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.

Cubs will be open for business as Theo Epstein weighs trading hitters for pitching

Cubs will be open for business as Theo Epstein weighs trading hitters for pitching

Theo Epstein answered questions from the Chicago media for more than an hour on Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field, but the most interesting part might have been what the Cubs president didn’t say, something along the lines of: These are our guys.

Or at least Epstein didn’t give the same full-throated endorsement of The Core that he delivered after engineering the Jose Quintana trade with the White Sox this summer, getting an All-Star pitcher without giving up anyone from the big-league roster.

Whether it’s the way the Los Angeles Dodgers dominated the Cubs throughout the National League Championship Series that ended Thursday night, the inconsistencies and frustrations during a 43-45 first half of this season or the reality of losing 40 percent of the rotation, you walked out of that stadium club press conference thinking big changes could be coming.

“We’re going to pursue all avenues to get better,” Epstein said.

The Cubs already understood this would be a challenging time to dramatically reshape their pitching staff, with Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta, Big Boy John Lackey and All-Star closer Wade Davis about to become free agents.

The Cubs don’t really have many (any?) high-end, headliner prospects left to trade after borrowing heavily from their farm system to acquire Aroldis Chapman for last year’s World Series run and get Quintana to help solidify the rotation through 2020.

All of Major League Baseball is looking beyond this winter and preparing for the monster free-agent class that will hit the open market after the 2018 season.

Meaning it’s time for the Cubs to make some difficult decisions about all these young hitters they’ve collected.

“It may or may not be,” Epstein said. “Those choices, they’re not unilateral things. You can’t sit there and decide: ‘Hey, this guy, we’re moving him.’ Because you don’t know what the return might be. You don’t know how the different moving parts might fit together.

“I think going into the offseason prepared to make some tough choices and execute on them — and keeping an open mind to anything — is appropriate under the circumstances where we have some obvious deficits and we have some real surplus with talented players who are really desirable.”

Let’s assume All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo, MVP third baseman Kris Bryant and catcher Willson Contreras are essentially untouchable.

The Cubs used the ninth overall pick in the 2015 draft on Ian Happ with the explicit idea that the college hitter should be on a fast track and could be flipped for pitching later: Is it time to sell high after the rookie just put up 24 homers and an .842 OPS?

During an exit meeting with Albert Almora Jr., Epstein said he couldn’t promise an everyday job in 2018, though the expectation would be more responsibilities: Think anyone else would be interested in a potential Gold Glove center fielder who’s already playoff-tested?

Do you want Addison Russell or Javier Baez as your everyday shortstop for the next four years? Is there an American League team willing to bet big that Kyle Schwarber will crush 40 homers a year as a designated hitter?

The Cubs have to ask themselves those types of questions, which could mean getting outside of their comfort zone and taking on some riskier pitching investments and sapping the strength that has turned them into the dominant force in the NL Central.

“We’ve really benefitted from having two or three extra — and ‘extra’ in quotes because they’re not really extra — starting-caliber players on the roster,” Epstein said. “That helped us win 97 games in ’15, 103 last year, 92 this year. That’s as big a part of the club as anything.

“Having an Addison Russell go down and being able to move Javy Baez to shortstop — that’s an obvious example of it. But those things show up every week for us. There’s a day where someone can’t make the lineup and someone else slides in and you’re still starting eight quality guys. That’s huge.

“Sooner or later, you reach a point where you have to strongly consider sacrificing some of that depth to address needs elsewhere on the club. There’s no sort of deadline to do that. But I think we’re entering the phase where we have to be really open-minded to that if it makes the overall outlook of the team and organization better.”

Translation: The Cubs are open for business. Make your best offer.

Cubs Talk Podcast: 2017 season obituary and previewing an interesting winter for Cubs

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: 2017 season obituary and previewing an interesting winter for Cubs

In the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Kelly Crull, Patrick Mooney and Tony Andracki close the book on the 2017 season following Theo Epstein’s press conference, looking back at what will go down as the craziest calendar year in Cubs history from last November through the team’s loss in the NLCS this October.

Moving forward, where do guys like Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr., Justin Wilson and Mike Montgomery fit? Will the Cubs re-sign Wade Davis or go after another proven closer? And how worried should fans be about the offense that completely disappeared in the postseason?

Take a listen below: