Cubs

Wells looking for ways to stick with Cubs

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Wells looking for ways to stick with Cubs

PHILADELPHIA Randy Wells has no idea whats going to happen next. A return trip to Des Moines? A spot in the bullpen? The Cubs arent saying.

Well make those decisions when they all come up, manager Dale Sveum said Friday. Well see what happens, but we havent got to that step yet.

Wells will get the ball on Saturday at Citizens Bank Park for a showcase start against the Philadelphia Phillies. Thats about the only guarantee, with Ryan Dempster (strained right quad) back running and throwing and expected to be taken off the disabled list next week.

That will again leave the Cubs with six starters for five spots.

Wells was blindsided in late March, when he found out he was being optioned to Triple-A Iowa. But he didn't lash out and handled the news as well as he could have, sitting in front of his locker, calmly and patiently answering all the questions.

Obviously, you got thoughts in your head about where youre at and what youve done, Wells said. Im not going to sit here and defend my years in the big leagues. But I think if you look internally at the numbers, theyre not quite as bad as everybody made it out to seem. But thats not for me to make the judgments.

All I can do is pitch and show up every day and work hard and if my names here, then thats it. I know thats such a clich. But its really how I feel.

If I start getting into trying like I said in spring training to play GM or whatever, thats just going to take away from me as a baseball player. So either way, whatever happens, Im cool with it. But, obviously, you want to be in the big leagues.

Wells entered this season with a 27-30 career record and a 4.01 ERA in the majors. He didnt blast the organization, which essentially made him a 2.705 million insurance policy for the rotation.

When the Washington Nationals demoted John Lannan just before Opening Day, the left-hander with a 5 million salary requested a trade and e-mailed the beat writers to let them know.

Its not my style to ruffle any feathers or cause a scene, Wells said. They thought thats the best for the team and thats the kind of player I am. Ill do whatever to help the team.

If Wells tries to lean on clichs, its probably because he was so hard on himself after bad starts, ripping his own performance in the interview room.

That might have warped perception, along with people unfairly questioning his work habits and blowing his nightlife activities out of proportion.

Theres a lot of things (where) people get the wrong impression of me, Wells said. All you can do is pitch good and everybody forgets about it.

The Cubs saw higher potential upside in Jeff Samardzija and Chris Volstad, and Paul Maholm got the free-agent contract and gives the rotation a left-handed look. Right now, the bullpen doesnt have much depth or a real long man.

Hopefully, I can have a good start (Saturday) and maybe change some plans, Wells said. I definitely want to stay in any capacity. If it is a bullpen role, then youre just going to have to take that as a new challenge and Ive done it (before in the minors).

Its nothing that Im not used to. I can do it and Id certainly be willing to do it. Who knows, maybe at this point in your career, if thats something Im good at, maybe itll give me new life.

Im not thinking about that. Im thinking about starting. I definitely want to stay a starter. But you also want to do whatever you can do to help the team win.

Wells went five innings the last time out, giving up two runs on six hits and five walks and getting a no-decision in a 4-3 loss to the Cincinnati Reds. Hell have to be better than that to force the issue.

Back in 2002, the Cubs drafted Wells in the 38th round as a catcher, and its been a long trip. Hes not looking for an easy out or a change of scenery.

Ive been here my whole career, Wells said. I grew up in this organization, from 19 years old to almost 30. That means a lot to me to stay here and definitely be a part of when we turn this thing around and win.

Cubs still waiting for Willson Contreras' offense to take off, but they know it's coming

Cubs still waiting for Willson Contreras' offense to take off, but they know it's coming

If every Major League Baseball player was thrown into a draft pool in a fantasy-type format, Willson Contreras may be the first catcher taken.

Joe Maddon and the Cubs certainly wouldn't take anybody else over "Willy."

The Cubs skipper said as much in late-May, placing Contreras' value above guys like Buster Posey, Gary Sanchez and Yadier Molina based on age, athleticism, arm, blocking, intelligence, energy and offensive prowess.
 
Contreras strikes out more, doesn't hit for as high of an average and doesn't yet have the leadership ability of Posey, but he's also 5 years younger than the Giants catcher. Molina is possibly destined for the Hall of Fame, but he's also 35 and the twilight of his career is emerging. Sanchez is a better hitter with more power currently than Contreras, but a worse fielder.

Remember, Contreras has been in the big leagues for barely 2 years total — the anniversary of his first at-bat came earlier this week:

All that being said, the Cubs are still waiting for Contreras to display that type of complete player in 2018.

He's thrown out 11-of-32 would-be basestealers and the Cubs love the way he's improved behind the plate at calling the game, blocking balls in the dirt and working with the pitcher. They still see some room for improvement with pitch-framing, but that's not suprising given he's only been catching full-time since 2013.

Offensively, Contreras woke up Saturday morning with a .262 batting average and .354 on-base percentage (which are both in line with his career .274/.356 line), but his slugging (.412) is way down compared to his career .472 mark.

He already has 14 doubles (career high in a season was 21 last year) and a career-best 4 triples, but also only 4 homers — 3 of which came in a 2-game stretch against the White Sox on May 11-12.

So where's the power?

"He's just not been hitting the ball as hard," Maddon said. "It's there, he's gonna be fine. Might be just getting a little bit long with his swing. I think that's what I'm seeing more than anything.

"But I have so much faith in him. It was more to the middle of last year that he really took off. That just might be his DNA — slower start, finish fast.

"Without getting hurt last year, I thought he was gonna get his 100 RBIs. So I'm not worried about him. It will come. He's always hit, he can hit, he's strong, he's healthy, he's well, so it's just a patience situation."

The hot streak Maddon is talking about from last season actually began on June 16 and extended to Aug. 9, the date Contreras pulled his hamstring and went to the disabled list for the next month.

In that 45-game span (40 starts) in the middle of 2017, Contreras hit .313/.381/.669 (1.050 OPS) with 16 homers and 45 RBI.

It looked like the 26-year-old catcher may be getting on one of those hot streaks back in mid-May when he clobbered the Marlins, White Sox and Braves pitching staffs to the tune of a .500 average, 1.780 OPS, 3 homers and 11 RBI in a week's worth of action.

But in the month since, Contreras has only 3 extra-base hits and no homers, driving in just 4 runs in 29 games (26 starts) while spending most of his time hitting behind Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo.

What's been the difference?

"I think it's honestly just the playing baseball part of the game," Contreras said. "You're gonna go through your ups and downs, but I defeinitely do feel like I've been putting in the work and about ready to take off to be able to help the team."

Contreras admitted he's been focused more on his work behind the plate this season, trying to manage the pitching staff, consume all the scouting reports and work on calling the game. He's still trying to figure out how to perfectly separate that area of his game with his at-bats.

"With my defense and calling games, that's one way that I'm able to help the team right now," Contreras said. "And as soon as my bat heats up, we're gonna be able to take off even more."

On the latest round of National League All-Star voting, Contreras was behind Posey among catchers. The Cubs backstop said he would be honored to go to Washington D.C. next month, but also understands he needs to show more of what he's capable of at the plate.

"If I go, I go," he said. "Honestly, it's not something that I'm really focusing on right now. ... I do think I've been pretty consistent in terms of my average and on-base percentage and helping create situations and keep the line moving, at least.

"But right now, I know my bat hasn't been super consistent so far. It would be a great opportunity and I'd thank the fans."

As a whole, the Cubs have been hitting fewer home runs this season compared to last year. Under new hitting coach Chili Davis, they're prioritizing contact and using the whole field over power and pulling the ball.

Contreras has a 19.3 percent strikeout rate — the lowest of his brief big-league career — while still holding a 9.6 percent walk rate, in line with his career mark (9.9 percent).

Thanks to improved defense, Contreras still boasts a 1.6 WAR (FanGraphs) despite the low power output to this point. Posey (1.7 WAR) is the only catcher in baseball more valuable to his team.

Just wait until his power shows up.

"He hasn't even taken off yet," Maddon said. "He's gonna really take off. Remember last year how hot he got in the second half? That's gonna happen again. You see the pickoffs, what he does behind the plate, how he controls the running game — he's a different cat.

"And he's gonna keep getting better. He's not even at that level of consistency that I think you're gonna get out of him. Great athlete, runs well, does a lot of things well, but it does not surprise me that he's [second in NL All-Star voting at catcher] with Posey."

63 Days to Kickoff: Shepard

63 Days to Kickoff: Shepard

NBCSportsChicago.com preps reporter "Edgy" Tim O’Halloran spotlights 100 high school football teams in 100 days. The first 75 team profiles will focus on teams making strides across Chicagoland and elsewhere in the state. Starting July 30, we’ll unveil the @NBCSPrepsTop 25 Power Rankings, leading up to kickoff on Friday, Aug. 24.

School: Shepard

Head coach: John Rone

Assistant coaches: Andrew Porter, Ron Rivera, Chris Lewis, Ryan McGuire and Clint Connelly

How they fared in 2017: 8-2 (5-1 South Suburban Red Conference). Shepard made the Class 6A state football playoff field. The Astros lost to Marmion Academy in opening round action. 

2018 Regular Season Schedule:

Aug. 24 @ Leyden

Sept. 1 @ Stagg

Sept 7 vs Hillcrest

Sept. 14 vs Eisenhower

Sept. 21 @ Richards

Sept. 28 @ Oak Lawn

Oct. 5 vs Reavis

Oct. 12 vs Evergreen Park

Oct. 19 @ Argo

Biggest storyline: First-year head coach John Rone. Can the Astros challenge once again for the South Suburban Red conference title under a new head coach?

Names to watch this season: RB/LB Chris Harrison and TE/DE Kevin Graham

Biggest holes to fill: The Astros bring back 10 returning starters (five offense, five defense). Overall depth could also be a concern.  

EDGY's Early Take: Shepard will be led by former Eisenhower assistant Rone, who was able to retain an experienced staff at Shepard. It will help ease the transition from former head coach Dominic Passolano this summer. If the Astros can get off to a good early start they have the overall talent to again make a state playoff appearance in 2018. Can they challenge conference power Richards in the South Suburban Red race?