Cubs have big plans for Willson Contreras and Jeimer Candelario


Cubs have big plans for Willson Contreras and Jeimer Candelario

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Cubs built a strong pipeline in Latin America long before “The Boston Show” moved to Chicago. But it should give Theo Epstein’s front office so many options this summer and help frame the next championship window.

The Cubs optioned Willson Contreras (Triple-A Iowa) and Jeimer Candelario (Double-A Tennessee) to the minors on Friday, hoping they could become part of the next wave at Wrigley Field.   

Contreras, a Southern League batting champion last year, is essentially viewed as the catcher of the future and untouchable in trade talks. Candelario, an All-Star in the Arizona Fall League, is blocked with Kris Bryant already established as an All-Star third baseman and a Rookie of the Year.

The Cubs wouldn’t have won 97 games last year without the rapid development of Bryant, shortstop Addison Russell (14 career games at the Triple-A level) and outfielder/catcher Kyle Schwarber (during his first full professional season).

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But the Cubs will need a new infusion of talent/cheap labor as those young players — ranging in age from 22 to 24 — become expensive through the arbitration system and Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta approaches free agency after the 2017 season.   

“We’ve graduated a class that’s up there right now that’s pretty good,” manager Joe Maddon said before Friday’s 3-2 loss to the White Sox at Camelback Ranch. “You would think it should be barren after that because of how good this class is. But then I get to see these guys more readily: Wow!”

Contreras — the organization’s minor league player of the year in 2015 and Baseball America’s No. 67 overall prospect heading into this season — could eventually end the Schwarber catching experiment. ranked Contreras, 23, as the game’s top catching prospect and he hasn’t disappointed in the Cactus League (5-for-14 with three doubles and four walks).

The next step for Contreras — who signed out of Venezuela in 2009 — is learning how to handle alpha males like Arrieta, Jon Lester and John Lackey and master an intricate game-planning system.

“(It’s) being able to absorb all that information,” Maddon said, “and get behind there in a major-league game and process it all and then gain that kind of connection with a pitching staff.

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“That’s the one thing we really tried to get done this camp from the first day forward — to (get) the pitchers to understand why it’s important to connect with this guy because we definitely see that happening at some point.”

The Cubs are a Big Data team that overloads catchers with scouting reports.

“Willson’s unbelievably connected to all this stuff, passionate about his craft,” Maddon said. “When he gets here, there’s still going to be some problems. There’s a lot to absorb when you come up here as a catcher. We do a lot of stuff in regards to planning, but I have a lot of faith. His English is getting better. He understands why his English needs to get better. He just gets it (and) I think he’ll grow into it.”

Candelario — who signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2010 — could wind up being the headliner in a trade for a top-of-the-rotation starter. Maddon said Bryant’s name never came up during his exit meeting with Candelario, a 22-year-old switch-hitter who’s put up a 1.071 OPS in the Cactus League.

Maddon said: “I just talked about: How can we possibly send you out? You’re the best hitter in the Valley right now. What’s wrong with us?

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“He doesn’t give up a swing in BP. He hits everything hard in batting practice. So I don’t think it’s a big secret why he does the same thing in the game.”

Of course, spring numbers lie, injuries happen and it’s in an organization’s best interests to talk up prospects and set trade bait. But the Cubs showed last year how aggressive they can be with young players, meaning Contreras and Candelario could make a difference at some point this season.

“I totally believe that,” Maddon said. “It’s not an aberration. So, yes, I do think that if they go to the minor leagues and play like we think they can play — and if there’s a need — I think both those guys can be very impactful.”

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.