Cubs

Cubs survive while waiting to click on all cylinders

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Cubs survive while waiting to click on all cylinders

MILWAUKEE — Joe Maddon’s glass is always half full. But the Cubs manager has a point when he says this team hasn’t come close to clicking on all cylinders.

Maddon’s plastic cup of Blue Eyed Boy shiraz was almost empty by the time the media entered his office late Friday night after what should have been a cruise-control victory over the Milwaukee Brewers.

The Cubs survived at Miller Park, hanging on for a 7-6 win over the worst team in baseball that had several bright spots and warning signs. They blasted four home runs, got seven strong innings from Jason Hammel and endured too many anxious moments out of the bullpen.

“We have not played up to our capabilities yet, and we’re still in a decent spot,” Maddon said. “Overall, quite frankly, before the season began, if you asked for this record on this date, a lot of people would have bought into it and said: I’ll take it.

“If we had been just pitching like crazy or just hitting like crazy it wouldn’t be as attractive. But we haven’t done anything particularly great yet. But we’re gonna, because we have those kind of athletes.”

[MORE: Cubs: Joe Maddon hears from MLB after ripping umpire]

The Cubs wound up needing Kris Bryant’s athleticism with two outs in the ninth inning, when the 6-foot-5 slugger hustled to first base and got rewarded with an infield single after a replay review, driving in what turned out to be the game-winning run on a three-strikeout night.

“I just want that reputation of playing hard,” Bryant said, “and respecting the game and ‘Respecting 90,’ like Joe says. That’s what I’ll continue to do.”

It mattered because closer Hector Rondon served up a three-run homer to Ryan Braun in the ninth inning — and then allowed two consecutive singles — before finally ending the game.  

“Our bullpen guys got to get this done,” Maddon said. “We’re not going anywhere without (our) bullpen being very dominant. You have to have a dominant bullpen to really win 90-plus games, and that’s our goal.”

The Cubs needed this after losing that reality-check series to the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium. There were moments where it looked exactly how the Cubs drew it up in the offseason.

[RELATED: For Cubs, closing the gap on Cardinals is easier said than done]

Dexter Fowler, acquired from the Houston Astros in January to be an offensive catalyst, led off the game with a home run off Jimmy Nelson, Milwaukee’s top prospect entering last season and the Pacific Coast League Pitcher of the Year in 2014.    

Anthony Rizzo continued his elite-level season in the fourth inning by crushing a ball 425 feet into the second deck in right field for his sixth homer. Moments later, Cubs fans here started high-fiving each other after Jorge Soler launched another homer that bounced off the center-field ledge, just to the right of the batter’s eye.

With all the bullpen issues, the Cubs wound up needing this from Starlin Castro in the ninth inning, driving a ball 426 feet into left field’s second deck.

As Maddon said after going over the final stat line: “Fifteen punch(outs). Four homers. Rock and roll.”

The Cubs are 15-13 now, even with Bryant having zero homers through 21 games and Jon Lester putting up a 6.23 ERA in April. Key relievers Justin Grimm and Neil Ramirez have missed time with injuries while Pedro Strop — who allowed an inherited runner to score in the eighth inning — seems to be overworked.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Of course, the Cubs can’t bank on all the rosy predictions and best-case scenarios: What if all these young hitters don’t figure it out sooner rather than later? Do you trust the bullpen? What if Lester and/or Jake Arrieta get injured and the rotation unravels?

Those are questions for another day, because the Cubs are relevant.

“We’re not really even clicking on all cylinders right now,” said Hammel (3-1, 3.52 ERA). “It’s two things go good one night, one goes bad. Once we start putting it together, pretty special things are going to happen here. As long as we keep grinding.

“We look at every day: Win each game. And then it comes down to series. You win series, you’re going to be pretty good at the end of the fight. Obviously, we haven’t played our best baseball.”

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.