Cubs

No Chase Utley, but Cubs hope Chris Coghlan could become their Ben Zobrist

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No Chase Utley, but Cubs hope Chris Coghlan could become their Ben Zobrist

Chase Utley wanted to go back to California and used his no-trade rights as leverage to join the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Cubs tried to make a deal with the Philadelphia Phillies for a six-time All-Star second baseman and a 2008 World Series champion. But the ball had been in Utley’s court for weeks, and he wanted assurances about playing time. Dodger Stadium also has obvious appeal for someone who went to UCLA and Long Beach Polytechnic High School.

So with the Phillies and Dodgers finally closing the Utley deal on Wednesday night, it kept the window of opportunity wide open for Chris Coghlan, who has an edge and a take-nothing-for-granted weariness about him at this point in his up-and-down career.

“Shoot, I’m not trying to be Utley one bit, man,” Coghlan said. “I’m not trying to do Utley. I’m just trying to do me. That’s it.”

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The Cubs started Starlin Castro at second base against Detroit Tigers lefty Daniel Norris at Wrigley Field. But Coghlan came off the bench to deliver an RBI triple during a 15-8 loss and should be a big X-factor during the stretch run.

Manager Joe Maddon could even see Coghlan grow into the super-utility role Ben Zobrist perfected with the Tampa Bay Rays.

Coghlan emerged as the National League’s Rookie of the Year in 2009 with the Florida Marlins, playing 123 games in left field after coming up through their system as a second/third baseman.

Coghlan’s stock dropped to the point where the Marlins non-tendered him after the 2013 season, forcing him to sign a minor-league deal with the Cubs and earn his way back to The Show through Triple-A Iowa.

[MORE CUBS: Jason Hammel searching for answers after Tigers overpower Cubs]

“Crazy story,” Coghlan said. “I told my wife a couple years back: ‘It would be really cool to get back to playing the infield again.’ And she’s like: ‘Yeah, do you think anybody would (let you do that)?’

“We had a different manager every year in Miami, so I said: ‘I don’t know. We’ll probably have a different manager next year. But you know what, the one manager I think that would allow me to is Joe Maddon. Look what he did with Ben Zobrist.’

“Sure enough, three, four years later, he’s my manager and now he gives me an opportunity.”

The Cubs tried to trade for Zobrist during the offseason but couldn’t make a deal with the Rays — and couldn’t match the package of pitching the Kansas City Royals gave the Oakland A’s before the July 31 deadline.

[MORE CUBS: Cubs waiting for breakthrough moment with Jon Lester’s throwing issue]

“Of course,” Maddon said, Coghlan could have a Zobrist-type impact for the Cubs. “The one thing I don’t think he can do what Zo does is play shortstop. I don’t necessarily see that. But then again, CC probably likes to play third and first more than Zo did.

“So there’s different trade-offs within that. Zobrist as a switch-hitter is a little different, also. But I like the idea of Chris being able to do all those different things that benefit us — and him — long-term. He’s been really good about doing the work necessary. And I know he’s going to continue to do it.

“I just love that player. I think that’s a natural position. People may argue with me, but I do think a super-utility guy is a position. It really lengthens your bench. In-game, it permits you to do more things because you have this versatility. It’s nice to have.”

To get Coghlan’s left-handed bat into the lineup, the Cubs are willing to think outside the box and sacrifice defense for offense. Coghlan isn’t a borderline Hall of Famer like Utley, but he does have 14 homers, 18 doubles, 41 walks and a .778 OPS.

“Again, I’m not comparing myself to Utley,” Coghlan said. “I’m just trying to be the best version of me, reach the capacity for the talent that God’s given me. I don’t care what Utley’s doing. If Utley was on my team, I’d care. But I don’t care what any left fielder’s doing. I don’t care what anybody else is doing, because it doesn’t affect me.

“You guys can compare — and I understand that’s the gig — and I don’t mean any disrespect. (But) I really don’t care what Utley’s doing.”

The Confidence Conundrum: How Albert Almora Jr. turned his season around

The Confidence Conundrum: How Albert Almora Jr. turned his season around

What's the secret behind Albert Almora Jr.'s recent offensive resurgence?

It wasn't switching to an axe bat like Kris Bryant. It wasn't even a mechanical adjustment of any kind.

No, Almora has turned things around at the plate just because he has more of a belief in himself right now.

"This game is all about confidence," the Cubs centerfielder said. "It's a game of ups and downs. It's tough mentally, but the quicker you could get back to having that confidence, the better. It's kinda like tricking yourself."

Having 39,246 people demand a curtain call has to do wonders for your confidence.

Almora hit his first career grand slam in the bottom of the fifth inning Wednesday night and was none too happy to oblige the packed house at Wrigley Field.

That blast was his fifth homer of the season, which ties the total he reached in all of last season.

Over the first 21 games of 2019, Almora was hitting just .182 with a .432 OPS and 0 extra-base hits in 61 plate appearances.

Then he pinch hit against Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen on April 25 and smacked his first homer of the season. Since then, he's hitting .341 with a .966 OPS and 12 extra-base hits in 87 plate appearances. 

So if the difference is confidence, is there a way to manufacture confidence? Like a "fake it until you make it" kind of thing?

"No, it's tough," Almora said. "It really is. Maybe some guys are really good at it. Defensively, it's a different type of confidence, because you can control more, but you can be confident at the plate and not have the results."

When Bryant started turning things around at the end of April, much was made about his switch to an axe bat. There's no doubt that change in weaponry perfectly correlated with Bryant's red-hot production at the plate over the last month, but even he downplayed the whole thing, using the idiom, "it's not the arrow, it's the Indian" on the Cubs' last homestand.

In talking about Bryant Tuesday night, all Joe Maddon discussed was the star player's confidence, saying he is "unconsciously confident" in every aspect of his game right now.

"It's just who I am — I feel like this is me as a baseball player," Bryant said. "I'm working counts, getting on base, baserunning, playing all over. When I'm doing that, I feel pretty confident, so I hope I can continue that."

Cubs hitting coach Anthony Iapoce echoed Almora's sentiment that baseball is all about confidence and while mechanical changes can certainly help breed that confidence, the only real way to build it is with positive results on the field. 

Obviously mechanics come into play all the time in professional baseball and there's no doubt Almora's and Bryant's physical mechanics are locked in at the moment.   

But there's no substitute for confidence and there's no drill to work on something that isn't tangible and can't even be quantified. 

"I don't know [how to build confidence]," Almora said. "I wish I had the answer. That's why this game is so hard. You just gotta battle and try to not ride that huge up-and-down roller coaster. Try to stay the same. I feel like just having a good attitude is a good part of it and I think it's something I'm trying to feed off of my teammates. I think I've been doing a really good job of just being happy no matter what."

This is Almora's fourth year in the big leagues and he's closing in on 1,100 plate appearances at this level. But he still doesn't feel like he's come anywhere close to mastering the Confidence Conundrum.

"No, because you wanna perform every year, so every year's different no matter what," Almora said. "I've had success hitting at the big-league level, but every year's a new challenge and every year you have challenges for yourself and for your team to win, obviously. It never gets easier."

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Amid rough patch, Cubs shake up their bullpen

Amid rough patch, Cubs shake up their bullpen

The Cubs bullpen has been under the microscope recently as they've hit another rough patch.

With Pedro Strop on the injured list, Cubs relievers have combined for a 5.04 ERA and 1.72 WHIP over the last week, allowing 32 hits and 11 walks against only 15 strikeouts in 25 innings.

The Cubs are shaking things up, sending veteran left-hander Xavier Cedeno to the injured list with left wrist inflammation and promoting right-hander Rowan Wick from Triple-A Iowa.

"We had to get things straightened out out there," Joe Maddon said of the bullpen. "Cedeno's still not 100 percent right, so we made that move. Wick's up and he's been pitching really well. We liked him in spring training; he provides length if we need it also, so there were a lot of reasons to do it, but he was pitching well enough to be here, too."

The Cubs acquired Wick, 26, from the Padres back in November for minor leaguer Jason Vosler. Wick has pitched well in Triple-A Iowa this season — in 13 outings, he has a 2.84 ERA and 1.11 WHIP while striking out 25 batters in 19 innings. 

Of his 13 appearances, 7 have been of a multi-inning variety and he hasn't allowed a run in his last 3 games (6.2 innings). He said a key to his success has been the ability to throw three different pitches for strikes and has been in a good flow lately of getting ahead in the count.

Wick made 10 appearances for the Padres in San Diego last year, sporting a 6.48 ERA in 8.1 innings.  The results weren't what he wanted in the big leagues, but that experience is something he can rely  on now.

"[I learned] that I can pitch here and that I belong," Wick said. "To be comofttable and hopefully pitch well."

Cedeno, 32, signed with the Cubs just before spring training started, but has been hampered by the same wrist issue all spring. He was first activated off the injured list less than two weeks ago and did not give up a run in 5 appearances, though he surrendered 4 hits and 3 walks in just 2 total innings of work.

With Wick in tow, the Cubs bullpen now looks like this:

Steve Cishek
Brad Brach
Brandon Kintzler
Kyle Ryan
Mike Montgomery
Tyler Chatwood
Carl Edwards Jr.
Rowan Wick

Strop is working his way back from a hamstring injury and threw a 25-pitch bullpen Monday, so his return may not be far off. 

Brandon Morrow resumed his throwing program Monday, as well, but is still weeks away from returning even in a best-case scenario.

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