Cubs

Cubs shake up bullpen with James Russell and Anthony Varvaro

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Cubs shake up bullpen with James Russell and Anthony Varvaro

ST. LOUIS — The Cubs shook up their bullpen on Tuesday, adding right-hander Anthony Varvaro, bringing back lefty James Russell and still feeling like they’re not done moving pieces around.

This isn’t sustainable for a team that envisions itself as a contender: The bullpen blew its fifth save in Monday night’s 10-9 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals, while the rotation has accounted for only 12 quality starts through 24 games.

“We’ve let some games slip away that we could have won,” general manger Jed Hoyer said at Busch Stadium. “But that is the nature of bullpens. They can be volatile. We’ve played a sixth of the season and we’ve already had, I’d say, two good stretches and two bad stretches. We just have to even those things out a little bit.”

The Cubs claimed Varvaro off waivers from the Boston Red Sox, where he had gotten squeezed out of a bullpen that needed more of a long man. Varvaro had gone 6-4 with a 2.74 ERA and 19 holds across the previous two seasons with the Atlanta Braves.

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In corresponding moves, the Cubs placed outfielder Chris Denorfia on the disabled list, optioned right-hander Gonzalez Germen to Triple-A Iowa and designated right-hander Blake Parker for assignment.

Russell — who had been drafted and developed by the organization and traded to the Braves at last summer’s deadline — dominated at Iowa. After getting released by the Braves near the end of spring training, Russell signed a minor-league deal and put up 12 strikeouts against zero walks in 9.2 scoreless innings with Iowa.

The shape of the bullpen will change again with Justin Grimm. The question now is whether he will make a second rehab appearance with Iowa or get cleared to rejoin the Cubs after recovering from his right forearm injury.

Neil Ramirez — another hard-throwing reliever for what was supposed to be a lights-out bullpen — is scheduled to throw off a mound on Wednesday at the team’s Arizona complex as he works through right shoulder inflammation.

“Knock on wood, guys will get healthy, but it’s hard to count on that,” Hoyer said. “You have to almost assume that you’re going to be scrambling all the time, because when one guy gets healthy, a lot of times another guy might go down. I don’t think you can look forward and say: ‘When we’re healthy.’ Because that never seems to ever really happen.”

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

MESA, Ariz. — The first thing Kyle Schwarber told his new hitting coach?

"His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.'"

The Cubs hired Chili Davis as the team's new hitting coach for myriad reasons. He's got a great track record from years working with the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics, and that .274/.360/.451 slash line during an illustrious 19-year big league career certainly helps.

But Davis' main immediate task in his new gig will be to help several of the Cubs' key hitters prove Schwarber's assessment correct.

Schwarber had a much-publicized tough go of things in 2017. After he set the world on fire with his rookie campaign in 2015 and returned from what was supposed to be a season-ending knee injury in time to be one of the Cubs' World Series heroes in 2016, he hit just .211 last season, getting sent down to Triple-A Iowa for a stint in the middle of the season. Schwarber still hit 30 home runs, but his 2017 campaign was seen as a failure by a lot of people.

Enter Davis, who now counts Schwarber as one of his most important pupils.

"He's a worker," Davis said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "Schwarbs, he knows he's a good player. His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.' He said last year was just a fluke year. He said, 'I've never failed in my life.' And he said, 'I'm going to get back to the player that I was.'

"I think he may have — and this is my thought, he didn't say this to me — I think it may have been, he had a big World Series, hit some homers, and I think he tried to focus on being more of a home run type guy as opposed to being a good hitter.

"His focus has changed. I had nothing to do with that, he came in here with that focus that he wants to be a good hitter first and let whatever happens happen. And he's worked on that. The main thing with Kyle is going to be is just maintaining focus."

The physically transformed Schwarber mentioned last week that he's established a good relationship with Davis, in no small part because Schwarber can relate to what Davis went through when he was a player. And to hear Davis tell it, it sounds like he's describing Schwarber's first three years as a big leaguer to a T.

"Telling him my story was important because it was similar," Davis said. "I was a catcher, got to big league camp, and I was thrown in the outfield. And I hated the outfield. ... But I took on the challenge. I made the adjustment, I had a nice first year, then my second year I started spiraling. I started spiraling down, and I remember one of my coaches saying, 'I'm going to have to throw you a parachute just so you can land softly.' I got sent down to Triple-A at the All-Star break for 15 days.

"When I got sent down, I was disappointed, but I was also really happy. I needed to get away from the big league pressure and kind of find myself again. I went home and refocused myself and thought to myself, 'I'm going to come back as Chili.' Because I tried to change, something changed about me the second year.

"And when I did that, I came back the next year and someone tried to change me and I said, 'Pump the breaks a little bit, let me fail my way, and then I'll come to you if I'm failing.' And they understood that, and I had a nice year, a big year and my career took off.

"I'm telling him, 'Hey, let last year go. It happened, it's in the past. Keep working hard, maintain your focus, and you'll be fine.'"

Getting Schwarber right isn't Davis' only task, of course. Despite the Cubs being one of the highest-scoring teams in baseball last season, they had plenty of guys go through subpar seasons. Jason Heyward still has yet to find his offensive game since coming to Chicago as a high-priced free agent. Ben Zobrist was bothered by a wrist injury last season and put up the worst numbers of his career. Addison Russell had trouble staying healthy, as well, and saw his numbers dip from what they were during the World Series season in 2016.

So Davis has plenty of charges to work with. But he likes what he's seen so far.

"They work," Davis said. "They come here to work. I had a group of guys in Boston that were the same last year, and it makes my job easier. They want to get better, they come out every day, they show up, they want to work. They're excited, and I'm excited to be around them.

And what have the Cubs found out about Davis? Just about everyone answers that question the same way: He likes to talk.

"I'm not going to stop talking," he said. "If I stop talking, something's wrong."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

Carmen DeFalco (ESPN 1000) and Jordan Bernfield join Kap on the panel. Anthony Rizzo returns to the Cubs after an emotional weekend home while Tom Ricketts expects another World Series parade. Plus Hall of Famer Andre Dawson joins Kap to talk about his Cubs reunion and how the current crop unsigned free agents compares to his experiences with collusion.