Cubs

A diminished Max Scherzer could change the entire complexion of Cubs-Nationals

max_scherzer.jpg
AP

A diminished Max Scherzer could change the entire complexion of Cubs-Nationals

As the Cubs break down the Washington Nationals on video, synthesize their scouting reports and run through different scenarios for the playoff roster, this data point might loom larger than anything else: Max Scherzer landing awkwardly Saturday night, walking off the mound with a damaged right leg and getting a precautionary MRI.

By Sunday morning, Scherzer was telling Washington reporters that he had a hamstring “tweak” – not a “major strain” – without guaranteeing that he would be ready to face the Cubs five days later and start Game 1 of the National League Division Series at Nationals Park.

“That’s a definite, the ‘tweak,’ at it’s defined by the American Medical Association,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said before Game 162 at Wrigley Field. “I’m always curious about how we all try to play semantically with injuries. I have no idea what a ‘tweak’ is. A ‘tweak’ could be a sprain or a strain. I have no idea. But I love the word ‘tweak.’”

Maddon isn’t a doctor, but there are times where he has to play one on TV, trying to answer injury questions without a complete medical picture and without revealing too much information. The Cubs are already going through this with their own Cy Young Award winner.

Jake Arrieta hobbled off the field on Labor Day at PNC Park and downplayed the grabbing sensation in his right leg, hoping it might have just been cramping that knocked him out in the third inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Even after an MRI revealed a Grade 1 strain, Arrieta talked about getting back on the mound in a few days and missing only one or two starts.

Arrieta wound up going 17 days in between starts, having mixed results against the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals (six runs allowed, four earned, in eight innings combined) and getting scratched from Sunday’s start against the Cincinnati Reds.

The hope is the extra rest will help Arrieta – who came back at less than 100 percent – recover in time for a Game 3 or 4 against the Nationals. By waiting until Oct. 9-10,  he would get roughly two full weeks in between starts.

Scherzer made the point that he could still potentially start Games 2 and 5 if he needed an extra day of treatment. But a compromised Scherzer could change the entire complexion of this best-of-five series.

“Of course,” Maddon said. “We’re going to find that out. Obviously, absolutely, it can. Just like Jake. Having to push Jake back a little bit, same-same. Hammies are funny. We’ve talked about that.

“To the extent that he did it – if it was just a cramp – that’s something entirely different. You get over that. You just drink a lot of fluids – you’re fine. But if it was actually some kind of injury to it…it could be a Grade 2 tweak.”

Maddon again laughed at the “tweak” lines and knows enough about “Mad Max” after selecting him as the NL’s starting pitcher for the All-Star Game and interacting with him during this summer’s festivities in South Florida.

Even while abruptly leaving Saturday’s start against the Pirates in the fourth inning, Scherzer may have put the finishing touches on his third Cy Young Award campaign: 16-6, 2.51 ERA, 268 strikeouts in 200-plus innings.

“Mr. Scherzer is one of the best that I’ve ever seen,” Maddon said. “Regardless of whether you got your Grade-A lineup or not, when this guy’s on, it’s difficult. You have to pitch a little bit better than him, and that’s really going a long ways.”

Scherzer already beat the Cubs once this season – a 6-1 win on June 27 at Nationals Park – at a time when Arrieta (4.67 ERA) hadn’t found his second-half stride yet and injuries to Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward limited the lineup possibilities. An offense that would score 800-plus runs again wasn’t clicking on all cylinders, and the Cubs will draw from their unique playoff experiences last October into early November.   

“You just got to look for that edge in the game,” Maddon said. “Whatever you want to call it or describe it is the fact that you have the guys that are supposed to be out there, out there vs. him. And you’re playing in this situation that you’re somewhat used to and you’re confident. Those are the things that will work in our favor.

“But when this guy’s on, I don’t care who you’re throwing up there to the plate, this guy’s that good. (So) whenever you have a chance to score a run with an out, score a run with an out. Anything that occurs that permits you to take a little – and move the needle a little bit – you got to do it because he is that good.”

In latest twist to Cubs-Nationals, Dave Martinez will interview for Dusty Baker's old job

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AP

In latest twist to Cubs-Nationals, Dave Martinez will interview for Dusty Baker's old job

Dave Martinez – Joe Maddon’s bench coach during unprecedented runs of success with the Cubs and Tampa Bay Rays – is ready to step outside of the star manager’s shadow and run his own big-league team.

A Washington Nationals franchise coming off back-to-back division titles – while having some big personalities in the clubhouse and obvious internal issues – could still be that ideal opportunity.

The Nationals have reached out to set up an interview with Martinez, a source said Monday, confirming a Washington Post report in the wake of Dusty Baker’s messy exit, eight days after a massively disappointing playoff loss to the Cubs.

Martinez had been an X-factor in Washington’s search two years ago, when negotiations broke down with Bud Black and the Nationals eventually circled back to Baker, the former Cubs manager.

Martinez has the built-in credibility that comes from playing 16 seasons in the big leagues, which would be an asset for a team that has Bryce Harper entering his final season before free agency and Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg at the top of the rotation.    

Martinez, who is fluent in Spanish and analytics, spent the last 10 years working as the bench coach for two data-driven organizations, putting him at the cutting edge of defensive shifts, bullpen management and game-planning systems.    

While Maddon thrives in the front-facing aspects of the job, dealing with the media before and after every game and selling a vision to the public, Martinez handles a lot of the behind-the-scenes issues, putting out clubhouse fires and interacting with the players in one-on-one settings.

The partnership worked to the point where the Rays captured the 2008 American League pennant and the Cubs won last year’s World Series. While the Cubs have advanced to the National League Championship Series for three straight seasons, the Nationals have been knocked out of the first round of the playoffs four times since 2012.

In the middle of the grueling five-game playoff series where the Cubs outlasted the Nationals – which may have been a tipping point against Baker for Washington executives – Maddon lobbied for Martinez to be in the manager mix during baseball’s hiring-and-firing season.

“He belongs in the group,” Maddon said. “I know all these people being considered, and I promise you our guy matches up with every one of them.

“He was such a heady, aggressive, gritty kind of player. Bilingual. All that matters. He's not afraid to have the tough conversations (that) people in that position may shy away from.

“Believe me, I see all the names. There are a lot of good names, and I like a lot of these dudes. But I’m just telling you: To not include his name with those other people baffles me.”

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

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USA TODAY

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.