Cubs spring notebook: Backup catcher role, Hendricks’ adventure and Workman’s work
MESA, Ariz. — The Cubs have quite a bit to sort out over the next two weeks before they have to set their Opening Day roster.
Lately, the backup catcher spot has moved to the forefront of that discussion.
After trading away Victor Caratini in the Yu Darvish deal over the winter, the Cubs signed veteran Austin Romine to serve as Willson Contreras’ backup.
Romine has missed the last 10 days of Cactus League action as he continues to work through right knee soreness and inflammation. He last played on March 6 and is still officially listed as “day-to-day.”
“He’s feeling better daily but it’s just been a really slow process,” David Ross said Wednesday. “It’s still taking a minute.”
Given the clock working against Romine and a layoff approaching two weeks, it looks increasingly likely that he won’t be ready for Opening Day. If he has to begin the season on the IL, look for P.J. Higgins or José Lobatón to emerge as the backup backstop.
Lobatón, 36, has played more than 400 MLB games in his career and is a switch-hitter. Higgins, 27, has not yet made his MLB debut but he’s earned some acclaim internally with the Cubs over the last couple years.
Wednesday marked the first time a Cubs pitcher hit in a game this spring with Kyle Hendricks stepping into the batter’s box against Padres starter Chris Paddack.
In his first at-bat, Hendricks fell behind in the count 0-2 before delivering a single to right field. He and San Diego’s Jake Cronenworth were involved in a minor collision at first base on the play but both players got up quickly and signaled they were OK.
Hendricks had some fun with it after he came out of the game.
“We’ve been working on hitting a little bit out here, but we haven’t been on the bases,” he said, laughing. “First base must’ve moved on me or something since the last time I was over there. That was funny. I’m going to be hearing about that for sure.
“Three steps before the base, it was either: I’m out or I’m running into him. The competitveness took over. It was like, ‘I’m not getting thrown out from right field.'”
Hendricks assured reporters his body felt fine after the collision and wished his outing on the mound was less of a grind. He threw about 70 pitches over his 3.1 innings of work.
Ross has utilized a DH all spring to get his position players some extra at-bats. Now, with the season approaching and the DH gone from the NL in 2021, he feels it’s time to give his pitchers some at-bats.
He’s been in communication with the pitchers and the team always has the option of giving pitchers live at-bats on the back field during camp, too.
“It’s a tricky one, right?” Ross said. “You’re putting guys in there bunting or hitting against live pitching and keeping guys healthy. That’s one of those where you could see both sides of the coin positive or negative.
“These guys want to be out there, they’ve kinda been itching to get out there. …We’ll continue to ramp up and get those guys some real looks so when that real competition starts, these guys are ready and facing some guys with some real velocity in some real game moments.”
After missing a pair of games with low-back tightness, Nico Hoerner was in the lineup Wednesday. The young infielder was originally slated to start Sunday’s game at DH but was scratched just before first pitch with the back issue. He was given Monday off as a precaution and Tuesday’s off-day gave him a good breather to let the back calm down.
The Cubs saw no reason to force the issue in exhibition games and Ross said the back tightness is “nothing to be concerned about.”
Hoerner proved that on the field as he played 7 full innings that included a hard-hit flyout to the opposite field and a nifty double play turn complete with a leaping throw:
When the Cubs signed Brandon Workman, they envisioned the veteran right-hander playing a big role as a high-leverage reliever. That will likely come in a setup capacity to closer Craig Kimbrel to start the season, but Workman has experience in the 9th inning (25 saves) and could be a backup option if Kimbrel falters or is down for a day.
“Craig’s one of the best closers in the history of baseball,” Workman said. “If something does come about, I’ll be prepared to do whatever’s asked of me but I think Craig Kimbrel’s the closer.”
Workman, 32, has pitched over 300 innings in the big leagues in his career but endured some struggles last season, going 1-4 with a 5.95 ERA. He was traded midseason from the Red Sox to the Phillies and it took some getting used to during the pandemic.
“It was definitely different for me,” Workman said. “I had been with Boston since I was drafted — like 10 years — and then to get traded to Philly in the middle of COVID and everybody’s wearing a mask and we can’t really interact that much, it was a tough adjustment for me.
“Obviously I didn’t do well with it. I would have liked to think I would’ve done better than I did, but it is what it is. It happened, so I put in the work to make sure I’ll be in a good spot this year.”
Part of that work was getting his breaking ball back to where he wants it to be.
During his best season in 2019 (1.88 ERA), Workman threw his curveball nearly half the time (47.2%) so it’s a big key to his success.
“It’s definitely one of my main weapons,” he said. “It did leave me last year, so that was tough. I was able to make some mechanical adjustments watching film some this offseason and throughout last year. I feel like I have it in a good place right now.”
Albert Pujols would agree:
Dropping the hammer 🔨 pic.twitter.com/TQUOcbsd5d— Marquee Sports Network (@WatchMarquee) March 15, 2021
Kimbrel’s encouraging outing
Speaking of Kimbrel, he turned in an inning of work Wednesday night that was an encouraging sign for the Cubs.
After experiencing some struggles in his first few Cactus League outings, the closer consistently hit 96 mph with his fastball and struck out Padres star Manny Machado on three pitches to begin the inning.
Kimbrel gave up a single but immediately erased it with a double play groundball.
Willson’s monster game
Willson Contreras showed out in a big way for his team’s contest under the lights at Sloan Park.
He crushed a 3-run shot in the 2nd inning, added a 2-run triple in the 6th and made an incredible throw to catch Jurickson Profar stealing:
*chef's kiss* pic.twitter.com/kg0rIO1WsV— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) March 18, 2021
Profar’s reaction says it all.
In celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, the Cubs and Padres donned some green garb for Wednesday night’s game:
The green socks were a particularly nice touch:
It’s called fashion 🍀 pic.twitter.com/DVMiQXd1Zl— Marquee Sports Network (@WatchMarquee) March 18, 2021
Jake Arrieta gets the ball for the Cubs against the Indians Thursday.