Cubs

Justin Grimm finding a new level in Cubs bullpen

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Justin Grimm finding a new level in Cubs bullpen

Justin Grimm throws his curveball about the same speed as Dan Haren's fastball.

As he carved through the heart of the Detroit Tigers order last week (striking out all three batters he faced, including Miguel Cabrera and J.D. Martinez), Grimm was spinning his "offspeed" pitch around 85 mph while Haren has his self-deprecating @ithrow88 Twitter handle.

That illustrates the video-game-type stuff and numbers coming out of the bullpen, where Cubs manager Joe Maddon has used Grimm in almost any role imaginable.

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As the Cubs have gotten hot and made a serious push for the playoffs, Grimm and his 1.24 ERA has been leading the way out of the bullpen and he will be counted on even more now that Jason Motte has landed on the disabled list with a shoulder injury.

Grimm hasn't allowed a run in his last 15 games dating back to July 21, striking out 16 batters in 13 innings and picking up seven holds, two saves and a win in the process.

"What level is he pitching at right now?" Maddon said. "The kid's been good all year, but this is a little bit different.

"I'm happy for him. He's pitching outstanding baseball."

Maddon is careful not to attach any sort of labels onto each member of a successful bullpen, which ranks 12th in Major League Baseball with a 3.43 ERA. But Maddon did mention how important the fifth and sixth innings are and that he loves "middle-inning closers" like Grimm and lefty Travis Wood.

Grimm said he's gotten used to pitching without a defined role, knowing the bullpen phone can ring at any time and he needs to be ready to roll.

Grimm's 1.1 WAR ranks him 30th among MLB relievers on FanGraphs, even though he's pitched just 36.1 innings this season after missing the first month with a forearm injury.

He also ranks seventh in the big leagues with 13.13 strikeouts per nine innings, finding his name among dominant closers and setup men like Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances and Kenley Jansen and ahead of Craig Kimbrel, arguably the game's best reliever the last five seasons.

Grimm - who recently turned 27 - has always had the stuff, but he wasn't able to put it all together until last season.

For him, it always came down to one thing.

"Turning the corner at this level was all confidence," he said. "I was questioning if I belong at this level at first. I kinda took my own route in that aspect."

Grimm came up as a starter in the Texas Rangers minor-league system and made 19 starts for the organization in 2012-13 before he was moved to the bullpen.

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No matter how much success he's having as a reliever, Grimm hasn't given up hope on starting.

"I do like the bullpen. It's good, but I still believe I can start," he said. "I do. When I came up in the big leagues, I wasn't necessarily ready. So maybe moving to the bullpen, honestly, helped me adjust to the big leagues more than anything.

"The only thing I was missing when I was starting - it wasn't stuff. I wasn't making different pitches. It was just a confidence thing. When you're not throwing with confidence, you give up the big hits. You walk people.

"But now, I think I could be a quality starter for this team and in this league."

That being said, Grimm reiterated that he enjoys being a part of this bullpen right now, and starting is just something he hasn't shut the door on down the road.

Grimm knows if the Cubs are going to keep having success into October, they're going to need him to get some big outs, no matter the inning.

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.