Pedro Strop

What the Cubs are looking for in their next manager

What the Cubs are looking for in their next manager

In the 28 or so hours after the Cubs officially announced they were parting ways with Joe Maddon as a manager, Theo Epstein made it a point in several instances to mention the Cubs aren't looking for an anti-Joe or anything along those lines.

There's no doubt this result isn't fair to Maddon, whom Epstein called the "perfect guy for this team at the perfect time." 

But the Cubs want change and that started with not offering an extension to the man that helped bring the organization a championship just three years ago. 

So what do the Cubs want in their next manager? What qualities and traits would the ideal candidate possess?

Epstein attempted to answer that question in his end-of-season presser Monday, but he didn't want to get too specific (and he didn't mention anything about the next manager needing "Dancing with the Stars" experience). 

Again, Epstein emphasized the qualities he and the Cubs front office are looking for are not a knock on Maddon, but rather focusing on what can help this team now and in the future.

"We struggled as an organization this year to make sure that with the major-league team, the whole was as good or better than the sum of the parts," Epstein said. "I think we had a lot of good individual performances; we had a lot of talent and ability. I think if we do our job the right way, we’re going to have a lot of talent next year. We’re going to score a lot of runs, we’re going to prevent a lot of runs. 

"The next manager has to create an environment that turns that into wins. And that’s not solely on the manager at all. That’s roster construction and everything else. That’s what we’re looking for in a manager, is to try to help our group. Any team is looking for that in a manager. Come together and make sure the whole is as good or exceeds the sum of the parts. 

"I think the next manager will be a success if he can find a way to get the most out of each player. That’s an obvious goal, but we want to make sure that the players that we have, we’re reaching them, we’re developing them, we’re providing an environment where they can continue to grow and thrive. If we have players that are gonna be successful major-league players, we have to find a way to make it here. I think that’s really important. That’s an organization-wide challenge, not just on the manager. The next manager, that’s going to be an important part of his responsibility."

Epstein has mentioned several times that — for whatever reason — the whole was not greater than the sum of the parts with this Cubs team in 2019. 

He's right. As a whole, the Cubs won only 84 games and missed the playoffs by 5 games. But break it down individually and there are a lot of good things:

—Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras had resurgent seasons and both made the All-Star team.
—Yu Darvish was one of the best pitchers in baseball in the second half of the season.
—Kyle Schwarber and Victor Caratini had true breakout campaigns. 
—Anthony Rizzo maintained his steady production.
—Javy Baez was an All-Star starter and one of the best players in baseball before he got hurt.
—Nicholas Castellanos notched an OPS over 1.000 in his two months in a Cubs uniform.
—Jason Heyward had his best offensive season in Chicago.
—Rowan Wick, Kyle Ryan and Brad Wieck emerged as reliable relief options.
—Brandon Kintzler and Tyler Chatwood had impactful bounceback seasons.
—Steve Cishek struggled in some big moments but still wound up posting an ERA under 3.00.
—Kyle Hendricks couldn't quite find consistency yet finished 13th in the NL in ERA and WHIP.

That's 16 players who can head into the winter with a pretty high level of pride in their own individual seasons. 

So, again, how did this team fall short?

The Cubs don't quite know and while they insist they're not pinning that on Maddon, they want the next manager to make sure history doesn't repeat itself in 2020 and beyond.

"Cultivating a winning culture behind the scenes," Epstein said. "We’ve obviously had a winning culture [and] Joe did an unbelievable job creating that. Again, at this moment in time, I think it’s important for us to pick certain areas of emphasis that will reach this group and help us meet our current challenges, not the challenges that we’ve had over the last five years. Picking priorities and values to emphasize work, I think is gonna be really important. 

"For this group at this time, we need to find a way to create a culture and environment that compels every player to push himself, to be the absolute best version of himself, to be the absolute best player that he can be. It's a culture where that’s expected. If a player joins our culture, he's lifted up by the culture in terms of the amount of work, the habits, leaving no stone unturned to be the best version of himself that he can be. Joe, again, was wonderful at this. 

"But it’s gonna be important for the next manager of this particular group at this time to find a way to foster a team identity. I think this group, our routines tended to me more individualized. There wasn’t a lot of work as a team, and I think it’s gonna be important for this group that we find time to work as a team, that we find time to assemble as a team, that we find ways to deliver messages to the team so that there can be a greater sense of team identity and purpose for this group. I think that's something that we need."

The Cubs could certainly use a team identity. What was it in 2019? If anything, it was inconsistency, as Baez admitted they couldn't get hot for even two consecutive weeks.

Again, that's not a knock on Maddon. If anything, it's a knock on the "winner's trap" this organization has fallen into over the last couple seasons.

That also moves into accountability, which was another point of emphasis Epstein has in searching for the next manager of a Cubs team coming off a season in which they ranked at or near the top in both outs on the basepaths and fielding errors.

"We were pretty mistake prone this year," he said. "Again, [this is an] organization-wide challenge, not on the manager, but the next manager should be a part of this — helping to create a culture of accountability. There’s a sense that sloppy mistakes, mental mistakes, aren’t tolerated. There's an expected level of focus that we all work together to establish that mitigates the amount of mistakes like that. A sense of grind, grinding from the first pitch of the season through the end. 

"With the last couple Septembers, our team sometimes, we just expected to get it done in September and the second half 'cause we always have. I think the last two Septembers have proven that you can't take that approach. You have to find a way to grind from the beginning. It's a challenge, and certainly some years we were better at it than others. It's not something that falls solely on the manager, but I think that's a unique challenge for the next manager of this group going forward."

Of course, that accountability needs to happen from inside the clubhouse, too. Maddon always said players should police themselves to a certain extent, and he's right. 

David Ross excelled at that in his two years with the club. Pedro Strop has done a great job of that with Baez, in particular. Epstein said veteran Daniel Descalso filled that role well in 2019 despite his difficult season on the field.

That's not to say Ross would find similar success in that area if he were named the next manager, however. It will ultimately be up to the players.

As for the players, what do they want to see from the new guy running the ship?

"I think at the end of the day, you want a genuine person that will shoot you straight and try to win every game," Jon Lester said simply. 

Communication was also a central focus for Rizzo when asked what he wants to see in the next skipper.

"For me, it's just different because I'm usually playing first base and hitting third every day," he said. "I can't relate more to the guys who split playing time. I know how hard that is for them. So being able to communicate with your bullpen and guys that aren't playing every single day, just keeping them up because it's not easy to have good games and not play or bad games and sit for a while. That line of communication is very important just to keep everyone oiled up and in sync."

Amid trying season, Pedro Strop believes he's 'on the cusp' of returning to form

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USA TODAY

Amid trying season, Pedro Strop believes he's 'on the cusp' of returning to form

MILWAUKEE — It's still a strange sight watching the Cubs cycle through relievers out of the bullpen in close games without Pedro Strop as a central part of that group.

Saturday night, Joe Maddon called on six different relievers — Kyle Ryan, Steve Cishek, David Phelps, Derek Holland, Rowan Wick and Brandon Kintzler. Yet even with closer Craig Kimbrel on the injured list (right elbow inflammation), Strop's number still wasn't called and clearly isn't in Maddon's circle of trust at the moment.

It's understandable why, as Strop carries a 5.40 ERA and 1.34 WHIP on the season with 6 blown saves.

After starting the year looking like his usual self (2.53 ERA) and serving as the team's closer, Strop has a 6.94 ERA in 30 games since May 4. That includes an outing on May 6 when he gave up 3 runs and took a blown save and a loss against the Marlins and went on the shelf a day later with a hamstring injury. 

The 34-year-old also missed a couple weeks with a neck injury and generally has struggled to maintain his velocity throughout the season.

"Yeah, it's been a hard year for me on and off because of injuries and stuff," Strop said. "It's been a while where I've felt really good now and I feel healthy. I was off a little bit mechanics-wise, but right now, I feel pretty good and my last couple outings have been where I want to be. 

"Hopefully I get a chance and an opportunity to get in the game so I can pitch the way I used to pitch so they can see and say, 'OK, he's ready to be in high-leverage situations again.' Hopefully I get the chance."

With the ascension of other guys in the bullpen (Wick and Ryan, especially) and Kintzler's resurgent season, the Cubs bullpen has been able to get by without Strop pitching in high-leverage spots for the most part.

But they can use all the help they can get down the stretch and this is a guy who has 119 holds and 29 saves over his seven seasons with the Cubs, serving as a linchpin in this bullpen for the better part of the last decade.

Prior to 2019, Strop had never finished a season with an ERA above 2.91 and these were his numbers across the board as a Cub before this difficult season:

2.63 ERA
1.02 WHIP
10.2 K/9
5.7 H/9

That's an elite reliever who accounted for 331.1 innings in that span. 

He also pitched through some extreme pain in the NL Wild-Card Game last October in a gutsy performance coming off a bad hamstring injury.

It just hasn't been the same this season, but Strop feels close to where he wants to be — "we're right on the cusp," he said.

Strop allowed an unearned run in Friday's game and Maddon said that was the best he's seen the veteran reliever look in a little while. He followed that with a scoreless eighth inning in Sunday's loss, erasing a one-out walk with a double play.

"The slider's gotten sharper, probably a tick up in velocity also," Maddon said. "Stroppy just wants to play. He's so competitive, but he's also very pragmatic — he knows where it's at right now compared to where some of the other guys have been pitching. But if this guy finds it moving down the stretch run, it could be very valuable. 

"His work's been great. It's been outstanding. It's trending in the right direction for him. Right now, there's so many guys that are doing a nice body of work there, so we just gotta work him back into it."

Strop is in the last year of his contract with the Cubs and has been lauded as an integral piece of the clubhouse chemistry and a leader in the bullpen over his years in Chicago.

Even throughout a difficult season, he's still maintained his jovial personality.

"There's too many games in one season to mourn over one thing, whether it be injury or a bad outing or somebody else's injury or bad outing," Ryan said. "[Having a guy like that] raises your clubhouse morale and team morale and on-field morale. A smile is very contagious and Stroppy's always smiling."

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5 Cubs X-factors for the final month of the 2019 season

5 Cubs X-factors for the final month of the 2019 season

The Cubs have reinforcements on the way, but they enter the final month of the season looking up at the Cardinals.

It's a close division race that will likely come down to the wire. The Cubs and Cardinals play each other seven times over the final 10 games of the season and it's very possible that last week-and-a-half will decide the fate of the NL Central.

"We have a great team and I know we're gonna add some guys, which are gonna be a big help," Cole Hamels said. "But it comes down to us and who wants it more. This division is not gonna be easy. It was never gonna be easy."

With that, let's take a look at the top x-factors down the stretch:

1. Ben Zobrist

Of course.

It's been one of the most buzz-worthy stories of the Cubs season and it's an unprecedented situation. It's not every day a 38-year-old former World Series MVP steps away from the game for four months to deal with a family situation and then return for the final few weeks of the season during which his team is in a tight pennant race

But this is a no-risk, high-reward play for the Cubs. There's absolutely no downside to seeing what Zobrist can give this team.

With expanded rosters, the Cubs aren't wasting a spot and they've been searching for production out of the leadoff spot and second-base position all season. It's entirely possible Zobrist is able to help both of those problems, not to mention the lift he can provide in the clubhouse as a respected veteran and beloved teammate.

"Honestly, it's just gonna be good to see him," Anthony Rizzo said. "Good to have him here. Baseball-wise, he's a great at-bat every time he hits. I don't care if he takes five years off, he can come back and be able to work an at-bat. It will be nice to have his personality and spirit here."

Zobrist won't play every day, but the potential is there for him to come up with some key hits and lend a hand in making the Cubs offense more consistent down the stretch.

2. Willson Contreras' hamstring and Anthony Rizzo's back

These go hand-in-hand because they're two tricky injuries to two of the Cubs' most important players.

Rizzo returned from a five-game absence to rejoin the lineup Saturday and Contreras played his first rehab game for Triple-A Iowa Friday with another on tap for Saturday.

Rizzo has dealt with minor back issues throughout his career and this is the second time this season, but he said this particular issue was a different part of the back than where he's typically felt tightness. 

He may not be 100 percent, but hardly any everyday player is at this point in the season. How he manages the back pain and whether or not it locks up again will be a huge key over the final month. The wild-card of the whole situation is how it can crop up with absolutely no warning, like this most recent issue when he felt it "grab" while he was running the bases against the Nationals last weekend.

The Cubs need Rizzo's Gold Glove defense at first base and steady presence in the lineup as often as possible if they're gonna catch - and hold off - the Cardinals.

Contreras, meanwhile, should be fresh by the time he returns, with more than four weeks off to recover after his initial injury (Aug. 3). It'd be hard to see the Cubs utilizing him as an everyday catcher upon his return, but they shouldn't have to with Victor Caratini's emergence and Jonathan Lucroy's veteran presence. 

But the Cubs could really use Contreras' bat in the starting lineup and those 15 or so games he plays in September could be huge. 

3. The Cardinals

The Cubs cannot control what the Cardinals do, and the division leaders are red-hot right now, with a 30-14 record since July 13 (the second game after the All-Star Break).

The Cubs have to operate under the assumption that the Cardinals are going to remain this hot for the remainder of the season, much like the Brewers did last September. In the meantime, Joe Maddon and Co. have to focus on their own business and not "play with the scoreboard," as Javy Baez says.

There's also an element of control for the Cubs in this divisional race - with seven games remaining against the first-place Cardinals, both teams have a chance to control their own destiny. Win five or six of those games and you can make up games in the standings or build a lead in a hurry.

One thing working in the Cubs favor is the Cardinals' schedule. Thanks to a rainout Friday, they had to play a doubleheader Saturday against the Reds. They already had a doubleheader scheduled for Sunday, making four games in two days. St. Louis doesn't have another off-day until Sept. 9, so they'll have to play 11 games in nine days.

Even if the Cardinals are able to make it through that grind fine, how will it impact the team in the weeks that follow? The Cubs can speak firsthand about how a grueling September schedule can impact a division race.

Overall, the Cardinals don't have a very daunting slate in September, with six straight games against the lowly Pirates and Rockies plus another seven against NL West teams (Giants, Diamondbacks) who look to be falling out of the race. 

But the last couple weeks could be tough for St. Louis, as they host the Brewers (Sept. 13-15) and Nationals (Sept. 16-18) and hit the road for Chicago (Sept. 19-22) and Arizona (Sept. 23-25) before returning home to host the Cubs for the final three games of the 2019 regular season.

We will certainly see what the Cardinals - and Cubs - are made of during those final two weeks.

4. The offense

The 2019 Cubs are heavily reliant upon the home run for offensive output. In the year of the homer, that's not altogether odd. But the Chicago lineup has struggled to put up enough runs to win on days they're not putting the ball in the seats.

The final game of August proved that once again, as the Cubs were shut out 2-0 by the Brewers. Over the final week of August as the team went 4-2, they scored 23 of their 31 runs (74 percent) off the longball.

But Saturday's game was a bit of an outlier, as the Cubs actually had a solid approach all afternoon and just didn't get the results. Nine of their outs were line drives hit right at Milwaukee fielders and the Cubs only struck out seven times (including a couple on borderline calls) and did not spend much time chasing.

Put simply: They had the right approach and it just did not work out in their favor. That's baseball. It happens sometimes.

"I thought our guys did a pretty good job organizing their zones today," Maddon said. "I can't bang on the hitters. I thought we actually had a good offensive day. It doesn't show up - people think you're nuts when you score 0 runs."

The question is, will the Cubs maintain that approach on a consistent basis in September?

A lot of that will depend on Kris Bryant and Baez. With Nicholas Castellanos in the fold, Bryant and Baez have moved to the third and fifth spots in the Cubs order, respectively.

Over the final three weeks of August (20 games), the two Cubs stars have combined for just 15 RBI on 5 homers. Baez has a .590 OPS in that span while Bryant has posted a .764 OPS.

The Cubs need more out of both guys in the heart of the order. They can't just rely on Castellanos and expect he'll post an OPS north of 1.100 for the rest of the season.

"I really believe our guys are in a good place mentally right now," Maddon said. "I love the spirit before the game. It's good. I love it in the clubhouse, in the morning when you walk in. I have no issues. Our guys are going about their business properly. 

"[Saturday], we lost, but we've been on a nice little run. I just want us to maintain that same method and if we can keep working good at-bats and force them over the plate, I'll take it. I'll absolutely take it. A little bit unlucky today, but that happens."

5. Jon Lester and Cole Hamels

It looks like Yu Darvish is capable of continuing this run of success he's been on for the last couple months. Same with Jose Quintana and Kyle Hendricks, who have been rocks in the Cubs rotation for most of 2019. Adbert Alzolay will likely be up for much of September should any starter need a day off or the Cubs opt to go to a six-man rotation.

But what about Lester and Hamels? After a bout of struggles, they've each shown clear steps in the right direction lately - Hamels' start Saturday (2 runs in 6 innings) and Lester's outing Thursday in New York (1 run in 6 innings).

If that can continue, it would be a huge boost for the Cubs down the stretch. It's hard to imagine the Cubs overtaking the Cardinals if they're still not sure what they're going to get on a daily basis from 40 percent of their rotation - especially when that 40 percent is made up of guys who have the track record and big-game pedigree Lester and Hamels carry.

"That's what I'm trying to do - really get back to a way where I'm consistent and can be consistent with all my pitches and have the velocity behind them," Hamels said. "So just day after day, putting in the time and the effort and making sure that I can figure some things out and find any sort of flaw that I have and address and then just get the reps. 

"I think what everything really comes down to is getting the muscle memory and then from there, just having the confidence that while I'm out there, I'll be able to execute a pitch and have everything behind it that I'm capable of doing."

Bonus: Pedro Strop

The rest of the bullpen looks to be settling in, as Craig Kimbrel has been dominant since returning from the injured list and Steve Cishek and Brandon Kintzler have also looked sharp.

With the emergence of Rowan Wick and Kyle Ryan over the last few months, that gives the Cubs five trustworthy relievers at the back end of their bullpen. David Phelps has also looked good in his 11 outings in a Cubs uniform (2.08 ERA, 1.15 WHIP) and when Derek Holland returns, he provides another option against left-handed hitters. 

So, yes, the Cubs could build a solid bullpen even without the guy that has been their best reliever for the last six-plus years. But imagine how valuable it would be if the team could get Strop back to the pitcher who posted a 2.61 ERA from 2014-18.

A team can never have too many quality relievers in September (and October).