After two busy years with Joe Maddon, 'beautiful man' Steve Cishek ready for more with White Sox

After two busy years with Joe Maddon, 'beautiful man' Steve Cishek ready for more with White Sox

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Joe Maddon called on Steve Cishek an awful lot during the right-handed reliever’s two years on the North Side.

Cishek wouldn’t have had it any other way.

“You get paid a lot of money to play this game, I want to make sure that I’m keeping up my value,” Cishek said Wednesday at Camelback Ranch. “You get paid to go out there and pitch and perform. I take a lot of pride in that, I want to make sure I’m going out there and giving everything I possibly have. Hopefully my teammates and organization reap the benefits of that.

“That’s always been my approach. I always try to make myself available. I prepare every day and take care of my body to the best of my ability using the staff that we have to hopefully give the manager the option to use me during the game.”

Cishek’s pitching on the South Side now, one of the many veterans Rick Hahn’s front office brought in to complement the young core and build realistic postseason expectations for the 2020 campaign. During his two years with the Cubs, Maddon called on Cishek a combined 150 times. In 2018, only one pitcher in baseball, Brad Ziegler, made more appearances. In 2019, Cishek again ranked in the top 25.

That’s a lot, but it never seemed to make Cishek any less effective: In those two seasons, he had a combined 2.55 ERA.

While plenty have suggested that Maddon's use of Cishek had some sort of detrimental effect on the pitcher, as Cishek's words illuminate, he’s always game to head to the mound. That attitude is what made Maddon use Cishek so much. It’s what made Maddon love the guy.

“'Shek is one of the finest teammates you’re ever going to find,” Maddon, now managing the Los Angeles Angels, said Tuesday during Cactus League Media Day. “I love him because he’s so durable, but he’ll tell you when he needs a day, which is important. He’s fearless.

“This guy, you’ve got to be careful because he’ll keep wanting to go out. This guy wants to play all the time. So you have to have a conversation to know when he needs a day.

“But he’s a beautiful man, and I’m going to miss him.”

It’s hard to find many better compliments than that. When told about what his former skipper said, Cishek laughed and said: “Thanks, Joe.”

But even though Cishek is no longer playing for Maddon and the Cubs, he’s ready to continue the same kind of thing he was doing up north. Rick Renteria can expect to have at his disposal a pitcher who’s ready to go every day.

“That’s what the offseason’s for. I don’t really mess around much. I prepare and try to get my body to endure a long season,” Cishek said. “I do everything that I’m able to do because I don’t want to go out there and not be able to perform or be hurt, not able to help the team win. So that’s what I focus on when I prepare for these games.”

Cishek figures to be a big factor at the back end of the White Sox bullpen in 2020, someone who can provide durability and reliability to a unit, regardless of team, that could always use more of that.

The White Sox bullpen was pretty good in 2019 and returns many of the arms that made it that way: Aaron Bummer, Alex Colome, Jimmy Cordero and Evan Marshall. But as Hahn will tell you, there’s a good deal of volatility with relief pitching. So bringing in someone with Cishek’s track record of not just pitching a lot but pitching a lot and pitching well figures to be a successful addition.

“You always anticipate a good result when he pitches,” Maddon said. “Always.”

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According to Javy Baez, Cubs need to improve their pregame focus

According to Javy Baez, Cubs need to improve their pregame focus

While the Cubs’ decline has been talked about over and over again, it’s always been framed in relatively vague terms. Perhaps in the interest of protecting a former manager who is still well-liked within the clubhouse, specifics were always avoided. It was just a change that was needed.

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

“It wasn’t something bad, but we had a lot of options – not mandatory,” Baez 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.”

Related: What to love, and hate, about the Cubs heading into 2020

The star shortstop's comments certainly track. Joe Maddon is 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 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 eased 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,” Baez said. “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 four 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 promised that this year would be far more organized and rigid. The Cubs will stretch as a team, warm up outside as a team and hopefully rediscover that early-game focus that may have 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 saying 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 on recapturing some of that 2016 drive and the rest, according to him, will take care of itself.

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The Cubs desperately want you to know they've turned the page. But why?

USA Today

The Cubs desperately want you to know they've turned the page. But why?

Make no mistake about it: the Cubs are trying to turn the page on the Joe Maddon era. You could hear it when Theo Epstein chose to “take the high road” when asked about Maddon’s recent comments regarding last summer’s breakup. You could sense it when new manager David Ross talked about increasing intensity and consistent lineups, all without referencing this season’s must-have Pinot Noir. The Cubs know that the Maddon Years, objectively the most successful stretch of baseball in team history, are done. What remains to be seen is if the outspoken manager took those winning ways with him. 

“I feel a lot better about the organization,” Epstein said. “I think we’ve made a lot of progress in some important areas this offseason. I know it might bring some eye-rolls because there wasn’t significant change to the roster that could have happened … I’m genuinely optimistic about this group. 

“I feel like the talent is maybe getting overlooked a little bit. And that’s our own fault, because it hasn’t manifested the way it should have. We haven’t gotten the most out of it. We haven’t turned it into production, which is the most important part. But that’s what this is about. That’s what changes are about. That’s what Rossy’s here to do.” 

Though he’s proceeded by a reputation not unlike Maddon’s, the sparknotes version of himself that Ross presented to media at Sloan Park on Tuesday afternoon has plenty of noticeable differences. There’s going to be more structure within the clubhouse and an increased focus on day-to-day intensity. It’s entirely possible that Anthony Rizzo is non-ironically the Cubs’ leadoff hitter, and batting orders will no longer be the guessing game of the day. 

“Traditionally, I like a standard lineup as much as I possibly can,” Ross said. “I think the flow of a normal, consistent lineup is important to some of the players. It's a real thing, as much as we don't measure it."

Pitching Chicago on a fresh start is an admittedly tough sell when a vast majority of the Cubs’ 40-man roster is the same. If there was one thing Epstein got right on Tuesday, it’s that many, many people are rolling their eyes. Last year’s fourth-oldest team in baseball is back, one year older. Jason Kipnis, Steven Souza and Jeremy Jeffress were the only players brought in this offseason, and since the Cubs feel that discussing payroll is, as Epstein put it, a “strategic disadvantage,” it’s up to fan interpretation on why that is. 

The grand irony of Epstein and company's PR blitz is that on paper, and presumably on the field, the Cubs are good! Teams don't win the World Series every year; the 2018 Red Sox won 120 games and followed that up by missing the playoffs entirely and trading Mookie Betts. This was never a roster that needed the dramatic overhaul that Cubs’ brass so badly wants everyone to believe took place (the yoga instructor is gone! The Pitch Lab is cookin’!). PECOTA even gave them 85 wins with a playoff berth. 2016’s window is going to close, for good, sooner rather than later. The painful rebuild is coming whether Anthony Rizzo stans or the Wilson Contreras hive like it or not.

Maybe the Cubs did turn the page. But at the end of the day, it’s just another piece of paper from the same book. 

“I think the main thing is that there’s been a lot of success here,” Ross said. “These guys have had a lot of experiences to pull from. Just coming back and paying attention to some of the details, grinding at-bats, focusing on cleaning up our baserunning a little bit – some of the small details where things have gone awry in the last year or two. Nothing earth shattering.” 

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