Cubs

How Joe Maddon plans to deploy Wade Davis as Cubs push toward playoffs

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USA TODAY

How Joe Maddon plans to deploy Wade Davis as Cubs push toward playoffs

PITTSBURGH – The delicate business relationship between the Cubs and Aroldis Chapman involved the superstar closer’s off-the-field baggage; rocky introduction to Chicago; language barrier; personal assistant becoming an intermediary with the coaching staff; looming free agency; and a preference to pitch one clean inning at a time.

It worked out in the end, with Chapman getting a championship ring and a record-setting, five-year, $86 million deal with the New York Yankees – after throwing 97 pitches combined in Games 5, 6 and 7 of the World Series.

But where manager Joe Maddon once viewed Chapman’s 100-mph fastball as a shiny new toy, the manager has been more cautious with Wade Davis, the All-Star closer who has gone 29-for-29 in save chances so far in a Cubs uniform/during his free-agent season.

Don’t look for Maddon to push the accelerator now and start using Davis for four-out saves, even as the Cubs begin a stretch on Friday at Wrigley Field where they will play the Milwaukee Brewers or St. Louis Cardinals 14 times in 19 games and can end the National League Central race.

“I’m still not ready to do that yet,” Maddon said before Thursday’s 8-2 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park. “If we get to that point, I would talk to him about it. I can’t tell you that he’s a bad candidate (for it). It’s just based on (how) normally guys that are able to do that are more pitch-efficient.

“Four outs costing you 30, 35 pitches – sometimes you run into trouble in that 30th to 35th pitch. Even at 25-plus, I’m always up against it about bad things happening for a short relief pitcher.

“So, listen, I would not run away from it. But I don’t think it’s time yet. And if we were going to do it, I would talk to him about it in advance.”

Would the Davis rules change in October?

“I don’t want to assume anything until I talk to him,” Maddon said.

Maybe the Cubs have learned from their miscommunications with Chapman and the World Series fallout. Theo Epstein’s front office purposely built a bigger and better bullpen after a championship team played into early November. Maddon has also known Davis since he came up as a starter with the Tampa Bay Rays.

Davis – who’s 4-0 with a 0.84 ERA and 46 strikeouts in 23 career postseason appearances – worked multiple innings six times during the playoffs as the Kansas City Royals won back-to-back American League pennants in 2014 and 2015.

“I’ve always gotten stronger later in the year and deeper into the season,” said Davis, who notched the final out in the 2015 World Series. “So hopefully that trend keeps going.”

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.

Jake Arrieta shaved his beard again and he keeps looking younger

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USA TODAY

Jake Arrieta shaved his beard again and he keeps looking younger

It's become a tradition that Jake Arrieta shaves his beard after the season ends.

The 31-year-old did it again days after the Cubs were eliminated from the 2017 postseason, and it's still a sight we'll never be used to seeing.

Check it out:

Weird, right?

Here's how he looked following the Cubs' World Series win in 2016:

And again in 2015:

It's crazy how much younger he looks.