Cubs: Making sense of the friction between Miguel Montero and Joe Maddon

Cubs: Making sense of the friction between Miguel Montero and Joe Maddon

MESA, Ariz. – "No," Miguel Montero said Wednesday morning, he didn't speak with Joe Maddon at Cubs Convention, directly contradicting what the manager said the day before during the welcome-to-spring-training press conference.  
That's Cub? A camp that's supposed to revolve around the themes of being "authentic" and "uncomfortable" – and "don't forget the heartbeat" – already has some interesting personality dynamics between the star manager and the $14 million backup catcher.
"We haven't talked," Montero said before pitchers and catchers ran through their first official workout at the Sloan Park complex. "But all I care about is my teammates right now. Other than that, I can care less about the rest, to be honest."
Maybe the 2017 season will be all blue skies and Arizona sunshine for the defending World Series champs and Maddon will be right in saying the media has overhyped this. But the obvious friction between Montero and Maddon misses a larger point about why a veteran player would go on WMVP-AM 1000 after the Grant Park championship rally and criticize the manager's communication skills, bullpen management and in-game decisions.
A professional athlete can't be misquoted on a radio station, but maybe there can be some room for misinterpretation. Whether these are simply internal tensions that drive every great team – or behind-the-scenes frustrations more specific to the methods in Maddon's madness – Montero didn't completely go rogue.
"It's not about me," Montero said. "That's what people probably misunderstood with my comments. It's not really about me. It's about my teammates. I care for them, man. And they know that. That's the beauty of it. They know that I stand (up) for them and I care for each individual in this room." 
Montero can be brutally honest, an old-school quality that stands out in a clubhouse filled with younger players who maintain polite relationships with reporters and cultivate their images on social media.

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"I have no problem" with Maddon, Montero said. "I'm here to do my job, simple as that. Whatever it is, I'm here to do my job. At the end of the day, I'm going to stick with my players, with my teammates. So whatever happens, I got their back."
Montero will always be a straight shooter with Willson Contreras, who cut into his playing time as a rookie last year and should be the everyday catcher in 2017 and beyond.   
"Why would I take it out on him?" Montero said. "It should be my fault that I didn't (do the job). That being said, I can't take anything for granted. I can probably help him get better. And it's going to make me feel pretty good about it when he (succeeds), because I was part of his development. 
"Willson's been fun to work with. He's got a lot of talent. He can be one of the best catchers in the big leagues. Obviously, he's still young, still got a lot to prove. But I don't see why he can't do it again even better."
The guess here is Montero might feel energized by not having to be part of Grandpa Rossy's yearlong retirement party. But he didn't roll with a softball question about helping fill a leadership void in the clubhouse.
"Not really," Montero said. "I'm not here to embrace David Ross' leadership (role) or whatever. I'm not here to replace David Ross' leadership or whatever. I'm here to be me and do whatever I think is the best to help my team to win." 
Maddon has taken the high road, pointing out how the Cubs won with Montero: blasting a pinch-hit grand slam against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series; helping Aroldis Chapman recover from an epic blown save and get through the ninth inning against the Cleveland Indians; driving in the winning run in a World Series Game 7.        
"I have nothing to clear the air about personally," Maddon said. "Like I've said before, at the end of last season, I know that he was not happy with the role that he had in the playoffs. However, like I said, we had discussed everything prior to that. So I am always open to discussions, but I honestly don't believe that he is all that upset about anything right now, either. 
"It's one of those things that I think sometimes gets over-made, overblown. I understand that it reads well. But at the end of the day, man, I have a lot of respect for him. He's a big part of what we're going to do again this year. And he was so large in our success at the end of last season. Listen, man, we do not win the ring without him."

Cubs free agent focus: Hyun-Jin Ryu

Cubs free agent focus: Hyun-Jin Ryu

With Hot Stove season underway, NBC Sports Chicago is taking a look at some of MLB’s top free agents and how they’d fit with the Cubs.

As the Cubs look to fill out their starting rotation, it’s extremely unlikely Gerrit Cole will be joining the North Siders via free agency.

Or Stephen Strasburg.

Or Madison Bumgarner.

As the top starters available, Cole, Strasburg and Bumgarner are set to receive lucrative contracts out of the Cubs’ price range. But if Theo Epstein and Co. are looking to acquire a top-of-the-rotation arm, left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu is a much more affordable option.

Ryu was one of the best starters in baseball last season, winning the National League ERA title (2.32) en route to being named a Cy Young Award finalist. He made 29 starts and tossed 182 2/3 innings, the second-best totals of his career.

The question with Ryu isn’t whether he’ll pitch well; he holds a career 2.98 ERA and 1.164 WHIP in 126 games (125 starts). The question each season is whether he’ll stay healthy.

Ryu missed all of 2015 after undergoing surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder. He returned in July 2016, making a single start before hitting the shelf with left elbow tendinitis. He underwent a debridement procedure — like Yu Darvish last offseason — in September 2016.

Granted, Ryu has largely remained healthy since 2017. He made 24 starts that season, missing a little time with contusions in his left hip and left foot. A right groin strain kept him out for two months in 2018, though he posted a dazzling 1.97 ERA in 15 starts.

Nonetheless, teams will be wary of what they offer Ryu this offseason. The last thing you want is to sign a pitcher in his mid-30s to a long-term deal, only for him to go down with a serious arm issue. Ryu hasn't had any serious arm issues since 2016, but any injury concern is valid for the soon-to-be 33-year-old.

All negatives aside, there’s a lot to like about Ryu. He excels at inducing soft contact and ranked in the top four percent in baseball last season in average exit velocity-against (85.3 mph). Ryu doesn’t walk many batters (3.3 percent walk rate in 2019; 5.4 percent career) and strikes out a solid number (22.5 percent rate in 2019; 22 percent career).

Signing Ryu would give the Cubs three lefty starters, but that’s been the case since mid-2018, when they acquired Cole Hamels (who recently signed with the Braves). The rotation would have more certainty moving forward, too, as Jose Quintana will hit free agency next offseason. Jon Lester could as well, though he has a vesting option for 2022 if he tosses 200 innings next season.

The Cubs hope young arms Adbert Alzolay and top prospect Brailyn Marquez will contribute in the rotation for years to come. Alzolay may be on an innings limit next season and Marquez is at least a season away from making his MLB debut.

The Cubs have a rotation opening now and need to bridge the gap to their young arms for the next few seasons. Every free agent comes with question marks, and Ryu is no exception, but he is a frontline starter when healthy. He’d be a solid addition to the Cubs staff, and it won't take as big of a deal to sign him as others.

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Cubs free agent focus: Will Harris

Cubs free agent focus: Will Harris

With Hot Stove season underway, NBC Sports Chicago is taking a look at some of MLB’s top free agents and how they’d fit with the Cubs.

The Cubs are looking for bullpen help this offseason. Enter Astros free agent right-hander Will Harris.

Harris has quietly been one of the game’s best relievers since 2015. In 309 games (297 innings), the 35-year-old holds a 2.36 ERA and 0.987 WHIP. Over that same period, his ERA ranks third among relievers with at least 250 innings pitched, trailing Zack Britton (1.89) and Aroldis Chapman (2.16).

2019 was one of Harris' finest seasons yet, as he posted a pristine 1.50 ERA and 0.933 WHIP in 68 appearances. Of the 60 innings he pitched last season, 49 2/3 of them came in innings 7-9, an area the Cubs bullpen needs the most help.

Cubs relievers posted a 3.98 ERA last season (No. 8 in MLB), but that number is deceiving. The bullpen was OK in low and medium-leverage spots — as defined by FanGraphs — posting a 3.19 ERA (tied for No. 2 in MLB). But in high leverage spots, they sported a woeful 7.92 ERA (No. 24 in MLB) and a 15.4 percent walk rate (tied for last in MLB).

"It was a real interesting year in the 'pen," Cubs president Theo Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference. "Our inability to pitch in high-leverage situations was a clear problem and was a contributing factor — we had the third-worst record in all of baseball behind just the Tigers and Orioles in combined 1 and 2-run games.

"Our inability to pitch in high-leverage moments kind of haunted us throughout the year, and that’s something that I have to do a better job of finding options for."

Those walks often spelled doom for the Cubs. Fans remember all too well the three-straight free passes Steve Cishek handed out on Sept. 10 against the Padres, the final of which was a walk-off (literally). David Phelps and Cishek combined to walk three-straight Cardinals on Sept. 20, two of whom came around to score. The Cubs lost that game 2-1; there are plenty more similar instances.

Harris, meanwhile, walked 14 batters (6.1 percent walk rate) in 2019 — 15 if you count the one he allowed in 12 postseason appearances. His career walk rate is 6.2 percent.

Four Cubs late-inning relievers are free agent this winter in Cishek, Brandon Kintzler, Brandon Morrow and Pedro Strop. Cishek and Kintzler had solid 2019 seasons, while Strop had his worst season as a Cub. Morrow hasn’t pitched since July 2018, but he and the Cubs are working on a minor league deal, according to WSCR’s Bruce Levine. Strop has expressed his desire to return next season.

Harris regressing in 2020 is a concern. Relievers are the most volatile players in baseball, and Harris could see his performance sag in 2020 after pitching an extra month last season. Teams will have to trust his track record and assume a regression isn't forthcoming.

But assuming Cishek, Kintzler, Morrow and Strop all won’t return in 2020, the Cubs have a couple late-inning relief vacancies. Harris is one of the better available options, and he’d help the Cubs cut down on the walks dished out by their bullpen.

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