If this is it at trade deadline, Cubs believe they have enough to win World Series

If this is it at trade deadline, Cubs believe they have enough to win World Series

With less than 24 hours to go until Monday’s non-waiver trade deadline, manager Joe Maddon expected the Cubs to be quiet this time.

“There’s nothing going on, as far as I know,” Maddon said before Sunday night’s 7-6, 12-inning, walk-off win over the Seattle Mariners. “Nothing. Nothing. Crickets.”

That wouldn’t have gone over well while sections of Wrigley Field booed spot starter Brian Matusz, and might not have initially registered with the casual fans tuning into ESPN to see baseball’s biggest story. Theo Epstein’s front office also won’t be content with the lineup simply because the Cubs came back from a 6-0 deficit and Seattle closer Steve Cishek blew a three-run, ninth-inning lead. 

But the Cubs have a roster that keeps coming at you in waves and a manager who enjoys controlled chaos. This one ended while John Lackey, Wednesday’s scheduled starter, warmed up in the bullpen after seven different relievers combined to throw nine scoreless innings. It took Jason Heyward leading off the 12th inning with a line-drive double, hustling to third base on a Willson Contreras flyball, sprinting home on Jon Lester’s two-strike bunt and sliding headfirst to score the game-winning run.

The Cubs might have already made their biggest move this summer, stomaching Aroldis Chapman’s off-the-field baggage and acquiring the 105-mph closer last week from the New York Yankees.

So is this team good enough – as is – to win a championship? Ask the $155 million pitcher with two World Series rings and now his first career walk-off RBI.

“Yeah, I think so,” Lester said. “Any addition that they can give us is a bonus, (but) there are always other things involved – money, prospects, all that other stuff. We realize that if you just make that (Chapman trade), we still feel that we’re good enough to get where we want to go. Now it’s a matter of us doing it and staying healthy and playing.”

“Expect the unexpected” is also how general manager Jed Hoyer framed this trade deadline. The mighty Yankees became sellers for the first time in a generation, sending an All-Star reliever (Andrew Miller) to the Cleveland Indians on Sunday in another 4-for-1 deal. 

While the small-market Indians – a cautious organization known for slow playing and using trade negotiations to gather better intelligence on their own farm system – also had an agreement in place with the Milwaukee Brewers to acquire Jonathan Lucroy. At least until the All-Star catcher used his no-trade protection to veto that deal.

The Cubs felt enough of a roster crunch over the weekend to send a valuable bench player (Tommy La Stella) and a trusted reliever during last year’s playoff run (Justin Grimm) down to Triple-A Iowa, where Trevor Cahill (knee) is stretching out on a rehab assignment and Albert Almora Jr. is itching for another promotion and the chance to become the 2017 Opening Day center fielder. Jorge Soler (hamstring) – another big-time playoff performer last year – is trying to get his timing down at Double-A Tennessee.
“If they do something, great,” Lester said. “That’s just kind of like that shot in the arm, that little boost for you. But if they don’t, I feel like we’re in a good place.”

In Maddon, the Cubs have a manager unafraid to push bullpen buttons by playing Travis Wood in left field, watching the crowd of 40,952 give him a standing ovation for an athletic catch at the brick wall in the seventh inning, and then summon the lefty reliever again for an eighth-inning matchup.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

In Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, the Cubs have two leading MVP candidates in the middle of their lineup and 50 percent of an All-Star infield. In Jake Arrieta, the Cubs have the National League’s reigning Cy Young Award winner for what’s been a durable, reliable rotation, at a time when the price for pitching is skyrocketing.

In Chapman, the Cubs added the game’s most intimidating closer to a team that almost had a 99-percent chance to make the playoffs and is now 58-1 when leading entering the ninth inning.

Crickets? To the clubhouse, to the rest of a $10 billion industry, to anyone skeptical of The Plan, the Cubs already sent their message loud and clear with the Chapman trade.

“He was more of like a ‘want,’” Lester said. “We had a great back end of our bullpen. ‘Ronnie’ (Hector Rondon) and (Pedro) Strop have been doing a good job for us. When a talent like (Chapman) becomes available, it’s more of like when you’re a kid. You go to the toy aisle, you’re like: ‘Yeah, I want that.’ I don’t need it, but I want it, because it would be kind of cool. 

“That’s the luxury (this organization has) now. We have that freedom to maybe trade away a few of these (prospects) and try to help us get a little bit better.”

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.