Hendricks, Chatwood, Alzolay and where the Cubs rotation goes from here

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AP

Hendricks, Chatwood, Alzolay and where the Cubs rotation goes from here

Kyle Hendricks' shoulder injury isn't opening the door for Adbert Alzolay to make his way into the Cubs rotation.

Not initially, at least.

The Cubs will hand Tyler Chatwood the ball in Hendricks' normal spot Thursday evening against the Mets at Wrigley Field, keeping Alzolay in the minors for the time being. 

When Hendricks hit the injured list over the weekend, many speculated it could be the Cubs' top pitching prospect who gets the call, as Alzolay has been on fire in Triple-A (1.93 ERA, 40 K in 28 innings over his last 5 starts). But the Cubs have two veteran starting pitching options hanging out in their bullpen in Chatwood and Mike Montgomery and it would send a bad message inside the clubhouse to pass over those guys and call up a starter from the minors to take a turn in the rotation.

The Cubs also felt like Chatwood has earned the chance to start after dealing with last year's struggles and having a resurgent season out of the bullpen and in his one previous spot start.

"He's been pitching a lot better," Joe Maddon said of Chatwood. "We believe he's earned this opportunity to pitch in the situation. ... It's an earned situation."

The Cubs made sure Chatwood was stretched out, as they held him back in case of extra innings Sunday night in Los Angeles and then had him throw in the bullpen after the game to help build his stamina back up to join the rotation.

But even if Alzolay won't be joining the rotation this week, that doesn't mean his opportunity isn't right around the corner. The Cubs have been discussing the potential for a six-man rotation in the near future, as they just began a stretch of 17 games in 17 days before their next break on July 5. 

"That's been something we've talked about a lot," GM Jed Hoyer said. "This is really the third time we've had 2-3 weeks in a row [of games]. No doubt, the starters wear down after 2-3 times through the rotation on four days rest and we're aware of their age and mileage on some of these guys. We want to make sure we take care of them. In general, getting extra rest is something we've talked about going into the break."

The Cubs have gone to a six-man rotation before and after the All-Star Break in past seasons and it makes sense to do so again this year, even with Hendricks on the shelf. Montgomery and Alzolay are both options and then Chatwood, of course, though Maddon insisted the Cubs have not come up with a concrete plan for the rotation beyond Thursday's outing.

The big question looming over the rotation is how long Hendricks will be out. He was in some kind of groove before experiencing shoulder issues in his last start against the Dodgers.

"All the test confirmed what we thought — he's kinda dealing with an impingement," Hoyer said. "I feel like we got ahead of it. We're not sure how much time he'll miss. We'll try to take it slowly and take the length of the season into account."

It's still only mid-June and the Cubs are hoping they're going to be playing baseball for another four-plus months, so they know how important Hendricks is to the overall goal of a second championship. 

They'll practice patience with him in his recovery, but right now, they can't say whether or not Cubs fans will be able to see him pitch again before the All-Star Game.

The Javy Effect: How Baez's fearless nature has rubbed off on the Cubs

The Javy Effect: How Baez's fearless nature has rubbed off on the Cubs

The lasting image of the Cubs' annual trip to Coors Field will be Javy Baez's reaction to his bomb in the eighth inning of Wednesday's 10-1 victory.

Just a few pitches after the Rockies had plunked Anthony Rizzo and the Beanball War seemed to be ready to erupt, Baez retaliated in the most effective way — on the scoreboard:

While his pimp job and the sheer distance of that homer stand out, it was yet another positive result for Baez on an 0-2 or 1-2 count.

On the season, he is now hitting .278 with a .570 (!) slugging percentage, 5 homers and 15 RBI in counts that end on 0-2 or 1-2 pitches. By comparison, MLB hitters are batting just .154 with a .243 slugging percentage in 0-2/1-2 counts.

So why is Baez so good when he's down in the count?

"It's about fearlessness," Joe Maddon said last week. "I think that's what it really comes down to. He's developing a better eye on two strikes, but I don't think that guy goes to bed one night and worries about how many times he struck out that day. 

"Now, of course, I'm an advocate of striking out less. But I'm also an advocate of not messing with Javy and his ability to play this game. I think that's just indicating to you how full throttle he plays this game. 

"He doesn't overthink it; he's not worried about it in a negative way. He's really anticipating a positive outcome."

Baseball is a game fraught with failure and it's very easy for anybody — even the most established big-league veterans — to get caught up in the fear of failure.

But somehow, Baez seems to have been born without that gene. He does not spend his time worrying about potential failure or trying to avoid making mistakes. 

He just plays the game his way. It's a way that nobody else can duplicate, but Baez's fearless nature is certainly something the entire Cubs team is trying to adopt. 

"He's definitely a guy that you try to look at and it's like, he goes out and plays as hard as he can," Albert Almora Jr. said. "He really brings the kid out in you. You really think a lot about, 'Oh man, I used to play like that.' 

"But he does it at the highest level, which is something special. You can definitely see it in the team. He changes the whole attitude and the atmosphere."

The Cubs have been talking about Baez's sensational baseball IQ for the last five years, but it's gotten to a point where they now lean on him and that "sixth sense" during the course of the game. 

On the last homestand, Baez came out to the mound for a chat with Kyle Hendricks and it was later revealed he was letting the Cubs pitcher know what he saw about the current hitter/at-bat from his shortstop position. Hendricks said he now routinely looks back to Baez during the course of the game to get the shortstop's perspective.

And then there's the baserunning.

Baez is one of the most aggressive baserunners in the game, always looking to take the extra bag or put pressure on the defense. This week was another great example as he went from first base to third base on a groundout Monday night in Colorado. The Rockies were caught in a shift without a player at third base and Baez took advantage, prompting a brief "JAVY! JAVY!" chant at Coors Field after the play.

Yes, Cubs fans travel well, but it's not every day the crowd chants for an opposing player following a groundout.

When Kris Bryant helped the Cubs eke out a win over the Phillies with a pair of heads-up baserunning plays last month, it was Baez's name that was brought up unprompted for partial credit.

"Not trying to take away from KB 'cause I feel like he's secretly one of the best baserunners in the game — he always runs hard and he plays the game like an MVP — but that's one of the effects that Javy has on us," Jason Heyward said. "I feel like you see other guys making plays like that on the bases and we're aware those things can happen if we stay in tune."

Of course, that same game, Baez wound up coming off the bench to connect on a walk-off single despite dealing with a painful heel injury that kept him out of the lineup. 

As he tried to work through that heel injury, Baez wound up slumping at the plate, striking out in half his at-bats (20-of-40) over the span of two weeks. 

But he's since righted the ship — crushing 4 homers and knocking in 12 runs in his last 10 games including Wednesday.

"He could go bad for a couple days, but you don't worry about that," Maddon said. 'He doesn't overthink it. And he wasn't going home and beating himself up about it. He wasn't trying to reinvent himself. 

"He knows it's coming back to him. He knows he's good. I love that. That's why he can be as good as he is and better for so many years to come. It's really awesome to watch him play."

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Cubs rotation has given the bullpen a heck of an assist lately

Cubs rotation has given the bullpen a heck of an assist lately

Even before the Cubs bullpen gets a major boost when Craig Kimbrel joins the mix in a couple weeks, Pedro Strop and Co. have received another shot in the arm.

Since Cole Hamels lasted just four innings on Memorial Day in Houston, the Cubs bullpen has only been relied upon to account for 29 innings. That's the lowest total in Major League Baseball and also includes an extra-inning game and a three-hour rain delay that knocked starter Jose Quintana out after four innings in St. Louis two weekends ago.

In a 13-game span, relievers have only needed to cover about two innings a game, as Cubs starters have been pitching into the seventh inning on an everyday basis.

That's normally a good recipe for success, but it didn't work out that way for the Cubs Monday night in Colorado in a 6-5 loss. Yu Darvish worked around one rough inning to toss six frames again, but Mike Montgomery and Steve Cishek each gave up a run in the late innings.

It was only the Cubs' second loss in their last eight games, as they've been leaning heavily on their rotation.

"When you get those kinds of performances, then you can actually use the bullpen the way you want to," Joe Maddon said. "You go theoretically perfect before the game and then after that, when the game's in progress and it's not going as you would like it to, then all of a sudden you start going to Plan B and C.

"So when the starters are able to do that, that's what makes for a good bullpen — really good starting pitching makes for a really good bullpen."

During that time, no Cubs reliever has been taxed. Carl Edwards Jr. is the only pitcher who has appeared in half those games and leads the relief corps with 5.1 innings. Nobody else has thrown more than 5 innings in those 12 contests.

Maddon has only had to call on a reliever to throw on back-to-back days on four occasions in the two weeks — once by Edwards, once by Cishek and twice by Kyle Ryan.

Just as important: The Cubs needed a reliever to get more than three outs just three times in the same stretch (and two of those instances were Tyler Chatwood and Edwards eating up innings after the rain delay in St. Louis).

Again, this is all before Kimbrel arrives and truly lengthens the bullpen in all the ways the Cubs have mentioned. If everybody remains healthy, when Kimbrel joins the club and pushes Strop back into a setup role, it would increase Maddon's circle of trust and ensures the Cubs won't have to heap too much on one guy's plate.

Over the last two seasons, the Cubs bullpen has faded down the stretch — at exactly the time relievers become most important. They're hoping that doesn't happen again this fall.

The Cubs still ended up leading the National League in ERA last season, but by the time Game 163 and the Wild-Card Game rolled around, Jesse Chavez was the team's only healthy and trusted reliever. Strop and Brandon Morrow were hurt (though Strop pitched through the pain in the playoff game), Edwards had struggled for more than a month before he was deemed inactive for the Wild-Card game with a forearm issue and Cishek seemed to run into a wall in early September as he set new career highs in appearances and innings pitched.

Thanks in large part to this current stretch, Cubs relievers have had a manageable workload so far this season. Cishek and Ryan are the clubhouse leaders in appearances, but they're only on pace for 71 games and Maddon has backed off Cishek since he was asked to get a seven-out save May 19 in Washington D.C.

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