Cubs

If not Wade Davis, Cubs will need to find another closer with 'huge balls'

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USA TODAY

If not Wade Davis, Cubs will need to find another closer with 'huge balls'

Imagine a Cubs bullpen without Wade Davis, working under the bright lights of the World Series, trying to contain an explosive Houston Astros offense with the roof closed at Minute Maid Park.

That’s a scary Halloween thought for a manager who got second-guessed throughout October, a front office philosophically opposed to big-money, long-term contracts for closers and a fan base that now expects to be watching playoff baseball every year at Wrigley Field.

But the Cubs can’t be the team they envision — winning between 88 and 100-plus games every season for the foreseeable future and putting another World Series flag next to the iconic center-field scoreboard — without Davis or another elite ninth-inning pitcher.

“He’s got huge balls,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said. “No moment’s too big for him.”

Davis — who seemed to purposely avoid talking about The Streak when he set a franchise record by converting his first 32 save chances in a Cubs uniform — is about as low-maintenance and drama-free as an All-Star closer gets.

You might not remember any of those regular-season saves or his Wrigley Field warm-up music (Dr. Dre’s “Ackrite”). But Davis made a lasting playoff impression with his epic elimination-game save against the Washington Nationals (seven outs, 44 pitches) and gutsy Game 4 performance in the National League Championship Series (six outs, 48 pitches).

“He wants the ball,” Epstein said. “And he can get good hitters out, because he’s got stuff that when he executes it, it’s just about impossible to square up.”

If getting dominated by the Los Angeles Dodgers in that NLCS was an eye-opening experience — their relievers faced 58 hitters and gave up four hits and allowed zero runs in 17 innings — then the World Series should be another reminder of how much work the Cubs have to do to get back there.

While the Astros have so far been able to outhit their very shaky bullpen, Los Angeles is one loss away from a World Series failure because its relievers headed into Tuesday night’s must-win Game 6 at Dodger Stadium with a 5.32 ERA (15 total runs allowed in 23.2 innings).

Outside of Pedro Strop for an at-bat or two — and maybe Carl Edwards Jr. if he’s on that night or lefty Mike Montgomery in the right matchup — is there anyone on the Cubs roster now that you would trust to face George Springer, Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa in a one-run game?

Another October with a hyper-focus on the bullpen means Davis will get paid as a free agent, the year after a record-setting winter for closers, though even he doesn’t seem to think that Aroldis Chapman’s five-year, $86 million megadeal with the New York Yankees is a realistic target.

But it’s also not realistic to think that the Cubs can take a mix-and-match approach with the ninth inning or hope an internal candidate can grow into the high-pressure job in 2018. Elite closers have an outsized influence on the contending teams the Cubs expect to be between here and 2021.

“What they’ve proven is — when you’re on the verge of extinction — how valuable they are,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “Because not everybody can handle those moments. Aroldis was able to dominate. I can’t tell you necessarily that Wade has dominated, but Wade knows how to pitch to the point where he’s going to get both righties and lefties out, based on his pitch-ability.

“Chappy was more of this blunt object. He just could overpower people, but he could do it often. There are certain guys when you get really back to the wall ... there’s not many of them, but those that are out there are really, really valuable.”

Maybe the Cubs have valid concerns about a pitcher who recently turned 32 and spent parts of the 2016 season on the disabled list with a forearm strain and a flexor strain. There could be bigger needs —  like replacing 40 percent of the rotation —  and multiple holes to fill in the bullpen. But Davis went above and beyond what the Cubs could have hoped for when they traded Jorge Soler to the Kansas City Royals during last year’s winter meetings.

“We’d love to have Wade Davis back,” Epstein said during his year-end Wrigley Field press conference. “We all know it’s more complicated that that. Wanting doesn’t mean having. And it’s a complicated landscape in the offseason.”

The ascension of Javy Baez...into Manny Ramirez?

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USA TODAY

The ascension of Javy Baez...into Manny Ramirez?

"Javy being Javy" may have to start picking up steam as a slogan.

Baez has often been compared to Gary Sheffield for the lightning-quick batspeed, but the guy Joe Maddon keeps comparing Baez to is actually Manny Ramirez. (If you're keeping score at home, Baez has now been compared to Sheffield, Ramirez and Willie Mays — and that's just in the first month of the 2018 season.)

The Cubs manager believes the only thing that has kept Baez from being Ramirez at the plate is laying off pitches out of the zone, namely the slider low and away.

Ramirez was one of the game's best hitters for nearly two decades in the '90s and 2000s, a force in the middle of the Cleveland and Boston lineups during that time.

We may be witnessing a similar type of evolution for Baez right now, who is hitting .344 with 8 extra-base hits (including 5 homers), 12 RBI and 9 runs in 7 games on this homestand.

Baez also ranks third in baseball in barrels per plate appearance — trailing only Boston's J.D. Martinez and Mookie Betts — and boasts a slugging percentage (.691) in the same neighborhood as Bryce Harper's (.712).

"You're seeing the ascension," Maddon said before Thursday's game. "I've talked about this for a bit — where the moment he starts laying off the down-and-away slider, he's Manny Ramirez.

"He's got that kind of abilities at the plate. It's just a matter of maturing as a hitter, which he will."

[PODCAST: Does Javy Baez have an MVP in his future?]

Ramirez has had a hand in helping Baez become the player he is now, as the former Red Sox great was hired by Theo Epstein as a hitting consultant with the Cubs and spent time in 2014 with Baez in Triple-A Iowa.

Baez is still just 25 years old and the maturation process has already started, as he is now looking to go the other way instead of trying to pull everything.

For a guy that's hit just 21.9 percent of his balls to right field in his career, Baez has seen a jump in 2018, with 28.9 percent of his balls in play going the other way, and that was before he lined a pair of 110 mph hits) to right to kick off Thursday's game.

He's locked in right now and it's still very early in the season, but everything Baez has shown thus far in 2018 has been encouraging.

"He's using the whole field — I can't emphasize that enough," Maddon said. "He might take that out-of-control swing, but then he comes right back to reality pretty quickly. Whereas that one [would] lead to the second one to the third one and then he comes walking back [to the dugout]. 

"So I think he's making in-at-bat adjustments. His approach has been entirely different. He's willing to use the other side."

Maddon and the Cubs have typically been slotting Baez in the eighth spot in the order this season, but as he's exploded offensively, he's seen a steady climb.

That culminated in a start in the 2-hole Thursday, the first time Baez has been there since 2016.

Maddon was looking for some "energy" from Baez atop the order and it worked to perfection as he tripled in the first inning and wound up scoring a few pitches later on Kris Bryant's single. Baez singled and scored in the second inning, too.

There will still be growing pains, like when Baez collided softly with Rizzo for a foul pop-up in the third inning Thursday, causing the ball to drop. And he still doesn't walk much and will be prone to the strikeout.

But Baez can help the Cubs win in a dozen different ways and it sure seems as if his bat is catching up to the rest of his game.

Did Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo just take the best 'prom' photo of 2018?

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USA TODAY

Did Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo just take the best 'prom' photo of 2018?

Prom season is upon us, and we may already have a winner for best photo of the 2018 season.

Cubs' superstars Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, whose bromance has been well-documented, combined for a hilarious photo at Thursday's Bricks and Ivy Ball at Navy Pier. Check it out:

Look at those smiles!

In all seriousness, it's cool to see Bryant and Rizzo having fun with their bromance on and off the field. And while last night's event was not an actual prom, Bryzzo has to be in the running for best photo of the 2018 season.