The plan of attack for Epstein and Hoyer

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The plan of attack for Epstein and Hoyer

Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer are undefeated. They won the press conferences. They began uniting the front office. They passed on Ryne Sandberg without any blowback.

But the Cubs executives know that the real work is ahead of them. They feel an obligation to put a good product on the field every year. Its not in their nature to just punt the entire 2012 season.

Epstein has talked about the parallel fronts the Cubs will be working on, improving the big-league team you pay a lot of money to see while assembling the scouting and player development machine.

So the Cubs wont be the Miami Marlins, who seem to be wooing almost every free agent of consequence, hoping they take their talents to South Beach. They wont cut corners in the amateur draft or the international market, because they have the luxury of time and ownership stabilitysupport.

You cant put Run Prevention in lights across the Wrigley Field marquee, the way you could Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder.

But thats the direction Epstein and Hoyer appear to be heading. Pitching and defense will be a focus when they gather for the general manager meetings this week in Milwaukee.

That plans probably going to evolve a little bit because we dont know the personnel quite as well as we will in years to come, Hoyer said. Its no secret we need to get some depth in the rotation. Depth of pitching hurt the team last year.

We need to find ways to improve the defense and we need to probably find a little bit more athleticism on the bases. Those are all things were going to try to solve.

The Cubs witnessed a system-wide breakdown last season. Their rotation finished last in the National League with a 4.79 ERA, and near the bottom of the majors in innings pitched. They blew 24 saves, committed 134 errors and gave up 66 unearned runs.

The Cubs will need to plan for when its 42 degrees in Chicago and theyre playing 3-2 games. More team speed and smarter base-running will help manufacture runs in April and May, when the skies are gray and Wrigley Field plays like a totally different ballpark.

This thinking will factor into the search for a manager. Cleveland Indians bench coach Sandy Alomar Jr. spent two decades as a big-league catcher, learning the psychology of pitching, game-planning for lineups and looking out across the whole field.

Texas Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux could be another difference-maker. Bud Black (San Diego Padres) worked closely with Hoyer the past two seasons, while John Farrell (Toronto Blue Jays) has connections with Epstein. They have set the template.

The game is so much about pitching and defense, Hoyer said. From my experience in San Diego, the relationship between Bud Black, (pitching coach) Darren Balsley and (bullpen coach) Darrel Akerfelds, its almost like having three pitching coaches. Buddy did a terrific job of also relating to position players. Certainly my sense from Mike was that hed do the same thing.

Right now youve got Bud Black and John Farrell as excellent managers who are pitching coaches and I think that trend is something that youll probably see continuing down the road.

Sources said the Cubs have made contact with Kerry Woods camp. Wood has said that hell only pitch for the Cubs or else retire but it shouldnt come to that. Theres optimism that he will return to strengthen the bullpen and mentor the younger pitchers.

The Cubs have essentially wished Aramis Ramirez good luck and told him goodbye. They could look for a defensive upgrade at third base. Hoyer declined to comment specifically on Carlos Pena and whether or not the first baseman fits into their plans.

Weve had a number of conversations, about both free agents and trade targets, Hoyer said. Its exciting to go up to Milwaukee and start having face-to-face conversations with teams about our guys. Ive been trying to make as many GM phone calls as I can (to) lay the groundwork.

Itll be interesting to see what ideas other teams have, what players have interest. (Theo and I) are really excited to get up there and get started.

Eventually, the buzz will start to fade from these franchise-changing hires. There will be negative headlines. The hard decisions are coming. But Epstein and Hoyer have a plan, even if they dont want to share the specifics. Let the second-guessing begin.

How Hector Rondon transformed into dominant closer for Cubs

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How Hector Rondon transformed into dominant closer for Cubs

Hector Rondon is still good friends with Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco, two Cleveland Indians pitchers often linked to the Cubs in trade rumors. To the point where Salazar called Rondon during the offseason wondering if they were about to become teammates at Wrigley Field.

Rondon worked out separately with Salazar and Carrasco at the Indians’ complex in Arizona during different points in their recoveries from Tommy John procedures on their right elbows. Rondon mentions differences in their personalities and pitching styles and also marks that time in Goodyear by associating Salazar and Carrasco with his own different surgeries.

Instead of developing into a Salazar or a Carrasco — the kind of frontline starter the Indians envisioned when they named him their minor league pitcher of the year in 2009 — Rondon has transformed into a game-over closer for a Cubs team with the best record in baseball.

After missing almost three full seasons — and pitching 10 innings combined between 2011 and 2012 — Rondon now understands he doesn’t have the luxury of time or the ability to work through situations like a starter. He accepts the pressure and uses the adrenaline that comes from working the ninth inning in front of 40,000 fans. He is a survivor.

“Be aggressive,” Rondon said. “You have to kill the guy — or they kill you. That’s what I tell (myself). That’s why I always try to attack. I try to keep that in my mind to (always) be aggressive with the hitters.”

The “holy s---” moment for pitching coach Chris Bosio came during a bullpen session with Rondon in the second half of a 2013 season where the Cubs would lose 96 games, hours before a meaningless game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park.

The Cubs finished with 101 losses the year before, which put them in position to select Kris Bryant with the No. 2 overall pick in the June amateur draft. Completing that race toward the bottom also created another opportunity for Theo Epstein’s front office — the second pick in the Rule 5 draft at the 2012 winter meetings.

Around that time, major-league coaching staff assistant Franklin Font worked winter ball for Leones del Caracas — the same team Rondon was pitching for in Venezuela — and filed good reports. The Cubs would carry Rondon and allow him to develop a routine and slowly realize he could compete at this level.

As Rondon kept firing pitches to bullpen catcher Chad Noble that day in Pittsburgh, Bosio could see the potential that made him such a well-regarded prospect for the Indians — and the ability to think on his feet and make adjustments.

The Cubs suggested adding a hesitation mechanism to Rondon’s windup, a gathering point at the top of his delivery to improve his fastball command and tighten his slider as a put-away pitch. The idea was to create better alignment toward home plate and help stop him from spinning off the rubber. The sense of timing and motion would also help bump up his velocity toward triple-digit territory.

“It’s like when you plant that seed, and you wait to see that plant come up out of the ground,” bullpen coach Lester Strode said. “That’s what he’s done. He’s just continued to grow, and every year he’s gotten better.”

Rondon got the last three outs in a 2-0 Memorial Day victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers as the Cubs bullpen combined for seven perfect innings, something a team hadn’t done in 99 years, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

That made Rondon 9-for-9 in save chances — with a 1.04 ERA and 27 strikeouts and only two walks against the 63 batters he’s faced so far this season.

Both Rondon and Joe Maddon identified a turning point last year, when the manager took closing responsibilities away from him and gave him a mental break and the chance to reset. Rondon responded with a 30-save season, putting up a 1.10 ERA after the All-Star break and converting his final 11 save chances for a 97-win team.

“He’s just been more assertive,” Maddon said. “The biggest thing I think that happened from that episode when he was not closing, per se, was he started using his other pitches and he found his other pitches. He’s more of a pitcher (now) when it comes to closing games as opposed to just being this primal, one-pitch kind of a guy.

“So now when you see him, it’s not just about trying to pump fastballs the whole time he’s out there. He’s throwing slider, split, changeup, dotting his fastball. I just think that he got more into pitcher mode from that particular episode.”

Rondon’s story is the story of the Cubs during the rebuilding years, how they became the biggest story in baseball. It’s calculated risk, good scouting, effective coaching and a relentless attitude. From the rubble of fifth-place finishes in 2012, 2013 and 2014, the Cubs found a lights-out closer.

“He worked tirelessly,” said Strode, who’s now in his 28th season in the organization. “Even the days he got out there and didn’t have success, he didn’t come back with his head down the next day. It’s like he learned something from every outing.

“I’ve seen a lot of guys with his ability who think things are just going to happen — and they don’t have to work. He was totally the opposite. He worked hard. He grinded every day, day in and day out. And finally it clicked.”

Wrigley rarity: Cubs lose a Jake Arrieta start for first time since last July

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Wrigley rarity: Cubs lose a Jake Arrieta start for first time since last July

Even as Jake Arrieta defends his Cy Young Award, makes a case to start the All-Star Game and keeps the meter running toward a potential $200 million megadeal, he talks about not quite having the precise feel he wants, that in his mind he can be 9-0 with a 1.72 ERA and still searching.

The Cubs are surrounded by those enormous expectations now, and so much of that involves Arrieta’s evolution into the bearded face of the franchise and one of the best pitchers on the planet. Which makes it so disorienting when the Cubs actually lose when Arrieta pitches.

Until Tuesday night’s 5-0 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers at Wrigley Field, that hadn’t happened in a regular-season game since July 25, 2015, when it only took Cole Hamels throwing no-hitter for the Philadelphia Phillies.

Still, the Dodgers didn’t so much beat Arrieta as they outlasted him, taking advantage of the softer spots in the bullpen, the day after four Cubs relievers combined to throw seven perfect innings. Plus a very good pitching performance from lefty Scott Kazmir and a Cubs lineup that all night only generated a Dexter Fowler single.

The Cubs had won Arrieta’s last 23 starts, tying the major-league record since 1913, first set by Kris Medlen with the Atlanta Braves between 2010 and 2012.

Arrieta needed 107 pitches to throw seven scoreless innings and finished with a dramatic flair, escaping the bases-loaded jam he created with three straight walks and a wild pitch. Arrieta fired three pitches clocked at 94, 95 and 94 mph and struck out pinch-hitter Justin Turner looking, causing an eruption from the crowd of 34,681.

Manager Joe Maddon turned the game over to Clayton Richard. The lefty reliever gave up three consecutive singles to the top of the Los Angeles lineup — Chase Utley, Corey Seager and Adrian Gonzalez — to begin the eighth inning and walked off the mound without getting an out and the Cubs trailing 1-0.

Arrieta truly burst onto the national scene last August with that no-hitter at Dodger Stadium. This time, after a 24-minute rain delay, Gonzalez ended the no-hitter suspense with a two-out single in the first inning.

Against Arrieta, the Dodgers (28-25) only managed another Seager single in the third inning. But Seager put the game out of reach in the ninth inning, blasting a three-run homer off Trevor Cahill onto the right-field party deck.

So Arrieta is still 9-0 — with an ERA that has dropped to 1.56 — and looking to begin another streak for a team that still has the best record (35-15) in baseball.

Brewers claim Neil Ramirez off waivers from Cubs

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Brewers claim Neil Ramirez off waivers from Cubs

The Milwaukee Brewers are in that uncertain place where the Cubs used to exist, trying to collect as many long-term assets as possible, trying to see which interesting project players might actually stick around for their next contending team.

The Brewers have now claimed reliever Neil Ramirez off waivers from the Cubs, potentially adding a right-handed weapon to their bullpen, though that idea comes with the standard disclaimer.

"The biggest thing is good health," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said before Tuesday’s game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Wrigley Field. "If he’s able to maintain good health and get an opportunity, he’s going to pitch really well."

The Cubs acquired Ramirez as part of the Matt Garza trade with the Texas Rangers in 2013 and watched him develop into a dominant setup guy the following season (1.44 ERA and 53 strikeouts in 43-plus innings).

But Ramirez has been on the disabled list three separate times since the middle of that 2014 season, accounting for only 14 innings during last year’s breakthrough into the playoffs. The Cubs didn’t find a role for him this season (4.70 ERA in eight appearances) and designated him for assignment on May 21.

"He’s got a great arm," Maddon said. "He’s got a wipeout slider. The velocity, I guess, came back a little bit, but I wasn’t here to really see the difference. Primarily, with good health, this guy can be very good. And I wish him nothing but the best. It’s no more complicated than that. If Neil stays well, he’s going to pitch well."