Cubs

5 takeaways from Game 1: Dodgers embrace the target, take aim at Cubs

5 takeaways from Game 1: Dodgers embrace the target, take aim at Cubs

LOS ANGELES – Embrace the Target: The Los Angeles Dodgers know this is a World Series-or-bust season after 104 wins, five straight division titles, a payroll soaring past $200 million and zero National League pennants since 1988.  

This looks close enough to the 2016 Cubs – adapted for Hollywood and without all the Wrigleyville quirks – that the 2017 Cubs will have to play a much sharper overall game in the NL Championship Series than they did against the Washington Nationals in the first round.

The Dodgers have so many counterpunches that knocking Clayton Kershaw out after five innings didn’t really matter in a 5-2 Game 1 loss on Saturday night at Dodger Stadium.

These Cubs also don’t seem to do anything easy or mind playing with their backs against the wall or in front of a sellout crowd of 54,289. With that in mind, here are four more takeaways from Chavez Ravine:

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This has been an emotional whirlwind for Jose Quintana, who wanted all the pressure and expectations that came with a contender after getting traded from the White Sox. Quintana got two outs as a reliever in Thursday night’s epic clincher in Washington, and enjoyed the celebration into Friday morning until his wife, Michel, experienced a panic attack, forcing the team’s charter flight to divert to Albuquerque, New Mexico.  

The Cubs waited until Saturday to officially announce their Game 1 starter (an otherwise obvious choice). Running on adrenaline, Quintana put up four scoreless innings but seemed to wear down in the fifth, giving up back-to-back walks to Logan Forsythe and Austin Barnes that set up two runs for Los Angeles in what would ultimately become a battle of the bullpens.  

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Wade Davis can’t get seven-out (or four-inning) saves every night. Second-guess manager Joe Maddon all you want, but there are not many good options here. Hector Rondon, who was snubbed from the last playoff roster and hadn’t pitched in a game since Sept. 29, gulped after watching Chris Taylor hammer his second pitch (a 97.3-mph fastball) into the right-center-field seats for the go-ahead home run in the sixth inning. Yasiel Puig homered off Mike Montgomery in the seventh inning, when the Cubs handed the ball to John Lackey, who has made two relief appearances in a big-league career that began in 2002. 

“We’re bullish on bullpens this time of the year,” Maddon said. “These guys are the reason we’re here in the first place. They had great seasons. So we all stub our toes on occasion. Nobody's perfect. Again, this is not a robotic game. This is not fantasy baseball. These are real people playing it. So for us (to) win eight more games, we have to utilize this entire group.”

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Albert Almora Jr. will never be intimidated by the big stage or a three-time Cy Young Award winner, launching Kershaw’s 3-2 slider into the left-field seats for a two-run homer in the fourth inning. Almora crushes left-handed pitching (.898 OPS this season) and that will matter with the Dodgers lining up Rich Hill and Alex Wood for Games 2 and 4 and Kershaw still looming.        

At the age of 23 and with several playoff moments already on his personal highlight reel, Almora is showing why the Cubs made him the first player drafted by the Theo Epstein regime, recognizing his fearlessness and baseball IQ after growing up in Miami, playing for Team USA and against elite competition year-round.  

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The Dodgers will not be quite the same team without Corey Seager, the All-Star shortstop they left off the NLCS roster while he recovers from a back injury. The Dodgers are built upon the depth and versatility that shows up more across a 162-game season, and Charlie Culberson is not a name to game-plan around during the playoffs. Seager also ranked third among all big-league shortstops with 10 defensive runs saved this season, the two-way excellence that made him last year’s unanimous NL Rookie of the Year.

Just ask Game 2 starter Jon Lester what Seager means to the Los Angeles lineup: “Probably like a ‘K.B.’ (Kris Bryant) or (Anthony) Rizzo.”

Cubs adding catching depth that may help them out in the Yu Darvish sweepstakes

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AP

Cubs adding catching depth that may help them out in the Yu Darvish sweepstakes

Chris Gimenez, come on down.

The 35-year-old catcher isn't exactly a household name, but he's been signed by the Cubs to add backstop depth, according to Chris Cotillo and Ken Rosenthal:

The Cubs didn't have much depth in the catching department beyond Willson Contreras and inexperienced rookie Victor Caratini and while Gimenez doesn't light up the stat column, he's a link to Yu Darvish that could give the Cubs a unique advantage in that domain:

Darvish and Gimenez played together with the Texas Rangers in 2014-15 (though Darvish was hurt in 2015) and Gimenez has been shedding some light on what the free-agent pitcher may be thinking this winter. Is this Part II of a David Ross-Jon Lester personal catcher situation?

That may be reading a bit too much into things, as the Cubs were always going to sign a veteran catcher to provide depth beyond the unproven Caratini. They saw how important that was in 2017 when Alex Avila spent roughly a month as the starter when Contreras was hurt.

The link between Gimenez and Darvish is real, but the frontline starter has also made 48 starts over the last two seasons while throwing to a catcher not named Gimenez. And the free agent catching market is pretty thin beyond Avila and Jonathan Lucroy, both of whom should earn starter's money or close to it.

Gimenez has played 361 games in the big leagues over the last nine seasons as a journeyman, with stops in Cleveland, Seattle, Tampa Bay, Oakland, Texas, Cleveland (again), Texas (again), Cleveland (again) and then Minnesota last year. He played for Cubs manager Joe Maddon and new pitching coach Jim Hickey while in Tampa Bay.

Gimenez turned in a career season in 2017 with the Twins, notching new highs in games played (74), at-bats (186), runs (28), hits (41), homers (7), RBI (16) and walks (33).

He has a career .218 batting average with a .309 on-base percentage, .345 slugging and .654 OPS. 

But Gimenez isn't just a catcher. He's made nine appearances as a pitcher over the last few years, including six in 2017, where he allowed four runs on seven hits in five innings.

Gimenez will probably compete with Caratini for the backup catcher role in Chicago and can lend a veteran presence. He's also the best bet to take for first position player to pitch in a game in 2018.

The Brewers have emerged as a darkhorse in the race for top starting pitchers

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USA TODAY

The Brewers have emerged as a darkhorse in the race for top starting pitchers

The Milwaukee Brewers are making sure nobody forgets about them in the National League Central.

While the St. Louis Cardinals continue to make trades and the Cubs remain linked to the top starting pitchers on the market even after signing three pitchers, the Brewers have been rather quiet. All winter, the only noteworthy moves from Milwaukee came in the form of under-the-radar pitcher signings — starters Jhoulys Chacin and Yovani Gallardo plus reliever Boone Logan.

Beyond that, the Brewers have added a bunch of other low-leverage players — catcher Christian Bethancourt and relievers J.J. Hoover, Ernesto Frieri, Michael Brady and Erik Davis. (Nobody would blame you if you haven't heard of any of those players before.)

But maybe the Brewers have just been saving their cash for one of the big guys, with Ken Rosenthal confirming a report Sunday night Milwaukee is not only one of the teams in on Yu Darvish, but they've even made a formal offer:

The Brewers securing Darvish or one of the other top pitchers — Jake Arrieta or Alex Cobb — would be a huge development in their effort to keep pace with the Cubs and Cardinals in the division.

Milwaukee was a surprise contender in 2017 before they faded down the stretch. The main reason they hung around the top of the NL Central all year was a shockingly-effective pitching staff.

However, the Brewers have some serious pitching questions long-term that need to be addressed. Beyond Chase Anderson and Zach Davies in the rotation, there are no sure things. 

Jimmy Nelson underwent shoulder surgery last fall and it's currently unknown when he can be counted on again, though things are progressing ahead of schedule. Junior Guerra — the 33-year-old right-hander formerly of the White Sox — went 9-3 with a 2.81 ERA in 20 starts in 2016 but followed that up with some serious struggles in 2017 (5.12 ERA, 1.48 WHIP).

Chacin, 30, was good in 2017 (13-10, 3.89 ERA, 1.27 WHIP), but struggled with health and inconsistent performance in the five seasons prior. Gallardo, 31, has a 5.57 ERA and 1.55 WHIP over the last two seasons. 

All that adds up to a staff that doesn't inspire much confidence behind a high-powered offense led by Ryan Braun, Travis Shaw, Domingo Santana, Eric Thames plus up-and-comers Lewis Brinson and Orlando Arcia.

Adding Arrieta or Darvish would certainly go quite far in improving the Brewers' biggest weakness and even Cobb could be a serious game-changer in Milwaukee.

As an interesting footnote to the whole Darvish rumor, the minute after Rosenthal confirmed the report, the Brewers official Twitter account took a shot at the Cubs:

Cubs Twitter — never one to back down from a good-natured social media spat — responded Monday morning with a sick comeback: