Cubs

Five breakthroughs that pushed Cubs into playoff showdown against Nationals

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USA TODAY

Five breakthroughs that pushed Cubs into playoff showdown against Nationals

On Opening Night, Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred huddled with a small group of reporters on Busch Stadium’s service level, listening to questions about what the Cubs could do for the sport’s profile (think late-1990s New York Yankees), why their personalities connect with fans (like today’s Golden State Warriors) and how Theo Epstein ranked No. 1 on Fortune’s “World’s Greatest Leaders” list (or two spots ahead of Pope Francis).

“Well, listen, I’m a good Catholic,” Manfred said. “I’m not going to comment on that one. It is Lent and all that.”

Manfred projected new-year optimism on April 2, because the Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals would be on ESPN that Sunday night, and what he said then remains true now: “An iconic franchise with a great storyline is something special.”

Fast forward to October and the Cubs are still the defending World Series champs, heading into another made-for-TV matchup against the Washington Nationals after winning the National League Central by six games.

But the 2017 season didn’t at all feel like a coronation, the Cubs banging their heads against the .500 wall at 21 different points, suffering injuries up and down the roster and underachieving to a level where Epstein considered selling short-term assets like Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta and All-Star closer Wade Davis if the team didn’t immediately respond after the All-Star break.

So while 92 wins and a third straight playoff appearance may have seemed preordained six months ago, the Cubs needed breakthrough moments to get into the best-of-five battle that begins Friday at Nationals Park:

• Shocking the baseball world by pulling off the Jose Quintana trade with the White Sox became as much about stabilizing the 2018, 2019 and 2020 rotations as trying to save this season. But the Cubs accomplished both goals with that blockbuster deal, reenergizing a team that had been 43-45 at the All-Star break and 5.5 games behind the Milwaukee Brewers.

A low-key personality, Quintana still showed up at Camden Yards and immediately changed the clubhouse dynamics, dazzling the Cubs during his July 16 debut, an 8-0 win that became the exclamation point to a three-game sweep of the Baltimore Orioles. The consistent lefty handled the pennant-race pressure, going 7-3 with a 3.74 ERA in 14 starts after spending parts of six seasons on the South Side.

Quintana has never before pitched in the playoffs – or faced the Nationals – and will be counted on in future Octobers.

“Our guys were fired up about the trade, and they all came back really refreshed from the break,” Epstein said. “You could kind of see it in their eyes. It was just time to get going.”

• Deflecting questions about his diminished velocity, unconventional mechanics, postseason wear and tear and looming free agency, Arrieta rediscovered the kind of zone that made him the NL’s 2015 Cy Young Award winner. Arrieta’s strong July (3-1, 2.25 ERA) and lights-out August (4-1, 1.21 ERA) helped the Cubs enter September with a 3.5-game lead in the division.

Arrieta would always have an outsized influence on this season, because he’s already shown that he can carry a team and swing a playoff series, which makes his Grade 1 right hamstring strain such an X-factor against Washington.

“It’s almost like a new normal he’s trying to pitch with right now until he gets back to his old self,” manager Joe Maddon said. “It’s a tough injury. It’s one of those things that’s in the back of your mind all the time.

“It’s there because you know how much it hurts if you do it again. There’s that guarded approach to everything you’re doing, so you’re trying to go through your typical patterns. But in the back of your mind: ‘If I go too far, is it going to pull?’

“Nope, it didn’t pull. Then your next pitch, you go through that same mental routine. Until you get beyond it. It’s just one of those things you have to get beyond, so it’s going to take time.”

• Imagine where the Cubs would be if they had let Jorge Soler’s value completely crater and failed to close the Wade Davis trade with the Kansas City Royals at the winter meetings. Davis helped the Cubs stay afloat and find their finishing kick by converting his first 32 save chances, preventing even more negativity from seeping into the clubhouse. By importing veterans like Davis, outfielder Jon Jay and setup guy Koji Uehara, the Cubs stressed World Series experience, a sense of professionalism and never-panic attitudes.

“We have such a great vibe, and such a great culture in our clubhouse, that we’re so careful now on who we bring in, because we want to make sure that we continue that,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “When you look at the three major acquisitions this winter, all these guys have been part of championship teams. They understand what it takes to win.”

• Javy Being Javy: The Cubs actually gained ground in the standings while All-Star shortstop Addison Russell slowly recovered from a strained right foot and plantar fasciitis. Javier Baez started 41 of 42 games at shortstop between Aug. 3 and Sept. 16 and hit .282 with eight homers and 27 RBI during that stretch. Not that Baez lacked for confidence – this is someone who got the MLB logo tattooed onto the back of his neck as a teenager – but he is ready to build off last year’s breakout playoff performance.

“Without Javy being here when Addie got hurt, it would not look the same right now,” Maddon said. “I promise you it would not look the same. The ability to plug up the middle of the field the way Javy’s done in the absence of Addison – we would not be in this position right now. That’s it. Very simple.

“It’s so important to have a legitimate shortstop. We have two legitimate shortstops and they’re both (around) the same birth year. It’s very unusual to have that. The depth to us has been so invaluable.

“Give our front office – Theo and Jed – a lot of credit to have all the foresight to plan for those kinds of things. Without Javy, we would not have this many wins.”

• The Cubs were built to withstand the war of attrition across the 162-game schedule and outlast the smaller-market teams within their division.

Kyle Schwarber wound up with 30 home runs in a season marked by a failed leadoff experiment and a demotion to Triple-A Iowa. Ian Happ put up 24 home runs and an .842 OPS during his rookie season. Backup catcher Alex Avila was good enough to be a frontline guy for the Detroit Tigers teams that won four straight division titles between 2011 and 2014. Lefty swingman Mike Montgomery (7-8, 3.38 ERA in 130-plus innings) saved the bullpen and the rotation while lefty reliever Brian Duensing (2.74 ERA in 68 appearances) will also be in Maddon’s playoff circle of trust.

But beyond depth, there will be more than enough Bryzzo, big-game experience and premium talent on this playoff roster to beat a Nationals team that still has so much to prove in October.

“I think this year there have been long stretches where kind of everybody was pulling their hair out or searching a little bit,” Epstein said. “We’ve dealt with some things this year, but answered a lot of questions. There’s always a question: ‘Can you raise your level of play when it matters most?’ And I think our guys are proving that they can.”

Report: Cubs agree to deal with reliever Brandon Morrow

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USA TODAY

Report: Cubs agree to deal with reliever Brandon Morrow

The Cubs are making moves before the Winter Meetings even begin.

According to John Heyman the team has agreed to a deal with relief pitcher Brandon Morrow.

Morrow, 33, had a breakout campaign for the Dodgers in 2017, posting a 2.06 ERA in 43.2 innings for the Dodgers as the main set-up man to Kenley Jansen. He was solid in the postseason, logging a 3.95 ERA in 13,2 innings for the World Series-bound Dodgers.

New report suggests Cubs likely to pursue Rays All-Star pitchers Chris Archer and Alex Colome

New report suggests Cubs likely to pursue Rays All-Star pitchers Chris Archer and Alex Colome

The Cubs might be looking to bring a little bit of Florida sunshine to the North Side this winter.

Already rumored to be interested in signing free-agent pitcher Alex Cobb — something that might be a tad less likely after signing starting pitcher Tyler Chatwood a few days ago — a new report Saturday indicated the Cubs are likely to pursue a trade with Cobb's old team, the Tampa Bay Rays, in an attempt to secure the pitching services of Chris Archer and Alex Colome.

There's always been plenty of "what if" surrounding Archer and the Cubs, who dealt the right-hander away back in 2011 as part of the deal that brought Matt Garza to Chicago. Archer has been on plenty of fan wish lists over the years, too, as he's had a great run in his six big league seasons with the Rays, making a pair of All-Star appearances, posting a career 3.63 ERA and making at least 32 starts in each of the last four seasons.

Archer's numbers have been slightly less appealing in the past two years, a combined 4.05 ERA in 2016 and 2017 after turning in a combined 3.28 ERA in 2014 and 2015. But he's still just 29 years old and considered one of the game's better arms.

Colome, meanwhile, led baseball with 47 saves last season and has saved a combined 84 games over the past two campaigns. He was an All Star in 2016, and he finished that season with a pencil-thin 1.91 ERA.

Archer is under team control through 2021, while Colome is under team control through 2020.

Certainly the Cubs are in the market for another starting pitcher and a closer thanks to the free-agent departures of Jake Arrieta, John Lackey and Wade Davis. Losing Arrieta and Lackey put a significant hole in the starting rotation, though the signing of Chatwood filled one of those two open spots. The Cubs are shorter on options when it comes to a ninth-inning man. They've been connected to free-agent relievers Brandon Morrow and Brandon Kintzler this offseason, and there's the potential option of bringing Davis back on a new contract, one that figures to be expensive after he converted 32 of 33 save opportunities in 2017.

Archer and Colome would knock two huge items off Theo Epstein's offseason to-do list. But as Rogers mentioned, it will likely take a big-time return package to net a couple of All-Star pitchers. The Cubs' minor league system has been seriously depleted in recent years as many of the organization's biggest names have either reached the big leagues — helping the team to that curse-smashing World Series win in 2016 — or been traded away in midseason deals for Aroldis Chapman and Jose Quintana in the last two years. That means it'd likely take multiple guys on the major league roster to acquire Archer and/or Colome. The same names that have been speculated about this offseason would once more figure to come into play in this discussion: Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ. But perhaps Javier Baez and others would be needed to swing a deal like this, too.

Of course, the Cubs would figure to have tremendous scouting reports on Archer and Colome — and Cobb, for that matter — with not only Joe Maddon's history in St. Petersburg, but also with Jim Hickey now on Maddon's staff as the Cubs' new pitching coach. Hickey came to Chicago this offseason after 11 seasons with Tampa Bay.

It remains to be seen if anything comes of this at the Winter Meetings, which begin Monday in Florida, or later on this offseason. Certainly starting pitcher and closer are two areas of need for the Cubs, but they might not have the assets to pull off a trade of such magnitude.