Cubs have what Nationals desperately need and Wade Davis has no doubts: ‘We’ll be there’

Cubs have what Nationals desperately need and Wade Davis has no doubts: ‘We’ll be there’

WASHINGTON – Wade Davis scanned the clubhouse near the end of spring training and called the Cubs “a crazy talented group,” counting 10 or 12 players among the best in Major League Baseball.

Davis has been as good as advertised, the All-Star closer the Cubs would have for an entire season instead of a rental like Aroldis Chapman, fueling optimism/delusions the defending champs could actually be better than last year’s World Series team.

But all that on-paper talent has translated into a 40-39 record and a high-water mark of four games over .500 (in late May). The Cubs are running a half-game behind a first-place Milwaukee Brewers team with a $56 million Opening Day payroll.

Board member Todd Ricketts – who once told a “Screw you, Matt Harvey!” story at the 2016 Cubs Convention – still called out the Washington Nationals during this week’s White House visit and told Donald Trump: “We’re going to run into these guys in the playoffs. You’ll see them crumble.”

The reality check for the Cubs is that it has become a matter of getting there. But Thursday’s 5-4 ninth-inning comeback victory –and the scattered boos at Nationals Park after another bullpen meltdown – showed how Washington could be this year’s San Francisco Giants.

That would be the team with great starting pitchers, a strong everyday lineup and the nowhere-to-turn bullpen the Cubs exploited in last year’s first-round series. That makes Davis – 16-for-16 in save chances and 2-0 with a 1.93 ERA after finishing off both wins in this four-game series – such a difference-maker if the Cubs get to October.

“I’ve been on teams before where you know their confidence is lacking,” Davis said, “and people don’t necessarily believe this year they’re that good. I don’t think you see that here on any of our guys.

“I think we’ll be there. We know what to do.”

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The Nationals (47-32) will have to do something to fix a bullpen with a 4.98 ERA and 13 blown saves or else risk wasting another season of Bryce Harper and Max Scherzer’s brilliance. Not that anyone else around the Cubs would talk trash and back up Ricketts’ prediction.

“I’m not into billboard-material quotes,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “We got to worry about our own house right now, in my opinion. We’re one game over .500. That’s exactly where we deserve to be. We haven’t played well enough beyond that.

“(The Nationals) have taken care of business. These guys look great. They’ve run away with the division. They’ve lived up to their potential. And we should be looking up to them right now. They’ve played this season so far the way we should play this season.

“Hopefully, we’ll play that way the rest of the year. But right now, they’re in a much better position than we are.”

Davis – a calming presence in the bullpen and playoff-tested after getting the final out of the 2015 World Series for the Kansas City Royals – doesn’t believe in hangovers or overreactions.

“Baseball’s going to be different every year,” Davis said. “I don’t care how good you are or what you win. (This is) what the flow of the season is – how we’re playing, what we’re executing, the breaks we’re getting or not getting. It’s where we are right now, but we feel we’re in a good spot.

“I think we’ll end up being where we need to be. Everything is like a building block. You get better at certain things. And at some point, you hope you’re right where you want to be and then you take off.”

Why Joe Maddon still thinks Kyle Schwarber makes sense as a leadoff hitter

Why Joe Maddon still thinks Kyle Schwarber makes sense as a leadoff hitter

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Kyle Schwarber may take the first official at-bat of the 2018 Cubs season. 

When the Cubs take on the Giancarlo Stanton-less Marlins in Miami March 29, Schwarber may very well be the team's leadoff hitter.

Yes, even after that idea didn't pan out so well last year.

As manager Joe Maddon met with the media Tuesday afternoon at the Walt Disney World Dolphin Resort, he admitted he hasn't lined up a batting order for 2018 yet, but when asked about Schwarber, he said he wouldn't run from the idea of using the now-svelt slugger atop the lineup.

"He's probably arguably in the best shape of his life, so it starts there," Maddon said. "Regarding the leadoff thing — it was only failed in the sense that Kyle had a tough time last year. He could have hit 1-9 and still had a tough time last year. It just was not his year, although he rebounded nicely.

"I don't know, I haven't drawn a lot of conclusions with that. Obviously we still got to see what the team's going to look like in its entirety. Schwarber obviously could lead off, if he is hitting like Schwarber and he's accepting his walks and he's got his .250-plus batting average. His on-base percentage is going to be a hundred points over his batting average, I really believe that again.

"I definitely will consider [Schwaber leadoff] again, but I want to see who all the available candidates are first."

Schwarber hitting leadoff was a gigantic storyline entering 2017 and it didn't work out so well when the lefty slugger hit just .190 with a .693 OPS in 36 starts atop the order. 

He was moved lower in the order, but still wound up hitting just .211 with a .782 OPS overall, though he did manage 30 homers despite coming in shy of 500 plate appearances after a midseason stint in the minors.

The Cubs still haven't found a clear choice for the leadoff spot since Dexter Fowler left in free agency following the 2016 World Series championship and unless they make a trade, the 2018 leadoff guy(s) will come from the group already in place.

Among the choices, Schwarber provides maybe the best option, especially against right-handed pitching. He's patient, sees a lot of pitches, can give the team an immediate boost with a first-inning homer and can set the table for MVP candidates Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo immediately behind him.

Ian Happ could also fill that role in his sophomore campaign, though both players strike out a ton.

Maddon wouldn't commit to Schwarber playing more against left-handed pitching in 2018, but even if he sits, Albert Almora Jr. — who hammers southpaws — could be a nice fill-in guy.

Either way, the Cubs aren't stressing about this whole leadoff thing anywhere near as much as the fanbase is.

"It would be a luxury for us," Theo Epstein said. "You can have a really functional offense without a traditional leadoff guy. I think we demonstrated that last year — we scored over 800 runs, second most in the league behind Colorado, without much impact in the leadoff spot.

"I'd sign up for over 800 runs again and the second-most runs in the league. What shape it takes, I don't really care. We'd love to have a prototypical leadoff guy, but not at the expense of the core elements of the team.

"Right now, pitching is more important."

Cubs plan to keep stockpiling pitching even as 2018 staff comes into focus


Cubs plan to keep stockpiling pitching even as 2018 staff comes into focus

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — In a way, the Cubs are playing not to lose right now.

That may seem like an odd way to approach the MLB offseason for a team that has made it to three straight National League Championship Series. 

But in reality, it's a smart way to gear up for 2018.

Theo Epstein's front office knows they can't count on the remarkable run of health the Cubs pitching staff posted in 2015-16. Last year, Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks missed several weeks each with injuries, but the staff was otherwise pretty healthy.

So this winter is all about pitching, pitching, pitching and more pitching. It's a war of attrition and the Cubs are trying not to lose the war.

The Cubs entered the offseason with a clear need for two starting pitchers, a closer and at least one other high-leverage reliever. They've since signed Tyler Chatwood and reached an agreement with Brandon Morrow that should become official Tuesday morning.

Check off one starter and one impact reliever, a guy who could slot in at closer if the Cubs can't bring back Wade Davis.

That pair of moves has helped the Cubs relax a bit at the MLB Winter Meetings this week at Walt Disney World Dolphin Resort, but the hunt for pitching will never be truly over.

"One way to look at the offseason is to look at all the different ways a season can be sunk and build to mitigate those threats," Epstein said. "Our greatest threats right now relate to pitching and not having enough quality pitching, suffering multiple injuries to pitching, not having enough depth."

Fans want to know about a leadoff hitter and that's fair, but run prevention is dominating the Cubs' attention.

They're open to trades from their glut of young, controllable position players for impact pitching, but Epstein and Co. are also still hot on the free agent market, in talks with Alex Cobb and other potential starters. 

Even after the Morrow signing becomes official, the Cubs still figure to be involved in what Epstein calls a very deep reliever class. 

Morrow doesn't have a long track record of health — he's appeared in more than 20 games in a season just once (2017) since 2012 — but the Cubs are wary of injury issues for every pitcher they acquire. They know full well the injury risks associated with pitching and don't intend to push anybody they sign or trade for.

Joe Maddon is a huge proponent of rest and the Cubs have no interest in running relievers — closers or not — into the ground by having them throw more than three outs on a consistent basis.

Is there any scenario in which the Cubs leave the "Happiest Place on Earth" with a content feeling about their 2018 pitching staff?

"You can't dictate the timetable, so I think an opportunity that really makes sense presents itself and we hesitate, I'd be disappointed," Epstein said. "But I also don't want to make something happen just for the sake of making something happen.

"We'll try to be really thorough, try to be really creative and try to be aggressive when appropriate to continue to round out this pitching staff. It really doesn't matter when you get stuff done — at the winter meetings, after the winter meetings, in January, in spring training — as long as you end up having a pitching staff that is really talented and deep enough to withstand the attrition that always happens during the course of the season.

"We'd love to add another starter one way or another if we could and at least one more reliever."