Cubs Q&A: Bullpen woes, Willson Contreras, Kyle Scharber, Ben Zobrist
Cubs catcher Willson Contreras during Sunday’s game against the Pirates.
The Tribune’s Mark Gonzales answers readers’ Cubs questions about Willson Contreras’ development, the status of the bullpen and the future of hitting coach John Mallee.
I’ve been very impressed with Willson Contreras’ techniques, especially his blocking, his pitch framing, and his energy behind the plate. Mike Borzello deserves a ton of credit for teaching the latest techniques, and Contreras for learning them. I predict he will greatly reduce trips to the mound by mid-season, and also not make an off-balance throw when he does not need to.
I love a catcher who blocks pitches with nobody on base. — Jim K.
As Contreras gets more comfortable with his starters, you’ll see fewer trips.
And you nailed it on the education Mike Borzello provides not only to the catchers but to the rest of the players, who would be dumb not to listen to him or seek advice from him.
Is this bullpen going to hold up? — Todd K.
No, but I think every executive goes into the regular season knowing they’ll need reinforcements if they’re going to contend for a playoff berth.
In the case of the Cubs, Pedro Strop, Justin Grimm and Hector Rondon have been used quite a bit over the past three seasons. It’s fully understandable, since the Cubs have gone deep into the postseason the past two seasons and those relievers have had varying degrees of success during the past three seasons.
The question is where can they get reinforcements from other than left-hander Rob Zastryzny and Felix Pena? Left-hander David Rollins has some major league experience, but Pierce Johnson is in his first full season as a reliever.
The thought here is that Carl Edwards Jr. will play a more prominent role as long as he can limit his bouts of wildness.
If Ben Zobrist declines offensively, is he the odd man out as the year goes on? — Andrew C.
I can’t see that unless Addison Russell develops to the point where he can handle the cleanup duties. Ben stabilizes the lineup as a switch hitter in the middle of the lineup, and Joe Maddon loves to create problems for opposing managers in late-inning situations.
What’s going to happen when Carl Edwards Jr. returns now that Duensing is here? Tommy La Stella to Triple-A Iowa? — Heidi B.
Before Edwards went on the bereavement list, he had to pitch two innings Thursday because the pen was thin. I think there’s a greater need for a 13th pitcher right now, and Joe has had trouble finding a place for Matt Szczur and Tommy La Stella to get starts.
With Jon Jay not getting that many at-bats, I’d say that Tommy would be most likely to go to Iowa since he has minor league options and would get regular at-bats there.
This Cubs offense relies on a heavy on-base percentage. If they maintain this in 2017, are strikeouts a non-factor for the offense? — Jacob M.
Not necessarily. I believe there are times when strikeouts are more acute than other times. There are two interesting schools of thought when it comes to putting the ball in play vs. striking out. I’ve always been a firm believer in putting the ball in play, although some scoff (understandably) about the fear of grounding into double plays and killing rallies.
Why does Joe Maddon think not playing Albert Almora Jr. is a good idea? It seems obvious he does not trust his skills. He should have rested Ben Zobrist, Kyle Schwarber or Javier Baez on Sunday. If he had not won the World Series, he would be getting a ton of flak for how he is managing so far. It seems like Zobrist has played 12 to 13 consecutive games (including Houston). — Rick L
I’d expect Zobrist to get more rest soon. He’s played 11 of 12 games, and there are some day games following some night games coming up shortly. The Cubs didn’t face Clayton Kershaw last week, or else Schwarber likely would have received a rest. I still think he’ll get a break shortly.
As for Almora, yes, there’s a strong case for him to play more. But I also thought that Jon Jay would start a few more games.
I equate this situation to the college basketball coach who has so many top freshmen but also possesses a strong veteran class returning and trying to find time for all of them. Maddon has said in the past that unfortunately injuries can help resolve this, but I think we’ll continue to see a revolving door. Keep in mind that the Cubs have some rough stretches later in the first half, so rest will be essential.
With the chance of this being Jake Arrieta last season in Chicago. Is there any chance the Cubs jump into the Jose Quintana sweepstakes? — Arturo C.
Anything is possible, but I’d expect the White Sox to ask for an extravagant package of players (and wouldn’t blame them), considering that Quintana is under contract for several years.
Given the landscape of both teams, it would have to be a slam dunk for the White Sox to consider dealing with the Cubs. But the White Sox did pretty well in gathering prospects for Chris Sale and Adam Eaton.
Could you foresee a point in the season where Maddon elects to not put Schwarber at the leadoff spot? I love his bat, and so far things seem to be working. But wouldn’t it make since to put someone with more speed in that leadoff spot? If he were to hit a slump and the on-base percentage started dropping, who could Maddon go to? — Lucas C.
When Dexter Fowler hurt his hamstring last season, Ben Zobrist batted in the leadoff spot, but his production sank dramatically. Jon Jay could handle the leadoff duties on a part-time basis. I think Joe may have a trick up his sleeve if something were to happen to Schwarber.
But keep in mind that Schwarber at the leadoff spot, followed by Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, is a heck of a challenge for starting pitchers in the first inning.
When are they going to realize John Mallee is the problem! I have been saying this since his hiring! Yes, we won the World Series, but these first two weeks of the season are great example of this offense is the only thing that will hold this team back! Too many good players struggling! No .300 hitters, either! Enough is enough! Fire Mallee and hire someone proven to be a good hitting coach! — Josh B.
I wouldn’t judge a hitting coach on only the first 12 games of the regular season. John has had talented hitters to work with, but they’re still young. In fact, I’d give him some credit for the fact that they’ve cut down their strikeout total from 2015 to 2016. Sure, some of it has to do with the addition of Zobrist, but Bryant made remarkable strides in 2016.