Chicago Cubs

Time running out in Cubs rotation battle

236285.jpg

Time running out in Cubs rotation battle

Saturday, March 12, 2011Posted: 4:00 PM

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

MESA, Ariz. Randy Wells didnt need a media-training seminar to know this: Pitch well and all the critics will back off. Everyone will start writing nice things about you again.

No one expected Wells to win 12 games as a rookie in 2009. Everyone had an opinion on what went wrong last year, when he lost 14 games, a number that overshadowed his 32 starts and 194.1 innings.

At 28, Wells has a perspective and a sense of humor about the way it works. On Thursday morning, he sat through a session on dealing with reporters and social media run by a Major League Baseball representative. He then went out and limited the Indians to one hit in four scoreless innings.

Afterward, Wells was asked if he had the inside track to a spot in the rotation, which is what the image-makers call a vulnerable question. He smiled and went into full-clich mode.

Its all up to Q, Wells said. Im just one man.

Manager Mike Quade isnt prepared to publicly announce his fourth and fifth starters just yet. But its hard to ignore what Wells has done, stringing together nine scoreless innings through his first three games.

Just keep it rolling, Quade said.
Decision time
At a certain point, every day seems exactly the same in spring training. You lose sight of how quickly time is slipping away. There is the illusion that Opening Day is still almost three weeks away.

But decision time is fast approaching, which is what makes every inning so critical for Carlos Silva.

Another wave of cuts is expected around St. Patricks Day. For the group of pitchers trying to make the rotation, there might only be one or two more chances to make an impression and thats if front-office opinions havent already hardened.

By now its clear that the Cubs are not backing off at all from the Andrew Cashner experiment. Any doubts they may have had about moving the 24-year-old into the rotation were gone once they signed Kerry Wood and imported Matt Garza.

This isnt robbing the bullpen, because Wood will be the right-handed power arm in front of closer Carlos Marmol. And Cashner wont have to immediately be a frontline starter though the organization thinks thats what he can eventually become because Garza is there to take away some pressure.

Cashner remembers sitting on his parents couch back home in Texas and watching Wood hit a homer in Game 7 of the 2003 NLCS. He looks up to Wood and Ryan Dempster, two pitchers who have made 30-plus starts and saved 30-plus games in a season. They are always willing to help.

There may not be a more ideal time than now to fully commit to Cashner as a starter.

Hes got a lot of different folks around him that have (been successful), Quade said. He can really draw from (them) and he does listen (well). I get the biggest kick out of Cash, because he is a country guy, but he pays attention and sees stuff.

This is a really good environment for him to attempt to make this transition and for him to be able to attack it the best he can. I think these guys would be the first to tell him groundball to short on one pitch beats the heck out of a six-pitch or seven-pitch strikeout.

Image makeover

Cashner has improved steadily each outing and the Cubs feel his changeup is close to becoming a real weapon. He can throw the ball close to 100 mph, but hes really learning how to pitch, set up hitters and hold runners on at first base.

Eventually, Cashner will reach the crossroads where people stop looking at his potential and start focusing on what he isnt doing yet. In a down year, Wells went from being the converted catcher, the 38th-round pick, the feel-good story, to a disappointment.

Wells can be funny my britches fit just fine and brutally honest. He seems to have learned from the experience, and by watching his 2010 starts.

A lot of it is just staying calm and not panicking when you get a guy in scoring position (or) walk the leadoff guy, Wells said. (Its) trying to keep your wits about you. (If) a guy gets a hit and scores a run, its not the end of the world.

When things got bad, I tried to force things instead of now just taking a deep breath, relaxing, evaluating the situation and making a good pitch.

Its not as easy as flipping a switch, but Wells and Cashner have shown enough growth that it wouldnt be surprising to see them starting April 4 and 5 at Wrigley Field.

(Sometimes) you almost pitch like you dont want to go down rather than stay, Wells said. (When) you pitch aggressive, (like) this is your job and this is your livelihood and nobodys going to take it from you rather than pitching to not get sent down (that mentality makes people successful.)"

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

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Which Cub will make biggest impact down the stretch?

lester.jpg
USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Which Cub will make biggest impact down the stretch?

Ben Finfer (ESPN 1000), Chris Hine (Chicago Tribune) and Jordan Bernfield join David Kaplan on the panel. Jon Lester, Addison Russell and Willson Contreras all work out with the Cubs before their game. Which player’s return with have the biggest impact down the stretch?

Plus, the guys discuss how many snaps Mitch Trubisky should take with the first team, debate who won the big Cavs/Celtics deal and Scott Paddock drops by with the latest NASCAR news.

Listen to the SportsTalk Live Podcast below. 

Mike Montgomery will gladly aid Cubs as spot starter, but could this be a mini audition for 2018 rotation?

mike_montgomery_0821.jpg
USA TODAY

Mike Montgomery will gladly aid Cubs as spot starter, but could this be a mini audition for 2018 rotation?

Jon Lester isn’t expected to be on the disabled list for long, which of course is great news for the Cubs.

But while he’s there, it’s once again time for Mike Montgomery to audition for a spot in the team’s 2018 starting rotation.

The Cubs are facing the possibility of losing two members of that starting staff this offseason, when both Jake Arrieta and John Lackey will be free agents. Montgomery seems like a logical replacement, but he’ll need to be better than he’s been as a starter this season. He’s put up a 5.13 ERA in eight starts.

He’ll get another opportunity to show his stuff over the next week or so, as he makes one or two spot starts with Lester on the shelf resting up his left lat tightness and general shoulder fatigue.

“I don’t want to see anybody get hurt, especially our ace. But it’s a challenge. I’m looking forward to going out there and helping the team win,” Montgomery said over the weekend. “I’m going to go out there and prepare and be ready to help this team get to the playoffs.”

Montgomery doesn’t have to worry about instilling confidence in his bosses. Joe Maddon and Theo Epstein both lauded Montgomery’s efforts since he was acquired about a year ago, in the middle of the 2016 team’s march to that curse-smashing World Series win. It was Montgomery who earned the save in Game 7.

And again this season Montgomery has given plenty of reason for those guys to have confidence in him. He’s turned in a strong 2.57 ERA in 27 relief appearances, one of the more reliable arms out of what is becoming an increasingly shaky bullpen. This past Thursday, he relieved the early-to-depart Lester, pitching 4.1 shutout innings and allowing just three hits and a walk against the Cincinnati Reds.

Throw in the versatility of being able to effectively switch between starting and relieving, and that’s a recipe for sticking on a big league roster.

“He’s good about bouncing back and forth,” Maddon said. “He’s been invaluable to us the last couple years. He’s still learning his craft. Every time I talk to him it’s kind of like the little lightbulb constantly goes off for him regarding his stuff and how to utilize it. That’s what I’ve been talking about with him the last couple years. This guy’s got all kinds of tools in the toolbox but he doesn’t really know how to utilize them all, and I think he’s finally understanding the cutter, the curve, the changeup to go with the fastball. He’s one of those guys that he should never get wild with his fastball because his pitches are so good and he can throw them for a strike.”

Montgomery’s reliability has been enough that Epstein said there’s no plan for the Cubs to add another starting pitcher before this month’s waiver trade deadline. Of course, the fact that Lester’s injury isn’t as bad as initially feared and the July acquisition of Jose Quintana factors into that, as well.

“We’ve expended a lot of prospect capital trying to make this team better. We think it’s just a start or two (that Lester will miss), and Mike Montgomery is more than capable of filling in,” Epstein said. “He’s thrown the ball really well, like what we saw from him (Thursday). So we’re going to fill that vacancy internally with Mike and go from there.”

While every start made by any pitcher this season seems important — the Cubs entered Monday’s day off with just a two-game lead on the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central standings, with a playoff spot hardly guaranteed — Montgomery’s efforts could have just as great an effect on next season. If Arrieta and Lackey both end up departing via free agency, the Cubs will need some replacements. Montgomery figures to be among the first options, especially if this midseason audition goes well.

Of course, Montgomery is happy to do whatever he needs to to help his team. He’s not complaining about a bullpen role or one that has him shuttling between the relief corps and the rotation. But he admitted that starting is his goal, meaning the importance of this moment likely hasn't been lost on him.

“Yeah, absolutely, I wanted to start. But also I wanted to be a guy who could fill another role and hopes that makes our team better,” he said. “If me starting makes us better in their mind, then that’s what I want ideally. But I’ve realized I can’t always control that, I can go out there and pitch well. If I pitch well, they’re probably going to give me more opportunities, which is probably going to lead to starting.

“I think it’s because I spent five years in Triple-A from the time I was 21 and I had a bigger ego. And then you realize that you just want to be in the big leagues and that Triple-A kind of stinks. I think it’s just how I’ve gotten to this point. And coming here last year from a team that was trying to get in the playoffs to a team that was clearly going to win the division, you realize that your role isn’t to come here and start making demands, it’s to come here and just do your job.”

Right now, the Cubs need Montgomery to fill the void while Lester rests up. And if he can make his starts look a little more like his bullpen outings, he’ll do just that. And if that’s what happens, maybe they’ll call on him next season to do a whole lot more.