Cubs

Relax, Coach Q confirms he's staying with Blackhawks

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Relax, Coach Q confirms he's staying with Blackhawks

Joel Quenneville said it was never a question, even though there was plenty of speculation. Hes happy being the coach of the Chicago Blackhawks, and he plans to be here for a while.

Quenneville shot down rumors of going to the Montreal Canadiens during a conference call on Tuesday, stating that leaving Chicago was the last thing I was thinking about.

Over the last few days theres been speculation about other things going on and me being somewhere else. First and foremost, Im excited about being here, said Quenneville, who let assistant coach Mike Haviland go earlier in the day. I love the opportunity and the organization (here in Chicago), and thats something I want to put to bed right now.

Speculation arose after a Hockey Night in Canada Hotstove piece came out on Sunday night. In the segment, analysts said Quenneville would be a good fit for the Canadiens and new general manager Marc Bergevin, the Blackhawks former assistant GM and good friend of Quennevilles. They talked of a rift between upper management and Quenneville and that the coach would be perfect for the Canadiens.

But Quenneville said hes ensconced in Chicago.

Im very happy here and thats the last thing I was thinking about, Quenneville said. Im happy for Bergi that he got the job. Hell do a great job there and hell give the organization some life. I wish him the best. Other than that, thats where Im at.

There had been some issues between the two camps for the Blackhawks this season. There was speculation of a power struggle when Barry Smith, the Blackhawks director of player development and longtime former assistant coach to Scotty Bowman, began helping the power play during team practices. Smith was no longer on the ice come playoff time. At the end-of-season media day, general manager Stan Bowman said the power play was more of a coaching thing than anything. There are a lot of different ways to run a power play and for some reason ours didnt work.

But in that same session Bowman said he and Quenneville had a good relationship: "Joel did a great job. Its a testament to his track record as a coach to weather the storm in tough times. Our team came out of that (nine-game winless) stretch, and we played great hockey toward the end of the year. We see things very similarly.

If it was a question of power, it sounds like Quenneville now has it when it comes to his coaching staff. Quenneville said the decision to fire Haviland Tuesday was his.

"(Stan) did offer me the opportunity for the first time since I've been here -- if I needed to make changes to our coaching staff -- to look at it and have the opportunity to make a coaching change or all the necessary changes that were there. I think the timing was where I felt like a change was necessary and going forward.

And as Quenneville goes forward with the Blackhawks, he also looked at his own coaching. He said hes learning a lot just watching the rest of the playoffs.

"I took a look back at the situation and I had my own reflection on the job I did. I watch other playoff games, I know there is areas where I can be a better coach, said Quenneville, who added that he could do a better job of delegating ice time to players. At the same time, I had an assessment that there is some dysfunction to our coaching staff and we need a change.

Theres been a change on the Blackhawks coaching staff. But it looks like Quenneville will be leading it for some time.

State of the Cubs: Bullpen

State of the Cubs: Bullpen

As the Cubs maneuver through a pivotal offseason, we will break down the current state of the team each week by sectioning it off into position groups. Here is the second installment on the bullpen.

Two years in a row, the Cubs bullpen faded at the most crucial point in the season. Much of that was due to overuse earlier in the season — something they hope to address by letting their starters go deeper into games in the first few months of 2019.

But 2018's fade was more complicated than that. Sure, there was overuse (Steve Cishek), but there were also injuries (Brandon Morrow, Pedro Strop) and the mixture of physical, mental and mechanical issues that led to Carl Edwards Jr.'s collapse. By the time the National League Wild-Card Game rolled into Wrigley Field, the bullpen consisted of Strop pitching through "severe pain," Jesse Chavez, Cishek coming off back-to-back-to-back appearances and then a slew of starting pitchers.

Needless to say, that's not how the Cubs drew it up and it's why the bullpen is a major area of focus for Theo Epstein's front office this winter.

Here's how the bullpen looks at the moment:

Depth chart

1. Brandon Morrow
2. Pedro Strop
3. Carl Edwards Jr.
4. Steve Cishek
5. Mike Montgomery
6. Brandon Kintzler
7. Alec Mills
8. Randy Rosario
9. Brian Duensing
10. Justin Hancock
11. Tyler Chatwood?
12. Allen Webster
13. Dillon Maples
14. James Norwood
15. Jerry Vasto

The Cubs have more than $30 million committed to this bullpen, and that's not including the arbitration raises for Montgomery and Edwards (which is estimated at a combined $4.4 million). If Chatwood actually makes a move to the bullpen due to a crowded rotation, that number adds another $12.5 million.

The Cubs are in a tough spot financially and have resources tied up in Kintzler ($5 million) and Duensing ($3.5 million) — a pair of veterans coming off down 2018 seasons but have a long track record of success and could be prime bounceback candidates in 2019 (which would certainly bode well for the Cubs). 

Strop remains one of the greatest relief pitchers in Cubs history and picking up his $6.25 million option was a no-brainer. Cishek was the MVP of the bullpen (and possibly the entire pitching staff) before fading down the stretch and he should again be a reliable option with a more realistic workload in 2019.

Morrow and Edwards are the X-factors, but for different reasons. 

Morrow is a legitimate stud in any relief role and his attacking style of pitching sets a great example for Edwards and others. When he was serving as closer, the Cubs bullpen ranked as the best in baseball, allowing Maddon a plethora of options for the middle innings to bridge the gap from starting pitchers to Morrow. 

Edwards possesses some of the best pure stuff (or "shit" as Morrow puts it) of any reliever in baseball, but he also has work to do on the mechanical and mental side of the game to ensure the late-season collapses become a thing of the past. Things got so bad for Edwards in 2018, he wasn't even active for the Wild-Card game — the reason cited was a forearm issue, but he also struggled the entire month of September (12 walks, 5.14 ERA in 7 innings). 

If the Cubs could somehow harness Edwards' incredible natural ability for a full season, it would change the entire complexion of the bullpen all year, but especially in September and October. 

What's next?

Even if Edwards, Kintzler and Duensing find their way back into Joe Maddon's circle of trust, the Cubs have a clear need for another high-leverage reliever or two this winter.

With the dearth of quality left-handed options (remember: Montgomery may wind up in the rotation at some point again), it would be a natural fit to see the Cubs add another southpaw with some closing experience, but GM Jed Hoyer said earlier this month he's more worried about quality than which arm they throw with.

"Certainly [a lefty] is ideal," Hoyer said at the GM Meetings. "I'd probably more focus on good relievers than handedness, honestly. The key is not only to have a good bullpen all year, you gotta have that bullpen pitching well down the stretch. Part of that, I think, is having the depth to not overuse guys. So that's certainly a focus for us. 

"We have a good rotation, our bullpen performed exceptionally well last year — it really did. But we have to make sure it does that again by adding enough depth or get to that point in the season. I'm actually impressed our bullpen held up as well as it did given our short starts early in the season that they actually held up pretty well. But we have to be aware of the impact that can have on us next year."

The bottom line

There's no shortage of reliable relievers available on the free agent — from Craig Kimbrel to Andrew Miller to Cody Allen to Zach Britton. It's possible the Cubs would want to outbid other teams for the services of Miller or Britton but Epstein historically shies away from shelling out big money for closers, so don't expect them to be among the top suitors for Kimbrel. Even Morrow's deal was only $21 million guaranteed over two years.

It's more likely we'll see the Cubs make some smaller moves in free agency (maybe bringing back Jesse Chavez?) and potentially acquire an impact reliever via trade (a la Wade Davis for Jorge Soler two years back).

Either way, the Cubs will add another guy who can pitch in the late innings (possibly even at closer) and probably another lefty or two to serve as depth and competition with Duensing/Rosario/Vasto.

It would help if the Cubs had potential impact relievers coming up through the farm system, but they can't count on that given they've had zero luck in that area over the past few years.

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Zach Thompson's waiting his turn in a loaded White Sox minor league system

Zach Thompson's waiting his turn in a loaded White Sox minor league system

Take a look at the White Sox Top 30 prospect list and you won’t find Zach Thompson’s name anywhere.

If he had continued on his previous path, you might not have found Thompson’s name in the White Sox organization for much longer.

But then came a flight home to Texas in the summer of 2017. At 30,000 feet in the air, Thompson’s life and baseball career took a turn he wasn’t expecting.

“Honestly, without sounding really weird, I kind of had a sign from God and he told me, ‘You’ve got to trust me through this process,’” Thompson said on the White Sox Talk Podcast. 

Drafted out of UT-Arlington in the 5th round by the White Sox in 2014, the 6-foot-7 behemoth of a pitcher had struggled to match the enormous size he brought to the mound.  

Midway through that 2017 season, Thompson at 23 years old, was 1-7 with a 5.52 ERA at Winston-Salem. Something had to change. Something had to give.  Turns out it was Thompson. The White Sox asked him to become a reliever. It was basically bullpen or bust.

“I was devastated a little bit.  I had been a starter my whole life,” Thompson said who was internally fighting his baseball fate.

Flying home that day for the All-Star break, that’s when he says the message arrived.

“It just kind of happened.  I was just sitting there listening to music and there it was.  I felt something inside. This is definitely not me, this isn’t my thinking or anything.  This was him saying trust me,” Thompson explained. “I’ve been raised a Christian my whole life so it wasn’t surprising to me.  It was cool to see that there was something else that was going on and to go from struggling so bad last year to this process I was still struggling in, and all of sudden it clicked.  I was like, there’s a reason that this happened.”

Thompson didn’t immediately become Mariano Rivera.  There would be growing pains along the way. He says it took around 14 appearances for him to find that bulldog inside him that used to growl when he took the mound.

“It’s a not caring mentality.  Whoever’s in the box, it’s staring them down and it’s like, I’m winning this and you’re going home a loser,”  Thompson said.

Off the field, he’s a gentle giant. One of the nicest guys you’ll meet.

On the field, it’s a whole different story.

“You’re not getting nice Zach on the mound.  Once the tip of the cap is done, my niceness is done,” Thompson said. “If you get a hit, great, but it’s almost like ticking me off on the inside.  You got me this time, but next time you’re not even touching the ball. I’m going to dominate you this next time up. That mentality was still in my head. This bulldog nature of how I grew up and that’s what (the White Sox) drafted me for.”

In 2018, that bulldog was on full display. Pitching for Class A Winston-Salem and Double-A Birmingham, Thompson combined to go 6-1 with a 1.55 ERA with 76 strikeouts in 75 innings.  The White Sox wanted to see more. They chose him to pitch in the Arizona Fall League, and he continued where he left off, posting a 2.70 ERA with 15 strikeouts in 13.1 innings, consistently fooling some of the best prospects in baseball.  His fastball sits in the mid to high 90’s. He also has a cutter, a big curveball and change-up. When he’s able to command the zone, he can dominate, especially now as a reliever.

“Instead of thinking in the back of my mind, I’ve got 6 innings I have to face these guys three times today, what did I do the last at-bat?  It’s like, I’m only going to face this guy once. If I face him another day, who cares? That’s another day, but right now I can throw everything I got.  It allows me to mix every pitch compared to ‘I don’t want to throw him this pitch because I want to set him for that in the next at-bat.’ As a reliever, you can just go.  I can throw four curveballs in a row if I wanted to,” Thompson said.

Ironically, the one downside to Thompson’s breakthrough season is that the White Sox might end up losing him in next month's Rule 5 Draft which occurs on the final day of the MLB Winter Meetings. Players that signed at 19 or older and have four seasons of professional experience are eligible for the Rule 5 Draft if they’re not added to the 40-man roster. Tuesday, the White Sox added pitchers Dylan Cease, Jordan Stephens, Kodi Medeiros and catcher Seby Zavala to their 40-man, leaving Thompson exposed to the Rule 5. A team that selects a player in the draft has to keep him on their 25-man roster all season. Since Thompson has never played above Double A, most teams aren’t willing to force a reliever like him onto their 25-man club. However, a rebuilding team in need of an intriguing arm like Thompson's could take the risk and select him.  

Not too long ago, it was the White Sox who were scouring the Rule 5 Draft looking for bargains, like Dylan Covey and Adrian Nieto.  Now, the White Sox are potentially at risk of losing some of the depth they’ve accumulated if someone chooses Thompson.

Whatever happens, the right-hander is hoping to reach the majors at some point in 2019.

“The thought has gone through my mind, and with the Fall League, it kind of showed me what (the White Sox) think about me,”  Thompson said. “I’d like to hopefully go into spring training, have a successfull spring, whether I’m breaking with the club or not and later in the year, I want to have that mentality of I’m going to take a spot on the big league roster and I’m going to succeed in that spot, whether that’s spring training, September, 2020 whatever it is, that’s still my mentality everyday.”

A couple years ago, Thompson probably would have skyrocketed into the White Sox top 30 prospect list with the season he just completed.  But with so much talent ahead of him, he quietly sits under the radar--maybe not for long.

“A lot of people like to focus on the prospect list.  So in that sense I’m under the radar, but I’d like to think with the Fall League I’ve kind of made a name for myself,” Thompson said. “I still think I’m under the radar a little bit.  Hopefully I can be over the radar sometime soon. Whether I am or not, I want to help the team out.”

You can learn more about Thompson, including why he likes to watch videos of open heart surgeries in the clubhouse to pass the time on the White Sox Talk Podcast. Yeah, he’s pretty smart, too.

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