Cubs will see what they’re made of against Nationals


Cubs will see what they’re made of against Nationals

PHOENIX – Men vs. Boys.

That’s how Dale Sveum summed up the four-game beatdown the Cubs got from the Washington Nationals in D.C. in September 2012, when there appeared to be no light at the end of the tunnel.

The Plan won’t be something so far off in the distance when the Cubs return to Wrigley Field on Memorial Day as a wild-card leader, even after Sunday’s 4-3 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field.

The Cubs didn’t clean up during this 3-3 road trip through San Diego and Phoenix. It again exposed the defense (eight errors). It led to questions about closer Hector Rondon and a shaky bullpen. It saw the end of an 0-for-31 streak while hitting with runners in scoring position. All these issues won’t disappear overnight.

[MORE: The friendly rivalry between Kris Bryant and Bryce Harper]

But the buzz is still building. The national TV networks want a piece of the Cubs again. Sports Illustrated already did a feature on Kris Bryant. Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” star Jeff Garlin have been hanging around the team.

Now the Cubs can see how good they really are during this six-game homestand. The Nationals – a World Series team on paper – are coming to the North Side. The Kansas City Royals – the defending American League champs – will be the second act.

“Bring it on,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I’m sure the place will be raucous.”

[MORE: Maddon thinks Kyle Schwarber could help Cubs this year]

Sveum, the ex-manager, will be there with the Royals as their hitting coach, and he must be wondering about the type of job he could have done in Wrigleyville with $155 million lefty Jon Lester fronting the rotation and All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo maturing into an MVP candidate.

Even Maddon admits a lot of the heavy lifting had been done before he left the Tampa Bay Rays, signed a five-year, $25 million contract and offered to buy everyone at The Cubby Bear a shot and a beer. The Cubs are 24-19 on Memorial Day weekend and you probably would have taken that back in spring training.

“We’ve been aware that we have a tough schedule coming up,” pitcher Jake Arrieta said. “But I think we approach games with equal importance, regardless of who the opponent is, because we know that at the end of the day, every one counts. We’ve seen several times how seasons can come down to that final four or five days determining who gets in and who’s going home.

“But it’s kind of a measuring stick with a team like Washington. Kansas City has continued to grow and get better as a team. It’s going to be an exciting couple series at home for us. We know what we have to do to win, and we’ll be ready.”

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

A young lineup that leads the majors in strikeouts will have to face Washington’s nasty rotation – Tanner Roark, Jordan Zimmermann, Max Scherzer – before dealing with Kansas City’s nightmare bullpen.

“This will be a good test for us,” Bryant said. “It should be fun. It’s always good to see how you fare against the top guys in the league. I’m excited for the challenge and look forward to it.”

The Nationals notched 96 victories last season and then signed Scherzer, a Cy Young Award winner, to a seven-year, $210 million megadeal. Washington general manager Mike Rizzo, a Chicago guy, reshaped the franchise through the top of the draft, gutsy trades and targeted free-agent signings.

The Cubs are running a few years behind the Nationals in their rebuild, but that’s essentially how the Theo Epstein administration is trying to construct a sustainable 90-game winner at Clark and Addison.

“I always like playing good teams,” Maddon said. “I always believe that’s going to bring out the best in your team. That’s the part I’ve always enjoyed about playing good teams. And I also think with young teams that are getting better, they need to see that kind of competition to really get to that level you’re looking for them to get to.”

This week we’ll see just how close – or far away – the Cubs are from being real contenders.

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


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.