Cubs

Cubs: Jason Motte thriving with the pressure back on

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Cubs: Jason Motte thriving with the pressure back on

Jason Motte thrives in the sort of scenario Pedro Strop faced Wednesday night: A one-run lead, the game on the line and a packed crowd of nearly 38,000 on its feet ready to erupt for a win over a heated rival.

The Cubs didn’t have Motte available to preserve a 5-4 ninth inning lead after the 33-year-old right-hander pitched both games of Tuesday’s doubleheader against the St. Louis Cardinals. So manager Joe Maddon turned to Strop, who blew the game when Jhonny Peralta ripped a 1-2 fastball into the left field basket for a go-ahead two-run home run.

While Motte isn’t the Cubs’ official closer, it was a spot he likely would’ve found himself in had he not pitched in those two games the day before.

Motte is three years removed from leading the National League with 42 saves for a Cardinals team that lost the NLCS to the San Francisco Giants in seven games. He underwent Tommy John surgery in 2013 and is finally finding the success he enjoyed a few years ago, though it’s not because he’s cleared a physical hurdle.

Instead, Motte’s return to pressure-packed situations — be it in the seventh, eighth or ninth inning — has him feeling like himself again.

“I was kind of up and down with when I got in and when I didn’t get in and stuff like that (last year), and this year it’s more of a consistent thing in some roles that I’m used to,” Motte said. “… You get that adrenaline going, you get other things going and you kinda get things going a little more to see where you are.”

[MORE: Cubs feel the sting after Cards deal gutting defeat]

Coming off Tommy John with the Cardinals last year, Motte was mostly used in early-inning or blow situations and posted a 4.68 ERA. Of the 110 batters he faced, 94 came in what Baseball-Reference.com characterizes as low-leverage spots. It’s not a coincidence that opposing hitters had a .921 OPS against Motte in those low-leverage plate appearances.

Motte’s ability to thrive on adrenaline allows the Cubs to be flexible and not pigeonhole him into a defined role as a closer or setup guy. His strikeout of Washington’s Anthony Rendon with the tying run on second came in the seventh inning June 4 and was critical in the Cubs’ 2-1 win over the National League East leaders. In Game 2 against St. Louis on Tuesday, Motte gave up three hits and a run but was able to work his way out of that self-inflicted jam to nail down his fifth save of the season.

With the Cubs, Motte is limiting opposing hitters to a .178 batting average, a .527 OPS and hasn’t allowed a home run in high-leverage situations.

“It speaks really a lot about his ability to slow things down and not get caught up in the moment in a negative way,” Maddon said. “That’s, right now, among all of his best features is that, the fact that he’s able to process that moment without permitting it to overwhelm him.”

[MORE: Maddon comfortable with Bryant, Rizzo in Home Run Derby]

The Cubs bullpen may not have much star power, at least until Rafael Soriano gets his arm strength back and joins the group sometime after the All-Star break. But it’s a group that has a 3.15 ERA, fourth-best in the National League, and its 2.29 mark over the last 30 days is the second-best in baseball — even despite Strop’s high-profile blown save Wednesday night.

Motte’s resurgence — he’ll enter the Crosstown series with 2.97 ERA — and ability to negotiate those tough outs and innings has been a big reason for the overall success of the Cubs’ bullpen.

“I love those situations,” Motte said. “That’s what I did before surgery and that’s my goal after surgery to get back pitching in those situations. I didn’t know where I was going to be or who I was going to play for but (I wanted to) have a manager having that confidence in me that he’d want to put me in those situations.”

Joe Maddon already has a new job, signs on with Angels

Joe Maddon already has a new job, signs on with Angels

Barring a Cubs-Angels World Series, the Wrigley Field faithful might not have much of an opportunity to welcome Joe Maddon back to The Friendly Confines.

It didn't take long for Maddon to find a job, as he reportedly agreed this week to join the Los Angeles Angels as their next manager. This was a widely speculated move after the Angels let go of manager Brad Ausmus just one year into a three-year contract immediately after the Cubs announced they were parting ways with Maddon. 

According to ESPN's Jesse Rogers, Maddon's deal will likely be for three years at $4-5 million a season:

Maddon came up as a coach in the Angels system, referencing his three decades there often during the course of his five years in Chicago.

Once the Cubs got rid of Maddon, it was obvious he would have plenty of suitors, as just about any team with a managerial vacancy would be interested in the future Hall of Famer. But instead of going to an up-and-coming team like the Padres or a squad on the cusp of the playoffs like the Phillies, Maddon opted to return to his baseball home.

That means he will most likely not face off against the Cubs over the next couple of seasons, as the Cubs hosted the Angels in 2019 and are not slated to play each other again until 2021 (which will take place in L.A.). Barring the aforementioned World Series meeting, Maddon and the Cubs likely won’t cross paths in Chicago for the next few seasons.

It also means Maddon will get to team up with the best player in the game (Mike Trout) and an exciting young two-way star (Shohei Ohtani) while inheriting a roster that otherwise has some major flaws. The Angels have struggled to build up a roster around Trout over his nine seasons, making the playoffs just once in 2014 and getting bounced from the ALDS by the Kansas City Royals that season.

But the Angels do have some intriguing prospects coming up the system — led by outfielder Jo Adell — and Maddon has experience taking a team and elevating them to contender status immediately. He also carries immediate clout that will help draw free agents to L.A., as he did in Chicago with Jon Lester.

Maddon will be reunited with former Cubs fan favorite Tommy La Stella, who was starring for the Angels earlier this season before a leg injury sent him to the shelf for several months.

In many ways, this is an ideal fit for Maddon, who will get to stay in a big market with a team willing to spend and a roster that at least has some incredible talent from Day 1. It would obviously be a difficult task to try to overtake the juggernaut Houston Astros in the AL West, but he accomplished a similar feat in Chicago when he led the Cubs past the Cardinals in Year 1 (and kept the Cards out of the playoffs for the next three years until their return to October baseball this fall).

The Cubs, meanwhile, have not yet announced a new manager, though David Ross still looms as the favorite to take over Maddon's former gig. Theo Epstein's front office interviewed Mark Loretta, Will Venable, Joe Girardi and Ross earlier this month and also planned to talk to Joe Espada and Gabe Kapler this week.

Epstein said the Cubs are "full speed ahead" to hire a new manager, so expect them to move quickly to finalize Maddon's heir.

Bold predictions for the Cubs' 2019-20 offseason

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USA TODAY

Bold predictions for the Cubs' 2019-20 offseason

The Cubs are just a couple of weeks away from a pivotal offseason that could see a lot of change coming to Chicago's North Side.

Then again, we thought the same thing a year ago and it turned out Theo Epstein's biggest move last winter was signing Daniel Descalso to a two-year deal.

But after missing the playoffs in 2019, the Cubs are now at a crossroads as an organization. 

The NBC Sports Chicago crew previewed the offseason on the latest CubsTalk Podcast with some bold predictions for the winter.

Listen here and check out the fearless calls below:

(Note: Rationale and more context on each bold prediction in the podcast.)

David Kaplan

1. Cubs are going to take a page out of the Yankees' book and retool on the fly rather than go all-in to contend in 2020.
2. Jose Quintana has thrown his last pitch as a Cub.
3. This will be the second-to-last offseason for Theo Epstein as the Cubs president of baseball operations.

Kelly Crull 

1. Cubs re-sign Nick Castellanos and trade away Kyle Schwarber.
2. Tyler Chatwood will be in the 2020 rotation.
3. John Lackey will be named quality assurance coach on David Ross's coaching staff. (Kidding, but only kind of...)

Tony Andracki

1. Before the Cubs play a Spring Training game, Javy Baez will sign an extension that will keep him in Chicago through at least 2023.
2. Willson Contreras will be traded this winter and the Cubs will get some much-needed pitching help in return.
3. Cubs sign Howie Kendrick this winter as the professional bat and lefty-masher they craved in 2019.
4. Ben Zobrist will return on a one-year deal and finish his playing career in a Cubs uniform.
5. David Bote, Albert Almora Jr. and Addison Russell will all be traded or non-tendered this winter as the Cubs remake their bench/depth.

Jeff Nelson

1. Willson Contreras will sign a contract extension.
2. Ben Zobrist will return as a player/coach.
3. Jose Quintana will be traded for minor league depth.
4. Terrance Gore will be signed to be the 26th man on the roster under the new rules.