Cubs

Are the Nationals crazy for not starting Stephen Strasburg in Game 4?

Are the Nationals crazy for not starting Stephen Strasburg in Game 4?

The Nationals were given a gift by God (OK, maybe not God, but Mother Nature, at least) and are not planning to change a damn thing.

Tuesday's awkward NLDS Game 4 rainout shifts the series back a day, seemingly opening the door for Dusty Baker and Co. to roll with co-ace Stephen Strasburg on regular rest to help stave off elimination.

But the Nationals don't want to take the easy — and commonsensical — way out. 

In a decision that shocked the baseball world — simultaneously making Cubs fans giggle with glee and Nats fans roll their eyes — Baker announced immediately after the game was called that Tanner Roark would still pitch as planned for Wednesday's make-up.

It's a curious decision, to be sure. And it's one that will reflect poorly on Baker (who already may be on the hot seat) if the results do not go his way.

But we also don't know what's truly going on in his own clubhouse and he does. For that and his probable Hall of Fame 22-year career as a manager, Baker deserves the benefit of the doubt that he's making the decision that is best for his team to win their first-ever postseason series (since moving from Montreal, at least). 

But it's easy to see the outrage and hubbub. Strasburg is a legitimate Cy Young candidate and was one of the best pitchers in baseball in 2017. He got 17 outs before giving up a hit in Game 1 against the Cubs last week and still wound up with 10 strikeouts, even though "Bryzzo" finally got to him to lift the Cubs to victory.

During the 2017 season, Strasburg was 15-4 with a 2.52 ERA, 1.015 WHIP and 10.5 strikeouts per nine innings. 

Roark, meanwhile, was 13-11 with a 4.67 ERA, 1.335 WHIP and 8.2 K/9.

Baker reiterated several times in his post-rainout press conference Tuesday evening that he and the Nationals have plenty of confidence in Roark. The skipper claimed the Washington powers that be did not have a discussion about rolling with Strasburg Wednesday and Gio Gonzalez — another Cy Young candidate — in Game 5 should the series get that far.

There's also apparently no talk of Strasburg being available out of the bullpen.

"I don't know, man," Baker said. "I ain't even thinking about that, to tell you the truth. I'm thinking Tanner's going to do his thing."

The situation is even more convoluted because Strasburg first threw a bullpen Tuesday afternoon, before the game was rained out. Big-league pitchers are creatures of habit — as Baker acknowledged — and even if they aren't, it's not the best course of action, physically, for a pitcher to throw a bullpen one day and come back out and start a must-win game the next day. Pitchers typically throw a bullpen two or three days before their next start.

Another factor complicating things is Strasburg's health, which is not great. He's feeling under the weather, like most of the Nationals clubhouse, Baker said. 

"A lot of my team is under the weather with the change of weather and the air conditioning in the hotel and the air conditioning here," Baker said. "It's just this time of the year for mold around Chicago — I think it's mold. I mean, I have it, too."

(OK we need to stop the post here a bit. That's absolutely hilarious that mold was a topic of conversation ahead of what could be the final game of the NLDS. Totally did not see that coming.)

Regardless of Baker's reasoning, it's clear Strasburg isn't 100 percent health-wise and maybe that was a reason he wasn't able to throw a bullpen until Wednesday.

The Nationals can line their pitching up whatever way they want, but this series ultimately boils down to the Washington hitters, who are on the verge of having the lowest batting average ever by a team in a postseason series.

Strasburg and Scherzer combined for 12 no-hit innings in Games 1 and 3, yet the Cubs came back to win both games, in huge part because the Nationals did not have an earned run in either game.

In fact, the Nationals have scored in just three innings out of 27 in the NLDS, with five of their seven runs coming on that blowout eighth inning in Game 2 Saturday.

"We've got to score more runs," said Daniel Murphy, who tipped his hat to a Cubs pitching staff that has held him to a 1-for-11 batting line in the NLDS with a walk. "The pitching has been unbelievable for us — staring and relieving. 

"Offensively, we've got to score. That's where it starts and that doesn't fall on the manager. He's got us completely prepared for every ballgame. We have to go out there and see if we can put up some crooked numbers."

The rainout may have helped give the Nationals hitters one more day to refresh and reset, even if the pitching rotation doesn't change.

But it's also worth noting that Roark is no slouch. The University of Illinois product finished 10th in NL Cy Young voting in 2016 when he went 16-10 with a 2.83 ERA in 210 innings. He's also 3-1 at Wrigley Field with a 3.24 ERA and 1.32 WHIP, often pitching in front of a large contingent of friends and family in the stands.

So it wouldn't be all that shocking to see Roark go out and pitch well enough to give his team a chance to keep the series alive for Strasburg in Game 5, especially if the Bryce Harper-led offense awakens from its slumber.

This is postseason baseball. Roark's numbers across six months hardly matter if he's locked in and on his game in the incredibly-small sample size of one afternoon at Wrigley Field. This isn't some Triple-A pitcher getting the ball for Washington.

Yes, you'd rather have a guy like Strasburg throwing than Roark in what is essentially a one-game playoff if you're the Nationals, but if Strasburg isn't fully healthy anyways, it may be something of a moot point.

Or this could be some misdirection on the part of Baker and the Nationals and maybe Roark is on a really short leash and Strasburg or Gonzalez appear out of the bullpen.

Either way, if the Cubs emerge the victors from this NLDS, it won't be because of Baker's starting pitching decision in Game 4. It'll be because the Nationals didn't hit enough to beat the Cubs pitching.

Humorous things we learned at Cubs Convention

Humorous things we learned at Cubs Convention

One of the best things about Cubs Convention is the access fans and media have to the team and the state of mind the players possess in mid-January.

At this point, they’ve had time away from the field to rest and relax with their family and friends and as Anthony Rizzo says “no one is oh for four yet.” While workouts are in full swing, few have started hitting or pitching at this point in their off-season schedule, so “baseball talk” is not always priority. Instead, this is when we get to hear fun stories and entertaining tidbits about these players.

It’s no secret this team genuinely enjoys being around one and other and that the camaraderie is on full display for fans as they interact and poke fun at one and other during the question and answer panels. So, for those that may have missed the weekend’s festivities here are a few humorous things we learned about the Cubs:

  • When asked about a celebrity crushes, Anthony Rizzo coaxed Javier Baez into a J-Lo response while Kyle Schwarber weighed out his options before coming up with Katy Perry. That was “until she shaved her hair off and now looks like Eleven from Stranger Things!”
  • Schwarber’s name has consumed the recent headlines following his physical transformation this winter, but he isn’t the only Cub who dropped some weight this off-season. Those that got a picture or autograph from Ian Happ over the weekend should have noticed a slimmer physique as well. Happ told me “you have to look and feel your best for your first full season.” And when it comes to all the trade rumors involving his name, he said he’s been too busy golfing and working out this offseason to pay any attention.
  • During a one-on-one interview with new Cubs starter Tyler Chatwood, he gave us his best scouting report on himself, “four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, I’ll throw my curveball a lot more. That’s always been my best pitch and I kind of got away from it a little bit, but I’m going to be throwing that a lot more. Cutter and a changeup, too. So, you know, try to trick them with something.” And when asked which Cubs player he’s most interested in meeting, his response was Kris Bryant. “Just watching him it seems like he does everything cool.”
  • Addison Russell recalled his favorite memory or most funny moment of 2017 as the exchange with Nacho Man. Bringing Cubs and Cardinals fans together over nacho cheese and selfies. The All-Star shortstop also informed us that if he weren’t playing major league baseball, his fallback would be, a dart player. That’s right.
  • After being left off the panel of last year’s Kids Only Press Conference, Anthony Rizzo asked to be the host this year. “It’s my favorite event of the weekend,” Rizzo said. The Cubs first baseman did a tremendous job, toeing the line between appropriate parent/child humor. And after a few minutes of trash talking with Kris Bryant, Rizzo conceded that the younger Bryzzo partner would likely beat him in a one-on-one pickup game. Something I’m sure we’ll see a few weeks from now in Mesa at Spring Training.
  • And last, but certainly not least, Willson Contreras stole the weekend as he recalled the best defensive play of 2017 being Jon Lester’s pickoff of Tommy Pham. “I went out there and said hey motherfu**** throw the ball to first.” A moment that left his teammates on stage shaking their heads in disbelief. But our takeaway: the young, fiery catcher is not intimidated working with the veteran lefty, and he’s just the guy you want behind the plate for this experienced rotation.

After an easy going weekend full of laughs and selfies, the players now buckle in and turn their attention to spring training, with pitchers and catchers reporting to Mesa in less than a month.

Cubs know waiting for Bryce Harper and next winter's insane free-agent class is affecting baseball's offseason

Cubs know waiting for Bryce Harper and next winter's insane free-agent class is affecting baseball's offseason

You might have heard that baseball’s offseason has been slow. Dreadfully slow. Drive-you-crazy slow.

What’s the deal?

Well, one theory is that teams are hesitant to spend too much money this winter because they’re gearing up for next winter, when things will most definitely not be slow.

The 2018 free-agent class is unlike anything that’s come before it. Headlined by Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper, Baltimore Orioles third baseman Manny Machado and possibly even Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw, the amount of high-quality players that will be on the market is ridiculous: Dallas Kuechel, Charlie Blackmon, Daniel Murphy, Adam Jones, Gio Gonzalez, Andrew Miller, Zach Britton, Nelson Cruz, Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus, Andrew McCutchen, Craig Kimbrel and Cody Allen, just to name some of the biggest names.

This winter isn’t devoid of high-quality players, of course, with Jake Arrieta, Yu Darvish, Eric Hosmer, J.D. Martinez and others still trying to find a home before spring training starts. But if you’re a team looking to be in the running for Harper, Machado, Kershaw or anybody else next winter, you might not want to blow your cash now.

Do the Cubs fit that description?

Both team chairman Tom Ricketts and president of baseball operations Theo Epstein talked about that dynamic during the Cubs Convention this past weekend. It’s not exactly a hint at the Cubs’ thinking, as the team has been connected to Arrieta, Darvish and other top-of-the-line pitchers all offseason. But the Cubs are one of the oft-speculated destinations for Harper, who’s expected to earn the largest contract in baseball history.

“It’s a number of factors. Every team has to make decisions in their own best interest, and that’s what’s going on,” Epstein said Friday when asked why this offseason has been so slow-moving. “But there’s some macroeconomic trends in the game that probably after the last collective-bargaining agreement teams are just trying to position themselves the best way they can, probably in some cases with one eye on next season’s free-agent market, trying to get their payroll where they want it to be. It’s hard to say it’s any one reason. It’s probably a combination of factors. But I don’t know that we’ve ever seen anything quite like this.”

“Next year’s free-agent class is different than this year’s free-agent class,” Ricketts said, putting it mildly. “I think what you’re seeing with teams out there would rather have dry powder a year from now. … There’s a lot of pieces and parts, but ultimately, I think teams are trying to keep their powder dry.”

Cubs fans’ desire of Harper is no secret, of course, with one questioner even asking Epstein during a Saturday morning panel at the Sheraton Grand Chicago when he’ll be able to buy a Harper jersey. Epstein didn’t take that bait, but the planets seem to be aligning for the Cubs to make an enticing pitch to bring Harper to the North Side.

A big-market club would figure to have the edge in signing the game’s most visible star, and the New York Yankees, always willing to spend, might have taken themselves out of the running this offseason with the trade they made for Giancarlo Stanton, the previous record-holder for baseball’s beefiest contract. Not only does Stanton now account for a large portion of the Yankees’ payroll for the foreseeable future, but he also crowds the outfield, along with Aaron Judge, perhaps leaving nowhere for Harper to play. Plus, no one is ignoring the connection between Harper and Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant, a pair of Las Vegas natives who grew up playing in the same area.

And for Harper, who during his time with the Nationals has never won a playoff series, there are few teams with a more wide-open championship window than the Cubs, who have advanced to the National League Championship Series in each of the past three seasons, including that curse-smashing World Series win in 2016.

But while you would figure the Cubs to be in the bidding for Harper next winter, saving money might not explain why they haven’t landed a big fish this winter. They’ve been connected to the three biggest free-agent starting pitchers on the market — Arrieta, Darvish and Alex Cobb — none of which have signed elsewhere yet. They have an Arrieta-sized hole in the starting rotation that needs filling, and while they have the option to stick with players currently under contract, there’s little doubt that going from Arrieta and John Lackey in 2017 to Tyler Chatwood and Mike Montgomery in 2018 would be a downgrade.

The Cubs’ front office keeps stating its desire to add a starting pitcher before this offseason is over. Epstein opened the door to that acquisition perhaps not being of the bank-breaking variety, though, indicating over the weekend that it could be a move that simply provides depth for a starting staff realistically no deeper than five guys at the moment. Of course, until Arrieta, Darvish and Cobb are all off the market, the Cubs will have the ability to pursue those guys.

The Cubs also have other looming financial commitments if you look further into the future. Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell and Javy Baez are all slated to become free agents after the 2021 season. The team’s top four starting pitchers — Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and the aforementioned Chatwood — are all slated to become free agents after the 2020 season. So Harper is not the only guy the Cubs have to think about paying.

Saving up for next winter? It might not be the only reason for a lack of activity this offseason. But for teams hoping to be in the Harper sweepstakes — or one of a number of other sweepstakes — it might not be the worst idea.

An indication that for many teams, including the Cubs, this winter is about far more than just the upcoming season.

“Obviously Theo has the resources to do what he has to do to win on the field. We’ll see what happens this year,” Ricketts said. “I’m not sure what’s going to happen with the guys that are out there or whether that’s a good fit for us. But everybody’s got constrained resources that have to be put together in the right way. We have to think about 2018 and beyond 2018. I just trust those guys to do what’s right with those dollars.”