Cubs

Cubs will find out how they measure up to Giants dynasty

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Cubs will find out how they measure up to Giants dynasty

PITTSBURGH — The Cubs are about to find out how they measure up to the dynasty that produced three World Series titles within the last five seasons.

The San Francisco Giants did it with their pitching-and-defense formula, some clutch hitting and the guts to win 34 playoff games since 2010. Their front office also had a knack for identifying and acquiring the right players at the trade deadline.

The Cubs didn’t get great pitching from Dan Haren or the bullpen or airtight infield defense during Wednesday night’s 7-5 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park. A young team didn’t play with razor-sharp focus, ending a six-game winning streak and making the kind of mistakes that kill you in October.

The Giants will be the next test as the Cubs open a four-game series against the defending World Series champions on Thursday night at Wrigley Field, beginning a stretch of 19 consecutive days in Chicago, where the buzz around the team keeps building.

[MORE CUBS: Are Cubs trying to phase out Starlin Castro as everyday shortstop?]

“I can’t wait to see what Wrigley is like this weekend with the series we got coming up,” said Anthony Rizzo, who went 12-for-23 with four homers and 10 RBIs during this six-game road trip. “I feel like (with) every win we’ve had there, it’s just really getting louder and louder. I expect no different this weekend.”

The Cubs (58-48) didn’t see Haren as their first choice or a long-term solution. But Haren has a bulldog reputation, and the Cubs needed someone to keep them in games, preventing the fifth-starter spot from becoming a black hole.

Haren — acquired from the Miami Marlins in the final hours before the July 31 deadline — watched Gregory Polanco drill his fourth pitch in a Cubs uniform out to the right-field seats for a leadoff homer.

Andrew McCutchen hammered another Haren pitch that bounced off the green batter’s eye in center field in the third inning. But that will happen when your Twitter handle is @ithrow88.

“I’m glad that’s out of the way,” said Haren, who lasted five innings and gave up four runs, three earned in a no-decision. “I’ve got to obviously be a lot better than that to help this team. It’s over and done with.”

[MORE CUBS: Cubs put Rafael Soriano on DL, add Clayton Richard to bullpen]

Haren needs his defense to make plays behind him. Kris Bryant’s fielding error extended the first inning when a groundball bounced off the third baseman’s glove.

The Cubs had put on a shift in the fifth inning when Bryant and Starlin Castro got crossed up on another ball hit to the left side of the infield, allowing a chopper to skip past them to make it a 4-1 game.

“I think Kris will tell you he probably should have gotten it,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He’s the first guy across. That’s the guy that normally is going to get it, and the shortstop normally backs up.

“I think there was confusion based on the alignment. Sometimes, they’re just not used to it. The ball was hit at a speed and in a spot that just messed them up. Our young guys will get it right. But this was one of those moments that was very awkward.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

The Pirates (62-44) would be in position to host the wild-card game if the season ended tomorrow. The Giants (59-48) moved to a half-game ahead of the Cubs in the race for the second wild card with their 6-1 win over the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field.

It should be a wild weekend in Wrigleyville.

“It’s obviously important to find your stride at this point of the season,” pitcher Jake Arrieta said. “We need to keep it rolling as long as we can, because we know that the Cardinals aren’t slowing down and (the Pirates) aren’t either.

“It’s our job to just continue to put the pressure on ‘em — and let ‘em know we’re coming.”

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.

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."