Cubs

Clayton Richard takes the long road from surgery to Cubs bullpen

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Clayton Richard takes the long road from surgery to Cubs bullpen

MESA, Ariz. — While advances in sports medicine have turned Tommy John elbow surgery into an almost-routine procedure, pitchers who undergo shoulder surgery have a much worse chance of not only returning to the major leagues, but returning effectively.

BaseballEssential.com counted 27 pitchers who had shoulder surgery from 2010-2013, and only 15 of them returned to the major leagues. Having an operation on one’s shoulder leaves him with just over a 50 percent chance of pitching again at baseball’s highest level. Cubs reliever Clayton Richard is one of the lucky ones. 

The 32-year-old left-hander underwent shoulder surgery in 2013, then had thoracic outlet surgery in 2014. The once-promising pitcher, who was an important piece of the White Sox blockbuster trade for Jake Peavy in 2009, went over two years between appearances in the major leagues. 

The Cubs plucked him from the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Triple-A affiliate to make a spot start last Fourth of July, used him two more times, and designated him for assignment. He cleared waivers, returned from the minor leagues for one more start, then was moved to the bullpen. And soon after, the old Clayton Richard was back — just pitching in a different role.  

“Later on in the season, he was like the Clayton Richard that I faced,” Cubs catcher Miguel Montero, who while with the Arizona Diamondbacks faced the ex-San Diego Padres pitcher 19 times, said. “He was throwing it harder than the Clayton Richard I faced, too. The guy worked his butt off to be where he’s at right now again.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

In 18 innings as a reliever last year, Richard had a 3.38 ERA and issued only two walks and one home run. He was both a long reliever and one-out guy, providing manager Joe Maddon with another elastic arm out of the bullpen to help manage the back end of the Cubs’ starting rotation.  

Richard hadn’t worked regularly in relief in six years and admitted the transition from being on an every-five-days schedule to not knowing when he would pitch was difficult at first, but he was more than willing to take on the challenge.

“I knew there was going to be an opportunity to pitch,” Richard said. “That’s all I worried about. And really, at this level, that’s all you can worry about.”  

To rehab from those twin surgeries, Richard went back to his hometown of Lafayette, Ind., where he starred as both a baseball and football player and earned a football scholarship to the University of Michigan. He first made a name for himself off I-65 between Chicago and Indianapolis — this is a guy who was rated by Rivals.com as a four-star pro-style quarterback recruit and was named Indiana’s Mr. Football and Mr. Baseball in 2003, beating out three-star Valparaiso wide receiver and Notre Dame commit Jeff Samardzija. 

While back home, Richard returned to his prep alma mater, McCutcheon High School, and worked out with the baseball team there. He said that was an experience that wound up being incredibly important to his grueling rehab process. 

“I just came to appreciate the game,” Richard said. “Just having fun going out, taking batting practice, playing the field with high school kids that year I was rehabbing, I started to enjoy the game more and not worry about all the other stuff that goes into it.” 

Richard said from the clubhouse at the Cubs' spring training facility he still draws upon that time spent rehabbing and working with his former high school baseball team.

“Just that feeling of going out and playing, I think some of us kind of lose that every now and then,” Richard said. “It was nice to have that kind of re-start for myself where it was just baseball. There was nothing else to it other than baseball. 

I don’t wish that experience on anybody,” Richard added, “but it was good for me.” 

Richard looks slated to be part of a Cubs bullpen teeming with flexibility. He, Travis Wood, Trevor Cahill and Adam Warren are all former starters capable of throwing multiple innings, which is especially important given Maddon’s protection of Kyle Hendricks and, later, Jason Hammel last year, who were often pulled at the first sign of trouble or before their third time through a lineup.  

[MORE: Jake Arrieta good with Cubs’ plan to limit workload]

This bullpen is set up to keep itself and the starting rotation fresh throughout the season, but also deliver when used favorably in high leverage situations. Maddon offered an example: When the wind is blowing out, Richard — who threw his sinking fastball about 80 percent of the time last year and generated a ton of ground balls — would come in. But when the wind is blowing in, Wood — who’s more of a fly ball pitcher — could enter. 

“(Richard) fits on any team as far as I’m concerned,” Maddon said. “And I don’t think there’s any hitter in the major leagues who says, Oh good, Clayton Richard is coming into the game.”  

Montero echoed Maddon’s assessment, calling Richard an “uncomfortable” at-bat. His fastball/sinker velocity is back to where it was well before he had surgery (he averaged 91 miles per hour on it in 2015; the last time he hit that mark was 2010), and his ability to generate ground balls and limit walks and home runs made him an effective pitcher down the stretch last year. 

A relief role probably wasn’t one Richard envisioned himself being in back when he was posting sub-4.00 ERAs and throwing 200-plus innings a year for the Padres. But shoulder surgeries are tough from which to come back. And Richard wouldn’t have made it back — as so many other players who underwent similar procedures haven’t — without that willingness to change. 

“You’re never the same pitcher,” Richard said. “I feel like I’m an improved version of that pitcher. If I’m not able to make adjustments I’ll be done. I think that’s the same for everyone. There’s no one that’s so good that they can’t survive without making adjustments.”

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

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USA TODAY

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

Could 2018 be the year that the Cubs finally see a top pitching prospect debut with the team? 

Thursday, MLB.com released its list of the Cubs' 2018 Top 30 Prospects, a group that includes six pitchers in the Top 10. The list ranks right-hander Adbert Alzolay as the Cubs' No 1. prospect, projecting him to debut with the team this season. 

Alzolay, 22, went 7-4 with a 2.99 ERA in 22 starts between Single-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Tennessee last season. He also struck out 108 batters in 114 1/3 innings, using a repertoire that includes a fastball that tops out around 98 MPH (according to MLB.com).

Following Alzolay as the Cubs' No. 2 overall prospect is 19-year-old shortstop Aramis Ademan. Ademan hit .267 in just 68 games between Single-A Eugene and Single-A South Bend, though it should be noted that he has soared from No. 11 in MLB.com's 2017 ranks to his current No. 2 ranking. He is not projected to make his MLB debut until 2020, however.

Following Alzolay and Ademan on the list are five consecutive pitchers ranked 3-7, respectively. Oscar De La Cruz, No. 3 on the list, slides down from his 2017 ranking in which MLB.com listed him as the Cubs' top overall prospect. De La Cruz, 22, finished 2017 with a 3.34 ERA in 13 games (12 starts) between the Arizona League and Single-A Myrtle Beach.

De La Cruz is projected to make his MLB debut in 2019, while Jose Albertos (No. 4), Alex Lange (No. 5), Brendon Little (No. 6) and Thomas Hatch (No. 7) are projected to make their big league debuts in 2019 or 2020. All are right-handed (with the exception of Little) and starting pitchers.

Hatch (third round, 2016) and Lange (30th overall, 2017) and Little (27th overall, 2017) were all top draft picks by the Cubs in recent seasons.

Having numerous starting pitchers on the cusp of the big leagues represents a significant change of pace for the Cubs. 

Since Theo Epstein took over as team president in Oct. 2011, a plethora of top prospects have debuted and enjoyed success with the Cubs. Majority have been position players, though.

The likes of Albert Almora, Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell all contributed to the Cubs winning the World Series in 2016. Similarly, Ian Happ enjoyed a fair amount of success after making his MLB debut last season, hitting 24 home runs in just 115 games.

Ultimately, Alzolay would be the Cubs' first true top pitching prospect to make it to the big leagues in the Theo Epstein era. While him making it to the big leagues in 2018 is no guarantee, one would think a need for pitching will arise for the Cubs at some point, whether it be due to injury or simply for September roster expansion.

The Cubs have enjoyed tremendous success in recent years in terms of their top prospects succeeding in the MLB. If the trend continues, Alzolay should be a force to reckon with on the North Side for years to come.

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

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USA TODAY

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

MESA, Ariz. — The frequent mission of spring training is to iron out a 25-man roster.

But at Cubs camp, that mission seems to already be completed.

With an entire Cactus League schedule still to play, the Cubs’ 25-man group that will leave Arizona for the season-opener in Miami seems pretty well set.

The starting rotation: Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood.

The position-player group: Willson Contreras, Victor Caratini, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, Tommy La Stella, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist.

The bullpen: Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery, Brian Duensing, Justin Wilson and Justin Grimm.

Boom. There’s your 25.

Joe Maddon, do you agree?

“You guys and ladies could probably write down what you’re seeing and be pretty accurate,” Maddon said Thursday. “I can’t deny that, it’s true. Oftentimes, when you’re a pretty good ball club, that is the case. When you’re not so good, you always get auditions during spring training.

“I think what the boys have done is they’ve built up a nice cache in case things were to happen. The depth is outstanding. So you could probably narrow it down, who you think’s going to be the 25, and I won’t argue that.”

It’s the latest example in a camp that to this point has been full of them that the Cubs are one of baseball’s best teams and that only a World Series championship will fulfill expectations. Had the front office stuck with a starting rotation of Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, Chatwood and Montgomery, then there would’ve been a spot open in the bullpen. But the statement-making signing of Darvish jolted the Cubs into “best rotation in the game” status, sent Montgomery back to the bullpen and further locked the roster into place.

Guys like Grimm and La Stella have been forced off the 25-man roster at points in recent seasons, though even their spots seem safe. Maddon even said that a huge spring from someone else wouldn’t mean as much at what guys have done at the major league level in recent memory.

“Spring training performance, for me, it’s not very defining,” Maddon said. “You’re going to be playing against a lot of guys that aren’t going to be here, more Triple-A guys, even some Double-A guys. Some guys come in better shape, they normally look better early. The vibe’s different. You play a couple innings, you don’t get many at-bats, the pitcher doesn’t see hitters three times and vice versa. So I don’t worry about that as much.

“It’s more about, guys that might be fighting for a moment, what do they look like, does it look right, does it look good, how do they fit in? Is there somebody there that you scouted? Because what matters a lot is last year and what you did last year and the last couple months of last year.

“So of course guys that have been here probably have a bit of an upper hand, but we’re very open-minded about stuff. And I think when you look at the guys, you’re right, it’s probably pretty close to being set. But stuff happens.”

Could the recently signed Shae Simmons give Grimm an unexpected challenge for the final relief spot? Maddon said guys who have been with the Cubs in the recent past have a leg up. Could Chris Gimenez turn his experience with Darvish into a win over Caratini for the backup catcher spot? Maddon threw cold water on the "personal catcher" narrative last week.

Of course, Maddon left the door open the possibility of an injury that could open up a roster spot and even shake up the depth chart. But barring the unforeseen, this 25-man group looks locked into place.

That gives the Cubs an edge, perhaps, in that they can specifically find ways to tune up those guys rather than focus on getting enough at-bats for players who are fighting for roster spots. But most of that edge came during the winter, and in winters and summers past, when the front office built this team into a championship contender.

There have been plenty of years when the fans coming to Mesa to watch the Cubs play in spring training saw the blossoming of a big league player thanks to a monster spring or a surprise tear during March. That’s going to be unlikely this spring, a reflection of just how far this team has come.

“It’s easy for me to reflect on this because when I started out with the Rays, wow,” Maddon said. “That was a casting call trying to figure it out. You had very few settled positions when you walked in the door. And then as we got better, it became what we’re talking about. As we moved further along, you were pretty much set by the time (you got to spring training) except for one or two spots.

“So I think the better teams are like that.”

The Cubs are most definitely one of those better teams.