Why Joe Maddon won’t hit the panic button with slow-starting Cubs

Why Joe Maddon won’t hit the panic button with slow-starting Cubs

“If we haven’t reached rock bottom with this, we’re pretty damn close.” – Mike Quade, May 17, 2011.

If only all Cubs managers could have experienced Joe Maddon problems. Hit the panic button if Jon Lester wrecks his left shoulder while racing a dirt bike on his day off, or Jake Arrieta blows off an MRI and gets shut down with a torn lat muscle, or Kyle Hendricks parties to the point of a suspension for violation of team rules.

The San Francisco Giants might already be nearing a point of no return with Madison Bumgarner in 2017 and forced to think about selling at the trade deadline. The New York Mets are a three-ring circus, desperately trying to restore order with Noah Syndergaard and Matt Harvey and now closer Jeurys Familia diagnosed with an arterial clog in his right shoulder.

So while the Cubs never expected to be 17-17 and in fourth place in the National League Central by the middle of May, FanGraphs still gives them a 91.5-percent chance to make the playoffs. If you’re hoping for Maddon to publicly rip his players and storm out of a press conference, well, you haven’t been paying attention.

“Starting pitching drives the engine,” Maddon said. “When you’re doing that right, everything else has a better opportunity or chance. Your defense gets bigger. Contact is not as hard. Hitters don’t have to battle from behind all the time. There’s more pressure on the other side. All those things are interchangeable. They’re interconnected. So as we pitch better, we’ll play better.”

The next great hope for the pitching infrastructure is Eddie Butler, the change-of-scenery guy who will face the first-place St. Louis Cardinals on Friday night at Busch Stadium. Butler is a promising right-hander with top-prospect pedigree who pitched well at Triple-A Iowa – and put up a 6.50 ERA across parts of three seasons with the Colorado Rockies.

Whether or not Butler clicks, the turnaround will have to happen with Lester, Arrieta, Hendricks and John Lackey – the top four starters from the rotation that led the majors with a 2.96 ERA last season (while no other starting group dropped below 3.60).

The 2017 Cubs have a 4.56 rotation ERA with 13 quality starts through 34 games, putting an enormous strain on a much stronger bullpen and exposing some of the learning-on-the-job issues with the lineup.

The defending World Series champs deserve the benefit of the doubt. But if the stress from back-to-back playoff runs finally catches up to 30-something pitchers and a rotation that has stayed remarkably healthy, then the Baseball Prospectus playoff odds that are less bullish (77 percent) will plummet and Cubs fans will really have something to worry about.

“I have so much confidence in these hitters,” Maddon said. “If we were hitting like on all cylinders – literally hitting on all cylinders – and these starting pitchers were pitching to their optimal situations and you’re playing sort of like this, I would be upset or concerned.

“But I’m not. All these guys are going to play to their normal levels. We’ll pitch better. We’re definitely going to hit better. Overall, the defense, I think, is holding its own.”

Eh, “D-Peat” is an area where the Cubs aren’t playing with the same focus or sharpness. By Thursday morning, only two teams in the big leagues had committed more errors than the Cubs (27). The team that led the majors in defensive efficiency last year now ranks 20th in that category. The Cubs have already allowed 23 unearned runs after giving up 45 all last season.

Within the NL, the Cubs are still a middle-of-the-pack offensive team. Even with leadoff guy Kyle Schwarber striking out almost 30 percent of the time. Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward, Addison Russell and Willson Contreras are also at a sub-.700 OPS level (or anywhere from 32 to 100 points lower than the big-league average).

“You need to fail on the major-league level in order to understand how to dig yourself out of that hole,” Maddon said. “I really expect fully and anticipate struggles, and even with guys that had shown a lot of success last year. We have a really young and inexperienced team still.

“Even in spite of having two good seasons – and in spite of winning a World Series – we are young and inexperienced on a lot of different levels. So I really know we’re going to have problems. I know we’re going to mess up. I know we’re going to chase pitches. I know the process isn’t going to be right all the time. We might not think it all the way through.

“It’s part of the process, man. We’re still in good shape, record-wise. We’re still in good position. And we haven’t even played near our best baseball.”

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The talking points about being young and tired will get old and tired if the Cubs don’t start playing up to their own expectations. But the Cubs didn’t make Maddon one of the highest-paid managers in the game because of his Xs and Os. This isn’t about breaking down arm slots and launch angles or making more T-shirts or calling up Simon the Magician again. The sense of calm will radiate out from the manager’s office. 

“I read the newspapers,” Maddon said. “I read the front pages. I have kids. I have grandkids. I have a foundation where we deal with a lot of people in very difficult situations.

“At the end of the day, it’s a game. Listen, I want to win as badly as anybody. And I hate when we lose. I do carry it home sometimes. But I like to meditate in the morning. I like to get my thoughts together. Evaluate exactly what’s going on here. 

“Let’s not get carried away. Hyperbole has no place in all this stuff. But it has a tendency to creep in. Understand exactly what’s going on. Don’t exaggerate your plight.

“If you really want to get wrapped up and be a finger-pointer constantly, it’s a tough way to live your life.” 

Cubs first round pick Nico Hoerner makes unexpected visit to Wrigley Field


Cubs first round pick Nico Hoerner makes unexpected visit to Wrigley Field

There is nothing quite like visiting Wrigley Field for the first time, and for Cubs 2018 first round draft pick Nico Hoerner, his first visit to his future home park was special despite the circumstances being less than ideal. 

The 21-year-old shortstop drafted out of Stanford will miss the rest of the season due to a left elbow injury, which was examined by Cubs team doctors Thursday morning. It was concluded Hoerner suffered an injury to a ligament in his left elbow, but would not require surgery. 

But after finding out his season was likely done, he figured he'd at least stick around for the Thursday night Cubs game against the Cardinals. 

"I had no idea this was going to happen today," Said Hoerner. "I flew in from the Quad Cities this morning, saw the doctor and said [to the Cubs] 'Hey can I come to the field?" 

Hoerner was able to spend time with the Cubs during batting practice this afternoon, mentioning the conversations he had with the players, in particular, Anthony Rizzo who made a lasting mark on the young Cub prospect. 

"Rizzo pulled me over and introduced me to the group. He actually clumped everyone into guys who were drafted in the first round and guys who weren't." 

Hoerner also got the chance to speak with Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis, who seemed to have struck a chord with the shortstop. Hoerner said the conversation was 'refreshing' and focused less about what he needed to do with his swing and more about competing with the pitcher. 

As for the future for Hoerner, he'll start rehabbing in Arizona and focus on getting right for the start of next season. It wasn't clear if the Cubs planned on trying to get their top pick back on the field in 2018, but Hoerner looked impressive during his short time in the Cubs minor leagues. 

Slashing 327/.450/.571 in 60 professional at-bats, Hoerner was showing he belonged in this league, having just recently being promoted to the Cubs Low-A South Bend Cubs.

But he only managed four games before injuring his left elbow making a diving stop to his left. But Hoerner seemed in good spirits, showing a resiliency that exemplifies his future ballclub. 

"It's always a work in progress. Just like everybody, I'm working to get better." 


Brandon Morrow and the state of the Cubs bullpen ahead of the trade deadline

Brandon Morrow and the state of the Cubs bullpen ahead of the trade deadline

Brandon Morrow is getting an extended All-Star Break.

For the second time in the last month, the Cubs closer is heading to the disabled list to get another break, this time with inflammation in his right biceps.

That leaves the Cubs without their best relief pitcher — a guy with a 1.47 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 22 saves in 24 chances — for the next week as the team hits the ground running in the second half with 12 games in 11 days against the Cardinals and Diamondbacks.

"It's been bothering him a bit, but we thought it was manageable," Joe Maddon said before the Cubs kicked off play Thursday evening. "But now it's not [manageable], so just have to take a little bit of a break. 

"We don't anticipate him being gone for a long time, but it seems to be prudent to go this course right now."

Maddon pointed to a bit lower velocity Morrow had in San Diego Sunday and believes now is "the right time to back off for the latter part of the season."

The Cubs do have Carl Edwards Jr. back from the paternity list and the 26-year-old flamethrower already got a "break" of his own earlier this season when he missed about 5 weeks with a shoulder issue.

The word "break" is key here because that's how Maddon and the Cubs characterize these little stints on the disabled list.

After all, they are "breaks," even if they're not built into a season like the All-Star Break.

The Cubs want both Morrow and Edwards to be healthy and dynamic in late September and throughout the postseason in October. They've been uber-cautious about the two pitchers throughout their respective Cubs careers and a stint on the disabled list serves to save bullets and wear and tear on their right arms in the dog days of the season.

After all, Morrow has already appeared in 35 games this season, which he's only done once since 2008 — last year, when he pitched in 45 games. Morrow has a long history of arm issues, so the Cubs have given him plenty of slack as they try to keep him healthy for the most important stretch of the season.

But that's also why the Cubs are looking to add some reinforcements to the bullpen before the trade deadline. They were linked to Brad Hand before the lefty was traded to the Cleveland Indians Thursday and they've also been linked to Orioles closer Zach Britton.

If Britton's healthy, he could serve as a perfect fit for the Cubs as a rental with closing experience and a guy from the left side to help fill both needs in the Chicago bullpen.

The Cubs currently have Justin Wilson, Randy Rosario and Brian Duensing as left-handed options in the bullpen, but all are at varying levels of confidence at the moment.

Wilson still has some issues with control, but otherwise has been very good of late. Rosario is a rookie and his outlying numbers indicate his 1.95 ERA is a bit of a mirage. Duensing just recently returned from the DL himself and currently boasts a 6.59 ERA and 1.83 WHIP on the season.

Then there's Mike Montgomery, who right now has a stranglehold on a spot in the Cubs rotation while Yu Darvish gets healthy. There is currently no update on Darvish, which means Montgomery won't be moving back to the bullpen anytime soon.

With less than 2 weeks left until the trade deadline, Maddon would be all for adding another arm or two to his pitching staff.

"Sure. All of the pitching, they're definitely going to want to look at it," Maddon said. "Our numbers are among the best in the NL both overall and as a bullpen and then even into the starters.

"But you're always looking to make it better. That's what GMs do. We'll see how it all plays out. We're hoping the [Morrow] thing is a shorter situation, which we believe it will be."