Cubs

Craig Kimbrel feels 'great' after first Triple-A outing, is motivated to win with Cubs in 2019 and beyond

Craig Kimbrel feels 'great' after first Triple-A outing, is motivated to win with Cubs in 2019 and beyond

Craig Kimbrel's progression towards joining the Cubs bullpen took another step in the right direction on Tuesday.

In his first outing with Triple-A Iowa on Tuesday, Kimbrel not only pitched a perfect inning of relief against the Sacramento River Cats, but he needed just eight pitches to do so. Now back in Des Moines as Iowa begins a nine-game homestand, Kimbrel told reporters that he feels great after his first pitching appearance since Oct. 27, 2018 — Game 4 of the 2018 World Series.

“[I] feel great," Kimbrel told reporters in Iowa. "Jumped on a plane yesterday morning and made our way [to Des Moines] and once we got in, [we] kind of assessed how everything felt. Everything feels good, so I’m looking forward to getting back out there Friday."

As he mentioned, Kimbrel's next outing with Iowa will be Friday, when they take on the Round Rock Express. And while it's possible he also pitches on Saturday, what comes after that is entirely based on how Kimbrel feels, as the Cubs and the 31-year-old have continued to stress patience in his buildup towards big league action.

"We’re just going one appearance at a time, one step at a time," he said. "I’ll throw Friday, see how I feel and then go from there.

"We really haven’t set a time on anything. It's more about how I feel and how I’m recovering. And once I get to feeling great and recovering where I feel like I need to be, I’ll be ready to go."

"He's trending in the right direction," Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said Tuesday evening at Wrigley Field. "Obviously he's feeling good, but we're not gonna rush him or make a judgment on any one outing. We're just gonna take this process as we planned it out and try to get him ready for the remainder of the season."

Although he's had a long layoff from MLB action, it's not like Kimbrel has been sitting around at home unprepared. During his extended free agency that leaked into June, he worked out in the gym three times a week in addition to throwing six days a week. And despite pitching deep into October with the Red Sox, Kimbrel started throwing in January in preparation for the 2019 season.

No matter how long the layoff, though, Kimbrel stressed the need to practice patience right now. He's an important piece to the Cubs' championship puzzle, one that will be a valuable weapon in the summer and in the postseason, should the Cubs get there. Right now, it's about getting his body ready, even if he's mentally ready to pitch.

“I’m ready, I’m ready to do it, but also I have to listen to myself, listen to my body," Kimbrel said. "This isn’t about the next couple games before the (All-Star) break, this is about after the break and the postseason."

As if joining a team in the midst of a pennant race wasn't enough, Kimbrel was asked if he is feeling any motivation from the way last postseason went for him individually (5.91 ERA, 10 2/3 innings) and after how long he remained a free agent.

“No, I’m motivated to win. I don’t need to try to make anyone else happy," he said. "Towards the end of last year, we still accomplished what we set to do - win the World Series. [It’s] still a success. I'm not trying to prove anybody wrong. I'm just trying to do my job."

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Left-handed pitching has been the Cubs' Kryptonite this year

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AP

Left-handed pitching has been the Cubs' Kryptonite this year

The Cubs have a left-handed problem.

No, not in the bullpen (though they could use another lefty there even with Kyle Ryan's emergence).

The Cubs' issue is that their Kryptonite this year has been left-handed pitching. Considering they were one of the better teams against southpaws a year ago, this has been an unsettling development for their hopes of getting the offense on track consistently.

That changed for one day, at least, with one big swing of the bat from Anthony Rizzo Friday — a two-out grand slam in the third inning off San Diego southpaw Eric Lauer. 

But in general, facing lefties has been a major issue for this lineup.

"We've been terrible. we have to be better," manager Joe Maddon said. "We have guys that are really good against lefties that haven't shown that yet. of course, Albert [Almora Jr.] and [Addison Russell] and [David] Bote — those are the three guys, if they get back to their normal methods against lefties, that's really gonna help us a lot.

"That's the one element — talking about the offensive side of things — I really think for us, we have to get better vs. the lefty."

Entering play Friday, the Cubs ranked 28th in Major League Baseball in runs scored off left-handed pitchers and 29th in batting average (.234). They rank 15th in OPS vs. southpaws this season, but that mark — .752 — is actually better than they posted last year (.730) when they hit .260 against lefties.

On the one hand, the Cubs have not faced left-handed pitchers much — only one other team (Detroit Tigers) has faced southpaws less often than the Cubs this season.

On the other hand, the Cubs are trending in the wrong way against lefties. 

Since June 1 (entering play Friday), here are the OPS of Cubs players with at least 10 plate appearances against southpaws:

Willson Contreras — 1.379
Kris Bryant — 1.376
Addison Russell — .821
Anthony Rizzo — .639
Javy Baez — .579
Albert Almora Jr. — .558
David Bote — .455
Kyle Schwarber — .389
Jason Heyward — .221

Yikes.

That's three guys who are above average offensively, and one of those guys — Contreras — is currently on the injured list. 

It's encouraging for the Cubs that Russell has started to show more signs of life against lefties given his slow start in that regard and his typical solid production against them. But the other two Cubs lefty mashers — Almora and Bote — are way down at the bottom of that list. 

All three players were in the lineup Friday — Almora leading off, Russell hitting fifth and Bote hitting seventh — and each guy struck out the first time up against San Diego southpaw Eric Lauer. However, Almora kicked off the Cubs' scoring in the third inning by reaching on an infield hit with two outs a few batters before Rizzo's blast.

Even with a positive result in Friday's game, the Cubs still need to figure it out more consistently against southpaws. If they have hopes of going deep into the playoffs, they're going to have to contend with a bunch of lefties along the way, especially with the Dodgers (Clayton Kershaw, Hyun-jin Ryu, Rich Hill, Julio Urias etc.).

Whether that means the Cubs need to add another hitter to combat LHP or not remains to be seen, but with the trade deadline less that two weeks away, we'll have our answer soon enough.

Mike Montgomery is going where the Cubs couldn't take him in Kansas City

Mike Montgomery is going where the Cubs couldn't take him in Kansas City

Tonight, former Cubs pitcher Mike Montgomery makes his debut with his new team, the Kansas City Royals. The Royals are 24.5 games out of first place, even after they won seven out of their last 10. The Cubs are riding a nice stretch in the second half and expect nothing short of a division title and a championship.

So, why would Montgomery want to leave Chicago and go to a team that is going nowhere?

Because he believes his career can go somewhere the Cubs weren’t taking him.

After throwing the golden pitch that clinched the World Series for the Cubs in 2016, he has filled many roles for the team. He starts, he relieves, he closes, he sets up, he is situational, he waits, he pitches hurt, he does what the team needs to be done to help. And for two years, he appeared in 44 and 38 games respectively, with 14 and 19 starts in those years. 

For his entire minor league career, he was a starter and when he broke in, he also started for a while in Seattle. Then in 2016, he went to the pen. But he never lost the confidence that he could be a consistent starter in a major league rotation. 

Montgomery just turned 30 years old, a new father, and there is nothing like age and family to provide clarity about how short and temporary a career can be, especially for a pitcher. 

He got hurt this year, and probably wondered if being endlessly available contributed to his health issues. It takes a toll to always be ready, especially as you get older. Predictability can be comforting, helpful at times to gaining a rhythm, and a way to take care of your body knowing you have some recovery time built in. 

At 30, the window starts to close slowly but inevitably. His time to establish himself as a starter is yesterday and because he has struggled in a utility role in 2019, he is going the wrong way for his career. He is now getting a label as a lefty that can’t get lefties out, but is not a starter either. The pigeonholing has begun.

He has to fight it, quickly and he can with this bold move. Asking out.

Not from the Cubs, but from how the Cubs are using him in 2019. He has decided that he can’t afford to sit back for the glory of oneness and hope they will take care of him on the other side. By this time in his career, he knows how expendable players are in the grand scheme. That the phone will not ring one day, you will become a memory, and even being a great memory can’t stop you from being inevitably sent home.

He knows that it is not a fair exchange to sacrifice health, opportunity and long-term security to be an insurance policy that may never get claimed. Being in that role is casting a shadow over getting handed the ball every fifth day with a chance to eat up innings and waltz into longer term security for his career and his family. It starts to not add up, especially when you already have a ring in your trophy case.

In 2003, I was traded to the Cubs from the Texas Rangers on July 30th. After recovering from an injury, I hit .389 with a .528 slugging, and a .925 OPS in July. I was on absolute fire. At 32 years old, the turnaround was happening, my one-year free agent contract was about to grow into something more if I got my 200+ at bats in the second half. 

While I was rolling along, the Rangers were 44-63 on July 30th, going nowhere, but I was going somewhere up. So I thought. 

The phone rang and the general manager of the Rangers, John Hart called to let me know he had traded me to the Cubs. Poof. Just like that. By the time I got to the locker room to get my stuff and say good bye to my Rangers’ teammates, my boxes were packed, my jerseys were gone. Poof.

Sure, the Cubs were in the race, but they were around .500 when I arrived. They had signed a bunch of veteran players whose starting days were behind them. In my case, Kenny Lofton was the guy in centerfield, which turned me into a bench player from an everyday centerfielder instantly. Not because I wasn’t doing the job in Texas, but because the Cubs needed me to do a lesser job. Lofton played almost every day and in the second half of that season, after the trade, I got 51 at bats. In 28 games. 

Not a great way to find another job after the season. But I had bought in, Dusty Baker communicated well to me and since I had never been in the playoffs, I kept my mouth shut and followed. 

We would go all the way to Game 7 to the NLCS and despite the ending, it was an exhilarating experience. Once in a lifetime. Truly special, but along the ride, no one could guarantee me any of that. Just as easily, the Cubs could have collapsed and I would have been on the bench for a team on the road to rebuilding. And they wouldn’t do it with a 33-year-old veteran centerfielder with a bad hamstring.

I did get my magic hit in the NLCS after sitting on the bench for weeks and when the season ended, Dusty Baker called me personally to express that he wanted me back. I was hoping the silver lining was that some free agent team would see that I could be a clutch performer when it counted. I was happy to get his call, but when all was said and done, he did not have the power to grant me that wish. The phone never rang from Chicago again and I ended up making the Phillies squad in 2004, barely hanging on to my career. 

At 33, I was now a caddy to Marlon Byrd and other young outfielders for the entire season. 162 at bats in 87 games. My career was dead in the water, my coaching career seemed to be growing in front of my eyes, against my will.

Of course, I thought about how I could have played better, I could have made a different decision in free agency and stayed in Philly or signed with Tampa. Those were options, but I bet on myself to go to Texas and regain starter status and after I came back from injury, I did just that. But my age was creeping up and the Rangers had little incentive to keep an aging singles hitter on a team that was fighting for last place. 

Two years after that trade, the phone stopped ringing and by the time it did ring after the Yankees released me, I had taken it off of the hook anyway. I saw the game passing me by. I wanted to start a family. It still stung to see a couple of players get rewarded with multi-year deals who I later learned were in the Mitchell Report for being associated with PEDs, one of which I helped get back to health while I was in Texas. 

So it is a tough question to ask yourself. Would you take the slim chance of winning a World Series as a bench player knowing your career may be shortened 2-3 years? Or would you seek an opportunity to keep playing every day or frequently with a chance to extend your career and have more time to find a way to be on a contender later? 

We only get one career, one shot at it. The greater glory matters, the ring is king and I will always long for the ring I never obtained. But I also learned about what can happen after you are that hired gun, or after you stay silent and accept the role the team thinks is best for them when it starts to run counter to what you believe you can do. It can sound selfish, true, but a player watches how other players are treated, not just how they are personally treated. I played with Ryan Howard when he first came up with the Phillies and years later, covering him with ESPN, he came over and said “Now, I know how you felt in 2004 at the end of your career.” Long memories.

Once a season ends where you were marginalized (even when it is because you played poorly), your career may not recover. So with the Cubs trading Montgomery, they were looking out for him in a way, something they did not have to do, and it is a funny game, he could be back one day.

Only time will tell, but as Montgomery expressed. “It’s bittersweet.” 

Bitter because he wanted to stay and have it all. Be on a contender and be a starter. That was no longer an option. 

Sweet because it was a great chapter in his career, he won, and now he can focus on being the pitcher he believes he can be, not what a team needs him to be. 

In baseball, there is nothing like proving someone wrong …

Or proving yourself right.