Joe Maddon ended the World Series drought that lasted more than a century, made a dream come true for generations of Cubs fans and cemented his own Hall of Fame status – and still got hammered for the way he managed his bullpen last October into early November.
Think Maddon is pumped and already running through ways to deploy Justin Wilson and maximize the Cubs bullpen?
Maddon could never put up a “Help Wanted” sign in the dugout and send that negative message to the clubhouse. But during his media sessions over the weekend, the manager clearly laid out the reasons why Theo Epstein’s front office should add a big-time reliever before Monday’s 3 p.m. trade deadline in Chicago.
Alex Avila is the bonus from that deal with the Detroit Tigers: A respected veteran catcher with some left-handed pop (11 homers, .869 OPS this season) who can help prevent Willson Contreras from breaking down.
“Both of them add a lot of veteran presence to our already existing good group,” Maddon said at his charity golf event at Bryn Mawr Country Club in Lincolnwood. “This time of the year, when you add people like that – and the players in the clubhouse know that it’s going to make you better – it makes the vibe even greater than.”
As good as the bullpen has been so far this season – ranking second in the National League in ERA (3.34), batting average against (.212) and opponents’ OPS (.652) – the Cubs don’t have the same express lane to the postseason that they did last year.
That is when every moment is magnified and trusted relievers become even more valuable. Wilson notched 13 saves for the Tigers this year, putting up a 2.68 ERA and a 0.94 WHIP with 55 strikeouts in 40-plus innings, giving Maddon another option in front of All-Star closer Wade Davis.
This is Maddon’s ideal of neutrality, someone who can get out right-handed (.131 batting average) and left-handed hitters (.220) and has already made four playoff appearances with the Pittsburgh Pirates and New York Yankees.
“I’ve seen Wilson pitch in the American League – I’ve always liked his stuff. How could you not?” Maddon said. “When you get another guy like Justin, what it permits you to do is rotate the stock a little bit and not burn anybody out.”
To keep riding that momentum from a 13-3 run since the All-Star break, Maddon knows he will beat up the bullpen. Pedro Strop (46) and Carl Edwards Jr. (46) are already top-25 NL relievers in terms of appearances. Koji Uehara is 42 years old and has given up three homers in his last six appearances after allowing only one through his first 29.2 innings this season.
By this October, will Strop and Hector Rondon be in or out of Maddon’s circle of trust? Wilson will also become another left-handed look to go with Brian Duensing (2.47 ERA, 49 strikeouts, 10 walks in 43.2 innings) and Mike Montgomery (who got the last out in last year’s World Series).
“If you have multiple late-inning, high-leverage kind of dudes at the end of the game, then you don’t burn anybody’s candle out,” Maddon said. “You can’t do that, because we still have a couple months left – and then you have the postseason to follow – so you want to be careful with your guys.”
Wilson and Avila will arrive at Wrigley Field just in time for a six-game homestand that begins Tuesday night against two potential playoff opponents – the Arizona Diamondbacks and Washington Nationals – for a team that isn’t messing around and wants to win another World Series.
“We do enjoy this moment at this time of the year,” Maddon said. “I’ve said it a thousand times that situations like this should bring out the best in everybody – players, coaches, managers, organizations. I know our guys are going to love it.”