Cubs hoping Jason Hammel can find his groove in 2016


Cubs hoping Jason Hammel can find his groove in 2016

MESA, Ariz. — Jason Hammel on Monday made his first start since his disastrous second half last year, debuting a minor windup tweak he and the Cubs hope will help him remain consistently effective throughout the 2016 season. 

The 33-year-old right-hander, who’s in the final year of a two-year, $20 million deal, incorporated a shoulder and hip turn into his motion this offseason with the goal of fostering more consistency with his fastball, which was at the root of his second half struggles last summer. As the Cubs stormed their way into the playoffs with 97 wins, Hammel posted a 5.10 ERA in 14 starts, and then was torched in two postseason starts (4.1 IP, 7 ER). 

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Hammel threw his fastball for a strike 70 percent of the time before 2015’s All-Star break — which also coincided with him suffering a left hamstring injury — but saw that percentage drop five points in the second half. While that drop may seem minor, Hammel had a 2.86 ERA in 17 starts before that injury hit in a July 8 start against the St. Louis Cardinals.

“That’s where it all starts and is what I talked about my whole career,” Hammel said. “… Fastball command is one thing, fastballs down in the zone is another. I think I did a lot better with that today, so so far, so good.”

Hammel fired two innings against the Kansas City Royals on Monday — a game the Cubs lost, 3-2 — allowing one hit and one walk with a strikeout. He estimated he successfully timed his delivery about 50 to 60 percent of the time, and was better from the windup than the stretch. It’s still early in spring training, though, and Hammel said the motion is natural to him. 

“When I do click it, it feels much better, and the delivery is effortless,” Hammel said. 

Cubs manager Joe Maddon said he “(loves) the delivery” and noted how different it is from the one Hammel used during the pair’s first stint together with the Tampa Bay Rays from 2006-2008. 

“If he's able to nail down early on where that fastball is going, he will take off,” Maddon said. “He will take off quickly and then the thing would be to maintain that delivery all season and get into the latter part of the year and still be highly successful."

The Cubs went 50-25 after the All-Star break last year despite Hammel’s issues, and clinched the National League Division Series against the Cardinals with Hammel starting Game 4. But, as was the case for most of the second half, Maddon exercised extreme caution with Hammel, yanking him after three shaky innings. 

[MORE: Cubs embracing Joe Maddon's not-so-subtle motto: 'Try not to suck']

Madden hopes Hammel will use spring training to set a foundation with his delivery that’ll allow the second-year Cubs skipper to trust him throughout the season and then, if everything goes according to plan, in the playoffs. Hammel’s start Monday was another step toward sustaining the kind of level of success he's proven he can reach in the past. 

"He came to terms with what happened at the end of last season,” Maddon said. “I think he's been accountable to that moment. He knows he has to get better. I like that. Right now, when I talk to him, he's in a pretty calm, good spot right now. And I think he's eager to see himself play because he knows the adjustments he's made are good and he feels good about them.

“I'm not even worried about (spring training results). I want to see repetition of this delivery. A major league pitcher should be able to throw a strike with his fastball when he wants to. If he gets in those moments and he is throwing his fastball where he wants to, even if he gets hit a little bit, I don't care. Seeing that part of it, that component of it is really important."

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.