Cubs

Cubs hire Vandy coach as new minor league pitching coordinator

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Cubs hire Vandy coach as new minor league pitching coordinator

Update: Tuesday, Oct. 30, 12:00 p.m.

The Cubs added more firepower to their ever-growing front office staff, signing Derek Johnson as the organization's minor league pitching coordinator.

Johnson was working as the associate head coach at Vanderbilt and BaseballAmerica called him "one of college baseball's most respected and accomplished pitching coaches."

He was named the 2010 Baseball AmericaABCA Assistant Coach of the Year and is credited with helping to develop such pitchers as David Price, Mike Minor and Casey Weathers (whom the Cubs acquired from the Rockies in the Ian Stewart deal last winter). He earned the National Pitching Coach of the Year in 2004.

Price reacted to the hiring on Twitter Monday afternoon:

He is going to help chicago big time!!! RT @ztstokes: @davidprice14 what do you think about DJ leaving Vandy?

David Price (@DAVIDprice14) October 29, 2012

Johnson helped the Commodores to the school's first-ever College World Series in 2011 while eight pitchers from the team were selected in the MLB Draft, including two in the first and supplemental rounds.

The 41-year-old pitched at Eastern Illinois University and got his coaching start at EIU as well before moving on to Southern Illinois from 1995-97.

Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin spoke to to USATODAY Monday on the hiring.

"When you lose a talent like him, it's always a loss," Corbin said. "The guy immersed himself in pitching. He immersed himself in the development of the kids. It was on his mind 24 hours a day.

"The thing I like about him the most is there's no gray area with DJ. It's black or white. And he's very loyal to the kids and loyal to the program. He stood for all the right things."

Cubs still waiting for Willson Contreras' offense to take off, but they know it's coming

Cubs still waiting for Willson Contreras' offense to take off, but they know it's coming

If every Major League Baseball player was thrown into a draft pool in a fantasy-type format, Willson Contreras may be the first catcher taken.

Joe Maddon and the Cubs certainly wouldn't take anybody else over "Willy."

The Cubs skipper said as much in late-May, placing Contreras' value above guys like Buster Posey, Gary Sanchez and Yadier Molina based on age, athleticism, arm, blocking, intelligence, energy and offensive prowess.
 
Contreras strikes out more, doesn't hit for as high of an average and doesn't yet have the leadership ability of Posey, but he's also 5 years younger than the Giants catcher. Molina is possibly destined for the Hall of Fame, but he's also 35 and the twilight of his career is emerging. Sanchez is a better hitter with more power currently than Contreras, but a worse fielder.

Remember, Contreras has been in the big leagues for barely 2 years total — the anniversary of his first at-bat came earlier this week:

All that being said, the Cubs are still waiting for Contreras to display that type of complete player in 2018.

He's thrown out 11-of-32 would-be basestealers and the Cubs love the way he's improved behind the plate at calling the game, blocking balls in the dirt and working with the pitcher. They still see some room for improvement with pitch-framing, but that's not suprising given he's only been catching full-time since 2013.

Offensively, Contreras woke up Saturday morning with a .262 batting average and .354 on-base percentage (which are both in line with his career .274/.356 line), but his slugging (.412) is way down compared to his career .472 mark.

He already has 14 doubles (career high in a season was 21 last year) and a career-best 4 triples, but also only 4 homers — 3 of which came in a 2-game stretch against the White Sox on May 11-12.

So where's the power?

"He's just not been hitting the ball as hard," Maddon said. "It's there, he's gonna be fine. Might be just getting a little bit long with his swing. I think that's what I'm seeing more than anything.

"But I have so much faith in him. It was more to the middle of last year that he really took off. That just might be his DNA — slower start, finish fast.

"Without getting hurt last year, I thought he was gonna get his 100 RBIs. So I'm not worried about him. It will come. He's always hit, he can hit, he's strong, he's healthy, he's well, so it's just a patience situation."

The hot streak Maddon is talking about from last season actually began on June 16 and extended to Aug. 9, the date Contreras pulled his hamstring and went to the disabled list for the next month.

In that 45-game span (40 starts) in the middle of 2017, Contreras hit .313/.381/.669 (1.050 OPS) with 16 homers and 45 RBI.

It looked like the 26-year-old catcher may be getting on one of those hot streaks back in mid-May when he clobbered the Marlins, White Sox and Braves pitching staffs to the tune of a .500 average, 1.780 OPS, 3 homers and 11 RBI in a week's worth of action.

But in the month since, Contreras has only 3 extra-base hits and no homers, driving in just 4 runs in 29 games (26 starts) while spending most of his time hitting behind Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo.

What's been the difference?

"I think it's honestly just the playing baseball part of the game," Contreras said. "You're gonna go through your ups and downs, but I defeinitely do feel like I've been putting in the work and about ready to take off to be able to help the team."

Contreras admitted he's been focused more on his work behind the plate this season, trying to manage the pitching staff, consume all the scouting reports and work on calling the game. He's still trying to figure out how to perfectly separate that area of his game with his at-bats.

"With my defense and calling games, that's one way that I'm able to help the team right now," Contreras said. "And as soon as my bat heats up, we're gonna be able to take off even more."

On the latest round of National League All-Star voting, Contreras was behind Posey among catchers. The Cubs backstop said he would be honored to go to Washington D.C. next month, but also understands he needs to show more of what he's capable of at the plate.

"If I go, I go," he said. "Honestly, it's not something that I'm really focusing on right now. ... I do think I've been pretty consistent in terms of my average and on-base percentage and helping create situations and keep the line moving, at least.

"But right now, I know my bat hasn't been super consistent so far. It would be a great opportunity and I'd thank the fans."

As a whole, the Cubs have been hitting fewer home runs this season compared to last year. Under new hitting coach Chili Davis, they're prioritizing contact and using the whole field over power and pulling the ball.

Contreras has a 19.3 percent strikeout rate — the lowest of his brief big-league career — while still holding a 9.6 percent walk rate, in line with his career mark (9.9 percent).

Thanks to improved defense, Contreras still boasts a 1.6 WAR (FanGraphs) despite the low power output to this point. Posey (1.7 WAR) is the only catcher in baseball more valuable to his team.

Just wait until his power shows up.

"He hasn't even taken off yet," Maddon said. "He's gonna really take off. Remember last year how hot he got in the second half? That's gonna happen again. You see the pickoffs, what he does behind the plate, how he controls the running game — he's a different cat.

"And he's gonna keep getting better. He's not even at that level of consistency that I think you're gonna get out of him. Great athlete, runs well, does a lot of things well, but it does not surprise me that he's [second in NL All-Star voting at catcher] with Posey."

63 Days to Kickoff: Shepard

63 Days to Kickoff: Shepard

NBCSportsChicago.com preps reporter "Edgy" Tim O’Halloran spotlights 100 high school football teams in 100 days. The first 75 team profiles will focus on teams making strides across Chicagoland and elsewhere in the state. Starting July 30, we’ll unveil the @NBCSPrepsTop 25 Power Rankings, leading up to kickoff on Friday, Aug. 24.

School: Shepard

Head coach: John Rone

Assistant coaches: Andrew Porter, Ron Rivera, Chris Lewis, Ryan McGuire and Clint Connelly

How they fared in 2017: 8-2 (5-1 South Suburban Red Conference). Shepard made the Class 6A state football playoff field. The Astros lost to Marmion Academy in opening round action. 

2018 Regular Season Schedule:

Aug. 24 @ Leyden

Sept. 1 @ Stagg

Sept 7 vs Hillcrest

Sept. 14 vs Eisenhower

Sept. 21 @ Richards

Sept. 28 @ Oak Lawn

Oct. 5 vs Reavis

Oct. 12 vs Evergreen Park

Oct. 19 @ Argo

Biggest storyline: First-year head coach John Rone. Can the Astros challenge once again for the South Suburban Red conference title under a new head coach?

Names to watch this season: RB/LB Chris Harrison and TE/DE Kevin Graham

Biggest holes to fill: The Astros bring back 10 returning starters (five offense, five defense). Overall depth could also be a concern.  

EDGY's Early Take: Shepard will be led by former Eisenhower assistant Rone, who was able to retain an experienced staff at Shepard. It will help ease the transition from former head coach Dominic Passolano this summer. If the Astros can get off to a good early start they have the overall talent to again make a state playoff appearance in 2018. Can they challenge conference power Richards in the South Suburban Red race?