Cubs

Steve Cishek ready to play multiple roles for Cubs, including recruiter

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USA TODAY

Steve Cishek ready to play multiple roles for Cubs, including recruiter

Steve Cishek hasn't yet thrown a pitch in a Cubs uniform, but he has no problem playing recruiter for his new team, including even trying to bring John Lackey back. 

Though that's mostly for his own personal gain.

When he had to choose a new jersey number, Cishek couldn't select No. 23 (Ryne Sandberg) or 31 (Fergie Jenkins, Greg Maddux) since they're retired and many of the other numbers in the 20s and 30s were taken up. So the veteran reliever wound up choosing No. 41 and found out Thursday it was actually Lackey's number the last two years.

"Maybe if he re-signs in Chicago, I can get something good from him for the number," Cishek joked Thursday at the Cubs Caravan Service Day at Kilmer Elementary School on Chicago's far north side.

Towering over a plethora of grade school kids, Cishek finally had his "Welcome to Chicago" moment while walking in front of Sandberg and Clark the Cub.

The 31-year-old right-handed submariner signed with the Cubs on the last day of the MLB Winter Meetings in mid-December, thus ensuring he would not be a casualty of this historically slow offseason.

Cishek isn't keeping his recruiting pitches to just Lackey, however. After playing with Alex Cobb the last few months of the 2017 with the Rays, Cishek has reached out to the free agent starter to see how things have been going on the open market.

Cobb has been linked to the Cubs since before the offseason even officially started and those talks only increased when Cobb's former pitching coach Jim Hickey joined Joe Maddon's staff.

"He's worked so hard just to get to this point in his career, you might as well enjoy it," Cishek said. "He's enjoying it, I think. It's just moving a little slower than we all thought.

"It'd be nice to see him in a Cubs uniform. He's a tremendous teammate, a good friend and obviously a tremendous competitor and someone you want on your team."

That may be as far as Cishek's recruiting prowess goes, but it didn't take him much convincing to join the Cubs and he figures to be a big part of the pitching plan the next two seasons.

Cishek loved the idea of pitching for a contender and a historic franchise like the Cubs. But he also was drawn to all the day games that will allow him to see his family for breakfast and dinner most gamedays.

Cishek - who has 121 career saves - knows he's joining a bullpen that has several arms in the closer mix and Brandon Morrow penciled in as the ninth-inning option as of right now.

He hasn't spoken to the Cubs about a specific role in the bullpen and will be ready for whatever comes his way.

"I genuinely want to do whatever it takes to help the team win," Cishek said. "I signed here to win ballgames. If they want me coming in the fifth inning to get out of a jam - or the sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth inning - it doesn't matter to me. I'm comfortable in any situation."

Like Cobb, Cishek is also familiar with Hickey and loves the pitching coach's dry sense of humor and old-school style. 

In 26 games under Hickey's tutelage in Tampa Bay to close out last season, Cishek posted a sparkling 1.09 ERA and 0.81 WHIP, striking out 26 batters in 24.2 innings. He credited a big part of that success to Hickey's style of conveying a scouting report that sets pitchers up for success without overwhelming them with information.

Cishek is about to enter his ninth big-league season and has spent his entire career coming out of the bullpen. He's already made more than $21 million in his time in baseball and while his two-year, $13 million pact with the Cubs isn't the type of money a lot of back-end bullpen options have received on the open market recently, Cishek couldn't pass up on an opportunity to join the Cubs and be a part of something special.

He also knows relievers have never been as important as they are today.

"A lot of position players will argue that we're like the kickers of baseball," Cishek said, "but kickers have a pretty big responsibility in football. A lot of times, the game's on the line for them. I'll take that parallel.

"We're expected to go out there and put a zero up on the board and if we do, no one really notices. When things don't go well, everyone notices. 

"So it makes the job pretty tough... But yeah, that's the way the game's gone now - gotta lock down the last three innings."

The only think Cishek isn't ready for is having his dance moves - which he admitted are seriously lacking - blasted out to the public via the video board and Cubs Twitter. 

But he's got plenty of time to come up with some dance moves before the Cubs' first game at Wrigley Field April 9.

Cubs Mailbag: Will Kris Bryant play more at third or in the outfield next year?

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USA TODAY

Cubs Mailbag: Will Kris Bryant play more at third or in the outfield next year?

Some guys pump iron with personal trainers, eat kale salads and recoup in cryotherapy machines to make room for the gluttony of the holidays. Not me. I'm getting into shape for Thanksgiving the old fashioned way - by carrying the weight of some heavy questions from Cubs fans. So, strap on the old feedbag and let's dig right in.

Q: Do you think the Cubs get Harper? - @intensify

Luke Stuckmeyer: First of all, way to intensify the situation. This question might be in every Cubs mailbag we have until Harper finally finds a home. I'll give you my best guess. Bryce can really mash some taters and the Cubs could obviously use another big bat from the left side. I just don't think they are going to dive *that* deep into the holiday spirit. I'll say 75/25 that he ends up somewhere else. I think another team trying to make a splash will spend an insane amount of money to make Harper the face of their franchise. The Cubs already have three of those players in Bryant, Rizzo and Baez.

Q: Will we see Kris Bryant as a 3rd baseman or in the outfield next season? - @kimsrad

LS: Yes and yes. I think Joe Maddon will use Kris Bryant in both places. Expect the Cubs to have a more consistent batting order next year, but the lineup flexibility will continue in the field. I do think Bryant will play more game in LF than he will at 3B. The Cubs have always envisioned this is where Bryant might eventually end up at some point. I'd like to see former Cubs prospect Josh Donaldson return to the franchise via free agency for a few years and let Bryant take over full-time in left. We'll see how free agency unfolds, but regardless I see more outfield games for KB moving forward.

Q: What do you consider more important, a good top of the lineup hitter or a lockdown closer? - @tscott119

LS: Great question! In my opinion these are the two most important needs for the roster this offseason. I'll vote for the closer because a good dessert is always more important to a great meal than a good appetizer. A true lockdown closer helps shorten the game in the postseason and with Morrow's injury concerns, I want to see the bullpen beefed up. Help the starters by shortening the game. That said, leadoff hitter is still the second most important area of need on this team. The Cubs have been trying to find an answer to this riddle since Dexter Fowler left. So, I'd like a helping of each this offseason.

Q: Are the Cubs going to bring Jesse Chavez back? I sure hope so! #Cubs - @LindsTeach1386

LS: This goes perfectly with the last question. "Build the Bullpen" would be one of my themes of the winter and Chavez was terrific in Cubs uniform with a 1.15 ERA. He throws strikes and the Cubs also need that from relievers, too. He's told teammates that if he's not wearing a Cubs uniform next season he hang up the cleats after 11 seasons. I think he'll be back and it shouldn't be "too expensive."

Q: I'm asking Santa for a Schwarber jersey for Christmas. Does the big guy in the red suit need to put in a good for Schwarbs? #Cubs - @mommymack23

LS: For the record, I think Kap usually wears blue suits. I'd ask for the shirsey. Schwarber's name will be mentioned a lot this winter.

Q: Has this era of Cubs players peaked? - @spiceycentipede3

LS: I don't think so. It will be tough to ever top an historic 2016, but I believe there are more championships in this core group. This is still a young team and a healthy Kris Bryant can completely change the lineup. Now, let's see if Javy can take another step after an outstanding season and if Willson Contreras can bounce back as the best catcher in the NL. Theo preaches that player development isn't always linear in baseball. I hope he's right!

Well, that's six questions. One for every heaping helping that this turkey plans to take down on Thanksgiving. Thanks for all the great questions. Have a great and safe holiday next week. 

How Cubs will determine if this is the time to sell — or hold — stock on young players

How Cubs will determine if this is the time to sell — or hold — stock on young players

Do the Cubs envision Ian Happ as a vital piece of their future or the organization's best trade asset?

What about Kyle Schwarber? Albert Almora Jr.? Victor Caratini? 

We might not get surefire answers to these questions this winter, but we'll at least get an indication in a pivotal offseason for this quartet. (The Cubs already know what they have with their other young position players apart from maybe Willson Contreras, but it's nearly impossible to find another catcher in the same stratosphere as Contreras in terms of physical tools and potential).

The Cubs are at a crossroads of sorts with the development of these four players (and others) as they try to retool for another run at a championship in 2019 after a disappointing end to 2018. There's urgency for production in the lineup and not simply potential and the growing pains that coincide with young players.

So how do the Cubs determine if they should sell stock on players like Happ, Schwarber or Almora when it's still unknown who — or what — they are as players?

"Through evaluation and through a lot of discussion with our most trusted evaluators and the people around the players every day," Theo Epstein said last week at the GM Meetings. "And through conversations with the players, too. Honest discussions about their weaknesses.

"I don't want to generalize, but many players follow a path where they come up from the minor leagues and have some immediate success and as the league finds out more about them, the league makes an adjustment. I've never seen a major-league environment that's more ruthless than the one that exists today. We're going right to a player's weakness, quickly finding it, exploiting it and staying there until they adjust back.

"You have to have honest conversations about the area where players need to improve in order to have the types of careers that they want to have in order to help us win the way they want to help us win. And seeing how players react to that and the plans they come up with and the work ethic to make those adjustments and the trace record to make those adjustments — all that stuff really matters."

We know the Cubs don't operate with any "untouchables" (as was reiterated in a very high-profile way over the last week), but that's also all about how important the word value is.

The Cubs have zero interest in selling low on guys like Schwarber, Almora or Happ because those are three players they've held conviction on for years as first-round draft picks to top prospects to impact players in the big leagues. 

But it's also entirely possible another team around the league values Schwarber more than the Cubs do and offer Epstein's front office a deal that's too hard to pass up. Sure, Schwarber's 2018 was something of a disappointment, but he also drastically increased his walk rate, cut down on strikeouts and improved his defense. Oh yeah, and he'll still only be 26 in March.

We could run the same exercise for Almora, Happ and Caratini, but the main takeaway here is that the evaluations of these players are incomplete as they're still very young/inexperienced with potential.

But if the Cubs trade any of those three guys this winter, it's not necessarily an indication of doom for the player. It's more about finding the right time to pull the trigger.

"That's the nature of it," Epstein said. "Trades happen in this game. A lot of times when trades are made, it doesn't mean you've completely given up on a player. A lot of trades are more about what you're receiving back than what you're giving up in the first place."

There's also value for the Cubs in not necessarily selling one of those young players but choosing to get a little more veteran and diverse with a lineup that "broke" in the second half, as Epstein described it.

Due to the inexperience and youth, the Cubs lineup was more prone to slumps. That was highlighted by the trade for (and subsequent playing time of) Daniel Murphy in August. When the veteran hitter was acquired, the Cubs initially intended to utilize him to help augment the lineup on a fairly regular basis, but with the struggles around him, they instead needed to lean on Murphy to play essentially every day.

When it comes down to it, the Cubs just want production — no matter where it comes from.

"We're setting out to add to the personnel, so I guess in that sense, if we come back with the status quo, it means there are a couple things out there that we would've lovd to have done that we couldn't, but that happens," Epstein said. "But I think ultimately, we should be held accountable for our performance, not for the amount of change in the names. And we will be. This group will be.

"In order to keep this thing going with the realities of the business and what happens as players move through the service time structure and escalating salaries and everything else, the time for that talent to translate into performance is now to get the absolute most out of this group. Or else we're going to be looking at some hard realities and the need for a lot of change going forward."