Milwaukee Brewers

What if Jake Arrieta stays in the NL Central and repeatedly haunts the Cubs?

What if Jake Arrieta stays in the NL Central and repeatedly haunts the Cubs?

Jake Arrieta in a Brewers uniform?

That's not a sight Cubs fans would like to see, but the North Siders' I-94 rivals are apparently keen on trying to add Arrieta, the free-agent pitcher who's been one of the National League's top arms for the past several seasons.

The Cubs have their own decision to make on whether or not they're going to pursue re-signing Arrieta, a guy who over the past three seasons has posted a 2.71 ERA and struck out 589 batters, winning 54 games in 94 starts for a team that won the 2016 World Series and has advanced to three consecutive NL Championship Series.

The downside to losing Arrieta is obvious, as the Cubs would lose a huge part of their formidable starting rotation, but there would be an added downside if Arrieta were to remain in the NL Central and repeatedly haunt his former team.

Given Arrieta's track record, adding him would make sense for any team in the majors, but the Brewers in particular could use a front-of-the-line starting pitcher to boost their chances of besting the Cubs for the Central crown. The Brew Crew staged a surprising threat to do just that in 2017, perhaps proving that their rebuilding effort has yielded fruit ahead of schedule.

But there are questions in that rotation, with Jimmy Nelson expected to miss time next season after having shoulder surgery. Chase Anderson was great last season, and Zach Davies was solid, too. Brewers starters posted an ERA of 4.10 on the season, good for fifth in the NL. The four teams ahead of them, including the Cubs, all made the playoffs. Adding an arm as good as Arrieta's could make the difference in jumping past the Cubs in the Central and getting the Crew to the postseason for the first time since 2011.

And it'd be a plus for the Brewers to make it so Arrieta couldn't shut down their hitters anymore. In 15 career starts against the Crew, Arrieta is 8-4 with a 2.74 ERA. However, they'd surely love to have him call Miller Park home. He's never lost there in five starts, boasting a 2.03 ERA with 30 strikeouts.

There's an argument to be made that Arrieta would be able to seek revenge on the Cubs no matter what team he ends up pitching for, be it an NL team facing off against the Cubs in the playoffs or an American League squad meeting the Cubs in the World Series. After all, as Scott Boras put it, signing Arrieta is a ticket to "Playoffville."

But should Arrieta make the short drive to Wisconsin and set up shop in America's Dairyland, turning the Brewers into a legitimate playoff contender and challenger to the Cubs' grip on the NL Central crown? Well, consider the Cubs-Brewers rivalry cranked up to 11.

Cubs could see this heavyweight rematch coming: Bring on the Dodgers


Cubs could see this heavyweight rematch coming: Bring on the Dodgers

WASHINGTON – Joe Maddon plays mind games and sends messages through the media and sometimes just runs with whatever idea pops into his head.

Maddon turned on a big-picture question from a New York Times reporter in late August, essentially skipping over the comparisons between the 2016 Cubs and the 2017 Dodgers and jumping to how much he would love to face the group on the Sports Illustrated cover labeled as: “Best. Team. Ever?”

Bring it on, Maddon signaled, looking forward to when the defending World Series champs would be at full strength and saying how much he would love that matchup against the Dodgers in October.

Well, here it is, a rematch of last year’s National League Championship Series, Game 1 on Saturday night at Dodger Stadium, Clayton Kershaw and the rest of a $200-plus million team knowing this season will be a failure if they don’t win an iconic franchise’s first World Series title since 1988.

“You have to beat the best to be the best,” Maddon explained this week in the middle of a grueling first-round, five-game series against the Nationals. “You can’t run away from any of this stuff. The question could have been about any team, not just the Dodgers.

“Pick the ’27 Yankees. Pick the ’64 Cardinals, the Big Red Machine, whatever, the We Are Family (Pirates). You just want to believe your guys can match up with anybody. And I want our guys to believe the same thing.”

The Cubs had credibility issues when Maddon made that declaration in Philadelphia during a 3-3 road trip against the last-place Reds and Phillies, part of the same overall pattern that led to a 43-45 first half and Milwaukee’s three-game sweep at Wrigley Field in the middle of September.

From that point, the Cubs buried the Brewers and Cardinals in the division race, going 15-4 to close the regular season and devastating a 97-win Washington team in the playoffs.

“That was brought up to me,” Maddon said, “and all I said was I was just agreeing with the comment. Somebody brought up the Dodgers. They could have brought up the ’27 Yankees. I was not pointing anything out.

“When that was all going on, there was a lot of nonbelievers. We have really, obviously, picked it up in the second half in general, and then I’m using Milwaukee as the benchmark. In 2015, I used the Giants in August as being that seminal moment that all of a sudden it seemed to get right. Since (then), our mental intensity has really been outstanding every game.

“I wasn’t talking about the Dodgers. Somebody else was.”

The Dodgers still have the main elements in place that held the Cubs scoreless for 21 straight innings during the 2016 NLCS — the great Kershaw, lefty curveball specialist Rich Hill, Kenley Jansen imitating Mariano Rivera — but their roster isn’t quite as top-heavy anymore after making a trade-deadline splash with Yu Darvish and developing Cody Bellinger into a 39-homer, 97-RBI force and probably the unanimous NL Rookie of the Year.

While the Cubs felt like they blacked out during a crazy NLDS —  and the team’s West Coast charter flight got diverted to New Mexico on Friday morning — the Dodgers relaxed and set up their pitching after sweeping the Diamondbacks in three games.

“I can’t wait,” said shortstop Addison Russell, whose 2016 postseason could be divided into through (1-for-24) and after (12-for-40) Game 3 at Dodger Stadium. “We’re willing to take on each challenge. I know that we got another big challenge ahead of us against the Dodgers.”

Remember, the Dodgers had to play a one-run elimination game at Nationals Park on Oct. 13, 2016, using Jansen and Kershaw to nail down the final nine outs, the same urgency/desperation the Cubs showed Thursday night in using Jose Quintana and Wade Davis for the last three innings against Washington.

Will the 2017 Cubs run out of gas like the 2016 Dodgers? Can the 2017 Dodgers withstand the pressure and freak-out moments as well as the 2016 Cubs? Stay tuned.  

“They’ve been the best team in baseball since Day 1,” said Jon Lester, last year’s NLCS co-MVP with Javier Baez. “The roles are reversed. We were that team last year — and we moved on — and they’re that team this year.

“But we know going into L.A. that it’s going to be a hard series, regardless. They got a great staff. They got a great lineup, so we got to respect them. Hopefully, they respect us, and it’s a good series.”    

Joe Maddon will again be under the microscope with Cubs back in playoff mode


Joe Maddon will again be under the microscope with Cubs back in playoff mode

WASHINGTON – “Manager of the Year,” one player sarcastically said to another in the hallway as they passed a group of reporters walking into Joe Maddon’s office for a postgame press conference.

The Cubs had just beaten the Milwaukee Brewers in an intense 10-inning game at Miller Park, where it already felt like the playoffs in late September, the defending World Series champs closing in on a second straight division title and a third consecutive playoff appearance, something this franchise had not done since Wrigley Field opened more than a century ago.

Minutes after that throwaway line, cranky pitcher John Lackey gave a “Ya think?” answer to a question about wanting to throw more innings. It’s not easy herding millionaires with huge egos and their own agendas. But that scene in the visiting clubhouse – while the Cubs were operating at their highest level all season – reinforced the idea that something had been a little off with this team.

So while Dusty Baker has more to lose — no contract for next season, no World Series ring as a manager —  Maddon’s decisions will be magnified in a best-of-five National League Division Series where the Washington Nationals might have more on-paper talent in every phase of the game.

It begins Friday night at Nationals Park, where the Cubs nearly self-destructed in late June, chatty backup catcher Miguel Montero talking his way off the team and the never-ending victory tour making a second White House stop within six months.

Do you think Kyle Hendricks will be allowed to pitch deeper into Game 1?

“I’m not Joe Maddon,” said Jon Lester, who didn’t get the clean situation everyone expected when he replaced Hendricks with two outs in the fifth inning of last year’s World Series Game 7. “I don’t make those decisions. As a pitcher, I’m sure he wants to throw nine every time, just like the rest of us do.

“You don’t even know if (Kyle’s) heart’s beating out there half the time. I’m sure he gets frustrated when he gets taken out of games, just like the rest of us do as well.

“I just hope he pitches well and we don’t have to worry about any decisions.”

The thing with Maddon is that his greatest strengths — deep trust in players to do the right thing, an expectation the clubhouse will police itself, a relentlessly upbeat attitude, the stubborn belief in his philosophy — can at times also look like his biggest weaknesses.

It can also be a matter of perception. The sloppy fundamentals and lack of urgency during a 43-45 first half left Theo Epstein’s front office considering the remote possibility of dealing Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta and All-Star closer Wade Davis before the July 31 trade deadline and flipping those upcoming free agents for prospects.

That 49-25 surge after the All-Star break also reflected a manager who kept his cool and mostly contained the frustrations at a time when you wondered if this team would listen to anyone, anyway, because everyone kept telling the Cubs how great they were, how great they are and how great they will be in the future.

“Joe’s super-consistent and very positive and manages with the big picture in mind,” Epstein said. “Look at what we’ve done in the second halves under him.”

Since Maddon used the escape clause in his contract with the Tampa Bay Rays after the 2014 season, the Cubs have gone 118-57 in August, September and early October, plus winning five playoff rounds and the franchise’s first World Series title since 1908.

“He’s been the same guy since Day 1,” said Kris Bryant, who has won Rookie of the Year and MVP awards and a World Series ring and advanced to the playoffs three times during his first three seasons with Maddon/in the big leagues.

“He’s very hands-off. He trusts his players. He knows that we all want to win. He knows that we’re going to prepare for every game, so he feels like he doesn’t need to go out there and hoorah and tell us all this stuff to get us ready. He knows that we have a good group here.

“He’s been the perfect manager for a young team, that’s for sure.”

By his own admission, Maddon is not a rules guy or a rah-rah motivator. He doesn’t come with big-league playing experience or an expertise in pitching mechanics or the science of hitting. He also didn’t bring out the zoo animals or as many dress-up gimmicks this season.

“You can play that stuff out too much,” said Ben Zobrist, who made his big-league debut with Maddon’s 101-loss Tampa Bay team in 2006. “You can do a little bit too much. He probably pulled back a little bit (compared to) past years.

“Our team was so loose all year, anyways. There wasn’t really a moment in the season where we didn’t pick each other up or we were hanging our heads or guys weren’t wanting to work.

“A lot of these guys are just intrinsically motivated.”

The strategy questions followed Maddon after the Cubs beat the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field last November and lingered into the winter meetings and spring training. Maddon didn’t publicly second-guess himself about how he used superstar closer Aroldis Chapman and doesn’t see the point in dissecting the job he’s done this year.

“It doesn’t matter, really,” Maddon said. “I’m pleased in the sense that what I’ve always believed I’ve carried here. And I haven’t backed down on my belief system regarding how to work with the baseball team, how to run a game, how to help promote it, develop young players. All that stuff, nothing has changed.

“It’s nice to see that your methods are validated. Because as you move it along, you really are secure and understanding what you believe is right on. There are times where you are just trying stuff, you don’t even know. But then you get to a certain point where you feel pretty strongly about what you’re doing and how you’re doing it.

“If anything, I’ll concede one thing: That these last three years overall have validated the teaching principles I’ve learned in this game and how to go about it. The people that I learned from are a really special group.”

The end scene for a baseball lifer will be the free-flowing Hall of Fame speech Maddon will someday give on a summer afternoon in Cooperstown, New York, name-dropping all his old coaches and buddies from places like Lafayette College and the Texas League, the back fields he once worked and the miles he drove as a scout, all the experiences that shaped him into an iconic manager. But the rest of this Cubs season is unwritten, and it will be fascinating to see if Maddon pushes the right buttons now.