Cubs will make starting pitching a priority at trade deadline


Cubs will make starting pitching a priority at trade deadline

ST. LOUIS — The questions about this rotation start with Jon Lester and won’t end even if the Cubs make a blockbuster trade at the July 31 deadline. That’s just the nature of pitching.

But the arms race will be the No. 1 priority for Theo Epstein’s front office with the Cubs not knowing right now what they’re going to get from their $155 million ace, Kyle Hendricks and Tsuyoshi Wada.

“You always want to make your pitching better,” manager Joe Maddon said Friday at Busch Stadium. “But I have a lot of faith in the guys that are out there, too.

“I’m not worried about Jon Lester at all. Jonny’s going to be fine. That is not my concern.”

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With Wada still dealing with a shoulder injury — the Cubs say it’s soreness around the left deltoid muscle and not a more serious structural issue — the next man up becomes Donn Roach.

Roach will face the St. Louis Cardinals on Saturday and try to slow down the best team in baseball. The 25-year-old right-hander earned a look by going 7-1 with a 2.29 ERA in 14 starts at Triple-A Iowa.

But the issues run deeper when the Cubs are paying former starters Travis Wood and Edwin Jackson almost $17 million combined to pitch out of the bullpen. Maddon feels Wood is now too valuable as a left-handed reliever, and the Cubs don’t seem to trust Jackson in higher-leverage situations.

A farm system that has produced immediate-impact hitters like Kris Bryant hasn’t kept up on the pitching side, whether it’s injuries, ineffectiveness or simply a matter of how the Cubs have chosen to allocate their resources.

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The Cubs have used 80 draft picks on pitchers since the Epstein administration took over after the 2011 season and don’t have anyone close to becoming a frontline starter (though those are obviously long-term investments that can still pay off big in the future).

Roach made one start and 15 appearances out of the bullpen for the San Diego Padres last year before getting claimed off waivers. Roach grew up in Las Vegas and remembered playing against Bryant in high school. Bryan Harper — Bryce’s older brother — became a groomsman at Roach’s wedding. Roach doesn’t know if this will be one spot start or something more if Wada goes on the disabled list.

The Cubs obviously believe in Lester (4-6, 4.03 ERA) because he has such a long track record and won two World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox. But you still know Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer will be working the phones for the next five weeks.

“They’re always looking,” Maddon said. “Any time you leave spring training, I always thought you needed seven-slash-maybe eight good starters that you can count on.

“That’s what you’re always looking to do, because things happen any year. Any time you can augment your starting pitching, and keeping them stockpiled at Triple-A, that’s just going to make you stronger at the end of the season.”

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


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.