Jim Hickey

Jose Quintana is really, really good, so why does he seem like the forgotten man in the Cubs' super rotation?

Jose Quintana is really, really good, so why does he seem like the forgotten man in the Cubs' super rotation?

Jose Quintana is an All Star, not far removed from being considered one of the American League's best pitchers. Between 2014 and 2016, he turned in a 3.29 ERA in a whopping 96 starts with the White Sox. It was a big deal when the Cubs acquired him last summer.

So why does he seem like the forgotten man in the Cubs' new super rotation?

Capable of being a No. 1 starter in plenty of big league rotations, Quintana has the talent — he fanned 12 Baltimore Orioles in his first start as a Cub (that immediately after he punched out 10 Colorado Rockies in his last start with the White Sox) — and the track record that should make him one of the most talked about pitchers on this team. But it seems he's being overshadowed by the three men who will pitch before him when the season opens up in Miami: Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Yu Darvish. Lester has three World Series rings and is almost undoubtedly one of the best and most accomplished pitchers of his generation. Hendricks is a fan favorite who led the starting staff in ERA in each of the last two seasons, leading the entire National League in that category two seasons back, when the Cubs won that curse-smashing World Series title. Darvish is the Cubs' shiny new toy, a high-priced free-agent acquisition who represents the franchise's "World Series or bust" expectations for 2018 and the seasons that follow.

But don't forget about Quintana, who could be as good as any of them.

"I saw him on numerous occasions with the White Sox and was always extremely impressed, the way that he pitches," new Cubs pitching coach Jim Hickey said last month in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "He also is one of those guys who knows what he’s capable of and how he needs to pitch, and he does a really, really good job.

"He may go overlooked nationally or whatever, but he would be a front-end-of-the-rotation starter on 30 teams in baseball. I consider him that here, as well, whether he pitches Game 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5. He’s still a leader of the rotation, and boy, I tell you, he’s exciting, too. It’s going to be fun to watch."

Of course, the outside perception of Quintana being a forgotten man doesn't apply inside the team. Quintana is as important a cog in this beefed-up rotation as anyone else.

Quintana said in the early days of spring training that the constant trade rumors in the first half of last season got to him a bit, gave him something to worry about besides going out and pitching. That's not to say it's the only reason he posted a career-high 4.15 ERA in 2017, but being settled in with the Cubs for a full season can't hurt. Heck, it helped right after the trade: Quintana had a 4.49 ERA in his 18 starts with the White Sox and a significantly lower 3.74 ERA in his 14 starts with the Cubs.

"They made it easy to be here, all my teammates. They take care of me, and the coaches, everybody," Quintana said. "They made it easy, that transition. Being in Chicago, everything was easy. ... Last year was a little hard for me when I heard (the trade talk) every day. But now it’s different so I feel relaxed and feel really good."

Quintana brings so much to this team, and whether it's the willful ignorance of North Side fans who don't want to pay any attention to what's happening on the South Side or just the fact that his teams never made the playoffs, so many forget just how great he was with the White Sox.

He was famous for getting the short end of the stick when it came to winning games, hooked with the loss in 1-0 and 2-1 games with an almost laughable frequency. But that didn't alter his consistency: In each of the last five seasons — his five full seasons in the big leagues — he's made at least 32 starts and struck out at least 164 batters. He's pitched more than 200 innings in four of those seasons and kept his ERA at 3.51 or lower in four of them, too. And he keeps getting better, statistically. His five strikeout totals since 2013: 164, 178, 177, 181, 207. Prior to last year's ERA jump, his ERA kept going down, too: 3.51, 3.32, 3.36, 3.20. In 2016, the same season in which Lester and Hendricks were National League Cy Young finalists, Quintana finished in the top 10 in voting for the AL edition.

The Cubs had one of baseball's best rotations before trading for Quintana last season. But the South Side import might be able to teach the longtime North Siders a thing or two.

"I love watching Q, man," Lester said. "I love watching his tempo. His tempo never changes. It can be shit hitting the fan, stuff going on, never changes, he’s the same guy. Kind of like Kyle. We’re similar pitchers, but we’re very different at the same time. Having that lefty to kind of look at and see what he does and pick up things is nice. I love everything that he does. He prepares, he works his butt off. And he’s fun to watch. He throws his heater, he competes. There’s a lot of positives there. It was fun to watch him the last couple months last year, so it’ll be fun to have him this year for the full go."

And just like the Cubs have incredibly high expectations for the upcoming campaign, Quintana is the same way when it comes to his personal expectations. Unsurprisingly, he wants to improve on last season. But he also wants to take advantage of the opportunity he didn't have on the other side of town. By being on a contending team he not only has a chance to pick up some more wins, but he has a chance to get back to October. Last postseason was Quintana's first, and he had some good results, especially in the NL Division Series against the Washington Nationals, when he allowed no earned runs and struck out seven in 6.1 innings.

"My expectations are honestly so high," Quintana said. "I want to get back to October. And I know it’s a long way and we need to do a lot of things first. Hopefully health, first of all, for all my teammates. We need to do big things. But I want to get back to 200 innings and win more games every five days, get more chances to take a win.

"I remember really good things from the postseason. I remember the atmosphere in all the games was amazing. And I learned why we play this game. Every guy plays for October. I made it for the first year last year, and I want to go back."

Can the Cubs' bullpen move on from all those postseason walks and provide a safety net for Brandon Morrow?

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USA TODAY

Can the Cubs' bullpen move on from all those postseason walks and provide a safety net for Brandon Morrow?

The Cubs have a super rotation with four guys who could be No. 1 starters on other teams. They have a lineup packed with young position players that even in a down year managed to score the second most runs in the National League.

After reaching three straight NL Championship Series, this team looks primed for another run at a World Series.

That's not to say there aren't questions, of course. And if there is a hole on this club, it might be found out in the bullpen, where efforts to bring back All-Star closer Wade Davis didn't pan out and Brandon Morrow, who hasn't regularly worked as a closer in a decade, is the new ninth-inning man.

Morrow brings plenty of success from last season, when he was stellar in high-leverage situations for the Los Angeles Dodgers. He pitched in every game of the World Series as the Dodgers came one win away from a championship.

But closing is a different animal, as plenty of baseball folks will tell you.

"There is something about the ninth inning, and the last three outs are the toughest and the last out is the toughest," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said during the early days of spring training. "I think the big thing about that is you really have to have a short memory because you’re going to screw up once in a while. I think the guys that handle the failure the best are the guys that play — in combination with having good stuff — but the guys that handle the bad moment better are the guys that can really do that job. Because you’re not going to get that opportunity unless you have good stuff. You have good stuff, you have great ability, how do you handle the bad moment? And I think that really separates these guys."

The Cubs have all the confidence in the world in Morrow. But what happens if Morrow can't translate general late-inning success to ninth-inning success? What happens if Morrow doesn't work out in the closer's role? Then what for a Cubs team with such high, "World Series or bust" expectations?

Certainly there are options. Carl Edwards Jr. and Pedro Strop have years of late-inning experience with this team. Justin Wilson is being hyped as a strong bounce-back candidate after his rough go of things after being acquired from the Detroit Tigers last summer. Steve Cishek, also signed this offseason, has a lot of closing experience from his days with the Miami Marlins and Seattle Mariners.

"We’ve got eight guys down there, eight guys that can go get three outs in the ninth inning. I truly believe that," Justin Grimm said. "It’ll be fun to watch. It’s so funny, certain guys, it’s just rising to that occasion. And you see a different pitcher out of them in different situations. It’s going to be a lot of fun. I’ve always had faith in every single guy down there. I watch them work, I watch them throw their bullpens. Pretty impressive stuff."

"(Wilson) can, Stropy can, CJ can, Cishek’s done it. We’ve got a lot of guys that fit into that category," Maddon said. "The days that Morrow’s not available, it could be anybody."

"Anybody on this team can close the game," Edwards added.

All that confidence is great, especially heading into a season where the expectations are what they are. But don't be surprised if a large number of Cubs fans don't share that confidence.

As good as the North Side relief corps was during the regular season in 2017 — the 3.80 bullpen ERA was the third best in the NL — the playoffs were a completely different story. In 10 postseason games and 37.2 postseason innings, Cubs relievers posted a grotesque 6.21 ERA, walking 27 batters compared to striking out just 35.

Now, bullpen pitching wasn't great across the league last postseason. The world-champion Houston Astros saw their bullpen turn in a 5.40 ERA and issue 26 walks, just one fewer than the Cubs. But the Astros also played seven more games, with their relievers pitching nearly 25 more innings and striking out almost 30 more batters.

Edwards alone walked six guys and gave up six runs in 4.2 innings of work, an 11.57 postseason ERA. Strop walked three batters in 5.1 innings. Wilson faced just two hitters in one appearance, unreliable after he gave up 10 earned runs and walked 19 hitters in just 17.2 regular-season innings after joining the Cubs. Grimm didn't pitch at all during the 2017 postseason after a rough season that saw him shuttled back and forth between the big leagues and Triple-A Iowa and finish with a 5.53 ERA.

So there's a reason for folks to feel that the safety net past Morrow might not be all that safe.

But the Cubs have done work to assure that's not the case. Maddon and plenty of others are expecting big things from Wilson, who converted 13 of 15 save opportunities as the Tigers' closer prior to last summer's trade. Cishek has 121 career saves, including 25 in 2016, when he finished 40 games for the Mariners. He was one of the more effective closers in the game during a three-year stretch with the Marlins during which he recorded 88 saves.

And then there's new pitching coach Jim Hickey. Maddon's old partner in crime with the Rays, Hickey is confident in how things will play out in the bullpen. But he's focused on getting those walks down.

Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer said repeatedly during the offseason that they intended to fix the strike-throwing problem that Hoyer said went through the pitching staff like a "disease." Hickey's all for being the cure for that ailment.

"I think there is something that a coach can do to help, however it’s just simply making them aware or encouraging them. And 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," Hickey said last month in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "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. Now it’s 1-0, now it’s 2-0, so you maybe nibble a little bit.

"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.’ That would all be great. Or ‘I want to lead the league in batting average against.’ 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."

And it sounds like buy-in won't be a problem.

"I can prove a lot," Edwards said. "Starting with strikes."

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.”