Why Theo Epstein thinks these Cubs can withstand the pressure


Why Theo Epstein thinks these Cubs can withstand the pressure

Hector Rondon waited around his hotel room, not sure if he should wear his Superman onesie to Dodger Stadium.

The unofficial Cubs closer knew he made the right decision as soon as he got down to the hotel lobby and saw his teammates already dressed up for Joe Maddon’s latest stunt.

With a red cape around his neck, Rondon rolled off the team bus and into the visiting clubhouse around 2:25 p.m. on Sunday, followed by Starlin Castro in a Super Mario Bros. T-shirt and pajama pants. Pedro Strop went with the same look in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Of course, they posed for pictures that would be posted on Twitter and Instagram. This was about two-and-a-half hours before first pitch against a $300 million first-place team in front of a national-television audience.

The Cubs would be back in the same room toasting Jake Arrieta’s no-hitter with bottles of Dom Perignon before boarding an overnight flight home from Los Angeles.

“We’re not guilty of overthinking too many things, which is good,” Theo Epstein said, talking about this specific group and not necessarily his baseball-operations department as a whole.

“The guys are really loose, and it’s not just words. I think if you’re around the team, you feel it. There’s not a lot of weight to the clubhouse on a day-to-day basis.”

As ex-manager Dale Sveum used to say: “Ya think?”

[MORE: Albert Almora named Cubs minor league player of the month]

The Cubs have lost six of their last eight games and still woke up on Thursday with a 6.5-game lead over the San Francisco Giants for the National League’s second wild card. FanGraphs (96.4 percent) and Baseball Prospectus (93.7 percent) projected the Cubs as locks for the playoffs.

“There is a momentum at play in September that’s powerful,” Epstein said. “It’s more powerful than playoff odds and math and things like that that people like to look at this time of year.

“I think being loose and having a really positive vibe — even if we lose a few games in a row — is really important to help keep the momentum going the right way.”

In other words: Save it, nerds.

Epstein was the lead architect for the Boston Red Sox teams that won World Series titles in 2004 and 2007 — and the dysfunctional group that wound up with four words near the top of the 2011 season’s obituary: Fried chicken and beer.

Those Red Sox had been 30 games over .500 on Sept. 3, 2011, in second place in the American League East and nine games up on Maddon’s Tampa Bay Rays.

“At this time of year,” Epstein said, “if you start paying attention to the standings, or things aren’t going your way, or you’re not performing up to expectations, or you don’t like what people are writing about you, or you’re scoreboard-watching and not getting the results that you want to get, players and teams and organizations can get too tight.

“And it’s really hard to escape that.”

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The Rays stormed into the playoffs as a wild-card team while Boston’s collapse led to sweeping changes at Fenway Park, with Epstein leaving for a president’s title and a direct report to ownership in Chicago.

The Cubs have serious issues with their rotation beyond Arrieta and Jon Lester. Injuries to Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler could create bigger holes in a lineup that might already be dragging.

Addison Russell played in only 68 minor-league games last season, and Kris Bryant hasn’t experienced playing through September and into October, either.

But the Cubs could go 15-15 the rest of the way and still win 90 games. This isn’t a fluke team or an accidental contender.

“Our thing is just playing naïve,” outfielder Chris Coghlan said. “Just going out there and doing it (because) that’s really essentially what it’s about.

“When we play in October, it’s the same thing. It’s the same game. Now it’s magnified to the nth degree, but it really is the same thing for us. You’re just critiqued a whole lot more or praised a whole lot more.”

So there goes Strop — his green-and-gold Air Jordans balanced on a two-wheel electric scooter — through a Wrigley Field clubhouse that sometimes smells like stale beer and has a disco ball and DJ lighting equipment hanging from the ceiling.

“Just show up, play hard and compete and try to win a ballgame,” Epstein said. “If you win, celebrate extremely hard for about 15 minutes and then let it go (and) do it again the next day. That’s really valuable and it also helps you avoid the pitfall of getting too tight.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

“It’s such a loose group. I don’t think players are out there thinking about the standings or thinking about pressure or thinking about numbers or thinking about the gravity of the situation.

“I think they’re out there relaxed, loose, having fun, playing hard for one another, enjoying the moment and trying to let their talent take over and win a ballgame.”

Beginning Labor Day, the Cubs will have 13 games in 21 days against the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates. Check back then to see if the Cubs are still playing so loose and carefree — or suddenly feeling the weight of history and expectations.

“This team doesn’t strike me as the type that’s going to be overwhelmed by any situation,” Epstein said. “Over the course of 162, we’re going to go through our ups and downs. But I think this team thrives in competitive situations.

“You’ve seen how we’ve performed against good teams, how we’ve performed in certain games with our backs against the wall, limiting losing streaks or facing real tough starting pitching.

“I think this team responds to that type of challenge. And we’ll see this month.”

Cubs have new hitting coach in Anthony Iapoce

Cubs have new hitting coach in Anthony Iapoce

The Cubs are heading into a new season with a different hitting coach for the second straight winter, but the most recent choice is a familiar face.

Anthony Iapoce is set to join Joe Maddon's coaching staff this week after serving in the same capacity with the Texas Rangers for the last three seasons. The Cubs confirmed the move Monday afternoon shortly after the news broke out of the Rangers camp.

The Cubs fired Chili Davis last week after just one season as the team's hitting coach.

Entering the final week of the season, the Rangers fired manager Jeff Banister, leaving Iapoce and the rest of the Texas coaching staff in limbo.

As such, Iapoce is rejoining the Cubs, where he served as a special assistant to the General Manager from 2013-15 focusing on player development, particularly in the hitting department throughout the minor leagues.

Iapoce has familiarity with a bunch of the current star offensive players on the Cubs, from Willson Contreras to Kris Bryant. 

Both Bryant and Contreras endured tough 2018 seasons at the plate, which was a huge reason for the Cubs' underperforming lineup. Bryant's issue was more related to a left shoulder injured suffered in mid-May while Contreras' offensive woes remain a major question mark after the young catcher looked to be emerging as a legitimate superstar entering the campaign.

Getting Contreras back to the hitter that put up 21 homers and 74 RBI in only 117 games in 2017 will be one of the main goals for Iapoce, so the history between the two could be a key.

With the Rangers, Iapoce oversaw an offense that ranked 7th, 9th and 14th in MLB in runs scored over the last three seasons. The decline in offensive production is obviously not a great sign, but the Rangers as a team have fallen off greatly since notching the top seed in the AL playoffs in 2016 with 95 wins only to lose 95 games in 2018, resulting in the change at manager.

Iapoce has worked with an offense backed by Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus, Shin-Soo Choo, Nomar Mazara and Joey Gallo the last few seasons.

Under Iapoce's tutelage, former top prospect Jurickson Profar shed any notion of a "bust" label and emerged as a budding star at age 25, collecting 61 extra-base hits with a .793 OPS in 2018.

When the Cubs let Davis go last week, they provided no update on assistant hitting coach Andy Haines, who just finished his first season in that role and is expected to remain with the team for 2019. The same offseason Iapoce left for the Rangers, Haines took over as the Cubs' minor league hitting instructor.

What should Brandon Morrow's role be in Cubs 2019 bullpen?

What should Brandon Morrow's role be in Cubs 2019 bullpen?

Since the Cubs' early exit from the postseason, many have turned their attention to the 2019 roster and wonder if Brandon Morrow will be the team's closer next year.

However, the question isn't WILL Morrow be the closer, but rather — SHOULD he be counted on as the main ninth-inning option?

Morrow didn't throw a single pitch for the Cubs after the All-Star Game, nursing a bone bruise in his forearm that did not heal in time to allow him to make a return down the stretch.

Of course, an injury isn't surprising given Morrow's lengthy history of arm issues. 

Consider: Even with a half-season spent on the DL, Morrow's 35 appearances in 2018 was his second-highest total since 2008 (though he also spent a ton of time as a starting pitcher from 2009-15).

Morrow is 34 now and has managed to throw just 211 innings in 126 games since the start of the 2013 season. 

Because of that, Theo Epstein isn't ready to anoint Morrow the Cubs' 2019 closer despite success in the role in his first year in Chicago (22-for-24 in save chances).

"[We're] very comfortable with Morrow as part of a deep and talented 'pen," Epstein said. "We have to recommit to him in a very structured role and stick with it to do our best to keep him healthy. Set some rules and adhere to them and build a 'pen around that. I'm comfortable."

Epstein is referencing the overuse the Cubs have pointed to for the origin of Morrow's bone bruise when he worked three straight games from May 31-June 2 during a stretch of four appearances in five days.

Joe Maddon and the Cubs were very cautious with Morrow early in the year, unleashing him for only three outings — and 2 innings — in the first two-plus weeks of the season, rarely using him even on back-to-back days.

During that late-May/early-June stretch, Morrow also three just 2 pitches in one outing (May 31) and was only called upon for the 14th inning June 2 when Maddon had already emptied the rest of the Cubs bullpen in a 7-1 extra-inning victory in New York.

The blame or origin of Morrow's bone bruise hardly matters now. All the Cubs can do at this moment is try to learn from it and carry those lessons into 2019. It sounds like they have, heading into Year 2 of a two-year, $21 million deal that also includes a team option for 2020.

"It's the type of injury you can fully recover from with rest," Epstein said. "that said, he has an injury history and we knew that going in. That was part of the calculation when we signed him and that's why it was the length it was and the amount of money it was, given his talent and everything else.

"We were riding pretty high with him for a few months and then we didn't have him for the second half of the season. And again, that's on me. We took an educated gamble on him there and on the 'pen overall, thinking that even if he did get hurt, we had enough talent to cover for it. And look, it was a really good year in the 'pen and he contributed to that greatly in the first half.

"They key is to keep him healthy as much as possible and especially target it for down the stretch and into what we hope will be a full month of October next year."

It's clear the Cubs will be even more cautious with Morrow in 2019, though he also should head into the new campaign with significantly more rest than he received last fall when he appeared in all seven games of the World Series out of the Dodgers bullpen.

Morrow has more than proven his value in this Cubs bullpen as a low-maintenance option when he's on the field who goes right after hitters and permits very few walks or home runs. 

But if the Cubs are going to keep him healthy for the most important time of the season in September and October, they'll need to once again pack the bullpen with at least 7 other arms besides Morrow, affording Maddon plenty of options.

When he is healthy, Morrow will probably get a ton of the closing opportunities, but the world has also seen what Pedro Strop can do in that role and the Cubs will likely add another arm or two this winter for high-leverage situations.