Cubs

Joe Maddon explains bullpen decisions after another late meltdown by Cubs

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USA TODAY

Joe Maddon explains bullpen decisions after another late meltdown by Cubs

The Cubs may be currently embarking on an "Easy Rider" themed road trip, but it certainly has not been an easy ride for Joe Maddon lately.

The Cubs bullpen melted down again Sunday, sending the team out to the West Coast after a 2-4 homestand against NL contenders in the Diamondbacks and Nationals.

Carl Edwards Jr. had a particularly rough stay at Wrigley, allowing six runs while recording only five outs over three appearances.

The biggest blow came Sunday afternoon when Edwards entered with the Cubs up one, Bryce Harper on first and one out. Edwards proceeded to give up a double to Ryan Zimmerman, intentionally walked Daniel Murphy and hit Anthony Rendon to force home a run.

Matt Wieters then stepped to the plate and deposited Edwards' offering into the bushes in center field and just like that, the Cubs were staring up at an 8-4 deficit.

"CJ right there, I liked him on those two guys," Maddon said. "We just gotta get him back to being normal because he's a really big part of our success.

"...We had another bad eighth inning, which we gotta get away from that. Even though we did not play well prior to that, we still did have the lead, we had the right guys on the mound and it just did not play out."

Maddon spent a lot of time this weekend talking about his bullpen arms, particularly Edwards. Managing his relievers takes up most of his daily focus, Maddon has said before and Sunday was part of the reason why with closer Wade Davis down after throwing 30 pitches in a rocky save Saturday.

Hector Rondon would've been the Cubs closer Sunday had the game gotten to that point.

Maddon wants his relievers to get better at throwing strikes and getting ahead in the count.

On the six-game homestand, Cubs relievers walked 12 batters in 19.1 innings. They also gave up 14 runs (12 earned) in that span, good for a 5.59 ERA.

Maddon believes Edwards is trying too hard to guide the baseball right now instead of letting it go. The dynamic 25-year-old reliever came into the day allowing only 3.9 hits per nine innings. Opponents were hitting .132 off him, the lowest mark off any big-league reliever with at least 40 innings.

But Edwards has also walked 30 batters in 44.2 innings this season.

"It looks like he's kinda battling himself a little bit," said Sunday's starter Jon Lester. "This game is all built around confidence. He may be doubting himself a little bit right now. Nobody in that clubhouse is doubting him in that role or anything else. Obviously, our manager and our team is right behind him, otherwise we wouldn't keep running him out there.

"He's the guy in the right situation and he'll get back to being himself. It's just a matter of pitching. Especially as a reliever, it kinda gets magnified, because you come in in dirty innings and wheels can start spinning a little bit and it can speed up on you. You can rush through some pitches.

"When he got the bases cleared, it was just kinda like back to old CJ. Just a matter of getting him out there, getting him pitching and getting that confidence back."

Maddon's goal Sunday was to use Edwards in a high-leverage spot and try to get that confidence built back up. Ideally, Mike Montgomery would've gotten Harper out, then Edwards comes in just for Zimmerman, gets him out and the Cubs head to the ninth with the lead intact.

When Harper reached, Maddon still envisioned a good scenario for Edwards, hoping the right-hander would get Zimmerman to roll over on one for a double play, allowing Edwards to walk off the mound feeling good about himself.

Of course, it didn't play out that way.

As for any other guys in that spot, Maddon was keeping Rondon back to close and Koji Uehara was up in the bullpen, but he's struggled to find consistency this season and Maddon also was protecting against the possibility of extra innings with a limited relief corps.

The end result is a pair of series losses to rival contenders, Maddon talking for six minutes about his bullpen decisions and the Cubs searching for answers.

"We can play with anybody, we just gotta finish it off," Maddon said. "We're still like the second ranked bullpen in the National League. We're still really good and our guys nailed it in the first half.

"For whatever reason, in the second half, our starters have come on and the bullpen guys have taken a little bit of a hit. But I like the names. They're not too tired - I think they're in good shape - we have really good matchups, we've added Justin Wilson to the mix. I like it.

"It's just one of those unfortunate moments today, but I wanna keep their confidence going. Like I said with a guy like CJ, get him in, get him out with some success and then eventually get back to who they are."

Why did Kris Bryant get a first-place vote in this year's National League MVP balloting?

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USA TODAY

Why did Kris Bryant get a first-place vote in this year's National League MVP balloting?

Kris Bryant was the 2016 National League MVP. And despite having what could be considered an even better campaign this past season, he finished seventh in voting for the 2017 edition of the award.

The NL MVP was awarded to Miami Marlins outfielder Giancarlo Stanton on Thursday night, a fine choice, though it was nearly impossible to make a poor choice, that's how many fantastic players there were hitting the baseball in the NL this season.

After Stanton, Cinicinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto finished second, earning the same amount of first-place votes and losing out to Stanton by just one point. Then came Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, Colorado Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado, Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon and Washington Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon ahead of Bryant.

But there was someone who thought Bryant deserved to repeat as the NL MVP. Yes, Bryant earned a first-place vote — as did everyone else mentioned besides Rendon, for that matter — causing a bit of a social-media stir considering the Cubs third baseman, despite his great season, perhaps wasn't as standout a candidate as some of the other guys who finished higher in the voting.

So the person who cast that first-place vote for Bryant, MLB.com's Mark Bowman, wrote up why he felt Bryant deserved to hoist the Kenesaw Mountain Landis Memorial Baseball Award for the second straight year.

"In the end, I chose Bryant because I believe he made the greatest impact, as his second-half production fueled the successful turnaround the Cubs experienced after the All-Star break," Bowman wrote.

"Though I don't believe the MVP must come from a playoff contender, in an attempt to differentiate the value provided by each of these three players (Bryant, Votto and Stanton), I chose to reward the impact made by Bryant, who produced the NL's fourth-best OPS (.968) after the All-Star break, when the Cubs distanced themselves from a sub-.500 record and produced an NL-best 49 wins."

It's easy for Cubs fans and observers to follow that logic, as the Cubs took off after the All-Star break following a disappointing first half. As good as Bryant was all season long, his second-half numbers, as Bowman pointed out, were especially great. He hit .325 with a .421 on-base percentage and a .548 slugging percentage over his final 69 games of the regular season, hitting 11 home runs, knocking out 21 doubles and driving in 35 runs during that span.

Perhaps the craziest thing about this year's MVP race and Bryant's place in it is that Bryant was just as good if not better than he was in 2016, when he was almost unanimously named the NL MVP. After slashing .292/.385/.554 with 39 homers, 102 RBIs, 35 doubles, 75 walks and 154 strikeouts in 2016, Bryant slashed .295/.409/.537 with 29 homers, 73 RBIs, 38 doubles, 95 walks and 128 strikeouts in 2017.

Of course, the competition was much steeper this time around. But Bryant was given the MVP award in 2016 playing for a 103-win Cubs team that was bursting with offensive firepower, getting great seasons from Anthony Rizzo (who finished third in 2016 NL MVP voting), as well as Dexter Fowler and Ben Zobrist. While the Cubs actually scored more runs this season and undoubtedly turned it on after the All-Star break on a team-wide basis, Bryant was far and away the best hitter on the team in 2017, with many other guys throughout the lineup having notably down years and/or experiencing down stretches throughout the season. Hence, making Bryant more, say it with me, valuable.

So Bowman's argument about Bryant's impact on the Cubs — a team that still scored 822 runs, won 92 games and advanced to the National League Championship Series — is a decently convincing one.

Check out Bowman's full explanation, which dives into some of Bryant's advanced stats.

Game on as Jake Arrieta, Wade Davis and Alex Cobb turn down qualifying offers

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AP

Game on as Jake Arrieta, Wade Davis and Alex Cobb turn down qualifying offers

During the middle of Jake Arrieta’s 2015 Cy Young Award campaign, super-agent Scott Boras compared the emerging Cubs pitcher to another client – Max Scherzer – in the first season of a seven-year, $210 million megadeal with the Washington Nationals.

Now don’t focus as much on the money – though that obviously matters – as when Scherzer arrived for that Washington press conference to put on his new Nationals jersey: Jan. 21, 2015.

It might take Boras a while to find a new home for his “big squirrel with a lot of nuts in his trees.” Teams have been gearing up for next winter’s monster Bryce Harper/Manny Machado free-agent class for years. Mystery surrounds Shohei Ohtani, Japan’s Babe Ruth, and the posting system with Nippon Professional Baseball. Major League Baseball’s competitive balance tax may also have a chilling effect this offseason.

As expected, Arrieta, All-Star closer Wade Davis and pitcher Alex Cobb were among the group of free agents who went 9-for-9 in declining the one-year, $17.4 million qualifying offer before Thursday’s deadline.

With that formality out of the way, if Arrieta and Davis sign elsewhere, the Cubs will receive two third-round picks in the 2018 draft.

By staying under the $195 million luxury-tax threshold this year, the Cubs would have to give up a second-round draft pick and $500,000 from their international bonus pool to sign Cobb, an obvious target given their connections to the Tampa Bay Rays, or Lance Lynn, another starter on their radar who turned down a qualifying offer from the St. Louis Cardinals.

That collectively bargained luxury-tax system became a central part of the Boras media show on Wednesday outside the Waldorf Astoria Orlando, where he introduced “Playoffville” as his new go-to analogy at the end of the general manager meetings.

“The team cutting payroll is treating their family where they’re staying in a neighborhood that has less protection for winning,” Boras said. “They’re not living in the gated community of Playoffville. Certainly, they’re saving a de minimis property tax, but the reality of it is there’s less firemen in the bullpen. There’s less financial analysts sitting in the press boxes.

“The rooms in the house are less, so obviously you’re going to have less franchise players. When you move to that 12-room home in Playoffville, they generally are filled with the people that allow you to really achieve what your family – your regional family – wants to achieve. And that is winning.”

Boras also represents four other players who rejected qualifying offers – J.D Martinez, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Greg Holland – another reason why this could be a long winter of Arrieta rumors, slow-playing negotiations and LOL metaphors.