Cubs

Cubs can't afford to abandon hope on Justin Wilson in ailing bullpen

Cubs can't afford to abandon hope on Justin Wilson in ailing bullpen

The Cubs aren't abandoning hope on Justin Wilson in the final two weeks of the season.

It's not like they have much of a choice, however.

We've officially entered the most important time of the season for the bullpen and the Cubs have a closer who's gone 31-for-31 in save chances, but there are serious question marks ahead of him.

Hector Rondon is nursing a sore elbow while Koji Uehara has a knee infection and a minor back issue. Pedro Strop has come on strong lately and Brian Duensing has been consistent all year, but Carl Edwards Jr. has had bouts of control/confidence issues this year, Justin Grimm's ERA is almost six (5.98) and Wilson has allowed 28 baserunners in 13 innings since joining the Cubs.

That's a big reason why the Cubs moved Mike Montgomery out of the starting rotation and gave Jen-Ho Tseng his first big-league start Thursday against the New York Mets.

No team can ever predict injuries, but the Cubs knew they had an issue in the bullpen leading up to the trade deadline, which is why they parted with top prospect Jeimer Candelario for Wilson and veteran catcher Alex Avila.

Time is running out for Wilson to correct his issues and get back to the dominant force he was with the Tigers earlier this season (2.68 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 12.3 K/9, 13 saves). 

The bullpen issues were highlighted over the weekend as Wade Davis, Edwards and Strop were called upon to get a combined 21 outs and needed 116 pitches to do so. Both Edwards and Davis worked in all three games. If Wilson was performing at the level the Cubs expected when they acquired him, he could've taken some of the load off.

"Clearly I need to pitch better so I can pitch more," Wilson said.

Wilson and the Cubs believe Friday could've been a spark for the 30-year-old southpaw. 

When John Lackey was ejected from the game with two outs in the fifth inning Friday, Wilson was suddenly called on to face Cardinals star Matt Carpenter with runners on second and third and the game hanging in the balance. Wilson responded by striking out Carpenter on a full-count pitch, giving the Cubs offense time to come back and take the first game of the all-important series against St. Louis.

It was only one out, but Wilson called it a "step in the right direction" and believes the sudden nature of the appearance might've helped him just go out there and pitch without much time to overthink anything.

"I think coming into that situation where you have no room for error was good for him," said Avila, who entered Friday's game at the same time as Wilson when starting catcher Willson Contreras was also ejected. "Those are the situations he's been pitching in all season. There's no thought process for him as far as working on pitches, working on mechanics, things like that.

"I know he hasn't pitched well, as well as he would've liked, but coming into a situation where there's no room for error and you're really not thinking about that. You're just, 'Here it is, this is my stuff vs. you and whoever wins, wins.'

"It was a good outing on him. He looked similar and normal to me from what I had seen earlier in the year. I've always had confidence in him. He's the type of guy that you don't have to worry about if he's prepare or if the situation is too big."

A couple hours before that strikeout, Cubs president Theo Epstein discussed how one pitch or one outing is all it takes sometimes to get a guy on a hot stretch.

"The story's not written on [Wilson]," Epstein said. "He's a really quality major-league relief pitcher who's really struggling right now. 

"So what do you do with those guys? You work to get them feeling good about themselves, you work to get them locked in and you look for the right opportunity because they are always just one outing away from getting locked in and becoming a weapon again."

Prior to Friday, Wilson had given up a run in three straight outings, surrendering five runs in a span of 1.2 innings in September thanks to five walks. He entered an 8-2 game against the New York Mets last Tuesday and couldn't throw strikes, only managing to get one out before Joe Maddon was forced to make a change.

Before September, Wilson actually looked like he had gotten things smoothed out with five straight scoreless appearances from Aug. 23-31. He didn't walk a batter in 5.1 innings while striking out seven.

Epstein and the Cubs thought Wilson had turned a corner.

"Then there was a little bit of a setback," Epstein said. "I think he was starting to feel pretty good about himself. Then you get a little bit of mixed feedback from an outing or two and then you try to make adjustments when maybe the best thing to do is you try to be yourself.

"That's part of the issue — simplifying it for him, helping him believe in himself and his fastball. He's got a special fastball. He doesn't have to be too fine with it. He's an aggressive pitcher.

"Guys are working with him. He still believes in himself. He still wants the ball. Seen it before — guys get traded and you can have a really brutal month or something and one good appearance and it clicks."

Maddon admitted the Cubs are working hard to make sure they're not overwhelming Wilson with too many things to work on or too many voices in his ear.

The Cubs also admit it's at least partially a mental thing with Wilson, who has a career 3.32 ERA in six big-league seasons and has never come close to any walk issues like he's had in blue pinstripes.

With the postseason bearing down on the Cubs, will Willson be able to find a way into Maddon's circle of trust at the most important time of the year for relievers?

"He could be a linchpin to a lot of this stuff right here," Maddon said. "Look at his numbers in Detroit. They're outstanding; not just OK. For whatever reason, he's struggled a bit with his strike zone since he's been here.

"But we get this guy right, that could make a big difference down the stretch run and hopefully into the playoffs. We do need to get him back on track because he can be very influential."

When the Cubs acquired Wilson, he was one of the top relievers on the open market who came with experience pitching in the most intense part of games, four postseason appearances and a left-handed arm that approaches triple digits. 

The Cubs hoped he would be a valuable weapon in the regular season but also providing another late-inning option against the left-handed power of teams like the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers in October.

"All relievers are going to go through ups and downs over the course of the season," Avila said. "That's just part of the ebb and flow of the season. Like I've told him and a lot guys — talking to Joe too: There's gonna be a time where we need him like today and he's gonna come through and hopefully he gets hot."

Offseason of change begins with Cubs firing pitching coach Chris Bosio

chrisbosiochanges.jpg
USA TODAY

Offseason of change begins with Cubs firing pitching coach Chris Bosio

"Of course," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said in the middle of the National League Championship — he would like his coaches back in 2018. Pitching coach Chris Bosio told the team's flagship radio station this week that the staff expected to return next year. President of baseball operations Theo Epstein didn't go that far during Friday afternoon's end-of-season news conference at Wrigley Field, but he did say: "Rest assured, Joe will have every coach back that he wants back."

That's Cub: USA Today columnist Bob Nightengale first reported Saturday morning that Bosio had been fired, a source confirming the team declined a club contract option for next year and made a major influence on the Wrigleyville rebuild a free agent. Epstein and Bosio did not immediately respond to text messages and the club has not officially outlined the shape of the 2018 coaching staff.

Those exit meetings on Friday at Wrigley Field are just the beginning of an offseason that could lead to sweeping changes, with the Cubs looking to replace 40 percent of their rotation, identify an established closer (whether or not that's Wade Davis), find another leadoff option and maybe break up their World Series core of hitters to acquire pitching. 

The obvious candidate to replace Bosio is Jim Hickey, Maddon's longtime pitching coach with the Tampa Bay Rays who has Chicago roots and recently parted ways with the small-market franchise that stayed competitive by consistently developing young arms like David Price and Chris Archer.

Of course, Maddon denied that speculation during an NLCS where the Los Angeles Dodgers dominated the Cubs in every phase of the game and the manager's bullpen decisions kept getting second-guessed.

Bosio has a big personality and strong opinions that rocked the boat at times, but he brought instant credibility as an accomplished big-league pitcher who helped implement the team's sophisticated game-planning system.

Originally a Dale Sveum hire for the 2012 season/Epstein regime Year 1 where the Cubs lost 101 games, Bosio helped coach up and market short-term assets like Ryan Dempster, Scott Feldman, Matt Garza and Jeff Samardzija. 

Those win-later trades combined with Bosio's expertise led to a 2016 major-league ERA leader (Kyle Hendricks) and a 2015 NL Cy Young Award winner (Jake Arrieta) plus setup guys Pedro Strop and Carl Edwards Jr. and All-Star shortstop Addison Russell.

Bosio helped set the foundation for the group that won last year's World Series and has made three consecutive trips to the NLCS. But as the Cubs are going to find out this winter, there is a shelf life to everything, even for those who made their mark during a golden age of baseball on the North Side.

Report: Cubs fire pitching coach Chris Bosio after six seasons with team

chrisbosiofired.jpg
USA TODAY

Report: Cubs fire pitching coach Chris Bosio after six seasons with team

In Theo Epstein's end of season press conference on Friday he said that any coach Joe Maddon wants back will return in 2018.

Evidently, there's one coach Maddon didn't want back.

According to USA Today's Bob Nightengale, the Cubs have fired longtime pitching coach Chris Bosio.

Bosio served as the Cubs pitching coach from 2012-17. He was the team's pitching coach under former managers' Dale Sveum (2012-13) and Rick Renteria (2014), and was retained when Maddon was hired as manager of the Cubs in 2015.

Bosio, who is one of the most respected pitching coaches in baseball, was instrumental in the career resurgence of Jake Arrieta who captured the Cy Young award in 2015, and the development of 27-year-old starter Kyle Hendricks (MLB's ERA leader in 2016).

One reason that could've led to Bosio's firing was the pitching staff's control issues during both the regular season and postseason, which Epstein mentioned during Friday's press conference. The Cubs issued the fifth-most walks (554) in the National League during the regular season and the highest total (53) during the postseason.

As the Cubs hit the market for a new pitching coach, Nightengale mentioned that one name that could be on the radar is former Tampa Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey, who parted ways with the organization following the 2017 season.

Hickey served as Maddon's pitching coach in Tampa Bay from 2006-2014.