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 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


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.