Cubs

Onto the next one: Cubs unveil NLCS roster with Jose Quintana starting Game 1

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AP

Onto the next one: Cubs unveil NLCS roster with Jose Quintana starting Game 1

Wow, the NLCS is starting already? It feels like Game 5 just ended.

But, alas, the Cubs have more work to do in their title defense and that work begins in earnest Saturday in Los Angeles with Game 1 against Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers.

Theo Epstein and Joe Maddon didn't have set answers for who their Game 1 starter Thursday night after that epic Game 5, instead taking time to enjoy the moment after what may be the craziest non-World Series postseason game in Cubs history. After much discussion, they've settled on Jose Quintana to oppose Kershaw and battle all those Dodgers lefties in that lineup. 

Quintana appeared in relief in Game 5, but only threw 12 pitches. He shut down the Nationals on Monday in Game 3, allowing only an unearned run in 5.2 innings in his first career postseason appearance.

Epstein promised the rotation and roster discussions would begin on the Cubs' plane to L.A. (that eventually had to be rerouted to Walter White's fictional home state), and the powers that be have come up with an NLCS roster:

CATCHERS

Willson Contreras
Alex Avila

No surprise here. Contreras caught every inning of the NLDS, solidfying the cleanup spot in the Cubs lineup. He was a huge part of Game 5, beginning that crazy fifth-inning rally with a two-out single off Max Scherzer and also snatching the momentum back from the Nationals in the eighth inning.

Avila was one of only two Cubs players (John Lackey was the other) who did not appear at all in the NLDS and doesn't figure to draw any starts in the CS if Contreras is healthy. But it's nice depth for Joe Maddon to have just in case.

INFIELDERS

Anthony Rizzo
Kris Bryant
Addison Russell
Javy Baez
Tommy La Stella

Rizzo and Bryant shared identical .200 batting averages and .238 on-base percentages in the five-game series against the Nats. The two franchise cornerstones carried the Cubs' offense in the first few games, but combined to reach base just one time in Game 5, though they did each drive in a run with a groundout.

Baez, meanwhile, was hitless in the NLDS, though he scored the team's first postseason run in Game 1 after reaching on an error. He also flashed with his glove - and arm - in the field, which should come as absolutely no surprise to anybody on the planet.

Russell finished with just a .222 average in the LDS, but he  made his hits count, driving in four runs in Game 5, including the go-ahead two-run double in the first pitch he saw from Max Scheerzer. He also *just* missed a two-run homer off Stephen Strasburg in Game 4.

With the Cubs about to face a whole heap of lefties from the Dodgers, expect Rizzo, Bryant, Baez and Russell to be manning the infield for almost every inning in the NLCS.

OUTFIELDERS

Jason Heyward
Ben Zobrist
Jon Jay
Ian Happ
Albert Almora Jr.
Kyle Schwarber
Leonys Martin

Once again, this will be the most complicated part of Maddon's everyday lineups, deciding who to play and who to bench. But at least they aren't providing anywhere near the same stress as the bullpen.

The Cubs outfield was a huge driving force against the Nats, as Almora, Schwarber and Zobrist all came up with big hits while Heyward and Jay made several impact defensive plays across the five games. Jay also posted a .429 on-base percentage while emerging as the Cubs' best option at leadoff right now.

Almora figures to play a lot with the Nationals throwing three left-handed starters in the first four games, though that also means Schwarber will be relegated to bench duty for much of the LCS. But he can still have an impact from there, as he proved Thursday night in D.C. when he lined a 114 mph single off the scoreboard in right field and came around to score what was ultimately the game-winning run.

Happ has not had much playing time this postseason, but with Maddon acknowledging Zobrist's struggles from the right side of the plate, Happ may be ine line for some starts against the Dodgers' southpaws. 

STARTING PITCHERS

Jose Quintana
Jon Lester
Jake Arrieta
Kyle Hendricks

These four guys all pitched in the last two games of the LDS, with Quintana and Lester combining to get 13 outs out of the bullpen.

Quintana did not allow an earned run against the Nationals and figures to be a good matchup against Cody Bellinger, Corey Seager and all the left-handed hitters the Dodgers roll with.

While the bullpen struggled mightily (more on that later), the Cubs starting staff combined for a NUMBERS HERE

With the Cubs advancing, it ensures Arrieta will make at least one more start in Cubbie blue before hitting the free agent market.

BULLPEN

Wade Davis
Carl Edwards Jr.
Mike Montgomery
Pedro Strop
John Lackey
Brian Duensing
Hector Rondon

Oh boy.

The Cubs somehow got past the Nationals despite a bullpen that was held together by a thread. Actually, a thread is too strong of an indicator to describe the Cubs bullpen. They were held on by one single atom. 

Maddon took a lot of heat for his bullpen decisions, but it's not his fault Edwards has seemingly forgotten how to throw strikes after throwing just one bad pitch in the first three games of the series against the Nats. 

Duensing wasn't tasked with much in the LDS - surprisingly, given he was the team's most consistent reliever besides Davis all year - but did not allow a run and picked up the win in Game 5. Strop also pitched out of jams enough to post a 2.70 ERA.

Davis certainly put his "balls on the line" in the LDS, to borrow a phrase from Nationals GM Mike Rizzo. Davis' longest career relief outing - and longest outing since 2013 - came in Game 5, when he put the team on his back and saved the season with one of the gutsiest performances of all time.

Lackey was never utilized in the LDS, though he may get some run with everybody's arms taxed on the way to the LCS.

The only change Maddon made to his bullpen was swapping out Wilson for Hector Rondon. Wilson was only used to record two outs in the NLDS.

In a surprising move, the Dodgers left two-time All-Star and last year's Rookie of the Year Corey Seager off the NLCS roster after he suffered a back injury in the team's NLDS sweep of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Infielder Charlie Culberson will replace Seager on the roster. Seager finished the regular season second on the Dodgers in WAR (5.6) and slashed .295/.375/.479 in 145 games. 

The absence of Seager, who bats lefty, could be why Maddon elected to swap out the left-handed Wilson for the right-handed Rondon as he could provide a bigger impact out of the bullpen against the Dodgers' right-handed bats.

Who knows how Maddon will piece this bullpen together or even how much confidence anybody besides Davis will have down there. But I'll tell you one thing: If they pitch like they did in the LDS against the Dodgers, the Cubs will not advance to their second straight World Series.

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

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USA TODAY

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

MESA, Ariz. — “That’s last year, don’t want to talk about that.”

In other words, Addison Russell is so over 2017.

The Cubs shortstop went through a lot last year. He dealt with injuries that affected his foot and shoulder. He had a well-documented off-the-field issue involving an accusation of domestic abuse, which sparked an investigation by Major League Baseball. And then came the trade speculation.

The hot stove season rarely leaves any player completely out of online trade discussion. But after Theo Epstein admitted there was a possibility the Cubs could trade away one or more young position players to bolster the starting rotation, well, Russell’s name came up.

And he saw it.

“There was a lot of trade talk,” Russell said Saturday. “My initial thoughts were, I hope it doesn’t happen, but wherever I go, I’m going to try to bring what I bring to the table here. It’s a good thing that it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m happy being in a Cubs uniform, I want to be in a Cubs uniform, for sure. But there was some talk out there. If I got traded, then I got traded, but that’s not the case.”

No, it’s not, as the Cubs solved those pitching questions with free-agent spending, bringing in Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood to replace the departed Jake Arrieta and John Lackey. It means Russell, along with oft-discussed names like Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Javy Baez, are all still Cubs.

While the outside world might have expected one of those guys to be moved in some sort of blockbuster trade for Chris Archer or some other All-Star arm, the Cubs’ young core remains intact, another reason why they’re as much a favorite to win the World Series as any team out there.

“I’m really not surprised. The core is still here. Who would want to break that up? It’s a beautiful thing,” Russell said. “Javy and I in the middle. Schwarber, sometimes playing catcher but mainly outfield. And then (Kris Bryant) over there in the hot corner, and of course (Anthony) Rizzo at first. You’ve got a Gold Glover in right field (Jason Heyward). It’s really hard to break that up.

“When you do break that down on paper, we’ve got a lineup that could stack up with the best.”

This winter has been about moving on for Russell, who said he’s spent months working to strengthen his foot and shoulder after they limited him to 110 games last season, the fewest he played in his first three big league campaigns.

And so for Russell, the formula for returning to his 2016 levels of offensive aptitude isn’t a difficult one: stay on the field.

“Especially with the injuries, I definitely wanted to showcase some more of my talent last year than I displayed,” Russell said. “So going into this year, it’s mainly just keeping a good mental — just staying level headed. And also staying healthy and producing and being out there on the field.

“Next step for me, really just staying out there on the field. I really want to see what I can do as far as helping the team if I can stay healthy for a full season. I think if I just stay out there on the field, I’m going to produce.”

While the decrease in being on the field meant lower numbers from a “counting” standpoint — the drop from 21 homers in 2016 to 12 last year, the drop from 95 RBIs to 43 can in part be attributed to the lower number of games — certain rate stats looked different, too. His on-base percentage dropped from .321 in 2016 to .304 last year.

Russell also struggled during the postseason, picking up just six hits in 36 plate appearances in series against the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers. He struck out 13 times in 10 postseason games.

Of course, he wasn’t alone. That World Series hangover was team-wide throughout the first half of the season. And even though the Cubs scored 824 runs during the regular season, the second most in the National League and the fourth most in baseball, plenty of guys had their offensive struggles: Schwarber, Heyward and Ben Zobrist, to name a few.

“You can’t take anything for granted. So whenever you win a World Series or you do something good, you just have to live in the moment,” Russell said. “It was a tough season last year because we were coming off winning the World Series and the World Series hangover and all that. This year, we had a couple months off, a couple extra weeks off, and I think a lot of guys took advantage of that. I know I did. And now that we’re here in spring training, we’re going to get back at it.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

Jon Lester has arrived at Cubs camp, and he’s pleased with the new-look rotation full of potential aces. Kelly Crull and Vinnie Duber discuss the 5-man unit, and where Mike Montgomery fits into the Cubs’ plans.

Plus, Kelly and Vinnie talk Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber, along with the continuing free agent stalemate surrounding Jake Arrieta.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here: