Cubs

Cubs get a dose of good news, bad news on the injury front

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USA TODAY

Cubs get a dose of good news, bad news on the injury front

Monday was a mixture of good news and bad news for the Cubs on the injury front.

Star shortstop Javy Baez was held out of the starting lineup Monday after suffering a heel injury in Sunday night's game, but manager Joe Maddon said he hopes Baez could be available to hit off the bench. 

Closer Brandon Morrow threw from flat ground (45 to 60 feet) Monday, his first day throwing since he suffered a setback earlier this spring in his return from offseason elbow surgery. 

That throwing session "went well," Theo Epstein said before the Cubs and Phillies faced off at Wrigley Field Monday night and Morrow will continue along a regular throwing progression from there, ramping up to throwing off a mound in the bullpen. The Cubs will evaluate along the way, exercising caution with the 34-year-old right-hander.

The Cubs also received encouraging news on Pedro Strop, who is recovering from a hamstring strain initially suffered in Arizona in late April. The veteran reliever threw a 25-pitch bullpen Monday, which went well, and is in line for another bullpen later this week. 

Then there was the bad news: Top prospect Nico Hoerner will miss at least a month with a hairline fracture in his left wrist. 

Hoerner — playing for Double-A Tennessee — was hit in the wrist with a pitch on April 23 and has been sidelined since then. 

"He went to start his hitting progression; it didn't go great," Epstein said. "After a couple days, they did a CT scan and this time they did find a hairline fracture right where his forearm meets his hand, so right at his wrist essentially. 

"So he's gonna be in a splint for three weeks and get out of it and evaluate it from there. He'll be out at least a month, obviously, with this."

That's bad news for the Cubs, given Hoerner has already missed nearly a month and looked to be on the comeback trail just a few days ago. The young infielder has done nothing but hit since the Cubs made him the 24th overall pick in the MLB Draft last June and was slashing .300/.391/.500 with nearly as many walks (7) as strikeouts (8) in 18 games this season.

Hoerner wasn't expected to impact the big-league level in 2019, but if he continued to flash the skills and production that made him the organization's top prospect all summer, it wouldn't have been surprising to see the Cubs put him on the fast track to Chicago. That seems unlikely now that he'll miss at least two months of development. 

However, the Cubs will certainly take the good news on Morrow and Strop. Morrow was shut down in late April after a suffering yet another setback in his recovery and spent about a month without picking up a baseball. 

Any impact he can make on the Cubs bullpen later in the season would be a welcome addition after he saved 22 games with a 1.47 ERA in 35 apperances last year. But he didn't throw a pitch in the second half and is still a long way off from rejoining the big-league bullpen, even if he continues to show well healthwise.

Strop has been the Cubs' closer in Morrow's stead, though he's had a pair of hamstring injuries (last September and now again this spring). He last pitched on May 6 when he blew a save against the Marlins.

Even without Morrow (and now Strop, more recently), the Cubs bullpen has the best ERA in baseball (2.66) since the rough start to open the season.

"Since that first road trip, they've been — by the numbers — one of the best, if not the best in baseball," Epstein said. "So they've been doing a great job. We've had our hiccups along the way the way like every club will, but even under some difficult circumstances after some short starts, they've found a way to really put some zeros up there. 

"It's been impressive. It's been a group effort, which is nice to see. And Joe's done a great job picking the right spots for those guys, too."

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Nico Hoerner leaving great impression on Cubs: 'We believe in him'

Nico Hoerner leaving great impression on Cubs: 'We believe in him'

A little more than two weeks ago, Nico Hoerner was sitting on his couch back in his hometown of Oakland. With Double-A Tennessee’s season over, the 22-year-old was preparing to head down to the Arizona Fall League for the second-straight year.

Now, Hoerner is the Cubs starting shortstop, starting for a Cubs team that’s pushing for a fifth-straight postseason berth while Javier Báez rehabs his fractured left thumb.

Talk about a heck of a month.

“It’s been special to be a part of a team that’s trying to win right now and being around a lot of guys that have played at this level really successfully for a long time,” Hoerner said Sunday. [I’ve] learned a lot.”

When the Cubs called Hoerner up, no one expected him to produce on a Báez-like level. This is meant more as a compliment to Báez than anything, as he brings game-changing elements to the Cubs at the plate, on the bases and defensively.

And yet, considering that Hoerner only has 89 career minor league games to his name, what he’s done in the big leagues is more than impressive. Including his three plate appearances on Sunday, Hoerner holds a .286/.322/.482 slash line, recording hits in 11 of his first 14 games and making plenty of hard contact.

“As a hitter, there’s always things you can work on to be more consistent,” he said. “But overall, I’ve been pretty happy with my ability to be present, compete as best as I can, and I feel like I’ve been pretty consistent with my preparation.”

Hoerner has also started at shortstop in every one of those contests, showing off impressive range and hands while making no errors. It might just be two weeks, but his play has impressed both Joe Maddon and Báez already.

“You cannot have possibly asked for more than you’ve got out of Nico,” Maddon said on Sunday. “And the thing is, he’s gonna keep getting better. This guy is a gym rat when it comes to baseball.

“He loves doing this and he does it really, really well. He’s a solid, really good baseball player and he’s gonna keep getting better. I really believe that.”

“Unbelievable,” Báez said Saturday about Hoerner’s performance thus far. “It’s not easy to just come up and play, even if it’s in September. We believe in him and he’s done a great job for the team and for our pitchers.”

Although Báez’s injury certainly played a factor, the Cubs called up Hoerner because Addison Russell took a pitch off the face on Sept. 8, going into concussion protocol as a result.

With no true shortstops on their roster, Hoerner was the Cubs’ best bet to man the position in the meantime. But while Báez is limited to pinch-hitting and running right now, Russell has been cleared to play.

Even with Russell – a former All-Star shortstop – back in the fold, though, Maddon is having a hard time going away from Hoerner as his everyday shortstop.

“With Addy, we did not know when Addy would be available, and he is right now,” Maddon said. “Addy is available, but I just really can’t walk away from what Nico is doing.”

Báez is attempting to return to the Cubs starting lineup during their upcoming series against the Pirates. This would move Hoerner off of shortstop, though he and the Cubs are confident in his ability to play other positions.

Of the 75 games he played in Double-A this season Hoerner made 17 appearances at second base and 11 in center field.

“I can help in a wide range of ways,” he said. “The need right now has been at shortstop, but when it comes to the future, who knows what will happen. [I’m] down to go anywhere on the field.”

“It could be second, it could be to give somebody a day off in another position,” Maddon said. “He’s adept at a lot of different spots, and that was the original conversation I had when he got here with the front office guys. They said, ‘Listen, he can play everywhere.’”

2020 is still far away, and the Cubs are still in contention for a postseason spot this season. It’s hard not to look ahead, though, especially considering how (in a small sample size) Hoerner is proving he could be a fixture on the Cubs for years to come.

No matter what, though, Hoerner’s career is looking like a bright one.

“His bat to ball skills are so good and he’s always had that,” Maddon said. “I don’t see that as dissipating, I don’t. And the way he processes the day, that shouldn’t be altered either. With good health, he should be fine.”

“I know I can help this team and I can do that in a wide range of ways,” Hoerner said. [I’m going to] continue to develop and give myself the best chance I can.”

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How Joe Maddon, Ben Zobrist approached what could be their final game at Wrigley Field

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AP

How Joe Maddon, Ben Zobrist approached what could be their final game at Wrigley Field

There was an odd vibe around Wrigley Field Sunday morning, even before it started raining and Kris Bryant slipped on first base and rolled his ankle and well before the Cubs suffered yet another gut-wrenching loss.

For the first time in Joe Maddon's tenure as Cubs manager and Ben Zobrist's career as a Cubs player, they showed up to "The Friendly Confines" knowing there would likely be no postseason appearance for this team. 

The Cubs are not mathematically eliminated, but they woke up Sunday morning with just an 8.6 percent chance at making the playoffs, according to FanGraphs, and that only went down after the 3-2 loss at Wrigley Field and the Brewers' win in Milwaukee. That puts the Cubs 4 games back in the Wild-Card race with only six to play.

Both Maddon and Zobrist are not under contract after this season and there is a lot of speculation that this could be it for the manager that guided this franchise to its first World Series championship in 108 years and the player who took home the MVP Award in that Fall Classic. Sunday might be the end of an era.

So how did both men approach the day at Wrigley Field?

Zobrist said he was simply focused on the game and the task at hand, though he's been taking little mental snapshots from time to time over his last month here at the corner of Clark and Addison. 

The Eureka, Ill., native will allow himself to think about all this stuff once the season is officially over, but he's never taken it for granted to be able to call Wrigley Field home for the last four seasons. This is the same guy who wears stirrups as a callback to the days of yore and has commuted to the ballpark on a bicycle while wearing his full uniform.

"It's the big leagues of the big leagues," Zobrist said. "That's the way the fans make you feel. The front office, the organization, the way everything's run — it's the top of the top. It's hard to beat the experience of being a Chicago Cubs player, especially when you walk out on that field."

The 38-year-old Zobrist admitted he doesn't know what's next for his career after a season in which he missed four months while tending to his family situation. But the last month has answered the question for himself that he still has what it takes physically to play this game.

As for Maddon, he was maybe a bit more introspective than normal in his Sunday morning press availability, but he's always thoughtful and mindful.

He insisted he did not show up to work Sunday with a mindset to "take it all in" or enjoy the moment any more than normal, which makes sense for a guy who routinely preaches the need to stay in the present tense.

"Honestly, I do that every day," he said. "I don't anticipate that. I haven't really thought about that this whole time through. I always expect a good result."

Maddon's job status is up in the air after Theo Epstein's front office took any talks of an extension off the table last winter and wanted to see how the season went before making a decision one way or the other. 

Since Maddon took over the helm ahead of the 2015 season, only the Dodgers and Astros have more regular season wins than the Cubs (469) and his teams made it to three National League Championship Series from 2015-17. 

As for Sunday morning, Maddon was focused on the weather and how the impending storms could affect his pitching staff with a thin bullpen and the threat of a delay knocking starter Yu Darvish out early. He said he was focused on the game "like I always have" and after the loss, he spoke only about the game and the season and did not have any platitudes about his final Wrigley Field experience.

"When I walk to Wrigley — I've talked about this since I've been here — you always are enthralled and impressed with the fact that you get to work here," he said. "So that's kind of a daily occurrence for me."