Caught Looking: Maddon Misses Old Gang, Morel Mashing Thanks to Plate Adjustment, Hendricks Inching Toward Return

When I got my first job out of college, I was trained by a man who was in his retirement year. He was a friendly dude, a bit eccentric, and it seemed like he felt he owed me all of life’s wisdom he had accumulated in 60-odd years. Like everyone who reaches that age, every day was a walk down memory lane. He showed me a lot of pictures of his children and grandchildren on the days he didn’t spend reminiscing. His family was his pride and joy.

I briefly mentioned it in The Rundown last week, but Joe Maddon surfaced recently and talked about the 2016 Cubs. Papa Joe was the hip grandpa who led the Cubs to three incredible years when he hit Chicago. Our boys in blue went to the NLCS three times starting in 2015 with a World Series championship sandwiched nicely between. Disappointment and heartbreak followed thanks to a combination of underachievement and lack of financial flexibility. To hear Maddon tell it, the organization should have kept the band together.

“Yeah, we should have stayed together longer,” Maddon said on 670 The Score last Monday. “There’s no question. We had a lot more chicken left on the bone. We did, but not given the opportunity. I’ll say that because it’s true.

“What’s going on right now, man, I’m just happy for Nico and I’m happy for Ian. And again, this is the present-day club. This isn’t several years ago Cubs. You can’t revisit that. It’s over. So they got to do what they think is right, right now. And these are really good players and they’re good dudes.”

My first thought was that Maddon must not have seen the overcooked team that limped to frustrating finishes in 2018-20, and many of my blogger peers thought the same. But maybe we are taking the cerebral ex-manager a little too literally. The conversation arose when the topic of contract extensions for Ian Happ and Nico Hoerner came up. Perhaps Maddon meant the ex-core of Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Báez, and Kyle Schwarber would have played better knowing they had the security that comes with long-term contracts. Don’t forget, arbitration years are notoriously bitter negotiations, and extensions never really seemed on the table, except for Báez.

We’ll never know if that’s the case, but Maddon makes a valid point. He’s never been shy with a word or two, and as a senior enjoying retirement, he tends to live vicariously through past glories. Who knows, maybe he even carries pictures of the former core with him just to show acquaintances what 2016 meant to him, the Cubs, their fans, and baseball in general.

Midwest Farm Report

In Tuesday’s Rundown, I mentioned that Christopher Morel looks like he’s lowered his hands a bit at the plate. A quick perusal of Twitter validated my assumption. Morel had a decent enough 2022 to get some consideration for Rookie of the Year, but he started this season at Triple-A and he’s off to a scorching start. He slashed .373/.486/1.318 with 14 XBH and a 12:19 BB/K ratio through Iowa’s first 16 games.

To be honest, the “lowering your hands” theory has always felt to me like the equivalent of slapping your 1970s-era television to get better reception. However, it makes sense mechanically. When a batter goes into the launch position with lower hands, he goes straight to the baseball. Lowering the hands eliminates unnecessary movement and allows the batter to get the ball in the air easier. Bat speed also tends to go up, which is a good way to counter fastballs, and off-speed stuff for that matter, that are getting faster every year.

Matt Stairs used the same approach to hit 265 home runs in his 19-year career. Morel has seven taters in 81 plate appearances this year compared to 16 in 425 with the Cubs last season. Granted, he’s facing inferior competition, but you have to love the results so far. He looks locked in at the plate and his exploits are a daily occurrence on social media. He certainly hasn’t hit any cheap home runs.

Morel is playing with a big chip on his shoulder right now, and he and Matt Mervis have been monsters for the AAA Cubs. The two have combined to hit .311 (42-for-135) with 39 runs scored, 12 homers, and 39 RBI. It’s going to be tough to keep both at Iowa once the calendar turns from April to May.

Big League Chew

Kyle Hendricks is headed to Iowa on a rehab assignment and if all goes well, he could join the Cubs in time for their next homestand. After the Cubs play the Padres in a three-game set at Wrigley Field, they head to Miami and Washington, returning for a three-game set against Miami on May 5 followed by three against the Cardinals. Hendricks is 13-3 with a 2.69 ERA in 25 career starts against St. Louis, including the Greg Maddux game he tossed in 2019. That’s as close to owning one opponent as it gets.

David Ross will have a decision or two to make once The Professor returns. Will the Cubs go with a six-man rotation, or is one starter going to be the odd man out? If you asked me at the start of the season, I’d say Drew Smyly would become a swingman. Or perhaps Hayden Wesneski would be sent to Iowa. Jameson Taillon is on the 15-day IL with a mild-to-moderate groin strain. That’s a tricky injury and Taillon will undoubtedly need a rehab assignment of his own once he returns. That gives Ross a little more time to make a decision.

Something will have to change once the Cubs are 100% healthy. Hendricks and Marcus Stroman could be playing their final seasons in Chicago, so trading one or both is an option. Injuries are bound to occur as we saw last year when 17 different pitchers started at least one game for the Cubs. Some fans have even mentioned Hendricks as a possible closer. I’d rather see Javier Assad given an opportunity to be that shutdown, 9th-inning specialist. Hendricks is a pitch-to-contact starter who’s coming off back-to-back seasons with an ERA and FIP that hovered a little too close to 5.00. Those aren’t traits you look for in save situations.

If I had my druthers, I’d like to see Rossy go with a six-man rotation. My only concern would be how that may affect Justin Steele. The rest of the starters, excluding Wesneski, are seasoned veterans. Maybe a better option is to piggyback Hendricks and Wesneski. Decisions, decisions.

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