in the league,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “I’m obviously biased. I think Joe, when he talks everyone listens. He has so much knowledge. When he talks he is like a father figure. He gets it, and he understands it.”
Maddon took a more hands-on approach during spring training after the Cubs blew a five-game lead in the NL Central last September and were eliminated by Colorado in the NL wild card game. He joined new hitting coach Anthony Iapoce for extensive work with the team on situational hitting, looking to help an offense that was plagued by inconsistency last year.
Chicago hit an NL-best .258 last season and scored 761 runs, fourth in the league. But it also managed one run or less in a whopping 39 games.
The remedy for the Cubs’ offensive issues might be on the roster, or at least they hope so after they failed to make any major moves over the winter.
Kris Bryant is healthy again after he was hampered by left shoulder inflammation last year. Ian Happ stumbled in his second major league season, and Willson Contreras is looking to return to form after he hit just 10 homers and struck out 121 times in 138 games.
“A lot of times as a player you try too hard,” Contreras said. “You fail and you step up. Last year was a learning year for me, my second full season in the big leagues. This year is going to be a little bit easier.”
The Cubs open the season March 28 at Texas.
IN NEED OF RELIEF
The bullpen has potential, but health is a major concern at the moment. Closer Brandon Morrow will miss the start of the season while he recovers from elbow surgery. Pedro Strop has been hampered by right hamstring trouble, and Tony Barnette and Xavier Cedeno also are dealing with injuries. Steve Cishek, Carl Edwards Jr. and newcomer Brad Brach could get plenty of work until reinforcements arrive from the disabled list. The 32-year-old Cishek had a 2.18 ERA in a career-high 80 appearances in his first year with Chicago. Brach had 12 saves and a 3.59 ERA in 69 games for Baltimore and Atlanta last season.
The Cubs are hoping Daniel Descalso can provide some additional veteran leadership after he agreed to a $5 million, two-year contract in December. The utility infielder hit .238 with a career-best 13 homers and 57 RBIs in 138 games with Arizona last season.
Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Cole Hamels, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana form what could be baseball’s deepest rotation. Lester went 18-6 last year with a 3.32 ERA. Darvish missed most of his first season with Chicago because of injuries, but looked much better this spring. Hamels provided a big lift after he was acquired in a July trade with Texas, and Hendricks and Quintana also are consistent performers.
Javier Baez is coming off a breakout season , becoming one of baseball’s biggest stars. The slugger hit .290 with 34 homers and an NL-high 111 RBIs while playing his usual stellar defense all around the infield. Producing a similar year could be a tough task.
Albert Almora Jr. played in a career-high 152 games in 2018, and the results were mixed. Almora, who turns 25 on April 16, batted just .234 in September. The sixth-overall pick in the 2012 draft could help strengthen Chicago’s lineup with a better all-around performance this season.
AP freelance writer Jason P. Skoda in Mesa, Arizona, contributed to this report.
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