Cubs

Can't win 'em all, but Cubs can get Joe Maddon more pitching

Can't win 'em all, but Cubs can get Joe Maddon more pitching

San Diego Padres closer Fernando Rodney pulled back his pretend bow and shot an imaginary arrow into the foggy sky on Wednesday afternoon, celebrating a 7-4 win over the Cubs in Game 1 of a doubleheader between two teams that appear to be heading in opposite directions: Buy vs. Sell.  

That tilted-hat look and trademark final-out routine would normally bother fans at Wrigley Field, but the Cubs caught lightning in a bottle with Rodney during last year’s playoff run. It’s hard to complain when your team has the best record in baseball, even after a sloppy loss that featured three errors and a bullpen meltdown against the last-place Padres.   

The Cubs can’t win ‘em all – this snapped an eight-game streak for a team off to the best start in franchise history since the 1907 World Series champions – but Theo Epstein’s front office can get manager Joe Maddon some more pitching to help withstand the next 1,200-1,300 innings. 

“We almost throw out everything that’s happened so far, because we are on such a roll,” Epstein said. “We probably spend more time looking ahead to the inevitable challenging periods when we’re shorthanded or strapped and things aren’t breaking our way. 

“We’re trying to get ahead and figure out how we’re going to deal with that adversity.”

Game 1 appeared to be going according to plan when Kyle Hendricks walked off the mound to a standing ovation in the seventh inning, the Cubs holding a two-run lead with two outs and a runner on first base after a soft infield single.   

Pedro Strop – who entered the game with eight holds and opponents hitting .114 (5-for-44) against him – threw a wild pitch and then got a groundball before Javier Baez’s throwing error allowed a run to score. Strop walked Matt Kemp and then watched Brett Wallace drive an 82-mph slider into the left-center field bleachers for a three-run homer and a 6-4 lead. 

“I felt stronger as the game went on,” Hendricks said after cutting his ERA to 3.03 and improving his strikeout-to-walk ratio to 31:7. “But that spot there, that was the fourth time coming through the order. And that was the first time, I think, I’ve been over 100 (pitches) in a while, as far as I can remember. You can second-guess it every time, either way. 

“It’s a long season. You’re going to lose games. You’re going to lose close ones, you’re going to lose ones where you’re ahead. A lot of things are going to happen. So you just got to learn how to deal with each situation.”

That’s how the in-case-of-emergency Cubs wound up with Rodney late last August, getting a two-time All-Star the Seattle Mariners had designated for assignment. 

Maddon trusted Rodney after their time together with the Tampa Bay Rays, and found ways to deploy Clayton Richard (acquired for a dollar from the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Triple-A affiliate last summer) and Trevor Cahill (released by the Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers before signing a minor-league deal).   

It’s not always obvious, but there’s a cumulative effect with the quick hooks for Hendricks and Jason Hammel, and pushing Strop so hard (195 appearances since the Jake Arrieta trade with the Baltimore Orioles in the middle of the 2013 season), and using 80 picks on pitchers in the last four drafts and not having any of them ready for the big leagues yet.

“When it comes down to pitching, you can never have enough,” Maddon said. “Because once something goes awry with your pitching, man, it’s hard to fill in the blanks there. 

“(With) position players, it’s somewhat easier to plug somebody in positions and still maintain a nice roll. But when you’re missing vital pitchers, they’re really hard to find. To me, it’s always about pitching.”

The Rays couldn’t give Maddon everything he wanted – the big-market spotlight, a $25 million contract and all these monster middle-of-the-order hitters – but he did get spoiled with Tampa Bay’s pitching.  

Maybe the Cubs will acquire another power arm for their bullpen, or make the under-the-radar moves that worked so well last summer, or find the young, controllable starter they couldn’t acquire over the winter to eventually replace Arrieta if he leaves as a free agent after the 2017 season.   

“I’ve said it at clinics many times – the game could have been called ‘Pitching’ as opposed to ‘Baseball,’” Maddon said. “You cannot have enough of that. I’m always about that.”

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

There are plenty of intriguing Cubs storylines to monitor this offseason from their potential pursuit of the big free agents to any other changes that may come to the coaching staff or roster after a disappointing finish to the 2018 campaign.

But there's one question simmering under the radar in Cubs circles when it comes to this winter: How will the team solve the shortstop conundrum?

Just a few years ago, the Cubs had "too many" shortstops. Now, there are several different factors at play here that makes it a convoluted mess.

First: What will the Cubs do with Addison Russell? The embattled shortstop is in the midst of a suspension for domestic violence that will keep him off an MLB diamond for at least the first month of 2019.

Has Russell already played his last game with the Cubs? Will they trade him or send him packing in any other fashion this winter?

Theo Epstein mentioned several times he felt the organization needs to show support to the victim in the matter (Russell's ex-wife, Melisa) but also support for Russell. Does that mean they would keep him a part of the team at least through the early part of 2019?

Either way, Russell's days in Chicago are numbered and his play on the field took another big step back in 2018 as he fought through a hand injury and experienced a major dip in power. With his performance on the field and the off-field issues, it will be hard to justify a contract worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 million in his second year of arbitration (prorated, with a month's worth of pay taken out for the suspension).

Even if Russell is on the roster in 2019, Javy Baez is unquestionably the shortstop for at least the first month while Russell is on suspension. 

But what about beyond Baez if the Cubs want to give him a breather or disaster strikes and he's forced to miss time with an injury?

At the moment, there's nothing but question marks on the current Cubs shortstop depth chart throughout the entire organization and they're certainly going to need other options at the most important defensive position (outside of pitcher/catcher). 

There's David Bote, who subbed in for Baez at short once in September when Baez needed a break and Russell was on the disabled list. But while Bote's defense at third base and second base has opened eyes around the Cubs, he has only played 45 games at short across seven minor-league seasons, including 15 games in 2018. There's also the offensive question marks with the rookie, who hit just .176 with a .559 OPS and 40 strikeouts in 108 at-bats after that epic ultimate grand slam on Aug. 12.

The Cubs' other current shortstop options include Mike Freeman (a 31-year-old career minor-leaguer), Ben Zobrist (who will be 38 in 2019 and has played all of 13 innings at shortstop since 2014), Ryan Court (a 30-year-old career minor leaguer) and Chesny Young (a 26-year-old minor-leaguer who has posted a .616 OPS in 201 Triple-A games).

Maybe Joe Maddon would actually deploy Kris Bryant at shortstop in case of emergency like a Baez injury ("necessity is the mother of invention," as Maddon loves to say), but that seems a lot more like a fun talking point than a legit option at this current juncture.

So even if Russell sticks around, there's no way the Cubs can go into the first month of the season with just Baez and Bote as the only shortstop options on a team that with World Series or bust expectations.

The Cubs will need to acquire some shortstop depth this winter in some capacity, whether it's adding to the Triple-A Iowa roster or getting a veteran who can also back up other positions. Right now, the free agent pool of potential shortstops is pretty slim beyond Manny Machado.

Epstein always says he and his front office look to try to mitigate risk and analyze where things could go wrong to sink the Cubs' season and through that lense, shortstop is suddenly right up there behind adding more bullpen help this winter.

Podcast: In light of recent hitting coach turmoil, who’s to blame for Cubs offensive struggles?

cubs_podcast_offense_slid.jpg
USA TODAY

Podcast: In light of recent hitting coach turmoil, who’s to blame for Cubs offensive struggles?

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, David Kaplan, Kelly Crull, Luke Stuckmeyer and Tony Andracki discuss the comments Chili Davis made after being fired as Cubs hitting coach, ask if the Cubs struggles on offense were Davis' fault or the players and what Anthony Iapoce will be walking into as he tries to gets the team back on track a the plate.

 

Listen to the entire podcast here, or in the embedded player below: