Willson Contreras returns to give Cubs another energy boost in division race


Willson Contreras returns to give Cubs another energy boost in division race

For all the mood swings around this team – and conflicting signals within the National League Central – understand that the Cubs doubled their division lead while Willson Contreras recovered from a strained right hamstring.

The Cubs held a 1.5-game edge on the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals on Aug. 9 when Contreras grabbed his right leg while running out a groundball and collapsed onto the outfield grass at AT&T Park in San Francisco.

Contreras hit the optimistic end of a four-to-six-week projection and got activated before Sunday’s game against the Brewers at Wrigley Field, where the Cubs opened with a three-game advantage over Milwaukee and St. Louis.      

“We have a goal to reach the playoffs and then go from there,” Contreras said. “This is a young team that never quits. This is a young team that plays nine innings, 27 outs. And no matter what injuries we have on the team, they’re going to stick it out and play hard.”

At the time, Contreras (21 homers, 70 RBI, .861 OPS) had been performing like someone who would get votes on the bottom half of the NL MVP ballot. In the meantime, the Cubs watched their top starting pitchers (Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta) walk off the field in the middle of starts with injuries, and kept waiting for All-Star shortstop Addison Russell (strained right foot/plantar fasciitis) to come off the disabled list.  

“(It’s) guys understanding their roles,” catcher Alex Avila said, “and the fact that when guys went down, it doesn’t have to be one person that has to do everything, just as long as you have contributions from everybody.

“Even guys just going into the game late – whether you’re pinch-running or pinch-hitting – all those types of things play (into that and) pick up the team when quite a few guys are injured.”

When the Cubs executed the Justin Wilson deal with the Detroit Tigers before the July 31 deadline, the assumption was Avila would be a backup who might play once a week while Contreras continued to established himself as one of the best two-way catchers in the game.    

But the Cubs are always trying to think through worst-case scenarios and prepare accordingly. During the time Contreras spent on the disabled list, Avila hit .281 (18-for-64) with two homers and 14 RBI in 22 games.

So the Cubs will certainly take Contreras and his rocket arm, powerful swing and boundless energy. But near the end of an unexpected division race, that depth might ultimately be the separator for the defending World Series champs.

“The key is not trying to do too much,” Avila said, “understanding what you’re capable of, and just trying to take care of that and allow the talent to take over."

Offseason of change begins with Cubs firing pitching coach Chris Bosio


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


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.