Detroit Tigers

Cubs confident they'll see the real Justin Wilson in 2018


Cubs confident they'll see the real Justin Wilson in 2018

Justin Wilson is proof that not everything Theo Epstein touches immediately turns to gold.

Though, that's not to say it's the fault of Epstein or the Cubs' front office.

Who could've possibly predicted Wilson's epic struggles in Chicago after pitching well with the Detroit Tigers earlier in the season?

When Epstein and Co. traded for the dynamic left-handed reliever, he was one of the top high-leverage pitchers in baseball — sporting a sparkling 0.94 WHIP, 2.68 ERA, 13 saves and 55 strikeouts against only 16 walks in 40.1 innings.

But in Chicago, Wilson was suddenly ineffective. He managed just 53 outs in 23 appearances, walking 19 batters and serving up 18 hits in 17.2 innings. His strikeouts actually went up a tick, but the lack of control was alarming.

Things got so bad, Wilson was used to get just two outs in the postseason and wasn't even active for the National League Championship Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Yet none of that has scared the Cubs off from counting on Wilson to be a big part of the 2018 bullpen.

"I think you will [see a rebound]," GM Jed Hoyer said. "Sometimes guys come to a new place, they get off to a rough start and that kinda snowballs on them. When you look at his track record, there's no reason in the world to think he won't be pitching late in the game or won't have a big role.

"That's what he's done his whole career except for the blip with us and I think he'll get right back to doing that again."

But Wilson wasn't the only Cubs reliever who struggled with walks. It was a bullpen-wide issue in 2017 — a problem the Cubs hope to correct in 2018, in part due to a new pitching coach (Jim Hickey) providing a different voice.

Dig deeper, however, and it's clear to see Wilson's issue wasn't only that he forgot how to throw strikes. 

In Detroit, 36.9 percent of pitches Wilson threw were balls. In Chicago, that number rose to 42 percent, which is only a difference of 5 extra balls every 100 pitches thrown. 

That's not enough to account for such a huge increase in walks. So what gives?

A huge part of the problem was a precipitous dip in batters swinging at pitches Wilson threw out of the zone. Over his career, Wilson has hovered around batters swinging at his pitches out of the zone around 1/3 of the time. In Chicago batters swung less than 1/4 of the time at pitches out of the zone.

That may be because he started throwing his fastball a lot more with the Cubs and relied less on his breaking stuff (slider and cutter). He has rarely thrown his changeup in his career, but never even tried it with the Cubs.

What it boils down to is fastball command, which Joe Maddon typically points to first whenever a pitcher is experiencing inconsistency on the mound. Wilson didn't always know where his fastball was going, which means his breaking stuff didn't play as well in conjunction with that and he was thus forced to throw his fastball more often just to try to get more strikes.

Now that they're not in the middle of a pennant race, both Wilson and the Cubs have had time to digest what went wrong. The organization is optimistic good times are coming, mostly because they see the issues as clearly fixable.

"Oh sure. No question," Hoyer said. "We saw some glimpses at the end. You've seen it happen enough times that a guy gets off to a bad start. 

"It's all fixable. We still feel the same way about the player. I think coming into a new season, a new spring training, a new pitching coach — I think that's all positive."

The "new season" part may be the biggest factor working in Wilson's favor.

There's no doubt his struggles last fall got inside his head. How could they not? 

But a new year means time to hit the reset button on the confidence and mental side of the game, which can make all the difference.

"If things don't get off on the right foot, they probably try too hard," Hoyer said. "They want to impress their teammates and it can go south on them. It's not the first time [this has happened].

"I have a ton of confidence in him. This guy's had a really good career — pitched late in the game for a long time. There's no reason to think he won't come in and be good for us next year."

Albert Almora Jr. ready to show Cubs he can do bigger and better things


Albert Almora Jr. ready to show Cubs he can do bigger and better things

Super-agent Scott Boras – who made a fortune and built an empire by identifying and nurturing baseball prodigies – watched in amazement as Albert Almora Jr. grabbed the rope and started climbing in his family’s backyard in South Florida.    

“I’m going like: ‘Who does that?’” Boras recalled. “I told his dad: ‘How long has he been doing that?’ He said: ‘He’s always had that forearm strength.’”

Almora was around 15 years old at that point, the baseball gym rat who faced elite competition year-round in Miami and with Team USA, the kid who would grow up to be the first player drafted by the Theo Epstein regime and later score the winning run in last year’s World Series Game 7.

Almora – who won’t celebrate his 24th birthday until after Opening Day 2018 – has already appeared in 18 postseason games and earned the championship ring coveted by generations of Cubs players.

What’s next for someone so clearly driven to be more than a matchup hitter against left-handed pitching and a late-game defensive replacement?

“You’re asking the wrong guy,” Almora said last week at his locker in the Wrigley Field clubhouse after the Los Angeles Dodgers knocked the Cubs out of the National League Championship Series. “I’m here to win. I’m here for whenever they call my name.

“Obviously, the competitor in me wants to be there to help the team out every day, but it’s not in my control.”     

This October, Almora made Dusty Baker pay for pulling Max Scherzer immediately after losing a no-hitter, delivering a pinch-hit RBI single off lefty reliever Sammy Solis as the Washington Nationals again collapsed in the first round and again fired their manager.

Almora also generated all the offense in a Game 1 NLCS loss, hammering a Clayton Kershaw slider that flew like a missile into the left-field seats at Dodger Stadium for a two-run homer.

How would those huge playoff moments translate across a 162-game season? Almora says he just waits for the text to see if he will be in the next day’s lineup. But a Cubs team that sounds open to changes after an inconsistent regular season – and a disappointing playoff flop – will have to find out.

The Detroit Tigers made it known how much they liked Almora as a potential Gold Glove center fielder, though from the start the Houston Astros had the superior package of prospects to offer and the Cubs never got that far down the road in the Justin Verlander trade talks.

While Verlander will start Wednesday night’s Game 2 at Dodger Stadium, the Cubs are trying to figure out how to get back there, who can lead their pitching staff and where all their young hitters will fit together.   

“The real key for Albert,” Epstein said, “and his future development and what will dictate whether he reaches his very high ceiling or not is his ability to have really good, consistent at-bats against right-handed pitching (.711 OPS this year).

“He’s proven that he destroys left-handed pitching (.898 OPS) and is a real weapon that way – and any team would love to have him certainly against left-handed pitching. He made really nice strides against right-handed pitching as the year went on. This kid worked so hard using the slider machine, just seeing slider after slider after slider in the cage.

“Training his eyes to recognize – not so much to hit it, although it helps hitting mistake breaking balls – but just really training his eyes on what lanes to expect the slider to come out of, say, with runners in scoring position or two-strike counts and really learning which one to lay off, to put himself in position to get favorable counts to get fastballs or get mistake pitches that he can drive.”

Using that hand speed and forearm strength he developed through those homemade exercises and backyard workouts, Almora hit .326 with five homers, 31 RBI and an .850 OPS in 135 tailor-made plate appearances after the All-Star break.

“He just got better and better as the year went on,” Epstein said. “I told him in our (exit) meeting: ‘Look, I'm sure you want me to sit here and say you're an everyday player, hands down, next year. You might be. I can’t promise you that yet. We have to see how everything evolves in the offseason. But I can promise you more. You will have more responsibility. You will have more of a role than you had this year. We’ll see how much more that is, and what you can grow into.’

“He’s excited. He’s moving closer to our spring-training facility in Arizona and ready to get to work.”

Almora’s time is coming, whether or not he’s the 2018 Opening Day center fielder, whether or not it ultimately happens at Wrigley Field. Cubs executives saw that same backyard setup before taking Almora with the sixth overall pick in the 2012 draft and know how he’s wired and what that could mean for the future.

“The Cubs are such a good team is the (only) reason he’s not playing every day,” Boras said. “I remember we had the conversation when he came to the big leagues. He wasn’t playing, and I said: ‘Albert, the goal here is not learning how to play every day in the big leagues. The goal is learning how to win in the big leagues. You get to learn that at a young age. Take advantage of it, because it’s going to be so valuable. You’re going to be able to share this when you are an everyday player.’”

Justin Wilson running out of time to become X-factor for Cubs playoff bullpen

Justin Wilson running out of time to become X-factor for Cubs playoff bullpen

ST. LOUIS – “It’s a big boys’ game,” Joe Maddon said late Tuesday night after taking the ball away from Justin Wilson in the middle of an at-bat, another alarming sign that the lefty reliever will be outside the manager’s circle of trust, assuming the Cubs put him on the playoff roster.

The Cubs acquired Wilson and catcher Alex Avila before the July 31 trade deadline in a package deal with the Detroit Tigers that was supposed to strengthen the bullpen for a World Series title defense. It would give Maddon another late-game option after he took so much heat for the way he used one All-Star closer last year (Aroldis Chapman) and tried to preserve another (Wade Davis) this season.

Except Wilson has looked nothing like the guy who thrived in the American League East with the 2015 New York Yankees (5-0, 3.10 ERA in 74 appearances) and saved 13 games for the Tigers this year.

Maddon had a quick hook once the Cubs exploded for four runs in the eighth inning at Busch Stadium, turning an 8-3 blowout into a one-run game against the St. Louis Cardinals. With the magic number to celebrate a National League Central title down to one, Maddon watched Wilson walk Carson Kelly on five pitches and fall into a 2-0 count against Harrison Bader before summoning Carl Edwards Jr.

“Last night was just not the time to permit it to work itself out,” Maddon said Wednesday. “I thought the way we had come back in that game, to not give ourselves a chance would have been inappropriate, because I don’t like to use C.J. in that situation. But I thought we had a shot.

“I told him right afterwards, I said: ‘Man, you’re going to be right back out there.’ He started out well, the first-pitch strike, beautiful delivery, and then all of a sudden started pulling a couple pitches. I know they’ve done some nice things with his delivery. And I still believe that it’s going to work. But for last night, I could not be overly patient.”

Wilson confirmed what pitching coach Chris Bosio told WSCR-AM 670, the team’s flagship radio station, that he woke up with a “stiff neck” the other day: “A little annoying, but nothing I can’t deal with.”

What do you need to see from Wilson before the regular season ends on Sunday at Wrigley Field and the Cubs ramp up playoff preparations for the Washington Nationals?

“Just to throw consistent strikes,” Maddon said. “It’s not (that) every pitch is going to be a strike, but if he misses a little bit wide with one or two that he can come back into the zone and make his own adjustments.”

Only three days earlier, Maddon talked up Wilson as a potential game-changer after watching him get four outs against the top of the Milwaukee Brewers’ lineup at Miller Park, unleashing 17 fastballs in a row clocked at 95-97 mph.

But it’s hard to see Maddon giving Wilson the ball to face Bryce Harper or Daniel Murphy when his trend line looks like this as a Cub: 18 walks, 17 hits, 11 runs in 15.2 innings.

“Today is a new day,” Wilson said as a pack of reporters swarmed his locker inside the visiting clubhouse. “I go back out there and do what I do.”