Cubs

The plan of attack for Epstein and Hoyer

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The plan of attack for Epstein and Hoyer

Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer are undefeated. They won the press conferences. They began uniting the front office. They passed on Ryne Sandberg without any blowback.

But the Cubs executives know that the real work is ahead of them. They feel an obligation to put a good product on the field every year. Its not in their nature to just punt the entire 2012 season.

Epstein has talked about the parallel fronts the Cubs will be working on, improving the big-league team you pay a lot of money to see while assembling the scouting and player development machine.

So the Cubs wont be the Miami Marlins, who seem to be wooing almost every free agent of consequence, hoping they take their talents to South Beach. They wont cut corners in the amateur draft or the international market, because they have the luxury of time and ownership stabilitysupport.

You cant put Run Prevention in lights across the Wrigley Field marquee, the way you could Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder.

But thats the direction Epstein and Hoyer appear to be heading. Pitching and defense will be a focus when they gather for the general manager meetings this week in Milwaukee.

That plans probably going to evolve a little bit because we dont know the personnel quite as well as we will in years to come, Hoyer said. Its no secret we need to get some depth in the rotation. Depth of pitching hurt the team last year.

We need to find ways to improve the defense and we need to probably find a little bit more athleticism on the bases. Those are all things were going to try to solve.

The Cubs witnessed a system-wide breakdown last season. Their rotation finished last in the National League with a 4.79 ERA, and near the bottom of the majors in innings pitched. They blew 24 saves, committed 134 errors and gave up 66 unearned runs.

The Cubs will need to plan for when its 42 degrees in Chicago and theyre playing 3-2 games. More team speed and smarter base-running will help manufacture runs in April and May, when the skies are gray and Wrigley Field plays like a totally different ballpark.

This thinking will factor into the search for a manager. Cleveland Indians bench coach Sandy Alomar Jr. spent two decades as a big-league catcher, learning the psychology of pitching, game-planning for lineups and looking out across the whole field.

Texas Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux could be another difference-maker. Bud Black (San Diego Padres) worked closely with Hoyer the past two seasons, while John Farrell (Toronto Blue Jays) has connections with Epstein. They have set the template.

The game is so much about pitching and defense, Hoyer said. From my experience in San Diego, the relationship between Bud Black, (pitching coach) Darren Balsley and (bullpen coach) Darrel Akerfelds, its almost like having three pitching coaches. Buddy did a terrific job of also relating to position players. Certainly my sense from Mike was that hed do the same thing.

Right now youve got Bud Black and John Farrell as excellent managers who are pitching coaches and I think that trend is something that youll probably see continuing down the road.

Sources said the Cubs have made contact with Kerry Woods camp. Wood has said that hell only pitch for the Cubs or else retire but it shouldnt come to that. Theres optimism that he will return to strengthen the bullpen and mentor the younger pitchers.

The Cubs have essentially wished Aramis Ramirez good luck and told him goodbye. They could look for a defensive upgrade at third base. Hoyer declined to comment specifically on Carlos Pena and whether or not the first baseman fits into their plans.

Weve had a number of conversations, about both free agents and trade targets, Hoyer said. Its exciting to go up to Milwaukee and start having face-to-face conversations with teams about our guys. Ive been trying to make as many GM phone calls as I can (to) lay the groundwork.

Itll be interesting to see what ideas other teams have, what players have interest. (Theo and I) are really excited to get up there and get started.

Eventually, the buzz will start to fade from these franchise-changing hires. There will be negative headlines. The hard decisions are coming. But Epstein and Hoyer have a plan, even if they dont want to share the specifics. Let the second-guessing begin.

Cubs bullpen updates: Craig Kimbrel takes a step forward while Brandon Morrow remains a question mark

Cubs bullpen updates: Craig Kimbrel takes a step forward while Brandon Morrow remains a question mark

Before Pedro Strop served up the go-ahead homer to former top prospect Eloy Jimenez in the ninth inning Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, the Cubs got some good news on their bullpen as Craig Kimbrel took a step forward while Brandon Morrow remains status quo.

Obviously the pair of closers are on completely different trajectories. Kimbrel is coming off an elongated free agency period and is just working up to game form while Morrow is still on an injury comeback trail that is approaching the one-year mark.

Kimbrel threw a perfect seventh inning in relief for Triple-A Iowa Tuesday, needing only 8 pitches to get his job done. The Cubs don't have a specific plan for his next step, but acknowledged it would be another relief outing for Iowa probably on Thursday or Friday. 

"He's trending in the right direction," GM Jed Hoyer said Tuesday evening at Wrigley Field. "Obviously he's feeling good, but we're not gonna rush him or make judgment on any one outing. We're just gonna take this process as we planned it out and try to get him ready for the remainder of the season."

This was the first game action of any kind for Kimbrel since Oct. 27 when he appeared in Game 4 of the World Series for the Boston Red Sox. He signed with the Cubs nearly two weeks ago now and threw his first bullpen at Wrigley Field on June 8 before going to Arizona to throw another bullpen and face hitters in live batting practice.

As dominant as Kimbrel was in the one inning — Hoyer joked Kimbrel may have to purposely walk a guy next time out just to get more extended time in the rehab game — don't expect the Cubs to get aggressive and push him now. It's still hard to see any scenario in which he's in the big-league bullpen on this current homestand (that runs through June 27).

The Cubs didn't sign Kimbrel to rush him and risk injury when they want him to lock down the back end of the bullpen down the stretch in September and then in what they hope is a long playoff run in October.

The original plan called for Kimbrel to throw in back-to-back outings in the minor leagues, and the Cubs haven't indicated any change to that.

"[I'm just looking for] good health," Joe Maddon said. "He felt good, velocity was there, the break on the breaking ball was good, the velocity on the breaking ball was very good. It's just about health. If the guy's healthy and ready to rock and roll, you put him in the ninth inning. That's pretty much what we're looking forward to."

Kimbrel would obviously be a huge shot in the arm to the entire Cubs roster whenever he's able to walk through those clubhouse doors, but they could also receive another boost if Morrow is somehow able to get healthy and on the right track.

Morrow — the former Cubs closer — has been out since last July, going on the shelf at that point with what was originally described as biceps tendinitis. It was later revealed to be a bone bruise and he actually had to undergo a minor surgery on his right elbow over the offseason. 

The Cubs knew they'd be without Morrow for at least the first month of 2019, but the veteran then experienced a setback and still hasn't gotten back in a game. But he's been throwing from about 135 feet, Hoyer said, and feeling OK at the moment.

"With Brandon, we've been down this road a few times where he feels good and he has a setback, so I don't want to be overly optimistic," Hoyer said. "I don't want to be pessimistic. This is where he is. Obviously getting him back would be such an incredible bonus for us at this point. 

"We just want him to be healthy. I feel awful for him. No one is more disappointed or more frustrated than he is. Hopefully this time through, it works for him.

"...It's hard — you have to build your way back up. You don't really get a true sense of what it's gonna be like until you throw in games or throw in live bullpens because that's when the real stress pitches come in."

Hendricks, Chatwood, Alzolay and where the Cubs rotation goes from here

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AP

Hendricks, Chatwood, Alzolay and where the Cubs rotation goes from here

Kyle Hendricks' shoulder injury isn't opening the door for Adbert Alzolay to make his way into the Cubs rotation.

Not initially, at least.

The Cubs will hand Tyler Chatwood the ball in Hendricks' normal spot Thursday evening against the Mets at Wrigley Field, keeping Alzolay in the minors for the time being. 

When Hendricks hit the injured list over the weekend, many speculated it could be the Cubs' top pitching prospect who gets the call, as Alzolay has been on fire in Triple-A (1.93 ERA, 40 K in 28 innings over his last 5 starts). But the Cubs have two veteran starting pitching options hanging out in their bullpen in Chatwood and Mike Montgomery and it would send a bad message inside the clubhouse to pass over those guys and call up a starter from the minors to take a turn in the rotation.

The Cubs also felt like Chatwood has earned the chance to start after dealing with last year's struggles and having a resurgent season out of the bullpen and in his one previous spot start.

"He's been pitching a lot better," Joe Maddon said of Chatwood. "We believe he's earned this opportunity to pitch in the situation. ... It's an earned situation."

The Cubs made sure Chatwood was stretched out, as they held him back in case of extra innings Sunday night in Los Angeles and then had him throw in the bullpen after the game to help build his stamina back up to join the rotation.

But even if Alzolay won't be joining the rotation this week, that doesn't mean his opportunity isn't right around the corner. The Cubs have been discussing the potential for a six-man rotation in the near future, as they just began a stretch of 17 games in 17 days before their next break on July 5. 

"That's been something we've talked about a lot," GM Jed Hoyer said. "This is really the third time we've had 2-3 weeks in a row [of games]. No doubt, the starters wear down after 2-3 times through the rotation on four days rest and we're aware of their age and mileage on some of these guys. We want to make sure we take care of them. In general, getting extra rest is something we've talked about going into the break."

The Cubs have gone to a six-man rotation before and after the All-Star Break in past seasons and it makes sense to do so again this year, even with Hendricks on the shelf. Montgomery and Alzolay are both options and then Chatwood, of course, though Maddon insisted the Cubs have not come up with a concrete plan for the rotation beyond Thursday's outing.

The big question looming over the rotation is how long Hendricks will be out. He was in some kind of groove before experiencing shoulder issues in his last start against the Dodgers.

"All the test confirmed what we thought — he's kinda dealing with an impingement," Hoyer said. "I feel like we got ahead of it. We're not sure how much time he'll miss. We'll try to take it slowly and take the length of the season into account."

It's still only mid-June and the Cubs are hoping they're going to be playing baseball for another four-plus months, so they know how important Hendricks is to the overall goal of a second championship. 

They'll practice patience with him in his recovery, but right now, they can't say whether or not Cubs fans will be able to see him pitch again before the All-Star Game.