Cubs

Jake Arrieta and a Cubs playoff rotation look a little shaky as clinch party waits another day

Jake Arrieta and a Cubs playoff rotation look a little shaky as clinch party waits another day

ST. LOUIS – “Woof,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said when asked how comfortable he feels about this rotation heading into the playoffs compared to last year’s World Series group. “Let’s (see) Jonny Lester getting back to normalcy and that Jake (Arrieta) is well.”

Popping champagne bottles and toasting another National League Central title is still only a matter of time. But what are the Cubs going to do once they get there and have to game plan for an explosive Washington Nationals lineup and match zeroes in a five-game series where Max Scherzer can start twice?

Not trying to be a buzzkill here, but Arrieta didn’t erase all the doubts after Tuesday night’s 8-7 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium, admitting that the right hamstring he strained on Labor Day is still not 100 percent and lingering as a potential glitch in his carefully wired mechanics.

“I’ve had to adjust a couple things in my delivery,” Arrieta said. “It’s still there a little bit. But I’m fine. I’m plenty healthy enough to go out there and compete and pitch at a high level. I just wasn’t able to do that tonight, unfortunately.”

Arrieta – whose transformation into a Cy Young Award winner really started the run of clinch parties in 2015 – couldn’t get it done this time. The magic number remained stuck at one with the Milwaukee Brewers closing out a 7-6 win over the Cincinnati Reds at Miller Park, where Arrieta looked sharp five days ago against a playoff contender in his first start in 18 days.  

Arrieta watched St. Louis leadoff guy/old college buddy Matt Carpenter launch his fifth pitch over the center-field wall. That first inning came unglued when Mike Freeman – a bench player starting at shortstop with Javier Baez resting his sore right knee and Addison Russell taking a scheduled day off – committed an error that led to two unearned runs.

As the Cardinals desperately try to stay alive for the second wild-card spot – now 2.5 games behind the Colorado Rockies with the Brewers still in front of them – Tommy Pham launched a 92-mph Arrieta pitch 426 feet into the second-deck, left-field seats in “Big Mac Land” for a two-run homer in the second inning.

Already capped by a conservative pitch count, Arrieta got pulled after 67 for a pinch-hitter in a bases-loaded situation in the fourth inning, a reality check before the Cubs can party in a visiting clubhouse covered in plastic.     

“I don’t have the drive that I do at 100 percent, but it’s still plenty enough to be effective,” Arrieta said. “The velocity’s really good tonight. Stuff’s not an issue.”

This comes at a time when Lester is searching for answers (4.79 ERA since the All-Star break) and trying to get into rhythm after spending two-plus weeks on the disabled list with left lat tightness/general shoulder fatigue. Maddon also sees Kyle Hendricks “throwing the ball as good as I’ve seen him” and Jose Quintana thriving amid the pennant-race pressure.   

But the playoff rotation could revolve around Arrieta, the NL pitcher of the month for August and perhaps the best pitcher on the free-agent market this winter. Before Game 1 in Washington, the Cubs are planning to start Arrieta in Game 162 on Sunday against the Reds in what could be his final start at Wrigley Field.

“You’re just trying to get to October,” Arrieta said. “And then the guys that we have can pitch in big games in October. They have done that for a long time. Regardless of what the regular-season stats are, we’ve got three, four-plus guys that can go out there and pitch really well in October. I think we’ve shown that in the past.

“But, yeah, we still got to get there. We need one more win. And we’ll figure that out after that.”

Cubs will be open for business as Theo Epstein weighs trading hitters for pitching

Cubs will be open for business as Theo Epstein weighs trading hitters for pitching

Theo Epstein answered questions from the Chicago media for more than an hour on Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field, but the most interesting part might have been what the Cubs president didn’t say, something along the lines of: These are our guys.

Or at least Epstein didn’t give the same full-throated endorsement of The Core that he delivered after engineering the Jose Quintana trade with the White Sox this summer, getting an All-Star pitcher without giving up anyone from the big-league roster.

Whether it’s the way the Los Angeles Dodgers dominated the Cubs throughout the National League Championship Series that ended Thursday night, the inconsistencies and frustrations during a 43-45 first half of this season or the reality of losing 40 percent of the rotation, you walked out of that stadium club press conference thinking big changes could be coming.

“We’re going to pursue all avenues to get better,” Epstein said.

The Cubs already understood this would be a challenging time to dramatically reshape their pitching staff, with Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta, Big Boy John Lackey and All-Star closer Wade Davis about to become free agents.

The Cubs don’t really have many (any?) high-end, headliner prospects left to trade after borrowing heavily from their farm system to acquire Aroldis Chapman for last year’s World Series run and get Quintana to help solidify the rotation through 2020.

All of Major League Baseball is looking beyond this winter and preparing for the monster free-agent class that will hit the open market after the 2018 season.

Meaning it’s time for the Cubs to make some difficult decisions about all these young hitters they’ve collected.

“It may or may not be,” Epstein said. “Those choices, they’re not unilateral things. You can’t sit there and decide: ‘Hey, this guy, we’re moving him.’ Because you don’t know what the return might be. You don’t know how the different moving parts might fit together.

“I think going into the offseason prepared to make some tough choices and execute on them — and keeping an open mind to anything — is appropriate under the circumstances where we have some obvious deficits and we have some real surplus with talented players who are really desirable.”

Let’s assume All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo, MVP third baseman Kris Bryant and catcher Willson Contreras are essentially untouchable.

The Cubs used the ninth overall pick in the 2015 draft on Ian Happ with the explicit idea that the college hitter should be on a fast track and could be flipped for pitching later: Is it time to sell high after the rookie just put up 24 homers and an .842 OPS?

During an exit meeting with Albert Almora Jr., Epstein said he couldn’t promise an everyday job in 2018, though the expectation would be more responsibilities: Think anyone else would be interested in a potential Gold Glove center fielder who’s already playoff-tested?

Do you want Addison Russell or Javier Baez as your everyday shortstop for the next four years? Is there an American League team willing to bet big that Kyle Schwarber will crush 40 homers a year as a designated hitter?

The Cubs have to ask themselves those types of questions, which could mean getting outside of their comfort zone and taking on some riskier pitching investments and sapping the strength that has turned them into the dominant force in the NL Central.

“We’ve really benefitted from having two or three extra — and ‘extra’ in quotes because they’re not really extra — starting-caliber players on the roster,” Epstein said. “That helped us win 97 games in ’15, 103 last year, 92 this year. That’s as big a part of the club as anything.

“Having an Addison Russell go down and being able to move Javy Baez to shortstop — that’s an obvious example of it. But those things show up every week for us. There’s a day where someone can’t make the lineup and someone else slides in and you’re still starting eight quality guys. That’s huge.

“Sooner or later, you reach a point where you have to strongly consider sacrificing some of that depth to address needs elsewhere on the club. There’s no sort of deadline to do that. But I think we’re entering the phase where we have to be really open-minded to that if it makes the overall outlook of the team and organization better.”

Translation: The Cubs are open for business. Make your best offer.

Cubs Talk Podcast: 2017 season obituary and previewing an interesting winter for Cubs

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: 2017 season obituary and previewing an interesting winter for Cubs

In the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Kelly Crull, Patrick Mooney and Tony Andracki close the book on the 2017 season following Theo Epstein’s press conference, looking back at what will go down as the craziest calendar year in Cubs history from last November through the team’s loss in the NLCS this October.

Moving forward, where do guys like Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr., Justin Wilson and Mike Montgomery fit? Will the Cubs re-sign Wade Davis or go after another proven closer? And how worried should fans be about the offense that completely disappeared in the postseason?

Take a listen below: