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:

Theo Epstein: Joe Maddon has taken enough heat, don’t blame NLCS on Cubs manager

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USA TODAY

Theo Epstein: Joe Maddon has taken enough heat, don’t blame NLCS on Cubs manager

The second-guessing of Joe Maddon jumped the shark when someone questioned why the manager didn’t pinch-hit for Kyle Hendricks – with two outs in the fourth inning of a 2-1 game the Cubs would lose by five runs to a Los Angeles Dodgers team at 110 wins and counting this year.

Maddon makes himself a target when he shows up to a Dodger Stadium press conference in a hipster jean jacket, gets ejected from two of the first four National League Championship Series games, likens the Buster Posey Rule to the Chicago soda tax, lectures the media about the dangers of dry-humping and threatens to “come running out of the clubhouse in my jockstrap” if Curtis Granderson hits a disputed home run instead of swinging at strike four.

You won’t have Maddon to kick around anymore, because Thursday night’s ugly 11-1 Game 5 loss ended the 2017 season and turned out the lights at Wrigley Field, the Dodgers advancing to their first World Series since 1988 and looking a lot like the 2016 Cubs.

“It’s not Joe Maddon against Dave Roberts,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said. “It’s the Cubs against the Dodgers. And the Dodgers have played extraordinarily well this postseason. We’ve played with a ton of heart and character, but we haven’t played our best baseball.”

Why would a manager even need a jockstrap, anyway? “That was just hyperbole on my part,” Maddon said. “Everybody’s so literal. It’s baseball prose.”

The game is now dissected 140 characters at a time on Twitter, where there isn’t enough room and attention bandwidth to explain how: the Dodgers have merged their great tradition of scouting and player development with cutting-edge analytics and $200 million payrolls; beating the Washington Nationals in an epic elimination game drained the defending champs physically and emotionally; this lineup isn’t nearly as good as the one that won last year’s World Series; and trade-deadline nonfactor Justin Wilson created a huge hole in a Cubs bullpen without many good options right now.

“It’s not manager against manager,” Epstein said. “That stuff just gets under the microscope so much this time of year. It’s players performing. And when you get a lead in the series – and when you’ve got a bunch of relievers throwing well – you can make tactically aggressive decisions. Your strategies tend to work.

“When you’re in a tough spot late in the game – and you’re searching for consistency in the ‘pen – it just puts all managers in tough spots.”

Even Epstein has admitted that Maddon opened himself up to second-guessing for how he handled Aroldis Chapman and managed last year’s World Series Game 7.

We’ll never know what would have happened if Maddon summoned Wade Davis for the ninth inning in Game 2 instead of letting John Lackey face Justin Turner and then watching that three-run, walk-off homer at Dodger Stadium. We’re not quite sure if the All-Star closer really was close to full strength or just getting by with guts and intelligence. But it’s pretty obvious the better team won this NLCS.

Epstein definitely felt frustrated with the way Maddon’s team sleepwalked through a 43-45 first half. That could be a much bigger issue than any lineup choice or bullpen decision moving forward: Making sure Maddon’s positive message doesn’t get tuned out in the clubhouse and having the safeguards in place so that hands-off approach doesn’t waste a season for this extremely talented young core.

But Maddon has guided this franchise into the playoffs for three straight years – something no one else had done since Frank Chance in 1906-08 – and at a certain point all he can do is watch along with the rest of us.

“It’s not about front offices or managers,” Epstein said. “It’s about the players.”

Predicting the NLCS: Why Cubs will win Game 1 and take the series

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AP

Predicting the NLCS: Why Cubs will win Game 1 and take the series

Get ready for another sighting of the Cubs in the World Series.

After more than seven decades without one of baseball's most iconic franchises, the Fall Classic will once again feature Joe Maddon's team in 2017.

(Either that, or this column will look pretty funny 8 days from now, but hey, that's the nature - and fun - of predictions.)

What it boils down to simply is this: Would you want to bet against the Cubs? I mean, seriously.

The baseball gods clearly seem on their side lately, as the Cubs have caught several breaks from that fifth inning against Max Scherzer to Jose Lobaton's foot coming off the bag to Anthony Rizzo's bloop hit dropping, leading to his epic "RESPECT ME!" montage

And that's just this week.

The breaks keep coming for the Cubs, as they'll face the Los Angeles in an NLCS rematch without the Dodgers' best everyday player. 

Corey Seager's absence (back injury) is a huge loss for the Dodgers offense. The reigning NL Rookie of the Year and two-time All-Star hit .295 with an .854 OPS, 22 homers, 77 RBI and 85 runs. He did not record an extra-base hit in last year's NLCS against the Cubs, but did hit .286 with a .375 on-base percentage.

[RELATED - Cubs NLCS roster]

The whole idea of experience and "been there before" is overblown, but the Cubs keep proving it does count for something, rising above adversity and continuing to drive forward no matter how many punches they take.

"It's never easy, but experience is the best teacher in that," Jason Heyward said during the Cubs' celebration in the visiting locker room at Nationals Park early Friday morning. "You have to do it. You don't have a choice. Either you get over it, or you dwell on it and it sinks your ship.

"We know we can't do that. If you're gonna go down, go down turning the page. Go down competing, go down in that moment. Can't dwell on what happened before."

Heyward has been a steadying force in helping this Cubs team "turn the page" over the last two seasons. One of the lasting images of that epic Game 5 will be his reaction on the final out - taking a few steps, clutching his jersey and letting out a primal scream after four hours and 37 minutes of tortured nerves. 

And once again, the Cubs found a way to win a ridiculous, intense game. Because that's what they do.

"Two hundred 40 baseball games a year or whatever - our players grind through all year and our front office guys pull the all-nighters," president Theo Epstein said. "This is what it's all about.

"Now our guys are establishing that identity of finding a way to win this time of year. There's no better thing to be known for and they've earned it. I'm proud of them."

The 2017 Dodgers are essentially the 2016 Cubs: a team with World Series expectations from the outset, got out to an insane start, added an impact pitcher before the trade deadline (Yu Darvish - LA; Aroldis Chapman - 2016 Cubs) and won more than 100 games as the best team in baseball (104 - LA; 103 - 2016 Cubs).

But like the Cubs say, to be the best, they gotta beat the best. And the Dodgers are currently the best. 

Here's how the Cubs will line up against Kershaw in Game 1:

1. Jon Jay - RF
2. Kris Bryant - 3B
3. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
4. Willson Contreras - C
5. Albert Almora Jr. - CF
6. Addison Russell - SS
7. Kyle Schwarber - LF
8. Javy Baez - 2B
9. Jose Quintana - P

The lineup looks exactly like how the Cubs lined up against lefty Gio Gonzalez in Game 5 of the NLDS...save for one major difference: Kyle Schwarber.

Schwarber has never faced Kershaw, but there's reason to be optimistic. Schwarber made great contact (114 mph exit velocity) off a lefty in his long pinch-hit appearance in Game 5, just missing a home run by a matter of a few feet.

Kershaw is also actually tougher on righties than lefties, which is surprising for a southpaw. Lefties are hitting .248 with a .734 OPS against him, homering once every 19 at-bats. Righties are hitting only .203 with a .570 OPS and homering once every 42.42 at-bats.

Maddon is hoping Schwarber can give the Cubs a run or two with his bat early, and then look for Heyward to come into the game for defense with Jay switching over to left field.

As for Ben Zobrist's absence in the lineup, beyond Kershaw's reverse splits, Maddon also pointed to Zobrist's ineffectiveness from the right side this season - he's slashing just .179/.261/.292 (.553 OPS) and hit just one homer all year. Zobrist hasn't looked right from that side since an awkward swing hurt his wrist in the middle of the season.

Prediction

Cubs win Game 1 and take the series in six games again. 

Let's start with Game 1: The Cubs already had the tough task of trying to beat the best pitcher in the game (Kershaw) and now will have to do that after a whirlwind week that included a detour on the way from D.C. to L.A. They're exhausted - physically and mentally - while the Dodgers have had almost the entire last week off.

So of course the Cubs are going to win Saturday night. Why? Because it's baseball and it's impossible to predict, so narratives are thrown out the window all the time.

Watch the Cubs follow the 2016 script - ride high off an epic win in the NLDS, take the first game from the Dodgers and then feature a lull in the middle few games before roaring back and taking the series.

But this Dodgers team is quite a bit different than last year's NLCS runner-up. 

Cody Bellinger is a legit star in the middle of that order and the clear NL Rookie of the Year. And the Dodgers rotation is healthier than it was at this time a year ago, plus the addition of Darvish.

Albert Almora Jr. should be in for a big opportunity in this series, likely starting three of the first four games against the southpaws. Almora has elevated his play and given the Cubs a big boost in the latter part of the season, including a big hit in Game 3 of the NLDS and a pair of quality plate appearances in Game 5 off Gio Gonzalez.

But Almora isn't my pick for NLCS MVP. Instead, I'm betting on one of the Cubs' middle infielders, with Addison Russell continuing his clutch ways while Javy Baez (the co-NLCS MVP last fall) is due for an offensive breakout after going 0-for-14 in the NLDS.

In fact, the entire Cubs offense is due for a breakout after the NLDS, so even though the Dodgers pitching is elite, look for the bats to wake up after pushing across runs in so many different ways Thursday night.

"We gotta play a really clean game," Epstein said. "But we always hit eventually. We got through the series and we didn't always get the big hit. I think that bodes well. We're gonna hit. We got too many talented hitters. 

"I think we'll raise our game. This time of year, it's about finding a way to win. That's what it's all about."