Christian Yelich

How Xavier Cedeno's addition impacts Mike Montgomery and the Cubs bullpen

How Xavier Cedeno's addition impacts Mike Montgomery and the Cubs bullpen

The Cubs showed up to Wrigley Field Saturday with a drastically different bullpen than they had to begin the week.

Actually, the Cubs' bullpen has shifted dramatically even in the span of one day with Xavier Cedeno's addition into the mix after dealing with a wrist injury for the last couple months (Allen Webster hit the IL with a radial nerve issue in his right arm).

While the Cubs are still trying to maneuver everything without closer Pedro Strop (who hit the injured list Wednesday with a hamstring strain), they now have a trio of lefties in the bullpen after spending more than a week with Kyle Ryan as the only southpaw.

Cedeno's arrival changes the equation for the entire bullpen, but he will have a significant impact on how the Cubs will use Mike Montgomery. 

Montgomery was activated off the injured list in Strop's spot Wednesday and threw 5 innings of relief Thursday after Yu Darvish, shutting down the Marlins in impressive fashion.

With Cedeno in the fold, that permits the Cubs to keep Montgomery in a long relief role if they choose (which could include piggybacking Darvish's starts in the short term) without having to rely on him for a one- or two-batter stretch against an opposition's tough lefties.

"To have the other lefty really permits the wild-card moment that Monty's capable of doing," Joe Maddon said. "He was good the other day. He was really good. I told him right afterwards, I loved his assertiveness, his confidence. Everything about him was just like, whoa. Really lasered in - his focus was that good. He maintains that, you're gonna see him do that often. That's not an anomaly moment for him.

"That's as good as I've seen him in a while, period. We had heard he threw like that in the minor leagues, came back up here, the guys told me in the bullpen was spectacular and then we saw it in the game."

Montgomery got off to a slow start in spring training because of a shoulder issue that prevented him from getting as stretched out as he - or the team - would've liked heading into the season. He started the year in the bullpen and struggled, hitting the injured list with a lat issue after only a week of action.

The Cubs took their time bringing Montgomery back, letting him get stretched out in the minor leagues to the point where he threw 6 innings and 76 pitches in his final rehab outing. 

Now he's available for length out of the bullpen in extra inning games, if a starter is knocked out of a game early or even as an option to piggyback after Darvish, who is averaging just over 4 innings a start to date. Montgomery's length also allows the Cubs to give him a spot start if a need comes up or even go to a six-man rotation, though Maddon said the team probably wouldn't add an extra starter into the mix until after the All-Star Break at the earliest.

Meanwhile, Cedeno and Ryan form a valuable southpaw duo in the bullpen for shorter outings (though Maddon acknowledged Montgomery could still be available for brief appearances based on the availability of the other two lefties on a given day).

Ryan is solid against lefties, but induces a lot of weak contact and groundballs against right-handed hitters, too. He's had a tough week, but overall has a 2.04 FIP to go with 16 strikeouts in 13 innings and it did not take him long to enter Maddon's circle of trust.

The 32-year-old Cedeno has permitted a .223 batting average and .583 OPS against left-handed hitters over the course of his eight-year career. He was really good last year for the White Sox and Brewers, going 2-0 with a 2.43 ERA and 1.26 WHIP in 48 outings. 

Cedeno can be particularly effective for the Cubs as they finish out their series with the Brewers, who have some tough lefties - led by Christian Yelich and Mike Moustakas in the starting lineup, but also guys like Travis Shaw and Eric Thames off the bench.

After this weekend, the Cubs then move on to Cincinnati where some guy named Joey Votto resides and poses a big threat as a left-handed hitter.

This is exactly why the Cubs went out and signed Cedeno to a big-league deal right before spring training started.

"I've watched this guy pitch for a bit; been a big fan for a while," Maddon said. "He permits us to really match up left on left, however he's able to get righties out, too. Love his veteranship. It's exciting."

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Cubs: 3 things to know about the 2019 Brewers

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AP

Cubs: 3 things to know about the 2019 Brewers

As the Cubs welcome the Milwaukee Brewers to Wrigley Field Friday for the first time since the National League Wild Card game last October, let's take a look at the division rival.

The Cubs have already played the Brewers this season up in Milwaukee, but quite a bit has changed since then — for example, the Cubs have been on a roll, going 8-0-1 in series since.

These aren't your 2018 Brewers. They're still good — 23-16 and in second place, 1 game behind the Cubs. But this is not the team Cubs fans remember in many regards.

The Brewers are 7 games above .500 and are riding a 6-game winning streak into Chicago, but they have just a +2 run differential — a far cry from the Cubs' +57 run  differential, which leads the National League.

1. Christian Yelich is as good as ever.

These might not be the same Brewers, but some things never change. 

The reigning NL MVP is slashing .356/.462/.797 (1.258 OPS) with 16 homers and 37 RBI. He's on pace for 66 homers, 154 RBI and 129 runs despite the face he's on track for only 490 at-bats (he missed time earlier this season with a back issue). Half his homers (8) have come against the Cardinals, so the Cubs can't complain too much about that.

But the good news for the Cubs is Yelich has been insanely successful at home and not so good on the road. He's posted a 1.665 OPS and hit 15 of his homers at Miller Park and on the road, he's just been a pedestrian hitter — .766 OPS, 1 HR, 5 RBI, 14 K in 54 at-bats.

The Cubs were actually really good at minimizing Yelich's damage last year, as they did not give up a homer to the star outfielder and permitted only a .213/.279/.246 slash line (.525 OPS). 

But he's already hit a homer and driven in 5 runs in 3 games against the Cubs this season, so how do they plan on stopping him this time around?

"It's one thing to plot and plan, it's the next thing to execute," Joe Maddon said Thursday. "You could go out there with the greatest intentions and if you can't really throw the ball where you want to, then that becomes moot. I think to this point, we've had a decent plan. He still looked good the first time we saw him. 

"You gotta come up with the right plan, yes, but then you gotta execute the plan. I sit right next to [Cubs catching coach Mike Borzello] the whole time and [pitching coach Tommy Hottovy] and we're constantly talking about the next pitch, next pitch — 'how does this sound right here?' ... But guys like him, man, they're an enigma. They're so good."

2. However, the rest of the Milwaukee offense is not...

Besides Yelich, the Brewers have only 2 players with an OPS north of .800 — Mike Moustakas (.901) and Eric Thames (.840).

Lorenzo Cain is slashing only .250/.310/.395 the year after playing like an MVP candidate (though he's still a fantastic defender). 

Jesus Aguilar was in the Home Run Derby a year ago and finished the season with 35 homers, 108 RBI and an .891 OPS. But he did not end 2018 strong (.245 AVG, .760 OPS, 11 HR, 38 RBI) and he is off to a woeful start to 2019 (.181 AVG, .591 OPS, 3 HR, 14 RBI). 

Travis Shaw has hit 30 homers each of the last two seasons, but is batting just .172 with a .561 OPS and 4 dingers to begin 2019.

But with the way the Brewers have played the Cubs the last few months of regular season action, how much comfort is it really that a few key Milwaukee guys are off to a poor start?

3. This is not the same pitching staff from a year ago. 

The Brewers rank 21st overall in Major League Baseball with a 4.58 ERA and they're even worse as a starting staff (4.92 ERA, 23rd in league). 

Their plan to integrate their young right-handers (Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes, Freddy Peralta) into the rotation has not gone well and the Brewers have had to sign Gio Gonzalez again to help eat innings. Even Jhoulys Chacin — who victimized the Cubs often in 2018 — has a 5.03 ERA to begin the year.

But Milwaukee has never invested much into its rotation and got one win away from the World Series last fall on their dominant bullpen. However, that's also been an issue in 2019. 

Josh Hader has given up 4 homers, but otherwise has still been ridiculous, with 10 saves, a 2.95 ERA, 0.76 WHIP and 41 strikeouts in 18.1 innings. Over his last 9.1 innings, he's struck out 26 batters.

Beyond him, however, the Brewers have a 4.18 bullpen ERA and are without their closer from a year ago (Corey Knebel — Tommy John surgery) while the other part of their three-headed monster (Jeremy Jeffress) is recovering from a shoulder injury and has lost 3 mph on his fastball.

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Jon Lester lends perspective to Cubs pitching woes

Jon Lester lends perspective to Cubs pitching woes

MILWAUKEE — Everybody is waiting for the Cubs' pitching struggles to turn around. 

The Cubs entered play Sunday with a team ERA (7.87) nearly a full run above the next-worst team (Red Sox — 6.97). Opposing players are hitting .316 off the Cubs this year.

Even PECOTA didn't project this.

Things have gotten so bad, cameras caught the ever-positive Joe Maddon expressing himself in a profane way in a moment of frustration Saturday night after Randy Rosario came out of the bullpen and gave up a 3-run shot:

Maddon laughed it off Sunday morning, admitting his emotional side is always there — "I think I hide it pretty well" — and explaining the frustration stemmed from the fact he'd have to bring in Steve Cishek in a blowout. 

"Ahh, so the word you used was 'Cishek?'" a reporter asked Maddon.

"By him pitching last night, now he's not available today," Maddon said. "That was the frustration. That's what the inner-connectedness of the bullpen — when guys all do their jobs and you rest other people, then they're more available the next day and the day after that. So that was the genesis of it."

The bullpen has obviously been a cause for concern, but the Cubs have a team-wide run prevention problem, from errors and poor defense to late-inning ineffectiveness to tough starts to games. 

Kyle Hendricks served up a 2-run homer to Christian Yelich in the first inning Sunday afternoon, immediately putting the Cubs in a hole for the third straight game. The Brewers scored 5 runs in the opening frame during the course of the three-game series.

The Cubs have a veteran-laden pitching staff, but the way things have gone here early, even these guys with a ton of big-league service time can feel like they have to be the hero every time they take the mound.

"Everybody's human," Jon Lester said. "I think everybody's trying to do well not only for themselves, but for the team. Sometimes that gets you further behind the eight ball than just going out there and focusing on a gameplan or one of your own cues that gets you locked in. 

"We've all seen it wigh guys at the plate, we've seen it with guys on the mound — it's natural to try too hard. Especially, too, now. Early in the year, you turn around and you see a 9.00 or a 12.00 or a 27.00 ERA up there and you want that to be back down to where your normals are.

"Early on, it's so hard to not get caught up in that kind of stuff. I can only speak personally, but for me, I try to rely on the report and my cues and try to execute one pitch and that's all I can control."

Lester has been the lone bright spot on the pitching staff, turning in a quality start each time out. 

The Cubs have asked the 14-year veteran to help step up more as a leader in the clubhouse this year, but how can Lester help his fellow pitchers through these early-season issues?

"Just stay out of the way," Lester said. "I can only speak for myself, but when I struggle, the last thing I want is somebody patting me on the back or the butt or whatever. Just leave me alone and let me figure it out. I try to do the same thing to other guys. If they come to me or they come to other people to try to figure things out, then that's good. 

"But for me, I kinda crawl into a bigger hole and avoid people even more than I do right now. That's how I try to figure things out. The big thing is, just like with hitting — everybody runs to the video, runs to mechanics, runs to this. Nine times out of 10, it's just confidence. 

"A lot of times when you're struggling, that 2-0 pitch gets hit out as opposed to right at somebody. A couple of those fall your way and then it's like 'OK, maybe I am halfway decent' and you start getting that confidence going, you start throwing that 2-0 pitch with conviction and usually you get good things. 

"But yeah, I try to stay out of guys' ways. I've always said — if they want to talk, and come to me, great, then we'll sit down and try to figure out whatever we can. But I think the biggest thing is to just keep running out there and pitching. Our guys are too good to keep doing this."

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