Cubs

Cubs-Cardinals rivalry will keep escalating in 2016

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Cubs-Cardinals rivalry will keep escalating in 2016

HAZLETON, Pa. – Joe Maddon told diehard Cubs fans exactly what they wanted to hear, blasting the Cardinals, sarcastically saying he never read Branch Rickey’s sacred book on how to play baseball and wondering if Tony Soprano had ordered the hit from the St. Louis dugout.

This rivalry needed some new attitude, missing big personalities like Tony La Russa, Dusty Baker and Lou Piniella. Maddon delivered with that rant inside Wrigley Field’s interview room/dungeon in September, calling out the eye-for-an-eye retaliation after the Cardinals drilled All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo with a purpose pitch.

It took 123 years before the Cubs finally got their shot at the Cardinals in the playoffs, and they went through almost 500 bottles of champagne after they eliminated a 100-win team in October, partying in Wrigleyville as if they had just won the World Series.

With Jason Heyward and John Lackey defecting from St. Louis, this rivalry will only escalate in 2016. You know the Cubs manager will be right in the middle of the action.

“You got to be a little bit tough to survive around here to be successful,” Maddon said this week while staging charity events for his Hazleton Integration Project. “So when it comes down to a fight, you’re not going to take that from anybody.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Maddon competed on the basketball playgrounds, baseball diamonds and football fields in this old Pennsylvania coal-mining town. He absorbed blue-collar values from his late father, Joe Sr., a plumber who never seemed to take a vacation, and his mother, Beanie, still working to this day at Third Base Luncheonette, which looks unchanged since its opening in 1949. He grew up in an Italian-Polish family in a neighborhood filled with shot-and-a-beer bars, learning how to talk fast and use his street smarts.

“I love it, man,” Maddon said. “I absolutely love it. I grew up a Cardinal fan – a fierce Cardinal fan – and now I get to work against that feeling that I had as a kid.

“They got us early. We eventually were able to catch up later in the season. I think it’s healthy for both organizations. It’s healthy for baseball for a significant, proper rivalry between those two teams.

“I know they’re not going to back down. I know we’re not going to back down. (We’ll) hopefully continue to nurture it in the future. It’s no different than the Red Sox versus the Yankees (because) Cardinals-Cubs – as two relevant teams – is very good for baseball. I’m jacked up about it.”

There should be fireworks with the Cubs and Cardinals playing each other at least 19 times in 2016. Heyward looked at the young Cubs and the aging core in St. Louis and reportedly turned down $200 million offers, taking eight years, $184 million and opt-out flexibility, signing the biggest contract in franchise history.

[MORE: What will Joe Maddon's lineup look like in 2016?]

The Cardinals will have to replace Heyward’s Gold Glove defense in right field and across-the-board offensive contributions (13 homers, 23 stolen bases, .797 OPS). After getting blown away by the Red Sox in the David Price negotiations, St. Louis will also have to account for Lackey’s 33 starts and 218 innings.

“The Cardinals are going to be a formidable opponent next year – and for years to come,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said. “They’re going to take the resources that they didn’t commit to Jason Heyward and John Lackey and reallocate them to other players. The approach I take with the Cardinals is the same I used to take with the Yankees when I was in Boston – I don’t pay too close attention to their moves in the offseason.

[ALSO: Maddon knows Cubs are the target after big offseason]

“I kind of forget them and focus on our own club and expect them to win 95 to 100 games every year. That’s the standard we’ve set for ourselves. We want to win the division. We know we’re going to have to win close to 100 games in order to give ourselves a chance to make that happen.”

Opening Day starter Adam Wainwright is 34 years old and Lance Lynn will miss the 2016 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery. Yadier Molina has caught more than 12,000 innings in the big leagues and will turn 34 this summer. This could also be the last year in St. Louis for seven-time All-Star outfielder Matt Holliday, who will turn 36 in January.

St. Louis also didn’t win 11 World Series titles by accident. The Cardinals know what it’s like to be the hunted team in the National League. After winning the offseason, the Cubs will now have to play with a target on their back.

“What’s gone on (with) the ascension of the Cubs – and where the Cardinals have been forever – we had to catch up to them,” Maddon said. “That was our responsibility. We did it for one year. We still have a lot to prove. And I understand that.

“But based on what happened this year – Johnny coming over, Jason coming over, (the fact) that we did catch them a little bit towards the end of last season – that should really stoke the fires. But we have to go out there and reprove ourselves.”

As Craig Kimbrel takes another step forward, Cubs know he won't be their savior

As Craig Kimbrel takes another step forward, Cubs know he won't be their savior

Before Pedro Strop served up the game-winning homer to former top prospect Eloy Jimenez in the ninth inning of Tuesday night's 3-1 loss at Wrigley Field, the Cubs got some good news on their bullpen as Craig Kimbrel took another step forward.

Kimbrel threw a perfect seventh inning in relief for Triple-A Iowa Tuesday, needing only 8 pitches to get his job done.

As he continues along the path to join the big-league bullpen, the Cubs also know they can't put too much stock in him to be the savior. After all, he can't help the offense and even had he been available Tuesday night, there's no guarantee he would've pitched in the ballgame and affected anything in that regard.

"We want him to come in and join us and help us win," said Cole Hamels, who was once again brilliant for the Cubs Tuesday as he also notched his 2,500th career strikeout. "If we're not winning right now, then it's just one little small piece. I think we all want to be a large piece and have him just fit right in and make it easier on him.

"I don't think we all the sudden want to turn to him hoping that he'll save us at the end of the day. We know who he is, what talent he is and what he's going to provide, but I think we all want to be a part of this team and helping win."

The Cubs have not been winning lately, as they are now 10-15 in their last 25 games. That has dropped them to 39-33 on the season and in second place behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central.

Who knows how many save opportunities Kimbrel will have once he arrives in Chicago, but there's no doubt he will give the team a shot in the arm whenever he does walk in the clubhouse. The Cubs aren't saying exactly when that will be, as they haven't set forth an exact plan on what his next steps are, instead deferring to see how he feels after Tuesday's outing.

He will probably throw another outing in Iowa Thursday or Friday.

"He's trending in the right direction," GM Jed Hoyer said Tuesday evening at Wrigley Field. "Obviously he's feeling good, but we're not gonna rush him or make judgment on any one outing. We're just gonna take this process as we planned it out and try to get him ready for the remainder of the season."

This was the first game action of any kind for Kimbrel since Oct. 27 when he appeared in Game 4 of the World Series for the Boston Red Sox. He signed with the Cubs nearly two weeks ago now and threw his first bullpen at Wrigley Field on June 8 before going to Arizona to throw another bullpen and face hitters in live batting practice.

As dominant as Kimbrel was in the one inning — Hoyer joked Kimbrel may have to purposely walk a guy next time out just to get more extended time in the rehab game — don't expect the Cubs to get aggressive and push him now. It's still hard to see any scenario in which he's in the big-league bullpen on this current homestand (that runs through June 27).

The Cubs didn't sign Kimbrel to rush him and risk injury when they want him to lock down the back end of the bullpen down the stretch in September and then in what they hope is a long playoff run in October. The original plan called for Kimbrel to throw in back-to-back outings in the minor leagues, and the Cubs haven't indicated any change to that.

"[I'm just looking for] good health," Joe Maddon said. "He felt good, velocity was there, the break on the breaking ball was good, the velocity on the breaking ball was very good. It's just about health. If the guy's healthy and ready to rock and roll, you put him in the ninth inning. That's pretty much what we're looking forward to."

Elsewhere in Cubs bullpen news, Brandon Morrow is still throwing as he works his way along the comeback trail that is approach the one-year mark.

Morrow — the former Cubs closer — has been out since last July, going on the shelf at that point with what was originally described as biceps tendinitis. It was later revealed to be a bone bruise and he actually had to undergo a minor surgery on his right elbow over the offseason. 

The Cubs knew they'd be without Morrow for at least the first month of 2019, but the veteran then experienced a setback and still hasn't gotten back in a game. But he's been throwing from about 135 feet, Hoyer said, and feeling OK at the moment.

"With Brandon, we've been down this road a few times where he feels good and he has a setback, so I don't want to be overly optimistic," Hoyer said. "I don't want to be pessimistic. This is where he is. Obviously getting him back would be such an incredible bonus for us at this point. 

"We just want him to be healthy. I feel awful for him. No one is more disappointed or more frustrated than he is. Hopefully this time through, it works for him.

"...It's hard — you have to build your way back up. You don't really get a true sense of what it's gonna be like until you throw in games or throw in live bullpens because that's when the real stress pitches come in."

Hendricks, Chatwood, Alzolay and where the Cubs rotation goes from here

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AP

Hendricks, Chatwood, Alzolay and where the Cubs rotation goes from here

Kyle Hendricks' shoulder injury isn't opening the door for Adbert Alzolay to make his way into the Cubs rotation.

Not initially, at least.

The Cubs will hand Tyler Chatwood the ball in Hendricks' normal spot Thursday evening against the Mets at Wrigley Field, keeping Alzolay in the minors for the time being. 

When Hendricks hit the injured list over the weekend, many speculated it could be the Cubs' top pitching prospect who gets the call, as Alzolay has been on fire in Triple-A (1.93 ERA, 40 K in 28 innings over his last 5 starts). But the Cubs have two veteran starting pitching options hanging out in their bullpen in Chatwood and Mike Montgomery and it would send a bad message inside the clubhouse to pass over those guys and call up a starter from the minors to take a turn in the rotation.

The Cubs also felt like Chatwood has earned the chance to start after dealing with last year's struggles and having a resurgent season out of the bullpen and in his one previous spot start.

"He's been pitching a lot better," Joe Maddon said of Chatwood. "We believe he's earned this opportunity to pitch in the situation. ... It's an earned situation."

The Cubs made sure Chatwood was stretched out, as they held him back in case of extra innings Sunday night in Los Angeles and then had him throw in the bullpen after the game to help build his stamina back up to join the rotation.

But even if Alzolay won't be joining the rotation this week, that doesn't mean his opportunity isn't right around the corner. The Cubs have been discussing the potential for a six-man rotation in the near future, as they just began a stretch of 17 games in 17 days before their next break on July 5. 

"That's been something we've talked about a lot," GM Jed Hoyer said. "This is really the third time we've had 2-3 weeks in a row [of games]. No doubt, the starters wear down after 2-3 times through the rotation on four days rest and we're aware of their age and mileage on some of these guys. We want to make sure we take care of them. In general, getting extra rest is something we've talked about going into the break."

The Cubs have gone to a six-man rotation before and after the All-Star Break in past seasons and it makes sense to do so again this year, even with Hendricks on the shelf. Montgomery and Alzolay are both options and then Chatwood, of course, though Maddon insisted the Cubs have not come up with a concrete plan for the rotation beyond Thursday's outing.

The big question looming over the rotation is how long Hendricks will be out. He was in some kind of groove before experiencing shoulder issues in his last start against the Dodgers.

"All the test confirmed what we thought — he's kinda dealing with an impingement," Hoyer said. "I feel like we got ahead of it. We're not sure how much time he'll miss. We'll try to take it slowly and take the length of the season into account."

It's still only mid-June and the Cubs are hoping they're going to be playing baseball for another four-plus months, so they know how important Hendricks is to the overall goal of a second championship. 

They'll practice patience with him in his recovery, but right now, they can't say whether or not Cubs fans will be able to see him pitch again before the All-Star Game.