Cubs

Anthony Rizzo: 'Scary' good Cubs could still catch Cardinals

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Anthony Rizzo: 'Scary' good Cubs could still catch Cardinals

ST. LOUIS — The Cubs don’t need to make a statement in early September when the computers give them a 90-something percent chance to make the playoffs.

The balance of power won’t shift overnight when the St. Louis Cardinals have 11 World Series flags flying here at Busch Stadium.

But the Cubs are playing with so much confidence right now — scoring the first 17 runs in this series and rolling to an 8-5 victory on Tuesday night — that Anthony Rizzo won’t concede the National League Central.

Can the Cubs still catch the Cardinals?

“I don’t see why not,” Rizzo said after blasting his 100th career homer, a two-run shot off Michael Wacha that set the tone in the first inning.

[MORE CUBS: Cubs GM Jed Hoyer hopes momentum translates into payroll boost]

This probably won’t go viral the way Rizzo’s winning-the-division guarantee created so much buzz leading into Cubs Convention in January, when no one knew how all these new pieces would fit together.

But no one will be laughing at the All-Star baseman’s predictions now. The Cubs have cut the deficit to 6 1/2 games in the division and trail the Pittsburgh Pirates by two games for home-field advantage in the wild-card game.

“Obviously, the Pirates feel the same way,” Rizzo said. “We just got to keep playing baseball. We really can’t worry about what anyone else is doing. We just got to keep winning ballgames.”

The Cubs now hold a 9 1/2-game lead over the Washington Nationals and San Francisco Giants for the second wild card and expect to be in this playoff conversation for years to come.

A deep and versatile lineup knocked out Wacha — an All-Star this year and the 2013 NLCS MVP — after four innings, and the Cubs have so many possible combinations for mad-scientist manager Joe Maddon.

[MORE CUBS: Joe Maddon's Wrigley problem with next year's schedule]

Javier Baez notched two hits and showed off his elite defensive skills at third base. Kyle Schwarber pinch-hit in the eighth inning and should be in Wednesday’s lineup (assuming no more setbacks after straining his rib cage last week).

A quality start from Jason Hammel (8-6, 3.59 ERA) eased some concerns about the back of the rotation (an eight-run lead helps). Neil Ramirez (abdominal soreness) came off the disabled list, adding a potential weapon for the bullpen.

“We’re moving in the right direction,” Rizzo said. “Every day, we’re just getting more confident and more confident. The group we have up — that could be really scary.”

The Cubs have so much young talent that they can essentially turn Starlin Castro — who made three All-Star teams before his 25th birthday — into a part-time player.

Castro hit a three-run homer off Wacha that traveled 410 feet in the second inning and later added an RBI double. This isn’t how Castro envisioned the Cubs becoming relevant again — while losing his job to new franchise shortstop Addison Russell — but in his last 34 games he’s hitting .323 and playing with more of an edge.

[MORE CUBS: MLB Power Rankings: NL playoff picture coming into focus]

“That’s the game,” Castro said. “I’ve been here for a long time. I don’t enjoy (sitting). I know I can play. But the team’s playing pretty good. And whatever is good for the team, I’ll be here. (The rest) doesn’t matter.

“Just try to keep focused and concentrate. Whatever happens, I’ll try to be (here for the team).”

Winning the division is a long shot, but the Cubs (80-57) still have four games left against the Cardinals and will be looking for the sweep on Wednesday with Jon Lester, their $155 million pitcher.

“They do it year in, year out,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said. “That’s the point we have to get to. I like the fact that our guys want to play down here. They want the challenge that represents.

“But to really match these guys and to take it to their place means year in, year out. Not any one year, one series, one half-season, whatever.

“Our goal is to get to the place where we can look at these guys across the field and know that year in, year out we can go toe-to-toe.”

Closing the gap in this rivalry would always be a long, slow process, imperceptible at times. But this at least feels different for the Cubs — not drowning in a sea of red at Busch Stadium.

“We always came in here and we lost,” Castro said. “But now we come in here every day to compete and try to win games.”

Podcast: Bold predictions for the Cubs offseason

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USA TODAY

Podcast: Bold predictions for the Cubs offseason

With the MLB offseason about to kick off, we run down the boldest predictions for the Cubs winter from around the NBC Sports Chicago Cubs content team. Topics include where Bryce Harper and Manny Machado will sign, how much money they’ll get, what the Cardinals will do this winter, Cubs offseason trades and how Theo Epstein’s front office may add to the pitching staff.

 

One topic we could all agree on was David Ross' potential as Cubs bench coach if the incumbent Brandon Hyde ends up taking a job as manager for another team around the league.

 

Listen to the entire podcast here and check out all of our bold predictions below:

 

 

David Kaplan

 

—Anthony Rizzo and his new wife, Emily, will adopt Manny Machado, change his last name and see Manny Rizzo playing third base for the 2019 Cubs.

—Because of the Rizzo move, the Cubs will move Kris Bryant to a full-time outfielder.

—The Cubs will trade away Jose Quintana and sign Patrick Corbin.

—The Cubs will sign a pair of former Indians relievers for the back end of the bullpen in Andrew Miller and Cody Allen.

—The Cubs will trade Kyle Schwarber to the Royals for Whit Merrifield, who will start 155 games in the leadoff spot in the order.

—Joe Maddon will be a lot more consistent with the Cubs' lineup and batting order all season.

 

Kelly Crull

 

—Anthony and Emily Rizzo will receive more wedding gifts from Cubs fans than Kris and Jessica Bryan received.

—Anthony Rizzo will train this offseason so he will be able to sing — or play the piano — for the National Anthem at Wrigley in 2019.

—The Cubs will have no money left to remodel the media room at Wrigley Field.

 

Luke Stuckmeyer

 

—The Captain Morgan Club at Wrigley Field is going to be replaced by Kap's Kryo & Keto Korner.

—The Cubs will finally find a solution to the leadoff hitter issue.

 

Tony Andracki

 

—The Cubs sign Bryce Harper for less than $250 million. (He follows 23 people on Twitter)
—Manny Machado does not get a contract for more than $250 million, either.
—The Cardinals will sign Craig Kimbrel and either Machado or Josh Donaldson to play 3B. 

 

Rationale: St. Louis could really use the bat and closer and they have a sense of urgency in the division this winter we haven't seen from them in at least a decade. The Cubs and Brewers have clearly been better for two seasons now and look to have a better chance at contending than the Cardinals in 2019, as well. That can't be sitting well with the "Best Fans in Baseball." 

 

Jeff Nelson, producer

 

—The Cubs will trade 2 of the following players:  Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ, Addison Russell, Albert Almora Jr.

—The Cardinals will sign Manny Machado to play third base.

—Because of construction delays, the visitors’ clubhouse will not be ready for the home opener, forcing the Pirates to dress at their hotel and come to the ballpark in full uniform.

Mike Piff, social media manager

—Cubs sign Nick Markakis.
—Cubs sign Tyson Ross.

Eric Strobel, producer

—The Cubs 2019 saves leader is not currently on the roster.

Rationale: We saw what happened to the bullpen in Brandon Morrow's absence; it got the job done by and large, but was not longer truly feared. Deep 'pens are the norm in October now with lockdown relievers being counted on more and more. The front office knows they can't truly entrust that kind of workload to Morrow with his injury history - Theo admitted as much in his end-of-season press conference. While they probably will not make a big splash, a huge focus of the offseason will be to surround Morrow/Strop/Edwards/etc. with as many talented arms as possible. The Cubs could very well enter next season without a designated closer, but if they do, it will not be Brandon Morrow.

Scott Changnon, multi-platform producer

—The Cubs will sign Bryce Harper.

Rationale: "I dunno, maybe."

Nate Poppen, producer

—Cubs sign Andrew McCutchen, plug him into CF and make Almora a 4th OF (or expendable)
—Bryce Harper signs with Yankees.
—Manny Machado signs with Angels.

Matt Buckman, producer

Non-roster prediction: The Cubs will welcome Sammy Sosa back to Wrigley Field. Sammy turns 50 this winter, and fueled by our wonderful documentary on 1998, the Cubs will finally mend their broken bond with Sammy and bring him back to Wrigley.

Roster prediction: The Cubs will trade Kyle Schwarber for a leadoff hitter. Joe has had to get very creative with the top of his order since Dexter Fowler left. Though the front office has downplayed the importance of a lead-off hitter the last two off-seasons, they will look to add one for 2019 so that Joe doesn’t have to be so creative. They won’t have a place to play Schwarber after they sign Harper so they will swap his power for a new “you go, we go” guy. Look at KC or TB as AL teams that need to add power and also have guys who could potentially lead off for the Cubs. Mallex Smith (TB) or Whit Merrifield (KC) would be interesting options.

No-brainer: The Cubs should absolutely bring back Jesse Chavez in 2019 bullpen

No-brainer: The Cubs should absolutely bring back Jesse Chavez in 2019 bullpen

Should the Cubs bring Jesse Chavez back for the 2019 bullpen?

This question shouldn't have anywhere near the polarizing effect the Daniel Murphy query had earlier this week, and for good reason.

It's hard to find any real downside for the Cubs working Chavez back into the fold next season. 

Sure, he's 35 and he'll turn 36 in August, but Chavez just had far and away the best season of his 11-year career and all signs point to it being legit.

He won't have a 1.15 ERA forever, of course, but he clearly found something with his mechanics that helped lead to the remarkable consistency he showed in a Cubs uniform (4 saves, 4 holds, 1.15 ERA, 0.79 WHIP, 42 Ks in 39 IP). 

The Cubs will be looking to add some reinforcements to their bullpen this winter and Chavez fits the bill in many areas.

When asked about how to address the bullpen this winter, Theo Epstein said his front office will be "looking for guys who can throw strikes and execute a gameplan and take the ball and pitch in big spots."

The Cubs have publicly placed an emphasis on "strike-throwers" out of the bullpen over the last two winters now and that is right up Chavez's alley.

He threw 68.5 percent first-pitch strikes while with the Cubs, which would've ranked near the top of the league in 2018, right up there with aces like Miles Mikolas, Clayton Kershaw, Aaron Nola and Justin Verlander. Among all relievers, Chavez ranked 5th in baseball in first-pitch strike percentage in the second half.

Expanding further (since the first pitch isn't the only one that matters): Chavez threw the fourth-most strikes in baseball among all MLB relievers after the All-Star Break. Since the day Chavez put on a Cubs uniform, Philadelphia's Tommy Hunter (70.5 percent) was the only reliever in baseball (minimum 30 innings) to throw a higher percentage of pitches for strikes than Chavez (69.8 percent).

If you want strikes, there's no better reliever on the market right now than Chavez.

He also shouldn't be all that expensive at age 35, even despite the breakout and high level of importance placed upon relievers these days. A similar deal to the one Brian Duensing got last winter - $7 million over 2 years - seems appropriate and would be a steal if Chavez can continue to find even a modicum of the success he had since putting on a Cubs uniform.

Speaking of the Cubs uniform, Chavez reportedly doesn't want to wear another logo in 2019, saying this after the NL Wild-Card Game:

That was an emotional time, but Chavez repeatedly raved about the Cubs clubhouse and culture throughout his time in Chicago and really appreciated the way his teammates made him feel comfortable from Day 1.

When the Cubs first acquired Chavez in that under-the-radar trade, they touted his versatility which has become a valuable asset, especially in today's game where relievers are often asked to pitch multiple innings. If necessary, he could also represent depth for the starting rotation, having made 70 starts over his MLB career. 

Unless there's a surprising market that develops for Chavez, bringing him back to the North Side of Chicago on a 1- or 2-year deal is a no-brainer.