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."

How the Cubs, John Baker, are navigating the mental challenges of 2020

How the Cubs, John Baker, are navigating the mental challenges of 2020

The Cubs have spent months fortifying Wrigley Field against the outside world.

It’s supposed to be somewhere they feel safe, from the coronavirus pandemic, racial injustice, record unemployment rates. Even just for a few hours.

But even Wrigley’s ivy-covered walls aren’t impenetrable.

“I just feel like every day there’s something new,” Cubs manager David Ross said on Monday. “And I hope … our world gets back to being better in so many ways: health, society, emotionally, trying to get back to loving one another as best we can, as human beings.”

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The Cubs anticipated that mental health would be especially important this season and gave mental skills coach John Baker Tier 1 access. That way MLB’s health and safety protocols wouldn’t limit his in-person conversations with players and coaches.

“I think he’s handing it great,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said. “I think he deserves credit, and so do the players for being there for each other and be willing to talk about the challenges we all face and anxieties we all face.”

As people across the country have experienced, those anxieties are ever-mounting and ever-present.

At work, the Cubs are risking their health – and the health of those who live with them – to make a living and play a game they love. And hopefully provide fans with “levity and distraction,” as Hoyer put it.

Pregame interviews never conclude without a mention of the coronavirus. There’s always some sort of news between the Marlins’ and Cardinals’ outbreaks, commissioner Rob Manfred’s comments, and other teams violating protocols.

Then, at home their escapes are limited.

“This is a hard sport and it's a sport of failure,” Hoyer said, “and you want to be able to have some levity in your life that isn't this job of failure. And I think that not having that I think has created player health issues and we haven't had before.”

So, the Cubs built a little levity into their practice on Monday. The Cubs hadn't played a game in four days because their weekend series at St. Louis was postponed after the Cardinals had three more positive test. On Monday, Ross and his coaching staff put on a  “fun” competition, involving obstacles and target practice.

“I thought the way Rossy and the coaches and the players handled this break right now has been perfect,” Hoyer said. “I think they realize that in 2020 there's going to be strange things happen. You're going to have  breaks, and you're going to have doubleheaders, and there's nothing you can do about those things. You just have to roll with the punches, and you can't be upset by them.”

Next, they head to Cleveland to play a team that just had players violate protocol while in Chicago to play the White Sox.

Zach Plesac apologized for leaving the team hotel to go out, and he traveled back to Cleveland via car service to remain separated from the team in case of infection. But Mike Clevenger, who ESPN reported went out with Plesac, flew home with the team. He will be quarantined instead of starting against the Cubs on Tuesday.

Another anxiety to face.  

“How do I keep these guys in the moment?” Baker said. “They do it themselves. We have players that love playing baseball. I see it in the smiles on the faces now that they’re back on the field.”

That’s how they fortified Wrigley Field.


Cubs' Javier Báez, wife Irmarie are expecting a second child

Cubs' Javier Báez, wife Irmarie are expecting a second child

Cubs shortstop Javier Báez made a big announcement on Monday: he and his wife, Irmarie, are expecting a second child. 

Báez revealed the news in an adorable social media post with the help of his 2-year-old son, Adrian.

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Congrats to the Báez family!

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