Cubs

How rotation strength/health tells the story of Cubs season so far

How rotation strength/health tells the story of Cubs season so far

The Cubs don’t believe in Billy Goat or black cats or Bartman or any of that other nonsense. But mention the remarkably good health of their starting pitchers and president of baseball operations Theo Epstein wants to tap the dugout railing at Wrigley Field: “Knock on wood.”

Epstein, once the Boston Red Sox curse-buster, is the architect of a team that has already won 97 games, slicing the magic number to clinch home-field advantage through the National League Championship Series down to two.

Sweeping the Cincinnati Reds with Wednesday night’s 9-2 victory won’t tell us much about the Cubs shaking off their post-clinch hangover and getting locked back in mentally and applying Joe Maddon’s hitting lessons. This week’s headline on FiveThirtyEight — Nate Silver’s numbers-driven website — summed it up: “The Reds’ Pitching Might Be The Worst Of All Time.”

Don’t focus so much on the gaudy run differential (plus-239) or the time-filling MVP/Cy Young Award debates or Maddon’s T-shirt gimmicks or David Ross’ clubhouse influence (which does have a real impact on this team). To understand this runaway season, know that the Cubs now have five pitchers who have accounted for at least 28 starts this season.

“That’s the lead story for me,” pitching coach Chris Bosio said, “because when you have that, you have success.”

John Lackey made it through another tune-up for the Big Boy Games, limiting the last-place Reds (63-89) to two runs across seven innings, giving the Cubs five starters with double-digit wins and ERAs between 2.06 and 3.56. There’s the NL’s defending Cy Young winner (Jake Arrieta) and two leading candidates for this year’s award (Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks). Jason Hammel is a 15-game winner who’s getting questions about auditioning for the playoffs.

“There’s more we don’t know about pitching health than we do know,” Epstein said. “So the things that we do know and that we can prove empirically — or that we have a strong intuition work — we try to put into practice from rookie ball up through the big leagues and hire the best trainers and best coaches and try to focus on a long-term perspective. The season is more important than any one inning or any one situation.

“So give a lot of credit to the guys in the trenches keeping our pitchers healthy. But, look, if we could replicate it every single year — that would be quite a trick. We’re going to try. But I think there’s some good fortune as well.

“Credit our pitchers, too, for doing their work. (We’re) trying to find guys with clean deliveries and good track records of health. We hope some of the things we do work. But we also know we certainly don’t have all the answers in that realm.”

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That integrated-system ideal hasn’t produced any elite pitching prospects or homegrown starters yet. But the Cubs experienced their 97-win breakthrough last year when Arrieta, Lester, Hammel and Hendricks each made between 31 and 33 starts, something that you wouldn’t have bet on happening again in 2016 after an exhausting run to the NLCS.

“It’s one thing at the end of the day I hang my hat on,” Bosio said. “It’s something I’m extremely proud of in my five years here with our horses, our core guys, whether it’s (Jeff) Samardzija and Hammel. (Or Matt) Garza, (Ryan) Dempster, (Scott) Feldman, (Paul) Maholm, all those guys.

“That means a lot to me. That’s my job. That’s how I’m going to be judged at the end of the day — the performance of our starting pitchers and our health. The same thing then goes for our bullpen.”

Restoring and flipping those rotation assets helped build the best team in baseball. Consistent starting pitching means the relievers have thrown the fewest innings in the majors and shouldn’t feel beaten-up by October. It helps explains why the Cubs lead the majors in defensive efficiency and haven’t had a losing streak longer than two games since the All-Star break.

The Cubs can only make educated guesses about why their starters haven’t broken down (yet), but this snapshot of a full-strength rotation fuels their World Series ambitions.

“When you got good mechanics, you’re going to have good results,” Bosio said. “Our guys are pretty mechanically sound. We worked extremely hard on that, because if you can’t locate the ball as a pitcher, then you can’t really follow a scouting report. If you can’t follow a scouting report, then we can’t set up the defense. So all these things coincide. It’s a fine-tuned machine.”

Cubs executive Jason McLeod reportedly linked to Giants' GM opening

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USA TODAY

Cubs executive Jason McLeod reportedly linked to Giants' GM opening

Is this the offseason that Cubs executive Jason McLeod finally becomes an MLB general manager?

According to Bruce Levine, the Giants are reportedly interested in McLeod, the Cubs senior vice president of scouting and player development, for their vacant general manager position.

McLeod joined the Cubs' front office in 2011 alongside Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer. Before the Cubs, he spent six years in the Red Sox front office and two in the Padres' (with Hoyer, who was San Diego's general manager from 2010-2011). 

Of course, the Giants' reported interest in McLeod doesn't necessarily mean that he will interview for the job. However, it's worth noting that McLeod interviewed for the Twins' general manager job in 2016; he also withdrew his name from consideration for the Padres' general manager job in 2014. 

In addition to the Giants, McLeod's name has been linked to the Mets' general manager vacancy. This is more speculation, but the point is that it seems to be only a matter of time before McLeod is hired as general manager elsewhere.

For what it's worth, though, McLeod is under contract through 2021 and has previously said that he is grateful to be with the Cubs. 

“I’m exceptionally grateful,” McLeod said. “All of us are. Look at where we are at this moment in time with this team," McLeod said in 2016. "I can’t imagine a better environment, a better culture to work at in baseball.

"We’ve been together a long time. We’re friends. We’re good. We embrace the fact that we are good. And we challenge ourselves to be even better.”

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.