Cubs

Cubs ready to challenge Bryce Harper and take on Nationals in potential playoff preview

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USA TODAY

Cubs ready to challenge Bryce Harper and take on Nationals in potential playoff preview

Joe Maddon can’t play the same mind games with Bryce Harper that he did early last season – when the Cubs walked the Washington Nationals superstar 13 times during a four-game sweep at Wrigley Field – because Dusty Baker eventually moved Daniel Murphy up in the lineup for protection and Ryan Zimmerman is now having an All-Star year.

But the Cubs may have found another way to try to contain Harper and Murphy – Mr. October when the New York Mets swept them out of the 2015 National League Championship Series – and slow down the Los Angeles Dodgers if they meet again in October.

That will become the backdrop this weekend in Wrigleyville – likely first-round playoff preview – even if the Nationals don’t start Max Scherzer (neck spasms) and Stephen Strasburg (nerve impingement, right elbow). 

To get that dominating left-handed presence, the Cubs aimed high and tried to acquire All-Star closer Zach Britton before the July 31 trade deadline, but worried about the Baltimore Orioles stringing them along and how the chain of command and medical-review process works inside that organization.

The Cubs ultimately decided to strike a deal with the Detroit Tigers that would fill two needs at once – lefty reliever Justin Wilson and veteran catcher Alex Avila – and primarily cost a Triple-A prospect (Jeimer Candelario) who struggled during cameo appearances in the big leagues and would be blocked by Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo anyway.    

“Our guys went after what we perceive to be the best fit,” Maddon said Thursday. “But the discussion wasn’t necessarily about getting another lefty because of these other teams.”       

Consider it a bonus, like Wilson coming with an extra year of club control and the potential to be the 2018 closer. A full-strength rotation already moved lefty swingman Mike Montgomery back into the bullpen, where left-hander Brian Duensing (2.45 ERA, 49 strikeouts/10 walks in 44 innings) has emerged as an underappreciated/overlooked asset.

[MORE: Joe Maddon getting Cubs into playoff mode: ‘You cannot be thin-skinned right now and win’

“The boys are just going after a good arm,” Maddon said. “There were some right-handed guys involved possibly, too. For me, if you look at (Wilson), he throws really well against both sides, so he is a strong neutral guy.”

Harper came into that marquee series in early May 2016 with a 1.021 OPS that dropped to .950 by the end of that month to .891 at the All-Star break to .814 at season’s end. Whatever contributed to that relative down year, Harper is back playing at an MVP level, hitting .324 with 27 homers and 80 RBI.   

But pick your poison when Murphy and Zimmerman are both hitting above .300 with 41 homers and 149 RBI combined and OPS totals north of .925.

“At that time, I didn’t know exactly where we were bullpen-wise,” Maddon said. “Zimmerman was hitting behind (Harper) and not having the season that he’s having right now. So I think the dynamic is more about the guys hitting behind him, for me, as opposed to who’s in our bullpen.

“We have three really solid left-handers. But last year, I did all that stuff based on Ryan was just struggling at that time. That was it. If Murphy was hitting behind him, I probably would not have done it.”

Harper enjoys the Wrigley Field stage and appreciates the sense of history here. During the four-game series the Cubs split at Nationals Park in late June, Harper went 5-for-16 with zero homers, two doubles, three walks and five strikeouts, driving in two runs and scoring two more.

At that point, the Cubs had a World Series MVP (Ben Zobrist), a Gold Glove outfielder (Jason Heyward) and a Cy Young Award finalist (Kyle Hendricks) on the disabled list.

Of course, one way for the Cubs to handle Harper – and troll the Nationals and counteract the Dodgers – would be signing him as a free agent after the 2018 season and reuniting him with Bryant, the friendly rival he grew up playing with and against in Las Vegas.

But that is a discussion for another day. The Cubs are healthy after that wave of injuries, confident from their post-All-Star break surge and improved by those trade-deadline additions. The Dodgers are playing .700 baseball, but the Cubs aren’t going to concede home-field advantage to the Nationals in the first round of the playoffs.      

“It’s going to be interesting to see how we match up against them now,” Maddon said. “The way this is trending right now, I’m looking at (it like) of course the Dodgers are out of reach, but I think everybody else is in play.” 

CubsTalk Podcast: The cost to get Chris Archer and how Brandon Morrow can fill an Andrew Miller-esque role

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AP

CubsTalk Podcast: The cost to get Chris Archer and how Brandon Morrow can fill an Andrew Miller-esque role

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - Tony Andracki and Kelly Crull break down where Brandon Morrow and Drew Smyly fit in the Cubs' pitching plans while Kyle Schwarber craziness reaches new heights.

Peter Gammons and Bob Nightengale weigh Schwarber’s trade value and how likely it may be that the Cubs could secure a Chris Archer, Gerrit Cole or Michael Fulmer this winter. Nightengale also explains how Brandon Morrow could fill an Andrew Miller-esque role for the Cubs.

Plus, Cubs manager Joe Maddon stops by the CubsTalk Podcast to chat with Kelly about his offseason gameplan and why he’s still such a staunch believer in rest even when away from baseball.

Listen to the entire podcast here:

Where Brandon Morrow and Drew Smyly fit in Cubs pitching plans for 2018 and beyond

Where Brandon Morrow and Drew Smyly fit in Cubs pitching plans for 2018 and beyond

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Brandon Morrow is officially official as a member of the Cubs pitching staff (finally), and the team also added another intriguing arm Tuesday night at the Winter Meetings.

The Cubs announced a two-year deal for Morrow with a club/vesting option for 2020. They also signed left-handed pitcher Drew Smyly on a two-year deal worth a reported $10 million, though the 28-year-old pitcher had Tommy John in June and likely won't contribute much in 2018.

The Cubs are looking toward the future with Smyly as a possible 2019 rotation piece. If he's able to return at all in 2018, it will probably only be as a bullpen option.

"This is a move that’s focused on 2019," Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said Tuesday night. "Really good high-quality starting pitcher, and we’re excited to get him on this deal, rehab him and hopefully get him back to exactly where he was.”

Smyly did not pitch at all in 2017 and was non-tendered by the Seattle Mariners on Dec. 1. He made 30 starts for the Tampa Bay Rays (and new Cubs pitching coach Jim Hickey) in 2016, going 7-12 with a 4.88 ERA. Joe Maddon also managed Smyly for a couple months at the end of the 2014 season.

“Both [Hickey and Maddon] liked him a lot," Hoyer said. "We talked to Jim about him, thinks really highly of him, says he’s exceptionally deceptive with how he pitches.

"Both his fastball and his curveball are really deceptive, good cutter and loves how he competes. So Jim was a big part of us wanting to do this.”

Smyly was one of the pieces that went from the Detroit Tigers to the Rays for David Price at the trade deadline in 2014. In his first 19 starts with the Rays between 2014 and 2015, Smyly went 8-3 with a 2.52 ERA and 121 strikeouts in 114.1 innings.

With Smyly not expected to impact 2018's rotation, the Cubs might still be in the market for another starting pitcher this winter, or they might choose to honor Mike Montgomery's wishes and insert him into the rotation full-time (and subsequently look for a potential swingman for the bullpen and rotation depth).

It'd be hard to just hand Smyly a spot in the 2019 Cubs rotation, but the Cubs committing somewhere in the neighborhood of $10 million on a two-year deal indicates they're serious about his long-term potential. Plus, he won't turn 30 until June 2019.

The Cubs also have their other four starters — Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood — all signed through the 2020 season, so either they won't be in hard on long-term free-agent signings like Alex Cobb or would just stockpile pitching and sort out any possible six-man rotation issues a year from now.

As of right now, Morrow would serve as the Cubs' closer, but they're still in the market for impact relief pitching and are open to anything. Morrow is also a guy that could slot in as a setup man or high-leverage guy coming in at the most opportune time in the game, even if that means the fifth or sixth inning.

“Did an awesome job in the eighth inning last year for the Dodgers," Hoyer said. "We’re excited to have him. He’s going to pitch super high-leverage innings. If the season started tomorrow and we played a game, he’d be our closer.”