Justin Wilson

Cubs Talk Podcast: 2017 season obituary and previewing an interesting winter for Cubs

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: 2017 season obituary and previewing an interesting winter for Cubs

In the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Kelly Crull, Patrick Mooney and Tony Andracki close the book on the 2017 season following Theo Epstein’s press conference, looking back at what will go down as the craziest calendar year in Cubs history from last November through the team’s loss in the NLCS this October.

Moving forward, where do guys like Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr., Justin Wilson and Mike Montgomery fit? Will the Cubs re-sign Wade Davis or go after another proven closer? And how worried should fans be about the offense that completely disappeared in the postseason?

Take a listen below:

Already pushed to the limit, Cubs need Wade Davis to be calm in middle of storm vs. Dodgers

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USA TODAY

Already pushed to the limit, Cubs need Wade Davis to be calm in middle of storm vs. Dodgers

Wade Davis knew Bryce Harper desperately wanted to be the hero, to finally change the perception of the Washington Nationals in October and take down the defending World Series champs.

The Cubs closer noticed how hard the young superstar swung through a first-pitch cutter, a 97-win team now down to its final out, Thursday night at Nationals Park already turning into Friday morning.

Harper took the next pitch, fouled off a 94.8-mph fastball and then stared at two more (93.4 mph and 95 mph), working the count to 3-2 while Davis pushed himself toward a seven-out save, something he had never done before.

Davis, who talks to himself on the mound but never really shows his true emotions, unleashed an 89.9-mph cutter that looked like it fell off a table, Harper whiffing as the exclamation point to a 9-8 game and a fantastic National League Division Series and the start of a wild celebration.

“You’re trying to stay relaxed,” Davis said. “He put such an aggressive swing (on it) the first swing. I was kind of hoping he would stay that aggressive and maybe use that to our advantage. We got to the last pitch and he was still pretty aggressive.”

The Cubs will absolutely need that ability to be the calm in the middle of the storm, make adjustments in real time and neutralize the Los Angeles Dodgers who got a “Best. Team. Ever?” Sports Illustrated cover in late August (before losing 16 of 17 games).

Aroldis Chapman came close, but even he didn’t throw 44 pitches in a playoff game during last year’s World Series run.

It’s not a great look when the Cubs drop from the playoff roster their big move to strengthen the bullpen at the July 31 trade deadline (Justin Wilson) and add an ex-closer clearly outside Joe Maddon’s circle of trust (Hector Rondon) for this NL Championship Series rematch.

The Cubs had two chances to eliminate the Nationals and Maddon deployed a $155 million middle reliever (Jon Lester), used Saturday night’s Game 1 starter at Dodger Stadium (Jose Quintana) and pulled his top setup guy in the middle of an at-bat and after walking one hitter on five pitches (Carl Edwards Jr.).

The Cubs faced 190 total batters during that five-game series against the Nationals and 91 percent went to the playoff rotation (Kyle Hendricks, Lester, Quintana, Jake Arrieta) or the late-game bullpen (Davis, Edwards, Pedro Strop).

“Of course, we’ve got to be really mindful of Wade,” Maddon said, explaining why the Cubs would lean against adding another pitcher for the NLCS. “But you need the bench to match up like we were able to match up in some of these games — the pinch-hitting being aggressive, the defensive maneuvering being aggressive.

“It's just the way of the world right now. The days off still are beneficial, two on, one off, three on, one off. It's still beneficial regarding keeping your bullpen in order.”

The 2017 Dodgers are a more dynamic team than the one that put up a major-league worst .622 OPS against left-handed pitchers last season, boosting that total 167 points during a 104-win campaign. These Dodgers also apparently have enough depth to keep All-Star shortstop Corey Seager (back injury) off their initial NLCS roster.

Between Maddon’s reputation (fair or not) and Davis about to become a free agent, the Chapman comparisons will be coming. But maybe think of Davis as this year’s Kenley Jansen, who pitched multiple innings and covered for weaker spots in the bullpen and willingly went outside his comfort zone.

It wasn’t enough to get the Dodgers to the World Series for the first time since 1988 — and the Cubs aren’t in the business of matching almost-recording-setting contracts for closers — but Jansen did return to Los Angeles on a five-year, $80 million deal.

That is a discussion for the winter, and when the Cubs see Davis jogging out of the bullpen, they feel like their playoff run is only just getting started.

“He’s a stud,” said Ben Zobrist, who played with Davis on the 2015 Kansas City Royals team that won a World Series title. “He’s got the postseason experience. And everybody knows he’s got ice in his veins, so there’s no moment that’s going to get the best of him.”

Cubs release NLDS roster and yes, John Lackey is on it along with another surprise

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USA TODAY

Cubs release NLDS roster and yes, John Lackey is on it along with another surprise

John Lackey may still have another game in "The Show" before he rides off into the sunset.

The enigmatic veteran pitcher is active for the National League Division Series as the Cubs released the roster Friday morning.

Lackey is not a part of the Cubs' four-man rotation, but will be in the bullpen to face the Washington Nationals. The 38-year-old last appeared out of a postseason bullpen in 2013 with the Boston Red Sox, facing the St. Louis Cardinals twice as a starter in the World Series and once as a reliever.

The Cubs brought Lackey in as a reliever in the final game of the regular season Sunday against the Reds. He gave up a run and was saddled with a loss, but at least he got some experience heading into the postseason. Prior to that, his last regular-season relief appearance came in 2004.

Lackey was the choice over Hector Rondon in the bullpen, a surprising move given Rondon's impact as a high-leverage reliever in the Cubs bullpen over the last few years: He has a 2.87 ERA and 1.06 WHIP in 251 games since the start of the 2014 season, saving 77 games in the process. He was on the mound when the Cubs clinched the 2015 NLDS over the St. Louis Cardinals at Wrigley Field.

Rondon fell out of favor in Maddon's bullpen last fall when he was injured with a triceps issue and was hardly used in the postseason and ineffective when he did get into the game (3 ER in 6 IP). 

The 29-year-old right-hander also missed two weeks in September with an elbow issue, though when he returned, Rondon was still throwing in the upper 90s and only allowed one baserunner in 3.1 innings from Sept. 22-29.

[MORE: Rahm Emanuel hoping to hang on to his sausage after Cubs-Nats NLDS

As for the rest of the roster, the Cubs opted for only seven relievers and 14 position players, adding Leonys Martin to a crowded outfield.

Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and the Cubs coaching staff met during the week to finalize the roster.

Here's the breakdown:

CATCHERS

Willson Contreras
Alex Avila

No surprises here. Contreras figures to play every single postseason game if healthy, filling the cleanup spot in the Cubs order behind Anthony Rizzo and also attempt to shut down the opposition's running game with his elite arm.

Avila still provides fantastic depth at a crucial position, even if he may not draw a start this October. He also supplies Joe Maddon with another valuable left-handed bat off the bench.

INFIELDERS

Anthony Rizzo
Kris Bryant
Javy Baez
Addison Russell
Tommy La Stella

Rizzo and Bryant will start at the corners while Russell and Baez figure to man the middle infield for a second straight October. La Stella will likely be the first bat off the bench against right-handed pitching.

OUTFIELDERS

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

Maddon will have plenty of decisions to make in the outfield, trying to find playing time for all six guys, assuming Zobrist and Happ don't see any time at second base.

Martin is on the roster as the 25th guy — an elite defender who will be available to play any of the three outfield positions late in close games as well as provide a speedy pinch-runner if Maddon chooses to employ him in that capacity. Martin was credited with 8 Defensive Runs Saved in 2017, despite playing just 299.2 innings. By comparison, Heyward - one of the best defensive outfielders in the game - was credited with 18 DRS in 1008.1 innings.

Case in point:

STARTING PITCHERS

Kyle Hendricks
Jon Lester
Jose Quintana
Jake Arrieta

The Cubs rotation has been known for a couple days. The Professor gets Game 1 with Lester going Game 2 Saturday, Quintana Game 3 and if the series makes it that far - Arrieta in Game 4.

RELIEVERS

Wade Davis
Carl Edwards Jr.
Brian Duensing
Pedro Strop
Mike Montgomery
Justin Wilson
John Lackey

The Cubs bullpen has struggled in the second half, posting a 4.48 ERA since the All-Star Break, good for 18th in the big leagues. Only the Houston Astros (4.49 ERA) have a worse mark among MLB playoff teams. 

The decision to keep Lackey made too much sense as soon as he wrapped his head around a possible relief role after stating earlier in the season he would never go to the bullpen. He provides another long option for Maddon if anything happens to a starter early in a game due to injury or ineffectiveness. Lackey and Montgomery could each eat multiple innings at any point for the Cubs.

Beyond that, Wilson also makes sense as another southpaw to possibly come in and face one batter in a crucial spot like Bryce Harper or Daniel Murphy. Wilson has struggled since the Cubs traded for him just before the deadline, but he's been in the postseason before and was a dominant reliever for years before August. He may not be in Maddon's circle of trust, but he still could be a weapon this October.

Lackey's presence on the roster ensured Justin Grimm and Rondon would not have a spot for at least one postseason series. Grimm struggled all season (5.53 ERA) and it became obvious Lackey would be active for the NLDS as the regular season wound down. But the decision to keep Rondon off the roster and put Martin on as the 25th man is curious and may mean the Cubs have some question marks still surrounding Rondon's health.

It's still hard to see Lackey called upon to enter the game in a "dirty" inning with runners on base, something he's not used to at all. Though Lester has no issues with the three-time World Series champ in October:

"I've seen Lack come out of the bullpen and get a hold in a World Series game before.," Lester said. "That's one person I'm not worried about."