Cubs won't let up against Cardinals in potential playoff preview

Cubs won't let up against Cardinals in potential playoff preview

The Cubs won’t put any Cactus League lineups out there against the St. Louis Cardinals this weekend or script out every inning at Wrigley Field for their bullpen.

The Cubs will still have something to play for on Friday — the National League’s No. 1 seed — plus the adrenaline rush from 40,000 fans, the national-TV spotlight on Saturday afternoon (Fox) and Sunday night (ESPN) and the chance to help block their biggest rival from making the postseason.

“It has that kind of potential,” manager Joe Maddon admitted. “But from my perspective, it’s our responsibility to play those games straight up.”

Even with Wednesday afternoon’s ugly 11-1 loss at Coors Field, the Cardinals have so far survived the first two legs of what could be a make-or-break road trip, splitting four games against the San Francisco Giants and taking a series from the Colorado Rockies.

That left the Cardinals (80-72) tied with the New York Mets (80-72) in the second wild-card position, with the Giants a half-game up heading into Wednesday night’s game at Dodger Stadium and what should be a head-spinning finish to this three-team race.

“We haven’t let up at all,” said Jon Lester (18-4, 2.36 ERA), who will start opposite Carlos Martinez (15-8, 3.16 ERA) on “Sunday Night Baseball.” “I feel like every team has something to play for when they play us.

“Every team is trying to be little thorns in our side, make us work and make us grind for our wins. It’s always interesting when you add the Cardinals into the mix. They’re playing for their wild-card spot and a chance to get to the postseason, so I’m sure they’ll definitely bring their A-game.”

The Cubs will use next week to experiment with their late-inning formulas — Tuesday will be Bullpen Night at PNC Park — and rotate their position players against the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds with the idea of keeping them fresh for October.

“With all respect to everybody, you got to play these next three games right,” Maddon said. “Not that I don’t trust our other guys, but industry-wide you just want to be able to do that. Plus, we have a day off (on Thursday that) permits us to feel better about the guys getting that rest.

“I’ve been on both sides of it. When you’re on that other side, you definitely want to make sure that the teams that are in contention are playing against the other teams’ (perceived) best.”

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If the Cardinals can survive and advance without feeling the burnout, they could become a dangerous opponent in a best-of-five series.

St. Louis has a powerful lineup, setting an NL record with eight players with at least 15 home runs this season. Seung Hwan Oh (18 saves, 1.79 ERA) is the kind of lights-out closer the Giants desperately need.

Alex Reyes — Baseball America’s No. 7 overall prospect entering this season — is an X-factor. On Saturday, the Cubs will get another look at Reyes, who beat them last week at Busch Stadium by throwing 4 1/3 scoreless innings out of the bullpen, giving up one hit and six walks, flashing his age-22 unpredictability.

“You can’t sleep on the Cardinals,” catcher Miguel Montero said. “You know they’re a good team. They got a lot of history in the playoffs.”

The Cardinals still have their issues. Adam Wainwright (12-9, 4.57 ERA) hasn’t pitched like an ace, and Mike Leake (9-10, 4.54 ERA) hasn’t lived up to his five-year, $80 million contract. Matt Holliday hasn’t played since Aug. 11, when Cubs lefty Mike Montgomery broke his right thumb with a 94-mph fastball. A franchise known for its fundamentals now ranks 25th in the majors in defensive efficiency.

But St. Louis has already split 16 games with the Cubs and would be playing with house money against the best team in baseball in October.

“To be honest, I haven’t (been paying attention to the wild-card standings),” Lester said. “We have a lot going on here. I try to stay in our own little corner, our own little world. Especially with where we’re at, we don’t have anybody at our heels or anything.

“The biggest thing for us is kind of focusing on us. Whoever our opponent is come first round, we’ll be ready to go and prepared. If it is the Cardinals, great, we’ve seen them a lot. We know what they have. If it’s somebody else, we’ll study and we’ll prepare.”

The Cubs could help shove the Cardinals into a long offseason — or give new life to a playoff-tested team that won’t be intimidated by the idea of coming back into Wrigleyville.

“The intensity will be there,” MVP candidate Kris Bryant said. “Any time we play them, it’s a fun series. We get a lot of the Cardinals fans down here. We want to play everybody tough. Certainly, they’re in a playoff hunt, too, so we’re going to do our best to do what we do — go out there and try to win every game.”

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.