Cubs

Can the Cubs' bullpen move on from all those postseason walks and provide a safety net for Brandon Morrow?

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USA TODAY

Can the Cubs' bullpen move on from all those postseason walks and provide a safety net for Brandon Morrow?

The Cubs have a super rotation with four guys who could be No. 1 starters on other teams. They have a lineup packed with young position players that even in a down year managed to score the second most runs in the National League.

After reaching three straight NL Championship Series, this team looks primed for another run at a World Series.

That's not to say there aren't questions, of course. And if there is a hole on this club, it might be found out in the bullpen, where efforts to bring back All-Star closer Wade Davis didn't pan out and Brandon Morrow, who hasn't regularly worked as a closer in a decade, is the new ninth-inning man.

Morrow brings plenty of success from last season, when he was stellar in high-leverage situations for the Los Angeles Dodgers. He pitched in every game of the World Series as the Dodgers came one win away from a championship.

But closing is a different animal, as plenty of baseball folks will tell you.

"There is something about the ninth inning, and the last three outs are the toughest and the last out is the toughest," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said during the early days of spring training. "I think the big thing about that is you really have to have a short memory because you’re going to screw up once in a while. I think the guys that handle the failure the best are the guys that play — in combination with having good stuff — but the guys that handle the bad moment better are the guys that can really do that job. Because you’re not going to get that opportunity unless you have good stuff. You have good stuff, you have great ability, how do you handle the bad moment? And I think that really separates these guys."

The Cubs have all the confidence in the world in Morrow. But what happens if Morrow can't translate general late-inning success to ninth-inning success? What happens if Morrow doesn't work out in the closer's role? Then what for a Cubs team with such high, "World Series or bust" expectations?

Certainly there are options. Carl Edwards Jr. and Pedro Strop have years of late-inning experience with this team. Justin Wilson is being hyped as a strong bounce-back candidate after his rough go of things after being acquired from the Detroit Tigers last summer. Steve Cishek, also signed this offseason, has a lot of closing experience from his days with the Miami Marlins and Seattle Mariners.

"We’ve got eight guys down there, eight guys that can go get three outs in the ninth inning. I truly believe that," Justin Grimm said. "It’ll be fun to watch. It’s so funny, certain guys, it’s just rising to that occasion. And you see a different pitcher out of them in different situations. It’s going to be a lot of fun. I’ve always had faith in every single guy down there. I watch them work, I watch them throw their bullpens. Pretty impressive stuff."

"(Wilson) can, Stropy can, CJ can, Cishek’s done it. We’ve got a lot of guys that fit into that category," Maddon said. "The days that Morrow’s not available, it could be anybody."

"Anybody on this team can close the game," Edwards added.

All that confidence is great, especially heading into a season where the expectations are what they are. But don't be surprised if a large number of Cubs fans don't share that confidence.

As good as the North Side relief corps was during the regular season in 2017 — the 3.80 bullpen ERA was the third best in the NL — the playoffs were a completely different story. In 10 postseason games and 37.2 postseason innings, Cubs relievers posted a grotesque 6.21 ERA, walking 27 batters compared to striking out just 35.

Now, bullpen pitching wasn't great across the league last postseason. The world-champion Houston Astros saw their bullpen turn in a 5.40 ERA and issue 26 walks, just one fewer than the Cubs. But the Astros also played seven more games, with their relievers pitching nearly 25 more innings and striking out almost 30 more batters.

Edwards alone walked six guys and gave up six runs in 4.2 innings of work, an 11.57 postseason ERA. Strop walked three batters in 5.1 innings. Wilson faced just two hitters in one appearance, unreliable after he gave up 10 earned runs and walked 19 hitters in just 17.2 regular-season innings after joining the Cubs. Grimm didn't pitch at all during the 2017 postseason after a rough season that saw him shuttled back and forth between the big leagues and Triple-A Iowa and finish with a 5.53 ERA.

So there's a reason for folks to feel that the safety net past Morrow might not be all that safe.

But the Cubs have done work to assure that's not the case. Maddon and plenty of others are expecting big things from Wilson, who converted 13 of 15 save opportunities as the Tigers' closer prior to last summer's trade. Cishek has 121 career saves, including 25 in 2016, when he finished 40 games for the Mariners. He was one of the more effective closers in the game during a three-year stretch with the Marlins during which he recorded 88 saves.

And then there's new pitching coach Jim Hickey. Maddon's old partner in crime with the Rays, Hickey is confident in how things will play out in the bullpen. But he's focused on getting those walks down.

Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer said repeatedly during the offseason that they intended to fix the strike-throwing problem that Hoyer said went through the pitching staff like a "disease." Hickey's all for being the cure for that ailment.

"I think there is something that a coach can do to help, however it’s just simply making them aware or encouraging them. And I really think that walks, especially out of the bullpen, are a little bit more of a mindset than they are anything physically or mechanically wrong," Hickey said last month in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "You come into a situation where maybe you give up a base hit and maybe it changes the game, so you’re a little bit reluctant to throw the ball over the plate. Now it’s 1-0, now it’s 2-0, so you maybe nibble a little bit.

"So I think it’s more of a mindset, and once the group gets the mindset of ‘attack, attack, attack,’ it’ll be contagious. And I think it is contagious. I think last year it was probably contagious in that there was more walks than you would like, and I think as you turn the corner and head the other direction, that would be contagious, as well.

"I have very few outcome goals in a season. I don’t sit there and say, ‘I want to lead the league in earned-run average’ or ‘I want to lead the league in strikeouts.’ That would all be great. Or ‘I want to lead the league in batting average against.’ But that one thing, that one outcome goal that I always have for a staff is to have the least amount of walks in the league. And I think at the end of the day, especially with the talent that’s out there, if that is the case, it’s going to be an extremely successful season."

And it sounds like buy-in won't be a problem.

"I can prove a lot," Edwards said. "Starting with strikes."

Javier Baez does more Javier Baez things in Cubs' blowout win over Rockies

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USA TODAY

Javier Baez does more Javier Baez things in Cubs' blowout win over Rockies

Javier Baez continued his hot streak on Friday night.

The 25-year-old infielder went 4-for-6 with a homer, a double and four RBIs as the Cubs cruised past the Colorado Rockies, 16-5. Batting in the second spot, he fell a triple short of the cycle.

This GIF was basically Baez all night: 

His night started with a two-run homer in the first inning. Did it look familiar?

Baez now has nine hits in his last 16 at-bats. He also ranks second in the league in RBIs this season with 20, trailing Jed Lowrie (21) of the Oakland A's.

On Friday night, his play drew some "Javy! Javy! Javy!" chants multiple times from the Coors Field crowd, one of which came after a risky baserunning play in the fifth inning. Baez was on second base when Kris Bryant hit a chopper to the shortstop. Baez took off for third. He was initially called out, but it was overturned after a video review. Two runs would go on to score, and the Cubs would continue to pour it on the rest of the game.

Just another game of Javy doing Javy things.

Meet the new Kyle Schwarber

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AP

Meet the new Kyle Schwarber

It would be easy to point to Kyle Schwarber's new six-pack as the main reason why he's off to a solid start at the plate.

But Schwarber's offensive prowess is more related to the work he's done inside his own head, not on being in the Best Shape of His Life.

He's out to prove he's more than just a three true outcomes guy.

In the Cubs' 8-5 win over the St. Louis Cardinals Thursday, Schwarber flashed a different part of his game with a pair of groundball RBI singles that helped stake his team to an early lead.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon also pointed to Schwarber's lineout up the middle in the eighth inning as his favorite at-bat, even above the run-scoring hits.

"That's as good as I've seen him in a while," Maddon said.

Schwarber is hitting the ball with authority up the middle and the other way, shortening up his swing with two strikes and finding ways to beat the shift by just sticking his bat out and directing the ball to the left side of second base, where teams only have one defender.

Schwarber is still largely a three true outcomes guy, on pace for 30 homers, 101 walks and 172 strikeouts.

But he no longer looks so stressed/anxious with runners in scoring position. He's been working toward relaxing with guys on base and instead of trying to put every ball out onto Sheffield Ave., he's doing what he can to just put the ball in play.

He insists his thought process with runners in scoring position hasn't changed since last year, but he is definitely getting better results now.

After starting the year 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position, Schwarber went 3-for-6 in such situations on the Cubs' recent homestand. Even more impressive: All three hits have come with two outs and went to center or left field.

"I'm not trying to go out there and put a lot of pressure on myself because that's when negative things are gonna happen," Schwarber said. "You just gotta be able to have that same approach you have when there's no one on base."

Since the start of the 2017 season, here are Schwarber's numbers based on runners:

Bases empty: .220 AVG, .831 OPS
Runners on: .206 AVG, .730 OPS

The Cubs are trying to get him back to his 2015 form when he exploded onto the major-league scene to hit .270 with a .914 OPS with runners on base.

There is reason for optimism and the numbers back up Schwarber's progress.

In 2017, 83 percent of his season RBI came on home runs — he only had 10 RBI that didn't come from longballs.

This year, he already has 5 RBI on non-homers and there is still roughly 90 percent of the season remaining. Only 44 percent of his 2018 RBI have come on dingers.

As impressive as anything, Schwarber ranks 17th in baseball in walk percentage (16.9 percent) while also reducing his strikeout percentage slightly from last year's struggles

Schwarber has spent a lot of time working with new hitting coach Chili Davis, but he won't allow himself to ride the daily roller coaster based off recent success, even if it is helping his confidence.

"Yeah, I've been feeling good," Schwarber said. "There's been some tough at-bats here and there, but still taking the walks and also trying to get those guys in when they're on and go from there.

"Not gonna get too high, not gonna get too low when things are going bad. Just stay right in the middle."

When Schwarber is producing like this and Javy Baez is ascending to star status, this Cubs offense won't be struggling to find consistency for long.

"If these two guys keep on doing [this], wow," Maddon said. "Sky's the limit."