Cubs

March Madness: Projecting Opening Day roster for Cubs

March Madness: Projecting Opening Day roster for Cubs

MESA, Ariz. – The Cubs have already decided who should face Dexter Fowler and the St. Louis Cardinals in front of a sellout crowd at Busch Stadium and a national audience on ESPN's "Sunday Night Baseball."  
 
"Of course," manager Joe Maddon said Tuesday at the Sloan Park complex. "But I just got to talk to the people. And I just can't say it without talking to them first."
 
Jon Lester – who started Game 1 in all three playoff rounds last year – would be the obvious choice for the Opening Night assignment on April 2. But the Cubs also have a Cy Young Award winner (Jake Arrieta), an ERA titleholder (Kyle Hendricks) and another three-time World Series champion (John Lackey) in their rotation. 
 
Recognizing the wear and tear from back-to-back playoff runs – and anticipating another stressful October – The Big Four is being held back until at least the second weekend of Cactus League play and slowly ramping up again. 
 
It's another sign March Madness isn't happening at a camp where maybe 23 or 24 spots on the 25-man roster had been secured before pitchers and catchers even reported to Arizona and the franchise no longer has to deal with the 1908 baggage. 
 
A look at where things now stand for the defending World Series champs, with injuries being the biggest X-factor between Mesa and St. Louis:  
 
• Whether or not Brett Anderson has the inside track to the fifth-starter job, it's still extremely difficult to see the Cubs stashing him in the bullpen, given his extensive medical file, inexperience as a reliever and Mike Montgomery's comfort level as a swingman.     
 
Why mess with Anderson's routine if he can click with pitching coach Chris Bosio and resemble the groundball pitcher who made 31 starts and put up a 3.69 ERA for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2015? 
 
"He's really baseball bright," Maddon said. "He knows what he's doing out there. I love his stuff. I know him and 'Boz' are working on different thoughts mechanically to help prevent injury. But I like it a lot – not a little bit. This guy is really good. The big thing is just health with him. You keep this fellow healthy – he can throw some significant numbers up there."
 
There's an element of luck involved – and some came into the organization with durability on their resumes – but the Cubs had five pitchers make at least 29 starts last season and hope that infrastructure will help Anderson.
 
"We've addressed it with him," Maddon said. "We've given him different thoughts. I'm sure every team that he's played with has had the same kind of thoughts. But maybe just the mechanical tweak, maybe a different method of work within a clubhouse, strength and conditioning, trainers, etc., maybe that'll help."

[RELATED: Brett Anderson’s main takeaway from Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio]
 
There are a lot of maybes with Anderson, a Tommy John survivor who underwent surgical procedures on his lower back in 2014 and 2016. But the Cubs also see a lot of upside and motivation in a lefty working on a one-year, $3.5 million incentive-laden deal.  
 
"I would be curious to see this guy with a full season of good health," Maddon said, "because it might even be better than a lot of teams' third and second starters. This guy is that good. With health, there's no telling.
     
"If we could get him out there for like 160-175 (innings), if he could do something like that, my God, it would be like outstanding."
 
• Working backwards from All-Star closer Wade Davis and Maddon's "hybrid moment" for Anderson or Montgomery, the Cubs appear to have six relievers for six slots on what figures to be a 13-man pitching staff: Koji Uehara; Pedro Strop; Hector Rondon; Carl Edwards Jr.; Justin Grimm; and lefty Brian Duensing. 
 
"The pitching's really gotten significantly better," Maddon said. "With good health, it's going to be very difficult (making those decisions). These guys have been impressive. I'm not all about the spring-training evaluation. Going off their track records and maybe projecting a little bit, we have a lot of interesting pitching candidates. It's gotten a lot thicker."
 
• One wild card is Rule 5 lefty Caleb Smith – who spent last season with the New York Yankees' Double-A affiliate – and how creative the Cubs get with the roster sleight of hand. (Remember how Major League Baseball took away a Cubs' pick in the 2013 Rule 5 draft and gave it to the Philadelphia Phillies to settle the Lendy Castillo grievance.)  
 
"We're going to be forced to try to look under the hood a little bit more," Maddon said. "If you're overwhelmed, then you're going to probably try to manipulate it to the point where you can keep a guy like that."
 
• The Cubs have 11 locks among the position players, a group of versatile defenders who give Maddon so much flexibility with lineup decisions and in-game moves: Willson Contreras; Miguel Montero; Anthony Rizzo; Ben Zobrist; Addison Russell; Kris Bryant; Javier Baez; Kyle Schwarber; Jason Heyward; Jon Jay; and Albert Almora Jr.     
 
That means the last bench spot could come down to outfielder Matt Szczur (no minor-league options left) or the whims of infielder Tommy La Stella (who initially refused to report to Triple-A Iowa last summer and talked about considering retirement).
 
"That's probably a fairer question on March 25," general manager Jed Hoyer said. "So many things can happen between now and then, as far as injuries and things like that. We're going to have some hard decisions at the end of camp. We have a lot of talent here. 
 
"People know what the bones of our team are, but we definitely have to make some tough decisions as far as the construction of the pitching staff and the bench."

Cubs taking care to make sure Pedro Strop's hamstring issues are behind him

Cubs taking care to make sure Pedro Strop's hamstring issues are behind him

Pedro Strop said he feels "ready" in his return from a hamstring injury, but he and the Cubs aren't going to rush it.

The veteran reliever has missed most of May with the injury, but threw 25-pitch bullpens on both Monday and Wednesday and has reported zero issues. He said it's been more than a week since he last felt pain in the area.

But considering this is Strop's third hamstring injury in the last eight months, the Cubs want to be extra cautious to make sure this will not happen again.

Plus, there's no point in rushing him back right now, even with the bullpen struggling. The Cubs would certainly welcome Strop back to the active roster immediately, but he's going to be a huge key for them down the stretch and they need to ensure he's healthy for that.

"I think we're just being overly cautious because we don't want this to happen again," Joe Maddon said. 

But how can Cubs avoid another hamstring injury with the soon-to-be-34-year-old? 

"We're building strength, we're working hard to make it stronger instead of just, 'Oh, it's OK and pain-free, let's go out there and have the same thing happen again,'" Strop said. "We're just taking care."

He missed the final two weeks of the regular season last year and pitched through "severe pain" in the National League wild-card game after first hurting his hamstring in Washington D.C. He then missed time in spring training with an issue in the other leg.

The injuries are not all directly related, but hamstrings are tricky by nature.

"That's a hammy, man. When you mess up with those things, they keep reminding you that they're there," Maddon said. "He has to continue to be proactive with the work in between and our guys in the back there do a wonderful job rehabbing and strengthening. 

"I think some guys are just predetermined to do those kinds of things and it really stinks. But it happens. So our next best thing is to create that program that hopefully prevents it from happening again. 

"In the meantime, just really monitoring him and not pushing him too hard, etc. But hamstrings are hamstrings, man. They're just no fun. Once you pull them once, there's a chance to do it again."

Strop said he will throw another bullpen Saturday and doesn't believe he needs a rehab stint. Because this was a leg injury, he's been able to continue throwing throughout the recovery process and keep his arm strength up.

If Strop continues to report well and doesn't go on a rehab assignment, we could possibly see him back in the Cubs bullpen early next week, which would be a welcome sign for a unit that has suddenly run into some tough sledding of late.

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Pedro Strop adds another chapter to the Legend of El Mago

Pedro Strop adds another chapter to the Legend of El Mago

The Legend of El Mago continues to grow. 

Two days after Javy Baez's pinch-hit walk-off, Pedro Strop gave us a behind-the-scenes account of the ordeal.

Baez did not start that Tuesday night game because of a heel/ankle injury suffered two days earlier, but he was called on to pinch hit with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth inning. The Cubs had just battled back to tie things up when Kris Bryant hustled home on Albert Almora Jr.'s tapper in front of home plate.

It was the second straight game in which Baez didn't play, but as the ninth inning approached and the Cubs began to mount their comeback, he talked the Cubs training staff into taping his ankle and letting him pinch-hit. 

At the same time, Baez was telling fellow injured teammate Strop that he was going to make sure the Cubs won the game before extra innings.

"Oh my god, that was crazy," an animated Strop said. "We were just sitting [in the clubhouse] watching the game. We were getting ready to go to the dugout and support the boys and I was like, 'Let's go, we don't want to go to extra innings.' He's like, 'No extra innings, I'm gonna end this game right now.' 

"He started putting his shoes on and I'm like, 'Javy, you're not playing today.' And all of a sudden, I hear on the TV and they're like, 'Joe Maddon's going to his bench; Javy Baez is pinch hitting.' I was like, 'What?! Is this really gonna happen?'

"And then first pitch, it happens. Oh my god, it was crazy. I started running like crazy in here and was just screaming. It was unbelievable."

Strop — who is recovering from a hamstring injury — joked that the celebration was more proof he's nearing 100 percent health.

As for Baez, he assured everybody he would've been able to stay in Tuesday's game to play defense if it went into extra innings and he was in the starting lineup for both Wednesday and Thursday's games against the Phillies.

"I told Stroppy I was gonna end the game and he didn't believe me," Baez said. "And then everything happened and Stroppy told me, 'I thought I saw everything in baseball, but I've never seen this.' It was a great moment and I was swinging first pitch — like always."

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