Cubs

Is this season a failure if Cubs don’t win the World Series?

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Is this season a failure if Cubs don’t win the World Series?

ANAHEIM, Calif. – If the Cubs don’t win the World Series, will this season be a failure?

The Cubs are light years away from pitchers getting asked about the trade deadline as soon as they report to spring training, or managers sitting on the hot seat, or prospects becoming overloaded with attention to distract everyone from the awful big-league product.

Year 5 of the Theo Epstein administration began on a beautiful, 75-degrees-and-sunny night in Southern California, with fireworks, a flyover and a sellout crowd (44,020) at Angel Stadium of Anaheim. But anxious Cubs fans, the build-‘em-up Chicago media and all those national experts can’t fast forward to October.

There is still more than 99 percent of the season left to play after Jake Arrieta again looked like a Cy Young Award winner while dominating the Los Angeles Angels during Monday’s 9-0 victory.

“I don’t think it’s fair to sit here on Opening Day and determine what’s going to be a success and what’s going to be a failure,” Epstein said. “It’s fair at the end of the year. As I look back on last year, I can identify a lot of things that were successes. And I can identify a lot of things that were failures, even in what was overall seen as a pretty darn good year for the organization.

“That’s what we’ll do at the end of the season, sit back and take stock on that and hope that these are the types of questions we’re asked again next Opening Day. The fact that you’re asking that means a lot’s going right for this organization.

“That’s a good feeling, but it doesn’t mean anything. We have to go out and prove it. We have to go out and earn it. We have to go out and overcome the adversity. That process starts today.

“That’s how we’re wired as an organization. Not to sit here and judge exactly what a success might be or who’s starting what game of the playoffs. We have to go earn it. We have nothing. We have nothing but each other, talent, character and an opportunity.”

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The Cubs skipped the steppingstone season by winning 97 games and two playoff rounds last year – and then slamming on the accelerator this winter with almost $290 million spent on free agents.

The Cubs still had four 25-and-under players starting on Opening Day – Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler – for the first time since 1975. That critical mass of young talent means the buzz around this team is here to stay.

“Nothing’s promised in this game – or in life,” Epstein said. “Windows slam shut. People get run over by buses crossing the street. You can’t control everything. So you want to make the most of every day. You want to make the most of every opportunity.

“If you don’t get there, you want to make sure it wasn’t because you didn’t work hard enough, you weren’t aggressive enough, you weren’t committed enough. And I don’t think these players have that problem whatsoever.”

Looking physically recharged and emotionally refreshed after the greatest second half by any pitcher in the history of the game, Arrieta allowed only two hits and one walk across seven innings before the Cubs shut him down at 89 pitches.

“That’s a tone that we want to set early,” Arrieta said. “We were ready for this moment.”

A lineup with some American League thump generated 11 hits and seven walks. The Cubs made Garrett Richards throw 97 pitches before knocking the Angels starter out after five innings.

There was Dexter Fowler – Joe Maddon’s “You go, we go” leadoff guy who waited all winter for the big score in free agency only to return on a one-year, $13 million guarantee – beginning the game with a double to right field, scoring on Anthony Rizzo’s two-out single up the middle and getting on base three more times.

There was the designated hitter Soler – a young player who looked like he might get lost in the shuffle on an uber-team – smacking an RBI single past diving Gold Glove shortstop Andrelton Simmons for a 2-0 lead in the fourth inning.

There was Miguel Montero – a two-time All-Star catcher hitting in the eighth spot – blasting a two-run homer to put the game out of reach in the sixth inning.

“The way we grinded at-bats today is the winning formula,” Rizzo said.

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The Cubs are too deep and too talented to not be thinking about making history and unleashing the biggest party Chicago has ever seen. At the end of the night, you could hear the fans singing “Go Cubs Go” as they headed out toward the parking lots.

“Any time you don’t win the World Series, there’s some degree of disappointment,” Epstein said. “The expectations thing – I know it can kind of create the subtext that hangs over the club with every two-game losing streak or every game that goes wrong.

“Or every injury – people try to put it in the context of the ultimate goal of the World Series. But the reality is that’s not how we feel internally. We know it’s a grind. We know it’s a process. We know what we’re shooting for. We’re here to win the World Series.

“But you don’t think about that on a daily basis. You think about the challenges being presented to you, how you can overcome that, coming together as a team and an organization and working your tail off to move forward. That’s what drives us.”

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.