John Lackey

Cubs need to get their pitching in order or else this entire foundation could crumble

Cubs need to get their pitching in order or else this entire foundation could crumble

There were times where it felt like the entire pitching section to The Cubs Way manual could be summed up with four words, every time Theo Epstein’s front office acquired another faded prospect or change-of-scenery guy: “Get him with Boz.”

Hands-off manager Joe Maddon would often deflect pitching questions during his daily media briefings by saying: “You’d have to ask Boz.”

The pitching infrastructure doesn’t begin and end with Chris Bosio, who got fired less than 24 hours after the Cubs ended their third straight trip to the National League Championship Series, 352 days after they finally won the World Series.

But it is another unknown at a time when The Foundation of Sustained Success doesn’t feel quite so stable, the Los Angeles Dodgers already catching and passing the Cubs and zooming into Tuesday night’s World Series Game 1 against the Houston Astros.

The Cubs are looking to replace 40 percent of their rotation – Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta and three-time World Series champion John Lackey – at a time when the talent pool of free agents is shallow and the farm system lacks ready-for-impact pitching prospects and the minor-league headliners to make another Jose Quintana trade. The cost of their young hitters is about to soar through the arbitration system.

The Cubs will have to go far outside their comfort zone to re-sign All-Star closer Wade Davis – maybe something along the lines of the regrettable four-year, $62 million contract the San Francisco Giants gave Mark Melancon last winter – or acquire another ninth-inning guy because Carl Edwards Jr. bombed in the playoffs (11.57 ERA) and trade-deadline addition Justin Wilson got bumped off the NLCS roster.

“We face a lot of challenges,” Epstein said during last week’s year-in-review press conference at Wrigley Field. “We knew that the 2017-2018 offseason would be one of our most challenging. We’ve known that for a long time, and that there may be more opportunities presented next offseason, but more challenges presented this offseason, and we have to find a way to balance those two things.”

The Cubs have enough Geek Department resources, support staff and institutional memory to continue the game-planning system spearheaded by catching/strategy coach Mike Borzello. Jim Hickey – Maddon’s old pitching coach with the Tampa Bay Rays who interviewed for the job on Monday – has a proven track record and a reputation for being a good communicator.

It clearly looks like Maddon pushed for it and wanted the perceived upgrade, but this is stuff around the margins. Some might like the new voice, some might not care either way. Whatever. It’s coaching, not playing.

But you already noticed the drop-off when the Cubs don’t play defense at a historic level and it could be even steeper if Jason Heyward becomes a $184 million part-time outfielder or Ian Happ and Kyle Schwarber stick around and take on bigger roles or the middle-infield combination of Addison Russell and Javier Baez gets broken up in a trade.

The Cubs are now also entering the second half of Jon Lester’s six-year, $155 million megadeal, which covers his age-34, 35 and 36 seasons. That contract changed franchise history and already paid for itself, but Lester is coming off a season where he put up an ERA that almost exactly matched the major-league average (4.33), went on the disabled list for the first time since 2011 and failed to exceed the 190-inning mark for the first time in 10 years.     

The Cubs will stay in touch with super-agent Scott Boras about Arrieta – and have long been intrigued by Yu Darvish – but it doesn’t sound like they’re all that eager to go to the top of the market again and give another 30-something pitcher a nine-figure contract.

“You don’t want to make a living or make a habit out of trying to solve your problems with high-priced pitching free agents,” Epstein said, “because over the long run, there’s just so much risk involved. It can really hamstring your organization.

“But we have a lot of players who have reasonable salaries who contribute an awful lot that might put us in a position to consider it going forward in the future.

“So I wouldn’t rule it out completely, and I wouldn’t rule it in. I would just say it’s not our preferred method. We prefer to make a small deal and find Jake Arrieta, but you can’t do that every year, either. That’s tough.”

Epstein also dismissed Maddon’s theory that Mike Montgomery could grow into a double-digit winner in the rotation, leaving him as a very useful lefty swingman, but not the winning Powerball ticket the Cubs once hoped for, or lightning striking twice the way it did with Arrieta.

“In a typical Mike Montgomery year, he’ll probably come to spring training as a starter, stretch out as a starter,” Epstein said. “Barring something unusual in spring training, like extreme performance or injuries somewhere, he’ll probably start the year in the bullpen and he’ll pitch well out of the bullpen, the way he did this year.

“And then at the end of the regular season, when you look up, he’ll have somewhere between 10 and 20 starts. And you’ll say: ‘Wow, Mike Montgomery was really valuable this year.’”

Epstein signaled that Jen-Ho Tseng, the organization’s minor league pitcher of the year, will likely begin next season among the top three depth starters at Triple-A Iowa, and the industry sees his ceiling as a back-of-the-rotation guy in the big leagues.

Through six draft classes, the Epstein regime has used 132 picks on pitchers, and so far, two have played on the big-league team: Rob Zastryzny (29 total innings) and Pierce Johnson (who made one appearance at Wrigley Field before the Giants claimed him off waivers in September).       

Almost exactly six years after his “Baseball is Better” stadium club press conference and the Wrigley Field marquee putting his name in lights, Epstein knows how much work has to be done this winter.

“Mission not accomplished,” Epstein said. “The goal is to create a really high floor for this organization, where the off years are years where you might win in the high 80s and still sneak a division or a wild card, or win 90 games and get in and then find a way to do some damage in October. And the great years you win 103 and win the whole thing, and the in-between years you’re dangerous in October.

“We have done a lot of tremendous things, and thus far it’s been a success, but I think the whole goal is to get there as many times as you can over a long stretch and a long period of time. We’re really well-positioned for the future. In no way do we see this window ending now or lessening in any way.”

Theo Epstein: Joe Maddon has taken enough heat, don’t blame NLCS on Cubs manager

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USA TODAY

Theo Epstein: Joe Maddon has taken enough heat, don’t blame NLCS on Cubs manager

The second-guessing of Joe Maddon jumped the shark when someone questioned why the manager didn’t pinch-hit for Kyle Hendricks – with two outs in the fourth inning of a 2-1 game the Cubs would lose by five runs to a Los Angeles Dodgers team at 110 wins and counting this year.

Maddon makes himself a target when he shows up to a Dodger Stadium press conference in a hipster jean jacket, gets ejected from two of the first four National League Championship Series games, likens the Buster Posey Rule to the Chicago soda tax, lectures the media about the dangers of dry-humping and threatens to “come running out of the clubhouse in my jockstrap” if Curtis Granderson hits a disputed home run instead of swinging at strike four.

You won’t have Maddon to kick around anymore, because Thursday night’s ugly 11-1 Game 5 loss ended the 2017 season and turned out the lights at Wrigley Field, the Dodgers advancing to their first World Series since 1988 and looking a lot like the 2016 Cubs.

“It’s not Joe Maddon against Dave Roberts,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said. “It’s the Cubs against the Dodgers. And the Dodgers have played extraordinarily well this postseason. We’ve played with a ton of heart and character, but we haven’t played our best baseball.”

Why would a manager even need a jockstrap, anyway? “That was just hyperbole on my part,” Maddon said. “Everybody’s so literal. It’s baseball prose.”

The game is now dissected 140 characters at a time on Twitter, where there isn’t enough room and attention bandwidth to explain how: the Dodgers have merged their great tradition of scouting and player development with cutting-edge analytics and $200 million payrolls; beating the Washington Nationals in an epic elimination game drained the defending champs physically and emotionally; this lineup isn’t nearly as good as the one that won last year’s World Series; and trade-deadline nonfactor Justin Wilson created a huge hole in a Cubs bullpen without many good options right now.

“It’s not manager against manager,” Epstein said. “That stuff just gets under the microscope so much this time of year. It’s players performing. And when you get a lead in the series – and when you’ve got a bunch of relievers throwing well – you can make tactically aggressive decisions. Your strategies tend to work.

“When you’re in a tough spot late in the game – and you’re searching for consistency in the ‘pen – it just puts all managers in tough spots.”

Even Epstein has admitted that Maddon opened himself up to second-guessing for how he handled Aroldis Chapman and managed last year’s World Series Game 7.

We’ll never know what would have happened if Maddon summoned Wade Davis for the ninth inning in Game 2 instead of letting John Lackey face Justin Turner and then watching that three-run, walk-off homer at Dodger Stadium. We’re not quite sure if the All-Star closer really was close to full strength or just getting by with guts and intelligence. But it’s pretty obvious the better team won this NLCS.

Epstein definitely felt frustrated with the way Maddon’s team sleepwalked through a 43-45 first half. That could be a much bigger issue than any lineup choice or bullpen decision moving forward: Making sure Maddon’s positive message doesn’t get tuned out in the clubhouse and having the safeguards in place so that hands-off approach doesn’t waste a season for this extremely talented young core.

But Maddon has guided this franchise into the playoffs for three straight years – something no one else had done since Frank Chance in 1906-08 – and at a certain point all he can do is watch along with the rest of us.

“It’s not about front offices or managers,” Epstein said. “It’s about the players.”

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Should the Bears let Mitch Trubisky throw more?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Should the Bears let Mitch Trubisky throw more?

Adam Jahns (Chicago Sun-Times), Ben Finfer (ESPN 1000) and Jordan Cornette (The U/ESPN 1000) join Kap on the panel. Justin Turner hits a walk-off 3-run HR off of John Lackey to give the Dodgers a 2-0 lead in the NLCS. So why was Lackey even in the game? How much blame should Joe Maddon get for the loss?

The Bears run the ball over and over and over again to beat the Ravens in overtime, but should they have let Mitch Trubisky throw the ball more?