Justin Grimm

Cubs prepare October bullpen with the John Lackey Experience

Cubs prepare October bullpen with the John Lackey Experience


John Lackey is now a relief pitcher. 

After saying all year Lackey would not move to the bullpen at any point, the Cubs warmed him up and brought him in the fourth inning of the final regular season game of 2017 Sunday. 

It marked only the second regular season relief appearance of Lackey's career and the first since June 27, 2004 — a span of 4,844 days.

Lackey gave up a pair of doubles to Joey Votto and Adam Duvall, taking his 12th loss of the season. The result meant nothing to Lackey and the Cubs, but the decision could mean everything this October.

The Cubs don't have to announce their National League Division Series lineup until Friday morning, but when they do, expect the 38-year-old, 15-year veteran to be on the roster and pitching out of the bullpen.

"Give him a test out of the bullpen — see what it looked like, see how he felt, that kinda thing," Joe Maddon said. "He gave up a run, whatever it was, but I thought he had a really good slider coming out of the 'pen and his velocity was normal. So I thought he looked actually pretty good."

Maddon never wanted to move Lackey to a relief role earlier in the year and Lackey admitted back then he was not open to something like that.

But everybody's priorities change in October and Lackey is now "amenable" to the role with a chance to ride off into the sunset with a fourth World Series ring.

Maddon confirmed the Lackey Relief Experience is an option in the postseason, where he's actually pitched three times as a reliever in his career prior to 2017.

Lackey will likely push one of the Justins (either Wilson or Grimm) off the 25-man roster and serve as another long relief option alongside Mike Montgomery. The Cubs will roll with some combination of Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jake Arrieta and Jose Quintana as their four-man postseason rotation.

But with Arrieta still not 100 percent coming off a hamstring injury, Lackey is there as another guy who could come in early in a ballgame and is stretched out enough to pitch multiple innings if need be. There's also always the extra innings factor, too, where Lackey's length would be an asset.

Sunday was just about the Cubs getting him back in game action as a reliever since he's gone 130 straight appearances as a starting pitcher since his last postseason relief appearance as a member of the Boston Red Sox in 2013.

In classic Lackey fashion, he declined to comment on his outing and new role after Sunday's game.

"It's just an option; it's a consideration," Maddon said. "We wanted to put him out there. Part of it's just for him to warm up and come into a game, see what that feels like. He's not really done it a whole lot. That's all that was about."

Projecting the 2017 Cubs' 25-man playoff roster

Projecting the 2017 Cubs' 25-man playoff roster

Now that the Cubs have locked up the National League Central, the attention has turned to the postseason.

The Cubs will head to Washington D.C. for a date with Bryce Harper and the Nationals in the National League Division Series beginning Oct. 6.

There are still a couple question marks regarding health and effectiveness on several players, but here's how the Cubs' 25-man roster could look for that NLDS showdown.

Note: This isn't a projection of a lineup for Game 1 of the NLDS. I don't envy Maddon deciding which three outfielders to sit each night (assuming Javy Baez and Addison Russell are set at middle infield).

CATCHER

Willson Contreras
Alex Avila

This is an easy call. Contreras figures to start every postseason game he's healthy for with his unique blend of arm strength to control the running game, energy and offensive prowess. Avila is a steady veteran who would be the starting catcher on the roster of almost every other playoff team, but instead will contribute off the bench as a left-handed bat and clubhouse presence.

INFIELD

Anthony Rizzo
Javy Baez
Addison Russell
Kris Bryant
Tommy La Stella

Not including Ben Zobrist or Ian Happ here because the assumption is Baez takes over at second base with Russell at short for every postseason game (and possibly every inning in October). That's how things ended up last fall as Baez emerged as a national star while starting all 17 playoff games at second base and displacing Zobrist from the infield to the outfield.

Of course, Rizzo and Bryant will start every single playoff game at the corners (with good health).

OUTFIELD

Ben Zobrist
Kyle Schwarber
Albert Almora Jr.
Jason Heyward
Jon Jay
Ian Happ

This is where Maddon will make his money. There's a legitimate shot for all six guys to start each game, yet clearly that won't happen. Does Zobrist deserve to start every game? Maddon has turned him into a part-time player at age 36 and Zobrist is hitting just .238 with a .705 OPS.

Against left-handed starting pitchers (like Washington's Gio Gonzalez), Schwarber will not start and Almora (if he's fully over his recent shoulder issue) almost assuredly will man center. Will Jason Heyward also sit vs. LHPs, leaving an OF of Happ-Almora-Zobrist left-to-right? Heyward has been only slightly better offensively this season (.707 OPS) compared to 2016 (.631 OPS), but is the best defensive outfielder in the game.

How much will Schwarber play? We know he'll sit against all LHPs, but he's also only been starting sparingly against RHPs in important games down the stretch despite 5 HR and a .970 OPS in 46 September at-bats.

STARTING ROTATION

Jake Arrieta
Jon Lester
Kyle Hendricks
Jose Quintana

I tell you what, I would not want to be the person who has to tell John Lackey he's not going to make the playoff rotation. But if all of these guys are healthy, I don't see how Lackey makes the cut, even if he does have a 2.51 ERA in 28.2 September innings and 26 career playoff outings under his belt.

Lester took a step forward Monday after a startling stretch of ineffectiveness (5.91 ERA, .948 OPS against in four starts between Sept. 2-20). He has one more start to continue to right the ship but regardless of the outcome in that game, Cubs have to feel pretty good about a guy with a 2.63 ERA and 1.03 WHIP in 133.2 career postseason innings.

The only true question with the rotation comes in how they line up. While Lester has been struggling, Arrieta has picked up where he left off pre-hamstring injury, Kyle Hendricks has been a stud and Jose Quintana just pitched the game of his life over the weekend to neutralize the Brewers.

My bet is Arrieta and Hendricks Games 1 and 2 in D.C. and then Lester in Game 3 at Wrigley Field. Quintana would go Game 4 assuming there is no sweep.

BULLPEN

Wade Davis
Carl Edwards Jr.
Mike Montgomery
Pedro Strop
Brian Duensing
Hector Rondon
Justin Wilson
Justin Grimm

Here's where things get a bit hazy, as well. With Koji Uehara still unable to get past a knee and back injury, he's essentially out of the mix. Rondon is also nursing a sore elbow, but has thrown 2.1 dominant innings over the last week and hasn't allowed a run since Aug. 23. 

Wilson has been an enigma since coming over from the Detroit Tigers at the trade deadline, going from one of the elite late-inning options in baseball to a guy who has allowed 35 baserunners in 15.2 innings in a Cubs uniform. But he's done it before and he did have an outing over the weekend that was encouraging, retiring all four Brewers he faced, including three strikeouts. Then there was Tuesday, when Wilson walked the only two batters he faced against the Cardinals and was removed in the middle of an at-bat.

There's also the Justin Grimm factor. He's got a 5.57 ERA and 1.35 WHIP in 48 appearances, but the Cubs don't really have any other trustworthy options in the 'pen and the worst thing a team could do in October is somehow wind up without enough pitching if a game extends to extra innings or a pitcher is only used for one hitter. Over the last three years, Grimm has held lefties to a .597 OPS against and did make six appearances last October.


If not Grimm for the 25th man on the roster, the Cubs do have the option of keeping an extra position player, but nobody really stands out right now. 

Leonys Martin could be a pinch-runner, but the roster has plenty of left-handed bats and outfielders as it stands, so Martin doesn't hold a ton of value. Victor Caratini can catch or play first/third base, but he's a rookie in his first MLB season and has hit just .240 with a .681 OPS in 56 plate appearances. Rene Rivera is a wily veteran who can do some damage against left-handed pitchers, but do the Cubs really need a third catcher in the postseason?

Cubs can't afford to abandon hope on Justin Wilson in ailing bullpen

Cubs can't afford to abandon hope on Justin Wilson in ailing bullpen

The Cubs aren't abandoning hope on Justin Wilson in the final two weeks of the season.

It's not like they have much of a choice, however.

We've officially entered the most important time of the season for the bullpen and the Cubs have a closer who's gone 31-for-31 in save chances, but there are serious question marks ahead of him.

Hector Rondon is nursing a sore elbow while Koji Uehara has a knee infection and a minor back issue. Pedro Strop has come on strong lately and Brian Duensing has been consistent all year, but Carl Edwards Jr. has had bouts of control/confidence issues this year, Justin Grimm's ERA is almost six (5.98) and Wilson has allowed 28 baserunners in 13 innings since joining the Cubs.

That's a big reason why the Cubs moved Mike Montgomery out of the starting rotation and gave Jen-Ho Tseng his first big-league start Thursday against the New York Mets.

No team can ever predict injuries, but the Cubs knew they had an issue in the bullpen leading up to the trade deadline, which is why they parted with top prospect Jeimer Candelario for Wilson and veteran catcher Alex Avila.

Time is running out for Wilson to correct his issues and get back to the dominant force he was with the Tigers earlier this season (2.68 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 12.3 K/9, 13 saves). 

The bullpen issues were highlighted over the weekend as Wade Davis, Edwards and Strop were called upon to get a combined 21 outs and needed 116 pitches to do so. Both Edwards and Davis worked in all three games. If Wilson was performing at the level the Cubs expected when they acquired him, he could've taken some of the load off.

"Clearly I need to pitch better so I can pitch more," Wilson said.

Wilson and the Cubs believe Friday could've been a spark for the 30-year-old southpaw. 

When John Lackey was ejected from the game with two outs in the fifth inning Friday, Wilson was suddenly called on to face Cardinals star Matt Carpenter with runners on second and third and the game hanging in the balance. Wilson responded by striking out Carpenter on a full-count pitch, giving the Cubs offense time to come back and take the first game of the all-important series against St. Louis.

It was only one out, but Wilson called it a "step in the right direction" and believes the sudden nature of the appearance might've helped him just go out there and pitch without much time to overthink anything.

"I think coming into that situation where you have no room for error was good for him," said Avila, who entered Friday's game at the same time as Wilson when starting catcher Willson Contreras was also ejected. "Those are the situations he's been pitching in all season. There's no thought process for him as far as working on pitches, working on mechanics, things like that.

"I know he hasn't pitched well, as well as he would've liked, but coming into a situation where there's no room for error and you're really not thinking about that. You're just, 'Here it is, this is my stuff vs. you and whoever wins, wins.'

"It was a good outing on him. He looked similar and normal to me from what I had seen earlier in the year. I've always had confidence in him. He's the type of guy that you don't have to worry about if he's prepare or if the situation is too big."

A couple hours before that strikeout, Cubs president Theo Epstein discussed how one pitch or one outing is all it takes sometimes to get a guy on a hot stretch.

"The story's not written on [Wilson]," Epstein said. "He's a really quality major-league relief pitcher who's really struggling right now. 

"So what do you do with those guys? You work to get them feeling good about themselves, you work to get them locked in and you look for the right opportunity because they are always just one outing away from getting locked in and becoming a weapon again."

Prior to Friday, Wilson had given up a run in three straight outings, surrendering five runs in a span of 1.2 innings in September thanks to five walks. He entered an 8-2 game against the New York Mets last Tuesday and couldn't throw strikes, only managing to get one out before Joe Maddon was forced to make a change.

Before September, Wilson actually looked like he had gotten things smoothed out with five straight scoreless appearances from Aug. 23-31. He didn't walk a batter in 5.1 innings while striking out seven.

Epstein and the Cubs thought Wilson had turned a corner.

"Then there was a little bit of a setback," Epstein said. "I think he was starting to feel pretty good about himself. Then you get a little bit of mixed feedback from an outing or two and then you try to make adjustments when maybe the best thing to do is you try to be yourself.

"That's part of the issue — simplifying it for him, helping him believe in himself and his fastball. He's got a special fastball. He doesn't have to be too fine with it. He's an aggressive pitcher.

"Guys are working with him. He still believes in himself. He still wants the ball. Seen it before — guys get traded and you can have a really brutal month or something and one good appearance and it clicks."

Maddon admitted the Cubs are working hard to make sure they're not overwhelming Wilson with too many things to work on or too many voices in his ear.

The Cubs also admit it's at least partially a mental thing with Wilson, who has a career 3.32 ERA in six big-league seasons and has never come close to any walk issues like he's had in blue pinstripes.

With the postseason bearing down on the Cubs, will Willson be able to find a way into Maddon's circle of trust at the most important time of the year for relievers?

"He could be a linchpin to a lot of this stuff right here," Maddon said. "Look at his numbers in Detroit. They're outstanding; not just OK. For whatever reason, he's struggled a bit with his strike zone since he's been here.

"But we get this guy right, that could make a big difference down the stretch run and hopefully into the playoffs. We do need to get him back on track because he can be very influential."

When the Cubs acquired Wilson, he was one of the top relievers on the open market who came with experience pitching in the most intense part of games, four postseason appearances and a left-handed arm that approaches triple digits. 

The Cubs hoped he would be a valuable weapon in the regular season but also providing another late-inning option against the left-handed power of teams like the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers in October.

"All relievers are going to go through ups and downs over the course of the season," Avila said. "That's just part of the ebb and flow of the season. Like I've told him and a lot guys — talking to Joe too: There's gonna be a time where we need him like today and he's gonna come through and hopefully he gets hot."