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.
“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.”