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Cubs unveil wild-card lineup in advance of showdown with Pirates

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Cubs unveil wild-card lineup in advance of showdown with Pirates

PITTBURGH - In one baseball game, anything can happen.

Sure, Jake Arrieta and Gerrit Cole - two of the best pitchers in the game today - will be going head-to-head, but you can't just assume the Cubs-Pirates showdown in the National League wild-card game will be a low-scoring affair.

[RELATED - Cubs trying to be oblivious to playoff pressure: 'Dumb it down']

"What it comes down to is the beauty of the game and what can take place when men get out on the mound and teams take the field," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said before the team's workout Tuesday. "It very well could be a low-scoring game. That would seem to be the reach. And then some different things could happen."

Which means both Hurdle and Cubs manager Joe Maddon need to be prepared for anything.

There is no guarantee Jake Arrieta will keep dominating the world like he has the last few months. Especially in the first postseason game of his career.

The Cubs released Maddon's lineup Wednesday afternoon:

1. Dexter Fowler - CF
2. Kyle Schwarber - RF
3. Kris Bryant - LF
4. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
5. Tommy La Stella - 3B
6. Starlin Castro - 2B
7. Miguel Montero - C
8. Addison Russell - SS
9. Jake Arrieta - P

Here is the Cubs' complete 25-man roster for the wild-card game:

Catchers

Miguel Montero

2015 stats: .248 AVG, .754 OPS, 15 HR, 53 RBI

How he got here: The Cubs traded for Montero in the offseason, dealing a pair of young pitchers to the Arizona Diamondbacks to acquire the veteran catcher and add a valuable piece inside the clubhouse.

David Ross

2015 stats: .176 AVG, .518 OPS, 1 HR, 9 RBI

How he got here: The Cubs signed Ross in the offseason to serve as Jon Lester's personal catcher and a pseudo coach in the locker room. Oh, and he's pretty good at Taylor Swift karaoke.

Infielders

Anthony Rizzo

2015 stats: .278 AVG, .899 OPS, 31 HR, 101 RBI, 94 R, 17 SB

How he got here: Rizzo came to the Cubs in a franchise-altering move that sent Andrew Cashner to the San Diego Padres and handed the Cubs an MVP candidate and serious middle-of-the-order threat.

Starlin Castro

2015 stats: .265 AVG, .671 OPS, 11 HR, 69 RBI, 52 R

How he got here: Castro is the longest-tenured Cubs player, having spent only a few days on a winning team in Chicago before this season. The embattled shortstop was benched in early August, but has been baseball's best hitter since Sept. 1 and was tabbed as Montero's prediction for the team's postseason MVP.

Addison Russell

2015 stats: .242 AVG, .696 OPS, 13 HR, 54 RBI, 60 R

How he got here: The National League's youngest player was put on the fast track after coming to the Cubs in the Jeff Samardzija deal last July 4. The quiet rookie started out playing second base, but has now taken his smooth glove to shortstop and is one of the top defensive players in the game already.

Kris Bryant

2015 stats: .275 AVG, .858 OPS, 26 HR, 99 RBI, 87 R, 13 SB

How he got here: Yes, the Cubs made the right move in keeping Bryant down in Iowa for two weeks at the beginning of the season to retain an extra year of control on the budding superstar. Bryant is all but guaranteed the NL Rookie of the Year award and has emerged as one of the best all-around players in the game, proving he's way more than just a guy who hits home runs and strikes out.

[MORE CUBS: Kris Bryant wants to keep the surprises coming in playoffs]

Tommy La Stella

2015 stats: .269 AVG, .727 OPS, 1 HR, 11 RBI

How he got here: The Cubs acquired La Stella from the Atlanta Braves for Arodys Vizcaino in the offseason and the 26-year-old infielder spent most of the season on the disabled list with oblique injuries. But it didn't take him long to win over Maddon's confidence and La Stella figures to play a prominent role in the Cubs' playoff run.

Javier Baez

2015 stats: .289 AVG, .733 OPS, 1 HR, 4 RBI

How he got here: Baez was the most intriguing Cubs prospect last season during his two-month stint in the big leagues. This year, the death of his sister and a finger injury nearly derailed Baez's season, but the young slugger perservered and looks like a completely different player, giving the Cubs defense, speed and a more mature approach at the plate.

Outfielders

Dexter Fowler

2015 stats: .250 AVG, .757 OPS, 17 HR, 46 RBI, 102 R, 20 SB

How he got here: The Cubs traded Luis Valbuena for Fowler over the winter, anchoring their lineup and defense as a bonafide leadoff hitter and centerfielder. Fowler led the team in walks and runs scored, setting the table for Rizzo and Bryant.

Kyle Schwarber

2015 stats: .246 AVG, .842 OPS, 16 HR, 43 RBI, 52 R

How he got here: The Cubs' first-round pick in 2014 broke into the big leagues in a big way, mashing everything in sight. He's slowed down a bit since then, but still represents a potentially game-changing left-handed bat in the postseason

Chris Coghlan

2015 stats: .250 AVG, .784 OPS, 16 HR, 41 RBI, 64 R, 11 SB

How he got here: One of the more underrated players on any postseason team, Coghlan spent a large part of the season as the Cubs' No. 3 hitter, showing off his versatility by playing all over the diamond and crushing right-handed pitching.

Jorge Soler

2015 stats: .262 AVG, .723 OPS, 10 HR, 47 RBI

How he got here: Soler was seen as a Rookie of the Year contender before the season, but struggled to get going out of the gate and dealt with a pair of injuries that forced him to miss more than 50 games. The 23-year-old hits the ball as hard as anybody in baseball and can change the game late even if he doesn't get a start.

Chris Denorfia

2015 stats: .269 AVG, .691 OPS, 3 HR, 18 RBI

How he got here: The veteran outfielder has become a "glue guy" in the clubhouse and figures to be utilized as a defensive replacement/pinch-hitter in any Cubs postseason games.

Austin Jackson

2015 stats: .236 AVG, .679 OPS, 1 HR, 10 RBI

How he got here: The Cubs dealt for Jackson right before the waiver deadline, adding another veteran who plays solid defense at all three outfield positions and provides a right-handed bat and some speed off the bench.

Quintin Berry

2015 stats: 2 SBs, 1 CS

How he got here: Berry is on the roster as a pinch-runner, hoping to change the game with his speed just like Dave Roberts did on the 2004 Boston Red Sox.

Pitchers

Jake Arrieta

2015 stats: 22-6, 1.77 ERA, 0.865 WHIP, 236 K

How he got here: If the Rizzo trade was a franchise-altering move, then what does the Cubs-Orioles trade from July 2013 qualify as? Theo Epstein's front office flipped Scott Feldman for Pedro Strop and Arrieta, who is currently the top pitcher in the universe. The Cubs haven't won a playoff game since before Steve Bartman reached for a foul ball and their postseason hopes now hinge on a former "bust."

[MORE CUBS: How Jake Arrieta transformed himself into the Cubs ace]

Jon Lester

2015 stats: 11-12, 3.34 ERA, 1.122 WHIP, 207 K

How he got here: The signing that made this all happen. Lester's megadeal was the official signal that the Cubs were going for it and his professional approach to the game and in the clubhouse changed the culture and set the franchise on the right path. Lester is on the wild-card roster to provide insurance for Arrieta.

Kyle Hendricks

2015 stats: 8-7, 3.95 ERA, 1.161 WHIP, 167 K

How he got here: Hendricks really turned it on at the end of the year, but the 25-year-old is an interesting name to see on the Cubs' wild-card roster. Maddon needs just one starter, with Lester as insurance while Travis Wood, Clayton Richard and Trevor Cahill can provide some length out of the bullpen, so Hendricks doesn't appear to have a fit at first glance. But maybe Maddon has a trick up his sleeve...

Clayton Richard

2015 stats: 4-2, 3.83 ERA, 1.276 WHIP

How he got here: The Pirates dealt Richard to the Cubs for cash this summer and the 31-year-old lefty carved out a nice role in Chicago as a left-handed specialist, long-relief guy and even a starter for three games. Maddon compared Richard to a utility infielder thanks to his versatility.

Travis Wood

2015 stats: 5-4, 3.84 ERA, 1.242 WHIP, 118 K, 4 SV

How he got here: Wood began the year in the rotation but after a bout of ineffectivness, the lefty was moved to the bullpen and transformed as a high-strikeout guy who could find success in a variety of different roles.

Pedro Strop

2015 stats: 2-6, 2.91 ERA, 1.000 WHIP, 81 K, 3 SV

How he got here: The Cubs' top setup man appeared in 76 games in 2015 and could be Maddon's choice to pitch the eighth inning against the Pirates (you know, if Arrieta doesn't throw a complete game).

Justin Grimm

2015 stats: 3-5, 1.99 ERA, 1.148 WHIP, 67 K, 3 SV

How he got here: Maddon tabbed Grimm as a "mid-innings closer" earlier in the season and the 26-year-old righty is one of the most important pieces of the bullpen, able to come in for just one batter or toss two innings in high-leverage situations.

Trevor Cahill

2015 stats: 1-0, 2.12 ERA, 0.765 WHIP, 22 K

How he got here: The Cubs picked Cahill up off the scrap heap and after failed stints as a starter over the last couple years, the 27-year-old righty has figured it out in the Cubs bullpen, striking out 11.6 batters per nine innings and showing he can handle any situation.

Hector Rondon

2015 stats: 6-4, 1.67 ERA, 1.000 WHIP, 69 K, 30 SV

How he got here: Rondon lost the closer's role earlier in the season because he was trying to strike everybody out, but Montero and Cubs coaches helped the former Rule 5 draft pick understand he can be successful pitching to contact, too, and now Rondon is one of the top stoppers in the game.

Fernando Rodney

2015 stats: 2-0, 0.75 ERA, 1.000 WHIP, 15 K

How he got here: The 38-year-old Rodney shot an arrow of life into the Cubs bullpen, allowing just one earned run in 12 innings since being picked up late in the season. Rodney is the most experienced member of the bullpen and may find himself in high-leverage situations this October.

Maybe the early exit was just what the Cubs needed

Maybe the early exit was just what the Cubs needed

A year ago, the Cubs world was in essentially the exact same place — trying to find answers for a season that ended earlier than expected.

There was only one difference: Time.

The 2018 Cubs woke up on the morning of Oct. 22 having been out of action almost three full weeks. That's a long time in terms of decompressing, letting your body heal and evaluating what went wrong.

A year ago today, Ben Zobrist was in the midst of trying to heal his ailing wrist after a third straight trip deep into the postseason.

A year ago today, Theo Epstein was roughly 48 hours removed from his annual end-of-season eulogy.

A year ago today, Kris Bryant was trying to catch his breath after what he called the most draining campaign of his life.

Yet we woke up Monday morning 19 full days removed from the latest iteration of Epstein's end-of-season eulogy, Zobrist is making light-hearted Instagram videos and Bryant is already nearly three weeks into the process of letting his left shoulder heal completely and adding strength.

Of course, that trio of Cubs figures would gladly trade in these extra few weeks of time off for another shot at the NL pennant, even if they fell short in the NLCS again.

Still, there's a lot of value in extra time off, especially after three straight falls where they went deep into October playing high-stress baseball. The Cubs absolutely will go in 2019 much fresher than they went into this year's spring training.

For example, Jon Lester threw 8.1 fewer innings this October than 2017 and 29.2 fewer innings than 2016. Zobrist played 8 fewer games this October than 2018 and 16 fewer than 2016 (he also won the World Series in 2015 as a member of the Kansas City Royals). That matters when players' ages start creeping up into the mid-to-late 30s.

It shouldn't take the sting out of the disappointing end to 2018 for the Cubs or their fans, but extra time off for these guys is certainly not a bad thing. 

The Cubs have already gotten the ball rolling on offseason changes, including replacing Chili Davis at hitting coach with Anthony Iapoce

On top of that, each individual player has now had enough time to evaluate why or how they went wrong offensively down the stretch.

"A full winter — especially this extra month that we unfortunately have — is a luxury in baseball," Epstein said. "There are things that come up all the time during the course of the season with teams and with individual players that you say, 'We'd love to address.' But that's so hard to address during the season because there's always another game tomorrow. 

"Guys are surviving. We have to wait 'til the offseason, then we can get right physically, then we can wade into the mental game, then we can address this swing change, then we can handle this fundamental. Well, we now have that luxury — unfortunately — of a full offseason. How do we take full advantage of this so we're never in this position again?

"We don't want to be a part of an offensive collapse in the second half again. We don't want to be part of losing a division lead late again. We don't want to be part of looking back and recognizing that, gosh, maybe a greater sense of urgency from Game 1 through 162 would've led to one more game and then we're still playing. We don't want to be part of that ever again, so we need to make good use of this time."

The early exit also helps to create a chip on the shoulder for each member of the organization. It's hard to see the Cubs spending much time in 2019 lacking the same "urgency" they had this summer. The painful NL Wild-Card loss will leave a bad taste in their mouths that can carry over all the way until next October. 

Like Lester said, sometimes you "need to get your dick knocked in the dirt in order to appreciate where you're at." 

We saw that play out on the North Side of Chicago from 2015 into 2016 and Cole Hamels has seen this script before with a young core of players in Philadelphia.

In 2007, the Phillies made the playoffs, but were swept out of the NLDS by the Colorado Rockies. They rebounded to win the World Series the next fall over Joe Maddon's Tampa Bay Rays.

"That [2007 sweep] really kind of taught us what the postseason experience was and what it was to not just play to the end of the season and instead to play to the end of the postseason," Hamels said. "This is a tremendous experience for a lot of guys and you have to go through the hardships before you get to enjoy the big moments.

"I know there's a lot of players here that have won a World Series, but there's also a lot that didn't have that sort of participation that you would kind of look towards, so I think this is great for them. 

"It's exciting to see what they're gonna be able to do next year and the year after that because this is a tremendous team here with the talent that they have. It's gonna be a great couple years."

Should the Cubs bring Daniel Murphy back in 2019?

Should the Cubs bring Daniel Murphy back in 2019?

With MLB Hot Stove season about 10 days away, Cubs fans are on the edge of their seats waiting to see how Theo Epstein's front office will reshape an underperforming lineup this winter.

The first step in that will be determining if there is a future with Daniel Murphy in Chicago and if so, what that future might entail. 

Murphy's introduction to the North Side fanbase was rocky, but he drew rave reviews from his teammates and coaches for how he conducted himself in the month-and-a-half he wore a Cubs uniform. 

He also filled a serious hole in the Cubs lineup, hitting .297 with an .800 OPS in 35 games (138 at-bats) while spending most of his time in the leadoff spot, helping to set the tone. Extrapolating Murphy's Cubs tenure over 550 plate appearances, it would be good for 23 homers, 86 runs, 49 RBI and 23 doubles over a full season. That would be worth 3.4 WAR by FanGraphs' measure, which would've ranked third on the Cubs among position players in 2018 behind only Javy Baez (5.3 WAR) and Ben Zobrist (3.6). (By comparison, Baseball Reference rated Murphy a -0.2 WAR player with the Cubs due to a much worse rating on defense.) 

Murphy's performance defensively at second base left quite a bit to be desired, but it's also worth pointing out he had major surgery on his right knee last fall. The procedure wasn't just a cleanup — he had microfracture surgery and cartilage debridement and wasn't able to return to the field until the middle of June this summer despite an Oct. 20, 2017 surgery.

The Cubs will begin the 2019 season without a clear, everyday choice at second base and the lineup can use a guy like Murphy, who has a great approach each time up and leads baseball with a .362 batting average with runners in scoring position since the start of the 2016 season.

So could a reunion be in the cards?

"I wouldn't rule anything out," Epstein said the day after the Cubs' 2018 campaign ended prematurely. "It was a pleasure having Daniel here. He did a lot to right our offense right after he got here and contribute while being asked to play a bigger role than we envisioned when we got him because of some other injuries, because of our lack of performance offensively and then because of the schedule. He was asked to play a lot more than expected, than probably he was ready to based on the proximity to his knee surgery.

"So I think he's gonna have a real beneficial offseason, get even stronger and be ready to contribute next year. Which league that's in and for what team remains to be seen. But I certainly think he acquitted himself well here, was REALLY respected by his teammates. Our guys loved talking hitting with him. It was a daily occurrence. Long discussions about hitting with him, picking his brain. 

"We look a lot better with him than without him, so I wouldn't rule anything out."

There's a lot to unpack here. Epstein was refreshingly honest throughout his whole press conference and that continued with regards to Murphy.

For starters, notice how Epstein first said he wasn't sure "what league" Murphy will be playing in. The Cubs president of baseball operations is typically extremely measured when speaking with the public and he almost never says anything by accident.

Murphy will turn 34 April 1 and was never renowned as an elite fielder even before that major knee surgery. Meaning: The writing has been on the wall for over a year that the veteran may be best suited for a designated hitter role with his new contract and Epstein is clearly well aware of that perception/narrative.

The other aspect of Epstein's comments is how he began and ended his statement on Murphy — that he wouldn't rule anything out and the Cubs obviously thought it was a successful pairing.

It's hard to argue with that on the offensive side of things and his impact was also felt off the field, where he was praised often by his teammates and coaches for talking hitting with younger players like Ian Happ and David Bote. 

Imagine how the final 6 weeks of the season would've looked had the Cubs not acquired Murphy in the middle of August to agument the lineup. The Brewers would've probably nabbed the division lead well before a Game 163.

Still, Murphy's hitting prowess both on and off the field wasn't enough to help the Cubs lineup avoid a slide that led to a date with the couch before the NLDS even began. Epstein's statement about how the Cubs "look a lot better" with Murphy than without is probably more about how fresh the sting was from the inept offense that managed just 2 runs scored in 22 innings in the final two games of the season.

Given his consistency the last few years, his advanced approach at the plate and his (recent) unrivaled ability to come through in key spots, Murphy's bat would be a welcome addition to any Cubs lineup moving forward. 

But it would still be tough to fit Murphy on the Cubs' 2019 roster for a variety of reasons. 

For starters, if the Cubs truly have a desire to write out a more consistent lineup next year, it's tough to add another aging veteran to a mix that already includes Ben Zobrist (who will be 38 next year), especially when they both spend a majority of their time at the same position (second base) and shouldn't be considered everyday players at this stage in their respective careers.

Murphy's defense/range also doesn't figure to get much better as he ages — even with an offseason to get his knee back up to 100 percent health — and second base is a key spot for run prevention, especially in turning double plays with a pitching staff that induces a lot of contact and groundballs.

Offensively, Murphy isn't perfect, either. He's never walked much, but in 2018, he posted his lowest walk rate since 2013. He also struck out 15.7 percent of the time in a Cubs uniform and while that's a small sample size, it still represents his highest K% since his rookie 2008 season (18.5 percent). 

Then there's the splits — the left-handed Murphy hit just .238 with a .564 OPS vs. southpaws in 2018, a far cry from the .319 average and .864 OPS he posted against right-handed pitchers. That was a steep drop-off from the previous three seasons (2015-17), in which he put up a .296 average and .810 OPS against lefties.

Add it all up and Murphy's potential fit with the 2019 Cubs is questionable at best, especially if an American League team hands him more money and years to come DH for them and hit near the top of their order.

But like Epstein said, don't rule anything out.