Cubs

Kaplan: Cubs shouldn't rush prospects

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Kaplan: Cubs shouldn't rush prospects

With the Cubs struggling to find any consistency at the plate or in the field early this season, some fans are already writing it off as a rebuilding year while other more hopeful North-Siders are pleading for change from their new president, Theo Epstein.

The Cubs' front office has already dealt Marlon Byrd for some bullpen help in Michael Bowden, but perhaps some ingredients to the long-term recipe already lie within the organization.

Although the Cubs' minor league system has been deemed middle-of-the-pack at best, don't be surprised come July if the lineup is filled with a number of fresh faces. Having waited for 103 years, some Cubs fans are urging Theo to pull the trigger on call-ups sooner rather than later. But I wouldn't be so quick to jump the gun for a number of reasons.

It should not be assumed that due to the trade of Marlon Byrd, Iowa Cubs center fielder Brett Jackson will be called up anytime soon. Jackson boasts a less-than-stellar .233 average at the AAA level and his overall stats don't exactly scream that he is ready for the majors.

Jackson entered the season as Baseball America's 32nd-ranked minor league prospect, but he has yet to back up any of his preseason hype. He is a multiple-tool player that has big-time potential -- both at the plate and in the outfield -- but a great deal of polishing needs to be done before Cubs management can even think about giving Jackson his shot.

Another call-up better off delayed is that of Anthony Rizzo. Unlike Jackson, the big first baseman is absolutely tearing it up in Iowa right now. Rizzo's .378 average, 7 home runs and .671 slugging percentage all point to his being ready to play at the Friendly Confines, but his brief major league stint in San Diego last summer means they Cubs need to proceed with caution before they give him a second shot at the big leagues.

Last year, Rizzo had 128 major league plate appearances and only 18 hits with the Padres. His .141 average was reason enough to be sent back down before he was traded to the Cubs in a deal for Andrew Cashner. Rizzo could be one of the "impact bats" Epstein is looking for, but the earliest we will probably see him in Chicago is late June.

Service time is something that the Cubs management team is very conscious of because it starts a players clock towards arbitration and free agency and with the parent club nowhere near ready to contend, there is no reason to rush players to the big leagues.

A third prospect who we have seen in small doses is Tony Campana. He is now getting his chance to play on a regular basis, but the jury is still out as to whether or not he will ever be more than just a speedster and backup outfielder. He has gotten off to a solid start since his recall, but most scouts that I have spoken to do not believe he can ever be an everyday player on a contending team. With his speed, he can play a role both as a defensive replacement and as a spot starter but internally, the Cubs are looking for Jackson to become the long term answer in center field.

If you are a Cubs fan looking for a quick fix or the one guy who can make this team a contender, it's not going to happen. The key to Theo and Jed Hoyers process is patience. I know that is the last word any Cubs fan wants to hear, but you can't build a skyscraper without a foundation and right now, the foundation is still in the building process.

In 2004-05, Epstein retooled a Red Sox team that won their first World Series title in 86 years in the 2004 Fall Classic. Three years later, he was raising his second World Series trophy with a largely homegrown team. The key was successful drafts, which is something he and Senior VP of Scouting and Player Development Jason McLeod have yet to have the opportunity to do in Chicago.

With the proper amount of time, Epstein and his staff are more than capable of drafting and developing a core of players that have the ability to take the Cubs to the next level, but it is a process that will require multiple off-seasons. It will also require a commitment from ownership to stay the course no matter how painful the process may become at times. That commitment was something that was promised to Epstein when he accepted the challenge of rebuilding the Cubs and Tom Ricketts and Co. have said that they will not waver in their belief that building through the farm system is the correct way to go.

Another key component to the rebuild is making intelligent decisions that have an eye on the future as opposed to short-term thinking that only focuses about the present and near future. When the Cubs brought Starlin Castro up to the big leagues in May of 2010, it was a decision that gave no thought to the long-term best of the organization.

Was Castro ready to play in the big leagues at that time? Obviously he was offensively, judging by his outstanding production since his promotion. However, had the Cubs waited just four more weeks, they would have added another year of control on Castro because he would have been short on service time in the arbitration process.

According to several scouts I spoke with, the decision to promote Castro sooner than they should have will end up costing the Cubs between 7-10 million during his four arbitration years that would have been only three had the Cubs waited just those few weeks.

Around baseball, it was a decision that was met with exasperation because unlike the Washington Nationals who just promoted their top prospect Bryce Harper to the big leagues, the 2010 Chicago Cubs were not built to win. They were destined to finish out of contention, so promoting Castro made no sense.

That type of thinking will not continue under Team Theo because unlike the previous regime headed up by Jim Hendry, Epstein and Jed Hoyer and the rest of their team are not in the win-now and win-at-all-costs mentalities that contributed to the Castro decision.

Joe Musso contributed to this article.

Cole Hamels is out to prove the naysayers wrong, whether that's with the Cubs or elsewhere

Cole Hamels is out to prove the naysayers wrong, whether that's with the Cubs or elsewhere

How you evaluate Cole Hamels’ 2019 performance depends on which half of the season you look at.

Hamels was the Cubs’ most reliable starting pitcher through June, putting his name firmly in the conversation to make the All-Star Game. Through his first 17 starts, he held a 2.98 ERA, with 97 strikeouts and 35 walks in 99 2/3 innings.

That 17th start – June 28 against the Reds – represented a turning point for the left-hander, however. After throwing one warmup pitch ahead of the second inning, Hamels took a beeline for the Cubs’ dugout, exiting the game with a left oblique strain.

Hamels quickly detecting the strain was key, as he avoided a more significant injury and only missed one month as a result. However, he never got back to his pre-injury level after returning. In 10 starts, he posted a 5.79 ERA, walking 21 batters in 42 innings as opponents slashed .315/.397/.506 against him.

Which of the two pitchers does Hamels more closely resemble at this point? That’s what teams will have to evaluate this offseason, when the soon-to-be 36-year-old lefty hits free agency for the first time in his career.

On top of his oblique strain, Hamels also missed a start in September with left shoulder fatigue. By the time he returned, the Cubs were eliminated from postseason contention, but he wanted one last chance to show what he’s capable of before free agency.

“I don’t want to put that in the back of teams’ heads of how I finished,” Hamels said the day before his final start of the season. “I think I’m capable of what I was able to do in the first half - that’s who I am - and I can still get those good results for hopefully [the Cubs], if they consider that.

“But also, for other teams to know that I’m not the type of player that’s on the regression. This is what we’re gonna expect. It’s more so what I was able to do in the first half - the type of player that I am and the results that I can get out on the field.”

He certainly backed those words up, shutting down the Cardinals – who hadn’t clinched the NL Central yet – in the second-to-last game of the regular season. Hamels pitched four innings, allowing no runs on just two hits.

Hamels looked stellar in that game, but it doesn’t change the fact that returning from an extended injury absence isn’t easy on pitchers. They need time to regain command of their pitches, plus any amount of arm strength lost during their time on the shelf.

Hamels made two rehab starts at Triple-A before rejoining the Cubs on Aug. 3. He was determined not to return too quickly, as he did so with the Rangers in 2017 after straining his right oblique. That wound up negatively affecting him the rest of the season.

Still, maybe one or two more starts this time around would’ve served him well, though he felt that he could compete at the majors without his best stuff. Plus, it’s not like he was guaranteed to find his groove again by pitching in more minor league games.

Results are all that matter in the big leagues, however, and they show that while the Cubs starting rotation was okay, it wasn’t the difference maker capable of leading the team to October, as anticipated. Cubs starters finished the season with a 4.18 ERA, 10th in MLB and sixth in the National League.

Hamels’ post-injury woes played into those numbers, and he’s determined to bounce back in 2020 to prove his second half performance was a fluke. His first half show that he still can pitch at a high-level, but he may not be in the Cubs’ plans for next season, regardless.

"There was some injury and regression (especially after injury) that led us to be closer to the pack certainly than we had envisioned,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said of the team’s rotation at his end-of-season press conference. “It’s an accomplished and experienced group, but with experience means that we could stand to add some younger talent, refresh the group as well.

“We certainly need to add depth and we need to add some youth and a little bit of a different look to the staff, as well, going forward.”

Those comments seem to indicate that Hamels won’t be back next season. The Cubs have Adbert Alzolay, Tyler Chatwood and Alec Mills as internal rotation options for 2020 and could look outside the organization for more. Hamels also made $20 million in 2019, so freeing up his salary would help the Cubs address other roster needs.

The Cubs could do a lot worse than having a healthy Cole Hamels in their rotation, though. He’s enjoyed a resurgence since the Cubs acquired him and has had plenty of success against the NL Central and at Wrigley Field overall during his career:

vs. Brewers: 20 starts, 8-5, 3.53 ERA
vs. Cardinals: 17 starts, 5-6, 2.21 ERA
vs. Pirates: 13 starts, 5-4 record, 2.52 ERA
vs. Reds: 20 starts, 11-2 record. 2.30 ERA
at Wrigley Field: 25 starts, 7-4 record, 2.20 ERA

Granted, a large portion of those starts came earlier in his career. But with how competitive the NL Central was in 2019 and will be in 2020, the results can’t be ignored.

“Obviously I do very well at Wrigley, so I hope that’s a consideration - I love to be able to pitch there,” Hamels said about the Cubs possibly re-signing him. “For some reason, it’s just the energy and I’ve mentioned it before, it’s baseball to me. And that’s what I really feed off of and that’s hopefully what they think about.”

But if the Cubs decide to part ways with Hamels, he’ll have his fair share of suitors. The Brewers and Reds each could benefit from adding starting pitching this offseason, and Hamels would bring a ton of experience to two squads that will be competing for postseason spots in 2020.

“Otherwise, I know the other teams in the division are gonna think about it,” Hamels said with a laugh. “If you have to come to Wrigley three different times [as an opponent], I don’t pitch bad there.

“I just want to win. I think that’s it. When you get the taste of it early and then you don’t have it for a while, that’s what you’re striving for. To play this game and in front of sellouts and the energy and the expectation of winning, it’s why I enjoy the game.

“That’s what I want to be able to continue to do for the few years I have left.”

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Matt Nagy says Mitch Trubisky's Week 7 struggles due to poor footwork

Matt Nagy says Mitch Trubisky's Week 7 struggles due to poor footwork

Fundamentals can oftentimes make or break a quarterback's career. For Chicago Bears third-year signal-caller Mitch Trubisky, he's struggling with one of the most important aspects of quarterback play: footwork.

Coach Matt Nagy met with the media at Halas Hall on Monday and confirmed most of Trubisky's struggles in the Bears' 36-25 loss to the Saints in Week 7 were the result of sloppy footwork.

"The No. 1 thing I came away from was footwork. I thought footwork was just OK. And then the footwork leads to a little bit of better decisions/accuracy with throws. There was some times where there were some backpedals or movement in the pocket could've been a little better or different.

"You look at the one throw on 3rd-and-five, the second possession of the game, he's hit that all week and missed that, that was the start, and then there was a few others one. The other one that I thought was a bigger error by (Trubisky) at that position was we had a 1st-and-10 at the 24-yard line going in and we took a sack for eight yards and that was an RPO. That's a learning tool for him. Hey, we call a run-pass option and we're just a little bit off in our progression on that play and we ended up losing eight yards. Now it's 2nd-and-18, now you're back to 3rd-and-14 and we have and incomplete pass and we gotta grind to make three points.

"For me, playing the position, when you have sloppy footwork, it can lead to other issues. And I think that's what we saw."

Trubisky ended the game completing 34-of-54 passes for 251 yards and two touchdowns, but most of those stats were accumulated during garbage time, which Nagy dismissed as irrelevant. It's obvious Nagy is being careful with his words and, somehow, is still putting a positive spin on some pretty harsh criticism of Trubisky. 

If a quarterback is feeling the pass rush and dropping his eyes too early, which Nagy suggested is happening with Trubisky, and their footwork and accuracy are sloppy and inconsistent, the likely end result is a switch at the position. That isn't going to happen in Chicago, but it's Nagy's honest assessment of Trubisky's play on Sunday is at least a sign (even if it wasn't as harsh as it could've been) that the protective gloves will soon come off.

We just aren't 100% there yet.

"The growth of this offense needs to be better," Nagy said. "That territory, that position (quarterback), it always starts there. It always does. What I have to remind everybody else is there's other parts to this system. It's not just the quarterback play. I think we know what those other parts are that we need to play better at. Collectively, not just at the quarterback position, we need to be a little better."