Cubs

Theo Epstein admits there's a bit of frustration in Cubs' clubhouse over constant lineup shuffling

3-29_maddon_theo_epstein_usat.jpg
USA TODAY

Theo Epstein admits there's a bit of frustration in Cubs' clubhouse over constant lineup shuffling

Joe Maddon will be back as the Cubs’ manager in 2019. Theo Epstein confirmed as much during his approximately 70-minute end-of-season press conference Wednesday.

There was speculation that Maddon and the Cubs might have parted ways after the earliest end to a season during his tenure, speculation that perhaps there was some unseen behind-the-scenes head-butting going on between the skipper and the front office. Epstein made sure to say that wasn’t true, that conflict over baseball ideas is welcomed and that he in no way prefers a yes-man running his team.

But while Epstein did his best to put that issue to bed, he was refreshingly honest to the point that he revealed not everyone in a Cubs uniform is always happy with Maddon’s methods. The team president fessed up that certain players are a little frustrated with Maddon’s constant lineup shuffling, something that’s been a Maddon trademark since he arrived on the North Side ahead of the 2015 season — and the Cubs’ rise to the top of the baseball heap.

“Maybe a little bit, honestly,” Epstein said when asked if there’s frustration among the players over the lack of a set, everyday lineup. “But I also think they understand. They look around and they see the talent here. And that’s how players talk about it. ‘We have so many talented players who deserve to play, and that’s what makes us great, that’s what makes us really good. But here’s how sometimes it makes me feel, and here’s how if we could communicate about it it could make things a little bit easier.’ I just think it’s important to hear that and to listen and to communicate as much as possible about it and to be transparent.

“In a situation that’s more uncertain —more uncertain than a set lineup every single day, which we don’t have with this group — helping players anticipate as much as possible when they’re going to play, their role so they can think along is really important. And I think that’s something that Joe tries to do and does effectively. But we can all get better at it. I learned some things from talking to the players today, and I’m going to share those with Joe. I’m sure Joe learned some things from his discussions with the players, too. We’re going to continue to try to get better at it.

“I would say the players very much understand but that they’re human and of course at times they get frustrated, more often when they’re not playing or not hitting than when they’re in there a lot and hitting.”

The lack of a set 1 through 8 in the batting order during the majority of a 162-game season has worked rather well for the Cubs since Maddon took over as manager. They’ve averaged more than 96 wins during his four seasons, all of which ended in playoff berths, three of which saw the Cubs reach the NLCS and one which ended in a World Series championship.

It’s been a luxury for a team that’s had plenty of depth during this stretch. Maddon’s juggling of certain positions on the field and his desire to get certain, more traditional everyday guys rest has allowed the Cubs to stock their bench with players whose talent makes them capable of being everyday guys on many, if not most, other teams.

Being able to bring guys like Albert Almora Jr. and Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ — and, before his rise to superstardom, Javy Baez — off the bench has helped the Cubs late in games. And as Epstein put it, it’s saved the Cubs in injury situations over the years.

“The fact that we have more than eight everyday-caliber players to throw out there and we have depth, it’s a huge part of what’s helped us win 95 games this year, what’s helped us average 97 (wins) the last four years, more than anyone in baseball,” Epstein said. “When you lose Addison Russell, Javy Baez slides over, Ben Zobrist slides to second base, and when you lose Kris Bryant, David Bote’s there to fill in. Player after player. The alternative to that overexposing a reserve or forcing a Triple-A or Four-A type player into that role, and that hurts the team and that hurts your ultimate goal.

“That said, there is a price to pay, sometimes with players not knowing they’re in the lineup every day and not having that confidence that they can go out and play and develop at their own pace. If they’re sometimes wondering if they have to get that hit today to be in the lineup tomorrow, that’s something that you wrestle with.

“Honestly, I think the right thing for the organization overall is to have too many good players instead of not enough, or to have eight guys for eight spots and then the second you suffer one or two or three injuries your whole season’s down the tubes.

“It’s the depth of really quality players we’ve had that’s kept us afloat at many times.”

The existence of frustration isn’t exactly surprising for players who consider themselves — and in many cases have proved themselves — capable of everyday roles. But this is not a new topic for the Cubs, one that predates even these comments from Zobrist in spring training.

“We’ve got a lot of great players, and there are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench on our team at times. But no one ever rusts because you know how Joe uses everybody,” Zobrist said in February. “You’re still going to play. Even if you don’t start, you’re probably going to play later in the game. It’s just part of the National League and the way Joe Maddon manages.”

So while Maddon’s methods might be a tad frustrating at times, they also allow for plenty of opportunities. And more than 96 wins a season.

Cubs looking to unearth core relievers with low-cost, high-upside acquisitions

Cubs looking to unearth core relievers with low-cost, high-upside acquisitions

The Cubs bullpen is going to look a whole lot different this season.

Gone are the reliable Steve Cishek (signed with White Sox) and Brandon Kintzler (reportedly signed with Marlins). Pedro Strop remains a free agent, though a recent report said the race to sign him is down to the Marlins and Rangers.

Assuming Strop doesn’t return, the Cubs will have lost three of their four most frequently used relievers from 2019. Replacing the trio will be no small task, considering a bulk of their appearances came in late-inning, high-leverage spots.

Cishek and Kintzler didn’t sign back-breaking deals (one-year, $6 million; reported one-year, $3.25 million), but the luxury tax has been a factor in the Cubs offseason. They aren’t in a position to commit big money to top-of-the-market arms and have instead been stockpiling low-cost relievers with upside.

“It’s become such an unbelievably important and difficult part of our job,” general manager Jed Hoyer said at Cubs Convention of assembling a bullpen. “It wasn’t that long ago that we’d go into a season and our goal would be ‘Hey, can we get a thousand innings out of our starting pitching staff?’ You think about your five starters, if you could get some combination of close to a thousand innings, that was always a goal, out of roughly 1,400 innings.

“And now, that’s gone away. You realize to get through a season, it's not a matter of going up on a whiteboard and writing up your eight relievers. It's a matter of [needing] 15, 20, 25 good relievers over the course of the summer to really get through it.

"You've got to take a lot of chances. There's no more volatile aspect of the game than the bullpen, and that's league wide. You’ve got to constantly take chances on guys and realize that sometimes, what appears to be a guy that’s struggling may just be simply a bad seven innings or bad 10 innings.”

Volatility was a main theme of the Cubs bullpen in 2019. Strop is one of the best relievers in team history, but early season hamstring injuries impacted his performance — a 4.97 ERA and 1.27 WHIP were the worst figures of his Cubs career. Strop finished the season strong (2.00 ERA in September), though he was largely a low-leverage option by season’s end.

Meanwhile, the additions of Kyle Ryan and Rowan Wick last offseason didn’t make waves among the fanbase. The former signed a major league deal after a solid 2018 season with Triple-A Iowa, and the Cubs acquired the latter in a low-key November trade. Both emerged as key contributors in 2019.

“Rowan Wick was a good example,” Hoyer said. “When we traded for him and we got him into the pitch lab and we improved his curveball, I think that had an enormous impact on his year last year. Brad Wieck, we traded for and immediately made some adjustments. Our pro scouting staff does a good job with that.”

Ryan and Wick are two of only three locks for the Opening Day bullpen, along with closer Craig Kimbrel. Wieck, acquired at the trade deadline for Carl Edwards Jr., is potentially another. That leaves five, maybe four spots up for grabs in what will be an open competition in spring training. Incumbent options include:

-Adbert Alzolay
-Tyler Chatwood
-Alec Mills
-Colin Rea
-Wieck
-Dillon Maples
-Duane Underwood Jr.
-James Norwood
-Brandon Morrow (reportedly re-signed on a minor-league deal)

Morrow and Chatwood are the most tenured options of the group, though the former has battled injuries throughout his career and hasn’t pitched since July 2018. If he’s healthy (and pitches well in spring training) Morrow will likely claim a bullpen job.

Chatwood is a candidate for the final rotation spot, along with Alzolay, Mills and (potentially) Rea. Mills and Underwood are out of minor-league options. New reliever candidates include:

-Dan Winkler — signed to one-year, split deal
-CD Pelham — claimed off waivers from Rangers
-Trevor Megill — Rule 5 pick (Padres)
-Ryan Tepera — signed to one-year, split deal
-Casey Sadler — acquired from Dodgers
-Travis Lakins — acquired from Red Sox
-Jeremy Jeffress — reportedly signed to a one-year, big-league deal

Winkler, 29, spent the previous five seasons bouncing between the major and minor leagues with the Braves. Last season, he posted a 4.98 ERA in 27 MLB appearances and a 2.93 ERA in the minors (30 appearances). He made 69 big-league appearances in 2018, sporting a 3.43 ERA in 60 1/3 innings while tallying 69 strikeouts.

Winkler isn’t a flamethrower — his four-seam fastball averaged 92.1 mph last season — but it ranked in MLB’s 93rd percentile, meaning he generates swings and misses. Sadler ranked in the 90th percentile and posted a 2.14 ERA and 1.17 WHIP in 33 games. The 29-year-old struck out 31 batters in 46 1/3 innings between the Dodgers and Rays, though he sported a whopping 12.3 K/9 in Triple-A (38 2/3 innings).

Pelham, 24, was recently outrighted off the 40-man roster and sent to Iowa. He didn’t pitch in the big leagues in 2019 and struggled with command in Triple-A (18.3 walk rate) but throws hard. Megill, 26, throws a mid-to-upper 90s fastball and sported a 12.7 K/9 in Triple-A last season.

Worth noting: Pelham (6-foot-6, 235 pounds) and Megill (6-foot-8, 235 pounds) are big dudes.

Tepera holds a career 3.64 ERA and 1.16 WHIP and made 73 and 68 appearances in 2017 and 2018, respectively. The 32-year-old missed a chunk of 2019 with a right elbow impingement, finishing with a 4.98 ERA in 23 games.

Lakins, 25, is a former sixth-round pick who posted a 3.86 ERA in 23 1/3 last season and holds a 4.45 ERA in parts of five minor-league seasons. His curveball ranked 66th in spin rate league-wide among pitchers who threw at least 50 last season.

Jeffress reportedly agreed to a one-year deal Tuesday worth close to $1 million. He’s coming off a rough 2019 with the Brewers in which he sported a 5.02 ERA, dealing with a shoulder injury out of the gate. The 32-year-old also hurt his hip in August and was released on Sept. 1.

Jeffress is a season removed from posting a 1.29 ERA and 15 saves in 73 appearances. He’s another example of the budget-driven moves the Cubs have made this winter, and while he struggled in 2019, his career 3.16 ERA makes him a prime bounce back candidate.

There’s a lot of positives in the group, and the Cubs will use their pitch lab to make any necessary adjustments. They also realize not every guy will be as successful as Ryan or Wick, and some options won’t pan out. Their goal is to unearth as many contributors as they can.

"That's the kind of shot we have to take, and that's the kind of shot every team has to take on capturing that lightning in a bottle,” Hoyer said. “Buying really high on relievers and signing them after they have a breakout year is really expensive and really difficult and doesn't have a great success rate. We try to find those guys that we can catch lightning in a bottle, and that's been a big part of our strategy." 

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Chicago

Cubs reportedly agree to deal with reliever Jeremy Jeffress

Cubs reportedly agree to deal with reliever Jeremy Jeffress

The Cubs bullpen is undergoing an overhaul with Steve Cishek and Brandon Kintzler already heading to other teams and perhaps more changes coming.

One incoming change is apparently Jeremy Jeffress. According to reports, the Cubs have agreed to a one-year deal with the 32-year-old reliever.


Jeffress was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in the first round back in 2006 and has had three stints with the team since. He made his MLB debut with the Brewers in 2010, but left the team the following offseason as part of the Zack Greinke trade with the Kansas City Royals.

Years later, he re-signed with the Brewers in 2014. The Brewers then dealt him to the Texas Rangers in the middle of the 2016 season, only to re-acquire him from Texas the following trade deadline.

In his most recent stint with the Brewers, Jeffress was streaky. He was an all-star in 2018 (1.29 ERA, 89 strikeouts, 27 walks in 76 2/3 innings), but had an ERA north of five in 2019. That 2018 season was the best of his career in many ways so the Cubs will be hoping to recreate some of that magic as opposed to his lackluster 2019.

Either way, the right-hander gives the Cubs a much-needed veteran presence in the bullpen after the losses of Cishek, Kintzler and possibly Pedro Strop, who is still a free agent.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Chicago