Stay or go? Veteran Cubs on the brink in Mesa

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Stay or go? Veteran Cubs on the brink in Mesa

Wednesday, March 16, 2011
Posted 9:05 p.m.

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

MESA, Ariz. The Cubs didnt want to be anywhere near bench coach Pat Listach on Tuesday morning. A tap on the shoulder meant you were wanted in the managers office.

There Mike Quade and general manager Jim Hendry informed 18 players that they were heading down the street to minor-league camp. The Turk isnt on call yet for the next rounds of cuts, but after Wednesdays off-day the Cubs have less than two weeks left in Arizona.

During his six-week audition last season, Quade didnt manage every night like it was Game 7 of the World Series. He won points and almost two out of every three games by using players the front office needed to evaluate.

But as the 25-man roster comes into focus, Quade will have to find his voice and articulate what he needs to win now.

Jims been upfront about so many of these decisions being mine, but Im always mindful, Quade said. Whos got options? Whats the contractual status?

I fully expect to have the loudest voice, at least of the group in here. And if (chairman) Tom Ricketts or Jim Hendry or (assistant general manager) Randy Bush shouts me down, thats because theyre ahead of me. Theyre my bosses. Itll be a group effort and then well put our heads together.

Hendry purposely brought in character guys on minor-league deals to add a sense of professionalism this spring. They are still hoping to fly back to Chicago.

Braden Looper

With his gray hair and stubble, the 36-year-old pitcher looks like Brett Favre, and he has ideas about retirement. Looper sat out last season to be a stay-at-home father in Chicagos south suburbs. Across the past 18 months, hes been trying to get a job with the only team he wants to play for.

Looper is still a candidate for the two open spots in rotation, along with Randy Wells, Andrew Cashner and Carlos Silva. He might be a fit as the long man in the bullpen. He becomes a free agent if he doesnt make the team and would have to decide if he really wants to walk away again.

I got a wife and three kids at home that I dont want to drag all over the place anymore, Looper said. They put up with that for a long time. I played almost (12 years) traveling all over the country and its a lot to ask of a family.

Were going to do this and see if it works out, and then Ill cross that bridge when it comes. But hopefully this works out and Ill be pitching for the Cubs.

Todd Wellemeyer

Admittedly still a little rusty, Wellemeyer has essentially thrown six innings since tearing his quadriceps last June. The San Francisco Giants were six games out of first place when they released Wellemeyer on Aug. 19. Hes waiting for his World Series ring and dealing with a sore right hip, something hes felt every spring for the past three years.

The Cubs go way back with Wellemeyer, their fourth-round pick in the 2000 draft, and they remember what he did eight years later 13-9 with a 3.71 ERA for the St. Louis Cardinals. At the age of 32, he figures: If these guys dont have a spot for me, maybe one of the other teams will.

Augie Ojeda

The Cubs brought in Ojeda to help mentor Starlin Castro, and they need a utility infielder to back up their young shortstop. This is Ojedas third tour with the Cubs, and he once played for Quade at Triple-A Iowa. The manager says that when it comes to defense, you wont find them much better.

The 36-year-old Ojeda will have to beat out Darwin Barney, who is almost 11 years younger and hitting .333 this spring. Barney could also play himself into more at-bats as the second baseman.

Reed Johnson

Last month Marlon Byrd stood in front of his locker and raised his voice while talking about when Johnson makes the team. Johnson still has many allies in the organization after his two seasons on the North Side (2008-09), when Quade was his outfield coach.

Though Johnson has hit only .138 so far, the Cubs value his experience and ability to play all three outfield positions. Fernando Perez has unbelievable speed, and that could be a real asset for a team that could struggle to score runs. But Perez may need more time in Iowa to develop as a switch-hitter.

If Johnson doesnt make the club, he will become a free agent.

I know (what) he can do on the field, Quade. The fact that he played well here in this division, in this ballpark, in this city theres a lot of real good stuff that comes with Reed.

What is that worth exactly? Those are the types of conversations the Cubs will be having behind closed doors.

PatrickMooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. FollowPatrick on Twitter @CSNMooneyfor up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

Cubs catcher Willson Contreras looks ready for prime time

Cubs catcher Willson Contreras looks ready for prime time

SAN DIEGO – Within 24 hours at Petco Park, Cubs catcher Willson Contreras handled the wild movement of Jake Arrieta’s pitches and framed the edges of the strike zone for Kyle Hendricks, showing the dexterity to handle a playoff rotation.

Contreras looked ready for prime time on Tuesday night and Wednesday afternoon, helping shut down the San Diego Padres and complete a three-game sweep where two National League Cy Young Award candidates found a rhythm while throwing to a rookie catcher.

“Everything’s a lot easier,” Contreras said after a 6-3 victory. “I’m way more comfortable right now, because my first week everything was speeding up on me. But now I’m able to slow down the game and do my job.” 

The day after Arrieta fell one inning short of a two-hit, complete-game shutout, Hendricks credited Contreras for calling more curveballs and getting him through a stretch where the Padres put the leadoff man on base in each of the first four innings. 

“From the get-go, I wasn’t shaking him off,” Hendricks said. “We’ve been rolling for the last five, six starts, at least. It’s been easy.” 

Contreras has now caught Arrieta twice, and got one-start exposure to Jon Lester, while developing chemistry with Hendricks, John Lackey and Jason Hammel, which means veteran catcher Miguel Montero might not have a spot on the postseason roster if this continues.

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Contreras is a dynamic presence, launching his eighth home run on Wednesday afternoon and keeping the Padres stationary after Tuesday night’s laser throw to pick off a runner at third base. 

“I was waiting for somebody to run,” Contreras said. “But they didn’t run, so I’ll have to save it for another game.”

The Cubs are nearing the point where a 24-year-old player who didn’t make his big-league debut until June 17 could be behind the plate for the biggest games in franchise history.

“In this clubhouse, we are like a family,” Contreras said. “Once you get here, you start feeling comfortable the first day. You don’t even know that you are a rookie who just came up.”

Kyle Hendricks keeps rolling as Cubs sweep away Padres

Kyle Hendricks keeps rolling as Cubs sweep away Padres

SAN DIEGO – Kyle Hendricks reported to spring training as a fifth starter, leads the majors in ERA in late August and could pitch Game 1 in a playoff series. That gradual evolution from possible question mark at the back of the rotation into a National League Cy Young Award candidate highlights how the Cubs have transformed from a team that won the offseason to one that owns the summer and maybe this fall. 

In his own understated way, Hendricks smashed any perceptions of that ceiling, performing at a level and with a consistency that matches the franchise’s young hitting stars, mirroring their baseball IQ and grounded nature, without the billboards and flair for social media. 

Hendricks kept rolling on a beautiful Wednesday afternoon at Petco Park, knocking the San Diego Padres off-balance and finishing the three-game sweep with a 6-3 victory. That pushed the Cubs to 36 games over .500 for the first time since finishing their 1945 pennant-winning season at 98-56. The best team in baseball could play a little over .500 (19-17) down the stretch and still reach 100 wins.

A Dartmouth College graduate with an Ivy League degree in economics helped create all this momentum – and certainly knows what he wants to do on the mound – but Hendricks as an ace still seems beyond the wildest internal preseason projection.

“I thought he ended really well last year and that there was a lot to look forward to,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He’s just taken it to another level right now. He’s in that 26-27-year-old range where a young pitcher who’s had some major-league experience can really find his next level. And I think that’s what’s going on. He’s such a wonderful student. The difference between last year and this year is the confidence thing: ‘I belong here. I can do this. I’m one of the best.’ 

“A lot of our guys are going through that moment right now. And I think that’s what you’re seeing out of Kyle. I’ve talked about the couple tweaks he’s made regarding the four-seam fastball and curveball usage. That makes him a little bit different. But more than anything, I think he believes he’s among the best right now.”

The Padres (53-74) looked a little checked out and didn’t really put much pressure on a Cubs team that should get an adrenaline boost this weekend at Dodger Stadium. Dexter Fowler and Kris Bryant opened the game with back-to-back doubles before Ben Zobrist lined a two-run triple into the right-center field gap. Within six minutes of Paul Clemens’ first pitch, Jorge Soler’s sacrifice fly made it 3-0.

Hendricks hasn’t allowed more than three earned runs in a start since May 17, a run of 17 straight outings that has sliced his ERA from 3.51 to 2.19 while pushing his record to 12-7.

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Hendricks hides his emotions and didn’t get flustered when the Padres put the leadoff man on base in each of the first four innings, working around the traffic to limit San Diego to two runs and finish with eight strikeouts. 

Hendricks made it through six innings – he’s now gone at least five in each of his 24 starts this year – after beginning the day with a FanGraphs soft-hit rate (26 percent of batted balls) that led the majors and would be the highest mark in the last five seasons.

Hendricks has to pitch a different game than Jake Arrieta, but with an 8-1 record and a 1.38 ERA in his last 13 starts, he might be this year’s breakthrough performer who helps carry the Cubs into October.

“I’m just trying to stay where I’m at and keep the consistency,” Hendricks said. “Keep my pitches feeling good, keep my command. It’s just staying in my routine and really not doing too much – not doing less – just kind of riding it out until I feel something change.”

How soon before Cubs make Javier Baez an everyday player?

How soon before Cubs make Javier Baez an everyday player?

SAN DIEGO — The airtight defensive alignment for October would have to include Javier Baez, a game-changing force moving in all directions. The Cubs have seen Baez make barehanded plays and laser throws, take charge on bunts and frustrate hitters with an uncanny ability to improvise and make split-second decisions.

Baez and Addison Russell are two of the best athletes in the entire game, Jake Arrieta said after Tuesday night’s win over the San Diego Padres, so put the ball in play and let those two middle infielders take over.

There could be playoff lineups where Baez starts at second base and bumps Ben Zobrist to the outfield. But manager Joe Maddon isn’t about to hand Baez an everyday job, sticking with the super-utility formula and versatile philosophy that’s helped the Cubs become the best team in baseball.

“It depends on how we morph as a group over the next couple years,” Maddon said Wednesday at Petco Park. “Right now, I like the way it’s working out. I like the fact that (Javy’s) getting rested (and) not playing every day. Look at his at-bats — they have gotten better, too. He is making adjustments or adaptations during the at-bat. He’s not just out of control every swing.”

Baez has channeled his aggressiveness, hitting .276 with 13 homers, 47 RBIs and 83 strikeouts through 343 plate appearances, becoming a more mature and well-rounded player at the age of 23.

“You’re seeing a lot of progress,” Maddon said. “Who knows if by playing sporadically this is becoming more part of who he is? As opposed to playing every day, maybe getting caught in the trap of not hitting well, whatever, and all of a sudden he takes it on defense. It’s natural progression. He’s an everyday player, there’s no question, in maybe a couple years.”

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The Geek Department and scouting reports will ultimately influence where Baez plays, because Maddon wants him wherever the ball will most likely be hit most often. When Jon Lester pitches, that can mean Baez starting at third base and Kris Bryant moving to the outfield.

The Cubs promised Zobrist the second-base job when he signed a four-year, $56 million contract, agreeing the focus on one position would help reduce the wear and tear on his body at the age of 35. The Cubs still need Zobrist’s switch-hitting skills and World Series experience in the lineup.

Maddon also wants to keep Jorge Soler involved — because he’s a presence other teams have to account for — and maybe that will mean sacrificing Jason Heyward’s Gold Glove defense in right field at times.

But Baez is the type of defender the Cubs will want to see out there in one-run, low-scoring playoff games.

“He’s unbelievable,” Bryant said. “Any ball hit his way — whether it’s in the air, on the ground, on line — you kind of just expect him to make the play and make it look good. That’s what he’s been doing all year. I certainly think he’s Gold Glove worthy, but he plays all over. I feel like there should be a utility man Gold Glove, because he definitely (deserves it).”