Enter Jim Hickey, the Cubs' new pitching coach tasked with shepherding one of baseball's best staffs

Enter Jim Hickey, the Cubs' new pitching coach tasked with shepherding one of baseball's best staffs

MESA, Ariz. — For years, Chris Bosio was credited as part of the reason for the Cubs’ recent string of pitching success. He helped turn Jake Arrieta into a Cy Young winner and oversaw pitching staffs that led the Cubs to three consecutive NLCS appearances and that curse-smashing World Series win in 2016.

But now it’s 2018, and Bosio is out. Jim Hickey is in.

The Cubs’ new pitching coach arrives with high expectations and has been tasked with shepherding a group of arms that saw a few too many bumps in the road last season. Jon Lester had his worst season in a long time, Jose Quintana’s numbers weren’t as good as they had been during his time with the White Sox, Tyler Chatwood led the National League in losses last season, and Yu Darvish got roughed up in a pair of World Series starts. And that’s before even mentioning the bullpen.

Still, even with all that said, the Cubs look to have, on paper, one of the best starting rotations in the game. And the upgrades in the bullpen have tempered some of the rage over the relief corps’ repeated postseason implosions. Theo Epstein’s front office had a mission this offseason to improve the pitching staff, and Hickey is a very large part of trying to accomplish that mission.

“What really was the slam dunk in my decision to come to Chicago or at least the finishing touches on it was getting to meet Theo, getting to meet Jed (Hoyer), going physically to Chicago, go to the offices there, seeing the physical building, meeting the people inside, just getting that vibe. Everybody was on the same page, and that page was winning,” Hickey said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. “And also built not just to win here for two or three years but for a sustained period of time, and that was what was very, very attractive.”

Hickey’s ties to the Cubs are obvious. He worked as Joe Maddon’s pitching coach in Tampa Bay for eight seasons before Maddon left to take over managing duties on the North Side. The two coached some phenomenal pitchers with the Rays, guys like James Shields, David Price, Scott Kazmir and Chris Archer and won an American League pennant in 2008. Prior to that, Hickey coached for the Houston Astros and oversaw a staff that included Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Roy Oswalt en route to the 2005 World Series.

How does the Cubs’ rotation of Lester, Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Quintana and Chatwood compare to those great rotations from Hickey’s past?

“That’s a really tough question. But I think one through five, it may be as deep as any staff that I’ve had,” he said. “Really tough to say. I’ll give you a better idea after the season’s over, but one through five, it’s really, really good. Had some very, very good staffs, obviously, in years past. But these five guys, we talk about it all the time, the starters pitching innings and not falling into this pattern of starters being used less and less and the bullpen being used more and more.

“If you were to give me a staff of five guys, or give anybody a staff of five guys, that threw between 185 and 200 innings, you would probably have a championship-caliber club. And that’s what my expectations are out of this staff, and I think they will be a championship-caliber club.”

Hickey’s toughest task, though, likely won’t be working with all those veteran starters but instead working with a  bullpen that struggled under the bright lights of the postseason last October. While Cubs relievers had the sixth-lowest ERA in baseball during the regular season (3.80), the playoffs were a different story, with the bullpen rocked to the tune of a 6.21 ERA. Cubs relievers walked a postseason-high 27 batters while striking out only 35 in 37.2 innings.

The front office tried to fix that strike-throwing problem by bringing in new closer Brandon Morrow, who shone with the Los Angeles Dodgers last season, and Steve Cishek, who has closing experience from his time with the Miami Marlins and Seattle Mariners, plus he worked with Hickey last season in Tampa Bay.

But Hickey is the bigger key to fixing that problem, and it’s one of his biggest objectives to not just bring the walks down but make the Cubs one of the best staffs in baseball when it comes to issuing free passes.

“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,” he said. “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.

“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.’ … 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.”

Scouting the Cubs' competition: Can anybody dethrone the Dodgers?


Scouting the Cubs' competition: Can anybody dethrone the Dodgers?

The expectations couldn't be any higher for the 2018 Chicago Cubs. 

It's 2016 all over again. The goal isn't just a trip to the playoffs or another NL pennant. It's World Series or bust for this group of North Siders.

With that, let's take a look at all of the teams that could stand in the way of the Cubs getting back to the Fall Classic:

Los Angeles Dodgers

2017 record: 104-58, 1st place in NL West

Offseason additions: Matt Kemp, Scott Alexander, Brian Schlitter (former Cub still in the league), Pat Venditte (switch-pitcher), Hamlet Marte (only included because his name is "Hamlet")

Offseason departures: Yu Darvish, Brandon Morrow, Tony Watson, Adrian Gonzalez, Curtis Granderson, Andre Ethier, Franklin Gutierrez, Scott Van Slyke, Brandon McCarthy, Luis Avilan, Scott Kazmir

X-factor: Chris Taylor/Alex Wood

Cheating a bit here and going with two guys.

Wood has been a very good and very underrated pitcher for his entire career, but he also has struggled to stay healthy. He made just 27 appearances (25 starts) last season and has pitched more than 172 innings in a season just once (2015).

Wood has a career 3.20 ERA and led the league in winning percentage last season after going 16-3. We all know Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher on the planet (again, when healthy), but if Wood can take the ball every fifth day, it takes so much pressure off Kershaw and makes the Dodgers that much more formidable.

Taylor came from out of absolutely nowhere last year to turn in a heck of a season - .288/.354/.496 slash line, 21 HR, 72 RBI, 85 R, 17 SB - and sat atop the Dodgers order as they marched all the way to Game 7 of the World Series. 

The power was a huge surprise, but he's always had speed, hit for a high average and drawn walks, so if the power plays again, he's a huge weapon, especially with Justin Turner down with a wrist injury now. And the power actually looks legit after a swing and philosophy change.

Projected lineup

1. Chris Taylor - CF
2. Corey Seager - SS
3. Cody Bellinger - 1B
4. Yasiel Puig - RF
5. Yasmani Grandal - C
6. Joc Pederson - LF
7. Logan Forsythe - 3B
8. Chase Utley - 2B

Projected rotation

1. Clayton Kershaw
2. Alex Wood
3. Kenta Maeda
4. Rich Hill
5. Hyun-jin Ryu


Turner's broken wrist is a huge blow to the Dodgers before the season has even begun, especially when he's suddenly like the best right-handed hitter on the planet not named Mike Trout or Kris Bryant. 

Turner was always a solid utility player for the Mets but not much of a hitter (.696 OPS in 301 games with the Mets). In L.A., however, Turner has an .881 OPS in four years, including an incredible .945 OPS in 2017.

He's the anchor of their lineup and any time he misses is a big loss. But this Dodgers team is so talented around him that they'll be fine getting into the playoffs. Turner was bound to miss time anyways - he's played in more than 130 games in a season just once in his career.

The only thing that could slow this team down would be more injuries, especially if Kershaw's balky back rears its ugly head again. 

This may be the most talented roster in the National League (once Turner returns), so even in an NL West where four teams may be competing for the division title, the Dodgers should take the cake once again.

But will they have enough left in the tank to get past the Cubs or Nationals to represent the NL in the World Series once again?

Prediction: 1st in NL West

Complete opposition research

Los Angeles Dodgers
San Francisco Giants
Arizona Diamondbacks
Colorado Rockies
San Diego Padres

Here are the sharp holiday and special event uniforms that the Cubs will be rocking this season


Here are the sharp holiday and special event uniforms that the Cubs will be rocking this season

MLB will once again commemorate several holidays and special events during the 2018 season.

Monday, the league revealed the uniforms teams will don on Jackie Robinson Day, Mother's Day, Father's Day, and during Memorial Day weekend and Independence Day weekend.

The Cubs' regular uniforms are great, of course, but their special event uniforms are solid as well. Take a look:

Not too shabby, eh? In addition to the special caps and jerseys, MLB teams will be rocking unique socks and patches for each occasion. A complete collection of the uniforms can be found here.