Although there hasn’t been a ton of transactional news and rumors on the Cubs front this offseason, keeping track of some on-going storylines has proven difficult (what up, TV deal), including on the coaching staff. And it all starts at the top.
I’m sure you recall Joe Maddon’s lame duck status heading into 2019 and the fact that he and the Cubs do not intend to get together on an extension before the 2019 season begins. Beyond him, Chili Davis, the Cubs former hitting coach, was let go, and his assistant hitting coach, Andy Haines, was hired away by the Brewers (hiss). Brandon Hyde will still be the Cubs bench coach in 2019, but he interviewed for at least four big league managerial jobs this winter and, at one point, seemed almost destined to leave. And finally, Jim Hickey, the Cubs pitching coach, is stepping down for personal reasons. That’s a lot of uncertainty and turnover.
Fortunately, the Cubs filled the hitting coach gig with a familiar face in Anthony Iapoce, and a good, up-and-coming assistant hitting coach is something the Cubs should be able to land.
But what about the pitching coach?
It’s obviously impossible to compare the importance of various coaches, but I can say with some degree of certainty that pitching coaches sure feel like the second-most important non-player out there. I think getting that choice right is probably more important than picking the right bench coach, hitting coach, positional coaches or anything else. Pitching is extremely fickle thing, and success/failure seems so closely tied to all kinds of things that the right coach could help you adjust (even in the moment). Having the right mind in there is only part of it, as you also need someone who can connect and convey trends and advice to the pitchers effectively – someone they’ll respect, believe, and hopefully trust.
The problem for the Cubs, of course, is a bit unique. Despite boasting a big market, with plenty of money in an exciting city with a 95-win team and a star-studded rotation to mold, the Cubs might have some trouble getting the right coach at the moment. After all, the Cubs next pitching coach will be their third in as many years *and* will probably be very wary of Joe Maddon’s status. If Maddon does not return in 2020, the new manager may very well want to bring in a brand new coaching staff of his own, which means this could be a one-year gig. That’s a tough sell.
Sure, there are PLENTY of hungry coaches out there who’d relish the opportunity, but getting an established, high-quality pitching coach to lead veterans like Jon Lester, Cole Hamels, Yu Darvish and the like might not be too easy. But they’ll have to try, so let’s consider some of the rumored options.
At The Chicago Tribune, Mark Gonzales offers up five candidates, and they’re some fairly interesting names. To start, Gonzales envisions the front office dipping back into that mid-2000s Red Sox well with John Farrell, the pitching coach who “supervised the ascent of Jon Lester’s career.” Farrell certainly has the experience and gravitas to manage a big, veteran rotation and would be a fine addition. We recently discussed his many connections to the Cubs.
What about long-time bullpen coach Lester Strode? Strode, 60, is a fan favorite at Wrigley Field, and why shouldn’t he be? He’s been with the Cubs for 30 years, 12 as the bullpen coach, and past Cubs pitchers have directly credited him for their success. He’s already familiar with the entire pitching staff and organization, which could make the transition easy.
The three remaining names – Bryan Price, Brendan Sagara, and Juan Nieves – are an interconnected web of former Cub ties, Red Sox ties, or out of the box ideas. You can read more about each of them at The Tribune.
But these five suggested names would not necessarily be the only options they’re considering.
To that end, you should probably keep an eye on the Cubs’ Coordinator of Advanced Scouting Tommy Hottovy (a.k.a. The Run Prevention Coordinator). Mentioned as a possible replacement for Jim Hickey by Jesse Rogers on the radio this week, Hottovy has generated some headlines lately and it seems like there could be something there (via Sahadev Sharma at The Athletic): “No final decision has been made and the Cubs front office will continue to do their due diligence, but preliminary discussions have taken place and Hottovy currently looks like a favorite.”
For what it’s worth, Sharma also briefly mentions Bryan Price and John Farrell, but the focus appears to be on Hottovy. And he comes witha plenty strong fit, from his unique combination of skills, to his immediate interest in the analytical side of the game after retiring, to his ability to connect with the players, as a recent one, himself.
You can catch a lot of Hottovy in the Cubs’ ‘Between Starts’ video series:
The beauty of combining finesse and power.
Between Starts: Day 3. pic.twitter.com/kaRIcBAFEx
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) November 18, 2018
There’s a WHOLE lot of information and background on Hottovy at The Athletic, and I encourage you to read all about him – even if he doesn’t end up as the Cubs next pitching coach, he’s a really interesting guy with a really cool job. Indeed, you can also read about that job, which was created especially for him, at FanGraphs from 2015. And here’s how Hottovy explained it, himself, in an old Q&A I dug up:
… My main focus is on run prevention, which encompasses anything that helps prevent the other team from scoring runs … my main responsibilities are breaking down the opposing hitters and working with our coaching staff to determine our plan of attack, coordinating all of our defensive positionings, and communicating with the coaching staff that will be positioning the players during the game to make sure we are all on the same page.
Also, I’m in charge of making notes on the opposing offense in general and things they like to do specifically during the game (i.e. when they run, situational hitting, bunting, etc.), and communicating with any Pro Scouts we have in the field to make sure our plan is on the right track with what they may be seeing in a short look before our series.
I’m sure you can see why he makes a great deal of sense.
But there’s one other, speculative reason I think Hottovy could make sense for the Cubs right now: he’s the perfect one-year fill-in. *IF* the Cubs are really going to swap out managers after this season, the next manager will likely want to bring in a new staff. Hottovy, who is both very young and has no experience as a pitching coach yet, might LOVE the chance to dip his toe into the coaching waters, while having a place to land (anywhere in the Cubs organization, perhaps right back into his old job) if the next guy wants to bring someone new in.
In that sense, it’s a win-win for everyone. The Cubs get to use someone they trust and like, but who won’t block a new manager from bringing in his own guy. Meanwhile, Hottovy gets some legitimate resume-fodder while he continues to build an impressive career at a relatively young age (and who knows? Maybe he’ll do such a good job, the next manager will want to keep him … or maybe Joe Maddon will get extended anyway). The whole thing is not an ideal situation, but it could be the best of a bad one.