Cubs

Why Cubs believe in Kyle Hendricks and his sneaky-good potential

Why Cubs believe in Kyle Hendricks and his sneaky-good potential

Maybe Kyle Hendricks would inevitably be overshadowed in a rotation featuring the National League’s reigning Cy Young Award winner (Jake Arrieta), a $155 million All-Star lefty (Jon Lester) and a Texas cowboy who also has two World Series rings (John Lackey). Not to mention a Cubs team identified with zoo animals, dance parties and an explosive offense.

The low-key personality, sense of calm and sharp focus that’s allowed Hendricks to survive in The Show – and also earn an economics degree from Dartmouth College – certainly plays into that perception as well. 

But there’s no denying what Hendricks means to the Cubs as an extremely reliable fifth starter for the team with the best record in baseball – in what’s shaping up to be a very shallow market for pitching at this summer’s trade deadline and this winter’s upcoming class of free agents.  

Hendricks had to become a huge part of the story after almost throwing a complete-game shutout during Saturday afternoon’s 4-1 win over the Philadelphia Phillies in front of 41,555 at Wrigley Field. 

“What you saw today – that’s what you could get out of him,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He’s 88-89 (mph) with the really good changeup and he broke out the hooks a couple times. But he’s good against lefties and righties when everything’s working. And he can keep the ball on the ground, which is really important in this ballpark. 

“Right now, what you’re seeing, to me, is not a reach by any means. This is what he can look like very, very consistently.”

Hendricks needed only 104 pitches to throw his complete game, allowing five hits and finishing with seven strikeouts against zero walks. The Phillies (26-23) scored their only run in the ninth inning, after second baseman Ben Zobrist and right fielder Jason Heyward lost a flyball in the sun. Freddy Galvis got credited with a double and later scored on the throw to first base to complete a Ryan Howard strikeout, taking advantage of the extreme defensive shift against Philadelphia’s fading slugger.   

Hendricks (3-4, 2.93 ERA) has thrown at least five innings in each of his nine starts so far this season. He made 32 starts last year and finished with a sub-4.00 ERA and a very good strikeout-to-walk ratio (167:43). He’s 26 years old and can’t become a free agent until after the 2020 season.

“Now his confidence is back on, because he knows he can use the curveball as well,” catcher Miguel Montero said. “There were so many ways to go, because everything was working.

“It’s huge (when) it’s not just fastball-changeup. He’s got another weapon to go to sometimes. And, obviously, as a hitter, you know it’s three pitches (now in play). It’s a little bit more uncomfortable for a hitter. You don’t know what you’re going to look for.”  

Hendricks beat Zack Greinke and the Arizona Diamondbacks in his first start this season – and lost a 1-0 decision to Madison Bumgarner and the San Francisco Giants in his previous start. Not that Hendricks is about to start pounding his chest on the mound or running his mouth in the interview room. 

“I’m pretty confident, but it doesn’t really matter much,” Hendricks said. “All that matters is going out there and making pitches. It’s back to work this week, (throw) my bullpen, stay where I’m at in my lane and keep the ball down with some angle.” 

Cubs reportedly ‘exceptionally impressed’ by Joe Espada in managerial search

Cubs reportedly ‘exceptionally impressed’ by Joe Espada in managerial search

As the Cubs peruse over their list of managerial candidates, one name reportedly made a strong impression following his interview with the team.

According to NBC Sports Chicago’s David Kaplan, Astros bench coach Joe Espada left the Cubs front office “exceptionally impressed” following his interview on Monday.

Espada, 44, has spent the last two seasons as Astros bench coach following three seasons as Yankees third base coach. He is one of MLB’s more sought after managerial candidates this winter and one of three known external candidates for the Cubs’ opening, along with Joe Girardi and Gabe Kapler.

Former Cubs catcher and current front office assistant David Ross has been the presumed front runner for the Cubs' opening. But based on Kaplan’s report, Espada clearly has given Epstein and Co. something to think about, which makes sense, considering Espada is coming from an innovative Astros organization.

Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference that there’s no timeline for the Cubs’ managerial search. However, MLB prefers teams to not make big announcements during the World Series, which kicks off on Oct. 22. Thus, the Cubs may not make an announcement for little while longer, though this is purely speculation.

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The curious case of Brad Wieck and his unique opportunity with the Cubs

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AP

The curious case of Brad Wieck and his unique opportunity with the Cubs

If anybody thought the Cubs' 2019 season was a roller coaster, it was nothing compared to what Brad Wieck has gone through this year.

Wieck — the 6-foot-9 left-handed reliever — went from a cancer diagnosis to a Padres cast-off and wound up finishing the year carving through the heart of the Cardinals order in the eighth inning of a must-win game in late-September for the Cubs.

Wieck began 2019 with a testicular cancer diagnosis in January and underwent surgery shortly after. That left him playing catch-up all spring training, unable to lift, run or throw off a mound for a month after the surgery. He only ended up facing live hitters twice before the regular season started and was never able to recover with the Padres, putting up a 5.71 ERA in 34.2 MLB innings. 

Then the Cubs came calling.

While the rest of Cubdom was understandably occupied on Trade Deadline Day celebrating the Nick Castellanos move, Theo Epstein's front office made a smaller move with the San Diego Padres. And Wieck wasn't even the central focus of that trade, as more of the emphasis was on the departure of Carl Edwards Jr. — a polarizing figure in the Cubs bullpen the last few seasons, including throughout the 2016 World Series run.

Yet Epstein's front office didn't treat Wieck like a throw-in. From Day 1 with the organization, the Cubs handled the southpaw more like a first-round draft pick.

Right after the trade, Wieck was immediately assigned to Triple-A Iowa, where he made a pair of appearances against the Tacoma Rainiers. From there, he was invited to Chicago to meet with the Cubs front office and throw a bullpen off the Wrigley Field mound.

"So I got here and they had a whole presentation of what my current curveball looked like and what they would like the shape of it to look like and so we just started messing around with grip," Wieck said. "I went to a spike curveball grip and we got in the lab and we started throwing it more and we came up with consistent break of what we thought was gonna be a better break than the curveball that I had.

"Just trial and error, honestly. We just looked at Rapsodo stuff and saw what spin efficiency is doing and spin rate and trying to get my curveball spin to replicate the exact opposite of my fastball. That's what our goal was."

That led to a trip to the "Pitch Lab" in Arizona where Wieck worked with Josh Zeid, the Cubs' pitching analyst, to continue to mess around with the new curveball grip and add a new, consistent weapon to his arsenal. 

If the term "spike curveball" sounds familiar, it should. It's become the unofficial pitch of the Cubs (you know, if organizations defined themselves by just one pitch). Rowan Wick — Wieck's former roommate in the Padres system — broke out as a trusted big-league reliever in large part because of the emergence of his spike curve. Craig Kimbrel throws one and also taught the pitch to Yu Darvish, who added it to the plethora of options already at his disposal. 

Wieck's time in Arizona was about getting comfortable with the new pitch and not worrying about facing hitters or pitching in a game. After a couple weeks in the desert, the Cubs threw him back out on the mound in Iowa, where he made four appearances before getting the call to the big leagues when rosters expanded in September. 

Right off the bat, we got a look at that spike curve and there is no doubt it can play at Wrigley Field, especially when the shadows roll in:

Just like that, a new weapon was born and Wieck developed more confidence in that reshaped curveball.

"I like that they're forcing me to throw it more because I've been a fastball-heavy pitcher my whole life," Wieck said. "I trust my fastball with my life. To have a catcher get back there and make you throw it, that's really good."

The Cubs' confidence in Wieck also grew as the month went on. He emerged alongside his buddy Wick as vital pieces of the late-season bullpen while Kimbrel and Brandon Kintzler dealt with injuries. It got to the point where Joe Maddon kept Wieck in to face the Cardinals' big boppers (Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna — both right-handed hitters) with a 1-run lead in the eighth inning on that final homestand. We all know how that game ended (Kimbrel served up homers on back-to-back pitches for another gut-wrenching Cubs loss), but Wieck did his job and proved he's far more than just a lefty specialist.

This fall was the first time Wieck had been a part of a playoff push and that outing against the Cardinals was only the 46th MLB appearance of his young career. Moving into 2020, the 28-year-old southpaw looks to be one of only a few arms penciled into the Cubs bullpen. 

The Cubs had their eyes on Wieck for a while before they were able to trade for him and they don't plan on rolling out a big presentation for each acquisition or ask every new arm to start throwing a brand new pitch or completely remake one of their existing pitches. This was a unique situation, but it's one that already paid dividends in a short period of time and could help set up the bullpen for the future. 

It's also another indicator that the "Pitch Lab" can work, as Wieck joins Wick and Kyle Ryan as products of the Cubs' new model they hope to fine-tune and grow. Epstein will hire a director of pitching for the organization this winter and the Cubs are hoping to change the narrative surrounding their shocking lack of pitching development under this front office. 

In Wieck's case, it was a group effort from the Cubs — the front office, research and development department, big-league coaching staff (led by pitching coach Tommy Hottovy), the pitching analytics unit based in Arizona and minor league pitching coordinator Brendan Sagara all teamed up to make it happen for the tall lefty in only a month's time.

It's a model the organization will attempt to duplicate moving forward, beginning this winter.