Justin Wilson

Cubs prepare October bullpen with the John Lackey Experience

Cubs prepare October bullpen with the John Lackey Experience


John Lackey is now a relief pitcher. 

After saying all year Lackey would not move to the bullpen at any point, the Cubs warmed him up and brought him in the fourth inning of the final regular season game of 2017 Sunday. 

It marked only the second regular season relief appearance of Lackey's career and the first since June 27, 2004 — a span of 4,844 days.

Lackey gave up a pair of doubles to Joey Votto and Adam Duvall, taking his 12th loss of the season. The result meant nothing to Lackey and the Cubs, but the decision could mean everything this October.

The Cubs don't have to announce their National League Division Series lineup until Friday morning, but when they do, expect the 38-year-old, 15-year veteran to be on the roster and pitching out of the bullpen.

"Give him a test out of the bullpen — see what it looked like, see how he felt, that kinda thing," Joe Maddon said. "He gave up a run, whatever it was, but I thought he had a really good slider coming out of the 'pen and his velocity was normal. So I thought he looked actually pretty good."

Maddon never wanted to move Lackey to a relief role earlier in the year and Lackey admitted back then he was not open to something like that.

But everybody's priorities change in October and Lackey is now "amenable" to the role with a chance to ride off into the sunset with a fourth World Series ring.

Maddon confirmed the Lackey Relief Experience is an option in the postseason, where he's actually pitched three times as a reliever in his career prior to 2017.

Lackey will likely push one of the Justins (either Wilson or Grimm) off the 25-man roster and serve as another long relief option alongside Mike Montgomery. The Cubs will roll with some combination of Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jake Arrieta and Jose Quintana as their four-man postseason rotation.

But with Arrieta still not 100 percent coming off a hamstring injury, Lackey is there as another guy who could come in early in a ballgame and is stretched out enough to pitch multiple innings if need be. There's also always the extra innings factor, too, where Lackey's length would be an asset.

Sunday was just about the Cubs getting him back in game action as a reliever since he's gone 130 straight appearances as a starting pitcher since his last postseason relief appearance as a member of the Boston Red Sox in 2013.

In classic Lackey fashion, he declined to comment on his outing and new role after Sunday's game.

"It's just an option; it's a consideration," Maddon said. "We wanted to put him out there. Part of it's just for him to warm up and come into a game, see what that feels like. He's not really done it a whole lot. That's all that was about."

Projecting the 2017 Cubs' 25-man playoff roster

Projecting the 2017 Cubs' 25-man playoff roster

Now that the Cubs have locked up the National League Central, the attention has turned to the postseason.

The Cubs will head to Washington D.C. for a date with Bryce Harper and the Nationals in the National League Division Series beginning Oct. 6.

There are still a couple question marks regarding health and effectiveness on several players, but here's how the Cubs' 25-man roster could look for that NLDS showdown.

Note: This isn't a projection of a lineup for Game 1 of the NLDS. I don't envy Maddon deciding which three outfielders to sit each night (assuming Javy Baez and Addison Russell are set at middle infield).

CATCHER

Willson Contreras
Alex Avila

This is an easy call. Contreras figures to start every postseason game he's healthy for with his unique blend of arm strength to control the running game, energy and offensive prowess. Avila is a steady veteran who would be the starting catcher on the roster of almost every other playoff team, but instead will contribute off the bench as a left-handed bat and clubhouse presence.

INFIELD

Anthony Rizzo
Javy Baez
Addison Russell
Kris Bryant
Tommy La Stella

Not including Ben Zobrist or Ian Happ here because the assumption is Baez takes over at second base with Russell at short for every postseason game (and possibly every inning in October). That's how things ended up last fall as Baez emerged as a national star while starting all 17 playoff games at second base and displacing Zobrist from the infield to the outfield.

Of course, Rizzo and Bryant will start every single playoff game at the corners (with good health).

OUTFIELD

Ben Zobrist
Kyle Schwarber
Albert Almora Jr.
Jason Heyward
Jon Jay
Ian Happ

This is where Maddon will make his money. There's a legitimate shot for all six guys to start each game, yet clearly that won't happen. Does Zobrist deserve to start every game? Maddon has turned him into a part-time player at age 36 and Zobrist is hitting just .238 with a .705 OPS.

Against left-handed starting pitchers (like Washington's Gio Gonzalez), Schwarber will not start and Almora (if he's fully over his recent shoulder issue) almost assuredly will man center. Will Jason Heyward also sit vs. LHPs, leaving an OF of Happ-Almora-Zobrist left-to-right? Heyward has been only slightly better offensively this season (.707 OPS) compared to 2016 (.631 OPS), but is the best defensive outfielder in the game.

How much will Schwarber play? We know he'll sit against all LHPs, but he's also only been starting sparingly against RHPs in important games down the stretch despite 5 HR and a .970 OPS in 46 September at-bats.

STARTING ROTATION

Jake Arrieta
Jon Lester
Kyle Hendricks
Jose Quintana

I tell you what, I would not want to be the person who has to tell John Lackey he's not going to make the playoff rotation. But if all of these guys are healthy, I don't see how Lackey makes the cut, even if he does have a 2.51 ERA in 28.2 September innings and 26 career playoff outings under his belt.

Lester took a step forward Monday after a startling stretch of ineffectiveness (5.91 ERA, .948 OPS against in four starts between Sept. 2-20). He has one more start to continue to right the ship but regardless of the outcome in that game, Cubs have to feel pretty good about a guy with a 2.63 ERA and 1.03 WHIP in 133.2 career postseason innings.

The only true question with the rotation comes in how they line up. While Lester has been struggling, Arrieta has picked up where he left off pre-hamstring injury, Kyle Hendricks has been a stud and Jose Quintana just pitched the game of his life over the weekend to neutralize the Brewers.

My bet is Arrieta and Hendricks Games 1 and 2 in D.C. and then Lester in Game 3 at Wrigley Field. Quintana would go Game 4 assuming there is no sweep.

BULLPEN

Wade Davis
Carl Edwards Jr.
Mike Montgomery
Pedro Strop
Brian Duensing
Hector Rondon
Justin Wilson
Justin Grimm

Here's where things get a bit hazy, as well. With Koji Uehara still unable to get past a knee and back injury, he's essentially out of the mix. Rondon is also nursing a sore elbow, but has thrown 2.1 dominant innings over the last week and hasn't allowed a run since Aug. 23. 

Wilson has been an enigma since coming over from the Detroit Tigers at the trade deadline, going from one of the elite late-inning options in baseball to a guy who has allowed 35 baserunners in 15.2 innings in a Cubs uniform. But he's done it before and he did have an outing over the weekend that was encouraging, retiring all four Brewers he faced, including three strikeouts. Then there was Tuesday, when Wilson walked the only two batters he faced against the Cardinals and was removed in the middle of an at-bat.

There's also the Justin Grimm factor. He's got a 5.57 ERA and 1.35 WHIP in 48 appearances, but the Cubs don't really have any other trustworthy options in the 'pen and the worst thing a team could do in October is somehow wind up without enough pitching if a game extends to extra innings or a pitcher is only used for one hitter. Over the last three years, Grimm has held lefties to a .597 OPS against and did make six appearances last October.


If not Grimm for the 25th man on the roster, the Cubs do have the option of keeping an extra position player, but nobody really stands out right now. 

Leonys Martin could be a pinch-runner, but the roster has plenty of left-handed bats and outfielders as it stands, so Martin doesn't hold a ton of value. Victor Caratini can catch or play first/third base, but he's a rookie in his first MLB season and has hit just .240 with a .681 OPS in 56 plate appearances. Rene Rivera is a wily veteran who can do some damage against left-handed pitchers, but do the Cubs really need a third catcher in the postseason?

Justin Wilson running out of time to become X-factor for Cubs playoff bullpen

Justin Wilson running out of time to become X-factor for Cubs playoff bullpen

ST. LOUIS – “It’s a big boys’ game,” Joe Maddon said late Tuesday night after taking the ball away from Justin Wilson in the middle of an at-bat, another alarming sign that the lefty reliever will be outside the manager’s circle of trust, assuming the Cubs put him on the playoff roster.

The Cubs acquired Wilson and catcher Alex Avila before the July 31 trade deadline in a package deal with the Detroit Tigers that was supposed to strengthen the bullpen for a World Series title defense. It would give Maddon another late-game option after he took so much heat for the way he used one All-Star closer last year (Aroldis Chapman) and tried to preserve another (Wade Davis) this season.

Except Wilson has looked nothing like the guy who thrived in the American League East with the 2015 New York Yankees (5-0, 3.10 ERA in 74 appearances) and saved 13 games for the Tigers this year.

Maddon had a quick hook once the Cubs exploded for four runs in the eighth inning at Busch Stadium, turning an 8-3 blowout into a one-run game against the St. Louis Cardinals. With the magic number to celebrate a National League Central title down to one, Maddon watched Wilson walk Carson Kelly on five pitches and fall into a 2-0 count against Harrison Bader before summoning Carl Edwards Jr.

“Last night was just not the time to permit it to work itself out,” Maddon said Wednesday. “I thought the way we had come back in that game, to not give ourselves a chance would have been inappropriate, because I don’t like to use C.J. in that situation. But I thought we had a shot.

“I told him right afterwards, I said: ‘Man, you’re going to be right back out there.’ He started out well, the first-pitch strike, beautiful delivery, and then all of a sudden started pulling a couple pitches. I know they’ve done some nice things with his delivery. And I still believe that it’s going to work. But for last night, I could not be overly patient.”

Wilson confirmed what pitching coach Chris Bosio told WSCR-AM 670, the team’s flagship radio station, that he woke up with a “stiff neck” the other day: “A little annoying, but nothing I can’t deal with.”

What do you need to see from Wilson before the regular season ends on Sunday at Wrigley Field and the Cubs ramp up playoff preparations for the Washington Nationals?

“Just to throw consistent strikes,” Maddon said. “It’s not (that) every pitch is going to be a strike, but if he misses a little bit wide with one or two that he can come back into the zone and make his own adjustments.”

Only three days earlier, Maddon talked up Wilson as a potential game-changer after watching him get four outs against the top of the Milwaukee Brewers’ lineup at Miller Park, unleashing 17 fastballs in a row clocked at 95-97 mph.

But it’s hard to see Maddon giving Wilson the ball to face Bryce Harper or Daniel Murphy when his trend line looks like this as a Cub: 18 walks, 17 hits, 11 runs in 15.2 innings.

“Today is a new day,” Wilson said as a pack of reporters swarmed his locker inside the visiting clubhouse. “I go back out there and do what I do.”