Will John Lackey be pitching for his job in new-look Cubs rotation?

Will John Lackey be pitching for his job in new-look Cubs rotation?

BALTIMORE – Joe Maddon says the Cubs aren’t discussing the idea of moving John Lackey to the bullpen: “We’re not there yet.” But as Lackey himself said last month after another bad start: “Joe doesn’t have much to do with the pitching.”

A manager who has known Lackey’s quirks and competitiveness ever since he was a rookie with the 2002 Anaheim Angels still gave the vote of confidence before Jose Quintana’s Cubs debut on Sunday afternoon at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

“Just try taking him out of the game, and then trying to tell him something like that,” Maddon said. “Oh my God, exponentially worse.”

The Cubs shut down Lackey (5-9, 5.20 ERA) before the All-Star break because of plantar fasciitis in his right foot and plan to activate him from the disabled list on Tuesday and start him against the Atlanta Braves that night.

Once the Cubs return to Wrigley Field after this road trip, Kyle Hendricks (right hand tendinitis) should be slotted back in the rotation, assuming Monday’s rehab start goes well at Double-A Tennessee.

The most likely scenario is the Cubs will move Mike Montgomery back to the bullpen, because the lefty swingman can pick up valuable innings, help keep the other relievers fresh and has an unselfish, easy-going attitude. The positive spin is that Lackey has pitched in 18 playoff series, showed up in a Cy Young Award vote as recently as 2015 and posted a 3.35 ERA last season.

“I believe he’s going to have a really good second half,” Maddon said. “His foot was bothering him a bit. I’m watching him right now. He looks very focused. I think the break helped him a lot, combined with getting well. So for us, there’s no speculation internally right now.

“I do anticipate good. As long as he’s healthy, which I think he is right now, I think you’re going to see a better version than you saw in the first half. He likes this time of the year. He likes being a part of this kind of a moment.”

The negative slant is that Lackey is 38 years old and might be unable to rediscover himself as a starter or reinvent himself as a reliever. Including the playoffs, Lackey’s pitched almost 3,000 innings in The Show and made four appearances as a reliever.

Lackey sort of blamed Maddon for the strained right shoulder that put him on the disabled list for a few weeks late last season, believing that warming up as an emergency reliever in extra-inning games contributed to the injury.  

So even if the Cubs wanted to bump Lackey to the bullpen, those final two-and-a-half months of a $32 million contract would probably wind up being a sunk cost.

“There’s all those little things going on that I think kind of push veteran players this time of the year,” Maddon said. “And you have to be in the race to really push a guy that’s won three World Series. I like it. Directly, we have not talked about that. Indirectly, I really think that from what I’m seeing right now, you’re going to see a really different version.”

Willson Contreras may be ‘the f------ Energizer Bunny,’ but Cubs still need to get another catcher before trade deadline

Willson Contreras may be ‘the f------ Energizer Bunny,’ but Cubs still need to get another catcher before trade deadline

A National League scout called Willson Contreras the most dangerous hitter in the Cubs lineup right now, marveling at the young catcher’s enthusiasm and the relentless way he plays the game: “He’s the f------ Energizer Bunny.”

But the Cubs also understand that the law of diminishing returns will kick in with Contreras, who has played in 19 of the first 20 games since Miguel Montero talked his way out of the clubhouse and got shipped to Canada in what was supposed to be an addition-by-subtraction trade with the Toronto Blue Jays.

That message to the clubhouse/chemistry experiment still left the Cubs without a real insurance policy behind the plate, essentially looking for the same kind of veteran catcher as Montero. Except this guy won’t have the same loose-cannon personality and will cost farm-system talent on top of the roughly $7 million owed Montero.

As bright as Victor Caratini’s future may be, the Cubs don’t have any other catchers on the 40-man roster (except Kyle Schwarber in an emergency situation) and realistically can’t expect a 23-year-old rookie to learn an entire pitching staff on the fly and become an everyday player in the middle of a pennant race. That makes catcher an obvious area for Theo Epstein’s front office to upgrade before the July 31 trade deadline.

“We have a couple more days to try to put it all together,” manager Joe Maddon said before Monday’s crosstown game against the White Sox at Wrigley Field. “I know the boys are trying to figure that out. Of course, that makes sense. I can’t deny what you’re saying makes sense. But I don’t know if that’s going to happen that way or not.”

The most logical targets appear to be Alex Avila and Jonathan Lucroy, with the Detroit Tigers clear sellers and the Texas Rangers in a holding pattern and on the fringes of the American League wild-card race.

Avila (11 homers, .902 OPS) could be the left-handed hitting complement to Contreras, a steady backup and a good clubhouse presence. Avila’s father, Al, works as Detroit’s general manager, overseeing what has been a difficult teardown after four straight division titles between 2011 and 2014 and the death of owner Mike Ilitch in February. (The Cubs are also believed to be interested in lefty reliever Justin Wilson, who has a 2.82 ERA and 12 saves for the Tigers this season.)

Lucroy has been described as someone who needs to play regularly to be effective, which might partially explain his .636 OPS this year. Whatever slippage may show up on the defensive metrics now, the Cubs had long admired the way Lucroy ran a game and handled pitchers with the Milwaukee Brewers. But last summer, the Cubs got the strong sense that the Brewers would never trade a homegrown All-Star player to a division rival 90 miles away.

At one point, the emergence of Contreras plus Montero’s peace summit with Maddon at an Italian restaurant during spring training made it look like Caratini could become a trade chip this summer. Caratini hit .341 with eight homers, 20 doubles and 54 RBI in his first 69 games at the Triple-A level.

[MORE: Was Hector Rondon tipping pitches during late-game meltdowns with Cubs?]

But what if Contreras does break down after a foul tip or in a collision or from exhaustion? 

“Again, that’s not denigrating Victor,” Maddon said. “Victor is at the point in his development that you don’t want him sitting around this much. As a developmental guy, it bothers me to see him there. He’s in a great mood every day. He’s ready every day. He’s a part of the group every day. He sits with (catching/strategy coach Mike) Borzello, wants to know what’s going on every day. Beautiful stuff.

“But when you got young guys like that, it’s really tough to watch them sit on the bench, because you know how important that year is to them. So, moving forward, I know there’s different things we have discussed, but I’m not sure exactly where it’s at.”

One idea that Maddon has scratched to keep his cleanup hitter fresh: Occasionally moving Contreras (15 homers, 52 RBI) to the outfield or a corner-infield spot. Maddon already has enough egos to manage in the clubhouse.

“With the roster construction right now, I don’t think it’s necessary,” Maddon said. “If something were to happen – people were unavailable – then it might become more attractive to do something like that possibly.

“A lot of these guys deserve to play, but it’s hard to get them active or involved. I don’t want to just (carve) out a spot and give it to (Willson when) guys that need to play are not. That could infiltrate or impact your room negatively also, which I don’t want to do. I’m really wary of all those different things.

“It goes beyond: ‘Yeah, Willson is playing well, you want him in the lineup, yeah, yeah, yeah.’ But you want to keep the room good, too. And to keep the room good, you got to keep everybody involved.”

Was Hector Rondon tipping pitches during late-game meltdowns with Cubs?

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USA TODAY

Was Hector Rondon tipping pitches during late-game meltdowns with Cubs?

Hector Rondon may be the most polarizing figure in the Cubs bullpen, if not the entire roster.

When he comes into games right now, a huge population of Cubs fans freak out on Twitter with some combination of annoyance, frustration or WTF reactions.

Look at the responses to this Tweet when he was called upon to pitch the seventh inning of Sunday night's win over the St. Louis Cardinals.

But how is that possible? Exactly a year ago, he was the dominant closer for the best team in baseball with a 1.95 ERA, 0.73 WHIP and 18 saves in 22 chances.

Rondon struggled down the stretch last season after the Cubs sent four players to New York for Aroldis Chapman and Rondon also had a triceps injury that limited him to just 11 games from Aug. 2 on.

In that span, the veteran right-hander struggled to get right with an ugly 12.46 ERA, allowing a .415 average and 1.272 OPS to opposing hitters.

Rondon was better in the postseason (4.50 ERA, 1.50 WHIP), but was pitching in low-leverage spots and was not one of Joe Maddon's trusted options in the World Series.

Could it all be because he was tipping his pitches?

Rondon acknowledges how the triceps issue could've affected his mechanics, but he actually thinks he was telegraphing his pitches too much and that was something he's had to work on correcting over the last year.

"I feel like we fixed the mechanics because we felt like last year, I was tipping some pitches," Rondon said, pointing to the way opposing batters hit him as the main reason for his line of thinking.

"Sometimes you can throw a really nasty pitch and they hit it and there's no reason to think they'll hit that pitch in that location. So you start to think that way. I think that's what it was."

Rondon admitted he feels really good right now, and the radar gun is showing it. He's throwing harder in July than he ever has before and hit 100 mph on the radar gun Sunday night.

Rondon hasn't hit 100 in a couple seasons and the last time he did so, he tipped his cap to his fellow relievers in the Cubs bullpen. But he's not settling just for 100 now.

"My goal is to hit 101 mph this year and then I'll tip my cap to them again," he said, smiling.

Rondon's confidence has also been a big factor ever since the Chapman move and it's something Maddon has been particularly focused on this season.

Rondon was pitching at a high level, then was demoted from closer for Chapman, then bypassed for the closer's role again this offseason as the Cubs traded for Wade Davis. Not to mention the clear lack of confidence Maddon had in Rondon last fall.

So when Maddon turned to Rondon with the bases loaded and nobody out in that disastrous eighth inning Friday afternoon and the end result was cringeworthy, the Cubs manager instantly took the blame for that.

"I immediately went up to him and I told him, 'I put you in a bad spot, brother. Please throw that one away,'" Maddon said. "I wanted him to know, 'Listen, you're throwing the ball way too well to worry about that moment.'"

With a two-run lead in the seventh inning of the rubber game against the Cardinals Sunday night, Maddon again called on Rondon and despite a walk and an infield hit, Rondon escaped the inning unscatched for his career-high eighth hold.

"He came out and I got right in his face in that moment and said, 'Man, that is IT. Now I just want you to focus on making pitches and believe that you're gonna make the pitch that you want to make,'" Maddon said. "His stuff [Sunday] was as good as I've ever seen it. Ever.

"You stand [in the dugout] that close to the hitter, you can really see that jump at home plate with guys with the really elite fastballs. And that's what I saw [Sunday] night. Now throw that elite fastball where you want to and heads up. 'Cause the slider's back."

Even with Friday's performance (four earned runs without recording an out), Rondon is sporting a 3.86 ERA since June 14 with 19 strikeouts in 14 innings.

Take that Friday game out of it and Rondon's numbers look like this for the last five weeks: 1.29 ERA, 1.00 WHIP.

Rondon has also been chatting a lot with Davis, a wise former starter who has morphed into one of the most dominant relievers on the planet for the last half-decade. One of the things the two veterans have been discussing is how to harness the elite-level stuff Rondon possesses.

"It's a good relationship and I'm glad to hear that specifically because that's exactly what Ronnie needs to do — go out there with a plan, as opposed to just going out there, winding up and throwing a pitch and hoping it doesn't get hit," Maddon said.

"[He needs to be focused on hitting spots.] 'I want it there. I want it there.' When he does that, heads up, because it's gonna be lights out."