Cubs

How Justin Grimm could be X-factor in Cubs bullpen

How Justin Grimm could be X-factor in Cubs bullpen

Justin Grimm doesn't care what role he's in anymore, a sign of growth from the past few years when he still held out hope of getting a chance to become a starter again or a more glamorous late-inning role if he had to be in the Cubs bullpen.
 
Grimm is now just focused on taking that next step forward, however he can.
 
"I know my talent. I know what I'm capable of doing," Grimm said. "I'm in a really good spot this spring mentally, physically. I feel good and that's all I'm concerned with right now.
 
"Just being ready to go April 1. Whatever's asked of me, not getting caught up in, 'Aw man, I don't have this role.' I really think that's hurt me in the past. And I think that's why you see me probably excel in games that are tight, because I embrace that. You know they're confident in you to come in, shut it down, whatever it may be."
 
Grimm is focused on consistency, eyeing a full season of dominance instead of flashes that last a month or two at a time.
 
From June 27 through Sept. 13 last season, Grimm gave up just one run in 22.2 innings, striking out 30 batters while allowing only 20 baserunners. Yet even with that spectacular run, Grimm's season ERA was still 4.10 after a bad June overall (10.38 ERA) and five earned runs allowed in his last five appearances.
 
Grimm acknowledges that step forward has to come from between his ears. The talent and stuff is there, as evidenced by his 132 strikeouts in 102.1 innings the last two seasons — a mark that ranks him 12th in baseball in that span (among pitchers with at least 100 innings), just behind dominant relievers like Cody Allen, Ken Giles and Shawn Kelley.
 
"It's just a mental confidence thing," Grimm said. "It's not even necessarily getting caught up in [the role]. You come into a seven-run game, you get a little comfortable.
 
"It's finding ways not to do that. Like, 'OK, well it's 0-0 right now, even though we're winning by eight.' And I feel like that's going to happen a lot this year because we got an offense that's going to put up a lot of runs.
 
"How to handle that and stay locked in, I think it's just having a chip on my shoulder. All the guys are getting all the talk and I like it that way. I'm just in the shadows, doing my job and staying locked in. And I think it's going to help out a lot."
 
Grimm’s self-awareness is on point: With a bullpen that added Wade Davis and Koji Uehara to a group that already included Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop and Carl Edwards Jr., Grimm is something of a forgotten man.

[PODCAST: The evolution of the Cubs bullpen]
 
Only Rondon and Strop have predated Grimm in the Cubs bullpen and the 28-year-old right-hander has posted a 3.29 ERA across 213 appearances over the last four seasons. This year figures to be more of the same, settling into that "mid-innings closer" role Joe Maddon talked up last year with Grimm and Travis Wood.
 
"He fits in everywhere. Probably earlier in the game, he'll be a great bridge guy," Maddon said. "I've always liked the middle-innings closers. They're the kind of guys that help win games.
 
"All our guys are capable to pitch at almost any time. There's going to be some guys that are probably relegated more to earlier in the game and [Grimm] probably will be one of them, unless we get on a nice roll and everybody's a little bit overused.
 
"But I'm here to tell you, man, when he's throwing the ball right, he can get anybody out and he's very good against lefties."
 
When the Cubs sent Jorge Soler to the Kansas City Royals for Davis over the winter, Grimm was immediately drawn to baseball's ERA leader over the last three seasons. In Davis, Grimm sees a guy who's gone through the starter-to-reliever transition and morphed into one of the top arms in the game. Grimm spent a lot of time around Davis this spring, grabbing the veteran to break down Grimm's game in the video room.
 
"I just looked at him like, 'Wade, it's there. I just gotta find a way to consistently do that for six months, not five months, and have one month where I implode,'" Grimm said.
 
"He's been there. He knows. I look to learn a lot this year from him. It's cool to have a guy like that around. I was saying two years ago when Kansas City came to Wrigley, I would just love to sit down and talk with that guy. When we [traded for] him, I was pumped. 
 
"It's time to learn something from him. Everybody's different, so you can't really try to be like that guy, per se. You just gotta find little things that might work for you, that might change a little bit and help you out. That was the majority of our convo. I literally felt like I was reliving my career listening to him. It was pretty cool."
 
Now it's just a matter of carrying it all over into the games that matter.
 
"I'm not worried about what the hell my role's gonna be," Grimm said. "It's here; it's right now. I know what I'm capable of doing. It's just as much as anybody in this room."

How Tommy Hottovy became a 'resource' for Cubs during COVID-19 pandemic

How Tommy Hottovy became a 'resource' for Cubs during COVID-19 pandemic

At the height of Tommy Hottovy’s illness, Cubs manager David Ross had to take over the pitching coach’s duties on his regular video conference with pitchers.

“When he spoke, he couldn’t get two words out without coughing,” Ross recalled Friday, before the Cubs’ first day of Summer Camp.

Hottovy, 38, battled the novel coronavirus for a month, while baseball was still on hold due to the pandemic. He finally got his first negative test back a few weeks ago. Hottovy was upfront about his condition with the pitchers, and on Friday Ross said he wanted Hottovy to speak in a team meeting.

“Just because he is such a powerful resource,” Ross said. “… He’ll be a god guy to go to if guys have questions.”

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Hottovy’s story includes a fever that kept him awake from midnight to 6am every night, viral pneumonia that required breathing treatments, a trip to the hospital that he packed a bag for in case he had to spend the night.

Hottovy was isolated from his family for a month, sequestered to a spare bedroom their house, and he still felt guilty for putting them at risk. Those precautions kept his wife and two young children from contracting the virus from him.

“It’s very scary, and it’s awesome for him to share his story with us,” Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “There’s a lot of people unfortunately who have gotten this and were not able to tell their story, were not able to see their families for one last time. And it’s unfortunate. You can’t take days for granted.”

Utility man Ian Happ stayed in Arizona after MLB shut down Spring training in March. He lived with Cubs reliver Dakota Mekkes during that time.

“Dakota would be on the pitchers calls,” Happ said, “so you kind of got to walk the journey with Tommy a little bit and check in on him as he was going through it. And I think his experience, his story, it’s incredible. Not testing negative for 30 days and the impact that had on his family and everyone around him, I think it really puts it into perspective.

“It tells guys how serious this is and how cautious we need to be. Not just for ourselves, but for our teammates, their families and for everybody who’s working hard to be here for us.”

As far as COVID-19 testing goes, the Cubs opened Summer Camp on an encouraging note. League protocol restricts Ross from saying if any Cubs have tested positive, but he did say he expected all players who were scheduled to report Friday would be in camp. Two staff members did recently test positive at home and were expected to miss the beginning of camp, general manager Jed Hoyer announced earlier this week.

League-wide, only 1.2 percent of players and staff members tested positive for COVID-19 during the first week of intake screening, including 31 players. The league’s 101-page 2020 Operations Manual is designed to keep that number low. But the health and safety protocols are only as good as the clubs’ compliance.

“Every single person in the organization,” Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said, “every player, ever staff member, everyone in uniform, out of uniform, we all have to make great decisions, exercise great disciple, hold each other accountable, collaborate, go into it with an open mind and exercise real personal and collective responsibility.”

If that message wasn’t already clear, Hottovy’s experience put it into sharp focus.

 

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How Cubs open training camp in position of strength? Let them count the ways

How Cubs open training camp in position of strength? Let them count the ways

As the Cubs on Friday opened their second shot at a first impression this season, they were at full strength — minus one dishwashing mishap. And to hear the manager talk, they might be ready to play games as quickly as anyone in baseball.

Manager David Ross, who let the news slip during a Zoom session with reporters that all the Cubs players tested negative for COVID-19 during intake screening, already has his replacement pool in place for starter Jose Quintana (badly cut thumb/dishwashing), plans the team’s first intrasquad game Saturday and would seem to have very few job battles open in this three-week training camp.

“Thankfully, we’ve had a group that stayed ready,” Ross said, “and taking live batting practice, and [pitchers] have been throwing live bullpens and followed the protocols that our coaches have set out. 

“All of them look like they’re in phenomenal shape.”

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Spoken like every manager on every first day of spring training. Except it was July, in Chicago, with three anxious weeks between now and the scheduled openers of a 60-game sprint of a would-be baseball season.

So, strap on the mask. Snap on the latex gloves.

And count the Cubs’ blessings as things open up:

— Aside from left-hander Quintana, the fourth starter whose season is in doubt as the Cubs await the progress in a few weeks of the surgically repaired nerve in his thumb, the Cubs expect to have everybody else scheduled to be in camp available for workouts, Ross said. This while teams such as the Phillies (four COVID-19 cases) and the Angels (nine inactive for undisclosed reasons) deal with more severe roster losses from the outset.

—Even Quintana’s loss has already, presumably, been replaced by sixth-man Alec Mills — whom Ross has “a ton of confidence in” — with right-handers Colin Rea, Adbert Alzolay and Jharel Cotton in the wings as rotation depth and candidates to fill Mills’ swingman/long role in the bullpen.

“We’ve gotten a lot of good reports back from the work that Colin Rea’s put in,” Ross said. “Jharel Cotton is a huge pickup, especially in this shortened season — and not having a lot of innings under his belt the last couple of years. And he feels really good and has stayed sharp. So, we’ve got some good options to fill that void internally that I have extreme confidence in.”

As for looking for outside help with Quintana down, Ross called that a “wait and see” proposition for front office bosses Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer. “Jed and Theo are working hard on all areas of that.”

—Did somebody say job battles? When last they trod the diamond in March, the Cubs essentially had only a few bullpen spots, the center field mix (Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ or a combination of both) and second base (Jason Kipnis and/or Nico Hoerner) to figure out. But with a 30-man roster to start the short season, all four of those position players should not only be on the roster but also be in position to play significant roles. And the additional spots for pitchers figures to make some of the bullpen calls less fraught.

“We’ve got a little more leeway for some [roster] expansion,” Ross said. “But those pieces are going to be important, and they’re going to have value when they are on this team. So, you’ve still got to look at them through the same lens in putting the best group that you can together.”

—Did somebody say they’ve got to get a look at guys in competitive situations? Ross said enough pitchers have stayed on top of their throwing programs that his starters are ready to throw three innings out of the chute. Consequently, intrasquad games start Saturday, though Ross is ready to employ pitch limits and hamstring-forgiving guidelines for base running the first several days.

Still, as past Cubs managers have often learned the hard way, Ross seems to understand this will be no push-button operation, especially under these trying circumstances over these next few one-day-at-a-time weeks.

“It’s not something we can map out and say this is how we’re going to run things,” Ross said. “We’re going to take feedback from the players and when we can push them a little bit harder, we’re going to push them, and when we feel like we’ve got to back off, we’ll slow things down a little bit.

“Everything we’re having to do now is unique.”

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