Cubs

Cubs need to get their pitching in order or else this entire foundation could crumble

Cubs need to get their pitching in order or else this entire foundation could crumble

There were times where it felt like the entire pitching section to The Cubs Way manual could be summed up with four words, every time Theo Epstein’s front office acquired another faded prospect or change-of-scenery guy: “Get him with Boz.”

Hands-off manager Joe Maddon would often deflect pitching questions during his daily media briefings by saying: “You’d have to ask Boz.”

The pitching infrastructure doesn’t begin and end with Chris Bosio, who got fired less than 24 hours after the Cubs ended their third straight trip to the National League Championship Series, 352 days after they finally won the World Series.

But it is another unknown at a time when The Foundation of Sustained Success doesn’t feel quite so stable, the Los Angeles Dodgers already catching and passing the Cubs and zooming into Tuesday night’s World Series Game 1 against the Houston Astros.

The Cubs are looking to replace 40 percent of their rotation – Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta and three-time World Series champion John Lackey – at a time when the talent pool of free agents is shallow and the farm system lacks ready-for-impact pitching prospects and the minor-league headliners to make another Jose Quintana trade. The cost of their young hitters is about to soar through the arbitration system.

The Cubs will have to go far outside their comfort zone to re-sign All-Star closer Wade Davis – maybe something along the lines of the regrettable four-year, $62 million contract the San Francisco Giants gave Mark Melancon last winter – or acquire another ninth-inning guy because Carl Edwards Jr. bombed in the playoffs (11.57 ERA) and trade-deadline addition Justin Wilson got bumped off the NLCS roster.

“We face a lot of challenges,” Epstein said during last week’s year-in-review press conference at Wrigley Field. “We knew that the 2017-2018 offseason would be one of our most challenging. We’ve known that for a long time, and that there may be more opportunities presented next offseason, but more challenges presented this offseason, and we have to find a way to balance those two things.”

The Cubs have enough Geek Department resources, support staff and institutional memory to continue the game-planning system spearheaded by catching/strategy coach Mike Borzello. Jim Hickey – Maddon’s old pitching coach with the Tampa Bay Rays who interviewed for the job on Monday – has a proven track record and a reputation for being a good communicator.

It clearly looks like Maddon pushed for it and wanted the perceived upgrade, but this is stuff around the margins. Some might like the new voice, some might not care either way. Whatever. It’s coaching, not playing.

But you already noticed the drop-off when the Cubs don’t play defense at a historic level and it could be even steeper if Jason Heyward becomes a $184 million part-time outfielder or Ian Happ and Kyle Schwarber stick around and take on bigger roles or the middle-infield combination of Addison Russell and Javier Baez gets broken up in a trade.

The Cubs are now also entering the second half of Jon Lester’s six-year, $155 million megadeal, which covers his age-34, 35 and 36 seasons. That contract changed franchise history and already paid for itself, but Lester is coming off a season where he put up an ERA that almost exactly matched the major-league average (4.33), went on the disabled list for the first time since 2011 and failed to exceed the 190-inning mark for the first time in 10 years.     

The Cubs will stay in touch with super-agent Scott Boras about Arrieta – and have long been intrigued by Yu Darvish – but it doesn’t sound like they’re all that eager to go to the top of the market again and give another 30-something pitcher a nine-figure contract.

“You don’t want to make a living or make a habit out of trying to solve your problems with high-priced pitching free agents,” Epstein said, “because over the long run, there’s just so much risk involved. It can really hamstring your organization.

“But we have a lot of players who have reasonable salaries who contribute an awful lot that might put us in a position to consider it going forward in the future.

“So I wouldn’t rule it out completely, and I wouldn’t rule it in. I would just say it’s not our preferred method. We prefer to make a small deal and find Jake Arrieta, but you can’t do that every year, either. That’s tough.”

Epstein also dismissed Maddon’s theory that Mike Montgomery could grow into a double-digit winner in the rotation, leaving him as a very useful lefty swingman, but not the winning Powerball ticket the Cubs once hoped for, or lightning striking twice the way it did with Arrieta.

“In a typical Mike Montgomery year, he’ll probably come to spring training as a starter, stretch out as a starter,” Epstein said. “Barring something unusual in spring training, like extreme performance or injuries somewhere, he’ll probably start the year in the bullpen and he’ll pitch well out of the bullpen, the way he did this year.

“And then at the end of the regular season, when you look up, he’ll have somewhere between 10 and 20 starts. And you’ll say: ‘Wow, Mike Montgomery was really valuable this year.’”

Epstein signaled that Jen-Ho Tseng, the organization’s minor league pitcher of the year, will likely begin next season among the top three depth starters at Triple-A Iowa, and the industry sees his ceiling as a back-of-the-rotation guy in the big leagues.

Through six draft classes, the Epstein regime has used 132 picks on pitchers, and so far, two have played on the big-league team: Rob Zastryzny (29 total innings) and Pierce Johnson (who made one appearance at Wrigley Field before the Giants claimed him off waivers in September).       

Almost exactly six years after his “Baseball is Better” stadium club press conference and the Wrigley Field marquee putting his name in lights, Epstein knows how much work has to be done this winter.

“Mission not accomplished,” Epstein said. “The goal is to create a really high floor for this organization, where the off years are years where you might win in the high 80s and still sneak a division or a wild card, or win 90 games and get in and then find a way to do some damage in October. And the great years you win 103 and win the whole thing, and the in-between years you’re dangerous in October.

“We have done a lot of tremendous things, and thus far it’s been a success, but I think the whole goal is to get there as many times as you can over a long stretch and a long period of time. We’re really well-positioned for the future. In no way do we see this window ending now or lessening in any way.”

Cubs expressing interest in free agent second baseman Scooter Gennett

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USA TODAY

Cubs expressing interest in free agent second baseman Scooter Gennett

The Cubs are expressing interest in free agent second baseman Scooter Gennett, according to WSCR’s Bruce Levine.

Gennett only played 42 games last season after suffering a severe right groin strain at the end of spring training. He made his season debut on June 28 and the Reds dealt him to the Giants at the trade deadline. San Francisco released him a month later.

Gennett, who turns 30 in May, posted a .226/.245/.323 slash line with two home runs and a woeful 44 wRC+ last season. He fared much better from 2017-18, slashing .303/.351/.508 with a 124 wRC+. He hit 27 and 23 homers those two seasons, making the All-Star team in 2018.

The Cubs don’t have a definitive starting second baseman entering spring training, though Nico Hoerner will get the chance to win the job out of camp. The 22-year-old turned heads during his 20-game call-up last September, hitting .282 with a .741 OPS and 17 RBIs.

Adding a veteran like Gennett could serve as a safety net in the event Hoerner struggles in spring or to open the season. Hoerner, the Cubs first-round pick in 2018, only has 89 minor-league games under his belt, so the Cubs may determine he needs a bit more seasoning to begin 2020.

There’s also the chance Gennett struggles in spring training, should the Cubs sign him. However, he’s yet another example of the type of low-risk, high-reward players they’ve accumulated this winter. If he’s fully healthy, he could be one of the biggest steals of the offseason.

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How the Cubs stack up in the NL Central after Nick Castellanos signs with Reds

How the Cubs stack up in the NL Central after Nick Castellanos signs with Reds

The NL Central featured more parity in 2019 than any season of this current era of Cubs baseball. The Cubs, Cardinals and Brewers were locked in a three-way battle for the NL Central crown deep into September, while the up-and-coming Reds tallied their most wins (75) since 2014 (76).

On the heels of a disappointing, 84-win season, the Cubs have yet to make a significant splash this winter. Kris Bryant’s ongoing grievance case is a factor, as is the club’s proximity to the luxury tax threshold.

After missing the postseason in 2019 for the first time in five years, the Cubs are set to return largely the same roster in 2020. Bringing that group back has been misconstrued as the Cubs suddenly not having a talented team.

The NL Central is up for grabs and the Cubs will be a contender, though they realistically could finish anywhere from first to fourth in the standings. A look at the state of a competitive division:

Pirates

The division is up for grabs, but the Pirates won’t be in contention for the crown. After holding a 44-45 record at the All-Star break last season, Pittsburgh entered a freefall in the second half, going 25-48 the rest of the way.

The collapse cost manager Clint Hurdle and general manager Neil Huntington their jobs with two years remaining on their contracts. Monday, the Pirates traded center fielder Starling Marte to the Diamondbacks. Ace starter Jameson Taillon underwent his second Tommy John surgery in August and could miss the 2020 season.

Closer Felipe Vazquez’s career is likely over, as he's in jail stemming from statutory sexual assault charges. He now faces counts of child pornography and unlawful sexual contact with a minor.

New manager Derek Shelton and general manager Ben Cherington face an uphill climb towards relevancy. The Pirates have solid young pieces — first baseman Josh Bell, shortstop Kevin Newman, outfielder Bryan Reynolds — but won’t be a contender for the foreseeable future.

Brewers

The Brewers are coming off back-to-back postseason appearances for the first time in team history, but a chunk of the 2019 team won’t be back this season, including:

-Catcher Yasmani Grandal
-Infielder Mike Moustakas
-Infielder Hernan Perez
-Infielder Travis Shaw
-First baseman Eric Thames
-Outfielder Trent Grisham
-Starter Jordan Lyles
-Starter Zach Davies
-Starter Chase Anderson
-Starter Gio Gonzalez
-Reliever Drew Pomeranz

That’s a lot of production to replace, highlighted by Grandal and Moustakas — 2019 All-Stars. Grisham, a promising 23-year-old outfielder, was sent to the Padres with Davies for infielder Luis Urías, a former top prospect, and starter Eric Lauer.

Lauer, former Cub Brett Anderson and Josh Lindblom — whose career was revitalized in Korea — are new starting options. Adrian Houser was better as a reliever (1.47 ERA, 30 2/3 innings) than starter (4.57 ERA, 18 starts) but will get an opportunity at the latter in 2020.

There’s potential in that rotation, led by ace Brandon Woodruff, but the group will again be a major talking point.. The Brewers have been successful in recent seasons relying on a cast of starters and their bullpen, especially closer Josh Hader. They will do so again in 2020.

Christian Yelich is an annual MVP candidate; Lorenzo Cain is one of the best center fielders in the game and is a bounce back candidate after being hampered by injuries last season. Ryan Braun is 36 but coming off his best season is several years. Second baseman Keston Hiura is an ascending force at the plate.

The Brewers’ must replace a ton of talent and hope their rotation moves pay off. They won’t be projected to win the division, but manager Craig Counsell has proven the past two seasons to never count his squad out.

Reds

The Reds are one of the most improved teams this winter and a candidate for champions of the offseason. Cincinnati has added four impactful free agents in Moustakas, starter Wade Miley, and outfielders Shogo Akiyama and former Cub Nicholas Castellanos, the latter officially joining the club on Monday

Miley sported a 3.98 ERA last season, though a rough September (16.68 ERA in five starts) hurt him. He joins what already figured to be one of the best rotations in baseball, featuring Luis Castillo, Trevor Bauer and Sonny Gray.

The Reds’ have put the NL Central on notice but winning the offseason doesn’t guarantee success on the field. Longtime first baseman Joey Votto didn’t have a bad 2019 offensively (.261/.357/.411) but it was his worst as a big leaguer. Jose Iglesias isn’t known for his bat, but he and his phenomenal defense are now with the Orioles.

With Castellanos in the fold, the Reds have a conglomerate in the outfield. There isn’t enough playing time for Castellanos, Akiyama, Aristides Aquino, Phillip Ervin, Nick Senzel and Jesse Winkler. The Reds are reportedly considering trading Senzel, a former top prospect entering his sophomore season.

Even with the odd outfield dynamic, the Reds are greatly improved from 2019, when they were a thorn in the Cubs’ side (11-8 against the North Siders). For the first time since 2013, the Reds are a true threat to win the NL Central.

Cardinals

Like the Cubs, money has been a factor in the Cardinals’ offseason. Owner Bill Dewitt Jr. said in November he didn’t anticipate a major bump in the team’s payroll.

The Cardinals added starter Kwang-Hyun Kim in December to fill out their rotation. Earlier this month, they dealt slugger Jose Martinez and young outfielder Randy Arozarena to the Rays for pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore, the No. 16 pick in the 2018 MLB Draft.

St. Louis reached the NLCS last season and they’ll return a similar squad in 2020. Cleanup man Marcell Ozuna recently signed with the Braves, creating a void in the heart of the Cardinals lineup.

Yadier Molina is one of the top catchers in the game, though he turns 38 in July. Setup man Andrew Miller turns 35 in May and sported a 4.45 ERA last season. Longtime starter Adam Wainwright is back to eat up innings but turns 39 in August. Paul Goldschmidt and Matt Carpenter had the worst seasons of their careers in 2019. Closer Jordan Hicks will miss at least a chunk of the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery last June.

Goldschmidt and Carpenter are good bets for some positive regression. Jack Flaherty is a 2020 Cy Young Award candidate, and Dakota Hudson is a solid No. 2. The bullpen features up-and-coming arms in Giovanny Gallegos and Ryan Helsley. Youngsters Tyler O’Neill and Tommy Edman will take on larger roles.

The Cardinals are always a factor in the division and that won’t change in 2020. They just won’t be heavily favored and will face stiff competition to defend their title.

Cubs

The Cubs are hoping David Ross replacing Joe Maddon as manager will change the dynamic of a team that hasn’t ascended to dynastic status after 2016. The group has question marks — jobs up for grabs include five in the bullpen, one in the rotation and the starting second base and center field roles.

The rotation is another year older and lost Cole Hamels, who signed with the Braves. Jon Lester surrendered a league-high 205 hits in 2019, sporting a 4.46 ERA and 1.50 WHIP. However, he said at the end of last season he and the Cubs found some helpful adjustments and wished they found them sooner, though didn’t elaborate on what they found.

The Cubs are counting on Yu Darvish to continue where he left off last season and Kyle Hendricks to remain his consistent self. Jose Quintana is good for 30+ starts each year and had the third-highest WAR (3.5) among Cubs pitchers last season. He’s shown flashes of brilliance as a Cub while also struggling at times. The Cubs need more of the former in 2020 — the last of Quintana’s deal.

The pitching staff is a concern, but the position player core is chock full of talent. Like Darvish, the Cubs need Kyle Schwarber to carry over his torrid 2019 second half. Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr. ascending offensively would go a long way.

If Bryant isn’t traded by Opening Day — a deal looks increasingly unlikely as the grievance case drags on — the Cubs will once again challenge for the division’s crown. That will require internal improvements, as the division is too strong for them to start off slow and fall behind their rivals.

It will be up to Ross to ensure the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, which wasn’t the case in 2019.

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