Cubs

Cubs lining up Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta for first two games of NLCS

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Cubs lining up Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta for first two games of NLCS

The Cubs announced their rotation for the first two games of the National League Championship Series Thursday, lining up Jon Lester for Game 1 and Jake Arrieta for Game 2.

With the NLCS opener on Saturday in New York, it would be exactly five days in between starts for Arrieta, who started Monday against the Cardinals at Wrigley Field.

[RELATED - Addison Russell will miss NLCS with hamstring strain]

But the Cubs aren't going to push their ace, instead opting to keep Lester's turn in the rotation as is.

"It's nice giving Jake an extra day," manager Joe Maddon said. "Really, part of the strategy was to not pitch Jon [in Game 4 of the NLDS] so he was ready for the fifth game or to come into the first game of the next round.

"It kind of played out well, so that's how we're going to set it up in the beginning. I'm really comfortable. They'll both be starters in two games [this series], possibly. That's what we're most comfortable with."

By the time Game 1 comes around, Lester will have had seven days off in between starts after he got the ball in the NLDS opener in St. Louis last Friday.

Arrieta is in prime physical shape and even though he actually looked human against the Cardinals, he's still been the best pitcher on the planet for the last few months.

So does Arrieta really need the extra day of rest?

"He'll probably tell you he would not, but I like the idea that he has it," Maddon said. "We've been pushing him pretty hard. His innings are way up compared to where they've been in the past.

"This postseason, I've talked about it before - it's beyond the physical drain, it's the emotional drain. He went through a really difficult moment [in the wild-card game] in Pittsburgh that night and he set this whole thing up for us.

"Any time you can give a guy both an emotional and a physical break, you take advantage of that right now."

[MORE: Cubs see World Series window opening]

Maddon didn't release the rest of the rotation beyond Game 2, but he did admit the Cubs would probably use four starters, meaning Kyle Hendricks could be in line for Game 3 back at Wrigley Field and Jason Hammel (who lasted just three innings in Game 4 of the NLDS Tuesday) could get the ball in Game 4 of the NLCS.

Beyond that, Maddon also admitted they have had discussions about how the entire NLCS plays out. If the series goes to seven games, the Cubs hope Lester and Arrieta would be able to take the ball once more each (think Games 5 and 6) as a starter, and Maddon didn't rule out either being available out of the bullpen if necessary.

"Of course they would be, but if your regular relief pitchers are ready, I'm good with those guys," Maddon said. "Our relief pitchers have pitched really well. I'm not opposed to using a starter in that moment. Not at all.

"But that would be the fact that the other guys are unavailable or maybe overworked, something to that extent. It's different to come out of the bullpen. I've done it before; I'm not afraid to do it. But I'd rather use the other guys first."

The Mets (Jacob deGrom) were forced to use their top starter for Game 5 of the NLDS, meaning he would probably not be available until Game 3 of the NLCS.

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The Cubs, meanwhile, have plenty of time to rest and are grateful they didn't have to make the trip to St. Louis or use Lester in a Game 5.

After all, giving him the ball in Game 1 of a crucial playoff series is what they signed him for.

"Jon Lester in a big game is always tasty," Maddon said. "You'll always take that. I have no problem with any of that.

"I really expect well. I know he's very confident. I think this little extra rest is going to help, too."

Cubs reportedly ‘exceptionally impressed’ by Joe Espada in managerial search

Cubs reportedly ‘exceptionally impressed’ by Joe Espada in managerial search

As the Cubs peruse over their list of managerial candidates, one name reportedly made a strong impression following his interview with the team.

According to NBC Sports Chicago’s David Kaplan, Astros bench coach Joe Espada left the Cubs front office “exceptionally impressed” following his interview on Monday.

Espada, 44, has spent the last two seasons as Astros bench coach following three seasons as Yankees third base coach. He is one of MLB’s more sought after managerial candidates this winter and one of three known external candidates for the Cubs’ opening, along with Joe Girardi and Gabe Kapler.

Former Cubs catcher and current front office assistant David Ross has been the presumed front runner for the Cubs' opening. But based on Kaplan’s report, Espada clearly has given Epstein and Co. something to think about, which makes sense, considering Espada is coming from an innovative Astros organization.

Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference that there’s no timeline for the Cubs’ managerial search. However, MLB prefers teams to not make big announcements during the World Series, which kicks off on Oct. 22. Thus, the Cubs may not make an announcement for little while longer, though this is purely speculation.

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The curious case of Brad Wieck and his unique opportunity with the Cubs

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The curious case of Brad Wieck and his unique opportunity with the Cubs

If anybody thought the Cubs' 2019 season was a roller coaster, it was nothing compared to what Brad Wieck has gone through this year.

Wieck — the 6-foot-9 left-handed reliever — went from a cancer diagnosis to a Padres cast-off and wound up finishing the year carving through the heart of the Cardinals order in the eighth inning of a must-win game in late-September for the Cubs.

Wieck began 2019 with a testicular cancer diagnosis in January and underwent surgery shortly after. That left him playing catch-up all spring training, unable to lift, run or throw off a mound for a month after the surgery. He only ended up facing live hitters twice before the regular season started and was never able to recover with the Padres, putting up a 5.71 ERA in 34.2 MLB innings. 

Then the Cubs came calling.

While the rest of Cubdom was understandably occupied on Trade Deadline Day celebrating the Nick Castellanos move, Theo Epstein's front office made a smaller move with the San Diego Padres. And Wieck wasn't even the central focus of that trade, as more of the emphasis was on the departure of Carl Edwards Jr. — a polarizing figure in the Cubs bullpen the last few seasons, including throughout the 2016 World Series run.

Yet Epstein's front office didn't treat Wieck like a throw-in. From Day 1 with the organization, the Cubs handled the southpaw more like a first-round draft pick.

Right after the trade, Wieck was immediately assigned to Triple-A Iowa, where he made a pair of appearances against the Tacoma Rainiers. From there, he was invited to Chicago to meet with the Cubs front office and throw a bullpen off the Wrigley Field mound.

"So I got here and they had a whole presentation of what my current curveball looked like and what they would like the shape of it to look like and so we just started messing around with grip," Wieck said. "I went to a spike curveball grip and we got in the lab and we started throwing it more and we came up with consistent break of what we thought was gonna be a better break than the curveball that I had.

"Just trial and error, honestly. We just looked at Rapsodo stuff and saw what spin efficiency is doing and spin rate and trying to get my curveball spin to replicate the exact opposite of my fastball. That's what our goal was."

That led to a trip to the "Pitch Lab" in Arizona where Wieck worked with Josh Zeid, the Cubs' pitching analyst, to continue to mess around with the new curveball grip and add a new, consistent weapon to his arsenal. 

If the term "spike curveball" sounds familiar, it should. It's become the unofficial pitch of the Cubs (you know, if organizations defined themselves by just one pitch). Rowan Wick — Wieck's former roommate in the Padres system — broke out as a trusted big-league reliever in large part because of the emergence of his spike curve. Craig Kimbrel throws one and also taught the pitch to Yu Darvish, who added it to the plethora of options already at his disposal. 

Wieck's time in Arizona was about getting comfortable with the new pitch and not worrying about facing hitters or pitching in a game. After a couple weeks in the desert, the Cubs threw him back out on the mound in Iowa, where he made four appearances before getting the call to the big leagues when rosters expanded in September. 

Right off the bat, we got a look at that spike curve and there is no doubt it can play at Wrigley Field, especially when the shadows roll in:

Just like that, a new weapon was born and Wieck developed more confidence in that reshaped curveball.

"I like that they're forcing me to throw it more because I've been a fastball-heavy pitcher my whole life," Wieck said. "I trust my fastball with my life. To have a catcher get back there and make you throw it, that's really good."

The Cubs' confidence in Wieck also grew as the month went on. He emerged alongside his buddy Wick as vital pieces of the late-season bullpen while Kimbrel and Brandon Kintzler dealt with injuries. It got to the point where Joe Maddon kept Wieck in to face the Cardinals' big boppers (Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna — both right-handed hitters) with a 1-run lead in the eighth inning on that final homestand. We all know how that game ended (Kimbrel served up homers on back-to-back pitches for another gut-wrenching Cubs loss), but Wieck did his job and proved he's far more than just a lefty specialist.

This fall was the first time Wieck had been a part of a playoff push and that outing against the Cardinals was only the 46th MLB appearance of his young career. Moving into 2020, the 28-year-old southpaw looks to be one of only a few arms penciled into the Cubs bullpen. 

The Cubs had their eyes on Wieck for a while before they were able to trade for him and they don't plan on rolling out a big presentation for each acquisition or ask every new arm to start throwing a brand new pitch or completely remake one of their existing pitches. This was a unique situation, but it's one that already paid dividends in a short period of time and could help set up the bullpen for the future. 

It's also another indicator that the "Pitch Lab" can work, as Wieck joins Wick and Kyle Ryan as products of the Cubs' new model they hope to fine-tune and grow. Epstein will hire a director of pitching for the organization this winter and the Cubs are hoping to change the narrative surrounding their shocking lack of pitching development under this front office. 

In Wieck's case, it was a group effort from the Cubs — the front office, research and development department, big-league coaching staff (led by pitching coach Tommy Hottovy), the pitching analytics unit based in Arizona and minor league pitching coordinator Brendan Sagara all teamed up to make it happen for the tall lefty in only a month's time.

It's a model the organization will attempt to duplicate moving forward, beginning this winter.