War of attrition: Cubs feel at ease with starting pitching depth

War of attrition: Cubs feel at ease with starting pitching depth

MESA, Ariz. — Opening Day is still more than three weeks off, but the Cubs are already preparing for doomsday scenarios with the pitching staff.

Of course, that's not really a change of pace from years past. The old adage — "you can never have too much pitching" — rings true for just about every organization each season.

Even after winning the World Series last year and tallying 200 victories across the past two regular seasons, the Cubs knew they needed to add pitching depth this winter.

The starting rotation has stayed remarkably healthy the last two years: In 2015, the top four guys all made at least 31 starts while last year, the top five guys accounted for 152 starts in the 162-game regular season.

The Cubs can't count on that kind of durability each season. 

Jason Hammel was the only starting pitcher to depart from 2016 while Theo Epstein's front office took low-risk/high-reward gambles on injury-prone Brett Anderson, former top prospect Eddie Butler and unproven Alec Mills. Plus there's swingman Mike Montgomery, whom the Cubs acquired from the Seattle Mariners before last summer's trade deadline. Casey Kelly — a former first-round pick by Epstein's front office in Boston in 2008 — started a "B" game for the Cubs Thursday against the Los Angeles Angels.

[RELATED - Looking at Casey Kelly and where the Cubs are placing next bets on pitching]

Ahead of Thursday's Cactus League game against the Mariners, Joe Maddon confirmed he's still looking at Montgomery and Anderson as a hybrid role to fill the fifth starter spot.

The two southpaws pitched the first four innings  of the Cubs' 8-6 loss to the Mariners, allowing three runs on eight hits.

The plan is for Butler and Mills — the two guys the Cubs acquired in the weeks before pitchers and catchers reported to Arizona — to head to Triple-A Iowa, where they'll represent insurance options should the big-league rotation get hammered with injuries.

"When you leave camp and you have no starting backup that you dig in Triple-A, that's a bad feeling, man," Maddon said. "So when you can line them up on the tarmac in Triple-A that way, it really makes a huge difference.

"Fortunately, we've been relatively healthy the last couple years and we're looking forward to the same kind of health this year. However, stuff happens. And to have that same kind of quality in the background is comforting because you need that.

"Anytime you can line up 6-7-8, even 9, in Triple-A, that's kinda neat."

Mills - acquired from the Kansas City Royals in a trade when he was designated for assignment to make room on the roster for Hammel — said he wasn't expecting to be traded the week before pitchers and catchers reported.

"The Royals DFA'd me and I got traded within three, four hours. So it was kinda whirlwind," said Mills, who had to switch gears in a hurry and figure out place to live with a new team just a few days before his 2017 season started.

Mills, 25, has a 3.03 career ERA in 94 minor-league games (67 starts), but only 58 innings at the big-league level. He's enjoying camp in the laid back, loose atmosphere the Cubs have built.

He knows it's a longshot for him to break camp with the 25-man roster, but the Cubs told him to be ready for anything and that's what he plans on doing.

Butler, meanwhile, has significantly more experience in the majors, starting 28 games for the Colorado Rockies over the last three seasons and tossing 159.1 innings.

The former Top 25 prospect understands he's in a dogfight for a spot on the big-league roster and isn't willing to resign to a role of Triple-A depth just yet.

However, Butler — who won three straight state championships in high school — is thrilled to get a chance to pitch for a winning club and like any pitcher, is glad his home ballpark resides at sea level instead of Coors Field, a hitter's paradise.

"I'm very happy about the opportunities that I have ahead of me here, working with [Cubs pitching coach Chris] Bosio and winning — coming out here and trying to repeat what happened last year," Butler said. "The start of a dynasty."

Montgomery would prefer to be a starter than in the bullpen — a common sentiment among most pitchers — but a little over a year ago, he thought he may have to go to Japan to continue his playing career.

Now the 27-year-old has a save from Game 7 of the World Series on his resume and has a chance to be a big part of the Cubs pitching staff for the next few years.

Thursday, Montgomery faced off against his former team and admitted he had plenty of adrenaline going even though it was only a spring training game.

"It's been a wild ride, but I think it just comes down to me believing in what I do as a pitcher. I always have," Montgomery said. "Knowing that it takes time to develop and to learn how to pitch and learn how to get hitters out with your stuff.

"I feel good with it now. I'm excited moving forward. I know last year at this time, I was in a lot different spot. ... To see where I was last year to now, it's a big jump. 

"You always gotta work hard, because you never know what can happen in this game. So just take that mindset and go forward with it."

Cubs' 'super frightening' close call in St. Louis shows how fragile season is

Cubs' 'super frightening' close call in St. Louis shows how fragile season is

All the Cubs wanted before leaving for the ballpark in St. Louis on Friday was “just reassurance” before playing one of the two teams in the majors that had endured a major COVID-19 outbreak.

“And they assured us they were going to communicate every detail of why we should be on the field,” Cubs manager David Ross said.

Ross spoke Saturday morning via Zoom from Chicago — that fact itself a reminder of the details that started pin-balling from all the wrong directions Friday morning.

“It’s just another one of those reminders of how quick things can get out of control right now in this environment,” said Ross, whose team learned early enough to avoid even showing up at Busch Stadium and to reschedule its charter to land at O’Hare before 8 p.m. Friday.

Ross called the communication from Major League Baseball and the Cardinals “outstanding.”

But he paused when asked about just how close their near-miss with the coronavirus was this weekend.

As in: What if the three Cardinals who tested positive Friday (after reportedly being exposed Wednesday) hadn’t gotten their positive results until Saturday instead — after spending Friday night in the same building and on the field with the Cubs?

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“I hadn’t looked at it like that,” Ross said. “It shows how fast it can get out of control. That part of the virus is super frightening.”

At least two of the 16 Cardinals players and staff known to have tested positive in the last 10 days are said to have symptoms, the severity of which are unclear.

But even beyond that reminder of the health-risk roll of the dice for each individual (and his family), Friday’s close call for the Cubs underscores just how fragile baseball’s attempt at a two-month season is.

“We send our best to the Cardinals and those players. It’s a scary time,” Ross said, “and we all want baseball to move forward and guys to be healthy.”

The Cubs are the only team in the league, through at least Friday, who have not had a player test positive.

Two teams, including the Marlins, already have had major outbreaks, with the Cardinals into their second week of postponed series and sleepless nights for their president of baseball operations.

“I don’t know what really our future looks like at this point,” Cards president John Mozeliak said, according to Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Experts who we consulted with gave us advice that we could take that next step forward. I don’t know what the right answer is. Is it two days? Is it five days? Is it 10 days? Or is it two weeks?

“The whole country, the whole world, is facing these same questions. We’re just caught in the middle of it.”

Along with everybody else in baseball.

The Cardinals have played only five games, and their next series, against Pittsburgh, reportedly is on the verge of being postponed as well.

The Cubs’ next opponent, Cleveland, has 16 games in the books with Saturday’s game against the White Sox.

Fifty days remain in the scheduled 60-game season after Saturday.

The 10-3 Cubs have it better than most, even with the lost series against the Cardinals — a postponement that for now looks more like a cause to celebrate than for disappointment.

But what does the league do if the virus doesn’t allow the Cardinals to play by the end of the week? And what if a third team — or a fourth — experiences an outbreak.

And just how close did the Cubs come to becoming that third team if they had played a game or two of that series with asymptomatic, infected Cardinals unwittingly on the same field.

When the Cardinals’ outbreak initially unfolded while the team was in Milwaukee last weekend, one result was Brewers star center fielder Lorenzo Cain becoming one of four players in a two-day span to opt out of playing the rest of the season.

RELATED: Tracking MLB players who have opted out or declined to play

“It’s 2020, where we know we’ve got to take it one day at a time,” Ross said. “We’ve talked about that from the start.”

The Cubs and almost everybody in the league — including Mozeliak’s Cardinals — seem to have taken the health risk and hyper-contagious nature of COVID-19 seriously enough for most of the schedule to be played so far.

The Cardinals, in fact, invested in equipment years ago they have used since to sanitize visiting clubhouses on the road ahead of players occupying them.

The Cubs have exceeded MLB standard safety protocols with impressive enough results that other teams have reached out to discuss their methods.

And yet the Cardinals’ season hangs by a thread. And the Cubs, for all their precautions, might have sidestepped direct exposure by a matter of a few hours, a few reliable tests, and luck.

By extension, if not by definition, the league’s season also hangs by a thread.

“I think we all know that this season is just really a year of who can adjust to a little bit of adversity and some change,” Ross said. “And that’s going to be throughout the season. We know that. And we’ll continue to push forward.”


How David Ross plans to keep Cubs 'sharp' after Cardinals series postponed

How David Ross plans to keep Cubs 'sharp' after Cardinals series postponed

One phone call Friday morning set in motion a reversal of the Cubs’ weekend plans. Instead of battling the Cardinals in a three-game series at Busch Stadium, they were heading home to Chicago and had four off days to fill before their next game.

“I think it's a little bit of a reset for us,” Cubs manager David Ross said Saturday, “ … and we’ve got continue to try to stay as sharp as we possibly can, get back to maybe work on a few things we might want to clean up in this downtime, and use it to our advantage as best we can.”

With the Cubs’ weekend series against the Cardinals postponed, due to three more members of the Cardinals organization testing positive for COVID-19, Ross said he gave the Cubs position players the option to take Saturday off. For the pitchers, it was a light workout day, a chance to throw a bullpen.

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The Cubs plan to play a simulated game Sunday and have a “fun” competition on Monday, Ross said.

Other aspects of the Cubs’ path forward remain unclear, like when will they make up the postponed series. And even more pressing, which pitcher will start on Tuesday at Cleveland?

Ross said he and his coaches have talked about how the schedule adjustment will affect the starting rotation, but there are still discussions to be had with the pitching staff.

Left-hander Jon Lester, who was supposed to start on Friday, was among those scheduled to throw a bullpen session Saturday.

“Jon especially, a veteran guy, knows how to take care of himself and knows how to back off or give a little more,” Ross said. “…There's no substitute for competition. I think we all know that. And getting out there against another jersey is important. It is important to stay sharp, physically and mentally, and staying ready. But we have a ton of professionals.”

He pointed to the almost four months of off time between the cancellation of Spring Training and the start of the regular season.

 Kyle Hendricks, for example, prepared for the accelerated summer camp so well that he threw a complete game on Opening Day. Any reshuffling of the rotation’s schedule couldn’t be nearly as much of a challenge.

“It's 2020, where we know we've got to take it one day at a time,” Ross said. “… We were planning to play St. Louis, they told us we weren't, so we came home and we adjusted. And we'll do that as best we can to continue this season.”

Ross had been hoping for a different kind of phone call on Friday morning. The Cardinals traveling party produced no new positive COVID-19 tests for consecutive days before MLB cleared the team to return to St. Louis and resume their schedule. The week prior, 13 players and staff members had tested positive.

“Going into it, with all that was going on, we were hoping to hear some news that morning, or just a reassurance,” Ross said, “and they had assured us that they were going to communicate every detail of why they thought we should be on the field.”

Instead, the Cubs received word that Friday’s game had been postponed. Ross described Major League Baseball’s communication as “outstanding.”

The Cubs support staff adjusted on the fly. Director of Major League travel and clubhouse operations Vijay Tekchandani contacted United Airlines to set up a return flight. Team dietitian Jordan Brown arranged for meals at the hotel that weren’t originally on the schedule.

“A lot of adjustments on their part,” Ross said, “and making sure everybody was comfortable and had some downtime but had some space to just get out of their room.”

Tekchandani had chosen a hotel with an outdoor patio that the players could use without running into other hotel guests and while practicing social distancing.

Around 5 p.m., the team learned that the rest of the series had been canceled. Less than an hour later, a bus was at the hotel to take the Cubs to the airport. They were back in Chicago before 8 p.m..

“Everybody was good yesterday,” Ross said of the players. “If I go back to my playing days, no matter what, you kind of welcome an off day in the middle of a long stretch. So, the first off day is always nice, nice and relaxing.”

The Cubs were off to a 10-3 start, in what was originally scheduled to be 17 straight games without an off day. Between a rainout in Cincinnati and the COVID-19 related postponement this weekend, that hasn’t been the case.

Now, the Cubs face a different kind of challenge: carrying momentum through a weekend off.