Cubs

Jim Hickey steps down as Cubs pitching coach

Jim Hickey steps down as Cubs pitching coach

The Cubs' coaching staff shakeup continued this offseason with pitching coach Jim Hickey leaving for personal reasons, according to a statement from the Cubs.

Hickey - a Chicago native - spent just the one year as pitching coach of the Cubs after serving in the same capacity with the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays for 11 seasons.

“Jim Hickey notified us yesterday of his decision to step down as pitching coach and leave the organization for personal reasons," Theo Epstein said in the team's statement. "We thank Jim for his season with the Cubs and his positive impact on our pitchers. Jim has our full support and we all wish him well.”

Hickey's departure from the Cubs has been rumored for weeks before he stepped down of his own accord three days before Thanksgiving.

Still, this is another surprising shakeup on the Cubs coaching staff after Epstein stressed the importance of continuity within the organization following the Cubs' final game.

Since being ousted from the postseason after the National League Wild-Card contest, the Cubs have already replaced their hitting coach - hiring Anthony Iapoce for the departed Chili Davis - watched their assistant hitting coach (Andy Haines) leave for a promotion with division rival Milwaukee and are now in the same boat on the pitching staff, creating a situation where there will be a third different voice coaching pitchers in the span of roughly a calendar year.

In Hickey's one year with the Cubs, the bullpen led baseball in ERA but faded down the stretch due in part to injuries and overuse. The rotation struggled in the first half, ranking 26th in the league in innings pitching as a unit, too often failing to pitch deep into ballgames. But the starting staff stabilized once the Cubs traded for Cole Hamels and was a major strength of the team for the final two months of 2018.

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Pregame focus, according to Javy Baez, is where the Cubs need to get better

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USA Today

Pregame focus, according to Javy Baez, is where the Cubs need to get better

While the Cubs’ decline has been talked about over, and over, and over, again, it’s always remained framed in relatively vague terms. Something wasn’t right over the last two seasons, and – perhaps in the interest of protecting a former manager that’s still clearly liked within the Cubs’ clubhouse – specifics were avoided. It was just that a change was needed, and Rossy knows what, etc. 

That is, until Javy Baez spoke on Sunday morning. In no unclear terms, Baez took a stab at explaining why he feels such a talented team has fallen far short of expectations in back-to-back seasons. 

“It wasn’t something bad, but we had a lot of options – not mandatory,” the Cubs’ star shortstop said from his locker at Sloan Park. “Everybody kind of sat back, including me, because I wasn’t really going out there and preparing for the game. I was getting ready during the game, which is not good. But this year, I think before the games we’ve all got to be out there, everybody out there, as a team. Stretch as a team, be together as a team so we can play together.”

Baez’s comments certainly track. Maddon’s widely considered one of the better managers in baseball, but discipline and structure have never been key pillars of his leadership style. He intrinsically trusts players to get their own work done – something that’s clearly an appreciated aspect of his personality, until, as you saw, it isn’t. World Series hangovers don’t exist four years after the fact, but given Maddon’s immediate success in Chicago, it’s easy to understand how players, maybe even incidentally, let off the gas pedal. 

“I mean I would just get to the field and instead of going outside and hit BP, I would do everything inside, which is not the same,” he added. “Once I’d go out to the game, I’d feel like l wasn’t ready. I felt like I was getting loose during the first 4 innings, and I should be ready and excited to get out before the first pitch.” 

“You can lose the game in the first inning. Sometimes when you’re not ready, and the other team scores by something simple, I feel like it was because of that. It was because we weren’t ready, we weren’t ready to throw the first pitch because nobody was loose.” 

Baez also explicitly promised that this year would feature far more organization and rigidity. They’ll stretch as a team, warm up outside as a team (presumably even during the cold months!), and hopefully rediscover that early-game focus that maybe slipped away during the extended victory lap. That may mean less giant hacks, too. 

“Sometimes we’re up by a lot or down by a lot and we wanted to hit homers,” he said. “That’s really not going to work for the team. It’s about getting on base and giving the at-bat to the next guy, and sometimes we forget about that because of the situation of the game. I think that’s the way you get back to the game – going pitch by pitch and at-bat by at-bat.” 

Baez was less specific when it came to his contractual discussions with the team, only going so far to say that negotiations were “up-and-down.” He’d like to play his whole career here, and would be grateful if an extension was reached before Opening Day – he’s just not counting on it. The focus right now is just on recapturing some of that 2016 drive, and the rest, according to him, will take care of itself. 

He may have lost the service-time battle, but Kris Bryant's got eyes on winning the war

He may have lost the service-time battle, but Kris Bryant's got eyes on winning the war

He always knew it was going to be an uphill battle. Kris Bryant just expected the climb to last a couple weeks, not a couple years. 

“Yeah, jeez. That took forever,” he said on Saturday, in regards to the grievance he filed against the Cubs back after the 2015 season. “It really did. At the beginning of it, I was told that it’d take maybe a couple weeks, so I was ready for it. And then the off-season kept going on and I was like, ‘All right, come out with it, let’s go.’”

Fast-forward 200 or so weeks, and the Cubs’ star third baseman got an answer – just not the one he, his agent Scott Boras, and the MLB Players Association was looking for. An independent arbitrator disagreed with the notion that the Cubs had manipulated Bryant’s service time in order to keep him under contract longer, and ruled that he would remain under team control until after the 2021 season. While many felt that what the Cubs did violated the spirit of the law, ultimately they didn’t infringe on the letter. 

“Obviously we had a disagreement. We handled it respectfully,” Bryant said. “I’m very thankful that Theo and the team saw it through. I saw it through to the end because it was something that I really believed in. My Mom and Dad told me to always stand up for what I believed in, and I was going to see the process through, and I saw it through. Respect on both ends, there’s definitely no hard feelings, so let’s definitely put that narrative to bed.” 

Despite one of the strongest cases in the history of these contractual disputes, there were ultimately too many ambiguities involved to reward Bryant with free agency one year earlier. Getting a substantial raise would have been nice, but much of Bryant’s motivation behind filing the grievance in the first place came from a sense of responsibility to bring to light what many feel are unfair labor laws within the current collectively-bargained agreement. It’s certainly not one extra year of market value salary, but as baseball barrels towards a contentious stretch of negotiations, bringing the issue to light – according to Bryant – is a win within itself. 

“I definitely felt that responsibility to take it on and be like, I want to be the guy that fights for this because I believe this is right,” he said. “And it’s going to help us in 2 years.

“I think it’s good for us to go through stuff like this. You identify the problems that you see, and you try to make it better. This last round, I think we, as players, really took a whoopin’. It’s up to us to fight for things that we think are right.” 

Don’t be surprised when Bryant continues to be a public figure throughout the next 24 months (or more) of discussions. He’s one of the game’s most recognizable faces, and from the very start, his five-year career has been tied to the hip of MLB’s service time manipulation controversy. He was vocal about squashing any idea that he held ill-will towards the Cubs front office, but did concede that the gray area which many front offices love to exploit has opened the door for uncomfortable, unnecessary friction. 

“The team doesn’t want to go through it,” he said. “I mean, Theo doesn’t want to have to make decisions like that, and cause … I wouldn’t say problems, but disagreements between players and the front office. I don’t want to be put in that situation either, so let’s just make it black and white. It’d make things a whole lot easier.” 

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