Justin Wilson

5 bold predictions for the 2018 Cubs season


5 bold predictions for the 2018 Cubs season

With the 2018 MLB season exactly two weeks away, let's have some fun with bold predictions.

Hopping on Periscope Thursday afternoon, the NBC Sports Chicago team laid out some hot takes for each side of the city:

1. Willson Contreras will finish in the Top 10 in NL MVP voting.

Contreras already may be the most important player on this Cubs team and if he stays healthy, it's very possible he takes that next step into stardom.

Joe Maddon often cites the old scouting adage that if a player has shown you something he's capable of at one point, he can do it again. 

Contreras' superhuman stretch of games from July 14 through Aug. 9 last season could well go down as the "breakout" for the Cubs catcher. He hit .311/.280/.700 (1.080 OPS) with 10 homers and 29 RBI in 100 plate appearances in that stretch and was only slowed because he pulled a hamstring.

Last year, Contreras' walk rate increased, his strikeout rate decreased, his hard-hit percentage increased and his soft-hit percentage decreased. In other words: All the peripherals point in Contreras' favor. 

And if he spends all season hitting behind Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, he could wind up driving in 100 runs, a heck of a feat for a catcher.

2. Brandon Morrow will not be the closer at the end of the season...and Justin Wilson will be.

Morrow has struggled to stay healthy in his career, appearing in more than 20 games in a season just once since 2012 and he's coming off a postseason in which he was run ragged, pitching in 14 playoff games (and all 7 World Series contests).

So even if Morrow is effective, he may still get Wally Pipp'd out of the closer's role.

Wilson was one of the most dominant closers in the game before being traded to the Cubs; his two months in Chicago was an aberration compared to the rest of his career.

3. Three Cubs starting pitchers will be on the National League All-Star roster.

This one's pretty nuts, I'll admit. It's very rare for a team to send three different starting pitchers to the Midsummer Classic; the 2016 Cubs with a dynamic trio of Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks weren't able to accomplish that.

But this Cubs rotation may be the best in baseball and any of the top four starters could wind up in Washington D.C. representing the Cubs.

The most likely would be Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Yu Darvish, but there's no reason to think Lester is out of gas in his career and Rizzo is all aboard the Tyler Chatwood train, so...

4. Ian Happ will steal 20 bases.

The Cubs don't run much at all — Rizzo and Javy Baez led the team with 10 swipes each in 2017. 

But Happ has good speed, came to camp in fantastic shape and has a track record of stealing bases. In college, he swiped 56 bags in 163 games and stole 16 bases in the minors in 2016.

He's also proved it at the big-league level. After getting his feet under him and before running into the rookie wall, Happ stole seven bases in a 35-game stretch from mid-June to early-August.

5. Jason Heyward will spend more time in the leadoff spot this year than any other Cubs player.

There's a lot going on here and they're all quite bold.

Right now, Happ appears to be the most likely option atop the Cubs order, but what if he struggles a la 2017 Kyle Schwarber? This will be only the second big-league season (and first full MLB campaign) for Happ.

Schwarber may still spend some time leading off and Albert Almora Jr. will be a great option there against left-handed pitchers, but Heyward would represent a nice veteran option if he can rediscover his swing.

Heyward figures to play more than Zobrist (another solid candidate for the leadoff spot when in the lineup) and he had a career .353 OBP before joining the Cubs. Maybe a new voice in hitting coach Chili Davis will pay off for Heyward.

Also, surprisingly, he posted the lowest strikeout rate of his career in 2017 and still sees a lot of pitches with a patient approach. 

It may seem crazy now, but a Heyward performing more in line with his career numbers might be the best fit for the leadoff spot on this roster.

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


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."

After 'whirlwind' 2017 where things didn't go as planned, Justin Wilson is confident heading into a new season with the Cubs

After 'whirlwind' 2017 where things didn't go as planned, Justin Wilson is confident heading into a new season with the Cubs

For Justin Wilson, the offseason was a little bit longer than it was for his Cubs teammates.

Wilson went from trade deadline addition to being left off the NLCS roster. The reliever made one appearance in the NLDS, the last two outs in the Nationals’ ninth in Game 4 with the game practically decided with the Nationals up five runs in Wrigley, and was then replaced on the roster by Hector Rondon for the NLCS against the Dodgers.

“It kind of sucked at first. You go home and there’s still baseball on TV so that sucks," Wilson said in a one-on-one interview with NBC Sports Chicago’s Kelly Crull. "I was happy to come over to the Cubs. Clearly it didn’t go as I wanted it, but it’s a great organization and it’s a really good ball club so I’m excited for a little fresh start this year.”

Wilson had an ERA north of five in 23 appearances with the Cubs and walked 19 in 17 2/3 innings. Before joining the North Siders, Wilson had a 2.48 ERA with the Detroit Tigers and walked 16 in 40 1/3 innings.

Whatever it was, things weren’t working for Wilson with the Cubs.

“Since I came over it just never felt the same,” Wilson said. “The ball wasn’t coming out the same. I clearly wasn’t throwing enough strikes and then, you know, competitors start making changes to compete and get back out there. I made little tweaks here and there and just never found my way. I threw the ball better towards the end, but it still wasn’t the same.”

Wilson said he feels great now and has focused on getting back to what he does best this spring. He believes part of the reason for his renewed confidence is simply comfort.

“It was kind of a whirlwind last year, especially going into a team that’s very good and in the race, you want to do so well,” Wilson said. “I probably added some pressure to myself. Getting here, getting into camp and kind of slowing moving into things, moving into the season, it’s a little more comfortable.”

With a new pitching coach in Jim Hickey, Wilson has a new set of eyes to figure out how to get him back on track. One of the things Wilson noticed about Hickey is how much he preaches the change up.

“I came into camp learning one and continue to throw it,” Wilson said of his change up. “I think it will be a big pitch for me and a big pitch for a lot of us.”

The Cubs have revamped the bullpen this year, but Wilson thinks he can still play a key role. The 30-year-old lefty believes the key is moving past his forgettable few months last season.

“As a reliever you got to be able to flush it because you’re most likely in there the next day or the day after that so the quicker you can do away with it, flush it, learn from it, try to correct it, the faster you’ll get back on track,” he said. “You got to have I guess a little bit of a thick skin, but you also, like I said, have to be able to have a clear mind when you come to the field the next day.”