Cubs

Chicago ties: How Dusty Baker and Adam Eaton could affect Games 3 and 4 of NLDS

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USA TODAY

Chicago ties: How Dusty Baker and Adam Eaton could affect Games 3 and 4 of NLDS

Dusty Baker has been here before.

Meaning he was here, at Wrigley Field, for a long time. Baker, the Cubs’ manager from 2003 to 2006, was one of the few North Side skippers to experience postseason baseball prior to last year’s curse-smashing World Series win. And he managed a whole bunch of games, regardless of where the calendar was, at the corner of Clark and Addison.

So Baker, who’s managing against his former team Monday and Tuesday as the NLDS between the Cubs and Washington Nationals shifts to Chicago, will use his familiarity with the Friendly Confines to help his current squad advance deeper into October.

"Yeah, you know, I've got a bunch of homies here," Baker said with a smile ahead of Game 3 on Monday afternoon, "so I've got some backup.

"I mean, it's always nice to come to Chicago. I enjoyed coming here for years and years. You know, it's a nice place to come. A nice place, you know, for us to try and get a victory."

Baker knows all about the wind and the sun and all the extra stuff that comes with playing games on the North Side. While the Nationals pay a visit to Wrigley Field each and every season, his team is short on guys who have logged significant playing time here. For example, Bryce Harper's only played 14 games here. Anthony Rendon's played 15 games. Daniel Murphy's been here 25 times. Game 3 will be Trea Turner's first at Wrigley.

Meanwhile, Baker managed 324 regular-season games in his four years as the Cubs' manager. He visited plenty as the manager of the Cincinnati Reds and San Francisco Giants and now with the Nationals. So he's far more familiar with the place than much of his current roster, meaning those players would be wise to ask him how to best go about playing in such a unique ballpark.

"You talk to them to continually check the wind," Baker said, "and what you see earlier in the game may not be what you see later in the game. I think that giant scoreboard in left-center field has changed how the ball plays some out there, because it used to — if the wind is blowing in or across, it used to knock everything down when it was open. But now it seems that it's blocking the wind, especially in that area.

"I found it, contrary to popular belief, when I was here, it seems like the wind blew in more than it blows out, or at least it was a cross-wind. Most of the time it's a from left to right, and so yesterday during practice, we didn't hardly have any wind. So you know, what it's like today, I don't know. It's a beautiful day out. It's short-sleeve weather. I'm sure it's going to be a good day for a ballgame."

But Game 3 brings an additional wrinkle. Hardly any Nationals hitters have faced Cubs starting pitcher Jose Quintana, just three to be precise: Matt Wieters, Howie Kendrick and Adam Lind. But the Nationals do have a valuable fountain of information on Quintana in the form of Adam Eaton, the injured outfielder who spent multiple seasons as Quintana's teammate with the White Sox.

Eaton played 433 games during his three seasons on the South Side, a three-season span during which Quintana was quietly one of the American League's best pitchers, posting a 3.29 ERA in 96 starts.

So, much like Baker can offer his team insight into the conditions at Wrigley, Eaton can offer insight into what his teammates can expect from Quintana.

"We've got scouting reports, there's nothing like the naked eye seeing a guy. I think the advantage most of the time goes to the pitcher if you haven't seen him," Baker said of Quintana. "So we're relying on some of the guys who might have played with him and some of the guys who played against him.

"I'm sure (Nationals hitting coach Rick) Shu has spoken to (Eaton), and since you made that point, if he hasn't, I'm going to make sure he does speak to him.

"Quintana, I was told a long time ago — I was told by (Kansas City Royals manager) Ned Yost about how difficult he can be to hit sometimes. I haven't seen him in other, other than on video or TV. This will be our first look at him for a bunch of players."

Of course, neither Baker nor Eaton will be the ones on the field making the plays during Games 3 and 4. But their respective experience could help narrow the gap between these two evenly matched teams in certain areas.

In a series where the slightest thing can go a long way in determining who advances, Baker and Eaton's Chicago ties could prove incredibly valuable.

One MLB executive thinks Kyle Schwarber can emerge as Cubs' best hitter in 2018

One MLB executive thinks Kyle Schwarber can emerge as Cubs' best hitter in 2018

When the 2017 season ended, Cubs left fielder Kyle Schwarber looked in the mirror and didn't like what he saw.

He was stocky, slower than he wanted to be and he had just finished a very difficult season that saw him spend time back in the minor leagues at Triple-A after he struggled mightily through the first three months of the season.

Schwarber still put up solid power numbers despite his overall struggles. He slammed 30 home runs, putting him among the Top 15 hitters in the National League and among the Top 35 in all of baseball. But, Schwarber was honest with himself. He knew he could achieve so much more if he was in better shape and improved his mobility, his overall approach at the plate and his defense.

Schwarber was drafted by the Cubs out of Indiana University as a catcher. However, many scouts around baseball had serious doubts about his ability to catch at the big league level. The Cubs were in love with Schwarber the person and Schwarber the overall hitter and felt they would give him a chance to prove he could catch for them. If he couldn't, then they believed he could play left field adequately enough to keep his powerful bat in the lineup.

However, a serious knee injury early in the 2016 season knocked Schwarber out of action for six months and his return to the Cubs in time to assist in their World Series run raised expectations for a tremendous 2017 season. In fact, the expectations for Schwarber were wildly unrealistic when the team broke camp last spring. Manager Joe Maddon had Schwarber in the everyday lineup batting leadoff and playing left field.

But Schwarber's offseason after the World Series consisted of more rehab on his still-healing injured left knee. That kept him from working on his outfield play, his approach at the plate and his overall baseball training. 

Add in all of the opportunities and commitments that come with winning a World Series and it doesn't take much detective work to understand why Schwarber struggled so much when the 2017 season began. This offseason, though, has been radically different. A season-ending meeting with Cubs president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer led to a decision to take weight off of Schwarber's frame. It also included a decision to change his training program so that he improved his quickness, lateral movement and his overall baseball skills.

"I took two weeks off after the season ended and then I went to work," Schwarber said. "We put a plan together to take weight off and to improve my quickness. I have my meals delivered and I feel great. My baseball work combined with a lot of strength and conditioning has me in the best shape that I have ever been in."

Schwarber disagrees with the pundits who felt manager Maddon's decision to put him in the leadoff spot in the Cubs' loaded lineup contributed to his struggles.

"I have no problem hitting wherever Joe wants to put me," Schwarber said. "I didn't feel any more pressure because I was batting leadoff. I just needed to get back to training for a baseball season as opposed to rehabbing from my knee injury. I'm probably 20-25 pounds lighter and I'm ready to get back to Arizona with the boys and to get ready for the season."

Many around the game were shocked when the Cubs drafted Schwarber with the No. 4 overall selection in the 2014 MLB Draft, but a rival executive who was not surprised by the pick believes that Schwarber can indeed return to the form that made him such a feared hitter during his rookie season as well as his excellent postseason resume.

"Everyone who doubted this kid may end up way off on their evaluation because he is a great hitter and now that he is almost two years removed from his knee injury," the executive said. "He knows what playing at the major-league level is all about I expect him to be a real force in the Cubs lineup.

"Theo and Jed do not want to trade this kid and they are going to give him every opportunity to succeed. I think he has a chance to be as good a hitter as they have in their order."

Watch the full 1-on-1 interview with Kyle Schwarber Sunday night on NBC Sports Chicago.

The low-key move that may pay dividends for Cubs in 2018 and beyond

The low-key move that may pay dividends for Cubs in 2018 and beyond

The Cubs-Cardinals rivalry is alive and well and this offseason has been further proof of that.

The St. Louis Cardinals haven't made a rivalry-altering move like inking Jake Arrieta to a megadeal, but they have proven that they are absolutely coming after the Cubs and the top of the division.

However, a move the St. Louis brass made Friday afternoon may actually be one that makes Cubs fans cheer.

The Cardinals traded outfielder Randal Grichuk to the Toronto Blue Jays Friday in exhange for a pair of right-handed pitchers: Dominic Leone and Conner Greene. Leone is the main draw here as a 26-year-old reliever who posted a 2.56 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and 10.4 K/9 in 70.1 innings last year in Toronto.

But this is the second young position player the Cardinals have traded to Toronto this offseason and Grichuk is a notorious Cub Killer.

Grichuk struggled overall in 2017, posting a second straight year of empty power and not much else. But he once again hammered the Cubs to the tune of a .356 batting average and 1.240 OPS. 

He hit six homers and drove in 12 runs in just 14 games (11 starts) against Joe Maddon's squad. That's 27 percent of his 2017 homers and 20 percent of his season RBI numbers coming against just one team.

And it wasn't just one year that was an aberration. In his career, Grichuk has a .296/.335/.638 slash line against the Cubs, good for a .974 OPS. He's hit 11 homers and driven in 33 runs in 37 games, the highest ouput in either category against any opponent.

Even if Leone builds off his solid 2017 and pitches some big innings against the Cubs over the next couple seasons, it will be a sigh of relief for the Chicago pitching staff knowing they won't have to face the threat of Grichuk 18+ times a year.

Plus, getting a reliever and a low-level starting pitching prospect back for a guy (Grichuk) who was borderline untouchable a couple winters ago isn't exactly great value. The same can be said for the Cardinals' trade of Aledmys Diaz to Toronto on Dec. 1 for essentially nothing.

A year ago, St. Louis was heading into the season feeling confident about Diaz, who finished fifth in the NL Rookie of the Year race in 2016 after hitting .300 with an .879 OPS as a 25-year-old rookie. He wound up finishing 2017 in the minors after struggling badly to start the season and the Cardinals clearly didn't want to wait out his growing pains.

The two trades with Toronto limits the Cardinals' depth (as of right now) and leaves very few proven options behind shortstop Paul DeJong and outfielder Tommy Pham, who both enjoyed breakout seasons in 2017.