Chicago Cubs

All-in at trade deadline? Cubs looking to strengthen bullpen for October

All-in at trade deadline? Cubs looking to strengthen bullpen for October

The Cubs built double-digit leads on the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates, two division rivals that won 198 games combined last season, but are now treading water in a National League filled with have-nots playing for the future.

The Cubs have a plus-171 run differential at a time when the Boston Red Sox are listed second in that category at plus-83. The Cubs have a 2.31 rotation ERA that is almost a full run lower than the second-ranked New York Mets and their vaunted starters.

The Cubs have nine players on their active roster who are 26 years old or younger - meaning all those hitting prospects can't make it to Wrigley Field — and the bullpen is an obvious area to upgrade. 

Plus — you know — the century-and-counting World Series title drought. Why not go for it at the trade deadline, acquire a game-changing reliever (or two) and leave as little as possible to chance in the playoffs? 

"I wouldn't state anything quite that aggressively," general manager Jed Hoyer said Monday before the Cubs renewed their rivalry with the Cardinals. "But there's no doubt we're going to spend the next 40 days before the deadline trying to evaluate where we are. 

"We want to address the weaknesses that we have. That's something that we talk about all the time — not only addressing the weaknesses you have — but also thinking about where those things can come up. We always talk about trying to be ahead of the next thing that can go wrong."

The New York Yankees went into spring training planning to keep Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman together — and then see where the team is at in July and if it would force the franchise's first sell-off in a generation. 

Adam Warren — the swingman acquired from New York in the Starlin Castro trade — has allowed eight of 20 inherited runners to score and seen his ERA rise to 4.56 (after giving up zero earned runs in his first eight appearances with the Cubs). 

Left-handed hitters are putting up a .924 OPS against lefty Clayton Richard (7.50 ERA). Justin Grimm (4.81 ERA) hasn't taken that step forward into being a trusted late-inning reliever yet.

Setup guy Pedro Strop has made 200-plus appearances in a Cubs uniform since coming over from the Baltimore Orioles in the Jake Arrieta trade in the middle of the 2013 season. Closer Hector Rondon is a Tommy John survivor who missed almost three seasons in the Cleveland Indians system before the Cubs grabbed him in the Rule 5 draft at the 2012 winter meetings. 

"It's something you constantly address," Hoyer said. "There are probably 30 teams in baseball right now that at some level are talking about one or two members of their bullpen. That's just kind of the nature of the way pitching is today with 12 and 13-man staffs. 

"But there's no doubt we have some guys that pitched great baseball for us last year at the end of the season that are scuffling a little bit. It's just our job to get those guys back on track. I don't think you lose faith in them, especially when you see them go out and dominate in the postseason."

Maybe Joe Nathan makes a comeback after his second Tommy John procedure and becomes a great story in October. The Cubs did catch lightning in a bottle last year with Richard (acquired midseason from Pittsburgh's Triple-A affiliate for a dollar) and Trevor Cahill (who signed a minor-league contract last August).

Maybe the Cubs don't feel like they have to pay top dollar and buy a brand-name reliever. But if you're already looking for where things could go wrong during this magical season, the bullpen would be a good place to start. 

"You have faith in those guys," Hoyer said. "It's the nature of bullpens in general — just like a lineup — (where) you rarely have everyone clicking on all cylinders. You have some guys that are usually pitching better than others. The difference in bullpens is it's a lot of high-leverage situations. (But) if one guy's struggling at the plate, it might go unnoticed.

"We'll get those guys back on track. Obviously, we're aware of it. Hopefully, we'll get those guys going sooner rather than later."

Welcome to Chicago: Rene Rivera thrown into the fire on his first day in Cubs' pennant race

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USA TODAY

Welcome to Chicago: Rene Rivera thrown into the fire on his first day in Cubs' pennant race

Welcome to Chicago, Rene. Now grab your catcher’s gear and get out there.

Rene Rivera arrived at Wrigley Field for the first time as a Cub on Sunday, instantly learning that he was in the starting lineup for the final game of this weekend’s series finale against the Toronto Blue Jays. He’ll be catching a guy that was a Cy Young finalist last season. He’s smack dab in the middle of a pennant race as the defending world champs try to beat out the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals for a playoff spot.

A far cry from when he woke up the day before as a New York Met.

“The Mets, we knew they were going to do some moves there. I wasn’t surprised,” Rivera said Sunday. “Maybe the timing was surprising a bit.

“I’m here. I’ll play whenever I’m in the lineup. If not, I will cheer for my time. I’m happy to do any job, like I’ve been doing the last couple years. I’ll be enjoying my time, hopefully helping the team win in any way I can.”

Rivera has been playing big league ball since 2009, and the Cubs are his sixth major league team. He’s known for his defense and his ability to help out his pitchers, and he’s got eight homers already this season. The Cubs are happy to have him — and his veteran experience — as the time of year becomes increasingly more important.

And Rivera is happy to be here, too. Of course going from the Mets, 19 games out of first place in the National League East, to the first-place Cubs is a nice improvement in situation. But this is also the team his grandfather loved to watch. Rivera shared memories of his grandfather turning on the Cubs, hearing Harry Caray and Steve Stone and cheering on Sammy Sosa back in Puerto Rico.

“I was a kid, I think I was in middle school, maybe later than that. He used to watch the Cubs games down in Puerto Rico. I used to live with him,” Rivera said. “He loved Harry Caray and Steve Stone. I grew up watching the Cubs, so it’s an honor for me to be here. A team he loved so much and now I play for them.”

Time will tell how big a role Rivera will play in this battle for the NL Central crown. He’s essentially a third-string catcher, though that could take a long time to become official, depending on how long Willson Contreras remains on the disabled list.

So with Contreras, who when he went down was the Cubs’ hottest hitter, on the shelf, the team’s catching tandem is Alex Avila and Rivera, both added to this roster within the last few weeks.

While much of the Cubs’ starting staff is rolling right now — Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks and even John Lackey have been strong over the past month or more — how will having two new catchers calling games affect the results?

Manager Joe Maddon said the fact that Avila and Rivera have been around — they have a combined 1,281 major league games under their belts — makes the transition a lot easier for everyone involved.

“The veteran part of it really permits acceptance more easily. But still there’s that learning curve involved with it. The other day when (Mike) Montgomery came in, I went over to Alex and explained Montgomery to Alex in detail as much as I could: what his better pitches are, what he does well in different situations, counts, all that. There’s no way Alex could know all that. I know that (Mike Borzello) and everybody have prepped him going into the moment, but he still can’t know all of that.

“The little nuance is going to take a couple times out there, whether it’s in the actual games, catching them in bullpens or just talking to them. That’s the disconnect. But the cache built up being a veteran player, being a very good veteran player with great reputations, both Alex and Rene, that definitely helps their cause.

“I talked to Rene, and he was pretty confident that he’s going to be fine with this whole thing. He’s been around a bit, it’s not his first rodeo. He's very comfortable already, I can just tell that conversationally.”

Rivera said he’s going to work with the other catchers already here to help get the lay of the land.

“When you’re a catcher, the biggest challenge is knowing your pitching staff,” he said. “And that’s one thing that I’m going to work hard at, getting to know everybody, getting the trust of everybody and go from there.

“Willson’s been here, he knows the pitching staff. And Alex has been here for a little bit. We’ll talk about it, try to find the comfort zone, try to call a good game.”

Well, his first crack at it couldn’t have come any quicker.

While 2017 has been underwhelming for other hitters, Ian Happ has become a reliable rookie fixture for Cubs

While 2017 has been underwhelming for other hitters, Ian Happ has become a reliable rookie fixture for Cubs

Go ahead. Be honest.

Did you really see Ian Happ coming this fast?

Obviously you knew he’d be here one day, another one of Theo Epstein’s much-ballyhooed first-round draft picks, a position player destined to fit snugly into the Cubs’ long-term lineup.

But Happ was drafted mere months before the Cubs made their breakout run to the 2015 National League Championship Series. He spent his first full season as a professional while the big league team marched to that curse-smashing World Series championship.

Though like Kris Bryant and Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras before him, Happ has landed in the big leagues and become a fixture in the North Side batting order. He’s an everyday player who might not be tearing the cover off the ball on a daily basis, but it’s now hard to imagine the lineup without him.

“I’ve felt really good since I’ve been here,” Happ said earlier this week, “the way guys are super accepting and the way they’ve embraced me in the clubhouse, I couldn’t ask for more. Being with the team for the entire spring training, getting to know the guys, it made it easy for the transitional period and making me feel like I belong right away.”

Happ showed his stuff Saturday, playing a starring role in the North Siders’ narrow 4-3 win over the visiting Toronto Blue Jays. Happ was on base three times, drove in a pair of runs and scored twice, too. He drove in the game’s first run in the first inning, launched a game-tying solo homer in the fourth and scored the go-ahead run on a Javy Baez base hit in the sixth.

Right in the middle of the action is where Happ’s been since he arrived in the bigs back in the middle of May.

It’s been a good thing, too. Because at this point in this odd season, this quest to repeat that has hardly gone according to plan, it’s possible that the Cubs aren’t in first place without Happ. A playoff spot is still nowhere close to a certainty with the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals hot on the Cubs’ tail in the NL Central standings.

With the underachieving and in some cases injury-plagued seasons to date from the likes of Russell, Schwarber, Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward, the reliability of Happ has made him, even if quietly, one of the key cogs on a team that is still in first place, even if they haven’t been able to pull away and lock down a third straight trip to the postseason.

And he’s doing all this with just 80 games of major league service time.

“I think the more experience you get, as you start to see different pitchers over and over again, you kind of start to see the way guys are going to pitch you, the way the game develops,” Happ said earlier this week. “The more experience you have with that, it kind of helps you to slow the game down.

“I think all the way up for me, once you move up a level, you have to adjust. Sometimes, it happens quick and sometimes it’s more of a process. I feel like I’ve had to make adjustments at every level and definitely this level, you’re making adjustments every day. The quicker you can make them, the better off you’ll be.”

As mentioned, Happ isn’t putting up some sort of jaw-dropping, send-him-to-Cooperstown kind of a rookie season. He's hitting .249 after Saturday’s two-hit day, and undoubtedly he’s had his struggles. In his last 21 games prior to Saturday, he hit .189 and punctuated that rocky stretch with a four-strikeout day Friday against this same Blue Jays team.

But his .819 OPS ranks fifth among NL rookies. It ranks fourth on the Cubs, lower only than Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Contreras. He’s also in the top five on the team in RBIs and slugging percentage. Saturday’s long ball was his 18th homer of his 80-game season. Extrapolate those numbers to the team’s 122 games on the season, and he’d have more than 25 dingers already.

Thrown into the major league fire, he’s doing all this while asked to be an everyday contributor for a team with World Series aspirations — or rather World Series expectations.

“It’s tough. It’s a new adjustment,” Rizzo said Saturday. “It’s a new everyday grind up here that’s different from the minor leagues. And he’s hit his bumps along the way, but he keeps adjusting, keeps virtually getting better every day. And it’s fun when you see his success pay off.”

“The game ebbs and flows all the time,” Happ said Saturday. “That’s why it’s a beautiful game and a terrible game at the same time. You’re going to have your good weeks, your bad weeks, good days, bad days. Being able to stay even and keep fighting through it is important.”

While the focus for the Cubs is on the present and winning the NL Central crown, this franchise’s championship window extends far beyond the end of the 2017 campaign. Happ will continue to be a big piece of that window staying open, and Maddon said that this rookie season will have positive effects far down the road.

“Developmentally, I think this year’s going to be a boon to him for next year, absolutely, getting this kind of experience,” Maddon said earlier this week. “Defensively, I think he’s really improved at second base. I think he’s very nice in the outfield. I think there’s actually more positions he can venture into, whether it’s first base, third base, other things that he can do that make him even more valuable.

“The moment he starts forcing pitchers into the zone, he’s got extreme power. He really does. He’s not tall, but he’s strong. The ball comes off his bat as hot as anybody out there. It’s just a matter of him understanding the major league game and what they’re trying to do and veteran pitchers trying to take advantage of young hitters, which they do often. You’ve just got to make sure you force this guy back over the plate.

“When he learns that, like these other guys, they’re going to be very good players.”

Surely the future is bright for Happ, as it is for many of the Cubs’ young players. But as it’s plain to see on a daily basis, there’s a lot of brightness right now, too. Happ might be a rookie, but he sure doesn’t act like it. And at times, with his play, he sure doesn’t look like it, either.

“I’ve felt comfortable here, I have for a long time, and I feel really great with this group of guys,” Happ said Saturday. “And winning baseball games is a lot of fun.”

If the Cubs are going to keep winning baseball games, expect Happ to play a major role.