Jed Hoyer

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

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AP

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."

How Cubs plan to fix 'diseased' bullpen in 2018

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AP

How Cubs plan to fix 'diseased' bullpen in 2018

We have officially reached a Bullpen Revolution.

Never before in baseball history have relievers carried so much weight and importance as starting pitchers are being pulled earlier and earlier in games.

We see it in the slow winter, where even guys who aren't being signed as closers are still earning $7 or $8 million a season and being inked to multiyear deals.  

Meanwhile, the largest contract given out to a starting pitcher (as of this writing) is still the Cubs' three-year, $38 million pact with Tyler Chatwood.

"The money is shifting to the bullpen and teams are building super-bullpens," president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said at the Cubs Convention inside the Sheraton Grand Chicago earlier this month. "A lot of organizations are not expecting their starters to go deep into games anymore. 

"The pendulum swang a little bit too far in that direction, because if you're constantly pulling your starter before tehy face the order a third time, it puts a tremendous burden on your bullpen throughout the course of the regular season."

The Cubs saw that last fall, when their relievers experienced a prolonged drought of inconsistency and instability.

From the morning of Sept. 1 through the end of the postseason, the Cubs bullpen ranked 17th in baseball with a 4.38 ERA. Among playoff teams, only the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers had worse marks and keep in mind, those numbers are skewed because both World Series teams saw bullpen implosions constantly throughout the seven-game Fall Classic.

Yet in the first half of the season, the Cubs posted the fourth-best bullpen ERA in baseball (3.26 ERA), second to only the Dodgers (2.99) among National League teams.

"Our bullpen, I think, got a bit over maligned by the end of the year," Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said. "I think they were [out of gas]. Throughout the year, we could not throw enough strikes. That was almost like a disease that ran through our bullpen.

"Guys had their career worst strike-throwing years. But overall, I think our bullpen was better than it looked at the end of the year. We have a lot of really good relievers in that bullpen that are gonna throw well for us."

In that same stretch from Sept. 1 onward, the Cubs were second only to the woeful Cincinnati Reds bullpen in walks per nine innings. On the season as a whole, Cubs relievers tied with the New York Mets for the second-highest BB/9 mark.

Hoyer is right: The Cubs featured a bunch of guys with their worst walk rates ever.

Wade Davis, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery, Pedro Strop, Hector Rondon, Justin Grimm, Koji Uehara and Justin Wilson all either approached or set new career highs in BB/9. The only relief pitcher who turned in a quality strike-throwing season was Brian Duensing, which is part of the reason why the Cubs re-signed the veteran southpaw to a two-year deal last week.

So how do the Cubs fix that issue?

For one, they're hoping the change in pitching coaches — from Chris Bosio to Jim Hickey — will do the trick. Bosio is one of the most highly-respected pitching coaches in the game, but for whatever reason, oversaw that alarming increase in relief walks. A new voice and message could be enough to effect change.

Beyond that, the Cubs placed an emphasis on strike-throwing as they remade their bullpen this winter. 

Gone are Davis, Rondon and Uehara and in their stead are Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek, two veterans who are adept at throwing strikes. Morrow ranked 18th in baseball last season in BB/9 (1.85) among relievers who threw at least 40 innings. That's a big part of the reason why the Cubs are so confident in Morrow's ability to close, even though he has just 18 career saves only two of which have come in this decade.

The Cubs are counting on a return to form from Justin Wilson, who walked just 37 batters in 119.2 innings from 2015-16 before doling out 19 free passes in 18.1 innings in a Cubs uniform last year.

Last season, manager Joe Maddon felt Edwards was getting too fine at points and trying to nibble to avoid getting hit hard, which led to an uptick in walks. But because the young flamethrower has such dynamic stuff, even if he lives in the strike zone, he should still find — Edwards has allowed just 44 hits in 102.1 innings the last two seasons.

The Cubs are also woke to the importance of keeping relievers fresh down the stretch.

The proof was in the pudding last postseason when all bullpens were "fried," Epstein said, especially by the time the World Series rolled around.

"We need to strike a balance," Epstein said. "We as an organization still put a lot of value on starting pitchers and starters' abilities to get through the order a third time because it really works in the long run — it allows your bullpen to stay fresher throughout the six months of the season."

The Cubs don't intend to wear out any pitcher, whether it's a reliever with a checkered injury history (Morrow), a starter getting up there in age (Jon Lester) or anybody else who takes the hill for the team in 2018.

The idea is to have the entire pitching staff strong and hitting their stride as October approaches.

But even with the weight placed on bullpens — especially in October — the Cubs know they still need more starting pitching depth because bullpens are so volatile.

"There's definitely a shifting dynamic in the game where there's increased importance on the 'pen and slightly less on the rotation because more innings are shifting to the bullpen," Epstein said at the MLB Winter Meetings last month. "But there's a contradictory dynamic which is relievers are a lot less predictable than starters.

"So if you react to the first dynamic that I described and put all your resources into the 'pen and then you end up becoming the victim of unpredictability, then you're in a really tough spot."

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.