Cubs: Miguel Montero breaks it down after loss to Diamondbacks


Cubs: Miguel Montero breaks it down after loss to Diamondbacks

PHOENIX – Miguel Montero stood at his locker inside Chase Field’s visiting clubhouse late Friday night and broke it down for reporters.

The Cubs had just lost a 5-4 game to the Arizona Diamondbacks that lasted 13 innings but pivoted in the 10th, with closer Hector Rondon one strike away from ending it when Paul Goldschmidt blasted the game-tying, two-run homer.

“It was not really a good pitch,” Montero said afterward. “Especially (with) Goldy, you really have to make pitches. He’s a good hitter, a professional hitter, so you can’t let that guy beat you like that with a fastball middle-middle.

“Other than that, I would say the pitch before is the one that got us in trouble, the double (by) A.J. Pollock. I mean, you got him with two strikes and then you throw a breaking ball. It’s got to be a better pitch than that.

“It was middle-middle, too. (Pollock) just protected himself and he just threw the bat out there and he hit the ball down the line.”

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Montero didn’t know English when he signed with the Diamondbacks as a teenager out of Venezuela. But by the end of his rookie-ball season in Missoula, Montana, he had picked up enough of the language to become a translator for teammates.

That didn’t mean Montero understood everything in 2002. But he wasn’t afraid of asking questions or making mistakes or somebody laughing at him. He’s also just naturally talkative.

As manager Joe Maddon said: “He’s not afraid to voice his opinion.”

So while Montero probably had a few ideas about the three-catcher experiment, he made sure to talk with Welington Castillo after this week’s trade with the Seattle Mariners and say good luck.

“Obviously, it was tough,” Montero said. “I tried to handle it as best as possible. I’m trying to be the best teammate as possible around here. But at the same time, as a player, you want to be (in your rhythm).

“You try to be as professional as you can. And when you’re in there, you’re trying to help them win, regardless. Right now, you got to adapt again.”

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David Ross is still Jon Lester’s personal catcher. So when the Diamondbacks awkwardly flashed a “Welcome Back” message on Chase Field’s video board during Friday’s game, Montero had just finished catching warm-up pitches from Lester in between innings.

If Montero could write out the lineup, he would probably want to be in there 162 times this year. Baseball allowed him to have a dream house in nearby Paradise Valley, so he believes you should respect the game and play hard all the time.

Montero, who will turn 32 this summer, earned two All-Star selections with the Diamondbacks and became the only major-league catcher to account for 1,000-plus innings in each of the last four seasons.

The Cubs hope some extra rest will help prevent Montero from feeling the same second-half fade as last season (.596 .OPS, or 164 points lower than what he put up before the All-Star break).

“He’s not 21 years old anymore,” Maddon said. “(Don’t) run him into the ground, he’s going to play a lot better.”

Montero is hitting .280 with four homers and 15 RBI through 34 games. He’s getting on base around 40 percent of the time and putting up an .852 OPS.

“This is baseball,” Montero said. “It comes and goes sometimes. I’ve been feeling pretty good hitting-wise. There’s going to be that period of time where you’re going to stink.

“You just got to go through that and try to get out of it as soon as possible. But it’s part of the game. You have ups and downs.” 

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Rondon is going through that now after his third blown save. The Cubs absorbed the three years and $40 million left on Montero’s contract because they wanted his presence.

Montero had already approached Rondon on Wednesday night at Petco Park, going to the mound to talk to the closer after he gave up a leadoff single in the ninth inning of an eventual 3-2 win over the San Diego Padres.

“What I’ve been seeing is when he gets runners on, the game speeds up (and gets) too fast for him,” Montero said. “So that’s what I was telling him: Hey, you know what, that’s when you got to slow the game down. That’s when you got to step out of the box, step off the mound and take your breather.

“Slow everything down. Because (his) heart rate – he was just flying right there. (He) really doesn’t want to let that run score. He just tries to do too much. And that’s when I say: Back it off. Try to make a good pitch rather than a nasty pitch.

“After the game, I told him: You need to slow yourself down, because when you don’t have anybody on base, you can see the quality of the pitches. When you got runners on base, you start flying open, you start missing – by far – the strike zone. So that’s when you got to slow down and just concentrate on making good, quality pitches.”   

The Cubs hope the message sinks in this time.

Cubs add two more managerial interviews this week

Cubs add two more managerial interviews this week

Though not every managerial candidate wants the Cubs job, Theo Epstein's front office will add two more interviews to their docket this week.

Carlos Beltran reportedly does not want to take the Cubs gig and is holding out only for the Mets opening. However, the Cubs are moving on and will interview Astros bench coach Joe Espada and former Phillies manager Gabe Kapler this week. 

Espada has been a rumored target of the Cubs, but he has been understandably tied up with Houston's playoff run. The Astros have a day off Monday before continuing their ALCS battle with the Yankees, and Espada is reportedly at Wrigley to meet with Epstein and Jed Hoyer:

Espada, 44, is one of the hottest names on the managerial market this fall and has served as A.J. Hinch's bench coach in Houston for the last two seasons. He has also worked as a minor-league coach and third-base coach for the Marlins, spent a year as a special assistant to Yankees GM Brian Cashman and another three seasons as the Yankees infield/third-base coach.

Kapler, 44, was just fired from his post as Phillies manager last week after two disappointing seasons in Philadelphia. In his first gig as manager, the former MLB player went 161-163, including just 81-81 this season with a roster that added Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto and Jean Segura before the year. 

The Cubs have already interviewed four candidates, with current bench coach Mark Loretta going first in early October. Last week, David Ross, Joe Girardi and Will Venable also met with Epstein and Hoyer. 

In his end-of-season presser, Epstein said the Cubs are "full speed ahead" with their search for a new field general. Among other qualities, the Cubs front office is looking for a manager who can cultivate a winning culture and find a way to ensure the whole is greater than the sum of the parts — an issue that plagued the team the last couple seasons (though that's not necessarily Joe Maddon's fault).

"The next manager will be a success if he can find a way to get the most out of each player," Epstein said. "That’s an obvious goal, but we want to make sure that the players we have, we’re reaching them, we’re developing them, we’re providing an environment where they can continue to grow and thrive. If we have players that are gonna be successful major-league players, we have to find a way to make it here. 

"I think that’s really important. That’s an organization-wide challenge, not just on the manager. The next manager, that’s going to be an important part of his responsibility."

The underlying numbers tell the true story of the 2019 Cubs bullpen


The underlying numbers tell the true story of the 2019 Cubs bullpen

Like their season as a whole, the Cubs bullpen was quite the enigma in 2019.

This season, Cubs relievers posted a 3.98 ERA (No. 8 in MLB) and a .234 batting average against (No. 6 in MLB). On a surface level, that appears good.

But those numbers lose value when paired with what the Cubs bullpen did in high leverage situations: 7.92 ERA (No. 24 in MLB), 15 home runs allowed (tied for No. 22), 61 walks (No. 29) and a .380 on-base percentage (No. 27). The bullpen also blew 28 saves (sixth-most in MLB) and converted just 57.58 percent of their opportunities (No. 22 in MLB).

Essentially, Cubs relievers weren't good enough when it mattered most in 2019. As a result, Theo Epstein and Co. know that they must address the relief corps during the offseason, one where they’re open-minded about changing up the roster..

“It was a real interesting year in the pen,” 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 [to the Cubs missing the postseason].

“We had the third-worst record in all of baseball behind just the Tigers and Orioles in combined one and two 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.”

Signing closer Craig Kimbrel was supposed to alleviate some of the early-season bullpen woes, but he also struggled, finishing the season with a 6.53 ERA in 23 appearances. He'll be back in 2020, and Epstein believes a full spring training will go a long way for his closer.

Where does the rest of the bullpen stand heading into 2020, though?

Brandon Kintzler proved his value to the Cubs in 2019, but he’s set to hit free agency after the postseason. Steve Cishek and Pedro Strop have been two of the team's more reliable relievers in recent seasons, but they also will hit free agency.

The Cubs are unlikely to pick up their team options for Tony Barnette ($3 million) and Derek Holland ($6.5 million), while David Phelps’ $5 million option could be too costly. Phelps can start or pitch in relief, but so can Alec Mills and Adbert Alzolay.

Tyler Chatwood, Mills and Alzolay could find themselves competing for a Cubs starting rotation spot, but they’re also bullpen candidates. Dillon Maples and James Norwood will likely be given a look, as will Danny Hultzen. However, Hultzen (and Duane Underwood Jr.) are out of minor league options, meaning the Cubs could lose them via waivers if they don’t make the 2020 Opening Day roster.

Right now, only Kimbrel, Kyle Ryan, Rowan Wick and Brad Wieck are locks to start the 2020 season in the Cubs bullpen. And while Epstein said he needs to do a better job finding relief options, he deserves credit for unearthing the latter three.

After an impressive 2018 season with Triple-A Iowa, the Cubs signed Ryan to a big-league deal last November. And, despite not making the roster out of spring training, he played a big role with the Cubs in 2019.

Not only did Ryan finish the season with a 3.54 ERA (2.13 vs. lefties), but he made a team-high 73 appearances. His emergence made World Series hero Mike Montgomery – whom the Cubs traded to the Royals in July – expendable (though so did the latter’s struggles as a reliever).

The Cubs acquired Wick (Nov. 20, 2018) and Wieck (July 31, 2019) in separate deals with the Padres, and both players have benefitted from working with the Cubs’ “Pitch Lab.” 

Wick finished the season with a 2.43 ERA in 31 outings, striking out 35 batters in 33 1/3 innings. His fastball velocity averaged 95.8 mph in 2019, playing well off of his curveball, which had a 34.1 percent strikeout rate.

At 6-foot-9, Wieck is an intimidating presence on the mound (as a lefty, nonetheless). His fastball velocity averaged 93.7 mph in 2019, while the pitch lab helped him add more vertical break to his curveball:

(Baseball Savant)

In short, Ryan, Wick and Wieck came out of relatively nowhere, though each offer the Cubs something that the team needs. Ryan pitches well against left-handed hitters; Wick and Wieck have high velocity and generate swings and misses.

Ryan is arbitration eligible for the first time this winter, while Wick and Wieck are still under team control. Therefore, they won’t cost the Cubs a lot to retain, which means more money is available to add other bullpen pieces.

The Cubs have more needs than relief pitching, including center field, second base, a leadoff hitter and starting pitching depth. Therefore, they may need Epstein to work his magic again and unearth another low-key pitcher or two with high potential.

Epstein admitted that the solid ‘pen numbers mean less when paired with the high leverage woes, but he also expressed optimism for how the group performed, especially the under the radar guys.

“…I think it shows the talent level that’s there and [it’s] encouraging as well,” Epstein said, “because a lot of those contributions came from some under the radar pitchers, guys who were up through the organization or acquired in small deals, who I think made real important adjustments and showed that they can compete and potentially dominate at the big-league level.

“We’ve seen more of that. We need to keep unearthing pitchers who we acquire for the right reasons, we work well with and have the physical and mental wherewithal to go out and miss a lot of bats, which is something we didn’t do a lot of — although we did increasingly in the second half with this pitching group — and find more guys who can go out and pitch in high-leverage spots."

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