Cubs

Mike Montgomery will gladly aid Cubs as spot starter, but could this be a mini audition for 2018 rotation?

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USA TODAY

Mike Montgomery will gladly aid Cubs as spot starter, but could this be a mini audition for 2018 rotation?

Jon Lester isn’t expected to be on the disabled list for long, which of course is great news for the Cubs.

But while he’s there, it’s once again time for Mike Montgomery to audition for a spot in the team’s 2018 starting rotation.

The Cubs are facing the possibility of losing two members of that starting staff this offseason, when both Jake Arrieta and John Lackey will be free agents. Montgomery seems like a logical replacement, but he’ll need to be better than he’s been as a starter this season. He’s put up a 5.13 ERA in eight starts.

He’ll get another opportunity to show his stuff over the next week or so, as he makes one or two spot starts with Lester on the shelf resting up his left lat tightness and general shoulder fatigue.

“I don’t want to see anybody get hurt, especially our ace. But it’s a challenge. I’m looking forward to going out there and helping the team win,” Montgomery said over the weekend. “I’m going to go out there and prepare and be ready to help this team get to the playoffs.”

Montgomery doesn’t have to worry about instilling confidence in his bosses. Joe Maddon and Theo Epstein both lauded Montgomery’s efforts since he was acquired about a year ago, in the middle of the 2016 team’s march to that curse-smashing World Series win. It was Montgomery who earned the save in Game 7.

And again this season Montgomery has given plenty of reason for those guys to have confidence in him. He’s turned in a strong 2.57 ERA in 27 relief appearances, one of the more reliable arms out of what is becoming an increasingly shaky bullpen. This past Thursday, he relieved the early-to-depart Lester, pitching 4.1 shutout innings and allowing just three hits and a walk against the Cincinnati Reds.

Throw in the versatility of being able to effectively switch between starting and relieving, and that’s a recipe for sticking on a big league roster.

“He’s good about bouncing back and forth,” Maddon said. “He’s been invaluable to us the last couple years. He’s still learning his craft. Every time I talk to him it’s kind of like the little lightbulb constantly goes off for him regarding his stuff and how to utilize it. That’s what I’ve been talking about with him the last couple years. This guy’s got all kinds of tools in the toolbox but he doesn’t really know how to utilize them all, and I think he’s finally understanding the cutter, the curve, the changeup to go with the fastball. He’s one of those guys that he should never get wild with his fastball because his pitches are so good and he can throw them for a strike.”

Montgomery’s reliability has been enough that Epstein said there’s no plan for the Cubs to add another starting pitcher before this month’s waiver trade deadline. Of course, the fact that Lester’s injury isn’t as bad as initially feared and the July acquisition of Jose Quintana factors into that, as well.

“We’ve expended a lot of prospect capital trying to make this team better. We think it’s just a start or two (that Lester will miss), and Mike Montgomery is more than capable of filling in,” Epstein said. “He’s thrown the ball really well, like what we saw from him (Thursday). So we’re going to fill that vacancy internally with Mike and go from there.”

While every start made by any pitcher this season seems important — the Cubs entered Monday’s day off with just a two-game lead on the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central standings, with a playoff spot hardly guaranteed — Montgomery’s efforts could have just as great an effect on next season. If Arrieta and Lackey both end up departing via free agency, the Cubs will need some replacements. Montgomery figures to be among the first options, especially if this midseason audition goes well.

Of course, Montgomery is happy to do whatever he needs to to help his team. He’s not complaining about a bullpen role or one that has him shuttling between the relief corps and the rotation. But he admitted that starting is his goal, meaning the importance of this moment likely hasn't been lost on him.

“Yeah, absolutely, I wanted to start. But also I wanted to be a guy who could fill another role and hopes that makes our team better,” he said. “If me starting makes us better in their mind, then that’s what I want ideally. But I’ve realized I can’t always control that, I can go out there and pitch well. If I pitch well, they’re probably going to give me more opportunities, which is probably going to lead to starting.

“I think it’s because I spent five years in Triple-A from the time I was 21 and I had a bigger ego. And then you realize that you just want to be in the big leagues and that Triple-A kind of stinks. I think it’s just how I’ve gotten to this point. And coming here last year from a team that was trying to get in the playoffs to a team that was clearly going to win the division, you realize that your role isn’t to come here and start making demands, it’s to come here and just do your job.”

Right now, the Cubs need Montgomery to fill the void while Lester rests up. And if he can make his starts look a little more like his bullpen outings, he’ll do just that. And if that’s what happens, maybe they’ll call on him next season to do a whole lot more.

Cubs still waiting for Willson Contreras' offense to take off, but they know it's coming

Cubs still waiting for Willson Contreras' offense to take off, but they know it's coming

If every Major League Baseball player was thrown into a draft pool in a fantasy-type format, Willson Contreras may be the first catcher taken.

Joe Maddon and the Cubs certainly wouldn't take anybody else over "Willy."

The Cubs skipper said as much in late-May, placing Contreras' value above guys like Buster Posey, Gary Sanchez and Yadier Molina based on age, athleticism, arm, blocking, intelligence, energy and offensive prowess.
 
Contreras strikes out more, doesn't hit for as high of an average and doesn't yet have the leadership ability of Posey, but he's also 5 years younger than the Giants catcher. Molina is possibly destined for the Hall of Fame, but he's also 35 and the twilight of his career is emerging. Sanchez is a better hitter with more power currently than Contreras, but a worse fielder.

Remember, Contreras has been in the big leagues for barely 2 years total — the anniversary of his first at-bat came earlier this week:

All that being said, the Cubs are still waiting for Contreras to display that type of complete player in 2018.

He's thrown out 11-of-32 would-be basestealers and the Cubs love the way he's improved behind the plate at calling the game, blocking balls in the dirt and working with the pitcher. They still see some room for improvement with pitch-framing, but that's not suprising given he's only been catching full-time since 2013.

Offensively, Contreras woke up Saturday morning with a .262 batting average and .354 on-base percentage (which are both in line with his career .274/.356 line), but his slugging (.412) is way down compared to his career .472 mark.

He already has 14 doubles (career high in a season was 21 last year) and a career-best 4 triples, but also only 4 homers — 3 of which came in a 2-game stretch against the White Sox on May 11-12.

So where's the power?

"He's just not been hitting the ball as hard," Maddon said. "It's there, he's gonna be fine. Might be just getting a little bit long with his swing. I think that's what I'm seeing more than anything.

"But I have so much faith in him. It was more to the middle of last year that he really took off. That just might be his DNA — slower start, finish fast.

"Without getting hurt last year, I thought he was gonna get his 100 RBIs. So I'm not worried about him. It will come. He's always hit, he can hit, he's strong, he's healthy, he's well, so it's just a patience situation."

The hot streak Maddon is talking about from last season actually began on June 16 and extended to Aug. 9, the date Contreras pulled his hamstring and went to the disabled list for the next month.

In that 45-game span (40 starts) in the middle of 2017, Contreras hit .313/.381/.669 (1.050 OPS) with 16 homers and 45 RBI.

It looked like the 26-year-old catcher may be getting on one of those hot streaks back in mid-May when he clobbered the Marlins, White Sox and Braves pitching staffs to the tune of a .500 average, 1.780 OPS, 3 homers and 11 RBI in a week's worth of action.

But in the month since, Contreras has only 3 extra-base hits and no homers, driving in just 4 runs in 29 games (26 starts) while spending most of his time hitting behind Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo.

What's been the difference?

"I think it's honestly just the playing baseball part of the game," Contreras said. "You're gonna go through your ups and downs, but I definitely do feel like I've been putting in the work and about ready to take off to be able to help the team."

Contreras admitted he's been focused more on his work behind the plate this season, trying to manage the pitching staff, consume all the scouting reports and work on calling the game. He's still trying to figure out how to perfectly separate that area of his game with his at-bats.

"With my defense and calling games, that's one way that I'm able to help the team right now," Contreras said. "And as soon as my bat heats up, we're gonna be able to take off even more."

On the latest round of National League All-Star voting, Contreras was behind Posey among catchers. The Cubs backstop said he would be honored to go to Washington D.C. next month, but also understands he needs to show more of what he's capable of at the plate.

"If I go, I go," he said. "Honestly, it's not something that I'm really focusing on right now. ... I do think I've been pretty consistent in terms of my average and on-base percentage and helping create situations and keep the line moving, at least.

"But right now, I know my bat hasn't been super consistent so far. It would be a great opportunity and I'd thank the fans."

As a whole, the Cubs have been hitting fewer home runs this season compared to last year. Under new hitting coach Chili Davis, they're prioritizing contact and using the whole field over power and pulling the ball.

Contreras has a 19.3 percent strikeout rate — the lowest of his brief big-league career — while still holding a 9.6 percent walk rate, in line with his career mark (9.9 percent).

Thanks to improved defense, Contreras still boasts a 1.6 WAR (FanGraphs) despite the low power output to this point. Posey (1.7 WAR) is the only catcher in baseball more valuable to his team.

Just wait until his power shows up.

"He hasn't even taken off yet," Maddon said. "He's gonna really take off. Remember last year how hot he got in the second half? That's gonna happen again. You see the pickoffs, what he does behind the plate, how he controls the running game — he's a different cat.

"And he's gonna keep getting better. He's not even at that level of consistency that I think you're gonna get out of him. Great athlete, runs well, does a lot of things well, but it does not surprise me that he's [second in NL All-Star voting at catcher] with Posey."

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

A year ago, the Cubs were struggling to float above .500, sitting 1.5 games behind the first-place Brewers.

Two years ago, the Cubs were10.5 games up on the second-place Cardinals in the division and already in cruise control to the postseason.

As they entered a weekend series in Cincinnati at 42-29 and in a tie for first place, the Cubs are feeling quite a bit more like 2016 than 2017.

The major reason? Energy, as Joe Maddon pointed out over the weekend.

That energy shows up most often on defense.

The 2016 Cubs put up maybe the best defensive season in baseball history while last year they truly looked hungover.

After a big of a slow start to 2018, the Cubs are feelin' more of that '16 swag.

If you watched either of the wins against the Los Angeles Dodgers this week at Wrigley Field, it's clear to see why: the defense.

"I like the defense," Maddon said of his team last week. "I'm into the defense. There's a tightness about the group. There's a closeness about the group. Not saying last year wasn't like that, but this group is definitely trending more in the '16 direction regarding interacting.

"If anything — and the one thing that makes me extremely pleased — would be the continuation of the defense. We've fed so much off our defense in '16. We've been doing that more recently again. We do so much good out there, then we come in and it gets kinda electric in the dugout. I'd like to see that trend continue on defense."

The Cubs scored only 2 runs in 10 innings in the second game against the Dodgers Tuesday night and managed just 4 runs in the finale Wednesday. Yet their gloves helped hold the Dodgers to only 1 run combined between the two games.

Wednesday's game was a defensive clinic, with Jason Heyward throwing out Chris Taylor at home plate with an incredible tag by Willson Contreras while Javy Baez, Albert Almora Jr., Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber all hit the ground to make sprawling/diving plays.

"[Almora] comes in and dives for one and I'm just like, 'OK, I'm done clapping for you guys,'" Jon Lester, Wednesday's winning pitcher, joked. "It's expected now that these guys make these plays. It's fun on our end. It's the, 'Here, hit it. Our guys are really good out there and they're gonna run it down.'"

The Heyward throw, in particular, jacked the team up. 

Maddon compared it to a grand slam with how much energy it provided the Cubs. Almora said he momentarily lost his voice because he was screaming so much at the play.

There was also Baez making plays in the hole at shortstop, then switching over to second base and turning a ridiculous unassisted double play on a liner in the 8th inning.

"That's what we're capable of doing," Maddon said. "In the past, when we've won on a high level, we've played outstanding defense. It never gets old to watch that kind of baseball."

The Cubs are back to forcing opposing hitters to jog off the field, shaking their head in frustration and disbelief.

"It could be so dispiriting to the other side when you make plays like that," Maddon said. "And also it's buoyant to your pitchers. So there's all kinds of good stuff goin' on there."

A lot of that is the play of the outfield, with Almora back to himself after a down 2017 season and Schwarber turning into a plus-rated defensive outfield.

After finishing 19th in baseball in outfield assists last season, the Cubs are currently tied for 6th with 14 outfield assists this year.

Schwarber has 7 alone, which is already as many as he tallied in the entire 2017 season.

"I feel like they'll learn quickly on Schwarber, if they haven't yet," Heyward said. "You gotta earn that respect. You gotta earn that sense of caution from the third base coach.

"But please keep running on me in those situations. I want it to happen."