Cubs going all-in with Willson Contreras and youth movement at catcher

Cubs going all-in with Willson Contreras and youth movement at catcher

WASHINGTON — The trade-deadline priorities for Theo Epstein’s front office are pitching, pitching and more pitching. Manager Joe Maddon says the rotation will drive the engine for a team that has been stuck in neutral through 49 percent of the season. The Cubs just removed their only experienced catcher from their pitching-and-defense equation.

This isn’t trying to turn Miguel Montero into a martyr for the honest/foolish criticism of Jake Arrieta that got him designated for assignment. Willson Contreras already did most of the heavy lifting, proving himself as an eager-to-learn student and a clutch postseason hitter.

But at the age of 25 — and with two half-seasons of experience in the big leagues — Contreras is now the senior catcher to Victor Caratini at a mentally and physically grueling position.

“It’s going to put more on our plate, for sure, because there’s a learning curve coming into the league,” pitcher John Lackey said. “I don’t care who you are. We’ve all done it. I had it when I was a young kid. But from what I hear, (Caratini’s) been hitting really good at Triple-A, I guess, so we’ll see what happens.”

Lackey (5.24 ERA) wasn’t in excuse-making mode after an ugly loss this week at Nationals Park. Lackey was just answering the question and being realistic. Caratini, 23, earned a promotion that wouldn’t have happened so soon without Montero’s loose-cannon personality by hitting .343 with eight homers, 54 RBI and a .923 OPS in 68 games at Iowa.

“Veteran pitchers pretty much know what they want to do or how they want to do it,” Maddon said, “so I’m always relying on (them). Our philosophy is that the pitcher always has the right — the last right — to choose what he wants to do or not do. Even when it comes down to defense, if you don’t like the shift, we won’t move. When it comes to calling a game, starting pitchers – our veteran guys – are pretty much in charge of that moment.”

[CUBS TICKETS: Get your seats right here]

Maddon also has faith in a secret weapon: Mike Borzello, the catching/strategy coach who spearheads the team’s unique system that blends scouting and analytics into daily reports.

“Our catchers are prepped really well,” Maddon said. “Borz does a great job of game-planning. They sit down before the game and they go through the process. I think in a moment like this, you’re relying on the veteran-ship and the know-how of your starting pitchers more than the catchers. As long as the catchers know the game plan, receive well, block well, throw well, I’m OK with it.”

Maddon would also never publicly lobby for a defense-first veteran catcher to stabilize things behind the plate.

“It depends on who the guy is,” Maddon said. “I like our catchers right now. If you’re any major-league team, I think you’d like to say Willson Contreras is one of your catchers.

“I love (Caratini’s) swing, so there’s not going to be a long period of time before people are going to say we’d like to have Caratini also. These are two really good young catchers to grow with.”

Jon Lester – who has almost exclusively thrown to David Ross and Contreras since signing his $155 million megadeal — spoke with Montero on Wednesday after those running-game comments went viral and Epstein dropped the DFA hammer trying to jolt the clubhouse.

“I’ve gotten to know Miggy over the last couple years as a piece of this team that changed history, so that’s something that he’ll always have,” Lester said. “But at the end of the day, management needs to make decisions. And they made the decision. You say your goodbyes and kind of move on.”

Cubs aiming to finalize coaching staff this week

Cubs aiming to finalize coaching staff this week

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — If fans are feeling impatient waiting for the Cubs coaching staff to be finalized, the front office feels their anxiety.

Jed Hoyer said Tuesday afternoon at the MLB GM Meetings the Cubs hope to settle their coaching staff before the week is up, putting an end to what he joked has been a six-week human resources process.

Theo Epstein confirmed Monday Will Venable will be back as a base coach for the Cubs in 2020, though which base is not yet certain. Venable who interviewed for the managerial vacancy this fall, spent 2019 as the first-base coach for the Cubs, but also filled in at third base early in the season when incumbent Brian Butterfield dealt with vertigo. 

In addition to Joe Maddon, Mark Loretta (bench coach), Butterfield (third-base coach), Lester Strode (bullpen coach) and Chris Denorfia (quality assurance coach) are also out.

That leaves the coaching staff as follows:

Manager — David Ross
Bench coach — Andy Green
Pitching coach — Tommy Hottovy
Associate pitching coach, catching and strategy coach — Mike Borzello
Hitting coach — Anthony Iapoce
Assistant hitting coach — Terrmel Sledge
Bullpen coach — Chris Young
Base coach — Will Venable
Base coach — open
Quality assurance coach — open

It's actually been longer than six weeks since the Cubs informed Maddon they intended to move on from the World Series-winning manager, but it hasn't even been three weeks since the Cubs officially hired David Ross as the replacement. 

But the offseason is fully in gear now and the Cubs would like to turn their full attention to the roster.

"We'd love to get [the coaching staff] done by the end of the week," Hoyer said. "I don't know if that's realistic or not, but that'd be a great goal. We're starting to put together some meetings and stuff with those guys coming to Chicago, so it's not like we're not moving forward with stuff. But I do feel like it's time to have that locked down."

Ross has obviously had a say in the new additions to the staff, going through what Hoyer called a "crash course" in interviewing and hiring coaches. Ross doesn't have much experience working with Green — the most important of the new hires — but he has worked closely with Hottovy and Borzello in the past from his days as a player. He's also been around those guys and the other holdovers on the coaching staff while serving as a special assistant in the front office the last three seasons.

Still, Hoyer said the Cubs are cognizant of Ross' need to have somebody on the coaching staff he trusts. 

"You want guys to fill certain roles on your staff — coaching, strategy, etc." Hoyer said. "But there's also a camaraderie you want to create. There's a relationship with the manager that you want to give that manager. It's a really hard and lonely job at times. 

"Having someone on that staff that you trust that you've known from the past that you can vent to or grab a beer with or grab breakfast with and talk about it, I think that's really important."

Once the final two spots on the coaching staff are finalized, Ross can also turn his attention to pressing matters like immersing himself in the Cubs' behind-the-scenes processes with the research and development staff and the rest of the front office.

Ross has some knowledge of that from his front office work over the last three years, but he also was enjoying time in retirement with his family in addition to his duties as an MLB analyst/broadcaster for ESPN.

"The best way he can hit the ground running is just become really familiar with all of the stuff that we do in the office even beyond what he's already done," Hoyer said. "Using it as a great learning winter for spring training, it's really important from an organization standpoint and a message standpoint. I know he wants to hit the ground running and the best way to do that is to be in the office as much as possible to be able to map out spring training."

What Scott Harris' departure means for Cubs


What Scott Harris' departure means for Cubs

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Even before the offseason started, the Cubs knew this was going to be a winter of change behind the scenes — on the coaching staff, in player development and scouting and in the big-league front office.

One change they weren't necessarily anticipating was losing Scott Harris to the San Francisco Giants.

Harris had spent the last seven years with the Cubs, working up to an assistant GM role and emerging as one of the most trusted voices in the front office under Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer. The Giants officially introduced Harris as their new GM Monday, leaving the Cubs with even more turmoil to address this winter.

In September, the Cubs had already moved Jason McLeod over to the big-league front office from his previous role as vice president of amateur scouting and player development, but McLeod won't be an exact replacement for Harris. Instead, the Cubs will spread Harris' responsibilities around — at least in the short term — and allow younger internal options an opportunity to step up and earn expanded roles.

"We're thrilled for Scott," Epstein said. "It was an opportunity he couldn't turn down — a No. 2 of another storied franchise in his hometown; it was just too good to be true. We're thrilled for him, but it was bittersweet. We loved working with him and he was a big part of our culture and guys around the major-league team love working with him. 

"It will leave a pretty significant void that we'll have to fill. We'll distribute a lot of his responsibilities around to a few different people internally and reevaluate as we continue to look outside, if there happens to be the right fit outside the organization, too."

It won't be easy for the Cubs to replace Harris, as they viewed him internally as a potential GM down the road. At the moment, he was a valued and trusted voice inside the front office at a critical time in the organization as they work to set themselves up for the future beyond their current window of contention that is set to close after the 2021 season.

"He's got incredible work ethic," Epstein said. "He's got significant intellectual capacity, but he's very down to earth, fun to be around. He doesn't tell you how smart he is. He's one of the guys everyone loves going to to share things and pick their brain. He's got good feel managing up, managing down, managing laterally, good feel with the players and uniform personnel. He'll do a really good job over there."

Now the Cubs will have to move on, though they're not in any rush to do so. 

After announcing a host of moves as part of their internal shake-up last month, the Cubs are still looking to hire a scouting director from outside the organization. Epstein confirmed they have interviewed close to 10 candidates and the Cubs are "reaching the final innings" in that process.

The same way they search for the next star player, the Cubs are also searching for the next front office star — the next Scott Harris, if you will.

"Anytime you have the opportunity to fill a spot — and there is some real turnover in our organization this year — I think you're always looking for somebody with potential to impact years down the line beyond the scope of responsibility you're hiring for," Epstein said. "This gives us anther big bullet to fire in our hiring, but we might not necessarily rush out and do it right away. 

"We have a lot of qualified people internally, too, who might take off with new responsibilities, so we'll see. We'll weigh that, but we are definitely looking outside. Same with scouting director — we're looking for an impact hire in that role." 

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream