Cubs

Why Maddon, Cubs opted to keep three catchers after Miguel Montero's return

Why Maddon, Cubs opted to keep three catchers after Miguel Montero's return

Joe Maddon loves bucking convention.

Whether it's forgoing batting practice or hitting the pitcher eighth, the Cubs manager doesn't play anything "by the book." 

So does it surprise anybody that he wanted to keep three catchers with Miguel Montero's return from the disabled list?

Instead of sending backup catcher Tim Federowicz back down to the minors, the Cubs sent outfielder Ryan Kalish out by designating him for assignment

The Cubs were already one bench spot short because of the decision to carry 13 pitchers, so another catcher on the roster essentially reduces the bench players to Javy Baez and Tommy La Stella (as of Saturday's starting lineup) plus that extra catcher.

Maddon likes the flexibility three catchers provides him, no matter how unconventional it may be.

"It gives us more freedom to do things in the latter part of the game," Maddon said. "You've seen us pull catchers early for different maneuvers and then, when you're going with just one guy into extra innings, it's never comfortable.

"But 'Fed' has kinda forced our hand to do this because he's played so well and he's looked so good. So that's how we chose to do it. It can change, obviously. But for right now, we thought it was the right thing to do."

Maddon has essentially had three catchers on the roster for most of his tenure as Cubs manager.

The Cubs broke camp last season with Welington Castillo joining Montero and David Ross on the 25-man roster before Castillo was traded May 19.

After Montero returned from a thumb injury last August, the Cubs moved Kyle Schwarber to the outfield, though still had him get some time behind the plate.

This season, the Cubs' plan was to roll with Schwarber, Montero and Ross (with Schwarber obviously playing a bunch in left field) before Schwarber's season-ending knee injury in the third game of the season.

Ross got the start Friday against Pirates left-hander Francisco Liriano and figures to be behind the dish again Sunday with Jon Lester pitching. 

Montero got the call Saturday against Pittsburgh southpaw Jeff Locke.

The Cubs could also get outfielder Matt Szczur (hamstring) back off the disabled list early in the coming week. 

Maddon said Szczur has been doing really well, working in the weight room. The young outfielder also took batting practice before Friday's game and the Cubs are encouraged with his progress.

When Szczur returns, Federowicz figures to be the odd man out on the 25-man roster, but who knows? Maybe that's just simply too conventional for Maddon's Cubs.

Ian Happ trying to force his way into Cubs second base picture

Ian Happ trying to force his way into Cubs second base picture

MESA, Ariz. — Don't write the obituary on Ian Happ's career as a second baseman just yet.

The versatile young player started 28 games at second base during his rookie year in 2017, but did not see a start in 2018 and played just 3 innings at the position the entire season.

Thats not a trend that typically bodes well for Happ's future at second base.

But it's not necessarily a trend that will continue.

After last season ended, Happ had a conversation with Maddon and was direct: He wants to be included in the second base picture.

"We were in contact several times," Maddon said Sunday. "One of the things I really like about Ian is that he is very lucid and transparent regarding what he's thinking and he brought that to my attention."

Happ has been clinging to his desire to play second base in much the same way Kyle Schwarber passionately stuck by his love for being a catcher. But as the Schwarber situation proved, you need more than just passion (though, undoubtedly, Schwarber's major knee injury in 2016 and that entire lost year of development played a factor in his scenario).

The Cubs drafted Happ with the 9th overall pick in 2015 out of the University of Cincinnati, where he spent time in both the infield and outfield. Coming out of college, there were concerns about Happ's ability to stick in the infield, but he started more games at second base (107) than he did in the outfield (30) over his 3 years in the minor-league system.

Last spring, there was a push for Happ as a primary outfielder for several reasons: 1) it was the position he was most likely going to end up at long-term and 2) the Cubs had more playing time available in the outfield with Jon Jay departing and the combination of Ben Zobrist and Javy Baez dominating time at second base.

This spring, things are quite a bit different. Baez will shift over to shortstop for at least the first month of the season and the second base picture is filled with a bunch of players (Zobrist, Daniel Descalso, David Bote) who can also play a host of other positions. (Nobody knows yet how Addison Russell fits into the picture if he returns from suspension.)

If Happ wanted another shot at proving his mettle at second base, now is as good a time as any.

But it won't be easy. Zobrist and Descalso have much more experience at the position and Bote is a natural second baseman who has already impressed the Cubs with his infield defense in his brief big-league career.

The switch-hitting Happ, meanwhile, still figures to see a good amount of playing time in the outfield as a potential platoon option to Jason Heyward (right field), Albert Almora Jr. (center field) and Kyle Schwarber (left field). Happ will also back up the corner infield spots as he did last year.

"He made it clear to me he wants to be considered to play second base," Maddon said. "...He wants for me and us to know that he'll do whatever it takes to get in the lineup. If we're facing a lefty or whatever and he wants in the lineup or a righty and the outfield's set up a certain way, he knows there might be an option somewhere else to play if we want to move it around or just give somebody a day off. He's smart. It's just about him wanting to get into the lineup."

Happ has only played 263.1 innings at second base in the majors and the Cubs would like to see him grow as a defender, though they understand he needs reps to continue to develop.

"When you watch him, he's still a work in progress when it comes to being — for lack of a better term — a little bit more smooth, but then again, he's effective," Maddon said. "I've seen some really good defenders that aren't necessarily this Spalding guy, but they don't make mistakes. Probably just [improving his] lateral range, going to his right as much as anything, backhanding, throwing that ball. He's got a really strong arm; he can complete a double play.

"It's just a nuance — the lateral movement nuance of the position. But he's smart — he knows where to be, he knows where cutoffs and relays occur, he knows all that stuff. It's just like this repetitive thing, I would say for me in my mind's eye - going over [to the right] more smoothly to make that play would be something optimal for him.

"He's not the Spalding guy all the time, but he's pretty effective out there. I think it's just repetition."

The Cubs aren't guaranteeing Happ playing time at second base or anything like that. But at the very least, it appears they're open to giving him a legitimate shot this spring to potentially earn an opportunity in the regular season.

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Phillies reportedly willing to meet Bryce Harper's price tag

Phillies reportedly willing to meet Bryce Harper's price tag

MESA, Ariz. — We may finally be nearing a resolution in the Bryce Harper free agency saga at just the right time.

Spring training begins in earnest Monday with position players officially reporting around the league and Harper may not be far behind.

USA TODAY's Bob Nightengale reported Sunday evening the Philadelphia Phillies are reportedly willing to meet Harper's price tag and give him more than the $300 million, 10-year deal the Washington Nationals offered before the season ended:

Keep in mind, Nightengale is not reporting a done deal and the key word is Harper "appears" to have found a team willing to meet his price tag in the Phillies.

But this is one of those "big, if true" situations that portends a potential conclusion to Harper's 3.5-month free agency tour.

The Cubs ruled themselves out of the Harper Sweepstakes back at the very beginning of the offseason due to a bloated payroll for 2019 and a budget that doesn't have the room for the salary Harper is about to make.

The Phillies have been rumored to be in on Harper from Day 1 and owner John Middleton famously said his team may spend "stupid" money this winter. They've been very aggressive this offseason trying to build around a young core and improve upon thhe 80 wins they put up a season ago.

The Phillies have already signed Andrew McCutchen and David Robertson and traded for Jean Segura and J.T. Realmuto in the last couple months while also giving ace Aaron Nola a long-term extension.

Adding Harper to the mix would be a huge boost to the Phillies' chances in what is shaping up to be a very competitive National League East.

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