Daniel Murphy

Cubs release NLDS roster and yes, John Lackey is on it along with another surprise

john_lackey_cubs_nlds_roster_slide.jpg
USA TODAY

Cubs release NLDS roster and yes, John Lackey is on it along with another surprise

John Lackey may still have another game in "The Show" before he rides off into the sunset.

The enigmatic veteran pitcher is active for the National League Division Series as the Cubs released the roster Friday morning.

Lackey is not a part of the Cubs' four-man rotation, but will be in the bullpen to face the Washington Nationals. The 38-year-old last appeared out of a postseason bullpen in 2013 with the Boston Red Sox, facing the St. Louis Cardinals twice as a starter in the World Series and once as a reliever.

The Cubs brought Lackey in as a reliever in the final game of the regular season Sunday against the Reds. He gave up a run and was saddled with a loss, but at least he got some experience heading into the postseason. Prior to that, his last regular-season relief appearance came in 2004.

Lackey was the choice over Hector Rondon in the bullpen, a surprising move given Rondon's impact as a high-leverage reliever in the Cubs bullpen over the last few years: He has a 2.87 ERA and 1.06 WHIP in 251 games since the start of the 2014 season, saving 77 games in the process. He was on the mound when the Cubs clinched the 2015 NLDS over the St. Louis Cardinals at Wrigley Field.

Rondon fell out of favor in Maddon's bullpen last fall when he was injured with a triceps issue and was hardly used in the postseason and ineffective when he did get into the game (3 ER in 6 IP). 

The 29-year-old right-hander also missed two weeks in September with an elbow issue, though when he returned, Rondon was still throwing in the upper 90s and only allowed one baserunner in 3.1 innings from Sept. 22-29.

[MORE: Rahm Emanuel hoping to hang on to his sausage after Cubs-Nats NLDS

As for the rest of the roster, the Cubs opted for only seven relievers and 14 position players, adding Leonys Martin to a crowded outfield.

Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and the Cubs coaching staff met during the week to finalize the roster.

Here's the breakdown:

CATCHERS

Willson Contreras
Alex Avila

No surprises here. Contreras figures to play every single postseason game if healthy, filling the cleanup spot in the Cubs order behind Anthony Rizzo and also attempt to shut down the opposition's running game with his elite arm.

Avila still provides fantastic depth at a crucial position, even if he may not draw a start this October. He also supplies Joe Maddon with another valuable left-handed bat off the bench.

INFIELDERS

Anthony Rizzo
Kris Bryant
Javy Baez
Addison Russell
Tommy La Stella

Rizzo and Bryant will start at the corners while Russell and Baez figure to man the middle infield for a second straight October. La Stella will likely be the first bat off the bench against right-handed pitching.

OUTFIELDERS

Jason Heyward
Jon Jay
Ben Zobrist
Kyle Schwarber
Albert Almora Jr.
Ian Happ
Leonys Martin

Maddon will have plenty of decisions to make in the outfield, trying to find playing time for all six guys, assuming Zobrist and Happ don't see any time at second base.

Martin is on the roster as the 25th guy — an elite defender who will be available to play any of the three outfield positions late in close games as well as provide a speedy pinch-runner if Maddon chooses to employ him in that capacity. Martin was credited with 8 Defensive Runs Saved in 2017, despite playing just 299.2 innings. By comparison, Heyward - one of the best defensive outfielders in the game - was credited with 18 DRS in 1008.1 innings.

Case in point:

STARTING PITCHERS

Kyle Hendricks
Jon Lester
Jose Quintana
Jake Arrieta

The Cubs rotation has been known for a couple days. The Professor gets Game 1 with Lester going Game 2 Saturday, Quintana Game 3 and if the series makes it that far - Arrieta in Game 4.

RELIEVERS

Wade Davis
Carl Edwards Jr.
Brian Duensing
Pedro Strop
Mike Montgomery
Justin Wilson
John Lackey

The Cubs bullpen has struggled in the second half, posting a 4.48 ERA since the All-Star Break, good for 18th in the big leagues. Only the Houston Astros (4.49 ERA) have a worse mark among MLB playoff teams. 

The decision to keep Lackey made too much sense as soon as he wrapped his head around a possible relief role after stating earlier in the season he would never go to the bullpen. He provides another long option for Maddon if anything happens to a starter early in a game due to injury or ineffectiveness. Lackey and Montgomery could each eat multiple innings at any point for the Cubs.

Beyond that, Wilson also makes sense as another southpaw to possibly come in and face one batter in a crucial spot like Bryce Harper or Daniel Murphy. Wilson has struggled since the Cubs traded for him just before the deadline, but he's been in the postseason before and was a dominant reliever for years before August. He may not be in Maddon's circle of trust, but he still could be a weapon this October.

Lackey's presence on the roster ensured Justin Grimm and Rondon would not have a spot for at least one postseason series. Grimm struggled all season (5.53 ERA) and it became obvious Lackey would be active for the NLDS as the regular season wound down. But the decision to keep Rondon off the roster and put Martin on as the 25th man is curious and may mean the Cubs have some question marks still surrounding Rondon's health.

It's still hard to see Lackey called upon to enter the game in a "dirty" inning with runners on base, something he's not used to at all. Though Lester has no issues with the three-time World Series champ in October:

"I've seen Lack come out of the bullpen and get a hold in a World Series game before.," Lester said. "That's one person I'm not worried about."

Joe Maddon speaks for Cubs fans when it comes to Daniel Murphy

Joe Maddon speaks for Cubs fans when it comes to Daniel Murphy

Daniel Murphy's name will always elicit groans from Cubs fans.

It doesn't matter that the Cubs won it all in 2016. Murphy's dominance over the North Siders in the 2015 National League Championship Series will serve as a black mark in the franchise's history. 

Forget the fact that the Cubs hit just .164 with a .522 OPS against the New York Mets in the four games.

It was Murphy's performance — four homers, nine hits, 1.850 OPS — that sticks in the crawl of the fanbase, to the point where he still gets booed when he visits Wrigley Field.

Murphy will once again meet the Cubs in October, hitting in the middle of a relentless Washington Nationals lineup.

Joe Maddon spoke for every Cubs fan when he was asked about Murphy Wednesday.

"I still wish he was a Met," Maddon chuckled. "There's no question, I do. He was so good a couple years ago. He's still very good. He's outstanding. He has really reinvented himself during the middle of his career. He's one of the more dangerous hitters playing baseball right now."

Murphy — who signed a three-year, $37.5 million deal with Washington after the Mets lost to the Kansas City Royals in the 2015 World Series — didn't homer last fall, but he did hit .438 and drive in six runs in the Nationals' five-game NLDS loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Jon Lester will be tasked with slowing down Murphy and the Nationals lineup Saturday in Game 2 and the Cubs veteran southpaw said he believes the team has done better against Murphy lately.

While he's technically right, it's only because Murphy's 2015 NLCS numbers were so out-of-this-world.

In 2017, Murphy hit .360 with a 1.229 OPS in seven games against Cubs pitching, hitting three homers, driving in four runs and scoring nine. 

Lester and Co. had better luck in 2016, when Murphy hit *only* .286 with a .726 OPS and did not homer in seven games against the Cubs.

"What makes him even more dangerous now is the guys around him," Lester said. "You think, 'Hey, I don't wanna pitch to [Bryce] Harper and this guy' and then all of a sudden, you got first and second or second and third with him up.

"And he's such a good contact hitter that it makes it hard to strike him out and it makes it harder to get those weak ground balls. 

"...That'll be fun to face that lineup. It's a good lineup. He flat-out beat us in '15. Hopefully that's not the case this go-around."

Cubs vs. Nationals: Joe Maddon’s ‘Godfather’ urban legend about Mike Rizzo

mrizzo.jpg
USA TODAY

Cubs vs. Nationals: Joe Maddon’s ‘Godfather’ urban legend about Mike Rizzo

Washington Nationals baseball boss Mike Rizzo grew up on Waveland Avenue and built a perennial playoff team in that image through old-school scouting more than sabermetrics, valuing guts and competitive nature and how those strong personalities would work together within a clubhouse.   

This is the family business. The son of a longtime scout, Rizzo keeps his father, Phil, around as a senior advisor who still takes in games at Wrigley Field, tracks potential postseason opponents and watches prospects in the Arizona Fall League.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon wasn’t surprised when Rizzo made the Oakland A’s and Minnesota Twins offers they couldn’t refuse, completely rebuilding the shaky Washington bullpen on the fly this summer by acquiring Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler.

“Rizz and I go way back,” said Maddon, who managed the Class-A infielder in 1982 in Salem, Oregon, where the California Angels had a branch of their farm system. “There was also a really good urban legend about a player that was no longer heard from after Rizzo had been released in spring training. The guy that was chosen in front of him was no longer to be found right after that.”

That Godfather-style line drew laughter from the reporters gathered in the Wrigley Field interview room before Wednesday’s workout, Maddon just warming up for the national media he will love to see this October.

“So the next day, Rizzo was reinstated,” Maddon said. “So we’re trying to find him. If anybody knows where Dave Govea is living right now, please let us know.”

After years of shrewd draft picks (Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon), trades (Gio Gonzalez, Trea Turner) and free-agent signings (Max Scherzer, Daniel Murphy), Rizzo’s bullpen moves fixed the one glaring weakness for a 97-win team that heads into a best-of-five National League Division Series against the defending World Series champs on Friday night at Nationals Park.

[MORE: Jon Lester won't concede anything: 'We should win the World Series'  

Another lasting image of Rizzo, a University of Illinois graduate who signed future Hall of Famer Frank Thomas for the White Sox:

“Rizz started a tremendous fight that we had vs. the Bend, Oregon Phillies,” Maddon said. “A play at the plate ended up against the backstop, Rizz was right in the middle of the whole thing. That’s who he was. He was a gritty player.”