Cubs

John Lackey returns as Cubs move forward with six-man rotation

John Lackey returns as Cubs move forward with six-man rotation

John Lackey hadn't pitched in a game in almost a month, but naturally came out firing with a no-hitter through four innings Sunday.

Of course. Would you expect anything less with this Cubs team?

In a way, it was almost a worst-case scenario for Joe Maddon and the Cubs as Lackey kept the Giants hitless through the first 13 outs.

Before the Cubs' wild 3-2 walk-off win in 13 innings Sunday, Maddon said he wanted to limit Lackey to around 80 pitches, which could've meant putting a run at history on the backburner.

That situation never played out, however, as Eduardo Nunez lined a double to right-center with one out in the fifth inning and Lackey was removed after five with 76 pitches under his belt.

The veteran right-hander showed no ill effects from the shoulder injury that has sidelined him since Aug. 14, dialing it up to the low 90s with his fastball and showing his typical command.

"I felt pretty good," Lackey said. "I was locating the ball pretty well today. We had a good mix goin' on.

"You're not gonna feel nothing. It's just not possible. This time of year and this point in my career. There's things you gotta grind through; there's things you gotta adjust to. I feel like I can do that pretty well."

Lackey allowed two runs (one earned) while striking out four.

[SHOP: Get your Cubs gear here]

Prior to Sunday's game, Maddon confirmed the Cubs will move forward with a six-man rotation, with Mike Montgomery getting the start Wednesday in Milwaukee.

With a big lead in the NL Central and a playoff spot all but assured, the Cubs are aiming to keep every pitcher at the top of their game for a potential World Series run.

"Just trying to keep guys fresh for the rest of the year," Maddon said. "It's no more complicated than that. ... "I think every factor that can be considered right now, just makes all the sense in the world."

Maddon pointed to the rest of baseball, where young pitchers are being shut down for the season and even veterans are worn down by the grind of a six-month slate of games. 

Maddon acknowledged veteran starters like Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester may not like the addition of a sixth man to the rotation as creatures of habit, but everything is about winning that final game of the season.

He also referenced the way Arrieta ran into a wall in the postseason after pitching by far the most innings of his career.

"At the end of the day, these guys have been trained to think a certain way," Maddon said. "And I get that. I totally get it. But I also believe the training that really surpasses the conventional part is to get to a World Series.

"Last year, we saw it right before our very eyes with Jake and the jump that he had encountered and what it meant at the end of the season.

"Right now, our starters are pitching probably as well as they have all year. So I like to think that if we continue along this path, we can keep that kind of freshness about them."

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

0222-joe-maddon.jpg
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.

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

0222-lester-bryant-hickey.jpg
KELLY CRULL

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

Spring training baseball games are up around the bend, but before the boys of summer get into organized action, two of the team’s new coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey sit down with Kelly Crull.

Plus, Vinnie Duber joins Kelly to discuss these baseball conversations including the memorable first words of Kyle Schwarber to Chili Davis, “I don’t suck!"

Listen to the full episode at this link (iOS users can go here) or in the embedded player below. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts.