Cubs

Where does Justin Grimm fit in Cubs bullpen?

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Where does Justin Grimm fit in Cubs bullpen?

MESA, Ariz. — It's still early in spring training (Cactus League games haven't even started yet), but it's already a given Justin Grimm will be a part of the Cubs' Opening Day bullpen if healthy.

The question is: In what role?

Joe Maddon isn't one to adopt or announce specific roles for pitchers in his bullpens, but when asked Monday, the Cubs manager offered up another year of the 27-year-old right-hander filling in as the team's "mid-innings closer" again while acknowledging there is room for that role to expand.

"Yeah, I do," Maddon said. "He could keep growing. This guy's got the kind of stuff that finishes games. I think as he pitches more consistently, as he gets older, you'll see more.

"He's got great stuff. He's got a great attitude. He's a great teammate. He's all of the above. As he gets more comfortable mentally just handling the latter part of the game, he'll be able to do it.

"Going into this year, I'd be happy if he was able to fulfill the same role he did last year."

[RELATED: Cubs set pitching rotation for beginning of Cactus League schedule]

Grimm, however, sees things a little differently. He wants the ball in the late innings in high-pressure situations.

"I've talked to Joe about it. He knows I value myself more than that middle relief connotation they put on it," Grimm said. "I think we're on the same page with that — me and Joe are.

"I'm just here to help this team get to what we want to do. I gotta put my personal things to the side for the team."

Grimm dropped the standard company line in Cubs camp, as everybody works toward pulling the rope in the same direction.

[RELATED: Maddon continues to do 'whatever it takes' to bring Cubs together with crazy Leap Day celebration]

But it still represents a shift in thinking for Grimm, who mentioned each of the last two years that he still envisions himself a starter in the big leagues, but now has taken to the relieving role.

"I truly think I'm getting better with it," Grimm said. "Learning day-to-day, what it takes to stay strong, stay fresh.

"It's just getting that mindset. I think I'm continuing to grow with it."

Grimm has found success as a reliever since coming to the Cubs from the Texas Rangers in the Matt Garza back in July 2013.

In 2014, he led the Cubs in appearances, putting up a 3.78 ERA in 73 games.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Last year, he got a late start to the season with a forearm injury, but still wound up with 15 holds, three saves and a 1.99 ERA in 62 games.

Grimm also struck out 67 batters in 49.2 innings, ranking ninth in Major League Baseball in K/9 (12.1) among pitchers with at least 40 innings — right up there with some of the top closers in the game like Aroldis Chapman (15.7 K/9), Andrew Miller (14.6), Kenley Jansen (13.8) and Craig Kimbrel (13.2).

This year, regardless of role, Grimm just wants to keep the momentum rolling. He feels comfortable in all his pitches, but knows he needs to use his fastball, too.

"I just wanna build off last year," Grimm said. "It was a great year, but I always expect more out of myself. I'd like to tone down the walks.

"I have the kind of stuff where I'm able to attack the zone and pitch within the zone. I'm just realizing that I have to be on the attack more. I'm at my best when I'm going right after guys."

Tom Ricketts thinks Cubs 'have the best team in our division'

Tom Ricketts thinks Cubs 'have the best team in our division'

For the first time since 2015, expectations around the Cubs aren’t that high.

Sure, a significant core from the 2016 World Series-winning team is still around, but also for the first time since 2015 the Cubs are coming off a season in which they did not make the playoffs. Plus, the offseason hasn’t inspired much confidence that the team will improve upon its 84-win season from 2019.

Despite that, owner Tom Ricketts talked the talk about his team still being the best in the NL Central.

“I think we have the best team in our division,” Ricketts said during a press conference from spring training on Monday. “I think we have a really dynamic, exciting new manager. I think the players are going to play very, very hard for David Ross. Barring some kind of crazy injuries I think we should win our division and get back in the playoffs.”

The Cubs’ offseason lacked a notable addition on paper. Here, Ricketts is alluding to Ross being that big addition. If things had gotten stale under Joe Maddon, perhaps that was a reason for underachievement last year. Expecting Ross to be the biggest reason for a turnaround is a lot to put on a rookie manager with no coaching experience, but it would be weird if Ricketts didn’t hype up his own guy.

Recent Cubs’ signing Jason Kipnis said the same things about the Cubs having the best roster in the division on paper. Kipnis told a story about texting Anthony Rizzo about that when he talked to the media from Mesa on Sunday.

“They got a good core here. I’m well aware of that, they’re well aware of that, too,” Kipnis said. “I texted him and called him and asked him what happened last year, because I look at rosters, I look at St. Louis’, I look at all that, and I’m like, ‘I still would take your guys' roster.’”

The early projections don’t agree with Ricketts and Kipnis. The Cubs are not favored in the division as projected by USA Today, which put the Cubs at 82 wins, and PECOTA, which had the Cubs averaging 84.5 wins.

Still, Ricketts believes in his group to get to the playoffs.

“Once you’re in the playoffs there’s no reason to think you won’t go all the way,” Ricketts said. “I think one of the things that people realize about baseball playoffs is it doesn’t matter what your record was during the season. Everyone has a chance to go all the way. So that’s what we have to do. We have to get back on top of our division and I think we have the right guys to do that.”

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Steven Souza's healthy and ready to prove himself to Cubs fans and baseball in general

Steven Souza's healthy and ready to prove himself to Cubs fans and baseball in general

MESA, Ariz. –  Two years ago, things were looking bright for Steven Souza. At 28, he was coming off the best season of his career, one where he slashed .239/.351/.459 with 30 home runs, good for a 121 wRC+. The Rays are certainly never prohibitive favorites in the AL East, but the team was talented and the idea of catching up with the division’s juggernauts was no longer unrealistic. 

Then came the shoulder injury, which delayed the start of his 2018 season until mid-May. After that there was a pec injury, and before he knew it, the year was over and the right fielder had only played in 72 games. Think that’s bad? The following season, now playing for Arizona, Souza slipped while crossing home plate during one of the last games of Spring Training. He tore his ACL, and his season ended before it began. 

“It’s been a grind,” said Souza, who signed a one-year deal with the Cubs in late January. “Coming off the year I had in ‘17, I was excited for the future held for me, and I just kind of ran into a couple injuries that really derailed my last couple seasons. It’s been frustrating, but all that’s behind me, and even though it’s been a grind, I’m excited to get back out here and look forward to the future.” 

Freak injuries derailed what looked to be a promising prime of Souza’s career, and you wouldn’t blame him for harboring his fair share of resentment. It’s impressive, then, to hear him talk about what lasting effect the run of injuries has had on his psyche. 

“Personally, I don’t believe in accidents,” he said. “I believe everything happens for a reason. I don’t know what that reason was, but I know that I’m stronger for it. Mentally, I think if there’s a silver lining, it’s that I got to spend a full year with my son and my newborn daughter. As we all know, in this game, we don’t get to spend a lot of time with our families. So it was a huge blessing and I’m looking forward to moving on from that.” 

Unlike the years he spent playing alongside All-Star center fielders like Kevin Kiermaier and A.J. Pollock, Souza’s outfield positioning will be less set in stone with the Cubs. He’ll get ABs from the corners, but with Schwarber and Heyward not losing their starting positions anytime soon, the quickest road to more at-bats may come in center field. 

"Like I said, wherever I need to fit on the field,” he said. “Whether it’s first base, catcher, shortstop – I mean I’m not very good at those, and there are some really, really good players that are way better than me at those – but I’m just looking to help this team any way I can.” 

Not unlike new teammate Jason Kipnis, the draw of Wrigley was also too much to turn down. He has some moderate success there, too. Over 23 career plate appearances in the Friendly Confines, Souza’s hit .333/.391/.429 with an .820 OPS. It’s a small sample size, but it’s one that has him optimistic that he can prove himself the the North Side’s faithful. 

“I’ll tell you what, that was one of the things that brought me here, the fans and the environment. I’m super pumped,” he said. “And no offense, but I’ve played in Tampa and Arizona and those aren’t the greatest markets in the league. I’ve always enjoyed going to Wrigley, and I’ve had some good success at Wrigley, and I know the Cubs fans bring it every day and I’m looking forward to that.” 

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