Cubs

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.”

One MLB executive thinks Kyle Schwarber can emerge as Cubs' best hitter in 2018

One MLB executive thinks Kyle Schwarber can emerge as Cubs' best hitter in 2018

When the 2017 season ended, Cubs left fielder Kyle Schwarber looked in the mirror and didn't like what he saw.

He was stocky, slower than he wanted to be and he had just finished a very difficult season that saw him spend time back in the minor leagues at Triple-A after he struggled mightily through the first three months of the season.

Schwarber still put up solid power numbers despite his overall struggles. He slammed 30 home runs, putting him among the Top 15 hitters in the National League and among the Top 35 in all of baseball. But, Schwarber was honest with himself. He knew he could achieve so much more if he was in better shape and improved his mobility, his overall approach at the plate and his defense.

Schwarber was drafted by the Cubs out of Indiana University as a catcher. However, many scouts around baseball had serious doubts about his ability to catch at the big league level. The Cubs were in love with Schwarber the person and Schwarber the overall hitter and felt they would give him a chance to prove he could catch for them. If he couldn't, then they believed he could play left field adequately enough to keep his powerful bat in the lineup.

However, a serious knee injury early in the 2016 season knocked Schwarber out of action for six months and his return to the Cubs in time to assist in their World Series run raised expectations for a tremendous 2017 season. In fact, the expectations for Schwarber were wildly unrealistic when the team broke camp last spring. Manager Joe Maddon had Schwarber in the everyday lineup batting leadoff and playing left field.

But Schwarber's offseason after the World Series consisted of more rehab on his still-healing injured left knee. That kept him from working on his outfield play, his approach at the plate and his overall baseball training. 

Add in all of the opportunities and commitments that come with winning a World Series and it doesn't take much detective work to understand why Schwarber struggled so much when the 2017 season began. This offseason, though, has been radically different. A season-ending meeting with Cubs president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer led to a decision to take weight off of Schwarber's frame. It also included a decision to change his training program so that he improved his quickness, lateral movement and his overall baseball skills.

"I took two weeks off after the season ended and then I went to work," Schwarber said. "We put a plan together to take weight off and to improve my quickness. I have my meals delivered and I feel great. My baseball work combined with a lot of strength and conditioning has me in the best shape that I have ever been in."

Schwarber disagrees with the pundits who felt manager Maddon's decision to put him in the leadoff spot in the Cubs' loaded lineup contributed to his struggles.

"I have no problem hitting wherever Joe wants to put me," Schwarber said. "I didn't feel any more pressure because I was batting leadoff. I just needed to get back to training for a baseball season as opposed to rehabbing from my knee injury. I'm probably 20-25 pounds lighter and I'm ready to get back to Arizona with the boys and to get ready for the season."

Many around the game were shocked when the Cubs drafted Schwarber with the No. 4 overall selection in the 2014 MLB Draft, but a rival executive who was not surprised by the pick believes that Schwarber can indeed return to the form that made him such a feared hitter during his rookie season as well as his excellent postseason resume.

"Everyone who doubted this kid may end up way off on their evaluation because he is a great hitter and now that he is almost two years removed from his knee injury," the executive said. "He knows what playing at the major-league level is all about I expect him to be a real force in the Cubs lineup.

"Theo and Jed do not want to trade this kid and they are going to give him every opportunity to succeed. I think he has a chance to be as good a hitter as they have in their order."

Watch the full 1-on-1 interview with Kyle Schwarber Sunday night on NBC Sports Chicago.

The low-key move that may pay dividends for Cubs in 2018 and beyond

The low-key move that may pay dividends for Cubs in 2018 and beyond

The Cubs-Cardinals rivalry is alive and well and this offseason has been further proof of that.

The St. Louis Cardinals haven't made a rivalry-altering move like inking Jake Arrieta to a megadeal, but they have proven that they are absolutely coming after the Cubs and the top of the division.

However, a move the St. Louis brass made Friday afternoon may actually be one that makes Cubs fans cheer.

The Cardinals traded outfielder Randal Grichuk to the Toronto Blue Jays Friday in exhange for a pair of right-handed pitchers: Dominic Leone and Conner Greene. Leone is the main draw here as a 26-year-old reliever who posted a 2.56 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and 10.4 K/9 in 70.1 innings last year in Toronto.

But this is the second young position player the Cardinals have traded to Toronto this offseason and Grichuk is a notorious Cub Killer.

Grichuk struggled overall in 2017, posting a second straight year of empty power and not much else. But he once again hammered the Cubs to the tune of a .356 batting average and 1.240 OPS. 

He hit six homers and drove in 12 runs in just 14 games (11 starts) against Joe Maddon's squad. That's 27 percent of his 2017 homers and 20 percent of his season RBI numbers coming against just one team.

And it wasn't just one year that was an aberration. In his career, Grichuk has a .296/.335/.638 slash line against the Cubs, good for a .974 OPS. He's hit 11 homers and driven in 33 runs in 37 games, the highest ouput in either category against any opponent.

Even if Leone builds off his solid 2017 and pitches some big innings against the Cubs over the next couple seasons, it will be a sigh of relief for the Chicago pitching staff knowing they won't have to face the threat of Grichuk 18+ times a year.

Plus, getting a reliever and a low-level starting pitching prospect back for a guy (Grichuk) who was borderline untouchable a couple winters ago isn't exactly great value. The same can be said for the Cardinals' trade of Aledmys Diaz to Toronto on Dec. 1 for essentially nothing.

A year ago, St. Louis was heading into the season feeling confident about Diaz, who finished fifth in the NL Rookie of the Year race in 2016 after hitting .300 with an .879 OPS as a 25-year-old rookie. He wound up finishing 2017 in the minors after struggling badly to start the season and the Cardinals clearly didn't want to wait out his growing pains.

The two trades with Toronto limits the Cardinals' depth (as of right now) and leaves very few proven options behind shortstop Paul DeJong and outfielder Tommy Pham, who both enjoyed breakout seasons in 2017.