Cubs

Cubs closing out the regular season with a spring training approach

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USA TODAY

Cubs closing out the regular season with a spring training approach

Hector Rondon chopped Amir Garrett's offering about 15 feet in front of home plate and booked it down the line.

He was initially called out, but was so insistent he beat the play, he stayed on first base and went through the usual Cubs routine after a basehit — waving to the dugout with a bright smile on his face, cracking up his teammates.

Welcome to spring training in September.

Rondon's first career MLB hit was confirmed by a replay, altering the original call on the field by first base umpire Mike Winters.

Rondon's baserunning excursion lasted just one pitch as Rene Rivera — hitting leadoff — into an inning-ending double play. Rondon was then lifted from the game in favor of Brian Duensing for the eighth inning. Cubs manager Joe Maddon didn't want to use any other position players in the game if he didn't have to, so he gave Rondon and fellow reliever Felix Pena an opportunity to hit for themselves Friday.

It was a fun, ridiculous moment in a game that featured a Cubs starting lineup consisting of three catchers (Kyle Schwarber, Alex Avila, Willson Contreras) to start, plus the insertion of Rivera (again, in the leadoff spot) and Taylor Davis (at third base). The starting lineup also featured three second basemen (Ben Zobrist, Tommy La Stella, Ian Happ) playing all over the place.

Happ started at third base for the first time in his professional career (he only had one inning at the hot corner prior to Friday) and moved to center field before giving the Cubs their 91st victory of the season with a three-run homer in the eighth.

Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, Addison Russell and Jason Heyward never made it into Friday's game. Those five regulars will likely be in Saturday's lineup however, after taking back-to-back days off Thursday and Friday.

Maddon talked to Bryant and Co. about playing Friday, but the players opted for a second consecutive day off, while Zobrist and Contreras wanted to get back into action after taking Thursday off.

The Cubs have nothing to play for, as seeding in the NL is already guaranteed and they locked up the division Wednesday night in St. Louis.

"Treat it more like spring training," Maddon said of the regulars playing Saturday, "maybe three at-bats. It doesn't have to be a full game. My plan is to talk to them during the course of the game — how ya feelin'? Do you need another at-bat? You good? Just like you do in spring training. No different than that."

Maddon also continued to treat his pitching staff with the caution and predetermined planning of Cactus League play.

Jose Quintana was perfect through the first 11 hitters of the game, but fell into trouble in the fifth and wound up exiting after only 4.2 innings and 81 pitches. Pena bridged the gap to Rondon in the seventh, who dialed his fastball up to the upper 90s and threw his fourth staright scoreless apperance since returning from a minor elbow injury.

Prior to Friday's game, Maddon telegraphed his managing style for the weekend, saying he hoped to get the main relievers out for an inning or two, but not wanting any guy to approach even 30 pitches.

Jon Lester also doesn't figure to work deep into Saturday's game while Jake Arrieta won't make Sunday's start, resting his ailing hamstring and turning the 2017 regular season finale into a bullpen day for the Cubs.

It's all in an effort to promote rest and limit wear and tear in a series of games that means nothing beyond ensuring the Cubs players are locked in and ready for their NLDS date with the Washington Nationals.

Would trading Kyle Schwarber begin to solve pitching issues that run much deeper than Chris Bosio?

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Would trading Kyle Schwarber begin to solve pitching issues that run much deeper than Chris Bosio?

The Cubs now apparently believe they are a stronger organization without Chris Bosio, firing a pitching coach known for his strong convictions, brutal honesty and bottom-line results in a move that doesn’t seem like an actual solution.

Hiring Jim Hickey – who has a good reputation from his years with the Tampa Bay Rays, a close friendship with Joe Maddon and what looks like a slam-dunk interview lined up for Monday – might make the manager feel more comfortable and less isolated.

But the new-voice/different-direction spin doesn’t fundamentally address the pitching issues facing a team that needs to replace 40 percent of the rotation and find an established closer and has zero expectations those answers will come from within the farm system.

This is an operation that won a seven-game World Series last year without a homegrown player throwing a single pitch.     

If the Cubs can say thanks for the memories and dump “Boz,” what about “Schwarbs?”

Advancing to the National League Championship Series in three straight seasons doesn’t happen without Bosio or Kyle Schwarber. But the fastest way for the Cubs to dramatically improve their pitching staff isn’t finding someone else who thinks it’s important to throw strikes. It could mean breaking up The Core and severing another emotional attachment.   

Theo Epstein saw Schwarber play for Indiana University and used the Fenway Park frame of reference, envisioning him as a combination of David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia with his left-handed power and energizer personality.

Epstein wasn’t the only Cubs official to develop a man-crush on Schwarber, but he’s the only one with ultimate control over baseball operations. Epstein’s style isn’t pounding the table as much as the ability to frame questions in the draft room, gather as many opinions as possible before the trade deadline and at the winter meetings, trying to form a consensus.

“I will say that it’s really an organization-wide evaluation of this player, but I’m not skirting responsibility,” Epstein said. “I’ll happily endorse him as the type of player that we want to win with here at the Cubs, and have won with. I don’t know, the fact that he hit 30 bombs in a bad year is a good start.

“But power is not everything. I think he fell into this year becoming more of a slugger and less of a hitter than he really is. It’s important for him to get his identity back as a dangerous hitter. Honestly, I think we feel he has the potential to be an all-around hitter on the level of an Anthony Rizzo. When he reaches his prime, that’s what he could be.”

Where will that be? As a designated hitter in the American League? That’s obvious speculation, but Schwarber has improved as an outfield defender – his strong throw at Dodger Stadium led to another NLCS Maddon Moment where the manager compared the Buster Posey Rule to the Chicago soda tax.      

A 43-45 record at the All-Star break also exposed some of the weaknesses in the clubhouse and downsides to Maddon’s methods. The Cubs flipped a switch in the second half, got hot in September and had the guts to beat the Washington Nationals in the playoffs. But that doesn’t completely wipe away the concerns about a group that at times seemed too casual and unfocused and didn’t play with enough edge. For better or worse, Schwarber approaches the game like a blitzing linebacker.

“He’s got a certain toughness and certain leadership qualities that are hard to find,” Epstein said, “and that we don’t necessarily have in surplus, in abundance, running around in this clubhouse, in this organization.

“A certain energy and grit and ability to bring people together – that’s important and we rely on it. But the biggest thing is his bat. We think he’s the type of offensive player that you build around, along with a couple other guys like him.”

Maddon would never admit it, but was the Schwarber leadoff experiment a mistake?

“I’ll judge that one based on the results and say yeah,” Epstein said. “I think we can talk about the process that went into it. Or in an alternate universe: Does it pan out? But those are just words. It didn’t work.

“Everything that went into Kyle’s really surprising and difficult first half of the season, we should look to correct, because that shouldn’t happen. He’s a way better hitter than that. What he did after coming back from Iowa proves it.”

In the same way that Maddon should own what happens with the next pitching coach, Epstein will ultimately have to decide Schwarber’s future.

Schwarber didn’t complain or pout when he got sent down to Triple-A Iowa this summer, finishing with 30 homers, a .782 OPS, a .211 batting average and a 30.9 strikeout percentage.    

Trading Schwarber would mean selling lower and take another team having the same gut instincts the Cubs did in the 2014 draft – and offering the talented, controllable starting pitcher that sometimes seems like a unicorn.

Is Schwarber still the legend from last year’s World Series? An all-or-nothing platoon guy? An intriguing trade chip? A franchise player? Eventually, the Cubs are going to find out.

“We have to look to do everything we can,” Epstein said, “and more importantly he has to look to do everything he can to get him to a point where he’s consistently the quality hitter and tough out and dangerous bat in the middle of the lineup that we know he can be.

“He wasn’t for the first half of this year – and he knows it and he feels awful about it. He worked his tail off to get back to having a pretty darn good second half and getting some big hits for us down the stretch.”

And then the offseason was only hours old by the time the Cubs showed they will be keeping an open mind about everything this winter, not afraid to make big changes.

Jake Arrieta shaved his beard again and he keeps looking younger

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Jake Arrieta shaved his beard again and he keeps looking younger

It's become a tradition that Jake Arrieta shaves his beard after the season ends.

The 31-year-old did it again days after the Cubs were eliminated from the 2017 postseason, and it's still a sight we'll never be used to seeing.

Check it out:

Weird, right?

Here's how he looked following the Cubs' World Series win in 2016:

And again in 2015:

It's crazy how much younger he looks.