Youth movement will pay off for Cubs in 2016


Youth movement will pay off for Cubs in 2016

The Hall of Fame shutout for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens — and the Baseball Writers’ Association of America shunning Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire — reinforces the idea this is a young man’s game again.

Professional athletes aren’t supposed to be record-shattering peak performers through their mid-30s and still playing at an MVP/Cy Young level around their 40th birthday.

It would be naïve and foolish to think the game is completely clean, that every trace of ego, greed and insecurity has been scrubbed away now or that Major League Baseball is somehow on top of all the cutting-edge chemistry.

But at a time of tougher testing for performance-enhancing drugs — when players should in theory break down faster, come back from injuries slower and might not be getting the same pick-me-ups to combat the brutal travel/day-night schedule — it pays to be young, deep and flexible.

That’s what the Cubs are now, making them a World Series favorite, the champions of the offseason, a team that will be playing with a target on its back from the moment pitchers and catchers report to Arizona in February.

This lineup is built around young power hitters: Anthony Rizzo (26), Kris Bryant (24), Jorge Soler (24 in February), Kyle Schwarber (23 in March). Addison Russell — who stabilized the team’s defense once he took over at shortstop — will turn 22 this month. Jason Heyward — the Gold Glove outfielder with $184 million guaranteed — is actually a day younger than Rizzo.

[MORE CUBS: Sammy Sosa (barely) stays on the Hall of Fame ballot for another year]

Besides primary second baseman Ben Zobrist — who perfected the super-utility role on Joe Maddon’s Tampa Bay Rays teams — this roster also features other versatile players who can handle multiple positions: Bryant, Javier Baez, Chris Coghlan.

Maddon can get creative, play matchups and keep everyone fresh with four swingmen who can pitch multiple innings out of the bullpen: Adam Warren, Travis Wood, Trevor Cahill, Clayton Richard.

The experience of winning 97 games and advancing to the National League Championship Series will also pay dividends. Jon Lester — the $155 million lefty who won two World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox — talked about that amid the celebration at Wrigley Field after the Cubs eliminated the St. Louis Cardinals.

Lester — who once tipped his cap to Derek Jeter in that farewell Nike commercial — used the New York Yankees and their homegrown core as his reference point.

“They taught the young guys,” Lester said. “They taught the other guys how to win — and how to be a Yankee. So these guys in the future will be able to teach the young guys how to be a Cub — and how to do it the right way — and how to win at the same time. That just sets us up for success for a long time.

“That’s one of the reasons why I really wanted to come here. I wanted to be a part of this and be a part of that group. Even though I’m a little bit — well — a lot older than them. Because I believe in having that core.”

[MORE CUBS: Starlin Castro thanks Chicago in vulnerable open letter for Players' Tribune]

The Cubs Way still has a lot to prove, but catching/strategy coach Mike Borzello sees some of those parallels after working on the Yankee teams that won four World Series titles between 1996 and 2000.

“They’re not in awe at all,” Borzello said. “I feel like the whole game’s changed now where the young players come right in and seem to have no problem adjusting to being a big-league player.

“Twenty years ago, there were very few Derek Jeters that belonged right from Day 1. Most of them had to come up — and go down — and kind of fail and understand it all first. Here, I feel like they all show up and they’re ready to go. Almost like: ‘What took you so long to call me up here?’

“That’s what’s impressed me — not only just about our team — but all of baseball, (how) these young players come up and are ready to jump right in and take the responsibility on.

“With this team in particular, to have so many at one time is incredible. You’re having all these 22-year-olds and 23-year-olds thrown not (just) onto the team, but right into the starting lineup. They’re your core players right from Day 1.

“To be able to handle the hype — and also produce right when you get here — is astounding.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

Not that Maddon has trouble getting his players’ attention, but after hearing how great the Cubs were in 2015, the manager will point to the breakdowns during that four-game sweep against the New York Mets, so that veteran catcher Miguel Montero stays prepared, Baez keeps himself focused and Schwarber and Soler better understand the subtleties of playing a corner-outfield spot.

“You’re always, always looking to get better,” Maddon said. “So when you want to preach something about maybe the little things in spring training — and then point out what occurred last October — it actually helps a lot. Because the guys that have never been through it before — we’ve talked about the minutiae and how important it is — (but) it doesn’t really resonate with them sometimes.

“Now, having gone through this — putting the bunt down, hitting the cutoff man, being in the right position or whatever — it’s an easier sell.”

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.