Cubs

Cubs plan to keep stockpiling pitching even as 2018 staff comes into focus

theo_epstein_cubs_pitching_winter_meetings_slide.jpg
AP

Cubs plan to keep stockpiling pitching even as 2018 staff comes into focus

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — In a way, the Cubs are playing not to lose right now.

That may seem like an odd way to approach the MLB offseason for a team that has made it to three straight National League Championship Series. 

But in reality, it's a smart way to gear up for 2018.

Theo Epstein's front office knows they can't count on the remarkable run of health the Cubs pitching staff posted in 2015-16. Last year, Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks missed several weeks each with injuries, but the staff was otherwise pretty healthy.

So this winter is all about pitching, pitching, pitching and more pitching. It's a war of attrition and the Cubs are trying not to lose the war.

The Cubs entered the offseason with a clear need for two starting pitchers, a closer and at least one other high-leverage reliever. They've since signed Tyler Chatwood and reached an agreement with Brandon Morrow that should become official Tuesday morning.

Check off one starter and one impact reliever, a guy who could slot in at closer if the Cubs can't bring back Wade Davis.

That pair of moves has helped the Cubs relax a bit at the MLB Winter Meetings this week at Walt Disney World Dolphin Resort, but the hunt for pitching will never be truly over.

"One way to look at the offseason is to look at all the different ways a season can be sunk and build to mitigate those threats," Epstein said. "Our greatest threats right now relate to pitching and not having enough quality pitching, suffering multiple injuries to pitching, not having enough depth."

Fans want to know about a leadoff hitter and that's fair, but run prevention is dominating the Cubs' attention.

They're open to trades from their glut of young, controllable position players for impact pitching, but Epstein and Co. are also still hot on the free agent market, in talks with Alex Cobb and other potential starters. 

Even after the Morrow signing becomes official, the Cubs still figure to be involved in what Epstein calls a very deep reliever class. 

Morrow doesn't have a long track record of health — he's appeared in more than 20 games in a season just once (2017) since 2012 — but the Cubs are wary of injury issues for every pitcher they acquire. They know full well the injury risks associated with pitching and don't intend to push anybody they sign or trade for.

Joe Maddon is a huge proponent of rest and the Cubs have no interest in running relievers — closers or not — into the ground by having them throw more than three outs on a consistent basis.

Is there any scenario in which the Cubs leave the "Happiest Place on Earth" with a content feeling about their 2018 pitching staff?

"You can't dictate the timetable, so I think an opportunity that really makes sense presents itself and we hesitate, I'd be disappointed," Epstein said. "But I also don't want to make something happen just for the sake of making something happen.

"We'll try to be really thorough, try to be really creative and try to be aggressive when appropriate to continue to round out this pitching staff. It really doesn't matter when you get stuff done — at the winter meetings, after the winter meetings, in January, in spring training — as long as you end up having a pitching staff that is really talented and deep enough to withstand the attrition that always happens during the course of the season.

"We'd love to add another starter one way or another if we could and at least one more reliever."

Meet the new Kyle Schwarber

meet_the_new_kyle_schwarber_slide.jpg
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."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Is Albert Almora Jr. ready for an everyday spot in the lineup?

almora-419-stl-pod.jpg
USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Is Albert Almora Jr. ready for an everyday spot in the lineup?

In this episode of the SportsTalk Live Podcast, Adam Jahns (Chicago Sun-Times), Connor McKnight (670 The Score) and Phil Thompson (Chicago Tribune) join David Kaplan on the panel.

The Cubs offense comes alive with Albert Almora, Jr. leading off. Is it time to make him the everyday centerfielder? 

Plus Mitch Trubisky says this week’s minicamp is the most he’s been coached in his career. So how long will it take him to master Matt Nagy’s new offense?

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below: