Cubs: Five storylines for spring training


Cubs: Five storylines for spring training

Theo Epstein knows he doesn’t have anywhere else to go, at least not until the Cubs win their first World Series since 1908. There’s no better job to leverage and too much unfinished business. If this team is as good as advertised, why let someone else ride in the parade down Michigan Avenue?

Chairman Tom Ricketts understands he can’t afford to let his president of baseball operations walk out of the team’s Clark Street headquarters in a gorilla suit. It would be a PR nightmare for an image-conscious franchise still trying to finish the Wrigley Field renovations and potentially launch a new TV network.

Now in the fifth and final year of his contract, Epstein realizes his history with the Boston Red Sox will create suspicions. But despite the ugly ending in Boston – and the financial handcuffs in place at the start of the Wrigleyville teardown – don’t expect him to go on sabbatical and follow Pearl Jam to South America.

Ricketts is a long-term, big-picture thinker who lets people do their jobs and believes in building through the farm system. Epstein wants to take care of his department – general manager Jed Hoyer is also in the last year of his deal – and he should get paid after last year’s 97-win surge.

If the Los Angeles Dodgers set a baseline with Andrew Friedman – roughly five years and $35 million – what’s Epstein’s price with two World Series titles already on his resume?

Cubs pitchers and catchers formally report to Arizona on Friday and the boardroom intrigue will be one behind-the-scenes storyline during a camp where the focus will be on the field and a clubhouse that expects to pop champagne bottles again in October.

Jake the Snake

Jake Arrieta will channel his inner Texas cowboy and brush aside any concerns about the year-after effects from throwing almost 250 innings. But remember what he said on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America conference call after winning the National League Cy Young Award.

“You can train and you can prepare and you can be in top physical condition,” Arrieta said. “But without having a workload like that under your belt, it’s natural for your body at some point to wear down and let yourself know that: ‘Hey, we’re getting into an area where we haven’t necessarily been before.'

“The fatigue did set it in. I’ll be the first to tell you. But physically my body was in better shape than it’s ever been. There was nothing alarming to me. It was just something that is very comparable to 'dead arm.'"

Arrieta (22-6, 1.77 ERA) had one of the greatest individual seasons ever for a pitcher, and he did it in a way that included his teammates, with a sense of swagger that captivated fans, turning his starts into must-see TV.

But that’s still Arrieta’s only wire-to-wire season in The Show.

War of Attrition

The Cubs stayed remarkably healthy last season, with Arrieta, Jon Lester, Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks all making at least 31 starts. But they probably won’t be so lucky this year and will need swingmen Adam Warren, Trevor Cahill, Clayton Richard and Travis Wood to survive the marathon, especially since the farm system doesn’t have anyone close to stepping into a playoff-caliber rotation.

The Cubs are giving Hammel the benefit of the doubt, believing he’s over the leg issues that contributed to his second-half fade (5.10 ERA) last year. The expectation is a new-season outlook and a different strength-and-conditioning program will help him get back to what he was before the All-Star break (2.86 ERA).

Hendricks has a Dartmouth College degree and gets typecast as the thinker. But he’s tougher and more athletic than he gets credit for, putting up 180 innings, a 3.95 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP during a year where even he admitted he struggled to get a feel for his pitches and find a rhythm.

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The Cubs also think Warren in particular could be sneaky good outside of the American League East after getting traded from the New York Yankees in the Starlin Castro deal.

“We know going into the year, however you dream up those 1,400 innings,” Epstein said, “it’s not going to come out exactly how you anticipate. You’re going to have injuries. You’re going to have underperformance. You’re going to have some guys pleasantly surprise you.

“You know you’re going to make a trade at some point. You’re going to sign a couple guys off the scrap heap. You’re going to have someone come up from Triple-A and impress. You’re going to have someone come up from Triple-A and disappoint.

“You just hope that you’re strong enough and healthy enough as an organization – and open-minded enough and talented enough – that through the course of the year you put a pretty good product out there and you answer the bell more often than not.

“I think we will.”

Jigsaw Puzzle

Joe Maddon isn’t the first guy to show up at the ballpark or the last one to leave at night. He won’t lock himself in the film room to break down swings and pitching mechanics. He won’t apologize for his outside interests or pretend he thinks about baseball 24/7.

Maddon’s job is managing people and he makes it look easy.

But beyond the mix-and-match pitching staff – Hammel will still probably be looking over his shoulder the third time through the lineup – Maddon will also have to juggle a versatile group of position players and massage all the egos.

Will there be enough at-bats to keep Miguel Montero and Chris Coghlan and everyone else happy? Is Kyle Schwarber an outfielder or a catcher or a designated hitter? Can Jorge Soler finally stay healthy? Will Jason Heyward’s Gold Glove defense translate in center field? Is Javier Baez really built for a super-utility role and ready to become the next Ben Zobrist?

Personality Test

Setting aside the $276 million spending spree during the offseason, this team has been years in the making. If everyone stays healthy, the Cubs might only be focusing on one or two roster spots during March Madness.

[MORE: Why Cubs believe their rock-star young players won't believe the hype]

You will hear a lot about the Cubs playing with a target on their back now and getting everyone’s best shot and all the other clichés. Some of it will be talk-show formula and spring-training filler.

But these are real issues, making sure the veterans accept their roles and the young guys don’t get too comfortable or start to feel untouchable while everyone keeps telling them how great they are.

Players aren’t robots or PECOTA projections. The Cubs had unbelievable dance-party chemistry in 2015. But last year is over, and this group will have to create a new identity.

“The sky’s the limit for us,” Schwarber said.

Cubs have new hitting coach in Anthony Iapoce

Cubs have new hitting coach in Anthony Iapoce

The Cubs are heading into a new season with a different hitting coach for the second straight winter, but the most recent choice is a familiar face.

Anthony Iapoce is set to join Joe Maddon's coaching staff this week after serving in the same capacity with the Texas Rangers for the last three seasons. The Cubs confirmed the move Monday afternoon shortly after the news broke out of the Rangers camp.

The Cubs fired Chili Davis last week after just one season as the team's hitting coach.

Entering the final week of the season, the Rangers fired manager Jeff Banister, leaving Iapoce and the rest of the Texas coaching staff in limbo.

As such, Iapoce is rejoining the Cubs, where he served as a special assistant to the General Manager from 2013-15 focusing on player development, particularly in the hitting department throughout the minor leagues.

Iapoce has familiarity with a bunch of the current star offensive players on the Cubs, from Willson Contreras to Kris Bryant. 

Both Bryant and Contreras endured tough 2018 seasons at the plate, which was a huge reason for the Cubs' underperforming lineup. Bryant's issue was more related to a left shoulder injured suffered in mid-May while Contreras' offensive woes remain a major question mark after the young catcher looked to be emerging as a legitimate superstar entering the campaign.

Getting Contreras back to the hitter that put up 21 homers and 74 RBI in only 117 games in 2017 will be one of the main goals for Iapoce, so the history between the two could be a key.

With the Rangers, Iapoce oversaw an offense that ranked 7th, 9th and 14th in MLB in runs scored over the last three seasons. The decline in offensive production is obviously not a great sign, but the Rangers as a team have fallen off greatly since notching the top seed in the AL playoffs in 2016 with 95 wins only to lose 95 games in 2018, resulting in the change at manager.

Iapoce has worked with an offense backed by Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus, Shin-Soo Choo, Nomar Mazara and Joey Gallo the last few seasons.

Under Iapoce's tutelage, former top prospect Jurickson Profar shed any notion of a "bust" label and emerged as a budding star at age 25, collecting 61 extra-base hits with a .793 OPS in 2018.

When the Cubs let Davis go last week, they provided no update on assistant hitting coach Andy Haines, who just finished his first season in that role and is expected to remain with the team for 2019. The same offseason Iapoce left for the Rangers, Haines took over as the Cubs' minor league hitting instructor.

What should Brandon Morrow's role be in Cubs 2019 bullpen?

What should Brandon Morrow's role be in Cubs 2019 bullpen?

Since the Cubs' early exit from the postseason, many have turned their attention to the 2019 roster and wonder if Brandon Morrow will be the team's closer next year.

However, the question isn't WILL Morrow be the closer, but rather — SHOULD he be counted on as the main ninth-inning option?

Morrow didn't throw a single pitch for the Cubs after the All-Star Game, nursing a bone bruise in his forearm that did not heal in time to allow him to make a return down the stretch.

Of course, an injury isn't surprising given Morrow's lengthy history of arm issues. 

Consider: Even with a half-season spent on the DL, Morrow's 35 appearances in 2018 was his second-highest total since 2008 (though he also spent a ton of time as a starting pitcher from 2009-15).

Morrow is 34 now and has managed to throw just 211 innings in 126 games since the start of the 2013 season. 

Because of that, Theo Epstein isn't ready to anoint Morrow the Cubs' 2019 closer despite success in the role in his first year in Chicago (22-for-24 in save chances).

"[We're] very comfortable with Morrow as part of a deep and talented 'pen," Epstein said. "We have to recommit to him in a very structured role and stick with it to do our best to keep him healthy. Set some rules and adhere to them and build a 'pen around that. I'm comfortable."

Epstein is referencing the overuse the Cubs have pointed to for the origin of Morrow's bone bruise when he worked three straight games from May 31-June 2 during a stretch of four appearances in five days.

Joe Maddon and the Cubs were very cautious with Morrow early in the year, unleashing him for only three outings — and 2 innings — in the first two-plus weeks of the season, rarely using him even on back-to-back days.

During that late-May/early-June stretch, Morrow also three just 2 pitches in one outing (May 31) and was only called upon for the 14th inning June 2 when Maddon had already emptied the rest of the Cubs bullpen in a 7-1 extra-inning victory in New York.

The blame or origin of Morrow's bone bruise hardly matters now. All the Cubs can do at this moment is try to learn from it and carry those lessons into 2019. It sounds like they have, heading into Year 2 of a two-year, $21 million deal that also includes a team option for 2020.

"It's the type of injury you can fully recover from with rest," Epstein said. "that said, he has an injury history and we knew that going in. That was part of the calculation when we signed him and that's why it was the length it was and the amount of money it was, given his talent and everything else.

"We were riding pretty high with him for a few months and then we didn't have him for the second half of the season. And again, that's on me. We took an educated gamble on him there and on the 'pen overall, thinking that even if he did get hurt, we had enough talent to cover for it. And look, it was a really good year in the 'pen and he contributed to that greatly in the first half.

"They key is to keep him healthy as much as possible and especially target it for down the stretch and into what we hope will be a full month of October next year."

It's clear the Cubs will be even more cautious with Morrow in 2019, though he also should head into the new campaign with significantly more rest than he received last fall when he appeared in all seven games of the World Series out of the Dodgers bullpen.

Morrow has more than proven his value in this Cubs bullpen as a low-maintenance option when he's on the field who goes right after hitters and permits very few walks or home runs. 

But if the Cubs are going to keep him healthy for the most important time of the season in September and October, they'll need to once again pack the bullpen with at least 7 other arms besides Morrow, affording Maddon plenty of options.

When he is healthy, Morrow will probably get a ton of the closing opportunities, but the world has also seen what Pedro Strop can do in that role and the Cubs will likely add another arm or two this winter for high-leverage situations.